The Working of Herbs, Part 3: Herb Qualities and Indications

By Anne Stobart

In my previous posts on the Working of Herbs (Part 1 and Part 2) I flagged up some problems in finding out how medicinal herbs might really work, or finding reliable sources on herbal ‘efficacy’. I set out to try to establish a protocol, or way of thinking about this issue by picking a specific medicinal recipe. My choice was a seventeenth-century recipe for ‘after throws’ (likely for pains after childbirth). The recipe contains hyssop, wild mint, groundsel, pennyroyal and balm. In this post I aim to get an overview of how these herbs might have been viewed at the time that the recipe was being copied, in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Sources for past information on herbal qualities and  indications

Last time I mentioned a useful but dated source in Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal.[1] However, we can also look directly at past material written on medicinal plants, found in herbals, pharmacopoeia or medical advice books, as starting points in providing contemporary indications for medicinal use. There are quite a few 17th/18th century printed sources. My choice of sources is largely pragmatic, based on comprehensiveness and ease of access – especially sources that have indexes which are easy to use, or can be found in a text format which is readily searchable. Here I give selected details from two sources published before and after the likely compilation and recording of this later seventeenth-century recipe. Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians reflects views of medical therapeutics from the early 17th century while John Quincy’ Pharmacopoeia Officinalis was first published 1718. I started to use John Quincy’s book frequently as I am lucky to own

Quincy, John. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed.  London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).
Figure 1. John Quincy. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).

a hard copy of the 8th edition (much-thumbed) – it has both a Latin and common name index for the many items in the materia medica. Descriptions of these herbs often give both their qualities and indications for a range of conditions.[2]

According to Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory (1649, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – Help coughs, shortnesse of breath, wheezing, distillations upon the Lungues, it is of a cleansing quality, kill wormes in the body, amends the whol color of the body, helps the dropsie and spleen, sore throats and noise in the ears (41)
  • Wild Mint – [Of garden mints ] hot and dry in the third degree, [Of water mint and horse mint] ease pains of the belly, head-ach and vomiting, gravel in the kidnies, and stone. (45)
  • Groundsel – Groundsel, cold and moist according to Tragus, helps the Chollick, and pains or gripins in the belly, helps such as cannot make water, cleanseth the reins, purgeth Choller and sharp humors (32)
  • Pennyroyal – Penyroyal, hot and dry in the third degree, provokes urine, breaks the stone in the reins, … strengthens womens backs, provokes the terms, easeth their labour in child-bed, brings away the after-birth, staies vomiting, strengthens the brain, (yea the very smell of it) breaks wind and helps the vertigo (49-50)
  • Balm – Bawm, is hot and dry; inwardly, it is an excellent remedy for a cold and moist stomach, cheers the heart, refresheth the mind, takes away grief, sorrow, and care, instead of which it produceth joy and mirth (45)

According to Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – (Balsamic section), a warm and detergent herb, ‘good for anything’ especially coughs and lung disorders (143)
  • Wild Mint – [mentha] (Diaphoretic section) warm and aperient – reckoned by some to promote menses and urine (176)
  • Groundsel – [Carduncellus] (Emetic section) a good and safe vomit (187)
  • Pennyroyal [Pulegium] – (Nervous simples section) warm and chief virtue is ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’ (89)
  • Balm [Melissa] (Diaphoretics section) of fine cordial flavour but weak and soon fades (177)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) 

Further sources could be consulted but, overall, these two sources identify four of the herbs in the recipe for after throws (hyssop, wild mint, pennyroyal (Figure 2) and balm (Figure 3))  as having qualities of heating and drying. One herb (groundsel) is regarded as cold and moist, a purging remedy and good for ‘pains or gripins in the belly’ while another (wild mint) can also ‘ease pains in the belly’. Pennyroyal is specifically indicated for bringing away the afterbirth and ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’. Hyssop is regarded as ‘cleansing’ and ‘good for anything’. Other specific indications for these herbs include lung complaints (hyssop) and grief (balm). A check of some other texts with seventeenth-century childbirth-related recipes reveals that hyssop was also an  ingredient in other remedies with titles such as ‘For a woman traveling with child’ and ‘An approved medicine to bring away a dead child’.[3]

Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

But was this recipe used?

It does appear that some of the herbs in this recipe were considered by contemporary sources to have relevance in various complaints related to childbirth. And I have found that this particular recipe for ‘after throws’ was repeated at least five times in the recipe collections of one household (more on this in a later post!) so it is possible that it was actually used, or at least was thought to have some ‘efficacy’. However, we cannot assume that the past view of these herbs matches the likely effects based on today’s understanding. In my next post I will look at how these herbs are understood in the present day, and consider how herbal monographs may be useful in this endeavour to find out what the herbs can do.

Notes

[1] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses (First 1931 ed. London: Penguin, 1980).

[2] ‘Qualities’ can be thought of as the properties of herbs and  ‘indications’ are suggested uses. Sources used are: Nicholas Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory Made by the Colledge of Physicians in London (London: Peter Cole, 1649); John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730). These texts are on Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and can be accessed through the Wellcome Library website (membership is free).

[3] For example, see A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653, pp. 48, 91); W. J., Dr Lowers and Several Other Eminent Physicians Receipts Containing the Best and Safest Method for Curing Most Dieases in Humane Bodies (London: John Nutt, 1700, p.37).

 

The Working of Herbs, Part 2: Take One Herbal Recipe

By Anne Stobart

In the first post of this series, I flagged up some problems in finding out how herbs might work in a medicinal recipe. The question of medicinal herbs and their historical efficacy is a rather difficult area.[1] Through study of one recipe, I hope to provide pointers to useful sources, to indicate their relevance and to suggest caution where appropriate. Any recipe would work, but the one I have chosen is of particular interest because it has cropped up several times in my study of the late seventeenth-century recipe collections of a Devon household.

A water for After throwes

The receit of the water for affter Throwes.
The receit of the water for affter Throwes.

Take two hanfull of Isope [hyssop] two of peneroyall and two hanfull of Groundsell one handfull of wild mints two hanfulls of balme: These hearbs Cleane pickt and Sume fare water put upun all these hearbs togeather wash them Claine [‘and lay them in’ crossed out] then lay them in a pott or Earthen vessell: Shred these hearbs and put them in a quart of Spring water and let them lye in the water for a day and a night: then still the hearbes and water togather in a rose still then let the Glass bottle stand in the Sume Sinnce two Months Close Stopped from andy Ayre it Makes the water mush better. [2]

We will have to assume for this discussion that these plants are correctly identified as hyssop, pennyroyal, groundsel, wild mint and balm–although plant identification is another uncertain factor in considering recipes! Ideally we need to know:

  • the seventeenth-century indications for these plants.
  • the key constituents.
  • the likely physiological actions of these constituents.
  • the potential combinations of herbs in a preparation.
  • the dosage and its likely effects in the body.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

My first step is to explore Internet sources using hyssop as an example.The Internet brings a wealth of information, but finding out about a particular medicinal herb can be frustrating. This problem is worse if you seek a ‘historical’ source. Many sites readily repeat information about ‘traditional’ uses without reference to sources. For example, numerous sites claim that hyssop has been used for millennia and dates back to the Bible. If you search for ‘herbal medicine hyssop’ in Google, you are likely to draw up Wikipedia, Mrs Grieve’s herbal, commercial websites offering herbal medicines and medical databases.

Relatively few of these sites give accurate historical background. However, a reasonable starting point is Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, which still provides more detail than most sources on medicinal constituents, actions, uses and preparations.[3] First published in 1931, the book is good value as a secondhand hard copy purchase and provides succinct information on many plants. Grieve draws on a variety of classical to early modern sources for constituents, medicinal actions and uses. But… A Modern Herbal needs considerable updating.

A more recent publication from Tobyn et al. follows selected herbs in texts from Dioscorides onwards, including hyssop, and provides details of therapeutic use with constituents and clinical research evidence.[4] Although limited to 27 plants, this text has a useful overview of relevant authors from classical to modern times.

Internet searching can be confusing if you are looking for reliable sources on historical use of plants and their consituents and medicinal actions. In my next two posts, I will outline some qualities and indications of the herbs in this recipe and the benefits of locating a good quality herb monograph.

Notes

[1] For example: John K. Crellin, ‘Revisiting Eve’s Herbs: Reflections on Therapeutic Outcomes’, In Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West: Essays in Honour of John M Riddle, edited by Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012, pp.307-27).

[2] ‘The Right Honorable The Lady Receipt Booke Anno Dom 1690’, p.82, Ugbrooke House, Chudleigh, Devon. My thanks to Lord and Lady Clifford for permission to access their private archive.

[3] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. First 1931 ed. (London: Penguin, 1980).

[4] Graeme Tobyn, Alison Denham, and Margaret Whitelegg, The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/ Elsevier, 2010).

The Working of Herbs, Part 1: Did Herbal Recipe Ingredients Really Work?

By Anne Stobart

As a clinical herbal practitioner with a research background in the history of medicine, I am sometimes asked the question: ‘Did the herbs work?’. In this post, the first of a series (The Working of Herbs), I consider how we might examine whether medicinal plants in recipes might have worked.

The question may seem simple, but it is a tough one to answer. It provokes even more questions, including:

  1. What are the herb constituents (phytochemistry and pharmacognosy)?
  2. What research has been done on the effects of medicinal plants (herbal pharmacology)?
  3. Should we be thinking about efficacy (historiography and medical history)?
  4. Do we know the parts of herbs, the preparation and dosage of the recipe (pharmacy)?

[Pharmacy: Illustration of pharmaceutical chest] Carl Linnaeus, Materia medica, Liber I. De plantis (Holmiae - Laurentii Salvii, 1749, title page & frontis). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
[Pharmacy: Illustration of pharmaceutical chest] Carl Linnaeus, Materia medica, Liber I. De plantis (Holmiae – Laurentii Salvii, 1749, title page & frontis). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
It is unsurprisng that historians often avoid raising the question in the first place. But I believe that we need to clarify the potential effects of medicinal recipes, and I have been thinking about how to establish a rational protocol for answering this question in relation to a medicinal recipe. I hope that other readers will chip in with their thoughts and useful advice!

Figure 2. [Plants of medicinal value to particular human body parts], Michael Bernhard Valentini, Medicina nov-antiqua (Francofurti ad Moenum: Joan, Maximiliani à Sande, 1713,  fol. 286). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Figure 2. [Plants of medicinal value to particular human body parts], Michael Bernhard Valentini, Medicina nov-antiqua (Francofurti ad Moenum: Joan, Maximiliani à Sande, 1713, fol. 286). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Presentism

A discussion of how herbal ingredients of recipes might have worked raises at least three problems of historiographical concern.

First, we need to be aware of ‘presentism’. Current knowledge about plant constituents and medicinal effects can easily influence our view of what people knew/did in the past. Second, implicit assumptions that the use of medicinal herbs was connected to therapeutic efficacy should be questioned since there might have been other reasons for their use. (Figure 2 shows the links between plants and body parts, some of which were probably based on shape). Third, some authors suffer from what I call ‘plantaholicism’–overly sympathetic and exclusively plant-focused view of the past. This may provide a narrow viewpoint, particularly when we consider that many other items were used in the materia medica including animal and mineral ingredients.

I fully understand that I may be guilty at times of demonstrating all of the above problems, and part of my rationale for drafting these posts is to help to clarify how to manage these issues.

Finding out more

This post flags up some problems in trying to assess efficacy. Although my examples in this series will be drawn from early modern sources, I hope that some points made will be relevant to other periods.[1] In further posts in this series I aim to provide some pointers for historians and others looking at recipes who wish to seek out reliable sources and information about herbal constituents and their actions.

Coming up in future posts…

  • how to locate reliable information about herbs
  • why the herbal monograph can be a useful tool
  • how to consider the effects of combining herbs in a recipe

 

[1] See for example, classical pharmacology in Laurence M. V. Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece (Boston: Brill, 2009).

A ‘Not-Recipe’: An Expression of Frustration in Medical Matters

By Anne Stobart

When is a recipe not a recipe? In my experience in research in the history of medicine, a recipe is part of a readily recognizable genre – each one includes elements such as a set of ingredients, instructions, indications and other information which can be collected, shaped and re-issued with, or without, a known author. Probably there are better definitions. But what about medicinal recipes which have not quite made it in terms of recognizable status for use or to show to others? Occasionally, along comes a recipe that started life as a recipe but is no longer a recipe: perhaps we can call it a ‘not-recipe’. One such example can be found in the Fortescue papers at Devon Record Office in south-western England. This item flags up the frustrations felt by one particular individual in her search for therapeutic effectiveness. It reflects another side of the ’emotional life’ of recipes noted in recent posts by Montserrat Cabré and Elaine Leong.

Fig. 1. 'Scrofula' Bramwell, Byrom Atlas of Clinical Medicine v. II, pl. XXXII, p. 5 Edinburgh, Constable, 1893. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Fig. 1. ‘Scrofula’, Byron Bramwell, Atlas of Clinical Medicine v. II, pl. XXXII (Edinburgh, Constable, 1893), 5. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Within the Devon archive there are many medicinal recipes collected by the Boscawen family, particularly Margaret Boscawen (d. 1688) in Cornwall and subsequently her daughter, Bridget Fortescue (1666–1708) in Devon. Both women were married to members of parliament and some correspondence survives to give a picture of family medical matters. Margaret was reputedly ‘much imployed about the sick’ but averse to doctors (1). Bridget suffered lifelong from a condition generally known as the King’s Evil (probably scrofula, a tubercular disease) which caused enlarged and suppurating sores in the neck and head area (Figure 1). While Bridget was still young, Margaret began to collect advice and recipes for the King’s Evil (2).

The recipe for ‘The glister’, apparently in Bridget’s hand, starts off like many other recipes with a list of ingredients but then it rapidly alters in tone, expressing an anguished difference of opinion with her physician(s). The recipe is scrawled on a loose scrap of paper and is undated, it was probably written later in life (see Figures 2a and 2b below). Here is the full text–any errors, my own transcription:

The glister

Figure 2a 'The Glister' Devon Record Office, 200 recipes - mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1688-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8. Courtesy of the Countess of Arran (Fortescue Papers).
Fig. 2a ‘The Glister’, Devon Record Office, 200 recipes – mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1688-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8. Courtesy of the Countess of Arran (Fortescue Papers).

Take of mallowes, pellitory of the wall, violet and mercury leaues of each one handfull of possett drinke one quart boyle these, strain it, Take some what lesse than a pint of it, adde to it, two ounces of browne sugar and two ounces of syrup of violetes and so mert? it warme [‘this is the for Glister for’crossed out] this Glister as it is heare set downe the things that I appoint my selfe but onely the manner and time and measures for my owne good tho the Docters heare thinke it best for mee to beleeue them against my owne sence and fealeing there sight and smell there reason for the know that I complaine of onely of there preprosporous order of things and concluding of my disses ancures according to there own concaites and prescriptions [‘by so’crossed out] unto wch I shuld never yeald, to they granted the thing In generall and to denye the thing In euery perticular that I have any powre to command: for that wch I haue a sence and fealeing and understanding doth mee Good or hurt and yet I must not say so nor desire to haue it don but Answeard onely my delayings and put offs with childish foolish Answears nay wch is worse Answears wch carry in them nothing but falsehoods wch was so very displeasing to God (3).

Much could be said about this not-recipe, which is a vivid demonstration of an individual in conflict with the ‘preposterous’ medical advice about her treatment as she complained about her lack of ‘powre to command’ in medical matters. A recipe that might have revealed a potential for therapeutic determination has become an expression of powerlessness. A key aspect of this not-recipe is that it could never have been included in a collated family recipe book.

Fig. 2b, 'The Glister'
Fig. 2b, ‘The Glister’.

Although the not-recipe started out as a recipe within the accepted genre, it does something other than provide a respectable, therapeutic claim which can be safely aired in public. Rather, this not-recipe revealed private and emotional frustration in medical matters. Perhaps there are more not-recipes: they need attention in our studies of recipe collections, as they help to illuminate beliefs and practice alongside the more visible inclusions in recipe collections.

 

(1) Devon Record Office, Fortescue 1262M/ FC/1, 54 Boscawen family letters, 1664–1701, ‘Sister Clinton’ to Lady Margaret Boscawen, 28 April 1683.

(2) Stobart, Anne. “‘Lett Her Refrain from All Hott Spices’: Medicinal Recipes and Advice in the Treatment of the King’s Evil in Seventeenth-Century South-West England.” In Reading and Writing Recipes, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming, 2013.)

(3) Devon Record Office, 200 recipes – mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1668-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8, ‘The glister’.