Category Archives: Research and Writing

Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.

Editing The Recipes Project – 5 years on

Editorial: This is the second of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Elaine Leong

cropped-fanshaw-chocolate-pot-highres1.jpg
Our original banner! The chocolate pot taken from Ann Fanshaw’s recipe book. Wellcome Library, Western Manuscript 7113, fol. 154v.

I often start my blog posts with ruminations on how quickly time flies – most probably because as a busy academic and working mother – changes in seasons and project milestones frequently creep up on me as um…wonderful surprises. When they do, though, it’s always useful take a minute for a bit of reflection.

Almost five years have gone by since, in the freezing April (!) snow of Saskatoon, Lisa Smith and I put our heads together for potential recipe-related collaborations. This blog was born just a few months later. I have to confess, when Lisa first brought up the idea of a blog, I was more than a little hesitant. I am one of the worlds’ slowest writers, seeing each footnote as an invitation “explore” and read another 10 articles or so, fretting over argumentation and structure, and indecisively musing over exactly which example best illustrates my point (and then making the – um – wrong decision to use all the ones I found…). Most of us are under pretty intense pressure to write-up and publish our research in traditional formats such as monographs, journal articles and edited volumes. So, the idea of adding regular blog posts to my workload was a little angst inducing. Now, for the second confession of this post – over the years, working on The Recipes Project has become one of the most pleasurable parts of my job and I am incredibly grateful to Lisa for getting us all started at The Recipes Project.

peanuts recipe box
Image of a 1970s recipe index box from one of my first posts “Recipes, Index Cards and Paper Slips” (https://recipes.hypotheses.org/704).

So, what makes The Recipes Project work for me? From the beginning, I saw The Recipes Project not as a blog but as a virtual research network – a platform bringing together scholars and readers with similar interests and fostering conversations across geographical, disciplinary and temporal boundaries. Here, The Recipes Project excels in a number of areas. With a mind on our usual word limit (yes, it applies to editors too), I outline here three aspects which I particularly appreciate. First and let’s get to the crux of the matter – intellectual import and benefits. My work on the blog – commissioning posts and thematic series, editing, and communicating with contributors – have enabled me to keep abreast of new research in my field. More importantly, over the years, The Recipes Project contributors have extended, challenged, and pushed my views on recipes as a text form and collecting, writing and testing recipes as epistemic practices. They have introduced me to different methodologies, inspired me to pull together new narratives and to frame fresh questions. For me, recipe studies now offer researchers unique opportunities to collectively craft together longue durée global histories across a number of knowledge spheres.

Fig. 4 Emerald imitation
My friend and colleague Marjolijn Bol holding one of her imitation emeralds in her post “Topazes, Emeralds, and Crystal Rubies. The Faking and Making of Precious Stones” (https://recipes.hypotheses.org/4659)

Secondly, The Recipes Project is a great example of collaborative research project. Over the years, I have worked closely with a dozens of contributors who not only invite me into their research worlds with much open-mindedness and grace but also motivated me to tighten my own thinking and writing. The editorial team at The Recipes Project – Lisa Smith, Amanda Herbert, Laurence Totelin and Laura Mitchell – are all scholars of amazing generosity. In them, I witness every month how kindness, encouragement and support can build a “village” of an intellectual community. At the same time, we also continually challenge each other with new ideas and skills as we each bring different strengths to the table. For example, unlike the others, I am a latecomer to the world of social media (I only joined twitter last week – find me @HistoryElaine, no tweets yet) and am just discovering the possibilities of being a twitterstorian. What prompted my recent foray into twitter? Well…we have big plans brewing at the RP headquarters – watch this space.

Finally, perhaps most personally fulfilling, over the years The Recipes Project has become a social community in addition to an intellectual one. Logging onto the blog and devouring the latest post, I am always excited and encouraged to read about the new recipe-related adventures of my friends and colleagues. When I head to large international conferences, it’s lovely to see the friendly face of a fellow Recipes Project contributor. More than once, I’ve also had lively and helpful coffees breaks with like-minded contributors at various libraries where hints and tips for new readings or alternative lines of research are exchanged (just like EM recipe exchange?). Many readers also approach us at recipes@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de with offers of posts and ideas. We always welcome new voices and hearing from contributors hailing from a range of knowledge fields is what makes our community diverse, welcoming and vibrant.

That’s it for me. Next month, co-editor Amanda Herbert will share her thoughts on The Recipes Project – tune in!

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Here’s to a New Year!

By Lisa Smith

A celebration party given in honour of a good harvest. Engraving by B. Picart, 1733, after himself after Vergil's Georgics. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A celebration party given in honour of a good harvest. Engraving by B. Picart, 1733, after himself after Vergil’s Georgics. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

September 2017 will mark The Recipe Project‘s fifth anniversary: a big one in the blogging world. And on 29 December, we published our 501st post!

We’ve come a long way since Elaine Leong and I had the idea of setting up a blog. One of our goals right from the start (besides sharing our love of recipes) was to build a community of scholars and recipe enthusiasts

In this endeavour, we’ve been successful. Since 2012, we’ve had over 100 wonderful contributors–and two co-editors (Amanda Herbert and Laurence Totelin) and one social media editor (Laura Mitchell) have joined our team. In 2016 alone, we’ve had over 198000 unique readers and over 525000 unique visits.  Our Twitter feed continues to grow (over 6500 followers), as does our Facebook page (over 830 followers). Thank you, dear readers and contributors for making The Recipes Project such a success!

Now, what were our top five posts of 2016? The vast majority of our readers come directly to the home page and browse through the latest posts, which means that actual favourite posts are difficult to measure. But the top five posts that lured in readers directly to the page reveal an intriguing range of interests and reading patterns.

  1.  ‘Palm Trees and Potions: On Portugueuse Pharmacy Signs’, Benjamin Breen (2 August 2016).
  2.  ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?’ James Brown and Angela McShane (20 September 2016).
  3.  ‘Hans Sloane: Eighteenth Century Mixologist’, Amanda Herbert (12 January 2016).
  4.  ‘Of Dirty Books and Bread’, Anke Timmermann (12 May 2013).
  5.  ‘Transcribing Early Modern Recipes with the Crowd on Shakespeare’s World‘, Victoria Van Hyning an Paul Dingman (2 February 2016).

The New Year brings new opportunities and challenges. As ever, we are always interested in new contributors. If you’ve been thinking that you’d like to contribute to RP or to set up a new themed series, please do send us an email–we’d love to hear from you! With a number of our Ph.D. student contributors graduating this past year, we’re also keen to encourage junior scholars to become a part of our community.

Over the years, we’ve noticed that the blog provides a wonderful snapshot of recipe research, but one topic has repeatedly emerged: the difficulty of pinning down what exactly a recipe is in different regions and different time periods.  With this in mind, the RP editors will be hosting an entirely virtual conference on ‘What is a Recipe?’ in the summer.  We are super excited about this and hope to see many of you involved as participants. Please keep your eyes open for our upcoming Call for Participation!

With the lead up to our fifth anniversary, we will be including a new feature for the year that will add a soupçon of historiography to our monthly mix.  RP editors and invited contributors will reflect on the past, present, and future directions of recipe scholarship, as well as what the blog has meant to us.

Thanks again for your support. We hope that you enjoy our new directions in 2017 as we will!

An obese doctor acknowledging the favours of a French chef in his kitchen; denoting their complicity, the chef's food providing patients. Coloured etching by C. Williams, c. 1815. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
An obese doctor acknowledging the favours of a French chef in his kitchen; denoting their complicity, the chef’s food providing patients. Coloured etching by C. Williams, c. 1815. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.