Category Archives: Medicine

My journey towards knotty history with the Recipes Project – reflections of a medical herbalist

by Anne Stobart

Starting from a science background

‘That is bad history!’ scowled my history lecturer back a decade or so. Yikes, what could I have done wrong? I felt struck down, so ashamed to have committed some major error, even deserving of being smitten with boils [Figure 1].

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826 William Blake, Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported),

As a postgraduate, I had discovered women’s history, and become interested in researching seventeenth-century recipes. Deciphering these manuscripts required some skill, and so I had enrolled on a palaeography summer school where our kindly university lecturer introduced us to the transcription of poor law records. But what exactly was my error? From a science background, I knew only how to put together a scientific report with hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions. I had no training in historical methods, so I applied the scientific method, daring to voice a hypothesis about the poor in the seventeenth century.

The details escape me now, but likely my suggestion was a fanciful theory not borne out by the evidence, and the lecturer was trying to warn me about jumping to conclusions. It was a painful lesson about which I have thought many times since, and it certainly motivated me to find out about ‘good’ history. But, as I then began to immerse myself in early modern domestic medicine, I soon learned that ‘good’ history was something of a mirage.

Welcome from history colleagues

Rolling forward some years to growing interest in historical recipes and the Recipes Project, and what a welcome difference I found. I was much encouraged by history colleagues who gave freely of their knowledge and experience. In the early days, this led to setting up the Medicinal Receipts Research Group. I found other scholars developing much expertise in interpreting archival material with limited provenance and anonymous contributions by many hands. Often, the gaps themselves in the archives were meaningful, especially considering the invisible roles and activities of women. My doctoral research was assisted by groundbreaking studies of women’s history which questioned many historical concepts. I did go on to carry out research into historical recipes and domestic medicine (now published by Bloomsbury Academic as Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England).  One of my earliest Recipes Project posts based on my research was about an unusual ‘not-recipe’, a vehicle enabling one woman to express her frustration in seventeenth-century medical matters, albeit in a limited way. It has been inspiring since to see Recipes Project contributions discussing ‘What is a recipe’  in a wide-ranging foray with much interdisciplinary collaboration.

Difficult conversations and living history

But, as a practising medical herbalist, my research also led me into difficult conversations with some herbal colleagues who claimed a romantic past of witches, midwives and healers. At times, I found myself, in turn, warning about ‘bad’ history, arguing for more objectivity about the historical evidence available, and questioning assumptions that all early modern women were expert healers [Figure 2].

Did all women make household remedies in the seventeenth century? Front cover of Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)]

Fortunately, I found other herbalists keen to encourage more scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and this led to setting up the Herbal History Research Network. At the opposite  end of the scale, I found that historical colleagues needed ways to objectively evaluate medicinal plants, especially since many lacked medical or botanical backgrounds. This led me to develop the series entitled ‘The Working of Herbs’ providing a protocol for locating, and distinguishing, past and present understandings about medicinal plants. I have really valued the existence of the Recipes Project, as a sort of ‘room in the ether’ for networking with colleagues, a supportive space to explore such developments and techniques. I remain interested in the tensions between science and history, curious about issues of methodology in historical research, fascinated especially by ‘historiography’, an expansive term which seems to encompass everything about ‘writing’ history, yet draws back under the critical gaze of some historians at the ‘doing’ of history.

Figure 3. Making a traditional recipe today (author’s photo)

Particularly welcome in the Recipes Project has been the pioneering and  positive approach towards the reconstruction of recipes [Figure 3]. As in the theatrical context (see Johnson, 2015), the recreation of living history, though not without drawbacks, brings greater appreciation of both emotive and technical aspects of culture, adding considerable value in interpretation of archives.

A great forum for knotty issues 

For me, the study of historical recipes brings together so many social, cultural, economic and material aspects, that it is not surprising that historiography can be a challenge to articulate, let alone develop. I found that criticising other people’s historical approaches was easier than defining my own perspective. In my research I drew on a wide range of archival sources relating to an individual household, and I was glad to find others describing such a ‘micro-history’ style of working, recognising ‘ragged accounts’ in medical history research (Burnham, 2005, p.141). In further recognition of the importance of context, Wendy Wall (2015) writes of ‘knotty’ (p.91) issues raised by recipes, well illustrating the way in which these need to be carefully teased out. Trying to pin down accurate characterization of historical methods and frameworks is not a small task, but the Recipes Project can provide a great forum for such an endeavour. Long may the Recipes Project, and its tireless editors, continue to offer a rich feast of knotty historical recipe research.

Burnham, John C. What Is Medical History? Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

Johnson, Katherine M. ‘Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography’. Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193–206.

Stobart, Anne. Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Soul Food: Paracelsian Spiritual Mummy and the Virtues of Ingredients

by Jennifer Park

What is it in food that nourishes us? In a curious Paracelsian treatise, Medicina Diastatica, translated into English from the Latin by Ferdinando Parkhurst and published in 1653, it is written that that which is proper for food must be “alible and vitall, because our life and spirit cannot be otherwise sustained, then by the Analogicall and vitall spirit of another” (6). This vital spirit is one that Paracelsus aligns with what he calls spiritual mumie, which can be “taken from a living body” and “separated and prepared accordingly” (8-9).

To explain how the power of this transferable—and ingestible spiritual mummy works, and where to locate it in matter and vitality, Paracelsus compares its virtues to male seed. In the same way that the “seed of man” is “neither part of the man, nor any substantiall of the parts of the same body, but only a power or certain form descending into the Testicles,” and furthermore “augmented by the mechanick and subordinate spirits, and…endued with a multiplying faculty of it self in the place and time appointed by the Liturgie and rule of Nature,” so too spiritual mumie “cannot be part of…the body it selfe; but must of necessity be a kinde of…addition or trajection,” which “dissipates its self, not only amongst the utmost parts of the body, but even into the best disposed matter” (11). In other words, Paracelsus’s spiritual mummy takes on the characteristics of the soul.

It is thus that the soul, or spiritual mummy, “dissipates” itself in matter to be ingested: it “disposeth it self into the alimentall accession of new matter” (12). For Paracelsus, then, spiritual mumie is the key to why various ingredients and simples embody the virtues that they do, and why they might be used in specific types of recipes and remedies, or avoided in other ingestibles for humans. The text mentions that there is a “proper aliment or food ordained for every kinde of Creature” (13). As such, certain animals are able to find nourishment from plants known to be poisonous to humans. For example, a certain kind of fly is able to “feed on the leaves of Napell, by some called Wolfebane,” the starling finds nourishing “Hemlock, which is poysonous to man,” and the quail can feed on “the hearb Hellebore that is noxious to men” (13).

In terms of such “proper aliment,” it is indeed the “Mumie” of the creature which “requireth the proper Mumie of another for the conservation of it self,” in the same way that it was thought that the consumption of bones was needed for bone growth, and the same with flesh for flesh (13). Having made this point, Paracelsus provides a number of recipes or remedies that are in dialogue with analogies in nature that demonstrate the ways in which such spiritual mumie is transferred. The acquiring of mummy is thus essential to curing “Phthysick (or Consumption of the Lungs),” which requires “eating the Lungs of a Fox” for its cure (13-14). So, too, the author reports a remedy from Galen preserving the individual from epilepsy, or the falling sickness, requiring that the “Masculine Paeony” be “hung about one after the manner of an Amulet (or Charm) being gathered in a Balsamick or proper time” (14). These recipes or remedies enable the author to make an argument about how the virtues of spiritual mummy, or the soul, works: it is the “aforementioned faculties or…powers” that “lay hidden in and with the Nerves and strength of its operation,” found in “the Mumie of the Paeony, Rose, or of any other thing” (15).

Martin Schongauer (German, about 1450/1453 – 1491), Studies of Peonies, German, about 1472 – 1473, Gouache and waterolor, 25.7 x 33 cm (10 1/8 x 13 in.), 92.GC.80. Image Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Using these examples, the author seems to attribute to Mumie what others have called sympathies, and provides answers to such mysteries as love potions work to “allure the affections and minds towards this or that party,” as well as provides the explanation for why an ancient fable that recounts how “Tigres and other wilde Beasts have been made tame by being nourished with humane milk,” may not have been simply a fable (15). It is, the author affirms, “Mumie” which is “the cause, foundation, architect, and medium of these things” (15). And thus is mummy Paracelsus’s explanation for the virtues of different natural simples that make them useful in various recipes. Though materia medica and drugs lost their medicinal virtues over time, as Tillmann Taape has examined, Paracelsus’s emphasis is on how despite being “pluckt up and dryed, or in any wise dead,” herbs and plants and other simples are able to retain the virtues of the spiritual mummy that was “first infused into them” (16). Just as we can ingest in “every root of Poeony” what Paracelsus calls an “Antepilepticall faculty” (16) that preserves the consumer from the falling sickness, so too we, and our own spiritual mummy, can continue to be nourished by other herbs and ingredients “till their Mumie is wholly extinguished” (17).

Feeding Under Fire: Medicinal Food

By Simon Walker

When I first began Feeding Under Fire, I was excited for the episode on medicinal food because it offered the chance to combine my public engagement platform and my PhD research into the improvement of soldiers’ bodies in the First World War. Now that the video is up, it is important to consider the role that food played in the improvement and recovery of soldiers’ bodies, while also drawing attention to the peculiarity of medical improvements during the war being supported by traditional recipes.

Let’s start with calories. According to the British Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual soldiers were supposed to receive between 3000 and 5000 calories per day dependant on the strenuousness of their activities.[i]

From: Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual, p. 60.

The manual also notes that a varied and healthily diet was important for ‘general health and liability to disease’.[ii] Obviously, food was an important aspect of keeping men healthy, and meal plans were devised to attempt to ensure that soldiers were getting enough to eat.

Food also played a regenerative role. Within the 1915 Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, several recipes are displayed under the heading ‘When soldiers are required to attend their sick and wounded comrades the following simple recipes are useful’.[iii]

Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, p. 48.

These recipes include ‘Toast and Water’, essentially burnt bread steeped in water, ‘Calves food Jelly’, a citrus treat with sugar that had to simmer for a full day, and the onion porridge from my episode. This dish of boiled onion, salt, pepper, corn flour and butter would be very much at home on the side of a roast dinner, but instead the instructions read ‘eat the porridge just before retiring for the night. This is an excellent remedy for colds’.[iv]

Cook’s Guide And Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, p. 53.

Onions have a long history of being associated with folk medicine. Gabrielle Hatfield, for example, explains that they were already considered a cure for coughs and colds in ancient Egypt.[v] The recipe that is printed in the manual has almost the exact same wording as in Charles Elme Francatell’s 1868 Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, except Francatell’s claims the recipe ‘…was imparted to me by a jolly, warm-hearted Yorkshire farmer’.[vi]

The story for my other recipe, rice water, is similar.  This dish, dating back to ancient Chinese medicine, has hundreds of different versions, including additions of milk, sugar, or fruits, and is found in numerous recipe books including John Milner Fothergill, Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty (1880).

Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty.

It is interesting that while improvements such as blood transfusions, plastic surgery and disease prevention through sanitation and inoculation were being employed. The British army were still somewhat reliant on recipes that soldier’s parents may have just as easily made for them as a home remedy.

Moving to consider those whose maladies carried them off the line and into medical facilities, although some of these home remedies may have remained part of their diet, overall all, food whilst in a hospital bed could be significantly more substantial. After the war, Private George Elder wrote in his memoirs about how being transferred to the hospital could have meant ‘…comfort, good food, bed and skilled attention.[vii]

Towards the end of the RAMC Manual there are several pages of recipes for hospital cooks including, meat dishes, vegetables, breakfast foods, desserts and beverages. Next to Gruel and Stewed Tripe (see Episode 7 of Feeding Under Fire for the “delicious” use of tripe in the trenches), there is also Roast Fowl, Fried Filleted Plaice, Lemon Jelly, and Lemonade.[viii]

These recipes were not only far from the ‘trench’ treatments of a nice bowl of onion porridge, but also seemingly beyond the usual fare that men were getting for their regular meals both in and behind the trenches. They may have been sick, wounded, controlled by tyrannical medical staff and wearing a blue pyjama uniform, but at least it seems the food was good.

Ultimately, food was an important part of maintaining and improving the health of soldiers, but is it interesting to note that in the face of traditional medical dishes being printed in the official military medical handbook, that its seems old remedies still had a place next to ever improving military medical practice.


[i] Anon, Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual (London: HMS, 1911), p.60

[ii] Ibid. p.61.

[iii] Anon, Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, (London: HMS, 1915), p.48

[iv] Ibid. p.50.

[v] G. Hatfield, Encyclopaedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions (Oxford: Clio, 2004), p.255.

[vi] C. E. Francatell, Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: Richard Bentley, 1868), p.53.

[vii] G. Elder, From Geordie Land to No Man’s Land, (London: Bloomington, 2011), p.76.

[viii] RAMC Manual, pp.415-426.

About the author

Simon Harold Walker is a Military Medical Historian in the final stages of his PhD at the University of Strathclyde. His PhD Research focuses on how British soldier’s bodies and identities were created, conditioned and controlled over the course of the First World War. He has published on the role of Army Chaplains within the medical services in the First World War and presents a popular YouTube series, Feeding Under Fire, which examines First World War soldier’s food. Simon has also researched inoculation and power and is in the process of researching soldier’s experiences and medicinal food in the First World War.

A recipe for a community — 5 Years On

By Marieke Hendriksen 

My first contribution to The Recipes Project appeared in June 2013: a post on mercurial drugs, the topic of my then postdoctoral project at Groningen University. Elaine Leong had read my own research blog, The Medicine Chest, and invited me to contribute. Seventeen posts and over four years later, I still write for The Recipes Project a couple of times a year, even though the focus of my research has now shifted from the history of alchemy and medicine to the intersections of (technical) art history and the history of medicine.

For the five-year anniversary, Elaine asked me if I would like to write a blog about what The Recipes Project means to me, and of course I am happy to do so.

From one of my first posts: Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

The beauty of The Recipes Project to me is that it facilitates and encourages a broad interdisciplinary approach. For me, it is a place to test new ideas, to announce new projects, to let my peers know what I am working on and to keep track of what they are doing. It has helped me to see that my seemingly diverse research interests are inextricably connected, and to find others who share them. Over the years I have been asked by a few people if it isn’t dangerous to put your ideas out at an early stage, and why the ‘regular’ academic channels of conferences and peer-reviewed printed publications aren’t enough to keep in touch with the field.

Nothing too strange for The Recipes Project: from my post on human taxidermy. Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

The first time someone suggested it could be ‘dangerous’ to blog about work in progress I really thought I had misheard them. When I asked them why it would be dangerous, they suggested someone else could run off with my ideas, and that I would look ridiculous if I had to change my mind about something I wrote in an early stage of a research project.

My rebuttal to this is that I see only benefits from discussing my research with my peers as it evolves. I am not worried about someone ‘stealing’ my ideas – as a matter of fact, a blog could even serve as proof that I was working on something first, but that is not something I was ever really worried about.

As for the idea that I would make a fool of myself if I change my mind about something over the course of researching it… I expect my ideas to change, and I do not mind sharing that process with the world. What would be ridiculous to me is a researcher who never changes their mind.

To me, blogging on a collaborative platform like The Recipes Project is a valuable addition to sharing ideas at conferences and in printed publications. The main reasons for this are speed and accessibility. A blog is a fast way to test and spread your ideas. Writing it forces you to develop your thinking and express your initial thoughts and questions in a concise manner, and the responses it elicits can help you develop your work further.

A blog can be published within a matter of days–a pace that is unheard of in traditional academic publishing, where research often isn’t published until after a project is finished. In terms of accessibility, a blog is a very democratic way of sharing your research: it is not hidden behind a pay wall, and readers do not have to have the financial means to attend an international conference. Although both print publishing and conferences have an important function, I think academic blogging is a valuable addition.

Last but not least, what makes The Recipes Project such a constant factor for me is that it is an online community of peers, a repository of work in progress. Over the years, it has not only enabled me to share my ideas and learn about other people’s work, it also helped me find panel members for conferences, collaborators for grant applications, to be found by others, and lowered the bar for approaching people via email, at conferences and during visiting fellowships abroad.

When I finally first met Elaine in person in Berlin in the fall of 2014, thanks to The Recipes Project, it felt as if we already knew each other. More than anything, The Recipes Project has proved to be the perfect recipe for building a community.