The Curative Power of Beer and Rhubarb

By Dr. Annie Gray and Dr. Alun Withey


I’m a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, a sort of cook’s question time, where an audience fires questions at a panel of cooking people. I come along both to answer questions and provide historical context for themes we know will come up (rhubarb in Wakefield, beer in Bury St Edmunds etc). I usually bring something with me for the panel to taste, and I’m constantly trying to get people to stop thinking ‘historic food’ and start thinking ‘food’, plain, simple and hopefully delicious.

For a recent episode, the aforementioned Bury St Edmunds, I was asked to come up with a few medicinal beer recipes as part of a discussion on the ubiquity of beer and ale in pre-nineteenth century Britain… Cue my asking Dr Alun to look in the Withey archive. He came up with a cure for vomiting and a cure for scurvy. They looked doable, so I duly did them. Usually I do food, so drink, especially with a medicinal slant, is slightly outside my normal sphere of recipe recreation. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Herewith my thoughts:

The ale

No one seems to produce a proper replica ale (I.e. an unhopped beer) anymore. There are various rather useful looking web resources for making your own, but I only had two days, so that wasn’t an option. After lengthy discussions with Alun, beer expert and fellow Kitchen Cabinetist Tim Anderson, and a very helpful chap from Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, I went for Harvey’s Old Ale, low alcohol version. At 1%, it’s slightly below the alcohol content of a seventeenth-century small beer, but close, and as a watered down version of the stronger and more mainstream Old Ale, it struck me that the flavours would be suitably insipid.

It is hopped, which I had a few moments of agony over. However, by the seventeenth century hops were in common use in many beers. They increased its keeping power and gave it a decent flavour which had previously been achieved through use of various herbal mixtures. Andrew Boorde and his moaning about their tendency to induce flatulence notwithstanding, hops caught on pretty quickly for these reasons, and by the early eighteenth century, it seems they were pretty universal.

I arbitrarily decided I was going for a mid-late seventeenth feel, so my hopped beer was fine. It was quite a sweet bevy as well, which I reckoned was not inaccurate. Later books (e.g. Mary Eaton, 1823) have recipes for substitute beer which are basically treacle, yeast and water, so at least some beers were clearly gut-wrenchingly sweet. The ale/beer formed the basis of both of the cures, and was the main taste, hence all the agonising.

(c) Wellcome Images
A cure for vomiting. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This was an easy win. No mint water in my cupboard, so I seethed (simmered) my mint (1 decent sprig for my 250ml beer) for about 10mn along with half a stick of cinnamon. Strained, decanted, and allowed to cool, it was like a more interesting Pimms. A good summer cocktail, anyway.


Cinnamon has been used medicinally for centuries. Inevitably it has attracted loads of probably spurious medical claims. Among the less obviously ludicrous, it *may* be an anti-inflammatory, in which case it would presumably help if your vomiting is caused by fever or brain swelling?! (Seriously, vomiting is the least of your worries at that point, surely). It’s still suggested as an anti-emetic by some of those dubious home remedy sites you find on the web. I’m unconvinced. But the beer might be hair of the dog if your vomiting is caused by a previous dose of beer the night before. And at the very least, it will help rehydrate you.

L0029444 English recipe book, 17th century Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Page 4 17th century English recipe book,  Collection of medical recipes and memoranda on the properties of various medicinal and cosmetic preparations. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
English recipe book, 17th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A cure for scurvy

More of a challenge! Hedgerow and field scouring required, along with a bit of research into 17th century vernacular names for hedgerow plants…

Scabious – a rather gorgeous flower, often grown in gardens as its bee crack. Purple flowers, spreading habit. It was (and still is) variously promoted for use against cought, sore throats and skin conditions.

Scurvygrass – there are four types of scurvy grass, most of which grow predominantly on the coast, as they like a sandy, poor soil, and thrive with a bit of salt. The most common today is Danish scurvy grass (actually a British native as well), which now grows along roads which have been salted in the winter. It has heart shaped leaves and white, frothy flowers. It was widely used as a cure for scurvy in the past, hence the name. Like watercress tin flavour, but part of the brassica family, it is high in vitamin c, so it would have helped a bit. Not as much as lemons and oranges, but it might have stopped your teeth falling out quite so quickly.

Liverwort – probably hepatica, a plant which grows in damp, moist places and has purple flowers. The leaves are three-lobed, like a liver, apparently (as usual with the doctrine of signatures, you have to squint and use a bit of imagination to get it). The Greek for liver is heper, hence the name. It’s an astringent, a demulcent, a diuretic, and, as is so common with early modern ingredients, poisonous in large doses. Nothing like a hint of death to add a frisson to your everyday life.

Image from Wikipedia (creative commons)
Image from Wikipedia (creative commons)

Elderberries – I had to buy dried. Not inauthentic.

Rhubarb – see below. Not having any dark, instant diarrhea stuff, I used what was in my garden. It was used predominantly as a remedy for constipation in the past….until the English, especially, realise how amazing it is in a tart and developed the sweeter versions so familar today.

Senna – a laxative, available still for that purpose as tea bags, loose dried leaves (ideal here), and tablets.

Nutmegs – a miracle cure, if you believe some of the hyperbole. Skin complaints, pain, and, importantly for scurvy symptons, especially good for mouth ulcers and oral problems.

Aniseeds – the little seeds you used to get inside aniseed balls, and not to be confused with star anise.

Licorice – good for digestive issues (not so good for blood pressure, apparently).

The amounts, when scaled down to suit a 250 ml bottle of beer, are tiny, and seriously too small to have any real effect. But once seethed together for a while, I admit they are pungent. I hated this. The rhubarb added a proper bile note (and I LOVE rhubarb), while the spices and herbs were oddly bitter and rather green. However, my fellow Kitchen Cabinet panelists thought it was quite nice. Sigh.


One question I’m often asked about early modern medical remedies is whether they actually worked. People sometimes look slightly embarrassed about asking this, as if it’s a daft question. Surely they couldn’t work could they? One popular remedy for sore eyes was to get a friend or partner to blow powdered hen’s dung into your eyes just before you retired for the evening. (See this related post on fecal remedies.) The natural reaction is that such a course of action would be unlikely to bring the sufferer much relief. One seventeenth-century cure for ‘worems in the teeth’ involved putting a small quantity of mercury into a dish, lighting a fire underneath it and inhaling the vapour, or otherwise adding the mercury to a small quantity of oil and rinsing it around the mouth. Given that the effects upon the body of mercury poisoning range from psychosis and hallucination to death, this is clearly not advisable as a cure for toothache.

In fact though the question of whether they worked is a great one and, indeed, one that historians haven’t really considered enough. One notable exception is the work done by medical herbalists, such as Dr Anne Stobart, who have sought to identify the healing properties of many early modern herbs. In recent years there has been a great deal of attention paid to remedy culture, the sharing of medical knowledge and the making of medicines in the home. But the efficacy, potency or effects of early modern remedies have been largely overlooked. Why is this?

One issue is perhaps the anachronistic danger of looking at early modern recipes through modern eyes. Whilst we might sniff about the curative powers of powdered swallows, flayed puppies and the rest, the truth is that they’ve never been subjected to chemical analysis. I’m obviously not suggesting they should be available over the counter, but there is a great potential for collaboration between historians and scientists to uncover the medicinal (or otherwise) properties of ingredients used in medical remedies. Acquiring a better understanding of the effects upon the human body of the various substances commonly used in medicine would offer us a far more nuanced understanding of the experience of sickness in the past.

But to return to the question, much depends on how ‘working’ is defined. We tend to think of a remedy ‘working’ if it actually makes us better. Arguably, the early modern index of whether something ‘worked’ or not was if it had an effect. In other words, people took a purgative substance and waited patiently for a copious evacuation. Emerging later from the privy, sufficiently purged, they would judge that the remedy had worked; it had rendered the desired effect upon the body. Mustard plasters and blisters, designed to bring the blood to the surface and break the skin, worked if that was achieved. In this sense, the important element was not necessarily whether the patient had ultimately recovered, but whether the medicine had done what it should. Thus it is fairly common to see people noting that their Senna had ‘wrought well’ or that a remedy to ease wind had brought them relief.

One of the substances used by Annie in her reconstructions was rhubarb, and this gives a useful case in point. Even today, rhubarb is well known as a high-fibre product, and is commonly listed among other favourites such as figs and prunes, as a gentle cure for constipation. But it is worth noting that the rhubarb used by Annie in her reconstruction, the happy pink and green stalks that we commonly cover in custard after Sunday lunch, is not actually the same variety as that used in seventeenth-century medical remedies. And seventeenth-century rhubarb definitely ‘worked’! The variety popular in early modern Europe was Rheum Palmatum, known as Turkish Rhubarb, or Chinese Rhubarb. It was a particularly strong astringent and aperient, which was renowned for its ability to swiftly produce a stool! Even in 1923 the Lancet journal was reporting that small doses of powdered rhubarb were strong enough to treat dystentry!

L0031508 P. Mattioli, I discorsi ...nelli sei libri Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Dioscorides' rhubarb. Rhevbarbaro. (Rhubarb). A renaissance illustration from Pietro Andrea Mattioli's Italian translation of Dioscorides, ed. 3, Venice, V. Valgrisi, 1568. Coloured drawing 1568 I discorsi...nelli sei libri di Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo della materia medicinale... Pietro Andrea Mattioli Published: 1568 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Image of Rhubarb from Mattioli’s translation of Discorides. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Some of the extremely powerful ingredients used in early modern medicine, not least rhubarb and mercury (!) remind us to be cautious when recreating medical remedies of the past. They also act as a reminder of the ‘scientific’ nature of medical treatment – an element that might seem surprising in context of what we think we know about the medicine of our forebears.

In fact, creating medical remedies was extremely scientific. Ingredients were carefully weighed, measured and concocted. They then underwent a process of experimentation and use. Remedies that were adjudged to have ‘worked’ were kept and recycled. Those that didn’t were ditched or struck through. All of this was extremely ‘scientific’. It makes us think again about how we view the techniques and effects of medicines in the past.

6 thoughts on “The Curative Power of Beer and Rhubarb”

  1. I’ve just recently found this blog and I’ve really enjoyed reading some of the material.

    It might also be worth mentioning that the rhubarb used in medicine is the root and rhizome of the plant, NOT the stem, which is what we eat. This is not a small issue since the anthraquinones found in the root/rhizome are well-known to purge the bowels. This was, and still is, a major plant in commerce with, probably, hundreds of peer-reviewed articles published focusing on its medicinal actions. Now, whether the stem or root/rhizome was originally used in your ale recipe is a relevant question that you would have to look a little closer to discern.

    Finally, while it may be amusing to read about blowing chicken shit into someone’s eyes, these types of remedies were, by far, in the minority. In my opinion your framing of the medicine from this period is a bit sensationalistic and offers a skewed picture for the reader. The volumes written on medically valid uses of plants (and some mineral, insects, etc.) are well worth any historians time to explore.

  2. “The natural reaction is that such a course of action would be unlikely to bring the sufferer much relief.” The natural reaction is not the scientific reaction. A major component of bird faeces is uric acid. Uric acid has antioxidant properties and occurs naturally in the eye, where it appears to have a protective effect. If the sore eyes came from pollution (you don’t mention the date of that recipe) then this remedy may have some medicinal action.

    “Liverwort – probably hepatica, a plant which grows in places and has purple flowers” Not very distinguishing, the characteristic that it grows in places.

    I would have thought that ginger beer would be the best remedy against vomiting.

  3. Thanks, Pat, for picking up the typo, which I missed when editing the authors’ post. It’s now been fixed. You make an interesting point about uric acid. One early modern explanation for why feces worked can be seen in this post (, which discusses the recipe to treat sore eyes in more detail.

  4. I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog, Thomas! You’re right that the part of the plant being used is important, which is very much one of the problems with trying to reconstruct old recipes: did the authors themselves even know which part of the plant was most useful? Recipes were transmitted through several sources, which means that even in cases where an early version had specified a particular part, that bit of knowledge might get lost along the way. And although an author wrote down a recipe, that did not mean the author necessarily understood how it worked or was supposed to work. It’s so complicated.

    Remedies using feces (or urine) were fairly common in manuscript remedy collections. The recipe to which Alun refers was one used by Robert Boyle himself (see the link in my other comment). Various types of dung and their particular efficacies were also recorded in the official pharmacopoeias across Europe. Sensationalistic? Possibly. But a skewed idea of what medicine looked like at the time? Not necessarily.

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