Category Archives: Medicine

‘The Art of Distillation’: Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books

By Katherine Allen

Two aspects of eighteenth-century recipe books that interest me are the use of distillation in domestic medicine and the relationship between print and manuscript sources of medical and scientific knowledge. Rebecca Tallamy’s recipe book beautifully illustrates the union of both these aspects as she recorded her recipes in a 1691 edition of John French’s ‘The Art of Distillation’. This alchemical guide was one of many published in late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, and it reflects the popularity of Paracelsianism and the growth of distillation in industry. We can therefore use this manuscript to explore briefly the ways in which the household acted as a space where domestic knowledge interacted with social and cultural developments in distillation.

The Art of Distillation
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 1r.

Like many recipe books, this manuscript was a family collection. The ownership tag ‘Rebecca Tallamy her book of Receipts’ appears several times, however Patience and William Tallamy were also named as owners. Evidently, the Paracelsian alchemical guide was owned by a member of the Tallamy family and presumably handed down until Rebecca gained ownership, recording her recipes between the years 1735-38. A few recipes were added by a later hand in the early nineteenth century, thus emphasising the multi-generational use of this distillation text/recipe collection.

Rebecca Tallamy's Title
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 40v.

But, what is distillation? Distillation is a process used to separate mixtures and purify liquids that was used by alchemists and natural philosophers to experiment in hopes of making gold, the Elixir of Life, and a range of medical cures. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some elite households had stills for making medical waters, which were used to combat indigestion and low spirits.

What is distillation?
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 2r.

The manuscript is approximately 500 pages, and the majority of the pages contain printed text with handwritten additions scribbled in the margins, between figures, and overtop of text. The remaining recipes were recorded on the blank pages added at the end of the book. Rebecca’s additions included culinary recipes, housekeeping notes, and a standard collection of medicinal recipes like ‘For a Feaverish Disorder in Children or others’, which involved a poultice of tobacco and currants wrapped on the wrists (f. 28v.). This simple recipe is juxtaposed beside a detailed figure of a distillation furnace and signifies that, through the act of recording recipes, Rebecca Tallamy engaged with technical instructions on distillation. Moreover, some of her recipes were traditional cordial waters prepared via distillation. I should note it is likely that Rebecca copied at least some of her material from other sources simply because there are many duplicate recipes. There are also a number of copied botanical descriptions at the end of the manuscript resembling those found in Nicholas Culpeper’s ‘The English Physician’. Far from being purely a collection of recipes, Rebecca Tallamy’s book encompasses several genres and text types, demonstrating the scope of natural knowledge used in the home.

Distillation Furnace
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 28v.

The combination of manuscript and print within one material source highlights the active transmission of knowledge between textul media as well as the value placed on technical guides as sources of household information. Rebecca’s choice to record her recipes on the pages of an alchemical text shows that women were exposed to and could own ‘scientific’ and technical guides, but also indicates her interest in distillation and, more broadly, the continued presence of distillation in the household. Even by the eighteenth century, alchemy had a place in domestic knowledge.




Word of Mouth: Sharing and Using Recipes in Seventeenth-Century France

Dr Vallant’s Portefeuilles (Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris) are a hodgepodge of information, with recipes for gateaux, remedies in French and Latin, medical case notes, letters, religious reflections, and poems kept side-by-side. Vallant was the household physician of famed salonnière Mme de Sablé (d. 1678) and, later, Mlle de Guise.  He was also regularly consulted by Madame’s friends and family and acted as her secretary. Vallant kept track of all treatments that he tried and the remedies that proved, or might prove, useful in his practice. The notebooks, in some ways, have much in common with our modern personal recipe collections: lots of random bits, from clippings to notes. But it is the informality of the collection that makes it such a useful source of information about the process of collecting and using recipes in early modern France.

The language that Vallant used to describe the transmission of recipes is intriguing: several of his recipes suggest the ways in which knowledge was passed to him by monks and nuns, apothecaries, physicians, and laywomen. Recipes were a form of social currency and were closely tied to patronage. This isn’t always explicit in English, but emerges more clearly in the formality of French. The Duchess of Orléans, for example, seems to have been the originating point for a couple recipes. Mme de la Haye (wife of the Duchess’ apothecary) ‘gave’ a cure for the sciatica, while Mme la Ursée (the Orléans’ governess) ‘shared’ a small pox remedy. The language here suggests that these recipes were gifts of the Duchess.

The reliance on oral knowledge is also striking. Vallant regularly noted that recipes had been passed verbally to him. Various people ‘told’ him their remedies, which he then entered into his notebooks. Mme la Norrice, for example, ‘said’ that after trying many remedies for toothaches she found ease only by putting cold water in her ear. Physician Mr Belay was a particularly frequent source of oral information. He ‘told’ Vallant a remedy for the ‘colours’ [vaginal flows] in 1676 and ‘discussed’ several for blood loss in 1681.

Recipes also took winding routes before ending up in Vallant’s possession. Belay ‘told’ Vallant a remedy for the stone that had been passed to him by Mr de Fromont, secretary to the Duke of Orléans, who had it in turn passed it to him. Belay had used the recipe with great success in treating a mutual patient, Mme de Guise. Vallant also included in his collection occasional recipes from print sources, listing some from Mme Fouquet’s famous book and keeping a cut-out excerpt for Mme Ledran’s balm and unguent.

Madame de Sable (Source: Wikipedia Commons) 

The Marquise de Sablé was condemned by historian André Crussaire as a hypochondriac (Un Médecin au XVIIe Siècle le Docteur Vallant: Une Malade Imaginaire, Mme de Sablé, Paris, 1910), partly because she kept a household physician and partly because so much of the notebooks and correspondence focus on health. But a close inspection reveals that much of the collection was Vallant’s attempt to keep track of his growing medical practice by writing down his successful cures. Under the heading ‘Escrouelles’ (King’s Evil, or scrofula), for example, he provided his case notes and recipe used to cure a thirty-six year old woman.

Elsewhere in the Portefeuilles, it is difficult to distinguish between what is purely Vallant’s or Mme de Sablé’s. In one section, there are several remedies for eye problems; it is perhaps no coincidence that Mme de Sablé suffered from eye trouble.  Three letters were addressed to Madame directly. All eye remedies were sent by friends: Abbé Charrier, Mme Daumon, the Marquis de la Motte, Countess d’Orche, Mr Chartier, Mme de St Ange and Mlle de Vertie. But was this primarily for her use, or for her physician?

Maybe both.

The books were kept as a practical source of working knowledge for both doctor and patron. The care taken in identifying a recipe’s sources and route of transmission was crucial in establishing two matters: reliability and reciprocity. Many recipes may have been passed on verbally rather than in writing, but this was no casual matter. As physician, Vallant needed to know if a recipe could be trusted before he tried it. As patron, Sablé needed to know the precise source of a remedy for social reasons: a recipe gained might be a favour owed… Something to keep in mind the next time you casually take a recipe from a friend and proceed to cram it into your recipe box without a second thought.

Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

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.


Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Researcher in History at King’s College London. Currently working on a history of migraine, Katherine has worked in the past on the history of migrant health, maritime quarantine, and illnesses including scurvy, cholera and typhus. Her book, Health, Medicine and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c. 1815- 1860 has recently been published with Manchester University Press.

Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections

By Laura Mitchell

Charms can be found in all manner of medieval manuscripts, scrawled in the margins or added (seemingly at random) on blank pages and in the flyleaves. Usually they were simply stuck in some place convenient by someone who thought they would be useful or interesting to have on hand. However, charms also appear in medieval recipe collections, mixed in with recipes for nosebleeds or toothaches or different coloured inks. In these contexts, where does one separate the charm from the recipe?  Should they even be separated?

Let’s back up a minute and think about exactly what I mean by a charm in fifteenth-century England. In medieval Europe, the forms of charms and recipes are generally the same. Both are formulas, whether spoken, written, or chanted. Both have an oral and a written component. And both used words and phrases from the Bible, liturgy, and other religious texts familiar to the average medieval person.[1] For example, the Flum Jordan charm to staunch blood is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Just as the river stopped flowing when Jesus entered the water, so the blood will stop flowing once the charm is recited. Additionally, prayers could take on apotropaic properties – the recitation of Paternosters and Ave Marias for protection or healing was encouraged in orthodox worship and these two prayers frequently appear in charm texts.

For the ordinary lay person there could be much confusion concerning what was a charm (and therefore bad) and what was a prayer (and therefore good). The cause of this confusion can be explained by looking at the proliferation of sacramentals, which were an important part of popular belief in late medieval Christianity. Sacramentals were objects: things like candles, salt, and water, that had been blessed by the parish priest and distributed to all the households. The candles were lit during thunderstorms to drive away the demons thought to be active during storms, while the water was sprinkled on the hearth to drive away evil or sprinkled in the fields to promote fertility. Water and salt could be given to sick animals.

It’s easy to see how this Church-sanctioned practice could lead to similar practices with objects that had not been blessed, but which were thought to have special God-given properties. It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two types of objects, since both could be used and manipulated. Users of charms and folk magic were not concerned with the finer points of theology but with the fact that both sacramental and charms had a power that presumably came from God. There was a very fine line indeed between magic and orthodox religion. Magic in the fifteenth century was firmly established within a Christian framework and fit into people’s belief systems in a natural, rational manner.[2]

Countries and regions might favour one type or one motif over another, though. Wind, for example, was more common in Russia, with charms of ill-purpose said to be “sent on the wind”.[3] Romanian charms, at least in modern times, involve the use of both gestures and formulas. The evil eye, while fairly common in countries like Hungary, is unknown in the medieval English corpus of surviving charms. The one commonality across medieval cultures and countries is the dominance of healing charms, which survive far more than any other charm type.

Unsurprisingly, medical charms are often found in collections of medical recipes. Health and wellbeing was a serious concern in the Middle Ages and, if a cure was questionably orthodox, well, that was alright as long as it worked. In these collections, we find charms for bleeding, toothaches, fevers, blurred vision, insomnia, wounds, childbirth, worms in the ear, and falling sickness (epilepsy)–but not for such things as back pain or swollen feet. Scholars don’t really know why medical charms are restricted to a small number of ailments, but some scholars like Lea Olsan believe it’s because there are no Biblical stories nor religious imagery that can be associated with other ailments.

Charms appear in all diverse medical recipe collections, from the household collection of the Haldenby family in Cambridge (Trinity College MS O.1.57) to the collection of the physician Thomas Fayreford (British Library, Harley MS 2558). This suggests that they were regarded with little or no distinction from the non-magical recipes with which they are grouped. Charms and recipes are presented as equally valid and proper texts to read and/or use, but what distinguished them was merely the source of their curative powers. Medical recipes broadly relied on natural means and associations, whereas charms derived their power from the divine, the supernatural. But even that distinction can be too simplistic! For now, I hope it is clear that the distinction between magic and medicine was more blurred than we often think. Most medieval people considered charms to be no more harmful or unorthodox than any other recipe they might encounter in their daily lives.

[1] Lea Olsan, “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60.

[2] On the rationality of medieval magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” American Historical Review 99:3 (1994): 813-836.

[3] W.F. Ryan, “Eclecticism in the Russian Charm Tradition,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, 117.