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Prepare for the worst

By Seth Stein LeJacq

The front cover of Lady Ann Fanshawe’s manuscript recipe book (Wellcome MS 7113). Creative Commons by permission of Wellcome Images.
These days we generally agree that the big medical problems should be left to the professionals. We don’t see ourselves as the appropriate people and our homes as the appropriate places to deal with major injuries, severe illnesses, chronic conditions, and many other significant medical events. This wasn’t the case in seventeenth-century Britain, where domestic healing was the norm and the home was the central place where healing occurred. People prepared to deal with the very worst illnesses and injuries at home.

Early modern Britons even kept on hand instructions to make medicines to heal diseases like smallpox and the plague. They thought that householders should have knowledge of how to deal with all eventualities, even life-threatening ailments. In this era the most important site of healing was the home. When you fell ill, you would almost invariably begin your search for recovery at home, and even if you graduated to paying for outside medical care, healers would usually come to your home. The home therefore played an essential role in care, nursing, recovery, and in the end death.

We can get a vivid idea of the range of health problems people thought they might need to face at home from a unique and fascinating type of historical document, the manuscript recipe book. Many people who weren’t in any medical occupation nonetheless traded and collected recipes instructing them in how to make medicines at home. Some then gathered their recipes into handwritten volumes like the one pictured above, which belonged to the Lady Ann Fanshawe, wife of the Royalist, MP, diplomat, and writer Sir Richard Fanshawe. Lady Ann was herself a memoirist. Much like her, most collectors took down medical and cookery recipes as well as those for household supplies like ink, cosmetics, perfumes, and more. Hundreds of manuscript collections survive, though of course they were only compiled by those like Lady Ann with enough wealth to undertake such a project.

There was also a healthy trade in printed recipe collections. Here is the frontispiece and title page to one from 1655, Natura Exenterata. Creative Commons by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
A woman does the difficult work of distillation. From The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities (1691). Creative Commons by permission of Wellcome Images.
For an excellent primer on the genre, take a look at Dr. Elaine Leong’s introduction to the collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library and The Recipes Project, a multi-contributor blog devoted to the subject. The Wellcome Library has digitised dozens and dozens of collections. I would urge anyone interested in them to take a look!

Medical recipes in these manuscripts run the gamut from simple, single-substance medicines (like one using just sheep’s skin) to complex concoctions with exotic and expensive ingredients. For example, another asks for unicorn horn and bezoar stone (a stone found in the digestive systems of animals and reputed to be a powerful poison antidote). Recipes could also be highly complex to follow. For instance, many involve distillation, an art requiring specialized training and equipment.

These collections were filled with directions for making medicines to use in the home, and they therefore tell us what compilers thought they might need to heal there. Domestic healers collected recipes for a broad array of ailments, including life-threatening ones. Clearly, they thought they might have to manage severe illnesses and injuries at home. Let’s look at a few examples.

Recipes for plague preventatives and cures are very common, both in print and manuscript collections. The title of this one from a collection owned by Mrs Anne Brumwich and Rhoda Hussey (wife of Baron Ferdinando Fairfax), claims that it was used to “help 600 in York,” and that “in one house where 8 were infected 2 of them drunk of it and lived, the others would not and died.” The recipe instructs readers in concocting a tisane from rue, marigold, featherfew, burnet, sorrel, and dragon root. These were all ingredients easily available from gardens or growing in the wild. Then sugar and a poison antidote (mithridate) are added. Both of these were available in apothecaries’ shops. This was an easy recipe to follow, and it promised a powerful cure for one of the diseases that most terrified people. It’s easy to see why someone might have added it to their collection.

“An excellent recipe for the plague.” From Anne Brumwich and others, Booke of Receipts, Wellcome MS 160, fol. 58r. Creative Commons by permission of the Wellcome Library.

Rickets is another disease frequently addressed in manuscript recipe collections. We know rickets as a deficiency disease that remains a scourge of children in developing nations, but seventeenth-century people had no knowledge of vitamins or other modern nutritional concepts. They did, however, see rickets as a debilitating, indeed deadly, disease. The London Bills of Mortality, which listed causes of death in the capital, indicate particular prevalence in the seventeenth century. They record hundreds of deaths from the disease. Recipe collections show great fear of it; many contain multiple, often highly complex directions for treating rickets in children.

A rickets medicine. From the Lady Ann Fanshaw’s collection, Wellcome MS 7113, fol. 111r. Creative Commons by permission of the Wellcome Library.

This recipe from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s collection, attributed to Mrs Price, gives instructions for making a topical medicine and applying it to a child’s body. It’s another simple recipe, one we can easily imagine making in a seventeenth-century home. It asks for calves’ (“neats”) feet, some common plants, and wine, all prepared with some simple cooking procedures. It then tells us how to apply the medicine by rubbing it upwards on the child’s back from the backside to the lower torso, on the back of the thighs and calves, and on the wrists. Finally, you swathe the child’s wrists and ankles. Again, we can imagine why this would have appealed to a collector. Rickets was another terrifying disease, and this recipe offered parents a cheap and easy cure, guiding them through the entire process of preparation and application. The certainty of such a recipe, with the endorsement that came with its attribution, must have been comforting.

From our point of view it’s unlikely that these medicines could have done much for the ill. Indeed, it can be quite distressing to imagine what our own prospects and experiences would have been, long before (for instance) reliable anaesthetics or knowledge of antibiotics. Early modern people did not take a resigned attitude towards the dangers of their world, however. Nor were they entirely dependant on medical practitioners. They stockpiled directions for homemade cures for the full range of injuries and illnesses, right up to the deadliest and most dangerous.

DISCLAIMER: This post discusses medicines strictly in a historical context. It does not endorse the use of these medicines in any way. It should not be used as healthcare advice.

Seth Stein LeJacq is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation research deals with the history of the Royal Navy during the Age of Sail. His essay “The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England” in the Social History of Medicine won the Roy Porter Student Prize Essay 2013.

Social History of Medicine is concerned with all aspects of health, illness, and medical treatment in the past. It is committed to publishing work on the social history of medicine from a variety of disciplines. The journal offers its readers substantive and lively articles on a variety of themes, critical assessments of archives and sources, conference reports, up-to-date information on research in progress, a discussion point on topics of current controversy and concern, review articles, and wide-ranging book reviews.

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