Recipes against the plague – in pharmaceutical code?

By Tillmann Taape

Although the plague is best known for having wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, it continued to loom large as a threat to people’s health for hundreds of years, and medical writings on the Black Death or the ‘pestilence’ abounded (see e.g. Lisa Smith’s post on coffee as a cure for plague in eighteenth-century London). One of them, the Liber pestilentialis (1500) by the surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here), was the first of its kind to be published as a printed book. Written in German, it had the potential to instruct a wide readership, reflecting Brunschwig’s mission to disseminate medical knowledge among laypeople. It struck me as somewhat odd, therefore, that quite a few of the recipes for remedies against the plague were given in Latin. What use were these to the readers of a book which was specifically addressed to all social ranks, including ‘common people’ who were not part of the Latin-speaking learned élite? Fortunately, Brunschwig provided an answer only a few pages on: simply copy the recipe on a slip of paper, send it off to your local apothecary, and collect your anti-plague pills a few days later.

Since Brunschwig was himself an apothecary in Strasbourg where the Liber pestilentialis was first published, one might suspect that by including these recipes he was hoping to advertise his trade, and draw attention to the knowledge and skill required to turn such coded messages into remedies. By his own admission, though, this only worked for readers who lived a manageable distance from an apothecary and could afford his services and ingredients, some of which, like theriac or amber, could be very costly. But Brunschwig also catered for those readers who lived in remote villages or were less well off. Often on the same page as the Latin instructions, he included an alternative recipe in German, using cheap everyday ingredients and simple household techniques.

This commitment to his less privileged readers, present in much of Brunschwig’s work, suggests that he was not printing recipes ‘in code’ simply in order to improve apothecaries’ image or to turn a better profit, much less to monopolise medical knowledge. There was, in fact, another very good reason for the use of Latin, as he explains in an intriguing comment: “Many recipes and ingredients cannot be succinctly expressed in the German language […], so I have left them in Latin.”

Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary's shop (from Brunschwig's 'Buch der CIrurgia')
Some things are best left to professionals: mixing medicines at the apothecary’s shop (from Brunschwig’s ‘Buch der CIrurgia’). (c) Wellcome Images

This points to a major difficulty faced by all medical authors writing in their native tongue. They were not only up against the disdain of learned physicians who wanted to keep all medical knowledge within university walls, well away from the ignorant ‘common people’. They were also facing the daunting task of creating a scientific vernacular in which to express medical concepts: how the human body works, what happens when it becomes diseased, and what to do about it. Finding their feet on uncharted linguistic territory and creating medical terminologies was the work of generations of practitioners from the middle ages to the early modern era. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, this process had come a long way, as Brunschwig’s writing shows: in his books on surgery and distillation (see here and here), he articulates elaborate techniques and medical theories in a confident technical vernacular – albeit one peppered with terms borrowed from Latin. In the case of specialist pharmaceutical ingredients and preparations, however, Brunschwig clearly felt that no adequate vocabulary was available in German. Some ingredients were just too  specific or too exotic to be known to the layman. Perhaps even more problematic were shorthand instructions such as fiat pulvis (it shall be a powder) or formentur pillule communi quantitatis (pills of equal quantity shall be formed). One can imagine what these few words translated to in practice: complicated series of decoctions, infusions, drying, boiling, grinding and mixing, all defined and learned over the course of an apprenticeship.

With no alternative to certain elements of Latin pharmaceutical jargon, then, the recipes in Brunschwig’s Liber pestilentialis inevitably fell into two cateogories. On the one hand, his wealthier readers had the option of having ‘professional’ remedies made according to the Latin recipes, which allowed them to tap into the entire range of medicinal ingredients and preparation techniques available at the nearest apothecary’s shop. Poorer folks and country dwellers, on the other hand, were offered a different type of recipe which could be articulated in the vernacular, required cheaper ingredients and could be managed at home.


Recipe [book] studies: an editor’s postscript

By Sara Pennell

As some of you may already be aware, I and another contributor to this blog, Michelle DiMeo, have finally seen the publication of the volume Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800 (MUP) in August 2013, almost five years to the day that the inspiring conference on which it is based (and which some of you also attended), took place at the University of Warwick.

Our intention in putting together a collection of essays about the nature of research into early modern, English-language recipe writing, collecting and publishing, was always about enabling a survey of approaches, rather than seeking to co-edit the dernier cri in ‘recipe book studies’ (of which more below).  That is why we have contributions from fields as different as historical linguistics, historical and experiential archaeology and lived religion, as well as from historians of natural philosophy, medicine and health, food and cuisine, and literary history.

Hannah Woolley, The Queen Like Closet (London, 1679), title page.

What still impresses me about the range of approaches on display in the collection is just that: the range. While one contributor might use a Hannah Woolley text in this way, another gloss a recipe for a glister just so, and a third unpick the poetic resonances of the recipe form, the possibilities of reading recipes differently, so differently, are wholly manifest across the nearly 300 pages. It bears out the suggestive call to arms by Susan Leonardi in 1989, that recipes have an active cultural relationship with the ‘reading, writing mind’ that we cannot leave to one side when we study them, any more than when we use them.

As readers, you will no doubt curse Michelle and I for our omissions, or engage critically with other contributors’ takes on manuscripts and publications upon which you may have very different views. But what we hope you will engage with most in the collection, is the act of collection: our desire to lay out a shop-stall for the validation of these texts as not simply about ‘who ate what when’ (or what might have treated which condition when) or about enlarging the ‘canon’ of women’s literary participation. Recipes as components of aesthetic trends, recipes as poesie, recipes as life-writing, recipes as routes into domestic religiosity, recipes as processual tools in materialising the ephemeral (kitchen or dining) table, recipes as tokens of regional and individual engagement with prevailing therapeutic, nosological and pharmaceutical knowledges – these are just some of the roles of recipes in early modern Anglophone society, but by no means the only ones.

Hannah Glasse, The art of cookery, made plain and easy (London, c. 1770),  Frontispiece. © Wellcome Images
Hannah Glasse, The art of cookery, made plain and easy (London, c. 1770),
Frontispiece. © Wellcome Images

Although the book is entitled Reading and Writing Recipe Books (which is, we admit, an imperfect title to capture what we think the collection covers), does it represent a clarion call to scholars to recognise the field of  ‘recipe book studies’? This co-editor, speaking entirely for herself, is still not convinced that the recipe collection can bear such a weight of genre expectation, and the very process of putting this edited volume together has further cemented that belief. If we go looking for shared characteristics across texts, whether print or manuscript (and surely shared characteristics is what defines a genre), that coherence is difficult to elucidate and illuminate. The recipe collection, as the linguistic contribution to the volume examines, is but a ‘discourse colony’, a gathering of separate recipe text components that can, without disturbing collective meaning or coherence, be rejigged any which way (as many, many instances of borrowings, sharings and outright plagiarism in early modern recipe collections attest).2 If the components that help to produce those shared characteristics can be so comprehensively reshuffled (and indeed removed), aren’t their shared, generic qualities illusory? Dismantling the recipe collection is formally and methodologically easier than we might first think, when faced with the seemingly enduring leather covers, brass clasps and thick leaves of a hefty MS or a cared-for research library copy of Hannah Glasse (recipe plagiariser par excellence, let us not forget). This publishers and printers of recipe collections also knew and exploited, in their reconfigurations and reconstitutions of recipes in new collections, new editions, new formats (a process beautifully examined in a chapter on Hannah Woolley in our collection).3

What then of ‘recipe studies’? This brings us back to the component text as the unit of analysis. As many previous entries in this blog ably demonstrate, the shape, contents and idiosyncracies of the individual recipe – as in Rebecca Laroche’s and Michelle DiMeo’s work on recipes for oil of swallows, or Sally Osborn’s forthcoming research on diet drinks receipts — especially when tracked across time and space, can reveal more about the contexts of knowledge production, use and circulation, than analysis of whole collections, wherein it is the processes of knowledge circulation and use which have perhaps dominated recipe scholarship to date. Even a single recipe text (Ann Fanshawe’s chocolate, for example) can take us far beyond the recipe collection in which it sits, to the royal courts of Madrid and Lisbon.  The recipe text – both as text and as material object — can take us closer, perhaps, to the why of the knowledge formation and circulation that they encode, while the collection is the (documentary and material) tool for understanding the how.

I would like to thank my co-editor, Michelle DiMeo for her infinite patience and support throughout the past five years (and more), from conference inception to dogged pursuit  of the publisher and myself in the final months; and our no less patient contributors (you know who you are!), whose excellent contributions I urge you all to read. The book is now available from Manchester University Press, so please order one for your libraries!


1. Susan J. Leonardi, ‘Recipes for reading: summer pasta, lobster a la Riseholme, and Key Lime pie’, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, 104:3 (1989), 340-7.

2. Francisco Alonso-Almeida, ‘Genre conventions in English recipes, 1600-1800’, pp. 68-92

3. Margaret J.M. Ezell, ‘Cooking the books, or, the three faces of Hannah Woolley’, pp. 159-78.


My great-grandmother’s hair loss remedy


photo 2

By Helen King

I was recently going through the family papers — a mysterious collection of apparently random, but presumably precious, items! — and was struck by one I’d overlooked before. It’s a printed envelope containing a hand-written remedy for hair loss. When I last looked at this — which was probably when I inherited this particular batch from great-aunt Emma in the early 1980s — I hadn’t read it properly, and I hadn’t noticed that it has a date.

The outside links it to Mrs King of 24 Denmark Road; that’s in SE London. Inside, on blue paper, is a handwritten prescription. It doesn’t say what it is for, but on the back of the envelope someone has written ‘Dr Barnes (?) Hair Prescription’. The prescription lists ammonia, sweet almond oil, rosemary oil and cantharidine. The person prescribing this has insisted ‘Cantharidine and no other preparation to be used’, which is still used in some hair oils today.

This seems to be a pretty typical remedy for hair loss. Liquor ammoniae fortis and aromatic spirit of ammonia and the cantharidine were irritants, intended to stimulate the circulation on the scalp, with the other ingredients added to make the product smell rather better. There is also ‘fl. lotis’, but this seems to have been added; the ink is a little less dark and it is not set flush with the other ingredients in the list.

The prescription was taken to be filled on at least three occasions; there are three pharmacists’ stamps, all from the London area. One is dated 11 November 1890, thus telling us when this prescription was used. Something has been cut off the top right-hand corner; I’ve no idea what, when, or why.

photo 2
photo 1








Of course, just because this prescription is in a Haden’s pharmacy envelope doesn’t mean it was issued there. And other factors lead me to conclude that it was simply kept in this envelope for convenience. Why? Because on the back of the envelope there is an advertisement for three ‘Products of Genatosan, Ltd’: the tonic Sanatogen, the throat tablet Formamint and the ‘safe brand of aspirin’, Genasprin. Genatosan Ltd was set up only during World War I. This later date fits with my great-grandmother’s address; the family is not registered at 24 Denmark Street in the 1891 census, but was there by 1901, and still there in 1911. In 1901, Mary Anna King, aged 39, from Brockford in Suffolk, was living there with her husband Arthur King, ten years older than her, with their four children, aged from newborn to 7. A visitor was also present at the census: Caroline Steggall, aged 36, from Broxford.

By 1911, things were very different. Now, Mary is listed as a widow, with her four children still there; two at school, one working as a dressmaker and another at a ‘jam and potted meat factory’. Caroline Steggall, needlewoman, lives permanently with them, and her identity is clearer; she is now listed as Mary’s sister. I also have a letter written by ‘your ever loving mother, M A King’ to Leonard, her youngest son and my grandfather, from 24 Denmark Road, dated February 21, 1920; so I know she was still there then. In it, Mary wishes him a happy birthday and exhorts him ‘not to leave God out of your life but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path’.

So the family starts to be fleshed out. But what about this recipe? Handwritten, but in an envelope advertising patent medicines, it sits between two traditions. Maybe, as the envelope does not match the recipe, it was not for my great-grandmother at all, but for a man of the family? In 1890, Mary King was only in her twenties. Was she suffering hair loss? Or was this prescription issued to Arthur, and she kept it after his death because it reminded her of him; perhaps, of his special rosemary and almond smell?

Reading Riviére in early modern England

By Elaine Leong

I recently started work on a case study for my second book project Reading for Cures in Early Modern England. We all encounter and obsess about particular historical curiosities. For a while now, I have been pondering on The Practice of Physick, the English translation of Lazare Riviére’s Praxis medica (Paris, 1640).

Portrait of Lazare Riviere. Taken from his Opera medica universa quibus continentur (Cellier, Patris & Filii: Lyons, 1672) © Wellcome Images

For those of you who might not know it, The Practice of Physick is the product of the Peter Cole/Nicholas Culpeper partnership which also brought to English readers translations of the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and of the works of European medical writers such as Felix Platter, Daniel Sennert and Jean Fernel. It seems, after the phenomenal success of Culpeper’s translations, upon his death, Cole decided to continue going at it alone (with a little help from his friends Abdiah Cole and William Rowland).

The Practice of Physick was one of the most successful of Cole’s later medical translation projects.  Cole himself published several editions (though one or two of those might just be re-issue of old stock) and the title was taken over in 1668 by John Streater who continued to print new editions until his death in 1677. The work was not only popular in English but more than ten Latin editions were issued in various European printing centres and it was translated into French in 1682 where it contained to be re-printed and reissued well into the mid-18th century.[1]

For those who know me, it might not come as a surprise that my fascination with The Practice of Physick originated with a recipe collection.  Deep in the National Library of Medicine, is a manuscript dear to my heart. Anonymous but with the cryptical inscription: ‘this was my Cosin Greenwayes book he died in yre 86 yeare of his age ye 30 of January 1701’ (NLM MS B 261) the book repeatedly cites ‘River’ and River Ob’ (in various forms and with page numbers).  Some digging revealed that the recipe compiler copied information from the 1661 edition of The Practice of Physick which offered English translations of both Riviére’s Praxis medica and Observationes medicae (Paris and London, 1646).

The Practice of Physick, title page (London, 1661)

Greenway read Riviére’s works alongside John Woodall’s The Surgeon’s Mate, William Langham’s The Garden of Health, most of Culpeper’s works (The English Physitian, The School of Physick, The London Dispensatory), William Salmon’s Polygraphice or the Art of Drawing, John Gerard’s herbal and more.[2] At first, I just thought that it was Greenwayes’ peculiar interests and deep purse which lead him to purchase Riviére’s hefty folio-sized tome. (I say purchased for why else note page numbers if you don’t intend to return to the book?)

But, as I began to systematically examine annotations in vernacular medical books, I discovered that copies of The Practice of Physick often contained ownership marks–including one written by a Mary Burbidge in 1721 in the Folger–and annotations.  The title also cropped up in other medical notebooks and it soon became clear that The Practice of Physick, once Riviére’s practica lectures at the University of Montpellier and read in Latin by physicians all around Europe, was eagerly devoured by English householders.

Peter Cole clearly knew his market much better than us modern historians.  From the start, the work was geared towards elite, wealthy audiences. (Witness the decision to issue in folio as opposed to the measly or um…portable octavo of the continental editions. ) Cole’s letter to the reader explicitly explains the utility of the work to ‘many of the Gentry’ and repeatedly sells the book to ‘Ladies and Gentlewoman’. From where I stand, Cole’s marketing strategy clearly worked.

A closer look at our readers’ annotation and note-taking strategies suggest that while they might peruse Riviére’s tome and presumably learn about the causes and signs of different diseases and ailments, what they marked and copied out were the cures: that is, recipes.  Therapeutics, of course, formed the core of the practica genre and, thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Riviére’s work received such a warm welcome from both learned and lay readers.  Can we, somewhat anachronistically, even consider it a ‘crossover’ sensation? It’s still early days for my reading Riviére project, which focuses on tracing and contextualizing the multiple instances of knowledge transfer, appropriation and codification that a text goes through as it makes it way from lecture halls to studies, closets and stillrooms. I hope to report more as it progresses, watch this space.

[1] Laurence Brockliss and Colin Jones, The Medical World of Early Modern France (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 152.

[2] I talk at length about this manuscript and the compiler’s reading practices in my D.Phil. thesis ‘Medical Recipe Collections in Seventeenth-Century England: Knowledge, Text and Gender’ (Oxford, Unpublished D.Phil. Thesis, 2006), chapter 4.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine