On the “Oil of Swallows”, Part 1: Did anyone actually use these outrageous remedies?

By Michelle DiMeo, with Rebecca Laroche

Part of the appeal of old medical remedies is that many are filled with seemingly outrageous ingredients. A recipe “For deaffnesse” attributed to Sir Kenelm Digby, Fellow of the Royal Society, required one to “Take a hare new killed, Take out the bladder in which you will still find some urine … soe pouer into each eare by degrees”. The recipe concludes by suggesting one continue to do this “for several dayes with new hares”.[1] The chemist Robert Boyle’s medical remedy book includes plenty of unsavory ingredients, including wood lice and earth worms, as well a treatment for dysentery that involves drinking baked pig’s dung.[2] This, coupled with the fact that many early modern recipe books do not show all the burns, spills and edits one would expect to find in a heavily used book, leads to the question:  did anyone actually make these recipes? If so, how’d they accomplish it?

The “Oil of Swallows” is one such remedy. An early version may be found in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Husvvifes Ievvel [Housewife’s Jewel] from 1587, which begins “Take eight Swallowes readie to flie out of the nest, driue away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth, stampe them vntill the Fethers can not be perceiued” (fols. 50r-50v). It also requires the addition of approximately five herbs to be mixed with butter, and it eventually produces an oil that should be externally applied to aches and bruises.

The recipe continues to evolve over the next 100 years and seems increasingly less believable. By the mid-seventeenth century, “Oil of Swallows” is almost ubiquitous in recipe books; however, the number of swallows greatly increases, as do the number of additional ingredients. This may be due to certain print versions of the recipe, such as that found in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which requires more than two dozen separate ingredients and as many as 20 live swallows. This example from an anonymous manuscript compiled over the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries requires over twenty ingredients and “twenty Young Quick Swallows”, showing just how complicated the recipe became:

Late-17th-Century Recipe for "Oil of Swallows"
Wellcome Library, Western MS 1795, fol. 222v 

A historian’s first instinct might be to dismiss this as a remedy that was never actually tried. After all, how did they catch 20 live birds, and how did they beat them all in a mortar without the birds flying away? However, a closer reading of how the recipe language evolved over time shows contemporaries trying to sort through these complicated issues, providing tips for how and when to capture the birds, and what to do if you can’t get enough. Dawson’s recipe, quoted above, is an early example of this.[3]

But perhaps the best evidence that the “Oil of Swallows” was used is an undeniable reference to the final product in Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical “Rememberance”, written around 1639. Isham recalls having a recurring pain in her thigh in her early adulthood. In her closet, she found a glass jar, which, upon opening, she “thought it to be by the smell oiles of swallowes”. She deduced that it must be about 40 years old and that it was made by her great grandmother “Who was … very skillful in Surgery”. Isham’s aunt “thought it might have some virtue because it retained the sent [scent]. Being close stoped.” So Isham applied the ointment to her aching thigh and found some relief, noting that “it [came] foorth in a rednes and after weared away by de grees”.[4]

Isham’s “Rememberance” makes it impossible for us to deny that the “Oil of Swallows” was actually made, and it provides contextual information to help us better understand the recipe.  If we continue to read recipes against other available archival material, including letters, diaries, and account books, we might continue to find surprising evidence that these seemingly outrageous remedies really were tried and approved. But while Isham testifies to the use of “Oil of Swallows”, we still don’t know exactly which ingredients comprised the final product she tried. And as Rebecca Laroche will explain in Part 2 of this blog post on Thursday, the ingredients in this remedy were sometimes even stranger than just swallows and herbs…

 

This blog entry has been from adapted research used in the essay Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.


[1] British Library, Sloane MS 1367, fol. 19v. Contractions have been silently expanded.

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments (London, 1692), p. 7.

[3] For more examples, and for a more detailed analysis of the language, see the original essay on which this blog post was based: Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[4] Elizabeth Isham, “My Booke of Rememberance”, Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no.62, fols. 26v-27r. For an open-access modern spelling edition, see Constructing Elizabeth Isham, dirs.. Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow, http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/projects/isham/


11 thoughts on “On the “Oil of Swallows”, Part 1: Did anyone actually use these outrageous remedies?”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Abigail. I enjoyed your blog entry on Medieval food. And please don’t get me wrong — there are also many delicious early modern food recipes in these books! It certainly wasn’t all bad, and perhaps I’ll highlight some tasty-sounding recipes in a future blog entry.

  2. I have my great, great, great granddad’s note book written in 1797. Swallow’s oil is mentioned as a cure for poor sight and to dilate pupils if you intend going out in the dark. He says that the bird swallow has very good eyesight because the parents feed the chicks on aconite flower. Therefore (in the odd logic of the times) aconite could be used for the human condition of poor eyes and also, but incidentaly, as a salve for cuts and sores. The oil was expressed from the plant or flowers (not sure which). Sounds dangerous to me.

  3. In the rear pages of some books I was digitizing, I came across this:-
    Oil of worms 3 ounces
    Oil of Swallows 3 Ounces
    Oil of Spike 2 Ounces
    Cold drawn Linseed Oil 4 Ounces
    Oil of Vitrol 6 drachms.

    Followed by direction to complete, it did not state what the use was for?
    Book dated about 1760 to 1786 but this could have been written at any time, books from the Manor Farm accounts etc.

  4. In my grandmother’s hand written cook book was a recipe for “Zam Buk” containing:
    10 c oil of swallows
    10 c oil of eucalyptus
    10 c bees wax
    1/2 lb tin Vaseline
    She made up jars of this in Winnipeg, and as a teenager I found it the best remedy for zits. It was yellowish in colour.
    She came to Canada in 1910 from Manchester. How much ten cents bought I don’t know, but 1/2 a pound of Vaseline is a fair bit.
    Interesting.

  5. Hi, I believe she got it in Winnipeg at Moony’s Drug Store on St Mary’s Road near their home. I’ve seen similar signs in the restored apothecaries at museum villages. May have had another name.
    My husband found a small tin of Zam Buk in an antique store. It was a Australian product use by the army. Must have been where Nana got the name.
    All been fun to remember her.

  6. Well, Nana passed away in 1970 and Moony’s hasn’t been there for 60 years, so if anyone is selling it now, I’d be surprised. In the Heritage Drug Stores which are more museums than real thing, I’ve seen labels but not “stuff”. The small tin we found in an antique shop did not list “oil of swallows” as an active ingredient. Just my Nana’s recipe.
    The 1700 recipe was fairly gruesome. Makes you wonder at the ingenuity of the first person to try extracting oil from swallows. Must have been a lot of them and seen as a way to rid themselves of pesky birds! Now I really wonder how much 10 cents worth was?

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