Hang Your Head: Mrs. Corlyon’s Unique Headache Treatment

Jennifer Sherman Roberts

One of the most challenging tasks in deciphering early modern medical recipes is knowing what illness the recipe is meant to treat. Some recipes address recognizable conditions: cancer, miscarriage, bruises. Some are for diseases whose names have changed significantly: the king’s evil (scrofula), the bloody flux (dysentery), consumption (tuberculosis). And some seem plain enough at first but then reveal confounding and intriguing details.

One such example is in the recipe book of Mrs. Corlyon (Wellcome MS.213), “The trew cause whence many of the Paines of the heade do proceeded, how to know those paines and the Reameadyes for them.” This recipe first caught my eye because of its sheer length—at almost two full pages, it is one of the longest I’ve seen. But it isn’t just length that sets this recipe apart; it seems to be somehow qualitatively different from the standard recipe form.

At first the recipe is straightforward enough–headache treatments are common in early modern recipe books (some great examples from Jennifer Evans can be found here at the Early Modern Medicine blog).

While most recipes begin with simple, prescriptive directions (“boil ye rosemary…” for example, or “take ye dung of cowes…”), this recipe immediately provides an almost academic discussion of the causes of this particular headache:

One of the principall causes whence many of the paines of the Heade do proceede is the opening of the heade the which doth happen comounly by one of these three meanes viz. By over much moisture beying about the Braine: by a sodaine iump or fall: Or by vehement ryding or such like.

The recipe becomes even more unique, however, by the inclusion of a diagnostic tool, making it sound more like a medical text than a recipe book:

The best meanes to know when your heade is open is this: Bowe down the end of your thombe, and if you cannot receave the space that is betwixt the two ioyntes between your teethe, the upper ioynte beyinge towards your upper teethe and the lower ioynte to your lower teethe then your head is opened.

It took me a little while to understand this test, but after a lot of rather silly looking maneuvering (thank goodness I wasn’t writing in a café!), I think I figured out that the test goes something like this.

Photo my own.
Photo my own.

If you can open your mouth enough to fit the area between the two arrows between your teeth (I couldn’t bring myself to post a picture of me doing so), you’re fine. If not, or if it causes you pain, you have an “open head.”

The big problem here? I have no real idea of what an “open head” is (or a “closed head,” for that matter).

At first I assumed that an “open head” was caused by excessive humors, given that one of the causes is too much “moisture beying about the Braine.” But as we shall see, the treatment provided by the recipe doesn’t fit that model

As Katherine Foxhall has pointed out in a recent post on this blog, headache recipes tended to involve cookery of herbs (and indeed, the other recipes in Mrs. Corlyon’s book stay true to that form). And Samantha Sandassie has described non-herbal remedies, which ranged from the mild (plasters and ointments) to the extreme (incisions and trepanning).

“The trew cause…,” however, suggests treatment through physical manipulation of the head:

Leane your selfe upon your elboes with your heade somewhat lowe over a table, putting your face betwixt your hands, setting your thombes under the greatt skull Bone, that is behind your eares, your fingers reaching upp towardes the moulde of your heade. Gather your face in your hands leaning somewhat harde and squeasing your face and the temples of your head together, let your fyngers meete about your heade and this continue for the space of halfe an hower at a tyme, using thus to do often so long as you shall fynde occasion: you shall know when your heade is closed by your thumbe as is aforesaid.

Connecting the thumb test, which determines jaw mobility and pain, with the placement of the hands “on the large skulle Bone” behind the ear, it seems plausible that this recipe describes the stretching and massage of the temporal muscle, which begins behind the ear and fans out across the head. It is often associated with temporomandibular joint disorders (sometimes called TMJ).

Temporal muscle--lateral view, by Anatomography (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en), via Wikimedia Commons
Temporal muscle–lateral view, by Anatomography (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en), via Wikimedia Commons

I am really intrigued by the uniqueness of this recipe. Does its emphasis on causes,diagnoses, and nonherbal treatment reveal an evolution within the recipe form itself? Does it hint towards the split between the domestic sphere and the medical world that would come to divide the preparation of food and the preparation of medicine?

But recipe books can be such an odd mixture of structure and jumble, perhaps this recipe simply adds more to the mix.

(And if anybody figures out what an “open head” is, let me know!)


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