Tag Archives: Mrs. Corlyon

Hunting for herbs: chasing migraine remedies across the centuries

Katherine Foxhall

I was delighted to see Mrs Corlyon’s recipe book (Wellcome MS.213) as the subject of Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ recent post on this blog. Here, I am going to explore another of Mrs Corlyon’s recipes:

A Gargas or Medecine for the Megreeme in the heade.

Take Sage Rosemary and of Pellitory of Spaine, the rootes of eche of these a like quantity, and boil them in a pinte of Vineger, uppon a chafing dish of coales, untill halfe be consumed, then putt therein two good spoonefulles of Mustard beyng made with good vineger, and so lett it boile a while, And then take a litle of it, as hott as you can suffer and holde it in your mouthe, as you shall feele occasion and then spitt it out, and take more and doe this five or six times every morninge so long as you shall fynde occasion or feele your selfe greeved.

My current book project is a history of migraine from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century (funded by the Wellcome Trust). Having found nearly a hundred different recipes for migraine treatments in published and manuscript remedy collections from the late sixteenth to the mid seventeenth century, I have become fascinated by examples of knowledge transfer from print to manuscript and vice versa.

It seems likely that recipes would often have made this leap. Cheap medical books were common in the seventeenth century, and recipe collections were among the most affordable, costing only a couple of pence. For example, in his Breviary of Helthe (1547) – one of the earliest medical texts to have been published in English, and which went through at least six editions by 1598 – Andrew Boorde recommended that sufferers of ‘megryme’ should avoid eating garlic, ramsons and onions. Similar advice appeared in Philip Barrough’s Method of Phisicke (1583). Sure enough, a few years later we find Mrs Corlyon recommending that sufferers of migraine should ‘forbeare much butter or anything wherin Garlicke, onions, or any leeke be used’.

It is also interesting to note the recipes that did not end up in manuscript collections, suggesting knowledge that remained purely theoretical. Bleeding for migraine was common in print, but did not seem to translate into personal collections. Neither did recipes for migraine reflect a fashion for New World tobacco, nor feature ingredients such as bole armoniac or terra sigillata deriving from classical medical traditions. Many published books contained details of simples (single ingredients, often herbs) but compilers of manuscript recipe collections rarely stuck with one, when several would do.

B0009211 Tanacetum cinerariifolium Credit: Dr Henry Oakeley. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Tanacetum cinerariifolium Sch.Blp. Asteraceae Dalmation chrysanthemum, Pyrethrum, Pellitory, Tansy. Distribution: Balkans. Source of the insecticides called pyrethrins. The Physicians of Myddfai in the 13th century used it for toothache. Gerard called it Pyrethrum officinare, Pellitorie of Spain but mentions no insecticidal use, mostly for 'palsies', agues, epilepsy, headaches, to induce salivation, and applied to the skin, to induce sweating. He advised surgeons to use it to make a cream against the Morbum Neopolitanum [syphilis]. However he also describes Tanacetum or Tansy quite separately.. Quincy (1718) gave the same uses Woodville (1792) only recommends it for intestinal worms, Bentley (1861) used it as a tonic and for intestinal worms, Flucker & Hanbury (1879) used it to induce salivation. Martindale (1936) had all the insecticidal uses from scabies to mosquito repellent and as a treatment for intestinal worms. Whatever the confusion regarding names, it is hard to see that it was used as an insecticide until a hundred years ago. Photographed in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, London. Photograph May 2009 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html
Tanacetum cinerariifolium (Pellitory of Spain) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
To return to Corlyon’s recipe: sage, rosemary and pellitory of Spain were considered hot and dry herbs, and therefore  good for migraines, as they were supposed to draw out excess phlegmatic and waterish humours from the head (see Anne Stobart’s post on herbal qualities). Sage and rosemary also have a strong aromatic smell, and combined with the pungent vinegar and mustard would have enhanced a sensation of the remedy infusing through the head.

So the rationale behind the recipe seems clear, but can we trace its provenance more precisely? Searching for pellitory of spain in recipe collections from Early English Books Online yields some interesting leads. In 1526, the anonymous A New Book of Medecynes contained a recipe ‘for the mygrayme in the heed’ requiring ‘rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, to be ground together, boiled in vinegar, mixed with honey and mustard and held in the mouth a spoonful at a time. This recipe was not new even then: it also appears in a fifteenth-century leechbook, with the additional instruction to hold the preparation in the mouth ‘as long as though mayest say two Agnus Dei’. We find a similar recipe in Thomas Vicary’s English Man’s Treasure (1586), this time requiring ‘Pelitorie of Spaine’, ‘Stavisacre’, ginger and cinnamon in a linen bag soaked in vinegar and held in the mouth. I was excited to be able to trace this back further still to a fourteenth-century collection containing a remedy for ‘Þe mygrenen’ requiring ‘peletir of spane and stafsacre in a litil poke’.

V0044644 Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering st Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): flowering stems and leaves. Coloured lithograph. Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Seven different types of sage (Salvia species): Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mrs Corlyon’s recipe simply replaces Stavesacre, a poisonous plant of the delphinium family, grown in southern Europe, and Spikenard, an aromatic plant from the Himalayas, with similarly hot and dry herbs (sage and rosemary) that she could more easily obtain or grow herself. It is always difficult to know how ordinary people read books, and the extent to which knowledge on paper was adapted in practice, but tracing recipes such as this shows how practical knowledge could remain ‘current’ even across the space of several centuries.

Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Unidentified species of Earwig, order Dermaptera, possibly Forficulidae, by JonRichfield,Wikimedia Commons
Unidentified species of Earwig, order Dermaptera, possibly Forficulidae, by JonRichfield,Wikimedia Commons

There is a remarkable passage in a sermon John Donne preached before the king in Whitehall in 1627. Donne reiterates the need for an openness to the word of God, to an ear that is receptive to the Word. “Take head what you hear,” he recites again and again, “take heed what you hear.” Be open always to Christ, loquens Scriptura, the “living, speaking Scripture.”

And yet, while emphasizing the critical import of a perennial openness, Donne also preaches caution about WHAT enters the ear. Unlike the eyes or the mouth, we cannot close off our ears: “Our Savior Christ proposes it as some remedy against a mischief, That if the eye offend thee, thou mayst pull it out, and if thy hand or foot offend thee, thou mayst cut it off, and thou art safe from that offence. But he does not name or mention the ear: for, if the ear betray thee, though thou doe cut it off, yet thou art open to that way of treason still, still thou canst hear.” The ear is a profoundly vulnerable site of ingress.

To emphasize the vulnerability of hearing treason or libel, Donne brilliantly turns to the analogy of an earwig that crawls into the ear at night, when we are at our most vulnerable and open: “And certainly, there is no Lycanthropie so dangerous, not when men are changed into devouring wolves, as when these Earwigs are transformed into men.”
The power of Donne’s analogy lies in part in the long-held fear that earwigs take advantage of nighttime to crawl into people’s ears and, not to put too fine a point on it, eat their brains.

Of course, it wasn’t just earwigs that were feared—people were also nervous about fleas and lice. But the earwig held pride of place in this fear because of the specificity of its name (though the idea that earwigs might crawl into a sleeping person’s ear is false). That fear was widespread and continues to this day (see below for video of Taylor Swift sort-of-pretending to be afraid of earwigs crawling in her ear for an example of how persistent this idea remains):


While there are many recipes for obstructions in the ear, in Anne Corlyon’s recipe book, we find a treatment specifically for earworms:

A Medicine to drawe an Earwigge out of the Eare
Take a sweet Aple and rest it in the fyer until it be half roasted, then take of the softest of it, and spreade it very thick upon a lynnen cloth, and lay it so your eare is hot as you can suffer it, and lye upon the same syde, and when you do feel it stir, you must lye very still until it be come to the Aple, and then you must very sodainely pluck it away lest the Earewigge retorne into your heade againe. And if you thinkcke there be any extra laye a new one to your ear.

Presumably the earwig will be tempted by the sweet roasted apple and the warmth of the linen cloth and venture out of the ear canal, where he will be “sodainely” snatched away.

The use of smells to treat bodily ills was widespread, and in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipes for treating issues in the ear, smells and heat seem to be critical elements. On the same page as the earwig treatment, there are three recipes for “the singing in the Eares.” The first calls for baking a loaf of bread and spicing it with nutmeg, then placing it “as hotte as you may suffer it” next to the ear. The second such recipe advises boiling a quart of sack, spicing it, and pouring a little bit in the ear canal. And the third advises cutting off the top of an onion and filling it with mithridate (an unspecified poison antidote), salad oil, and aquavitae, then roasting the onion, wrapping it in a cloth, and holding it next to the sufferer’s ear.

Not all earwig recipes relied on heat and smell, however. Over at the blog Early Modern Medicine, Jennifer Evans has an example of an earwig recipe that uses no heat at all, but instead calls for poisoning the earwig with a combination of wormwood, rue, and southernwood.

Whether the literal bug or the figurative metaphor of a man who implants treason or heresy by crawling into the listener’s ear, earwigs clearly pointed to an early modern anxiety about vulnerability and interiority. If only a little bit of roasted apple placed on the ear could draw out all such anxieties!