Category Archives: Medicine

Roman remedy books?

By Helen King

If you know anything about food history, you’ll know about the ancient Roman writer, Apicius. His recipe book was reprinted in 2006 and is even available in an English translation; and you can get a pdf of the full text of 64 of the recipes at

Elaine Leong’s recent post,, reminded me about another sort of Roman book: the remedy books. Of course, as anyone on this blog knows, there is not much of a line between recipe and remedy…  Alun Withey’s post, about ‘what is a recipe collection?’ then made me think about this some more. So, here are some thoughts concerning collections in the ancient world.

Traditional Roman medicine is still something of a mystery. It seems to have been overshadowed by the medicine of the Greeks – despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC. In this case, and in contrast to modern colonial history, it was the medicine of the conquered people that won the battle of the body; as the Roman poet Horace wrote, in many cultural fields Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, ‘Captured Greece took captive her savage conqueror’.

So what was Roman medicine like before Greek medicine took over? We know that in around 160 BC, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor, 234-149 BC), wrote a book for the farmer and head of the household to use, called De agri cultura (On agriculture,  literally On the cultivation of the fields). The text survives. It includes recipes – for pudding, for porridge, for purges. In his Life of Cato, the Greek historian Plutarch later referred to a book written by Cato that does not survive: a recipe collection. Plutarch writes, ‘[Cato] himself had compiled a notebook (hypomnema) of recipes and used them for the diet or treatment of any members of his household who fell ill’. So, other than what we have in De agri cultura, what was in this book and how did it come into being? Perhaps, like early modern remedy collections, it was a ‘commonplace book’ of remedies Cato had picked up based on books he had read, or suggestions made by friends and family. Plutarch also tells us that Cato ‘never made his patients fast, but allowed them to eat herbs and morsels of duck, pigeon, or hare’ (Life of Cato 23). Sounds good so far!

We have a second source for this recipe/remedy collection. Here, in the Roman writer Pliny, it is called a commentarius, a word meaning treatise, notebook or memo. We find that it was kept by the head of household: Cato used it to treat ‘his son, servants, and household’. While Plutarch says Cato ‘himself’ compiled it, Pliny simply says that Cato ‘had’ such a book. Cato was rapidly anti-Greek. He warned against the dangers of Greek doctors, although in fact he uses enough Greek technical terms to make it clear that he had read Greek medicine for himself. So were some of the remedies in his collection taken from Greek books? And did other Roman heads of household own, or compile, collections like this one? And how did they organise them?

For that last question, we have one tantalising hint. The reason why Pliny tells us about the collection is that he says it is the origin of the recipes he gives in his Natural History. That collection of knowledge is organised in a very complicated way – it is nothing like a modern encyclopedia with an A-Z structure. Pliny implies that he has taken apart Cato’s notebook and put the recipes wherever they best fit for his purposes. So does that mean that they were arranged in some sort of structure by Cato? Cato would most likely have been writing on papyrus scrolls, so he may have just written down recipes as he acquired them, or he may have had a reorganised copy made. Perhaps, picking up an idea Elaine Leong explored, he wrote an index? The ancient world raises so many questions – and has so few answers!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University; her interests range from ancient to early modern, and focus on gynaecology and obstetrics

On Pliny: Aude Doody, ‘Pliny’s Natural History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009):

Cato the Elder:

What is a ‘remedy collection’?: Recording Medical Information in the Seventeenth Century

What exactly is a ‘recipe collection’? The most obvious answer is something like the example shown below, a formal ‘receptaria’ book of medical receipts and remedies. In the early modern period, and across Europe, these types of collections were fairly common, and especially in wealthier households. These were often carefully constructed documents, containing indices and sometimes containing groups of remedies according to various types of remedy, or parts of the body. In many ways these were the high-end of domestic medicine.

But were such formal collections necessarily representative? In other words, did everyone (or at least everyone capable of writing remedies down) collect their medical information this way? No. As a great deal of recent work by historians is revealing, the committal of recipes to paper was often a much more haphazard, and far less regimented, process.
For a start, paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period. It could often be bought easily enough; apothecaries often sold reams or ells of paper, as did other retailers from merchants to haberdashers. But it was nonetheless quite costly. Unlike today, where scribble pads and notebooks can be bought for pennies, the buying of paper, or a bound book of notepaper, would have been something out of the ordinary, especially for those on low incomes.

Firstly, the recording of remedies was an expedient and often pragmatic process. Remedies usually spread firstly by word of mouth, with people passing on their favourite receipts to friends, neighbours and acquaintances. As Adam Fox’s work on early modern oral culture has shown (Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)) people had a strong ability to commit information to memory, and this made sense at a time when the majority of the population couldn’t read or write. Nevertheless, for those wishing to record the remedy accurately for future use, there was a need to do so quickly, and often using whatever was to hand.

As such, many ‘remedy collections’ are little more than assemblages of roughly scribbled notes, sometimes on torn bits of paper, sometimes on the back of unrelated documents, and sometimes even including a variety of other information on the same page. In fact, the very survival of many remedies is probably attributable to the fact that they have been incorporated into other, non-medical, documents.

Nevertheless, the recording of remedies in certain types of document was often a more deliberate decision. In Wales, for example, there were several instances of medical remedies being written on notepaper purloined from a church. In one sense this was pragmatic and reflected the simple availability (and probably abundance) of paper, given the needs of the church to keep records. But some were written inside church documents. In parish registers, for example, it was not uncommon to find receipts. A common example was that of a ‘receipt for the biteinge of a mad dogge”, often originally attributed to the register of Cathorp Church in Lincolnshire, but which seemed to move around the country. An example of the remedy, occurring in the Monmouthshire church of Llantillio Pertholey, can be seen here:

In another sense, though, putting remedies in amongst religious verses, as often occurred in commonplace books and notebooks, was a way of allying the remedy to the power of religion. If it was next to God’s word on paper, perhaps it would have more power?
Above all, for the remedy to be of any use, it had to be easy to find when needed. Some, for example, kept remedies within the pages of their business ledgers. Here, the regimented layout perhaps suited ease of future reference. But perhaps most common was to keep remedies within the pages of personal sources. Many diarists noted down examples of favoured remedies, especially when they had suffered from an ailment and attributed their recovery to the taking of a particular remedy.

Commonplace books, notebooks and copy books were also common places for the jotting down of useful information, and could be easily referred to if needed. It was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records, locating it firmly within the context of ‘useful’ information. Many literate families also kept letters. Health was a regular topic of conversation amongst letter writers, and it was common to fire off a few missives seeking potential remedies from within one’s social network. When a reply duly came, here was a ready-made receipt that could be kept without needing to write it down again. Prescriptions and directions from practitioners might be especially prized as they represented a virtual consultation, specially tailored to the recipient’s humoral constitution.

One often-overlooked method, however, were medical almanacs. It’s worth looking at a typical example of how these sources could be used. Cardiff Public Library MS 1.475 is a small memoranda book dating to around 1708, and seemingly originating from London, with the names John and Elizabeth Price prominent. A little list of family notes inside the front cover reveal a touching and tragic tale.

February 10th 1708/9
Married then to the pretty, the charming Mrs Elizabeth Price by the Rev’d Dr Typing of Camberwell.

My daughter Anne was born the 17 of April 1712 about twenty min(utes) after eight in the morning and baptised the 1. of May
She was a very beautifull, lovely child but God was pleased to take it May 3. 1712

Much of the document, however, is actually drawn on the reverse side of copies of almanacks. These were part-astrological, part-magical and part-news documents which contained everything from prognostications and predictions to religious dates, weather information and medicine. The first almanac in this document is ‘Merlinus Liberatus, being an alamanack for the year of our Blessed Saviour’s Incarnation, 1708…by John Partridge, student in Physick and Astrology at the Blue Ball in Salisbury Street in the Strand, London”. Partridge was clearly an entrepreneur; the very next page of his almanck is dedicated to ‘Partridges Purging Pills, useful in all cases where purging is required”!

A second almanac pasted into the book is “The Country Physician; or a choice collection of physic fitted for vulgar use: Containing 1) a collection of choice medicaments of all kinds, Galenical and Chymical, excerpted out of the most approved authors 2) Historical observations of famous cures collected out of the works of several modern Physicians 3) A Cabinet of specific, select and practical chymical preparations in two parts, made use of by the Author, by W. Salmon M.D”

This sort of document was a cheap means of buying a ready-made remedy collection, complete with the latest thinking and couched in terms of the layman. There were many self-help volumes of family physick available, but these cheaper almanac and chapbook style documents were easier to read and easier to keep. It is also clear that the spaces on the back of pages were useful places to note down other remedies as they accrued.

For example, the Prices noted down a number of receipts on the back pages, including a receipt “To prevent a return of the ague”, another for the “dead palsy”, including mistletoe, oak and saffron, and another for “flushings in the face”. Here, then, the printed and the written remedy intertwined to become a completely distinct and individual family collection. In many ways this was as formal a collection as a ‘receptaria’, and probably included many of the same sorts of remedies, but in a different form.

The recording of remedies, and the idea of a ‘remedy collection’, therefore, shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a single, formalised and regimented document. These were organic documents, sometimes constructed carefully, but often just growing as collections of rough notes. Remedies might be deliberately placed within documents, or they might be the result of a roughly-scribbled note. Equally, people might keep ready printed or written remedies, and simply add their own notes as required. In this sense, there is no single ‘remedy collection’ document; instead, there are a myriad different ways in which people collected remedies.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog: (22 August 2012).

A Source for Young Bees: On the Oil of Swallows, Part 2

By Rebecca Laroche, with Michelle DiMeo

In the ongoing dialogue with each other and with the archive, time at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has provided an addendum to our conversation about the medicament Oil of Swallows (see Michelle DiMeo’s analysis in the previous blogpost). The College holds a recipe book with the ownership inscription “Anne Layfielde / her booke of /Physicke & / Surgery / 1640,” and, in its first few pages it contains, like so many collections from this period, a recipe “To make oyle of Swallowes good for / Sinewes that be stray^ned.” As the hand in the section is wonderfully clear, no transcription seems necessary:

MS 10a214, fols. 5-6. Courtesy of the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

This recipe is very like that found in Gervase Markham’s English Husvvife, with its twenty-two herbal ingredients and 20 “quick” swallows. Indeed, many examples of the Oil of Swallow recipe, such as that found in the 1654 collection of Elizabeth Jacob, seem to be copied verbatim from print sources:

Wellcome Library MS 3009, Digital Image 71

Unlike the Jacob example, however, the recipe from the Layfielde collection contains several variations, most notably, the topic of this post, the addition of “2 handfull of yong bees before they be ready to fly.”

A side-by-side comparison with the Markham makes it immediately clear what the issue is. What is “the tops of young bays” (bay leaves) in the print text miraculously (or less so) metamorphoses into “yong bees.” Whether this has resulted from oral transmission— “bees” sounding like “bays”—in the early modern English tongue or the mistranscription of a cramped italic hand, each is equally a viable possibility. Neither of these explanations, however, accounts for the “before they be ready to fly.”

We thus return to the evolution of a recipe as it makes its way through the archive. The ingredient of 20 quick swallows having necessitated a description of how and when to capture them and what to do with the feathers, the inclusion of young bees also raises the questions of “how” and “when.” The precedent of the swallows thus provides the answer, “before they be ready to fly.” This recipe contains other variations in the addition (tunhoofe, vervain, pellitory, thyme) or omission (tutsan and valerian) of specific herbs, and in the details of where to keep the ointment cool for nine days (Markham says “in a seller or cold place,” and this recipe says to “sett it a foote within the ground”).(1) How and when these changes occur in writing of the recipe is impossible to know for certain.

Also unknowable is whether or not the recipe with the young bees was actually made. We have testimony at the end of the recipe that it is “most approued per Eliza Downing.” Of the 134 recipes written in this humanist italic, 42 are attributed to Elizabeth Downing, “Eliza: Downing,” or “ED,” either alone or in conjunction with another practitioner.(2) This suggests that Elizabeth Downing is a central origin of the collection in general, and the addition to the recipe certainly could have been made after it left her hands in the process of posthumous transmission.

If the variation occurs in her practice, however, does this deviation indicate nothing more than a colorful moment in textual history, and should we thus collect such moments as we do spellchecker bloopers? What if such moments could actually transform the recipe indefinitely, adding and subtracting not through practice but through the fallible processes of transmission? Or, as another recipe proved by Elizabeth Downing later in the collection, one “To provoak urine,” begins “Take dead bees” and others call for honey and beeswax, might we imagine Mistress Downing among her beehives?(3)  Might we consequently see each collection as a new context for potential revision, one provided by the products of the household and the experience of the practitioner, as well as the illegibility of handwriting?


(1) Gervase Markham, Covntrey Contentments, or the English Husvvife (London, 1623), 52.

(2) The identity of Elizabeth Downing as possibly the mother of the historical figure Calybute Downing and/or the “Mrs. Downing” who is named with more than a dozen recipes in Natura Exenterata (1655) is in part the subject of my research during a two-week residence at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I have also begun to locate the Layfields in time and place. Many thanks to the Francis Clark Wood Institute for its support.

(3) This imagining has brought me in dialogue with the recent work of Amy L. Tigner on beehives and honey as she presented it at Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference in Fortworth, TX, October 28, 2011.

On the “Oil of Swallows”, Part 1: Did anyone actually use these outrageous remedies?

By Michelle DiMeo, with Rebecca Laroche

Part of the appeal of old medical remedies is that many are filled with seemingly outrageous ingredients. A recipe “For deaffnesse” attributed to Sir Kenelm Digby, Fellow of the Royal Society, required one to “Take a hare new killed, Take out the bladder in which you will still find some urine … soe pouer into each eare by degrees”. The recipe concludes by suggesting one continue to do this “for several dayes with new hares”.[1] The chemist Robert Boyle’s medical remedy book includes plenty of unsavory ingredients, including wood lice and earth worms, as well a treatment for dysentery that involves drinking baked pig’s dung.[2] This, coupled with the fact that many early modern recipe books do not show all the burns, spills and edits one would expect to find in a heavily used book, leads to the question:  did anyone actually make these recipes? If so, how’d they accomplish it?

The “Oil of Swallows” is one such remedy. An early version may be found in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Husvvifes Ievvel [Housewife’s Jewel] from 1587, which begins “Take eight Swallowes readie to flie out of the nest, driue away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth, stampe them vntill the Fethers can not be perceiued” (fols. 50r-50v). It also requires the addition of approximately five herbs to be mixed with butter, and it eventually produces an oil that should be externally applied to aches and bruises.

The recipe continues to evolve over the next 100 years and seems increasingly less believable. By the mid-seventeenth century, “Oil of Swallows” is almost ubiquitous in recipe books; however, the number of swallows greatly increases, as do the number of additional ingredients. This may be due to certain print versions of the recipe, such as that found in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which requires more than two dozen separate ingredients and as many as 20 live swallows. This example from an anonymous manuscript compiled over the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries requires over twenty ingredients and “twenty Young Quick Swallows”, showing just how complicated the recipe became:

Late-17th-Century Recipe for "Oil of Swallows"
Wellcome Library, Western MS 1795, fol. 222v 

A historian’s first instinct might be to dismiss this as a remedy that was never actually tried. After all, how did they catch 20 live birds, and how did they beat them all in a mortar without the birds flying away? However, a closer reading of how the recipe language evolved over time shows contemporaries trying to sort through these complicated issues, providing tips for how and when to capture the birds, and what to do if you can’t get enough. Dawson’s recipe, quoted above, is an early example of this.[3]

But perhaps the best evidence that the “Oil of Swallows” was used is an undeniable reference to the final product in Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical “Rememberance”, written around 1639. Isham recalls having a recurring pain in her thigh in her early adulthood. In her closet, she found a glass jar, which, upon opening, she “thought it to be by the smell oiles of swallowes”. She deduced that it must be about 40 years old and that it was made by her great grandmother “Who was … very skillful in Surgery”. Isham’s aunt “thought it might have some virtue because it retained the sent [scent]. Being close stoped.” So Isham applied the ointment to her aching thigh and found some relief, noting that “it [came] foorth in a rednes and after weared away by de grees”.[4]

Isham’s “Rememberance” makes it impossible for us to deny that the “Oil of Swallows” was actually made, and it provides contextual information to help us better understand the recipe.  If we continue to read recipes against other available archival material, including letters, diaries, and account books, we might continue to find surprising evidence that these seemingly outrageous remedies really were tried and approved. But while Isham testifies to the use of “Oil of Swallows”, we still don’t know exactly which ingredients comprised the final product she tried. And as Rebecca Laroche will explain in Part 2 of this blog post on Thursday, the ingredients in this remedy were sometimes even stranger than just swallows and herbs…


This blog entry has been from adapted research used in the essay Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[1] British Library, Sloane MS 1367, fol. 19v. Contractions have been silently expanded.

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments (London, 1692), p. 7.

[3] For more examples, and for a more detailed analysis of the language, see the original essay on which this blog post was based: Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[4] Elizabeth Isham, “My Booke of Rememberance”, Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no.62, fols. 26v-27r. For an open-access modern spelling edition, see Constructing Elizabeth Isham, dirs.. Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow,