Tag Archives: letters

Gout and the Golden Fleece: Experimentation on Recipes through Chymical Correspondence

Michael Döring’s (d. 1641) gout and arthritis* pains were sometimes so severe that he could not leave his house on foot to visit patients throughout the city of Breslau (a.k.a. Wroclaw). Desperate to find a cure, or at least some respite from his miserable condition, he spent his adult life searching for a recipe that he could use to make a medicine.

Daniel Sennert. Line engraving by S. Furck, 1650.
Fig. 1: Line engraving of Daniel Sennert by S. Furck, 1650. Image from Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Licence.

We know this because Döring was a tireless writer of letters, and a large number of the epistles he exchanged with his brother in law, the Wittenberg professor of medicine Daniel Sennert (1572-1637; see Fig. 1), were saved for posterity and published in the 1666 Lyon edition of Sennert’s complete works (see fig. 2), nearly a quarter century after both Döring and Sennert had died. Sennert is remembered by historians for his experimentalist atomism and his philosophy of generation, but Döring has been largely forgotten, save the occasional mention that he and Sennert were the first to accurately describe the symptoms of scarlet fever.

Nevertheless, over the two decades from which letters have survived, the two physicians candidly discussed a variety of topics, including medical observations, noteworthy case histories, questions about religion and natural philosophy, and even the movements of troops during the Thirty Years’ War. Among such issues, however, the search to find a cure for gout and arthritis was paramount, for Sennert also suffered from a similar affliction, although apparently less so than Döring.

Title page of 'Tomus Quintus' of Sennert's 1666 Opera Omnia
Fig. 2: Title page of ‘Tomus Quintus’ of Sennert’s 1666 complete works, which contained his letters with Döring. Image from Google Books, used under Creative Commons Licence.

Like most academically trained physicians of their day, Sennert and Döring understood pathology and therapy in a Galenic framework; that is, diseases were caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humors, and treatment involved the balancing of these humors through diet, bloodletting, and the administration of purgatives. Even so, Sennert and Döring also promoted the use of new chymical drugs made from minerals and metals, and they believed that diseases could have causes besides the humors. In the case of gout and arthritis, one of the causes lay in the excess consumption of tartar, which they believed was found throughout the vegetable world, but in especially large amounts in wine. The iconoclastic Paracelsus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) had popularized this understanding of tartar in the sixteenth century, but Sennert and Döring were hardly alone among learned physicians who had adopted such ideas.

So, what is one to do with a gouty body riddled with tartar? In short, you have to expel the tartar, and Döring wrote that this could be done by combating the weakness of the “natural faculty,” that is, the body’s ability to rid itself of excrements and disease-causing agents like tartar. The medicines that he and Sennert hoped might accomplish this, which they discussed in letters, most often included gold in their ingredients, and were thought to work against almost all maladies.

Sennert noted in a letter from 1619 that he wanted to synthesize the famous ‘potable gold’ of the Englishman Francis Anthony (1550-1623), but had not yet had success. Döring responded that they ought to attempt to create a similar compound called the “Golden Fleece,” for he had found a recipe for the substance which promised that the drug had freed one Johann Weidner from excruciating gout pains. As Döring put it, “if that Golden Fleece carries away the feebleness of the natural faculties, it would not undeservedly be had for a panacea.”

In short, the recipe and protocol called for the dissolution of twelve sheets of gold leaf in a preparation of May dew over the course of nine months, and in 1621, Döring wrote to Sennert that he and an apothecary had acquired enough gold to begin the synthesis.

In May of 1622 Döring reported to Sennert that the Golden Fleece had apparently failed, for the gold had not gone into solution. Sennert consoled him, writing, “What has happened to you in the production of the Golden Fleece has happened to many others in chymical labors: when you make a trial, what was predicted from most certain things does not succeed.”

What is especially striking about this episode is that the interpretation of and experimentation upon recipes was done collaboratively through the undoubtedly tedious process of sending letters between Breslau and Wittenberg – a 350 km trip. It is similarly notable that physicians – working during a period in which recipes for universal remedies and promises of their effectiveness were ubiquitous – actually tested recipes for the synthesis of medicines, occasionally found them wanting, and reported failures to one another. Such experimentalism and candid communication represent archetypal values and ideals that would later be codified as hallmarks of modern science and medicine.

* Physicians often believed that gout and arthritis were the same disease or at least had the same root cause.

Curing Coughs and the Common Cold in Eighteenth-Century England

By Katherine Allen

It happens at every university, every year, and is often known as ‘fresher’s flu’. This cocktail of viruses arrives at the start of term, along with students and their unprepared immune systems. After countless hours spent in the germ-infested libraries, we are now experiencing a full blown assault of sniffles and coughs, all the while chanting ‘I don’t have time to get sick!’.

During a recent pharmacy visit to stock up on Lemsip, my mind wandered to recipe books and eighteenth-century strategies for battling the common cold. How did the eighteenth-century upper sorts deal with scratchy throats, and the dreaded ‘man cold’?

In the eighteenth century catching cold was linked to climate. In his popular work Domestic Medicine (1772 edition) William Buchan explained that catching cold was a result of ‘obstructed perspiration’ and that the secret to not getting sick was avoiding extremes in temperature.[1] Buchan observed that, ‘the inhabitants of every climate are liable to catch cold, nor can even the greatest circumspection defend them against its attacks’.[2] For treatment Buchan advised rest, fluids, light foods, and an infusion of balm and citrus. He also cautioned that ‘Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.’[3]

William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia]
William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia- Credit: US National Library of Medicine]
Coughs were ubiquitous in the eighteenth century, but it would be misleading to say that this symptom (as we know it) was only associated with non-life threatening conditions. Sometimes recipes in domestic collections grouped coughs with colds, while others treated coughs associated with more serious ailments (see The Sloane Letters Blog).[4]

John Wesley divided coughs into several categories in Primitive Physick (1792 edition) including: asthmatic, consumptive, and tickling. For ‘Violent Coughing from a sharp and thin Rheum’ Wesley suggested a bolus of conserve of rose with powdered frankincense.[5] Or, one could try the milk of sow thistle which ‘has the anodyne and antispasmodic properties of opium, without its narcotic effects.’[6]

Newspapers were an excellent source for cough and cold remedies; the Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), for instance, had a remedy ‘A Plaister for a Sore Throat’. Made from melted mutton suet, rosin, and beeswax, this paste was spread on a cloth and pinned on from ear to ear.[7] Newspaper clippings were also pasted into manuscripts. Dr James Malone’s ‘Recipe for a Cold’, shown below, is a balsam-style remedy that boasted to be ‘almost an infallible remedy’ and was inserted into Mrs Myddleton’s book.[8]

'Recipe for a Cold' Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.
‘Recipe for a Cold’ Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
Letters indicate the regularity of which remedies were exchanged, and document how individual’s expressed their cold symptoms.  Mrs Gell thanked her sisters for ‘ye receipt which I believe very good in [this] time of yeare’ adding ‘thanke God & ye Drs skill & care & friends nursing am very well againe my cough is gon[e] & I am about house’.[9] In another case, Judith Madan wrote to her daughter giving details of an illness and declared ‘My Cough is less violent and comes seldemer. As for the Phlegm which has been my torme[n]t, it must have time to subside.’[10]

A variety of cough and cold remedies were featured in recipe books. Alongside restorative broths (like modern chicken soup), artificial asses’ milk, and milk-based diets in general, were associated with treating coughs (discussed by Sally Osborn). Topical therapies were also used, such as Emily Jane Sneyd eighteenth-century version of VapoRub; a mixture of sweet almond oil and syrup of violets along with a plaster of candle wax, saffron, and nutmeg applied to the stomach.[11] 

Syrups and electuaries were popular remedies. One seventeenth-century recipe, ‘a most excellent electuary given to Lady Lisle by Dr Lower’, was a mixture including conserve of red roses, balsam of sulphur, oil of vitriol, and syrup of coltsfoot.[12] Opiates were common in cough remedies, for sedation. Mrs Cotton suggested a mixture of liquorice, vinegar, salad oil, treacle, and tincture of opium when ‘the cough is troublesome’.[13]

Finally, lozenges were used to alleviate sore throats. Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe book (1706) includes her own method of making lozenges ‘very good for Coughs Comeing by takeing Cold’. Jenner’s method involved creating a stiff paste of sugar, herbal oils and powders, and rose water, rolling out the paste, punching out rounds with a thimble, and then drying them in the oven.[14]

'To make Lozenges for a Cough my way' Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.
‘To make Lozenges for a Cough my way’ Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
These treatment examples reflect the variety of sources available for medical advice. As the case of the common cold demonstrates, individuals were opportunistic by collecting and trialling new remedies, while also relying on standby cures. Kith and kin were proactive in exchanging remedies and were not shy about discussing their conditions, including ‘tormenting phlegm’.

But, despite an arsenal of remedies, advice for the common cold in eighteenth-century England appears strikingly similar to our current approach: stay home, rest, forego partying for a few days, and perhaps try some cough syrup. Feel free to post a comment on your own ‘go to’ remedies for coughs and colds, be it contemporary or historical!


[1] William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772), 192-3.

[2] Buchan., 193.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Serious coughs could be symptomatic of, for example, croup, whooping cough, consumption, or internal bleeding.

[5] John Wesley, Primitive Physick: or, an easy and natural method of curing most diseases [twenty-fourth edition] (London: 1792), 62.

[6] Wesley., 63.

[7] Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), Burney Collection

[8] Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.

[9] Derbyshire CRO D258/38/11/48, loose sheet.

[10] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc d. 637-8, f. 39.

[11] Wellcome, WMS, 3029, f. 38.

[12] Wellcome, WMS 3295, f. 28.

[13] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc es 49. f. 6r.

[14] Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.

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]’.

What is a ‘remedy collection’?: Recording Medical Information in the Seventeenth Century

What exactly is a ‘recipe collection’? The most obvious answer is something like the example shown below, a formal ‘receptaria’ book of medical receipts and remedies. In the early modern period, and across Europe, these types of collections were fairly common, and especially in wealthier households. These were often carefully constructed documents, containing indices and sometimes containing groups of remedies according to various types of remedy, or parts of the body. In many ways these were the high-end of domestic medicine.

But were such formal collections necessarily representative? In other words, did everyone (or at least everyone capable of writing remedies down) collect their medical information this way? No. As a great deal of recent work by historians is revealing, the committal of recipes to paper was often a much more haphazard, and far less regimented, process.
For a start, paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period. It could often be bought easily enough; apothecaries often sold reams or ells of paper, as did other retailers from merchants to haberdashers. But it was nonetheless quite costly. Unlike today, where scribble pads and notebooks can be bought for pennies, the buying of paper, or a bound book of notepaper, would have been something out of the ordinary, especially for those on low incomes.

Firstly, the recording of remedies was an expedient and often pragmatic process. Remedies usually spread firstly by word of mouth, with people passing on their favourite receipts to friends, neighbours and acquaintances. As Adam Fox’s work on early modern oral culture has shown (Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)) people had a strong ability to commit information to memory, and this made sense at a time when the majority of the population couldn’t read or write. Nevertheless, for those wishing to record the remedy accurately for future use, there was a need to do so quickly, and often using whatever was to hand.

As such, many ‘remedy collections’ are little more than assemblages of roughly scribbled notes, sometimes on torn bits of paper, sometimes on the back of unrelated documents, and sometimes even including a variety of other information on the same page. In fact, the very survival of many remedies is probably attributable to the fact that they have been incorporated into other, non-medical, documents.

Nevertheless, the recording of remedies in certain types of document was often a more deliberate decision. In Wales, for example, there were several instances of medical remedies being written on notepaper purloined from a church. In one sense this was pragmatic and reflected the simple availability (and probably abundance) of paper, given the needs of the church to keep records. But some were written inside church documents. In parish registers, for example, it was not uncommon to find receipts. A common example was that of a ‘receipt for the biteinge of a mad dogge”, often originally attributed to the register of Cathorp Church in Lincolnshire, but which seemed to move around the country. An example of the remedy, occurring in the Monmouthshire church of Llantillio Pertholey, can be seen here: http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/Item/7637-a-recipe-to-cure-the-bite-of-a-mad-dog-llanti.

In another sense, though, putting remedies in amongst religious verses, as often occurred in commonplace books and notebooks, was a way of allying the remedy to the power of religion. If it was next to God’s word on paper, perhaps it would have more power?
Above all, for the remedy to be of any use, it had to be easy to find when needed. Some, for example, kept remedies within the pages of their business ledgers. Here, the regimented layout perhaps suited ease of future reference. But perhaps most common was to keep remedies within the pages of personal sources. Many diarists noted down examples of favoured remedies, especially when they had suffered from an ailment and attributed their recovery to the taking of a particular remedy.

Commonplace books, notebooks and copy books were also common places for the jotting down of useful information, and could be easily referred to if needed. It was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records, locating it firmly within the context of ‘useful’ information. Many literate families also kept letters. Health was a regular topic of conversation amongst letter writers, and it was common to fire off a few missives seeking potential remedies from within one’s social network. When a reply duly came, here was a ready-made receipt that could be kept without needing to write it down again. Prescriptions and directions from practitioners might be especially prized as they represented a virtual consultation, specially tailored to the recipient’s humoral constitution.

One often-overlooked method, however, were medical almanacs. It’s worth looking at a typical example of how these sources could be used. Cardiff Public Library MS 1.475 is a small memoranda book dating to around 1708, and seemingly originating from London, with the names John and Elizabeth Price prominent. A little list of family notes inside the front cover reveal a touching and tragic tale.

February 10th 1708/9
Married then to the pretty, the charming Mrs Elizabeth Price by the Rev’d Dr Typing of Camberwell.

My daughter Anne was born the 17 of April 1712 about twenty min(utes) after eight in the morning and baptised the 1. of May
She was a very beautifull, lovely child but God was pleased to take it May 3. 1712

Much of the document, however, is actually drawn on the reverse side of copies of almanacks. These were part-astrological, part-magical and part-news documents which contained everything from prognostications and predictions to religious dates, weather information and medicine. The first almanac in this document is ‘Merlinus Liberatus, being an alamanack for the year of our Blessed Saviour’s Incarnation, 1708…by John Partridge, student in Physick and Astrology at the Blue Ball in Salisbury Street in the Strand, London”. Partridge was clearly an entrepreneur; the very next page of his almanck is dedicated to ‘Partridges Purging Pills, useful in all cases where purging is required”!

A second almanac pasted into the book is “The Country Physician; or a choice collection of physic fitted for vulgar use: Containing 1) a collection of choice medicaments of all kinds, Galenical and Chymical, excerpted out of the most approved authors 2) Historical observations of famous cures collected out of the works of several modern Physicians 3) A Cabinet of specific, select and practical chymical preparations in two parts, made use of by the Author, by W. Salmon M.D”

This sort of document was a cheap means of buying a ready-made remedy collection, complete with the latest thinking and couched in terms of the layman. There were many self-help volumes of family physick available, but these cheaper almanac and chapbook style documents were easier to read and easier to keep. It is also clear that the spaces on the back of pages were useful places to note down other remedies as they accrued.

For example, the Prices noted down a number of receipts on the back pages, including a receipt “To prevent a return of the ague”, another for the “dead palsy”, including mistletoe, oak and saffron, and another for “flushings in the face”. Here, then, the printed and the written remedy intertwined to become a completely distinct and individual family collection. In many ways this was as formal a collection as a ‘receptaria’, and probably included many of the same sorts of remedies, but in a different form.

The recording of remedies, and the idea of a ‘remedy collection’, therefore, shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a single, formalised and regimented document. These were organic documents, sometimes constructed carefully, but often just growing as collections of rough notes. Remedies might be deliberately placed within documents, or they might be the result of a roughly-scribbled note. Equally, people might keep ready printed or written remedies, and simply add their own notes as required. In this sense, there is no single ‘remedy collection’ document; instead, there are a myriad different ways in which people collected remedies.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog: dralun.wordpress.com (22 August 2012).