‘Mercurialia are worrisome’: dangerous recipes

By Marieke Hendriksen

To anyone familiar with the practices of Thomas Dover (1662-1742), alias the Quicksilver Doctor, it may seem like mercury and mercury-based drugs were prescribed and taken rather indiscriminately by physicians, apothecaries and patients in the eighteenth century.[i] However, pharmaceutical handbooks, often written by experienced pharmacists under the auspices of university professors of medicine, give an entirely different view. These handbooks, some of which were reprinted in great numbers for decades, were aimed at professional apothecaries and other medical men. Although virtually every pharmaceutical handbook listed mercurial drugs, they all warn against using them too liberally.

Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.
Title page of the 1681 edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica. Credit: Amsterdam University Library.

A good example can be found in the four Dutch editions of the Medicina pharmaceutica, or Great general treasury of pharmaceutical medicine, which appeared between 1681 and 1741.[ii] In the first edition, at least nine different recipes involving mercury in some form are listed. Because of mercury’s alleged cleansing and purging properties, these cures were recommended for ailments as diverse as intestinal worms, venereal disease, and skin infections.[iii]

However, in the fifth book of that same edition, the volume on ‘Shop Compositions’ (drugs composed to sell ready made in the apothecaries’ shop), over half a page is spend on a warning about antimonial and mercurial drugs, summarized in the index as ‘Mercurialia zyn sorghelyck,’ which translates as ‘Mercurialia are worrisome.’ Following a list of drugs prepared from a variety of minerals, metals and stones, the author warns that it is not his intention to give the ‘Masters of medicine’ the idea that they should prescribe these dangerous cures often; only when there were no other options left should they revert to them.[iv] The other options, it appears, were mainly traditional herbal remedies, as the author writes:

God almighty has blessed us with some common or native herbs and remedies, that have such a power invested in them, that these can be used in general and without vicissitudes or thinking twice to cure the ill, so one should always use these first, before one turns to some dangerous and strange medicaments from chemistry; so it would be a great deception and recklessness to apply prepared Antimony or Quicksilver, if one is provided with other harmless and powerful remedies, as the former often needlessly do great damage, or could even cause death.[v]

Only if a disease did not respond to the herbal remedies could ‘dangerous chemical preparations’ be applied. As this was the first edition of the Medicina Pharmaceutica from 1681, and the first decades of the eighteenth century saw an increasing incorporation of chemistry in the academy, one might expect that the last edition from 1741 was less tentative about the prescription of chemical remedies.[vi] Previous editions had been printed in Brussels, but the 1741 edition was printed in Leiden–a city with one of the leading medical faculties of Europe at the time. The reprint even had a preface written by the Leiden professor of chemistry Hieronymus Gaub. Although the spelling of the 1741 edition was updated to modern standards, the same old warning was once again repeated.

This raises questions about the extent to which early chemical research and teaching at universities was changing professional medical men’s understanding and application of mercurial, or other chemically-based, remedies. Moreover, the apparent contrast between the cautions and warnings in professional handbooks like these and popular culture on the one hand, and the ostensible popularity of mercury remedies on the other, makes this a fascinating research topic.

[i] Also see Kenneth Dewhurst, The Quicksilver Doctor. The Life and Times of Thomas Dover Physician and Adventurer (Bristol: John Wright & Sons Ltd., 1957).

[ii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst (Leiden: Isaak Severinus, 1741). De Farvacques, the personal physician of Charles II, was not really the author of this book. His name was used by the actual author, the Brussels friar Peter Gilles, to lend it more authority. See L.J. Vanderwiele, “Broeder Petrus Gillis S.J. (1620-1697), Auteur van Medicina Pharmaceutica of Drogbereidende Geneeskonst”, Kring voor de geschiedenis van de pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin. 69 (maart 1986): 8–16.

[iii] Robertus de Farvacques, Medicina pharmaceutica, of Groote algemeene schatkamer der drôgbereidende geneeskonst. (Brussels, Francois Foppens, 1681), Vol. V, 932-5, 951-5.

[iv] Ibid., 967.

[v] Ibid.: ‘Want aengesien Godt almachtigh ons met eenighe ghemeynsaeme, oft inlandtsche heylsaeme kruyden ende drôghen heeft ghejont, die met sulcken kracht zyn begaeft, dat-men ghemeynelyck met de selve sonder peryckel oft achterdencken de siecken kan ghenesen, soo behoort-men altoos eerst de selve the ghebruycken, eer men sich begheeft om eenighe ghevaerlycke ende vremde middelen uyt de schey-konst te nemen; soo dat het een groot bedrogh oft reuckeloosheydt soude wesen, achter den bereyden Antimonie oft Quick in ‘t werck te stellen, soo wanneer men versien is van andere schadeloose ende krachtighe remedien, door dien men also dickmaels sonder noot aen onsen evenaesten groote schade, jae de doodt selfs soude konnen aen-brenghen.’ (Translation mine)

[vi] On the formation of chemistry as an academic discipline in the early eighteenth century see Bruce Moran, Distilling Knowledge. Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), chapter 4.

The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence

By Katherine Allen

In this post I would like to link several themes that have been explored on this blog recently: recipe exchanges, letters, and the role of emotions. Historians are frequently asked how compilers got their recipes (something that Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche raised in their post on the Countess of Exeter). In other words, we are continually searching for evidence from recipe books that suggests a wider network of information exchange.

In the case of eighteenth-century recipe books, attributions and marginalia can indicate an exchange, though these are often ambiguous. Occasionally longer anecdotes are included, revealing the circumstances of a specific recipe’s inclusion. Rarer still, letters associated with a recipe book can provide significant insight into the compiler’s health history, or domestic duties, as discussed by Elaine Leong in her recent post on Johanna St. John. Some sets of letters that are not associated with a recipe book can still tell us much about the creation and use of recipe books, as well as domestic medical care’s social milieu.

One collection of mid-eighteenth century letters that I am using in my doctoral research belonged to the Cox family, landed gentry based in Herefordshire. The majority of the letters are addressed to the elderly family benefactress, Mrs. Elizabeth Witherstone. Montserrat Cabré recently proposed that exchanging and preserving recipes can be emotionally charged. In the typical recipe collection, emotions and hidden lives are not always transparent, but they do emerge in letters that discuss recipe exchange.

Letters were crucial for keeping up-to-date on the extended family’s wellbeing and life events, and the Cox family kept each other informed about health matters in very intimate detail. Concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s poor health, cousin Alicia Cox wrote ‘let me beg you to take care of your health, kitchen physick as Broaths, and Jellys, are the best medicines at your time of life’.[1] Mrs. Witherstone also occasionally exchanged letters containing recipes. An acquaintance, S. Phillips, thanked Mrs. Witherstone for sending a receipt of ‘Turner’s Cerate’ for her mother’s leg. In exchange, she included a recipe for the Chin Cough, which she had used for her children and was ‘of great service to them’. This remedy was an ointment of spirit of hartshorne and powdered amber, which was to be rubbed on the children’s palms, soles of their feet, and pits of their stomachs for several days, morning and night.[2]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756
Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756

In a follow-up letter, Mrs. Phillips again thanked Mrs. Witherstone for the Cerate recipe, proclaiming that her mother thought ‘it has been of great use to her for thank god she has now little or no pain. She did not put it on just on the place of the wound’.[3]

Mrs. Witherstone’s family also sent her remedies to preserve her health in old age. Upon receiving an account of Mrs. Witherstone’s illness, Alicia Bund [Cox] concluded that the woman’s blood was poor and her frame ‘languid’; restorative medicines would be beneficial. She wrote: ‘I beg you would make trial of, its recommendation is the nurrishment it affords at the same time it never loads the stomach’. Alicia’s recipe for a restorative broth was as follows:

You must get a tin can to hold about a pint & quarter with a cover to it, for it is to be  done by a slow infusion the least boiling spoils it but I will set it down as particularly as I can. Take half a pound of lean Beef cut into small pieces and pick of[f] every bit of skin and fat and put a pint of boiling water to it and let it gently stew it is reduced to a strong broath. Put in 3 or 4 pepper corns but no salt till you drink it and eat with it a bit of  toasted bread and would advice (if it agrees) to make it your Breakfast and supper.[4]

Another relative, Elizabeth Saunders, was also concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s health and recommended an eye drop remedy that she described as ‘trifling but I have known it of use’. Confident of the remedy’s efficacy she concluded ‘I hope your next Letter will bring better News of your Eyes as you have no pain in them I flatter myself the complaint may get of the sooner.’[5]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Exchanging remedies was evidently an important part of the Cox family’s lives and these letters exemplify how the responsibility of family health care extended beyond each household to include the advice and remedies of concerned relatives and friends.

Letters are valuable resources for revealing the exchange process of a recipe’s history and the close relationship that recipe books had with the letter-writing tradition. Within these letters, expressions of authority, sympathy, hope, and desperation bring out the emotionally charged nature of recipes. Letters can provide recipe historians with a more complete picture of approaches to health care among England’s upper sorts, and they are important supporting documents for understanding the place of recipe books in a wider information exchange.

[1] Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone July 5 [no year]’.

[2] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756’.

[3] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone May 25, 1756’.

[4] Ibid., ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone Jan 11, [no year]’.

[5] Ibid., ‘Eliz Saunders to Mrs Witherstone March 27 [no year]’.

Remedies, Surgery and Domestic Medicine

Editors’ note: This post provides a sneak peek of Seth LeJacq’s fascinating article, “The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England“, which recently appeared in the Social History of Medicine. You should go read the whole article! An early version of the article was awarded the 2010 Roy Porter Student Essay Prize by the Society for the Social History of Medicine. The essay prize is a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate and postgraduate students to submit unpublished, original essays. Congratulations, Seth!

By Seth LeJacq

I began poking around in the manuscript recipe collections in the New York Public Library’s Whitney Cookery Collection during my summer research a few years ago, and I was struck by the wide array of ailments different recipes addressed. I was particularly surprised to find many remedies for surgical complaints, and that some recipes also included stories about the efficacy of remedies claiming that they had succeeded when sufferers were “given over” by doctors or had allowed them to avoid invasive surgical interventions.

Dropsy - St John
Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 49r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Another [for the dropsy]. Eat an handfull of Raisins and a crust of bread or a sea Bisquit in the morning, and drink not till noon, and then eat a peice of bread when you drink this cured Mrs Hearing who was to have been tapp’d.

These simple instructions in the Johanna St John collection, for instance, were said to have “cured” dropsy sufferer “Mrs Hearing, who was to have been tapp’d.” That is, by using this recipe she was saved from having to undergo surgery to drain fluid from her body. I discussed similar sorts of recipes claiming to help avoid breast surgeries in an earlier post. These sorts of recipes show that domestic healers thought they might need to be able to deal with serious surgical complaints. They also show that they were interested in finding alternatives to unpleasant and dangerous surgical therapies.

Even when recipes did not explicitly bill themselves as medicinal alternatives to surgery, collectors may have seen them as implicitly offering such alternatives. Medicinal remedies for bladder stones and cataracts, for instance, would allow sufferers to avoid being cut.

One question I’d still like to answer is whether people may have seen other sorts of recipes in this way. Take childbirth-related recipes. There are many recipes to help with delivery in stillbirth, for instance, such as this recipe, also from the Johanna St. John collection.

Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 211r. Source: Wellcome Library.
Johanna St John’s recipe book, Wellcome MS 4338, fol. 211r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

To bring forth a Dead Child or Afterberth.

mugwort root or herbe wch is then most in strength boyle it in water tender stamp it fine put to it a little wheat chissel boyle it a little againe put it in a linnin Bag Lay it to the Bottom of her Belly as hott as she can suffer it.

Again, this is a fairly simple recipe that helps in a difficult and dangerous situation. What is interesting about recipes like this one is that surgeons claimed that they should be the ones to perform these deliveries. Lay collectors gathered a lot of medical knowledge belonging to the realm of midwives or surgeons. These recipes may be able to teach us more about the relationship between patients and these medical practitioners.

In fact, many recipes are intended to help people address medical complaints that surgeons treated. Early modern surgeons healed injuries and ailments on the exterior of the body, and they worked on keeping the body in good working order and aesthetically pleasing. Thus they could do a wide range of work, from setting broken bones, bleeding, and lancing boils, to cleaning teeth and beautifying the face. All of this was surgical work, and much of it is also found in various recipes circulating among collectors who didn’t work as medical practitioners. We even find recipes for serious surgical problems — fistulas or gangrene, for instance. Recipes of these sorts are common enough that it’s clear that many collectors wanted to (or felt they might need to) deal with problems that surgeons claimed as their own.

Surgeons were well aware that patients found some of their therapies unpleasant and consequently sought out alternatives, including domestic medicine. They sometimes even admitted that this impulse, and the practices of domestic healers, might have something to teach surgeons.

Equestrian portrait of Charles I and title page of the second edition of the Surgeon’s Mate (1639). Woodall’s is the center portrait at the bottom. Source: Wellcome Images.
Equestrian portrait of Charles I and title page of the second edition of The Surgeon’s Mate (1639). Woodall’s is the center portrait at the bottom. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Take the arguments for surgical reform in the published works of John Woodall (1570-1643). Woodall was an influential member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company, the first Surgeon General of the East India Company, and an important surgical author. His Surgions Mate (first edition 1617) went into multiple editions over a half-century. It was the foundational English text on sea surgery, but also had a broad influence among readers of all sorts.

A recipe from Woodall. (See the paper for similar examples). Lady Ayscough collection, Wellcome MS 1026, fol. 46r. Source: Wellcome Library.
A recipe from Woodall. (See the paper for similar examples). Lady Ayscough collection, Wellcome MS 1026, fol. 46r. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Woodall remains best known for his writings on scurvy (he was an early citrus booster!), but his works also present a critique of surgical education and practice. He argued that surgeons were sometimes too violent in cutting. He held that aggressive interventions did not allow patients to benefit from the healing power of nature. Woodall used the example of gentle female domestic healers as a model of practice that would allow nature to help. He wasn’t against cutting by any means — he was known for developing a tool to drill into the skull (just see the image below), and was an expert in amputation.

Surgical tools, including Woodall’s trefine. From the 1655 edition of The Surgeon’s Mate. Source: Wellcome Library.
Surgical tools, including Woodall’s trefine. From the 1655 edition of The Surgeon’s Mate. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

He was, however, receptive to criticisms of surgical practice, and very sensitive to patients’ fears of surgery and desires for alternative therapies. His work provides clear evidence that those fears and desires, which led people to collect the sorts of recipes we looked at above, had an influence on surgeons.

It’s easy to sympathise with patients’ fears of being cut; surgery was painful and potentially quite dangerous. Patients were clearly not content to simply suffer or submit to operations. Recipe books show that collectors wanted options when it came to serious surgical problems.

Curdled Milk in the Breast

By Jennifer Park

In one of the most visceral images of corruption within the body, the ghost of Hamlet’s father describes his murder by poison at the hands of Claudius:

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine. [emphasis mine] (1.3.61-70)

The power of the image comes from comparing the curdling effects of poison on the blood to the daily and material reality of milk going bad. As we and our early modern counterparts were familiar, the process of milk putrefying involved the separation of the solids and the liquids of the milk, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “like eager droppings into milk.” If the thickening of blood could be described in terms of the curdling of milk, I wondered: could the danger of curdled blood be applied quite literally to breast milk, which was thought to be a form of blood?

My investigation of this as a potential phenomenon began by considering Old Hamlet’s speech alongside the transformation Lady Macbeth calls for, to “make thick my blood…Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall” (1.5.43, 47-8). Her references to her milk have been explored as one of Shakespeare’s many references to breastfeeding, and central to discussions of early modern breastfeeding was the status of human breast milk. Since antiquity, as Laurence Totelin has written, breast milk was held to be an especially nutritive substance with healing qualities. It was a powerful substance capable of changing or altering the children who ingested it because it was thought to be “white blood” or “‘twice-concocted’ blood manufactured in the mammary glands from blood itself.”[1] But as I am interested in the darker underbelly of milk as an easily corruptible substance, I wanted to find out more about milk curdling and to what extent it was a physiological as much as a culinary phenomenon.

There were a variety of early modern remedies directed towards breastfeeding women, treating everything from “for a milk sore in the breast,” to “A Medecine to to drye vpp a woemans Milke troubling her in Childbedd,” to remedies “To Increase A Womans Milk” or “For a woman that hath lost her milke.”[2] Among these, sure enough, I found remedies that specifically mentioned the curdling of milk in the breast, providing some clues about the physical pain and hardness associated with the problem. Lady Frances Catchmay provided a remedy “for a Womans brest that is curdeled | wth milke” in her manuscript receipt book.[3] So too, Philip Stanhope recorded two receipts, one from “L[ady]. Hu.” for a remedy “Against the sorenesse of any breasts by reason of the Curdling of milke in womens Breasts,” and another for “A Cattaplasme for Breasts that are hardned with congealed milke.”[4]

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Philip Stanhope, MS 761, f. 197v, c. 1635.

Lady Ayscough’s receipt book provided a remedy for “Brest curdled with Milk to help,” but also one “For a Breast wherein | the Milk is wharled & knotted”–what an image!–which required a massage to “breake the wharles | easily with your finger morneing and euening.”[5]

Wellcome MS 1026, 1692
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Lady Ayscough, MS 1026, f. 83r, 1692.

Clearly, curdled milk in the breasts was a common problem, and a painful one at that, even, as one recipe notes, causing “rednes inflamation | swelling paine and torment.”[6] In light of evidence that milk could in fact curdle in the breasts, Lady Macbeth’s desire to “make thick my blood…And take my milk for gall” (1.5.43, 48) can be read as need for physiological hardening to accompany her emotional stoicism. Regardless of whether we think that Lady Macbeth’s spirits could enact such a transformation upon her body, or if she means it purely for the sake of metaphor, her desire for such a painful state is in stark contrast to the solace that most women were seeking for their breast pain. For such a well-documented problem among early modern women, how much more unnatural that Lady Macbeth should wish it! Perhaps we can’t help but admire her intention to practice what she preaches to her husband: no pain, no gain.


[1] Ken Albala, “Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous,” in Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2000), 21. See also Victoria Sparey’s discussion of blood and milk in “Identity-Formation and the Breastfeeding Mother in Renaissance Generative Discourses and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” Social History of Medicine 25.4 (2012), pp. 781-87.

[2] Anne Brumwich (and others), Wellcome MS 160, f. 89v, c. 1625-1700; Mrs. Corlyon, Wellcome MS 213, f. 38v, 1606; Elizabeth Jacob (and others), Wellcome MS 3009, f. 78r, 1654-c. 1685; Jane Jackson, Wellcome MS 373, f. 111r, 1642.

[3] Lady Frances Catchmay, Wellcome MS 184A, f. 35v, c. 1625.

[4] Philip Stanhope, Wellcome MS 761, ff. 182v, 197v, c. 1635.

[5] Lady Ayscough, Wellcome MS 1026, ff. 112v, 83r, 1692.

[6] Townshend Family, Wellcome MS 774, f. 21v, 1636-1647.