An Early Modern Medicine for a Re-emerging Disease

By Glennda Bayron

A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Jane Baber’s cookbook (Wellcome MS 108), there is a medicinal recipe “For the Ricketts” tucked between a recipe to treat rheumy eyes and another for preserving raspberries. For many of the medicinal recipes in early modern receipt books, there is often no clear modern disease correlation, but rickets has again recently started to become more common in the western world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rickets is a “disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency, which results in abnormal calcium and phosphorus metabolism and deficient mineralization of bone (osteomalacia) with skeletal deformity”.[1] In April 2012, congenital rickets was found to have resulted in the death of a little girl in London. Since the disease is uncommon in Britain, the parents had initially been charged with murder. With the resurgence of the disease, physicians and parents need to be aware of its early signs, with an eye to prevention. Modern treatments for rickets include increasing the amount of vitamin D and calcium in a child's diet.

Rickets 2

Jane Baber, Wellcome Library, WMS 108, f. 4v.

The recipe in Mrs. Baber’s cookery book calls for speecke, rosemary, camamill, sage, verbane, hayhoes, nipp, neats foote oyle, butter, ale, and sasafras.  While some of these are cooking herbs that we use today, many of them are unrecognizable to the modern chef (or doctor, for that matter). Through researching herbal databases as well as help from others, I was able to determine what the uncommon ingredients were and how they were beneficial. “Speecke” turns out to be spike lavender, which is used as an anti-inflammatory. [2] “Verbane” is considered to strengthen the nervous system and creates a relaxing effect on the body.[3]  “Hayhoes” is the shortened version of hayhooves, another name for alehoof, which is often used with chamomile flowers (also in this recipe) as a poultice for abscesses.[4] “Neats foote oyle” is comprised of boiled cow skin bones and feet and is used today for shining leather and there is no record of a modern medicinal use.[5] “Nipp” or catnip, an ingredient not commonly found in your medical doctor’s office, is found in many holistic medicines to treat insomnia, anxiety, migraines, indigestion, gas, and to assist with delayed menstruation in girls.[6]  Sassafras is “the dried bark of this tree, used medicinally as an alterative; also an infusion of this”.[7] Although considered poisonous, it is still used to treat urinary tract disorders, syphilis, gout, cancer, and high blood pressure.[8]

Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw,  Wikimedia Commons.

Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw, Wikimedia Commons.

Barber’s recipe calls for the ingredients to be boiled together and applied by cloth to the joints of the child--minding the lower back as to not weaken the joints. The child must then drink ale with sliced sassafras in it. In the mid-seventeenth century, Hannah Wooley describes a beer with herbs boiled into it as the cure for rickets.[9] The Queen’s Closet Opened (1659) contains a recipe that created an ointment to apply to the weak joints of a child’s body afflicted with rickets.  What these two recipes show is that while the recipes were different, the methods of curing the disease were similar, including ingestion of ale with herbs and application of ointment on joints.  Given that all three recipes provide a similar cure, they suggest the widespread thought and practices in seventeenth-century England. Rickets treatments focused on the results of the problem, from inflammation and skin problems to pain and anxiety. Something, perhaps, for modern physicians to keep in mind.

 

[1] "rickets, n.". OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[2] Thanks to Rebecca Laroche for the help identifying “Speecke” and “Hayhoes.” See also: "Lavender (Spike) Essential Oil", Mountain Rose Herbs, viewed 10 May 2013.

[3] "Vervain Herbal Information", Vervain / Verbena Officinalis Herbal Information. Indigo Herbs of Glastonbury, viewed 10 May 2013.

[4] "Alehoof (Glechoma Hederacea)", TJ Clark Liquid Mineral Supplements, viewed 10 May 2013.

[5] "neatsfoot oil, n.". OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[6] "Catnip: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings", WebMD. Viewed 23 March 2013; "nip, n.". OED Online, accessed March 2013.

[7] "sassafras, n.", OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[8] "Sassafras: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings", WebMD, viewed 23 March 2013.

[9] Hannah Wooley, The Accomplish'd Lady's Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675), section 57.

Glennda Bayron is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.


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