Tag Archives: Remedies

‘This one is good’: Recipes, Testing and Lay Practitioners in Early German Print

By Tillmann Taape

Title illustration from Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

Having recently finished my doctoral thesis on the printed works of Hieronymus Brunschwig, which have previously featured on the Recipes Blog (here and here), I am delighted to contribute to this series of posts on testing and trying (for an overview, see our re-posted summary of the Testing Drugs and Trying Cures conference). What better opportunity to share how it all came together, and reflect on the role of recipes and testing in the narrative.

Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–c.1530), a surgeon and apothecary from Strasbourg, wrote the first printed books on surgery and distillation. In my thesis, Hieronymus Brunschwig and the Making of Vernacular Medical Knowledge in Early German Print, I read these uncommonly practical and technical books alongside records from the Strasbourg archives, about the craft guilds and medical practice. This allows us to make sense of Brunschwig’s practical vernacular medicine in relation to local intellectual trends, different forms of healing, the local milieu of guilds and artisans, and early German print culture.

Brunschwig’s first book was the Cirurgia of 1497, the first surgical manual in print. This, of course, was an opportunity to codify and re-define surgery. Brunschwig revives the medieval tradition of what Michael McVaugh has termed rational surgery (i.e. a learned as well as a practical art), to educate trainee surgeons and to present their discipline as a respectable and useful trade. Emphasising the need for skilled hands as well as a working knowledge of the human body, Brunschwig defends surgery on two fronts: against learned physicians’ rhetoric of superiority, and against other craftsmen’s deep-seated anxieties about occupations which were in contact with sick and dead bodies.

A surgeon treating an abdominal wound. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Dis ist das Buoch der Cirurgia (Strasbourg, 1497). © Wellcome Images.

The later books on distillation, published in 1500 and 1512, open up to a wider readership, including not only medical artisans such as surgeons or apothecaries, but also the ‘common man’ – a middling social layer of literate citizens, householders and other lay practitioners. This new kind of medical reader, as I have discussed in a previous post and elsewhere, is emblematised in the figure of the ‘striped layman’ which appears in numerous woodcut illustrations throughout Brunschwig’s works.

A conspicuously stripy student, from Brunschwig’s Cirurgia (1497). © Wellcome Images

Many of the recipes and instructions in the distillation books are adjusted for this type of reader. They start from scratch and are rich in technical details which are not found elsewhere in print or, to my knowledge, in manuscript. Although Brunschwig engages with complex ideas about the nature of matter and its manipulation, such as John of Rupescissa’s notion of a ‘quintessence’ in all things, he re-works them into manageable, pedestrian remedies. Rather than pursuing Rupescissa’s heavenly panacea, Brunschwig uses distillation to produce a type of middle-class quintessences: although earth-bound and imperfect, they were reliable and effective remedies in the hands of laypeople.

Detailed woodcut images of distillation apparatus and instructions for its use. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg, 1500). © Wellcome Images.

One overarching theme of my thesis is the artisan’s approach to understanding and manipulating nature. For a craftsman with no Latin, Brunschwig mined a surprising amount of knowledge from texts. But more importantly, I argue, he knew things through direct physical engagement with bodies, materials and technical processes. His books are full of instructions to probe wounds, check temperature by touch, inspect colour changes in the alembic, and smell or taste distilled remedies. His expertise was located as much in the body and its senses as in books.

Nonetheless, writing was a powerful tool for recording and communicating practical insights. From cautionary tales of exploding alembics to heroic accounts of successful cures, Brunschwig emphasises his own experience as a source of knowledge. The German term he uses for this type of knowledge, erfarung, is related to fahren, meaning ‘to travel’. In the early sixteenth century, it denoted a way of experiencing the world through one’s own senses, by moving through it or simply being in it in an active, attentive manner. Erfarung was compared, often unfavourably, to spiritual contemplation and introspection. Over time, however, doctors and students of nature such as Paracelsus came to see personal erfarung as the necessary labour of insight rather than a sinful distraction. The Book of Nature, they insisted, should be read with one’s feet. Brunschwig’s emphasis on his own and others’ erfarung was thus part of a larger vernacular culture of experiential knowledge, as well as learned debates about experientia which have often been the focus of historical accounts of a medical empiricism developing in the early modern period.

Recipes played a major part in Brunschwig’s codification of experiential medical knowledge. Some, as I have shown in a previous post, were presented in Latin pharmaceutical jargon likely unknown to laypeople. These recipes were closed to readers, who were meant to copy them out on a piece of paper and hand them to an apothecary who would manufacture the remedy according to his art and his experience. Although the great majority of recipes are in German, some of these are also presented as tried and tested, by Brunschwig himself or others, and do not call for ‘tweaking’ on the part of readers.

Other recipes, however, give alternative ingredients or leave the exact composition up to the practitioner’s judgment. Many recipes come without the author’s seal of approval, and their sheer number makes it seem unlikely that Brunschwig could have tested each one. Such ‘open’ recipes leave room for improvisation and testing. The ongoing work of erfarung runs on into readers’ own practice, and often spills out into the margins of Brunschwig’s printed books. In many surviving copies, early modern healers from different walks of life marked recipes with a magisterial probatum est, or a simple vernacular note such as ‘this one is good’.

In some of the earliest medical works in print, Brunschwig addresses a readership of lay healers and ‘common men’ which would come to represent a significant portion of the early German print market. Through his use of recipes embedded within a culture of erfarung, he involved his vernacular readers in a continued effort of empirical trying and testing.

Pursuing the themes of recipes and artisanal knowledge, I am delighted to be joining the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University this summer, and look forward to sharing our work on making, testing, and trying, which has previously featured on this blog.


Movember: Men’s Health in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Collections

By: Katherine Allen

November (or ‘Movember’) is men’s health  awareness month, and it focuses on prostate cancer and depression, with the added bonus of moustaches. Movember didn’t exist in the eighteenth century, but I’m curious about men’s health awareness from a recipe book perspective. What can recipe books tell us about the family’s role in providing care, and recording remedies for men?

Movember: Men’s Health Awareness Month

The manuscripts I consult contain mostly non-gender specific illnesses (e.g. coughs and stomach complaints), and many include recipes for women and children; this is because these manuscripts were written by women and were family collections. There are, however, occasional references to men’s illness experiences.

Remedies for the prostate gland/ cancer don’t exist in recipe books (at least not in modern terminology). The prostate was not anatomically-defined until the late eighteenth century, and the medical interventions that developed were surgical, with John Hunter’s use of catheters being an example of treatment for an enlarged prostate.

If we look broadly at urinogenital recipes, we find men’s illnesses (on male infertility see Jennifer Evans). Urinogenital remedies were standard in domestic recipe books. These include recipes for bloody urine, stones, and difficulty urinating. In Esther Hanmer’s mid-century recipe book[1], a recipe titled ‘Given my Father. For one yt cannot make water either child or Old body’ said to take bees and stamp them, then add them to white wine and posset ale. Although it is unclear if it was used by the father, his donation of this remedy indicates a man’s awareness of urinogenital issues and potential treatment, and his sharing of medical advice with his family.

For one yt cannot make water. MS. 2767. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

Similarly, Sir Thomas Mannering sent the compiler’s grandfather a remedy for sharpness of urine where a piece of antimony was infused in ale. This sharpness could be any infection, but the term frequently appeared in medical literature as a symptom of gonorrhea. Esther Hanmer’s family recipe collection thus documents men acquiring medical advice from their networks and subsequently sharing it as a component of the family’s health record and for potential future use.

Against Sharpness of Urine. MS. 2767. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

Though the grandfather’s recipe does not specifically mention gonorrhea, venereal diseases were a pervasive complaint for eighteenth-century men. The absence of explicit venereal disease remedies in domestic collections is partly due to the immorality and stigma associated with the disorders. Lisa Smith has noted that recipes for ‘weak backs’ and ‘running of the reins’ (genital discharge) were linked to venereal diseases and genital ‘leakage’, suggesting that treatment for sexually transmitted infections was present in recipe books, but catalogued under more ambiguous names.[2] For instance, a late seventeenth-century collection cites a water-based remedy for a canker ‘in the yard of a man’, indicating that recipes books had remedies for suspected venereal disorders, though they were not labelled as such.[3]

Manuscript recipe books were important for documenting the whole family’s health, and the family played a central role in communicating, preserving, and utilising medical knowledge when caring for male members. Baron James Everard Arundell’s and his wife’s recipe collections are two of the few family manuscripts I have looked at that were compiled by a male family member. Many of the recipes are recorded as being specifically for Arundell, including a recommendation for Dicherion’s white Drops for Palsy, which was given to him by Lady Arundell, and which he purchased from Mr Collins – a bookseller at Salisbury.[4]

Drops for James Arundell’s Palsy. MS 2667/12/40. Image Credit: Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

Royal gardener Henry Wise corresponded regularly with Dr. Cheyne (see Spa post) and one of his recurring health conditions was  sickness when travelling. One recipe was to ‘Stop Purging when upon the Road from Bath’ from Dr. Cheyne[5], while the family’s other manuscript has a record of Mr Southill’s directions for him for ‘occasion of motion extraordinary’.[6]

Eighteenth-century elite men were invested in maintaining their health and seeking treatment– this is no surprise given the wealth of sources documenting men consuming medicine and their seeking advice from the medical professions. What is significant is that recipe books served as important records for men’s medical interactions and medical knowledge for treating men as part of the domestic medicine tradition. Some men recorded their experiences directly; in other cases it was female relations who documented their experiences and wanted (or were expected) to be knowledgeable in maintaining their men’s health as part of family care.

[1] Wellcome Library, MS.2767. Esther Hanmer and others, ‘Receipt Book’ (c. 1750–1825), pp. 17, 29.

[2] Lisa Wynne Smith, ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France’, Gender & History, 23 (2011), pp. 26–46.

[3] British Library, Add MS 38089. Collection of Medical Recipes, p. 108v.

[4] Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, 2667/12/40. Mrs J.E. Arundell, ‘Book of medicinal recipes’ (1786), Arundell of Wardour, p. 111.

[5] Warwickshire Record Office, CR0341/300. Wise family, ‘Volume containing assorted Wise family records and recipes’ (1716–8), Wise family of Woodcote, p. 119.

[6] CR0341/301. Mary Wise, ‘Recipe book of Mary Wise’ (18th C.), Wise family of Woodcote, p. 86.