Category Archives: Wellcome Library

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.

An invitation to EMROC’s Thankful Thanskgiving

For this Thanksgiving, why not try cooking from a seventeenth-century recipe?

EMROC is hosting a transcribe, cook, and post of FB party as its “Thankful Thanksgiving,” and is inviting you to join them.

EMROC would like you to transcribe a recipe from the mid-17th-century cookbook, “Mrs Fanshawes Booke of Physickes, Salues, Waters, Cordialls, Preserues and Cookery”(MS7113), which is housed at the Wellcome Library and available digitally.

If you are interested in participating, visit the EMROC blog!

Exploring CPP 10A214: Enter Lady Honywood, Continued; Getting it on Paper

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Elaine Leong’s posting about paper’s use as a medical tool inspired me to look more carefully at instances of paper in the Layfield manuscript, which Rebecca Laroche and I have been examining in this series. What I found was much more than I expected. It turns out that concentrating on paper highlights some of the embedded puzzles about recipe transmission that have been lurking in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia manuscript, and even in the Recipe Projects blog itself. My exploration also brings us back to Lady Honywood, proving once more Rebecca’s observation that “one just has to take advantage of a name like ‘Lady Honywood’ if it’s given to you.”

Rebecca and Elaine both have written substantially about Lady Honywood (or Honeywood) in Recipe Project posts before. This past March, Elaine pointed out that Joanna St. John’s 1680 recipe book contains a remedy attributed to Lady Honeywood “for a cancer,” where the medicine is spread on paper and then laid on the sore. Not surprisingly, Lady Honeywood’s name rang a bell for me, since almost two years earlier, Rebecca had devoted two posts to Lady Honywood’s presence in the Layfield manuscript. Lady Honywood’s recipe for the gout, Rebecca showed, hinted that the compiler of the CPP manuscript’s second section had a particular need to treat that ailment since seven cures for gout appear there.

But it turns out that Elaine and Rebecca were talking about the same recipe, or so I found out when I searched for mention of paper in the CPP manuscript. While St. John labels the recipe as a cancer treatment, the Layfield manuscript identifies it as “The Lady Honywood: receite for the Goute, running & swellinge.”

Layfielde_MS Honywood

The Layfield manuscript mentions the concoction’s effectiveness against cancer as an afterthought, but it is nonetheless there – as is paper as mode of administration. The ingredients are identical as well, with two notable variations. First, the Layfield manuscript walks the user through the process of rendering juice from its herbal ingredients, while St. John begins with the juices:


Otherwise, the only difference is that St. John’s version calls for “bean flower” while the Layfield manuscript calls for “wheaten flour.”

The variation in recipe titles is not uncommon, of course, and it certainly highlights Rebecca’s point about the importance of local needs in the organization of these manuscripts. At the same time, it underscores how easily categorization schemes can obscure connections among texts and contributors. Lady Honywood and her recipe, variant title or no, forge a connection between two manuscripts, the St. John and the Layfield, that otherwise show no obvious overlap. And, ironically enough, a search for paper helped bring to light what had been an unidentified link within this very blog. The overlap between manuscripts, and the one between blog entries, hints further at what connections lie just beyond the reach of our current digital tools. Just more evidence that we need a searchable database of these manuscripts!


[1] Below is a transcription for the Layfield hand:

Rx. one handfull of Fetherfew, salladine, smalledge, &
Rhew, of each a handfull, pick them cleane, wash them &
drie the water out cleane, & beate them in a mortar very
small, & then straine the Juce of it into a dish, &
thicken it with wheaten-flower; & put into it the
yelke of anew-laid egg, & as much honey as [that] con-
taines too, all beaten together, & spread it vpon capp
paper, or Grossers browne-paper, & apply it to the
place pained; & as the paine remoues, or moues so
follow it with this medicine –
2. this same also will helpe the Ague in a womans breast
or any bruise, the bloode beinge setled, or kill a felon
or the Kings euell, if it be swellinge or runninge.
If it be runninge lay adrie peece of paper vpon the
soare, & the plaister vpon it, by Gods blessinge it will
do all these cures

This is How My Grandmother Cooks: Manuscript Recipes in the Composition Classroom

By Samantha Snively

This past summer, the relationship between early modern recipes and teaching undergraduates was on everyone’s mind at the “Teaching Early Modern Recipes in the Digital Age” workshop at Attending to Early Modern Women. How could we bring manuscript receipt collections into our classrooms, and what could students learn from them?

Manuscript recipes raise questions of form, genre, and purpose, and these questions are key to undergraduate writers’ development of academic writing skills. Most of the ideas proposed in June were intended for literature or history courses, but as a graduate student teaching a standardized composition syllabus, I wanted to know: What could manuscript recipes teach an introductory composition course about writing?

I ran the experiment this winter in my UWP001: Expository Writing class, and it turns out that manuscript recipes are perfect texts to think with in a composition classroom. I incorporated selected manuscript recipes into a unit on rhetorical analysis, and a day on “Genre” seemed most germane for my class to discuss the ways that manuscript recipes intricately combine genre and form with audience concerns. I wanted my students to realize that formal, generic, and linguistic choices are vital to constructing rhetorical messages.

Wellcome manuscripts 2535 and 3107
Wellcome manuscripts 2535 and 3107

I used two recipes from the Wellcome Library’s digital collections: a recipe for “biskett bread” from the 1686 recipe book of Elizabeth Godfrey & others (MS 2535, folio 14) and a recipe for “ginger bread cake” from the 1699 manuscript of Edward & Katharine Kidder (MS3107, folios 19 and 20). I paired this with a recipe for “French Bread” from Hannah Woolley’s 1672 The Exact Cook (142).

However, it would be cruel to make a group of undergrads read 17th-century handwriting, so I transcribed the manuscripts for our discussion. I then asked my students: Based on these texts, what are the formal conventions of a recipe? How does the genre change over time, or among rhetorical situations? And what do these genre conventions suggest about audience expectations and expertise?

My students were at first bemused by the diction, phrasing, and imprecision of the 17th-century recipes, but quickly inferred audience expectations from the genre conventions they observed. They noted that the form of a manuscript recipe required a variety of literacies in its audiences, and from there were argued that manuscript recipes also assumed a body of experiential knowledge acquired prior to reading the recipe.[1] We then discussed the reciprocity of this relationship: if you can infer qualities about the audience from a text, how might a writer use genre conventions to interact with their audience?

Recipe slide 2My students at first had some difficulty articulating the complex way that recipes both required and contributed to a shared culture of experiential knowledge. They found the injunction in Woolley’s recipe to “let not your Oven be too hot,” odd in a text intended to teach its audience a new skill. However, they were able to navigate this question by retracing these ideas through their own experiences interacting with recipes. A number of students noted that “this sounds like the way my grandmother describes her recipes/makes her food,” and we discussed the way that genres function as a contract between writer and reader.

Student wisdom
Student wisdom

Using recipes to think about the ways an audience for a piece of rhetoric is partially determined by form was a productive exercise for my composition students. Not only were they able to watch a genre develop and change over time—thereby realizing the social nature of written genres—they were also able to think about their own abilities to control and work with genre conventions to further their own rhetorical message.

[1] Wendy Wall describes this as “kitchen literacy” in “Literacy and the Domestic Arts.” Huntington Library Quarterly 73.3 (2010): 383-412.

This post was first published on the emroc blog (early modern recipes online collective) on 24/02/2016