Tag Archives: Johanna St. John

Some “Fishy” Remedies for Madness and Melancholy

By Pamela Deagle

Johanna St. John’s recipe book contains many interesting and unusual recipes on the treatment of madness, melancholy, and fits of the mother early modern. These recipes offer clues to the domestic understanding of mental illness and its causes. There were very few similarities between the recipes in St. John’s book, suggesting that although there were only a few early modern categories of psychological disturbances, there was wide variation within each category. This has led me to discover some “fishy” recipes for the treatment of madness and melancholy that are certainly questionable as to their success. The domestic treatment of mental illnesses is an interesting point of study for seventeenth-century England, because the care of the mentally ill was left to their family and friends. Asylums before 1700 were relatively small, rare, and expensive (MacDonald, 262, 266).

So what did people think caused mental illness? The herb borage, used for fevers and to comfort the spirits, was the only repeated ingredient used in two recipes for melancholy. As well, the recipe “For vapors euen to Madnes” calls for powder of holly leaves, used for the treatment of fevers. Fevers and psychological afflictions were thought to be linked. In a recipe “For Melancholly and madnes”, the main ingredient is ivy or ale-hoof, used for spleen ailments and melancholy. This suggests melancholy and spleen problems were connected. According to early modern medicine, physical ailments in one area of the body might affect an entirely different area (Wear, 134-135).

A Tench. Engraving by R. Carpenter after C. Hardy. Credit: Wellcome Library. 

One particularly strange remedy is literally fishy. “A medecine For Madnesse”, if taken in time, requires a fish (specifically the tench) to be cut open, rubbed with mithridate and tied around the neck, “guts and all”. Although more of a mystery as to what exactly the benefits of such a treatment would be, there is some suggestion of a belief that inanimate objects would allow the transfer of the illness away from the person and into the object. As well, the tench, also known as the “physician fish” supposedly had magical properties in its slime (OED).

This wide variety in the domestic treatments for madness and melancholy provides insight into how early modern people understood and treated mental illnesses. As well, these recipes indicate that individuals suffering from mental maladies were regularly treated at home. Today we would most certainly not treat depression by tying a fish, guts and all, around the neck, but our own understanding of mental illnesses is far from complete. Perhaps hundreds of years from now our methods may seem just as “fishy” as those used in the early modern period.

Works Cited
“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal Alphabetical Index.” Complete Herbal. http://www.complete-herbal.com/culpepper/completeherbalindex.htm#b, 2010.

Lindemann, Mary. Medicine and Society in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: University Press, 1999.

MacDonald, Michael. “Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England.” Social Research 53, 2 (1986): 261-281.

“Tench, n1.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. 2002.

Wear, Andrew. Knowledge & Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680. Cambridge: University Press, 2000.

The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London


Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.


Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.


* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!

Finding Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I am a big fan of Epicurious and especially their ever-useful iPhone app. I have spent many happy hours browsing whilst waiting for various trains, buses and planes. As those of you familiar with these sorts of recipe sites know, the Epicurious site and app have a ‘favorites’ feature where you can your selected recipe in a virtual recipe box with the click of a button.

Recently, I have started to commute to work on the train and have accumulated a large number of ‘favourites’.  One thing I did not realize while happily click-click-clicking away, is that while the site/app allows flexible searching (ingredient, cuisine, meal, season, occasion and more), you can only organize your virtual recipe box alphabetically or by date of entry.  As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of frustration to the working-mother looking for a recipe on the fly in the supermarket at 6 p.m. That got me thinking: perhaps this is the reason that we find so many different methods of information management (as Ann Blair calls it) in our early modern recipe books.[1]  Easy information retrieval and instant access to practical knowledge would have driven early modern recipe compilers to adopt and adapt available paper technologies.[2]

Paper technologies were employed to manage recipes in a variety of ways.  While some compilers were content to mix together different kinds of practical knowledge–so recipes to make cakes could be next to cough remedies–others were keen to create distinct repositories for medical, culinary and preserving know-how. Some compilers such as Lady Johanna St. John (1631-1705) of Battersea Park, London and Lydiard Park, Swindon, simply used separate notebooks for medical and culinary information.[3] But St. John was not the only one who invested in multiple notebooks. For example, Lady Francis Catchmay instructed her eldest son William to ensure that other members of the Catchmay family have access to her multiple books of recipes.[4]  Mother and daughter, Margaret Boscawen and Bridget Boscawen Fortescue also used several different notebooks to organize and sort their medical and natural knowledge. [5]

Of course, as we all know, paper was not cheap in the early modern period and so not all recipe compilers had the luxury of owning multiple books.  Other compilers took to what Jonathan Gibson terms the ‘reverse casting-off of blanks’.[6]  That is, the manuscript creator first enters recipes in the front of a bound notebook, turns the book upside down and then enters other recipes in what was the ‘back’ of the volume. Interestingly, as Gibson tells us, this was a strategy widely adopted by manuscript creators to organize all sorts of miscellaneous information from literary material to household accounts.  Within the realm of household recipe books, one particularly pretty example of this practice is Lady Ayscough’s book, one of the first manuscripts collected by Henry Wellcome.[7]

These strategies allowed users to compartmentalize different kinds of knowledge.  If we return to my pre-dinner panics in the local supermarket, it is interesting to ask how early modern compilers ensured speedy information retrieval.  After all, many recipe compilers tended to write down their recipes as the information presented itself, i.e. organization by date-of-entry.  In these cases, the ever-handy table of contents or an alphabetically organized index does the job. As those familiar with early modern household books well know, many of these information retrieval strategies are written in a different hand to the main body of the text, suggesting that they were added to the volumes part-way through the compilation process. Perhaps, like me, our early modern compilers also got frustrated with a chronological listing of recipes.

Of course, these adopted information retrieval strategies also need not be permanent.  After all, there is nothing to stop you from rewriting your table of contents.  Scattered throughout the recipe archive are families who made multiple attempts to create useful finding aids.  The Arcana Fairfaxiana, for example, preserves two versions of Henry Fairfax’s meticulous table of contents.[8]  Not satisfied with his first attempt, Henry happily crossed it out and started again.  As I fiddle with my phone and toggle through all the myriad of recipes on my Epicurious app just to locate the right ‘thing’ for dinner tonight, I wish that rewriting the search function for my Epicurious app could be just as easy as rewriting the table of contents á la Henry Fairfax.

Finally, the archive also presents us with more elaborate uses of paper technologies.  For example, some compilers such as Philip Stanhope, the first Earl of Chesterfield and the Lady Johanna St. John, sectionalized their notebooks into alphabetical units.  Recipes are then entered into the relevant sections as they arrive in the hands of the compilers. While this method sounds meticulous and organized, as I’ll explore in another post, alphabetization brings with it a whole load of other issues…

[1] Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

[2] Anke te Heessen, ‘The Notebook: A Paper-Technology’, in Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. B. Latour and P. Weibel (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press), 582-589.

[3] St. John mentions the two separate recipe books in her will of 1704 (PRO PROB 11/480/426).  Her medically orientated ‘great receipt book’ is now in the Wellcome Library (MS 4338).

[4] Like St. John, only one of Catchmay’s multiple books have survived and it is in the Wellcome Library (MS 184a). A tantalizing note on the front flyleaf of the manuscript refers to ‘This Booke with the others of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye’ alluding to Catchmay’s other receipt books.

 [5] Anne Stobart, ‘The Making of Domestic Medicine: Gender, Self-Help and Therapeutic Determination in Household Healthcare in South-West England in the Late Seventeenth Century’ (Middlesex University, Unpublished PhD thesis, 2008), 43.

[6] Jonathan Gibson, ‘Casting off Blanks: Hidden Structures in Early Modern Paper Books’ in James Daybell and Peter Hinds (eds.), Material Readings of Early Modern Culture. Texts and Social Practices 1580-1730 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 208-228 (209).

[7] Frances Larson, An Infinity of Things. How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37. The manuscript is now Wellcome Library MS 1026.

[8] George Weddell (ed.), Arcana Fairfaxiana Manuscripta. A Manuscript Volume of Apothecaries’ Lore and Housewifery nearly Three Centuries Old, Used and Partly Written by the Fairfax Family (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Mawson, Swan and Morgan 1890).