Category Archives: Working of herbs series

My journey towards knotty history with the Recipes Project – reflections of a medical herbalist

by Anne Stobart

Starting from a science background

‘That is bad history!’ scowled my history lecturer back a decade or so. Yikes, what could I have done wrong? I felt struck down, so ashamed to have committed some major error, even deserving of being smitten with boils [Figure 1].

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826 William Blake, Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported),

As a postgraduate, I had discovered women’s history, and become interested in researching seventeenth-century recipes. Deciphering these manuscripts required some skill, and so I had enrolled on a palaeography summer school where our kindly university lecturer introduced us to the transcription of poor law records. But what exactly was my error? From a science background, I knew only how to put together a scientific report with hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions. I had no training in historical methods, so I applied the scientific method, daring to voice a hypothesis about the poor in the seventeenth century.

The details escape me now, but likely my suggestion was a fanciful theory not borne out by the evidence, and the lecturer was trying to warn me about jumping to conclusions. It was a painful lesson about which I have thought many times since, and it certainly motivated me to find out about ‘good’ history. But, as I then began to immerse myself in early modern domestic medicine, I soon learned that ‘good’ history was something of a mirage.

Welcome from history colleagues

Rolling forward some years to growing interest in historical recipes and the Recipes Project, and what a welcome difference I found. I was much encouraged by history colleagues who gave freely of their knowledge and experience. In the early days, this led to setting up the Medicinal Receipts Research Group. I found other scholars developing much expertise in interpreting archival material with limited provenance and anonymous contributions by many hands. Often, the gaps themselves in the archives were meaningful, especially considering the invisible roles and activities of women. My doctoral research was assisted by groundbreaking studies of women’s history which questioned many historical concepts. I did go on to carry out research into historical recipes and domestic medicine (now published by Bloomsbury Academic as Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England).  One of my earliest Recipes Project posts based on my research was about an unusual ‘not-recipe’, a vehicle enabling one woman to express her frustration in seventeenth-century medical matters, albeit in a limited way. It has been inspiring since to see Recipes Project contributions discussing ‘What is a recipe’  in a wide-ranging foray with much interdisciplinary collaboration.

Difficult conversations and living history

But, as a practising medical herbalist, my research also led me into difficult conversations with some herbal colleagues who claimed a romantic past of witches, midwives and healers. At times, I found myself, in turn, warning about ‘bad’ history, arguing for more objectivity about the historical evidence available, and questioning assumptions that all early modern women were expert healers [Figure 2].

Did all women make household remedies in the seventeenth century? Front cover of Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)]

Fortunately, I found other herbalists keen to encourage more scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and this led to setting up the Herbal History Research Network. At the opposite  end of the scale, I found that historical colleagues needed ways to objectively evaluate medicinal plants, especially since many lacked medical or botanical backgrounds. This led me to develop the series entitled ‘The Working of Herbs’ providing a protocol for locating, and distinguishing, past and present understandings about medicinal plants. I have really valued the existence of the Recipes Project, as a sort of ‘room in the ether’ for networking with colleagues, a supportive space to explore such developments and techniques. I remain interested in the tensions between science and history, curious about issues of methodology in historical research, fascinated especially by ‘historiography’, an expansive term which seems to encompass everything about ‘writing’ history, yet draws back under the critical gaze of some historians at the ‘doing’ of history.

Figure 3. Making a traditional recipe today (author’s photo)

Particularly welcome in the Recipes Project has been the pioneering and  positive approach towards the reconstruction of recipes [Figure 3]. As in the theatrical context (see Johnson, 2015), the recreation of living history, though not without drawbacks, brings greater appreciation of both emotive and technical aspects of culture, adding considerable value in interpretation of archives.

A great forum for knotty issues 

For me, the study of historical recipes brings together so many social, cultural, economic and material aspects, that it is not surprising that historiography can be a challenge to articulate, let alone develop. I found that criticising other people’s historical approaches was easier than defining my own perspective. In my research I drew on a wide range of archival sources relating to an individual household, and I was glad to find others describing such a ‘micro-history’ style of working, recognising ‘ragged accounts’ in medical history research (Burnham, 2005, p.141). In further recognition of the importance of context, Wendy Wall (2015) writes of ‘knotty’ (p.91) issues raised by recipes, well illustrating the way in which these need to be carefully teased out. Trying to pin down accurate characterization of historical methods and frameworks is not a small task, but the Recipes Project can provide a great forum for such an endeavour. Long may the Recipes Project, and its tireless editors, continue to offer a rich feast of knotty historical recipe research.

Burnham, John C. What Is Medical History? Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

Johnson, Katherine M. ‘Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography’. Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193–206.

Stobart, Anne. Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

The Working of Herbs, Part 8: A Protocol for Evaluating Herbal Efficacy

By Anne Stobart

In a series of posts I have explored how we can know whether herbs might have really worked. It seems quite a while since the first post where I raised some historiographical questions (Part 1). In this eighth and last post of the series I want to conclude with (a) an overview of whether the herbs in a selected recipe might have had some efficacy and (b) a protocol for how historical researchers can approach the question of ‘Did the herbs work?’.

Did the herbs work in this recipe?

The recipe I originally picked to consider is the ‘water for affter Throwes’ (Part 2) which was much copied in a privately held seventeenth-century household recipe collection in South Devon (see Figure 1). A ‘throw’ is a ‘violent spasm or pang’, while ‘throwes’ refers to ‘labour-pangs’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Thus the ‘after throwes’ may have meant pains related to the expulsion of the placenta through uterine contraction, a normal part of childbirth (usually within 15–30 minutes of giving birth), or may have been related to more general pains in the hours following birth.

Figure 1. A water for affter Throwes (Lord and Lady Clifford recipe collection, 1689, in private archive, South Devon).
Figure 1. A water for affter Throwes (Lord and Lady Clifford recipe collection, 1689, in private archive, South Devon).

So back to my original question about this particular recipe, as to whether the herbs would have had any effect? This recipe for the ‘after throws’ contained five plants (hyssop, wild mint, groundsel, pennyroyal and balm). The historical indications (Part 3) for most of these plants are based on warming qualities, and longstanding use of several of the plants in women’s conditions including promoting the ‘courses’ (menstruation) and in childbirth-related contexts.

Based on today’s knowledge of constituents and their effects, this combination of herbs provides for a number of possible actions including both stimulant and anti-spasmodic effects on the uterus. The aromatic distilled herbal constituents would include terpenes to provide both antispasmodic relief (from the pains of afterbirth) and uterine stimulation (to help ensure that the contents of the womb are expelled after childbirth). Thus, this combination of herbs might not have a single effect but provides for several relevant and, at first sight, apparently opposite actions (antispasmodic and stimulant). However, it is likely that stimulating more effective uterine expulsion could help to reduce pains after birth, so the overall effect would be the intended one. Such herbal combinations, with a diverse range of therapeutic effects, appear often both in modern and historical contexts.

So the herbs in this recipe could have been effective. However, this effect would depend on the dose given. One version of this recipe indicates that it was made to be given as a drink (‘giue a gill of this water milke warme with some sugar, in it to the patient before sleepe after deliuery being laid in bed first’, Figure 1). Some therapeutic effect is possible since a ‘gill’ is a quarter of a pint (around 150 ml) though it is not feasible to gauge this accurately.

How to approach the question ‘Did the herbs work?’: A draft protocol for considering herbal efficacy

Herbal medicines in a variety of containers] Tacuini sanitatis Elluchasem Elimithar medici de Baldath, de sex rebus non naturalibus, Joannem Schottum, 1531 p. 111. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Figure 2. [Herbal medicines in a variety of containers] Tacuini sanitatis Elluchasem Elimithar medici de Baldath, de sex rebus non naturalibus, Joannem Schottum, 1531, p. 111. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
I have argued that further understanding of  the way in which particular herbs might work can be assisted by use of good quality herbal monographs (Part 4) which identify constituents and herbal actions (Part 5 and Part 6). Additional considerations are the many ways in which a recipe might be prepared (Part 7) and dosage (this post, Part 8). My posts have dipped into a few examples – so much more could be said!

Overall, the protocol which I have followed involves the following steps:

(1) Clarify the recipe purpose and identify the recipe ingredients (including species and parts of plants)

(2) Identify sources for contemporary indications for the plants (for example based on printed herbals or medical advice books)

(3) Locate reliable modern sources on the plant constituents and actions (such as a referenced monograph)

(4) Consider the extraction processes and form of preparation, possible interaction of herbs, and the dosage (if known)

(5) Summarise the contemporary understanding of the plants alongside their potential efficacy according to best scientific evidence.

An assessment of (3) and (4), evaluating the herbal constituents and actions as well as the form of preparation, could be assisted by linking up with a clinical herbal practitioner. I hope that such partnerships can be further developed so that we are more able to understand potential efficacy. Of course, even if we understand today that the medicinal herbs might have been efficacious, this does not provide evidence that the recipe was used!


I started out on this series of posts to think through how we can use today’s knowledge about plants in interpreting the past. It bothered me that much information on herbs is so readily repeated without adequate referencing of sources. I hope that I have made some useful suggestions in these posts about how to find and use reliable sources. I would welcome queries and the thoughts of others on the ‘Working of Herbs’.

The Working of Herbs, Part 7: Preparing Herbs Together in a Recipe

By Anne Stobart

In a previous post I looked at how herbs in a recipe might work medicinally. But medicinal recipes rarely contain a single ingredient (which would be known as a ‘simple’), and so we should also assess how the herbal ingredients in a recipe might work together. Much depends on the kind of preparation used in a recipe and how the combination of herbs might work together.

What kind of preparation?

Fortunately many recipes tell us about the processing steps involved–which may include grinding, mixing, straining, heating and more. Once we identify the form of preparation, we can consider

  1. which medicinal constituents might be extracted
  2. the likely bio-availability of the constituents and
  3. other benefits or disadvantages arising from combining the herbs.

(1) Extracting medicinal constituents

The way in which recipe ingredients are processed is significant as, broadly speaking, different plant constituents will dissolve best in water or alcohol. Most of us are familiar with the process of standing leafy herbs in hot water to make tea, and such an infusion will dissolve constituents like tannins and alkaloids. A decoction is based on a lengthier process of boiling bark and roots and may extract more constituents. However aromatic or resinous constituents need to be dissolved in alcohol or evaporated. The process of distillation is likely to produce more aromatic results which I look at it in more detail below. Other processes might not involve liquids at all, for example when ingredients are burnt to ashes – leaving mostly mineral salts.

(2) Bio-availability and choice of preparation

Bio-availability refers to the extent of absorption of nutrients or medicaments in the body and the amount of active substance which is made available in the body. The type of preparation indicated in a recipe can have a considerable effect. For example, the use of oils and fats as a vehicle (or carrier) in an ointment is essential for plant constituents to be absorbed and penetrate the skin barrier. However, the importance of preparation and bio-availability is an aspect of herbal history which is poorly understood despite numerous research studies in ethnopharmacology.[1]

(3) Combining herbs

Synergy (the whole is greater than the parts) is an important concept in modern clinical herbal practice. Some plant constituents are known to enhance the action of others or make phytochemicals more readily available in the body.[2,3]

Distillation – the process

Woman with bellows. Michael Schrick, Von allen geprenten Wassern (Nürenberg: Jobst Gutknecht, 1530, title page). Image credit: National Library of Medicine.
Woman with bellows. Michael Schrick, Von allen geprenten Wassern (Nürenberg: Jobst Gutknecht, 1530, title page). Image credit: National Library of Medicine.

The process of distillation would have had a significant effect in isolating the more soluble and readily evaporated plant constituents, the terpenes. This usually involved boiling plants in water and collecting the steam when cooled back to a liquid, as in the image above.[4] The product of distillation includes both floral waters and essential oils which float on top of the water and so can be separated. As a rough guide, many plants yield around 1% of essential oil from steam-treated plant material, as well as larger quantities of a floral water. [5] The recipe I have been looking at in recent posts involves distillation.

The receit of the water for affter Throwes

Take two hanfull of Isope two of peneroyall and two hanfull of Groundsell one handfull of wild mints two hanfulls of balme: …. then still the hearbes and water togather in a rose still then let the Glass bottle stand in the Sume Sinnce two Months Close Stopped from any Ayre it Makes the water much better.

This recipe would have produced a distilled water containing small amounts of essential oils, known as a hydrolat.[6] Of particular note, the immediate products of a distillation are often chemically reactive and the instruction to let the distilled water stand for two months would give a more stable aromatic product. The resulting water would have contained greater quantities of terpenes or essential oils than an infusion and relatively few alkaloids.

Towards a protocol for the working of herbs

In this series of posts I have been aiming to make explicit the various issues and resources that may be relevant in thinking about the potential medicinal actions of herbs in recipes. In the next post (and last in the series of eight) I will overview the protocol as a whole.


[1] See ‘Introduction’ in Susan Francia and Anne Stobart, eds. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p.6 and n.22.

[2] Simon Mills and Kerry Bone. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Churchill Livingstone, 2000, p.23.

[3] See Francis J. Brinker. Complex Herbs – Complete Medicines: A Merger of Eclectic & Naturopathic Visions of Botanical Medicine. Sandy, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 2004.

[4] See also Anne C. Wilson, Water of Life: A History of Wine-Distilling and Spirits, 500 BC-AD 2000. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2006.

[5] Jane Buckle. Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone, 2003, pp.59-61.

[6] Shirley Price and Len Price. Understanding Hydrolats: The Specific Hydrosols for Aromatherapy. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2004.

The Working of Herbs, Part 6: Herb Actions and the Importance of Family

By Anne Stobart

Previously I considered  issues relating to herb efficacy and how to evaluate herbs and their effectiveness in recipes. Here I review the active constituents and actions of plants in a seventeenth-century recipe for ‘after throwes’ of childbirth; containing hyssop, pennyroyal, groundsel, wild mint and balm. I have been keen to establish how the herbs were viewed then and how they are understood today. In this post I look at herb actions and how knowledge of plant families may be useful.

Herb actions

A herb action indicates the likely effect of a herb in the body – some examples:

  • Carminative: assists digestion and helps reduce/expel wind
  • Diuretic: increases urine amount/flow.
  • Diaphoretic: induces perspiration and has a cooling effect
  • Emmenagogue: promotes menstrual discharge
  • Expectorant: promotes the discharge of phlegm from the chest
  • Febrifuge: reduces fever
  • Pectoral: benefits chest complaint
  • Sedative: has a significant calming effect
  • Spasmolytic: relieves muscle spasm

Herb actions may overlap, for example both a sedative and a spasmolytic herb are likely to reduce pain.

Herb actions and plant families

Particular kinds of phytochemicals often run in plant families, producing similar herb actions. As we saw previously (Working of Herbs, Part 5), the Mint family has aromatic oils which provide both stimulating and calming actions. Other significant plant families include:

  • Daisy family (Asteraceae) – bitter principles with benefits for digestion alongside flavonoids and terpenes with anti-inflammatory actions
  • Lily family (Liliaceae) – steroidal-like constituents with hormonal actions
  • Pea family (Leguminosae) – has steroidal-like and other constituents producing hormonal and anti-inflammatory actions
  • Pine family (Pinaceae) – resinous components with antiseptic and antifungal actions
  • Poppy family (Papaveraceae) – alkaloids which can be sedative and pain-relieving (see the Opium Poppy in Figure 1)
  • Rose family (Rosaceae) – tannins with astringent and anti-inflammatory actions
Poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Figure 1. Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum)

Getting to know plant families is very important for clinical herbal practitioners. Knowing the plant family can also assist the historical researcher in appreciating the possible effects of herbs. Plants in the same family can often be substituted for each other. But, beware, as not all plant families are consistent – for example the Carrot family (Umbelliferae) includes many beneficial (and edible) plants as well as highly poisonous plants such as Dropwort and Hemlock.

An overview of the recipe herbs and their constituents and actions

  • Groundsel (Senecio spp.) contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, volatile oils, flavonoids. Once used as a diuretic and diaphoretic and to relieve bilious pains – but due to high concentration of hepatotoxic alkaloids, internal use is not now recommended.[1]
  • Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) contains terpenoids, volatile oil, flavonoids  and is carminative, diaphoretic, expectorant, pectoral, sedative and stimulant.[1,2]
  • Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), contains volatile oil (mostly pulegone), bitters and tannins and is  carminative, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, spasmolytic, stimulant.[1,2]
  • Wild Mint (Mentha spp.) is not readily identifiable, so I have used several near relatives in the Mint family: Water Mint [Mentha aquatica] contains essential oil including methofuran, menthol, menthyl acetate, pulegone and is stimulant, emetic, astringent.[1]; Peppermint [Mentha x piperita] is carminative, diaphoretic, spasmolytic.[2]
  • Balm (Melissa officinalis) contains volatile oil (mainly neral and geraniol), terpenes, flavonoids, polyphenolics, triterpenic acids and is anti-spasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic, febrifuge, sedative. [1,2]

More detail wanted?

The above listing of constituents and actions is based on several monograph sources. For the fullest detail of constituent phytochemicals, Jim Duke’s online database is very well-referenced and it offers a number of search options for specific ‘chemicals’ or particular ‘plants’. The results of a search can be cross-referenced to all plants with a high content of a particular phytochemical. (See Figure 2 for example of  ‘Hyssop’ which, of all the plants listed, has the 11th highest content of alpha-thujone, a powerful emmenagogue.) [3]

Figure 2. Hyssop query in Duke's Database.
Figure 2. Screenshot of Hyssop query in Duke’s Database.

Plant identification

Note that all of the herbs in the recipe are in the Mint family except one – Groundsel which is in the Daisy family. Of course, we do not have absolute certainty about the identification of these plants – especially since the way we name plant species differs from the seventeenth-century. But the whole topic of plant identification is rather too extensive to deal with here, and I have had to make assumptions about the likeliest plants named. I am active in the Herbal History Research Network which aims to encourage researchers in herbal history through sharing experience and best practice. So if you are interested in issues around herb identification, do check out our next London-based seminar on ‘Illustration and identification in the history of herbal medicineon 18 June 2014.

Next post

In my next post I explore more on how these herbs might take effect together and how the type of recipe preparation may be significant – could it really help the ‘after throwes’?


[1] R. C. Wren, Elizabeth M. Williamson, and Fred J. Evans, Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations (Saffron Walden: C. W. Daniel, 1988).

[2] British Herbal Medicine Association. British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (Keighley, West Yorkshire: British Herbal Medicine Association, 1983).

[3] For further detail on phytochemicals see Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry (Louisville, Colorado: Herbalchem Press, 2008).