Tag Archives: Lady Ayscough

Pigeon Blood Visine?: An Early Modern Eye Wash

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Close your eyes and imagine a chicken. Now a duck. Now a turkey.

Now a pigeon.

If this little experiment has worked the way I envisioned, when you thought of a pigeon you didn’t just think of a different bird but of a different environment. You likely pictured chickens and ducks and turkeys on a farm or in a natural setting (if not on your table).

We think of pigeons, however, as urban birds, mobbing together wherever large numbers of people congregate. Some even see them as “flying rats,” nuisances that spread pestilence wherever they go (see this article for an example of the lengths cities will go to in order to control pigeon populations).

It was not always thus, however. In the early modern period and before, pigeons were highly valued birds. They were good for carrying messages and for eating, but the pigeon was also highly symbolic, representing grace, lightness, and spiritual flight. The pigeon does, after all, belong to the same family (Columbidae) as the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, pigeons were so prized that the right to keep them was reserved for monasteries and estates .

Pigeons were also often used in medieval and early modern medical recipes. The recipes usually involved pigeon dung, but I have also found a sub-strata of recipes utilizing pigeon blood to treat something called the “stroke of the eye.” Given the description in these recipes, I conjecture that the “stroke” referenced is subconjuctival hemorrhage or, put simply, a broken blood vessel in the eye.

This sort of ocular bleeding can occur from trauma or just simply from sneezing or coughing too hard. It is seldom painful.

While a broken blood vessel may sound like a relatively simple problem, the physical presentation of the condition is startling. (In fact, I would recommend NOT doing a Google Image search of this condition before going to bed. Yes, that’s from personal experience.)

James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons
James Heilman, MD. Wikimedia Commons

However disturbing the sight of this condition, however, the remedy was sure to be worse.

In this anonymous medical manuscript of 1663 (Wellcome Collection MS.6812/26), for example, we are instructed to slit the vein on the wing of a pigeon and allow the blood to spurt into the patient’s eye.

For a stroke or pricke if it causeth payne:

Take a pidgeon and let hi[m] blood in one of the winges in the vein & let the blood spinne out of the veine into the eye & it will helpe you yf you use it 5 or 6 tymes.

A recipe for the same affliction from the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe (Wellcome MS7113/25) is almost identical:

For a stroke or Bruise in the Eye:

Take a Pigeon, & let her blood in the great Veine of the Wing, & let the Blood Springe out of the Veine into the Patients Eye. You must dresse it 6 or 7 times.

And again, from Lady Ayscough’s recipe book of 1692 (MS.1026/30):

For A stroke in the Eyes if there Grow pain thereby or if you be pricked in ye Eyes by any thing.
Take of pigion & let her blood in one of the veins of ye wing and let ye blood spin out of ye vein into ye eyes and it will by gods grace cure it this must be done 5 or 6 nights, at gooing to bed.

In humoral medicine, birds were associated with blood, a sanguine temperament (hot, wet) and the element of air. Because of this, we might surmise that a broken blood vessel—and the ensuing red eye—would signal an excess of blood to an early modern physician. The treatment, then, would be oppositional: the patient would need something cold, dry and earthy… like tree roots, leaves, or plants.

Since the eye itself was considered to be a phlegmatic organ (cold and wet), the blood of the pigeon would balance the humors. Buttressing this idea is the recipes’ insistence that the blood be let from the wing of the bird: the seat of airy flight would be the perfect counterbalance to the watery mucus of the eye.

The idea that a pigeon would be salutary to somebody suffering an excess of phlegm or black bile, because of its choleric and sanguine properties, is reinforced in this direction from Sir Thomas Elyot’s Castel of Helth (1541):


Be easily digested, and ar very holsom to them, which are fleumatike, or pure melancoly.*

But whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the use of pigeon’s blood to treat subconjunctival hemorrhage, the lived experience of having bird blood spurting into your eye must have been horrible. And, according to the recipes, it also would have been frequent: the directions, though short, are consistent in directing the patient to undergo the treatment between 5-7 times. By that time, the white of the eye would have returned to its healthy appearance.

Of course, the eye would have returned to normal in about that time without the treatment, too.

Which leads me to the conclusion that (c’mon, you know you were expecting this) . . . this treatment is for the birds.



*I was pointed to this reference by a note by Michael Robinson in the online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

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).