By Pamela Deagle
Johanna St. John’s recipe book contains many interesting and unusual recipes on the treatment of madness, melancholy, and fits of the mother early modern. These recipes offer clues to the domestic understanding of mental illness and its causes. There were very few similarities between the recipes in St. John’s book, suggesting that although there were only a few early modern categories of psychological disturbances, there was wide variation within each category. This has led me to discover some “fishy” recipes for the treatment of madness and melancholy that are certainly questionable as to their success. The domestic treatment of mental illnesses is an interesting point of study for seventeenth-century England, because the care of the mentally ill was left to their family and friends. Asylums before 1700 were relatively small, rare, and expensive (MacDonald, 262, 266).
So what did people think caused mental illness? The herb borage, used for fevers and to comfort the spirits, was the only repeated ingredient used in two recipes for melancholy. As well, the recipe “For vapors euen to Madnes” calls for powder of holly leaves, used for the treatment of fevers. Fevers and psychological afflictions were thought to be linked. In a recipe “For Melancholly and madnes”, the main ingredient is ivy or ale-hoof, used for spleen ailments and melancholy. This suggests melancholy and spleen problems were connected. According to early modern medicine, physical ailments in one area of the body might affect an entirely different area (Wear, 134-135).
One particularly strange remedy is literally fishy. “A medecine For Madnesse”, if taken in time, requires a fish (specifically the tench) to be cut open, rubbed with mithridate and tied around the neck, “guts and all”. Although more of a mystery as to what exactly the benefits of such a treatment would be, there is some suggestion of a belief that inanimate objects would allow the transfer of the illness away from the person and into the object. As well, the tench, also known as the “physician fish” supposedly had magical properties in its slime (OED).
This wide variety in the domestic treatments for madness and melancholy provides insight into how early modern people understood and treated mental illnesses. As well, these recipes indicate that individuals suffering from mental maladies were regularly treated at home. Today we would most certainly not treat depression by tying a fish, guts and all, around the neck, but our own understanding of mental illnesses is far from complete. Perhaps hundreds of years from now our methods may seem just as “fishy” as those used in the early modern period.
“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal Alphabetical Index.” Complete Herbal. http://www.complete-herbal.com/culpepper/completeherbalindex.htm#b, 2010.
Lindemann, Mary. Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: University Press, 1999.
MacDonald, Michael. “Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England.” Social Research 53, 2 (1986): 261-281.
“Tench, n1.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. 2002.
Wear, Andrew. Knowledge & Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680. Cambridge: University Press, 2000.
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