Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

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.

Gathering Ingredients For Early Modern Recipes/Herbal Remedies

By Jennifer Munroe

An entry from Mary Doggett’s receipt book from 1682 in The British Library for a “Water called Rosa Solis” includes a curious set of instructions, curious not so much for the way it explains how to make said water, but rather for the lengthy details about how to gather its ingredients:

“How to make ye Water called Rosa Solis to be gathered in the Month of June or July”:
Take this herb called Rosa Solis it growes in Meadows or Marshy Grounds and in no other places, it is of an herb color and grows very Low and flat to ye ground wth a long stalk in the midst wth six branches, springing out of ye root round about ye stalk, and wth a leaf herb color, and of main bredth and length; and when you gather it take heed in any case you touch no where but ye stalk when you put it up for ye vertue lys in ye leaf, and if you touch it it’s gon; lay it in a very clean basket for ye leaves of this herb is of great strength, vertue and nature…(BL Add 27466 f.2r)

While we might assume that early modern Englishwomen collected their ingredients from their own gardens or from neighboring natural areas, receipt books from the period do not typically say as much. In fact, it would have been entirely possible for women to purchase the ingredients for their receipts. This receipt makes it clear, though, that Doggett’s reader is expected to get them herself.

But what does this receipt tell us about the plant and the woman (or person) collecting it? I find it interesting, first and foremost, that while many receipts in Doggett’s book (and so many others) seem to take for granted that the reader will already know how to acquire and use (and will probably have on hand) key ingredients, this receipt does not. Instead, the reader learns not only where to find it, but also how to identify it once she traipses through the meadow or marsh where it grows. So, either this plant isn’t as common as it might seem, as it appears in countless receipt books in the period without such instruction, or Doggett provides these directions because she assumes that her reader has simply never gathered rosa solis before. After all, the warning about how to handle the plant bespeaks an attention to (critical) detail that one would presumably not require if one had actually picked and used the plant before. Otherwise, would one not already know to “take heed in any case you touch no where but ye stalk when you put it up for ye vertue lys in ye leaf, and if you touch it it’s gon”? Reiterating the restorative powers of the leaf, not the stalk, Doggett’s receipt insists at the end that the reader must lay the leaf ever so carefully in the basket after picking as well, as the “leaves of this herb is of great strength.”

Perhaps this receipt indicates more, though, than something about its user. It may tell us as well about Doggett, about her aspirations as a manuscript compiler of receipts. Doggett’s book is arguably itself an exercise in underscoring the authority and expertise of its author. The book is presented in beautifully rendered italic hand, elaborate in such a way as to mimic the care taken in preparing an illuminated manuscript. It is neatly ordered: first waters, then salves and ointments, followed by plasters, balsams, and then medicines for different parts of the body. What this book tells us is that Doggett was concerned with how it represented her as its knowledegable source. And so, when we read not to touch anywhere but the stalk, we are reminded of the care one should take while gathering, but we are also reminded that Doggett has likely tried this receipt herself, that she too has crossed the meadow or traversed the marsh in search of the rosa solis; and we should be grateful that she has spared us wasting our precious ingredient by not knowing that the virtue lies in the leaf, that she has done the experimenting for us.

Green sickness, red plants

By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.