Sixteenth-Century Remedies for the Common Cold

By Catherine Rider

It’s the time of year when everyone seems to go down with coughs and colds. Perhaps that’s why on a recent trip to Oxford to look at collections of medical recipes, my eye was caught by a series of cough remedies recorded in one sixteenth-century manuscript.  I’m not aware of much published scholarship on the history of the common cold (though I haven’t checked extensively so if you know differently I’d be interested to hear) but it’s an area which has been attracting attention recently in the Recipes blog and elsewhere online – see for example Katherine Allen’s post on eighteenth-century cold remedies last November and the links there, and Sally Osborn’s comments on asses’ milk as a remedy for colds and chicken soup, rather surprisingly, being recommended in eighteenth-century England not as a remedy for colds but for stomach problems.  This was not purely an eighteenth-century phenomenon.  As this manuscript makes clear, earlier recipe collectors were also interested in collecting remedies for this widespread condition.

The manuscript I was looking at was Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson A.393, a collection of remedies for all kinds of illnesses.  It was copied from an older recipe collection in 1529 by John Reed, who was the parson of Nether Broughton in Leicestershire and had previously been the vicar of Melbourne in Derbyshire.  Several of the recipes are accompanied by marginal notes which state that the remedy has been ‘proved’ by Reed himself or one of his acquaintances, which is unusual but not unique in this period.  An article published by George R. Keiser in 2005 gives more details on its context and contents. (“Robert Thornton’s ‘Liber de Diversis Medicinis:’ Text, Vocabulary, and Scribal Confusion.” in Rethinking Middle English: Linguistic and Literary Approaches, ed. Nikolaus Ritt and Herbert Schendl (Frankfurt am Main, 2005), 30-41.)

The section of cough remedies in the manuscript distinguishes carefully between different kinds of coughs: ‘the dry cough’, ‘the cough of the lungs’, and the ‘cough that has phlegm’.  These distinctions are similar to the ones still made by modern cough mixtures between dry and chesty coughs.  The remedies themselves tend to be fairly simple, relying on a small number of plant ingredients mixed with wine or honey.  For example for ‘cough of the lungs’, the reader is told to make an electuary (a paste mixed with honey or sugar) from the seeds of ‘ache’ (used to refer to celery or various kinds of parsley), anise and pepper, mixed with honey and a little wine, to be used every morning and evening ‘till thou be whole’.  For dry coughs, ‘ache’ and anise are again recommended, mixed with violet seeds and cooked with wine ‘to it wax thick’.  It also seems that Reed or his acquaintances had tried at least some of these remedies and sought out others.  Against one remedy a marginal note, in Latin, notes that this is a ‘Medicine which has very often been proved to be good, and which never fails.’  At the bottom of the page is some more advice, though not a recipe, emphasized with underlining: ‘Above all thing go not from a warm fire to a cold bed, ne from a warm bed to put on your clothes cold. Warm your clothes at both ye changes, etc.’

As the other posts show, these remedies are part of a much longer tradition and in later centuries they continued to be made at home and sold, as with this ‘lung tonic’ advertised around 1900.

Lung Tonic Advertisement, c. 1900, copyright Wellcome Images.
Lung Tonic Advertisement, c. 1900. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

We still use home remedies for coughs and colds today, alongside ones that can be bought from pharmacies: various relatives of mine recommend hot Ribena, or honey and lemon in water, and more exotically one friend recommends hot milk with garlic (I’ve never dared try that one).  Although they are starting to be noticed, these and similar remedies have not yet been clearly fitted into wider scholarly debates in the history of medicine and illness in the way that remedies connected with (for example) sex and fertility, or mental illness, or plague have been.  Nevertheless, they offer a window onto some of the less serious illnesses and everyday concerns of medieval and early modern recipe collectors.

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