Categories in a Database of Eighteenth-Century Medical Recipes

By Katherine Allen

Creating a database is a valuable (though time-consuming!) methodological approach to the history of recipe collecting. The database that I constructed for my doctoral research catalogues over 5,000 medical recipes from 27 eighteenth-century manuscript collections. I used the data to help answer one of my thesis questions: in what ways did the recipe collecting tradition continue into the eighteenth century as part of domestic medicine in elite English households? The data suggests continuity and change in recipe collecting. Even as compilers maintained traditional methods of collecting, they were open-minded to innovations in medicine and other cultural and intellectual shifts.

I use a form-based system in Microsoft Access, with each entry receiving a unique searchable ID number for manuscript and recipe. The collector, when available, is noted, along with the date (for a specific recipe or the manuscript). By including the recipe title, I could also trace popular recipes and the ailments they treated.

Recipe Form in Database
Recipe Form in Database

‘Ingredients’ was an embedded form listing the ingredient item (modernised spelling), quantity (decimalised), unit of measurement, and a description of characteristics and preparations. I grouped like ingredients and categorised them as follows: plant, animal, mineral, prepared (compound), and unknown. I also found total counts for each ingredient, and how many individual (unique) ingredients comprised each category, enabling me to rank proportionally the ingredient categories.

One of the difficulties of categorising materia medica is finding balance between conveying diversity, while grouping like items for effective and efficient analysis. I used similar methodologies to those used by Jennifer Stine and Anne Stobart (see post on plant ingredients). Moreover, I endeavoured to categorise separately distinct components of plants and animals (for instance, seeds and petals, or, suet and blood) when each item was contemporarily viewed as having differing medicinal qualities and uses.

The ‘equipment’ form recorded household objects used to make medicine, the technique or instructions associated with tools, and descriptions. I used the data on distillation to determine how frequently stills were cited, and the types of distillation equipment cited in recipe collections. This data reveals that distillation remained an important component of recipe collecting up to the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

Data on the purpose and administration of remedies was compiled using a text box on dosage/administration and a drop-down menu on treatment. The dosage text box allowed me to define the most commonly used quantities of medicine, how they were administered, and frequency of dosage. This data shows that medicine was often tailored to an individual’s age, constitution, and tastes, and that regimens remained popular approaches to treatment in elite healthcare.

Drop-down menu for treatment categories in database
Drop-down menu for treatment categories in database

Categorising diseases in recipe books is challenging. These manuscripts present a long history of varied medical approaches and theories, and compilers frequently grouped remedies by the process of making the medicine, rather than intended use. We also need to contend with recipes being used to treat symptoms and/or diseases, and recipes that could treat several ailments, or were cure-alls.

I took an objective approach to categorising diseases, following how compilers described their remedies first, and later grouping the ailments thematically into categories such as: who they were treating, approach to treatment, and diseases. Using a drop-down menu for treatment allowed me to organise and amend my categories as I entered data. The data was entered according to the main ailment the remedies was intended to treat (if there was more than one), but recipes that cited many uses were often grouped as cure-alls. This approach to database categories attempts to provide a realistic portrayal of medicine in recipe books by following how eighteenth-century compilers understood medicine, but it also meets my needs as an historian to create manageable categories.

Treatment data allowed me to trace popular named medicines, like Peruvian bark and Gascoigne’s Powder, and this helps us understand how compilers categorised and understood diseases and approaches to treatment. I used Access reports to group the recipes by treatment, thus generating data to calculate percentages for each treatment category.

Finally, I had two text boxes for entering information on individuals attributed to recipes. Forty-percent of my recipes were attributed two one or more individuals. The queries used to run this data looked at recipes with no attribution, one attribution only, and multiple attributions. This data was used to understand direct and indirect citations referencing how medical knowledge was communicated and that recipes were often communicated in a multi-step transmission process. Compilers who referenced from whom (or what- with regards to print sources) they obtained recipes, from where, and when, demonstrate the significance of references in documenting a recipe’s credibility and the complexity of social networks used to send and receive medical knowledge.

5 thoughts on “Categories in a Database of Eighteenth-Century Medical Recipes”

  1. this is a really interesting & useful research database / project. are you planning on making this web accessible?

  2. I have no immediate plans for putting my database online as I want to publish my doctoral research first. However, I am more than happy to answer specific questions about my data that could benefit other historians’ research.

  3. That looks very interesting work. Proper use of a database is important, and it would also be interesting to extend it back and forwards in time.
    RElatedly, one of my interests is the use of quintessences in medicine stemming from alchemical practise (In the 14th to 16th centuries mostly), so I was wondering if the term was still in use much in the 18th century, and if so, do the recipes use quintessences of wine, gold, antimony etc? Or indeed a pelican?

  4. Hi Katherine

    Very interesting. I am working on a master’s thesis, using a database I have created from one manuscript cookbook from the mid to late 1600s in England. I am comparing the characteristics of the recipes donated by women vs. men. I am validated to know that I made many of the same choice you did in designing the database! I would like one chapter of my thesis to be on diseases treated, and am struggling to come up with a proper classification system. I would love to hear more about your system. I am not sure if you can see the email I submitted above–if not I can include it in the comment. Thanks!

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