Category Archives: Remedies

Recipes in the archives of the early Royal Society

By Sietske Fransen

‘What is a recipe?’ was the simple opening question asked by the organizers of the virtual conversation hosted by The Recipes Project. This month-long online discussion has made me look at the archives of the Royal Society with different eyes.

During my weekly visits to the Royal Society Archives in London I am usually searching for anything visual from the period 1660-1710. Once found, the particular page of archival material with something visual on it is added to the Making Visible database. With this database the Making Visible team is creating a research tool through which it will be possible to enter the archives on image level, and ask and answer questions about the usage of images in early modern science. Have a look at our blog in case you are curious to find out more, or follow us on twitter @MVCRASSH. However, while my colleagues and I are looking for images, we also come across many other interesting documents that are currently part of the early archives. Like recipes!

Those of you who have followed the Twitter storm during the #recipesconf might have seen that I have tweeted about recipes in the last few weeks: recipes for the making of pigments and varnish; food recipes (for bread, butter, and bacon); and medical recipes. The discussions on Twitter have made me come up with several questions. And even though there are too many questions to answer in one blog post, I will discuss them briefly, and hope to continue this wonderful conversation with so many colleagues around the globe.

First of all, why did all these recipes make their way into the archives of the Royal Society? When I started working on the Royal Society materials two years ago, I did not expect to find so many recipes for making food and drinks, nor was I expecting the Fellows’ interest in the making of pigments and varnishes. However, it turns out that the Fellows of the Royal Society were very interested in the history of trades, which made them collect recipes from artisans, including many recipes and treatises on things related the making of images, book printing, and engraving techniques.[1]

The food recipes might need to be seen from the perspective of making products in the house, with which men and women can show off their skills to their friends.[2] During my tweet-storm, I showed a set of recipes brought to the Royal Society by John Evelyn about how to make the best French bread. But also bacon, butter, cheese, and cider recipes are part of the collections in the archives.

In the case of the bread recipe we have the name of John Evelyn stuck to it. And it is indeed interesting to know who provided the Fellows of the Royal Society with the information now in the archives. Who were the sources for the recipes? Were they named? Relatively often we find a name on the recipe. Many to the recipes related to the art of picture making have male names on the recipes, such as Jonathan Goddard in the recipes for colours. Between the recipes I found several had a female name on them, such as the butter recipe from Mrs Elizabeth Papworth, and the recipe for a remedy for scurvy by Mrs Bancroft. Is this surprising? Not at all, since regular readers of this blog know very well that recipes were very often collected by women in early modern English households. However, from the perspective of the early history of the Royal Society it is definitely interesting how recipes from women are still part of the archives. Much more research needs to be done on the women around the Royal Society.

A Receipt to cure mad dogs, or men. Cl.P/14i/33. Image @ Royal Society

There was an interesting discussion about whether or not the description of a tool needed for the performance of the recipe (such as an oven for bread baking) should be treated as a recipe? Or is it even an ingredient? The description of the oven in John Evelyn’s bread recipe almost looked like a recipe inside a recipe, as it was so clearly describing the various things needed to make the oven and made sure it would actually work correctly. And a good working oven was a prerequisite for making the best bread in itself. Also here I am looking forward to a continuing discussion about tools in recipes!

A Receipt to cure Mad Dogs, or Men. RBO/7/8. Image @ Royal Society

Finally, I would like to quickly answer a question that Elaine Leong raised  about the many underlinings and crossing-out in a recipe for curing rabies. As I suspected the crossings were done in the original document that was brought in to the Royal Society. The recipe was thought important enough to make it into the Royal Society’s Register Book, where we find it again in volume 7. All the crossed out sections that you can see in the image to the left are omitted from the neat version of the recipe in the Register book. Also the information about the effective cure of the His Majesties’ dogs is left out. But instead we do find a short Note Bene, explaining that the plant named in the recipe as “Starr of the Earth” has several Latin and vernacular namens “known among Botanists”, which will make it easier to find this ingredient.

Thanks to the organisers of the #recipesconf for giving me a great excuse to look into recipes in the Royal Society Archives and for all the stimulating conversations online!

[1] See for the history of trades and especially the Royal Society’s interest in the making of images Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligene (Chicago, 2013), esp. chapter 1.

[2] See on the exchange and discussion between households for example Elaine Leong, “Brewing Ale and Boiling Water in 1651”, in M. Valleriani (ed.), The Structures of Practical Knowledge (Springer 2017), pp. 55-75.  DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-45671-3_3

Reflections on Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century Recipes

By Katherine Allen

For the ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation on Saturday, 24th June, I reconstructed two eighteenth-century recipes from Mary Wise’s recipe book: a lip salve remedy and a pound cake. You can find out how these experiments unfolded over at my blog, and you can also check out Twitter @KAllen622 for the tweets on making the lip salve, and Instagram @raspberrythriller62 for photos of the pound cake.

The task: choosing a manuscript recipe collection

Actually, this wasn’t difficult. I knew that I wanted to pick both recipes from the same manuscript because this gives me insight into what one individual (or connected group of people creating one collection) desired to record: whether it was out of use, interest, or preserving inherited knowledge. I’ve long been interested in the two manuscripts belonging to the Wise family of Woodcote, which are housed at the Warwickshire Record Office, so I decided to look at these manuscripts for inspiration. For more information on the manuscript I selected, and the family, please refer to this post.

What’s particularly interesting about the lip salve remedy and the pound cake recipe is that they are the third and fourth recipes recorded in Mary’s collection. This means that she could have been inspired to begin a manuscript and had these recipes in mind at the start, and they could have been her own creations or ones passed down to her. Or, she copied recipes from another collection/printed work/letters and these recipes are again among the first she selected.

It’s also worth noting that this manuscript is organised with a table of contents, with a large proportion of the medicinal recipes following the culinary ones written in two different hands. Yet, there are several intermixed medical/culinary recipes (such as these two) recorded at the start of the collection.

Much of the research involving manuscript recipe books is based on speculation and inference: why the compiler began his/her collection, why recipes were selected, if these recipes were deemed effective/valuable, and why the compiler organised the work in a specific way. As neither of these recipes have annotations or statements of efficacy to guide me in determining their value and use, they proved an exciting and unknown challenge for reconstruction. They were also safe to create and I could source the ingredients.

The challenge: selecting a medicinal remedy to re-create

I would have loved to make a plaster or medicinal drink, but I quickly found the ingredients to be prohibitive. For instance, most early modern plaster and salve remedies for treating aches or burns contain lead and turpentine (no thank you!). The main category of remedies found in eighteenth-century recipe collections is for digestive complaints, and many of the recipes I considered contain purgative ingredients such as senna and ‘true’ rhubarb. These ingredients were common since early modern medicine focused on evacuating the body as part of treatment.

I also don’t think my local Boots chemist has Peruvian Bark (cinchona) on hand, and let’s not even get started with the opiates to avoid… I also obviously don’t have access to popular early modern panaceas like Venice treacle (theriac) or mithridate, both of which were cited several times in Mary’s collection for plague and bite of the mad dog (rabies) recipes.

Even when ingredients weren’t toxic, they were difficult to source. Many remedies are herbal-based and I simply don’t have the time or resources to try and track down handfuls of fresh flowers/herbs (unless they’re available at the supermarket). I was additionally restricted by the process of creating recipes. Although my research is on household distillation in eighteenth-century England, I do not own a still and, in any case, wouldn’t feel confident trying to distil a cordial water.

‘How to make Lipsave’

For a transcription of the recipe and my troubles with re-creating it please see my blog post.

Once I settled on this recipe (a few weeks ago) I knew that I had to source beeswax, golden pippins, and orange flower water. Orange flower water could be prepared at home via distillation, and some early modern collections contain recipes, though Mary’s  does not.

As Mary may well have purchased her orange flower water, I too ordered a bottle off Amazon. Simultaneously, I was fortunate enough to find exactly a 1 ounce bar of beeswax! The golden pippins were more difficult to find. They certainly don’t sell pippins in my local shops, and it’s also the wrong season for harvesting apples. So, I opted for golden delicious.

The final line of the recipe is ‘& if you see occasion pair of the Drops’. This instruction presumably meant that you can use it in conjunction with another liquid-based remedy. However, nowhere does it specify what the drops are for, and, moreover, there is no recipe in either of the Wise family books that has ‘drops’ in the title. This leads me to suspect that Mary copied this recipe from another source, but omitted the accompanying ‘drops’ remedy.

‘How to make a pound Cake’  

Again, please see my blog post for further details on the process of creating this cake.

Sourcing ingredients for this culinary recipe was easier. I ordered a bottle of rose water at the same time as the orange blossom water off Amazon. The only ingredient hurdles I encountered were substituting medium dry sherry for sack (an antiquated term for fortified white wine), and deciding how many large eggs I would use, since early modern eggs were likely not as big.

Upon reflection, this was a hugely rewarding and enjoyable experience and I’m thankful that I was able to participate in this virtual conversation on several platforms. The challenges I faced sourcing ingredients in a modern marketplace (and interpreting instructions) likely compare to those that eighteenth-century compilers could have faced when navigating which recipes and remedies to collect and prepare. Sometimes ingredients are simply unattainable, unsuitable for one’s constitution, or undesirable. Instructions are frequently lost in translation, and households needed to improvise and adapt recipes to their available equipment and domestic circumstances.

It is a few days later and I’m still using the little pot of lip salve, and my lips feel very smooth! The cake is disappearing slice by slice.

Theodorus Priscianus’ recipes for breast engorgement

By Louise Cilliers

We know very little about Theodorus Priscianus, only that he was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4th century CE), and was thus also a native of North Africa. We can also deduce that he was a professional doctor. The work for which Theodorus is known, is the Euporiston (a book of easily obtainable remedies), which consists of four books of medical recipes, of which the fourth, the Gynaecia, contains treatments for women’s diseases. Due to its practical applicability, the Gynaecia was very popular in the later Middle Ages; it was excerpted on numerous occasions.

A carving showing a Roman midwife, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The Gynaecia is dedicated to a midwife, a certain Victoria. In his preface, Theodorus states that he wants to “support her with his knowledge”, and he requests her to “faithfully, diligently and carefully… carry into effect the remedies for female ailments” as set out in his treatise. This knowledge was then to be disseminated among midwives and other women to help them in treating ailing women.

Theodorus’ Gynaecia comprises recipes for ten female ailments which he discusses. They are: engorgement of the breasts after parturition, swelling or contraction of the uterus, the mole, atresia, sterility, abortion, haemorrhage of the uterus, injuries to the uterus, the flux, and gonorrhoea. I will focus on engorgement of the breasts after parturition.

This is a very common problem that women experience after having given birth, and various procedures, such as poultices laid on the breasts, were followed in ancient times. Medicaments, made from vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen, were also given. Theodorus clearly has empathy with women whose breasts are taut, swollen or painful after birth. In not too serious cases, he recommends that a soft sponge soaked in a mild astringent, such as vinegar, be applied to the breast, and held in place by a light bandage. Alternatively soothing poultices, for instance, bread soaked in water-mead and oil or fresh pork fat can be laid on the breasts.

If the problem of engorgement has been resolved but the mother still wants to feed the baby, the breasts should be smeared with rush, egg and saffron, or crushed raisins mixed with the flour of beans, or pounded sesame seed mixed with vinegar and honey, or a mixture of pounded leaves of ivy and figs, or (even more directly from the kitchen) fresh pounded cheese with vinegar-honey – if these substances be made into a poultice, they would apparently have increased the fecundity of the milk.

If the patient cannot bear the weight of the poultice, the breasts must be steamed, and an even softer sponge soaked in an extract of marsh mallow, linseed and fenugreek plants be applied.

Purslane, one of the plants used in ancient breast poultices. Credit: Wellcome Library,

But if milk production should be stopped completely, alum or the seed of fleawort or coriander of purslane must be added to the aforementioned poultice, or the powder of a pounded millstone mixed with a wax salve should be applied. But if the breast has produced pus, it must be opened with appropriate aid, so that with one voiding they can be healed completely.

Throughout Theodorus warns that medicaments should be mild, and that all poultices should be applied with moderation, with consideration for the tender breasts.

Further reading:
You can find the text of Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston (in Latin) here.

What is your favourite recipe? Reflections on Day 2

Post by Laurence Totelin; Storify by Tallulah Maait Pepperell

The second day of our Virtual Conversation ‘What is a recipe?’ has been very busy indeed, with contributions on Instagram and Twitter. Some clear themes started to emerge, and I take the opportunity of this post to draw them out.

We opened the day by asking people to share photos of their favourite recipe books.

Several of you tweeted pics of treasured family heirlooms: books with pressed flowers, stained recipe cards, well-thumbed volumes. Often these had been passed down the generations, usually from mother to daughter, but we also heard about some father-to-son transmission. There was a sense of nostalgia, but not of sadness, as we recalled past smells, tastes and gestures. Perhaps the written words of the recipe serve as proxy for all those other things that we find so difficult to express? Through short recipes we remember family stories and traditions. Please continue to share your favourites with us over this month!

Perhaps more strictly ‘historical’ was our question about ‘big stories’ in the transmission of recipes. We touched upon issues of class (Mrs Beeton and the rise of the middle classes); nationalism versus internationalism, and the link between recipes and empires; the importance of celebrity culture; and the prevalence of antidotes and panaceas in pharmacological recipe books. Celebrity endorsements, ancient and modern, seemed to strike a particular chord, especially endorsements for cosmetic products (Alfred Curie’s radium cosmetic powder anyone?).

Lisa Smith asked whether the celebrity serves as a guarantor of efficacy or as an ingredient. I need to ponder that question further, but it raises the further question of ‘what counts as an ingredient’? Is skill an ingredient? I mean, without skill and embodied knowledge, a recipe can fall flat like bread without yeast. If so many contributors to the Recipes Project and its Virtual Conversation are able to recreate historical recipes, it is often because they are skilled cooks (and at times gardeners, because they need to grow rare herbs): they can fill in the blanks. And this leads us to the question of secrecy, which fleets in and out of focus in our conversation. What exactly constitutes secrecy in recipe transmission?

We also touched upon literacy and grammar. I have often argued, following the anthropologist Jack Goody, that recipes are intimately linked to literacy and writing. Recipes, to me, are a written genre. Of course, recipes can be read aloud, and oral transmission of knowledge accompanies and complements recipes; but they remain texts. And as texts, they obey to specific grammatical and structural rules. We left the algorithms, knitting patterns, and musical scores a little behind today, but I hope we will get back to them in our future events.

Do join the conversation in the coming weeks. Share photos, reminiscences, and asks questions to our community. You may find someone who knows that treasured recipe book, which you lost in that move years ago, as it happened today to one of our contributors. A lovely moment!

Find out more in the Storify by Tallulah Maait Pepperell