Category Archives: Remedies

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!

Writing Recipes Down

Alisha Rankin, Tufts University

Every time I give an in-class exam, as I did this week, my students complain bitterly about how much their hands ache from all of the writing. In this digital age, they tell me, writing simply is not something they do very often. They’re out of practice. With a keyboard, they could have written twice as much.  It got me thinking about the recipes I work on and the labor involved on behalf of the women who wrote them – although in the case of my ladies, of course, the distinction was between memory and writing rather than writing and typing.

A striking recipe manuscript belonging to the counts of Hohenlohe in southwest Germany illustrates the importance of the act of writing down. Copied into the blank pages at the back of another recipe collection, it begins with the heading, “The old countess of Mansfeld gave these medicines to her son, Count Hans Georg, written in her own hand.” [i]

Scribal Copy of Dorothea of Mansfeld’s Recipe Book, late 16th c.

“The old countess of Mansfeld” referred to Dorothea of Mansfeld (1493-1578), a German noblewoman widely known for her remedies and her charitable healing. Her recipes were prized by aristocrats and commoners alike, and they were even recommended by several physicians. The Hohenlohe recipe book illustrates how much she was respected: so much so that the very fact she had written the book herself was deemed a crucial item of information.  The scribe soon ran out of pages at the back of the volume and had to continue the text in the blank pages between each chapter of the original collection. Every jump in the text reiterated Dorothea of Mansfeld’s act of writing down. The inside back binding explains, “NOTA: In the front of this book, after the twenty-forth folio, continue more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld also wrote down for her son, Count Hans Georg, by herself.” [ii]

Note on the back page of recipe book sending the reader to the blank pages in the middle of the volume: each jump in text emphasizes Dorothea’s “own hand.”

If one flips to the designated folio, the recipes indeed continue under the heading “These are more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.” The reader is led in the same manner through three more breaks in the text, some of them mid-recipe, until it concludes in the (previously blank) pages after folio 65 with the words: “End of the medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.”

Why did the copyist deem it so important that the countess had written the recipes in her own hand (mit Aigner handt) or that she had written them herself (selbsten geschrieben)? I think there are several possible answers. Most obviously, this emphasis underscores the important connection between text and practitioner: the fact that Dorothea had transferred her arts directly into paper and ink tied the document to her considerable reputation. A recipe collection carefully written in the hand of a well-known practitioner was a valuable object indeed.

To return to my students’ complaints about having to write out their exams by hand, their grumbles might highlight a second answer to the question. Writing was difficult. Copying out recipes required much care and a lot of time. To do a meticulous job was a laborious process.  Dorothea of Mansfeld herself indicated that writing down recipes was no simple matter. When an acquaintance, Anna of Saxony, asked Dorothea to copy out some of her memorized recipes in 1561, Dorothea cautioned that it was no easy process. She first needed “empty books in which to write” and thus “humbly” asked Anna to send “three books bound in parchment, one made of large paper, the others of small paper.” Moreover, she warned Anna, “Your Noble Grace must have patience, for such things take time.” [iii] Recipes written in Dorothea’s hand represented the painstaking efforts of a highly respected and highly ranked woman, and as such, they had great value.

A final reason for emphasizing that Dorothea had written the original recipes herself may be a simple matter of penmanship. As anyone who has worked on German court documents can attest, most sixteenth-century aristocrats – and particularly women – did not have stellar handwriting. Anna of Saxony frequently expressed embarrassment about her own writing, which she considered to be clumsy and unsightly.  In contrast, and highly unusually, Dorothea of Mansfeld wrote in a beautiful, neat, even, humanist hand.

A recipe in Dorothea von Mansfeld’s handwriting

Dorothea’s texts were thus valuable both for their outward appearance and for the promise of medical efficacy in their content. As I head off to decipher my students’ exams this weekend, I suspect I will appreciate this respect for good penmanship!


A version of this post appears in my forthcoming book, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.


[i] Hohenlohe Zentralarchiv Neuenstein, Best. GA, U5.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Dorothea of Mansfeld to Anna of Saxony, June 1, 1561, SHStA Dresden, Geheimes Archiv, Loc. 8528/1, fol. 329r.

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.

Chicken Soup for…

By Sally Osborn

Chicken soup is one of our modern panaceas for all ills, but it was also used as medicine in the eighteenth century. However, while nowadays it is associated with treating colds and flu (and has actually been proved to have anti-inflammatory properties), then it appears to have been considered as a stomach remedy. Take this rather graphic recipe from a collection of recipes by an unknown hand (British Library, Add 29,435):

An exelent chicken broath, from Mrs Finch

Take a lean chicken, skin it & draw it put one ounce of fine
manna in the body of it, & secure it at both ends to keep the
manna in, put it in one quart of water & let it boyl gently
till it comes to one pint, then strain it off, & drink a coffe
cup full at a time till it hath answered the purpose of giving
a stool.

Tis so very innocent a woman in child bed may take it
at any time or an infant. It is perticularly good to procure
a stool in the piles, or for any great heat in the body or
complaint in the stomach when such a medison is proper
as it also comforts the stomach & bowels at the same time it
works off & often proves effectual when all medisons have failed.

The manna in question wasn’t the wonder food of the Israelites, but the dried sap of the ash tree, which has laxative properties…

Mind you, I think I might prefer an alternative (and not so innocent) remedy for the ‘looseness’ or diarrhoea, from another anonymous collection (Wellcome Library, MS.1321)– although it does sound more like a hangover cure:

Take 6 spoonfulls of the best brandy & beat the yolk of an egge very
well & mix with it & grate in a whole nuttmegg & put in a little sugar
& brew it well together & drink it next your heart in a morning.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog Travels and Travails in 18th-Century England (14 January 2011).