Remedies, Surgery and Domestic Medicine

Editors’ note: This post provides a sneak peek of Seth LeJacq’s fascinating article, “The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England“, which recently appeared in the Social History of Medicine. You should go read the whole article! An early version of the article was awarded the 2010 Roy Porter Student Essay Prize by the Society for the Social History of Medicine. The essay prize is a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate and postgraduate students to submit unpublished, original essays. Congratulations, Seth!

By Seth LeJacq

I began poking around in the manuscript recipe collections in the New York Public Library’s Whitney Cookery Collection during my summer research a few years ago, and I was struck by the wide array of ailments different recipes addressed. I was particularly surprised to find many remedies for surgical complaints, and that some recipes also included stories about the efficacy of remedies claiming that they had succeeded when sufferers were “given over” by doctors or had allowed them to avoid invasive surgical interventions.

Dropsy - St John
Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 49r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Another [for the dropsy]. Eat an handfull of Raisins and a crust of bread or a sea Bisquit in the morning, and drink not till noon, and then eat a peice of bread when you drink this cured Mrs Hearing who was to have been tapp’d.

These simple instructions in the Johanna St John collection, for instance, were said to have “cured” dropsy sufferer “Mrs Hearing, who was to have been tapp’d.” That is, by using this recipe she was saved from having to undergo surgery to drain fluid from her body. I discussed similar sorts of recipes claiming to help avoid breast surgeries in an earlier post. These sorts of recipes show that domestic healers thought they might need to be able to deal with serious surgical complaints. They also show that they were interested in finding alternatives to unpleasant and dangerous surgical therapies.

Even when recipes did not explicitly bill themselves as medicinal alternatives to surgery, collectors may have seen them as implicitly offering such alternatives. Medicinal remedies for bladder stones and cataracts, for instance, would allow sufferers to avoid being cut.

One question I’d still like to answer is whether people may have seen other sorts of recipes in this way. Take childbirth-related recipes. There are many recipes to help with delivery in stillbirth, for instance, such as this recipe, also from the Johanna St. John collection.

Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 211r. Source: Wellcome Library.
Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 211r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

To bring forth a Dead Child or Afterberth.

mugwort root or herbe wch is then most in strength boyle it in water tender stamp it fine put to it a little wheat chissel boyle it a little againe put it in a linnin Bag Lay it to the Bottom of her Belly as hott as she can suffer it.

Again, this is a fairly simple recipe that helps in a difficult and dangerous situation. What is interesting about recipes like this one is that surgeons claimed that they should be the ones to perform these deliveries. Lay collectors gathered a lot of medical knowledge belonging to the realm of midwives or surgeons. These recipes may be able to teach us more about the relationship between patients and these medical practitioners.

In fact, many recipes are intended to help people address medical complaints that surgeons treated. Early modern surgeons healed injuries and ailments on the exterior of the body, and they worked on keeping the body in good working order and aesthetically pleasing. Thus they could do a wide range of work, from setting broken bones, bleeding, and lancing boils, to cleaning teeth and beautifying the face. All of this was surgical work, and much of it is also found in various recipes circulating among collectors who didn’t work as medical practitioners. We even find recipes for serious surgical problems — fistulas or gangrene, for instance. Recipes of these sorts are common enough that it’s clear that many collectors wanted to (or felt they might need to) deal with problems that surgeons claimed as their own.

Surgeons were well aware that patients found some of their therapies unpleasant and consequently sought out alternatives, including domestic medicine. They sometimes even admitted that this impulse, and the practices of domestic healers, might have something to teach surgeons.

Equestrian portrait of Charles I and title page of the second edition of the Surgeon’s Mate (1639). Woodall’s is the center portrait at the bottom. Source: Wellcome Images.
Equestrian portrait of Charles I and title page of the second edition of The Surgeon’s Mate (1639). Woodall’s is the center portrait at the bottom. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Take the arguments for surgical reform in the published works of John Woodall (1570-1643). Woodall was an influential member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, the first Surgeon General of the East India Company, and an important surgical author. His Surgions Mate (first edition 1617) went into multiple editions over a half-century. It was the foundational English text on sea surgery, but also had a broad influence among readers of all sorts.

A recipe from Woodall. (See the paper for similar examples). Lady Ayscough collection, Wellcome MS 1026, fol. 46r. Source: Wellcome Library.
A recipe from Woodall. (See the paper for similar examples). Lady Ayscough collection, Wellcome MS 1026, fol. 46r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Woodall remains best known for his writings on scurvy (he was an early citrus booster!), but his works also present a critique of surgical education and practice. He argued that surgeons were sometimes too violent in cutting. He held that aggressive interventions did not allow patients to benefit from the healing power of nature. Woodall used the example of gentle female domestic healers as a model of practice that would allow nature to help. He wasn’t against cutting by any means — he was known for developing a tool to drill into the skull (just see the image below), and was an expert in amputation.

Surgical tools, including Woodall’s trefine. From the 1655 edition of The Surgeon’s Mate. Source: Wellcome Library.
Surgical tools, including Woodall’s trefine. From the 1655 edition of The Surgeon’s Mate. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

He was, however, receptive to criticisms of surgical practice, and very sensitive to patients’ fears of surgery and desires for alternative therapies. His work provides clear evidence that those fears and desires, which led people to collect the sorts of recipes we looked at above, had an influence on surgeons.

It’s easy to sympathise with patients’ fears of being cut; surgery was painful and potentially quite dangerous. Patients were clearly not content to simply suffer or submit to operations. Recipe books show that collectors wanted options when it came to serious surgical problems.


2 thoughts on “Remedies, Surgery and Domestic Medicine”

  1. Years ago an upturned tumbler was used as a remedy/cure for some problem by causing a vacuum and sucking the affected area into the glass,
    Very interested in this and would like to know more if you could kindly help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *