Prick’t By Benedictus: Blessed Thistle and Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a playful moment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that occurs after the darker elements of the play have been set in motion but while the tone is still comedic. Margaret is helping Hero prepare for her wedding, and Beatrice, feeling ill and out of sorts, reluctantly joins them. Hero and Margaret, who have been conspiring to make the marriage-averse Beatrice and Benedick fall in love, begin teasing Beatrice. In response to Beatrice’s declaration that she is “stuffed” and sick, Margaret recommends a dose of a well-known herb, Carduus benedictus (also known as blessed thistle or holy thistle):

MARGARET. Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus, and lay it to your heart: it is the only thing for a qualm.
HERO. There thou prick’st her with a thistle. (3.4.71-74)

Beatrice immediately picks up on the Benedick/benedictus pun and Hero’s naughty “prick’st” joke.

BEATRICE. Benedictus! why Benedictus? you have some moral in this Benedictus.
MARGARET: Moral! no, by my troth, I have no moral meaning; I meant, plain holy-thistle. You may think, perchance, that I think you are in love: nay, by’r lady, I am not such a fool to think what I list; nor I list not to think what I can; nor, indeed, I can not think, if I would think my heart out of thinking, that you are in love, or that you will be in love, or that you can be in love. (3.4.75-84)

(Unabashed Tangent: I love how this scene distills the mixture of giddiness, wit, and affection – with perhaps a touch of cruelty – that prompts friends to tease each other about their crushes. In modern terms, the scene reminds me of this meme.)

While the Benedick/benedictus pun would be hard for a modern audience to catch, it would have been much plainer to an Elizabethan audience, as Carduus benedictus was far better known and utilized. The herbalist John Gerard writes that blessed thistle (also known, rather delightfully, as “wilde bastard saffron”) was “diligently cherished in gardens in these Northern parts.

Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinque foil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinquefoil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Given the popularity of Carduus benedictus, it is no surprise that it should make an appearance as an ingredient in early modern recipe books. Even so, the properties attributed to it in Wellcome MS 6812, a medical recipe book compiled from 1575-1663, are prodigious, taking up an unusual seven pages of the manuscript. Here is a partial list of the wonders of this plant:

  • If the herb is eaten or the herb’s powder or juice drunk: Good for headache and migraine. Sharpens memory and wit. Helps with sleep and hearing
  • Juice of the herb laid on the eyes: “Quickens” the sight, relieves redness and itchiness
  • Rubbed on a cloth with water: good for strengthening the teeth
  • As a powder: good for staunching the flow of blood from the nose
  • Cooked in wine: good for stomachache; also, “causeth an appetite to meat”
  • Powder mixed with honey: helps void phlegm and “gross humours”
  • Chewed: helps with “stink of the breath”
  • Leaves boiled in water: “provoketh sweat”
  • Powder (as preventative): prevents infection from pestilence; powder (after exposure): “expelleth the venome of the pestilence from the heart”
  • Juice or powder of the herb: combined with covering with hot wool cloth for three hours, causes intense sweating that expels poison
  • Herb boiled in wine: “dries agues”
  • Herb juice with wine: eases aches of all kinds, shortness of breath and diseases of the lungs
  • Herb boiled “in the urine of an healthfull man Child”: prevents dropsy and falling sickness
  • Powder eaten or drunk: eases side stitches and trembling due to palsy, helps with colic
  • Boiled or drunk with wine: breaks up “the stone”; when inhaled as a vapor, helps ease green sickness
  • Juice or powder of the leaves: heals canker sores and “old rotten festered sores.” Bruised leaves help with carbuncles.

This exhaustive list of blessed thistle’s curative powers is echoed in Gerard’s Herbal, where Carduus benedictus begins to sound like a miracle drug (and is even considered beneficial for “the French disease”).

So while Margaret’s comment about Carduus benedictus is meant to prod Beatrice to confess her love for Benedick, it also invokes the powers of an unusually efficacious plant, a trusted remedy capable of curing any malady—except, happily in Messina and the world of the play, the scourge of lovesickness itself.


Recording Dr. Sloane’s Medical Advice

By Lisa Smith

In the hunt for good health, early modern sick people often recorded the prescriptions given to them by doctors, particularly if the remedy was useful or came from a famous source. Sir Hans Sloane was one of the best known physicians in early eighteenth-century London–as well as a collector and natural philosopher, whose correspondence is being put online here. Sloane himself collected recipe books in search of knowledge, but his patients also sometimes recorded his medical advice for later reference. The Arscott Family’s book of “Physical Receipts”, c. 1730-1776 (Wellcome Library, London, MS 981), for example, contains three recipes attributed to Sloane, which provides snippets of information about his medical practice.

Mid-eighteenth century chocolate cups, one of which can be traced to Sloane's collections. Image credit: British Museum.

Mid-eighteenth century chocolate cups, one of which can be traced to Sloane’s collections. Image credit: British Museum.

Although Sloane was best known for his botanical expertise and promotion of treatments such as Peruvian Bark or chocolate, the Arscott family recipes show a mixture of chemical, animal and herbal remedies. The treatment for worms (f. 129), for example, combined a mixture of elixir proprietatis and spirit. salis dulcis in either white wine or tea. Together, these aimed to sweeten the blood, strengthen the nerves and fortify the stomach.

The pleurisy remedy (f. 156) included pennyroyal water, white wine and “2 small Balls of a sound stone horse”—or, dung from a horse that still had its testicles. This was to be steeped for an hour, then strained. (Apparently this weakened the taste of the dung.) This delicious liquor would keep for three days. Are you tempted? Because the dose was a “large Chocolate Dish fasting in the morning and at 4 in the Afternoon”. “If the Stomach will bear it” (and whose wouldn’t?), the patient was to take the remedy for four to six days in a row. In this remedy, the dung was the most powerful ingredient, as it was considered a sudorific (causing sweat) and resolvent (reducing inflammation) that would aid asthma, colic, inflamed lungs, and pleurisies.

Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757 Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane’s remedy would have been preferable to being couched for a cataract. Heister, Operation for cataract and eye instruments, 1757. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane, of course, was especially known for his eye remedy, which he made public knowledge in 1745 when he published An Account of a most efficacious medicine for soreness, weakness, and several other distempers of the eyes. But how close to the published remedy was the Arscott version? Fortunately, the most detailed of the three recipes is “Sr Hans Sloane’s Direction for my Aunt Walroud in ye Year 1730–when she perceiv’d a Cataract growing in one of her Eyes” (ff.79-80).

Although there are measurements and preparation details, just like a recipe, it was also a summary of Sloane’s successful medical advice to Mrs Walroud. Of course, what early modern patients deemed success in a treatment differs from our modern concept. For Mrs Walroud, it was enough that after she started the treatment at the age of 67, her eyes did not get any worse for ten years and “she could write & read tolerably well”. When she died at the age of 83, she still had some of her sight.

The Arscott instructions begin by recommending that the sufferer have nine ounces of blood taken from the arm and a blister applied behind the ears. Next, take a conserve of rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam (ground human skull mixed with various herbs), eyebright, millipedes, fennel seed and peony syrup. Last, the patient was to drink a julap (medicine mixed with alcohol) of black cherry water, fennel water, compound peony water, compound spirit of lavender, sal volat oleos and sugar. Mrs Walroud took both twice daily and kept a “perpetual Blister between her shoulders”.

One crucial difference between Sloane’s published remedy and the Arscott one is that no mention is made in Mrs Walroud’s treatment of using an ointment made of tutty (oxide of zinc), lapis haematites, aloes, prepared pearl and viper’s grease. Three possibilities for the ointment’s absence occur to me.

  • The Arscott family may have simply assumed that the listed directions were intended to accompany the purchase of Sloane’s ointment and didn’t specify something so obvious.
  • The reference to using the ointment was lost when the instructions had been passed between family members.
  • Or, Sloane did not always prescribe the ointment.

The remaining directions, though, do have overlaps. In his Account, Sloane prescribed drinking a medicine that also contained rosemary flowers, pulvis ad guttetam and eyebright—though he included more ingredients: betony, sage, wild valerian root and castor. This was to be followed by a tea (rather than julap) with drops of compound spirit of lavender and sal volat oleos. In this case, it was the Arscott version that included extra ingredients.

The type of bleeding in the Account was also slightly different than Mrs Walroud’s, with the recommendation that six ounces of blood be taken either from the temples using leeches or by cupping at the shoulders. Sloane’s eye remedy was supposed to be useful for many types of problems, he did not prescribe it exactly the same each time. Variations were possible, according to the patient and the problem.

The Arscott recipes suggest not only what advice from Sloane the family had found most useful, but what sorts of remedies Sloane might prescribe to his patients. But whatever Mrs Walroud’s rave review, the next time I suffer from eye strain at the computer, I won’t be reaching for Sloane’s drink with pulvis ad guttetam and millipedes in a hurry.


An earlier version of this post first appeared at The Sloane Letters Blog.

Ill Composed: Sickness, Writing, and Recipes in Early Modern England

By Olivia Weisser

weisser.bookWhen we get sick, it is fairly common to look to others’ experiences to make sense of what ailment we have, where we got it, and when we might recover. The interesting thing about the 1600s is that women made these sorts of comparisons more frequently than men. There are several explanations for this pattern, which I explore in my book, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2015). The explanation I want to discuss here involves recipes (of course!). And that’s because recipes taught users to compare themselves to other people.

Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.

Some inserted the name of the person who provided or recommended a recipe. Ann Fanshawe’s book lists names next to recipes for treating all kinds of conditions, such as bloody flux and the bite of a mad dog. On this page of Fanshawe’s book, for instance, Lady Beadles, Kenelm Digby, and “My Mother” are written in the margins. (On the authorship of these inscriptions, see this post.)

We also see Fanshawe’s own name, which suggests that she tested her recipes to see whether they were worthwhile. As Elaine Leong has discussed in another post, Fanshawe crossed out the recipes that didn’t work.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.

Some women noted others’ experiences alongside recipes in even more explicit ways. Writing in 1674 in a book now held at the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS V.a. 215), Susannah Packe included the following note below a cure for convulsions: “Approved by Ma:Sa: for all her Children was very successful.” Assigning authorship or naming someone who benefited from a recipe proved its worth, and also provided a way for readers to evaluate their own conditions. Packe and Fanshawe compared their own experiences to those of the men and women listed in the margins of their books.

When Elizabeth Hastings learned that her sister-in-law was sick in 1731, she penned a letter almost entirely devoted to the healing properties of snail water. This letter is now housed at the Huntington Library in California (HA 4741). She included a receipt for preparing the water, which is now lost, but may have involved distilling a pasty mixture of crushed snails, milk, mint, nutmeg, and dates. She also included directions for using the water (one spoonful taken with two to three spoonfuls of spa water) and even sent a bottle in the post so that her sister-in-law could “make a tryale of it.” She also listed people she knew who found the snail water useful. “Lady Ramsden from whom I had it has known surprizing Cases in Wastings of the Flesh,” she wrote. Also, “my Sister Ann’s servant Mrs. Dove is one instance who I believe would not have been now alive but for it.” This communal production, circulation, and validation of medical knowledge taught women to assess their bodies by looking to the words and experiences of others.

Why did women look to others to evaluate their ailing bodies more frequently than men? Recipes were not an all-female genre of writing, after all. Men wrote and collected them too. Recipes, however, are one of the only forms of medical writing in the period that substantial numbers of women authored. While men documented medical matters in all kinds of genres of writing, such as casebooks and treatises, recipes were the prime mode by which literate early modern women recorded and shared medical information. Perhaps, then, recipes helped teach women in early modern England to look to others’ bodies as a way of better assessing their own.

For more about gender, illness, and healthcare in early modern England, check out Olivia’s book: Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England.

The Curative Power of Beer and Rhubarb

By Dr. Annie Gray and Dr. Alun Withey


I’m a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, a sort of cook’s question time, where an audience fires questions at a panel of cooking people. I come along both to answer questions and provide historical context for themes we know will come up (rhubarb in Wakefield, beer in Bury St Edmunds etc). I usually bring something with me for the panel to taste, and I’m constantly trying to get people to stop thinking ‘historic food’ and start thinking ‘food’, plain, simple and hopefully delicious.

For a recent episode, the aforementioned Bury St Edmunds, I was asked to come up with a few medicinal beer recipes as part of a discussion on the ubiquity of beer and ale in pre-nineteenth century Britain… Cue my asking Dr Alun to look in the Withey archive. He came up with a cure for vomiting and a cure for scurvy. They looked doable, so I duly did them. Usually I do food, so drink, especially with a medicinal slant, is slightly outside my normal sphere of recipe recreation. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Herewith my thoughts:

The ale

No one seems to produce a proper replica ale (I.e. an unhopped beer) anymore. There are various rather useful looking web resources for making your own, but I only had two days, so that wasn’t an option. After lengthy discussions with Alun, beer expert and fellow Kitchen Cabinetist Tim Anderson, and a very helpful chap from Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, I went for Harvey’s Old Ale, low alcohol version. At 1%, it’s slightly below the alcohol content of a seventeenth-century small beer, but close, and as a watered down version of the stronger and more mainstream Old Ale, it struck me that the flavours would be suitably insipid.

It is hopped, which I had a few moments of agony over. However, by the seventeenth century hops were in common use in many beers. They increased its keeping power and gave it a decent flavour which had previously been achieved through use of various herbal mixtures. Andrew Boorde and his moaning about their tendency to induce flatulence notwithstanding, hops caught on pretty quickly for these reasons, and by the early eighteenth century, it seems they were pretty universal.

I arbitrarily decided I was going for a mid-late seventeenth feel, so my hopped beer was fine. It was quite a sweet bevy as well, which I reckoned was not inaccurate. Later books (e.g. Mary Eaton, 1823) have recipes for substitute beer which are basically treacle, yeast and water, so at least some beers were clearly gut-wrenchingly sweet. The ale/beer formed the basis of both of the cures, and was the main taste, hence all the agonising.

(c) Wellcome Images

A cure for vomiting. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This was an easy win. No mint water in my cupboard, so I seethed (simmered) my mint (1 decent sprig for my 250ml beer) for about 10mn along with half a stick of cinnamon. Strained, decanted, and allowed to cool, it was like a more interesting Pimms. A good summer cocktail, anyway.


Cinnamon has been used medicinally for centuries. Inevitably it has attracted loads of probably spurious medical claims. Among the less obviously ludicrous, it *may* be an anti-inflammatory, in which case it would presumably help if your vomiting is caused by fever or brain swelling?! (Seriously, vomiting is the least of your worries at that point, surely). It’s still suggested as an anti-emetic by some of those dubious home remedy sites you find on the web. I’m unconvinced. But the beer might be hair of the dog if your vomiting is caused by a previous dose of beer the night before. And at the very least, it will help rehydrate you.

L0029444 English recipe book, 17th century Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Page 4 17th century English recipe book,  Collection of medical recipes and memoranda on the properties of various medicinal and cosmetic preparations. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

English recipe book, 17th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A cure for scurvy

More of a challenge! Hedgerow and field scouring required, along with a bit of research into 17th century vernacular names for hedgerow plants…

Scabious – a rather gorgeous flower, often grown in gardens as its bee crack. Purple flowers, spreading habit. It was (and still is) variously promoted for use against cought, sore throats and skin conditions.

Scurvygrass – there are four types of scurvy grass, most of which grow predominantly on the coast, as they like a sandy, poor soil, and thrive with a bit of salt. The most common today is Danish scurvy grass (actually a British native as well), which now grows along roads which have been salted in the winter. It has heart shaped leaves and white, frothy flowers. It was widely used as a cure for scurvy in the past, hence the name. Like watercress tin flavour, but part of the brassica family, it is high in vitamin c, so it would have helped a bit. Not as much as lemons and oranges, but it might have stopped your teeth falling out quite so quickly.

Liverwort – probably hepatica, a plant which grows in damp, moist places and has purple flowers. The leaves are three-lobed, like a liver, apparently (as usual with the doctrine of signatures, you have to squint and use a bit of imagination to get it). The Greek for liver is heper, hence the name. It’s an astringent, a demulcent, a diuretic, and, as is so common with early modern ingredients, poisonous in large doses. Nothing like a hint of death to add a frisson to your everyday life.

Image from Wikipedia (creative commons)

Image from Wikipedia (creative commons)

Elderberries – I had to buy dried. Not inauthentic.

Rhubarb – see below. Not having any dark, instant diarrhea stuff, I used what was in my garden. It was used predominantly as a remedy for constipation in the past….until the English, especially, realise how amazing it is in a tart and developed the sweeter versions so familar today.

Senna – a laxative, available still for that purpose as tea bags, loose dried leaves (ideal here), and tablets.

Nutmegs – a miracle cure, if you believe some of the hyperbole. Skin complaints, pain, and, importantly for scurvy symptons, especially good for mouth ulcers and oral problems.

Aniseeds – the little seeds you used to get inside aniseed balls, and not to be confused with star anise.

Licorice – good for digestive issues (not so good for blood pressure, apparently).

The amounts, when scaled down to suit a 250 ml bottle of beer, are tiny, and seriously too small to have any real effect. But once seethed together for a while, I admit they are pungent. I hated this. The rhubarb added a proper bile note (and I LOVE rhubarb), while the spices and herbs were oddly bitter and rather green. However, my fellow Kitchen Cabinet panelists thought it was quite nice. Sigh.


One question I’m often asked about early modern medical remedies is whether they actually worked. People sometimes look slightly embarrassed about asking this, as if it’s a daft question. Surely they couldn’t work could they? One popular remedy for sore eyes was to get a friend or partner to blow powdered hen’s dung into your eyes just before you retired for the evening. (See this related post on fecal remedies.) The natural reaction is that such a course of action would be unlikely to bring the sufferer much relief. One seventeenth-century cure for ‘worems in the teeth’ involved putting a small quantity of mercury into a dish, lighting a fire underneath it and inhaling the vapour, or otherwise adding the mercury to a small quantity of oil and rinsing it around the mouth. Given that the effects upon the body of mercury poisoning range from psychosis and hallucination to death, this is clearly not advisable as a cure for toothache.

In fact though the question of whether they worked is a great one and, indeed, one that historians haven’t really considered enough. One notable exception is the work done by medical herbalists, such as Dr Anne Stobart, who have sought to identify the healing properties of many early modern herbs. In recent years there has been a great deal of attention paid to remedy culture, the sharing of medical knowledge and the making of medicines in the home. But the efficacy, potency or effects of early modern remedies have been largely overlooked. Why is this?

One issue is perhaps the anachronistic danger of looking at early modern recipes through modern eyes. Whilst we might sniff about the curative powers of powdered swallows, flayed puppies and the rest, the truth is that they’ve never been subjected to chemical analysis. I’m obviously not suggesting they should be available over the counter, but there is a great potential for collaboration between historians and scientists to uncover the medicinal (or otherwise) properties of ingredients used in medical remedies. Acquiring a better understanding of the effects upon the human body of the various substances commonly used in medicine would offer us a far more nuanced understanding of the experience of sickness in the past.

But to return to the question, much depends on how ‘working’ is defined. We tend to think of a remedy ‘working’ if it actually makes us better. Arguably, the early modern index of whether something ‘worked’ or not was if it had an effect. In other words, people took a purgative substance and waited patiently for a copious evacuation. Emerging later from the privy, sufficiently purged, they would judge that the remedy had worked; it had rendered the desired effect upon the body. Mustard plasters and blisters, designed to bring the blood to the surface and break the skin, worked if that was achieved. In this sense, the important element was not necessarily whether the patient had ultimately recovered, but whether the medicine had done what it should. Thus it is fairly common to see people noting that their Senna had ‘wrought well’ or that a remedy to ease wind had brought them relief.

One of the substances used by Annie in her reconstructions was rhubarb, and this gives a useful case in point. Even today, rhubarb is well known as a high-fibre product, and is commonly listed among other favourites such as figs and prunes, as a gentle cure for constipation. But it is worth noting that the rhubarb used by Annie in her reconstruction, the happy pink and green stalks that we commonly cover in custard after Sunday lunch, is not actually the same variety as that used in seventeenth-century medical remedies. And seventeenth-century rhubarb definitely ‘worked’! The variety popular in early modern Europe was Rheum Palmatum, known as Turkish Rhubarb, or Chinese Rhubarb. It was a particularly strong astringent and aperient, which was renowned for its ability to swiftly produce a stool! Even in 1923 the Lancet journal was reporting that small doses of powdered rhubarb were strong enough to treat dystentry!

L0031508 P. Mattioli, I discorsi ...nelli sei libri Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Dioscorides' rhubarb. Rhevbarbaro. (Rhubarb). A renaissance illustration from Pietro Andrea Mattioli's Italian translation of Dioscorides, ed. 3, Venice, V. Valgrisi, 1568. Coloured drawing 1568 I discorsi...nelli sei libri di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo della materia medicinale... Pietro Andrea Mattioli Published: 1568 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Image of Rhubarb from Mattioli’s translation of Discorides. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Some of the extremely powerful ingredients used in early modern medicine, not least rhubarb and mercury (!) remind us to be cautious when recreating medical remedies of the past. They also act as a reminder of the ‘scientific’ nature of medical treatment – an element that might seem surprising in context of what we think we know about the medicine of our forebears.

In fact, creating medical remedies was extremely scientific. Ingredients were carefully weighed, measured and concocted. They then underwent a process of experimentation and use. Remedies that were adjudged to have ‘worked’ were kept and recycled. Those that didn’t were ditched or struck through. All of this was extremely ‘scientific’. It makes us think again about how we view the techniques and effects of medicines in the past.