Eighteenth-Century French Manuscript Remedy Collections

This first appeared on the Remedies, Recipes, Receipts website (January 2010), which is now defunct.

By Lisa Smith

French remedy collections have much in common with British ones, such as similar compilers, remedies and recipe formats. However, there are four key differences: the ease of locating the collections, a looser structure, a greater concern with authority, and an eighteenth-century context. French remedy collectors considered high-status and professional medical knowledge to be most effective and kept their medical knowledge alongside other important family information.

A fashionable lady being given an enema by a charming young man. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A fashionable lady being given an enema by a charming young man. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Similarities

British and French collections seldom have identifying details. Mademoiselle de Clerissy, who indicated that she lived at the Chateau de Jueignis at Chalons-en-Champagne (north-east part of France) and Pierre Paris, an organist who referred to his extensive travels, were unusual.

Of the named compilers whose status can be traced, many were high-ranking women or (in the case of France) nuns. Madame la Presidente de Maliverny’s title, for example, indicates that she was also a member of the noblesse de robe [1]. Another manuscript belonged to Sister Magdalene Hanuche, a Daughter of Charity (the dominant nursing order in France from the mid-seventeenth century).

French and British remedies treated the same types of illnesses and contained similar ingredients. Even the structure of remedies was identical: a heading followed by instructions, occasionally accompanied with a description of purpose and indicating successful or failed usage.

Finding French Collections

Books of remedies are difficult to find in French archives. Although major archives (such as the Wellcome Library, Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine and Bibliothèque Nationale) list remedy collections, many provincial and local archives do not. It is likely that more collections will be found amidst family papers in local archives. Three recently published eighteenth-century manuscripts written in French (those of the Baroness of Montricher, Guillaume Cousin, and Pierre Paris) were discovered by chance by local history enthusiasts.

Manuscripts held in major archives are difficult to contextualise, having been removed entirely from their original locales or identifying family papers. When collections have remained in local archives, it is easier to learn about the compiler’s family or community. For example, the Famille Boyer papers contain letters to the family and even an old pill wrapped in paper, while the editors of the Baroness of Montricher’s book traced it to a family living in the same Swiss canton as the archives.

Prayer to St. Minus (French saint) against Pox mala frantzoza (syphilis). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Prayer to St. Minus (French saint) against Pox mala frantzoza (syphilis). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Structure

The structure of French remedy collections varies more than English ones. French remedy collections are often loosely organised in bundles of family papers or written into multi-purpose “books of reason”.

At the Dordogne Departmental Archives, Christine Fouchère’s remedies are on loose papers alongside religious meditations and discussions of saints, while the Fournier de Lacharmie family’s “Book of Reason” contains remedies, prayers, discussions of comets and eclipses, and family history.

The Fouchère and Fournier de Lacharmie collections highlight another key difference: that many French collections contain religious references, unlike English books. Pierre Paris, for example, referred to God in several places when discussing how a remedy had worked.

Authority

Whereas British remedy collections emphasised remedies’ efficacy, French collections accentuated the sex and social status of recipe contributors.

A young male apothecary serving and flirting with two young women.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A young male apothecary serving and flirting with two young women.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In general, the French favoured high-status and male contributors. Pierre Paris listed exclusively male authorities (his father, printed sources, medical men, and men met on his travels), while over half (54%) of Mme Lievain’s contributors were male.

French compilers may also have preferred professional medical expertise. Many male sources (as in Mme Lievain’s collection) would have been considered authoritative for professional reasons, being surgeons, physicians, or clergy. Similarly, the Varrailhon de celles et Brassac remedies were included with other medical papers, such as public notices, written prescriptions and physician’s letters.

Particularly interesting is “A Catalogue of Remedies”, which belonged to the Ursuline Order (a teaching order enclosed in 1612), and was passed among the women in charge of the convent’s medical treatment. The remedies may not have been specifically those of the nun-apothecary, but would have had the weight of the convent’s tradition behind them. In this case, the text’s authority came from accumulated tradition, the way things were done in the convent infirmary, rather than the knowledge of a particular individual.

Time Period

Most of the remedy collections listed [below] date from the eighteenth century. It is important to read them within the context of the Enlightenment, which prioritised the collection of certain types of information – not just the scientifically or socially useful, but the curious and the folk. Pierre Paris not only indicated in the 1770s that he had tried the remedies, but the circumstances of when and where he had done so, following experimental and observational method.

Other French collections showcased the weird and wonderful, such as the “Extract of Most Beautiful Works, that of Mlle de Martinville, and other great and wise persones”. Mme la Presidente de Maliverny went even further, creating two collections, one of which (“Book of Remedies”) contained remedies for daily use and another (“The Secrets”) filled with semi-magical recipes.

Conclusion

In France, men contributed extensively to domestic knowledge, social or professional status conferred medical expertise, and religion provided an essential framework for a family’s health. Further research is needed to consider remedy collections within and across regional and national contexts, as comparisons can suggest the ways in which religion, gender, status, and time period could shape domestic health care.

[1] Nobles of the robe had gained their titles through administrative or judicial posts.

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