Category Archives: Experimentation

Following Valerian: New Name, Old Idea

Katherine Foxhall

In late August, 1781, Sir Charles Blagden, physician, Francophile, army surgeon and Fellow (later to be Secretary) of the Royal Society of London received a letter from his friend, Thomas Curtis. Curtis was concerned about the health of his son, who for more than a decade had suffered a ‘very peculiar kind of head ach’ with ‘a dizziness, or partial vision’, and which recently seemed to coincide with the fortnightly full or changed moon. Curtis had sought the opinions of plenty of doctors, but their prescriptions had failed. Blagden responded swiftly. He proposed that the young man was suffering from what the French called migraine. Blagden was not convinced that the moon’s phases were causing Curtis’ illness, but if the young man’s disease returned on 12 September 1781 (the date of the next full moon), Blagden instructed that the young Mr Curtis should have twelve ounces of blood taken a week later, and then to trial valerian ‘in considerable doses’, increasing the dose until his stomach could bear no more.

'Valerian'. Credit: Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rw9eqv2m.
‘Valerian’. Credit: Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rw9eqv2m.

Having long been known as an anticonvulsant, by the middle of the eighteenth century the herb Valerian had become something of a fashionable prescription for treating migraine. The distinguished physician Richard Mead, author of the famous Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies (1748) recommended frequent use of valerian root for periodic diseases of the head ‘pulverized before it shoot out its stalk’.[1] This seems to have prompted the Scottish physician John Fordyce to try it for his own hemicrania. Finding it of very great benefit, he recommended taking drachm doses of valerian three or four times a day in his essay De Hemicrania (1765). Erasmus Darwin included both bleeding and valerian in Zoonomia as treatments for the symptoms of hemicrania, and physicians throughout the nineteenth century would continue to recommend the herb. Such influential texts explain why Blagden turned to valerian for his young patient’s periodic ailment, but it struck me that this had not been one of the herbs that I had come across during the many months I had spent researching the Wellcome Library’s collection of recipe books for seventeenth century migraine remedies, though Nicholas Culpeper talked of valerian’s warming properties, and recommended the root for headache, diseases of the eyes, wounds splinters and thorns. I forgot about Curtis, and moved on. Then, by accident, I discovered that the valerian family also contains a plant called spikenard, and the penny dropped. Like valerian root, spikenard has an earthy musky odour, and a similar effect on the body – having sedative and relaxing properties. Suddenly, valerian didn’t appear to be an eighteenth-century story, but an episode in a longer history, which I’ve written about here before.

But the story goes back even further. The dispensatory of the Nestorian physician and pharmacologist Sābūr ibn Sahl, from southwestern Iran, is one of the earliest pharmacopeia written in Arabic. Dating from the ninth century CE, it provides important evidence of medieval Eastern Arabic medical practice. In Chapter Four of the dispensatory instructions set out the preparation of nard oil, an expensive essential oil with sedative properties used to treat hemicrania, among other things. This was an expensive recipe requiring a large investment to collect over twenty herbal ingredients (including cyprus, laurel, elecampane, citronella, myrtle leaves, wild caraway, forget-me-not, sweet marjoram, stalkless roses, fresh myrtle-water, myrrh and grape ivy), and prepare them with different liquids in three stages taking several days. The third stage took Indian spikenard (the ingredient that gave ‘nard oil’ its name), pounded together with cloves, storax, nutmeg, added to fresh water, balm oil and the strained oil from the previous two stages. Then the whole concoction should be boiled until the water had disappeared, before being bottled, stored and used as required.

Remedies for 'Mygreyn' in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b19295467#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=192&z=0.0194%2C0.2362%2C0.8409%2C0.673.
Remedies for ‘Mygreyn’ in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b19295467#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=192&z=0.0194%2C0.2362%2C0.8409%2C0.673.

Several centuries later, we find a mid fifteenth-century English ‘leechbook’ contained a recipe for migraine attributed to ‘Galen the good philosopher’ that required several of these same ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a pennyweight of ‘spiknard’, anise, elecampane, liquorice, and sugar. By the sixteenth century, spikenard was appearing in print. In 1526, the anonymously published A New Book of Medecynes gave a recipe for migraine, postume and dropsy requiring ‘iiii peny weyght of the rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, ground together and boiled in good vinegar. The compilers of recipe books (including this blog’s favourite Mrs Corlyon) adapted these remedies to local conditions, substituting herbs of similarly warm, dry and aromatic qualities (such as sage and rosemary) that they could more easily obtain or grow. Following translations is notoriously hard, as Sietske Fransen’s post shows, but spikenard and valerian have weaved their way through more than a thousand years of migraine history. Does it work? Perhaps. It certainly has sedative properties, so today it’s more commonly used for insomnia.

[1] Richard Mead, A Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced trans. Richard Stack (London: J. Brindley, 1748), 84-6

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Katherine Foxhall is Lecturer in Modern History at University of Leicester. Her new book, a history of migraine, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.

Tales from the Archives – Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

In September 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have over 600 posts in our archives and over 150 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

November in the UK is marked by fireworks, which commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot, orchestrated by Guy Fawkes in 1605. When I first moved to the UK in 2001, I was a little surprised to see firework displays in the Autumn – in Belgium and France they are much more common in the Summer. However, I quickly got used to wrapping up warm to go and enjoy sparkling nights.

I have trailed the Recipes Project archive for a firework-related post, and have found this post from 2012 by Katherine Foxhall on the therapeutic uses of gunpowder. Certainly not one to try at home!


By Katherine Foxhall

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.

The Recipe as Feminist Text: A Reflection on the Writing of Preserving on Paper

By Kristine Kowalchuk

Cover illustration of Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books. University of Toronto Press, 2017.

In writing Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, (University of Toronto Press, 2017) I found the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between often came to mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I have long been interested in food and language and the relationship between the two. The most obvious link is, of course, the recipe, but in my own postsecondary education, I always felt somewhat dissatisfied by the scholarship (or lack thereof) I encountered on these.

As a student of science and then of English, I noticed that recipes were either overlooked or disparaged in the courses I took. None of my biology teachers mentioned the role the recipe might have played in the formation of the scientific method (nor did they talk much about the historical context of science at all). And in my English courses, recipes, if considered, were regarded as a non-serious genre that could never be sufficiently contorted to fit literary expectations. Few academics at the time, it seemed, gave recipes much thought and no one seemed to know quite what to do with them. And I kept having this niggling feeling that we were missing something important.

During a graduate research trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I accidentally called up a seventeenth-century receipt book. Serendipity! Holding the manuscript in my hands, I felt reverence…and also confusion. I had no paleographical training, so struggled with the recipes themselves, but it was clear there were many different forms of handwriting. Why so many? What explained all the marginal notes and attributions? Who was the author? Weren’t only a few women literate at the time? And what did the manuscripts say about the women themselves?

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 7v-8r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

I ultimately decided to focus on these manuscripts and their relationship to the women who wrote them for my doctoral dissertation (finally, a clear topic!), and I began an archaeological-like digging into the past to try to answer my questions above.

And finally, I stumbled upon the deep and diverse research happening by many scholars on recipes–including the same scholars who contribute to The Recipes Project. I learned how to read seventeenth-century handwriting. I read all kinds of helpful texts on the history of women’s literacy and physical work, on seventeenth-century food and farming, on Galenic understanding of human health and the virtues of plants, on kitchen tools and architecture.

Gradually, I began to piece together a better understanding of the period and of women’s work and writing within it. I completed and defended my dissertation and felt confident about my knowledge in this field of early women’s writing in English.

However, six months after I had successfully defended my dissertation and was teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the book, I was struck by an idea that changed my entire understanding of these manuscripts and of the recipe itself. We were discussing Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and I realized that my own modern assumptions about authorship and subjectivity and “literary” writing had led me, and many others, to miss the point entirely.

Receipt books did not reflect women’s oppression, nor, conversely, did they reflect the rise of modern subjectivity, because women were, until the seventeenth century, already the respected authorities on food and medicine.  Furthermore, they were collective keepers of this knowledge, rather than individual authors or owners. It is this culture, so very different than our own, that is preserved in receipt books – meaning they reflect an end of women’s wider authority rather than a beginning.

Patriarchal values of dominion over nature, individualism, and capitalism arose as new, male-dominated professions – chefs, doctors, and apothecaries – assumed individual authority over women’s collective knowledge and dismissed, ridiculed, and persecuted the women who persisted with special knowledge in food and medicine.

This is the history of the modern cultural view, and our inheritance of it today has caused most of us (including Foucault, who saw the “postauthor utopia” as occurring only in the future, not the past) to largely forget what came before, so that we have been complicit in the continued dismissal of, rather than pride in, both women’s traditional work and the not-so-humble recipe as the material form of this authority.

Folger MS V.a.450, fols. 55v-56r. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

Our modern cultural outlook means we give Francis Bacon credit for creating the scientific method, even though women were cooking and curing at home long before men were performing experiments in labs (and many of us continue to believe that we might be objective observers of nature in the first place).

This culture regards traditional knowledge and household work as less valuable than academic knowledge and professional work. It marginalizes midwives and home care workers and mothers who breastfeed. It rewards celebrity chefs who collect traditional and “country” recipes and sell them in cookbooks under their own name. It subscribes to the cult of the single author. It regards recipes as unimportant. And it sees women’s traditional work as repressive, rather than recognizing its role governing the most critical cultural knowledge.

For this reason, as I say in Preserving on Paper, I see receipt books as “the ultimate feminist texts.”

I also can’t help but see how our cultural amnesia connects to current events related to women’s rights. To understand women’s struggles today, we need to look back and try to understand their origins. It is past time for all of us to deeply consider the particular historical construction of authority in the west, and to recognize that it once looked very different. A recipe for sugar puffs, say, or a remedy for an itch, might at first seem frivolous, but they are in fact windows into a world in which women’s collective authority was assumed.

That’s history worth remembering.

The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

By Erik Heinrichs 

Titlepage of Philippus Culmacher’s plague treatise, Leipzig: circa 1495
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While researching German plague treatises I became fascinated by one odd treatment for buboes that appeared again and again, despite sounding so far-fetched. One sixteenth-century version calls for plucking the feathers from around the single hole in a chicken’s backside, then placing it on a person’s bubo. The instructions say to hold the chicken on the bubo until it dies, when it must be replaced with a new chicken, similarly plucked. I soon dubbed this the “live chicken treatment for buboes” and after years of casual encounters I began to track the recipe more systematically. As strange as it sounds, versions of this “live chicken treatment” were fairly common in plague writing, beginning with the Black Death and lasting, amazingly, into the eighteenth century. Tracing the long history of this recipe led me to explore questions such as: Where might this come from? Why chickens? Why might healers think that this was a good idea? Did anyone actually try this or is this all theoretical? As a historian, I was also interested in change over time within the recipe. Here I found much to explore, as I followed the recipe’s twists and turns over a seven-hundred year period, roughly 1000 to 1700.

The “live chicken treatment” turns out to have a long history, indeed. Its origins seem to lie in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, although it may be older than that. Chickens and chicken broth were a common source of medicine in early times, probably because chickens were such ubiquitous and useful animals since antiquity. Not only did Avicenna praise chicken broth for its general benefits for the body, but he also recommended placing a cut chicken on a poisonous bite or sting in order to fight poisons. In later centuries European physicians turned to Avicenna’s advice when they faced the mysterious and devastating epidemics of the fourteenth century. As Europeans emphasized the poisonous nature of the plagues around them, older treatments for poisons drew new attention. The first mention of using a chicken rump to draw poisons out of a bubo appeared in the very first plague treatise of 1348, coming in response to the so-called Black Death. Here the Catalan author Jacme d’Agramont seems to have introduced a novel and lasting adaptation of Avicenna’s recipe, although the “cut chicken” version persisted in plague treatises for centuries to come.

Most interesting for the history of trying and testing cures are the many variations of the “cut chicken” and “chicken rump” versions of the treatment, as well as physicians’ comments about how effective they are. Especially after 1400, physicians seem to be thinking about this recipe quite often as they seek practical treatments for the plagues of the time. Physicians were preoccupied with altering the recipe in order to reason out the nature of the mysterious poisons underlying the plague. Some add substances to the process, such as salt placed on top of the chicken as it is placed on the bubo. During the fifteenth century, a number of German physicians began to explain the treatment’s workings in a strikingly physical way—that the chicken breathes through its backside and thus pulls the bubo’s poisons into itself. This change led to the suggestion to hold the chicken’s beak shut during the treatment in order to force the chicken to breathe from below. My article (accessible here) show how all aspects of the treatment changed over time as physicians engaged with the recipe, including the quantity of chickens used, the amount of time required, and even the type of animal in question. This work demonstrates the importance of the recipe itself as a platform for thought, experimentation, and communication among physicians.

Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, many physicians praised their version of the “live chicken treatment,” describing it as effective and desirable. Such comments multiply after the introduction of print, which encouraged the production of plague treatises, some fitted with fetching cover illustrations for the marketplace (see image below of Philippus Culmacher’s treatise of circa 1495). In German-speaking lands especially, sixteenth-century physicians used their printed plague treatises to promote their own services and expertise at a local level.[1] This brought about a change in the genre whereby physicians seem more eager to discuss their own experiences with effective recipes in order to appeal to the practical interests of a broad audience. Amidst this change comes evidence that some German physicians witnessed first-hand the successful use of the “live chicken treatment.” Another interesting change during the sixteenth century is the increased attention to the bodily warmth of the chicken as the treatment’s active healing force. These emergent views provide a tantalizing link to modern medicine, since moist heat remains one of the treatments for buboes today. For more information, please read my article.

Erik Heinrichs is an associate professor of history at Winona State University (Minnesota). His interests are the history of medicine and religion in the late medieval and early modern periods. His book Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 will be published by Routledge this November.

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[1] For a survey of German plague treatises from the first century of print, see: Erik A. Heinrichs, Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 (London: Routledge, 2017).