All posts by catherinerider

I'm a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Exeter, UK. I research the history of magic, popular religion and medicine, mainly in late medieval England. Until recently most of my research has been focused on the medieval church's attitude to magic and my book on this, 'Magic and Religion in Medieval England', was published in 2012. I'm still interested in magic but I'm now working on a new project on attitudes to infertility in medieval England, and I'm using recipes for cures and fertility tests as a way of understanding how medieval people thought about and responded to infertility.

Sixteenth-Century Remedies for the Common Cold

By Catherine Rider

It’s the time of year when everyone seems to go down with coughs and colds. Perhaps that’s why on a recent trip to Oxford to look at collections of medical recipes, my eye was caught by a series of cough remedies recorded in one sixteenth-century manuscript.  I’m not aware of much published scholarship on the history of the common cold (though I haven’t checked extensively so if you know differently I’d be interested to hear) but it’s an area which has been attracting attention recently in the Recipes blog and elsewhere online – see for example Katherine Allen’s post on eighteenth-century cold remedies last November and the links there, and Sally Osborn’s comments on asses’ milk as a remedy for colds and chicken soup, rather surprisingly, being recommended in eighteenth-century England not as a remedy for colds but for stomach problems.  This was not purely an eighteenth-century phenomenon.  As this manuscript makes clear, earlier recipe collectors were also interested in collecting remedies for this widespread condition.

The manuscript I was looking at was Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson A.393, a collection of remedies for all kinds of illnesses.  It was copied from an older recipe collection in 1529 by John Reed, who was the parson of Nether Broughton in Leicestershire and had previously been the vicar of Melbourne in Derbyshire.  Several of the recipes are accompanied by marginal notes which state that the remedy has been ‘proved’ by Reed himself or one of his acquaintances, which is unusual but not unique in this period.  An article published by George R. Keiser in 2005 gives more details on its context and contents. (“Robert Thornton’s ‘Liber de Diversis Medicinis:’ Text, Vocabulary, and Scribal Confusion.” in Rethinking Middle English: Linguistic and Literary Approaches, ed. Nikolaus Ritt and Herbert Schendl (Frankfurt am Main, 2005), 30-41.)

The section of cough remedies in the manuscript distinguishes carefully between different kinds of coughs: ‘the dry cough’, ‘the cough of the lungs’, and the ‘cough that has phlegm’.  These distinctions are similar to the ones still made by modern cough mixtures between dry and chesty coughs.  The remedies themselves tend to be fairly simple, relying on a small number of plant ingredients mixed with wine or honey.  For example for ‘cough of the lungs’, the reader is told to make an electuary (a paste mixed with honey or sugar) from the seeds of ‘ache’ (used to refer to celery or various kinds of parsley), anise and pepper, mixed with honey and a little wine, to be used every morning and evening ‘till thou be whole’.  For dry coughs, ‘ache’ and anise are again recommended, mixed with violet seeds and cooked with wine ‘to it wax thick’.  It also seems that Reed or his acquaintances had tried at least some of these remedies and sought out others.  Against one remedy a marginal note, in Latin, notes that this is a ‘Medicine which has very often been proved to be good, and which never fails.’  At the bottom of the page is some more advice, though not a recipe, emphasized with underlining: ‘Above all thing go not from a warm fire to a cold bed, ne from a warm bed to put on your clothes cold. Warm your clothes at both ye changes, etc.’

As the other posts show, these remedies are part of a much longer tradition and in later centuries they continued to be made at home and sold, as with this ‘lung tonic’ advertised around 1900.

Lung Tonic Advertisement, c. 1900, copyright Wellcome Images.
Lung Tonic Advertisement, c. 1900. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

We still use home remedies for coughs and colds today, alongside ones that can be bought from pharmacies: various relatives of mine recommend hot Ribena, or honey and lemon in water, and more exotically one friend recommends hot milk with garlic (I’ve never dared try that one).  Although they are starting to be noticed, these and similar remedies have not yet been clearly fitted into wider scholarly debates in the history of medicine and illness in the way that remedies connected with (for example) sex and fertility, or mental illness, or plague have been.  Nevertheless, they offer a window onto some of the less serious illnesses and everyday concerns of medieval and early modern recipe collectors.

Following a Recipe through Different Manuscripts

By Catherine Rider

Recently I’ve been looking through medieval recipe collections for remedies and tests relating to infertility, the subject of my new research project.  At first I was looking for any remedies, from the fairly mundane (mares’ milk) to the ones that look more exotic, at least to modern eyes (numerous animal testicles and a few charms) but recently I’ve taken a more targeted approach, comparing the different manuscripts of a single recipe collection to see if the infertility recipes change as the collections were copied.  I’m hoping that these changes will tell me something about the priorities of the various different copyists and owners of the manuscripts, and so shed light on how infertility remedies may have been used in practice – or at least, how the scribes who were paid to copy collections of recipes thought they might be used.  Monica Green has taken a similar approach to manuscripts of gynaecological texts in her book Making Women’s Medicine Masculine.[1]

I started this when I noticed that a few collections included recipes which assumed the man would take a role in seeking or administering a cure for infertility.  For example one recipe to aid conception in the Liber de Diversis Medicinis (Book of Diverse Medicines), an English recipe collection published by Margaret Ogden from a fifteenth-century manuscript, opens with the heading ‘If a man will that a woman conceive a child soon.’[2]  This interested me because it’s often assumed that in the Middle Ages infertility was seen as a female condition and women therefore bore much of the responsibility for seeking treatment, and yet here we have the suggestion that a man might take the initiative in seeking a remedy.  I wondered how typical it was.  One way to find out was to look at the other manuscripts and see if they kept the same heading, or substituted a different one.

The Liber de Diversis Medicinis was a good collection to start with because it was quite widely copied: the volume of the Manual of the Writings in Middle English dedicated to scientific and medical texts listed sixteen manuscripts, and several were in London or Cambridge and so fairly easily accessible for me.  I spent some time in the British Library and a couple of Cambridge college libraries, checking their copies against Ogden’s edition; I still need to get to Oxford, Durham and Manchester for the rest.  Many of them look a bit like this – a 15th-century recipe book in the Wellcome Library:

L0000832 Receipts for cataract and teeth whitening
15h-century leechbook. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of difference between manuscripts.  Scholars have often noted that medieval recipe collections display significant variations between manuscripts and in the case of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis the differences were very large. One fifteenth-century manuscript in the British Library (Egerton MS 833) omitted a large section of the collection, including the infertility recipes – although this may have been because pages had been lost from the manuscript, or from the exemplar copied by the scribe, rather than because the scribe had decided not to copy them.  Another British Library manuscript (Royal MS 17.A.VIII) included only a few remedies for each ailment, rather than the much greater number of possibilities recorded in the manuscript used by Ogden.  Moreover, the infertility remedies it gave were very different, as were the headings used to introduce them.  Gone was the recipe for a man who wanted a woman to conceive soon, and instead there was a heading which encompassed both sexes: ‘To do a man gete child and a woman bere child.’[3]

Another manuscript again (British Library MS Sloane 962) included a recipe for conception in Latin alongside the English ones.  Switching between languages is not unusual in medieval recipe manuscripts but it still tells us something about the scribe and the person who owned it – both had at least a basic knowledge of Latin, the language of university medicine, which suggests this manuscript is more likely to have been aimed at a male medical practitioner than an interested amateur.

So far, though, I haven’t found another manuscript which includes Ogden’s heading, aimed at a man who wants a woman to conceive, so perhaps the idea that a man might take the initiative was unusual after all.

I’m still thinking about what all this means and how significant these variations are.  In some cases variations may be the result of missing pages in a manuscript, or simple miscopying.  Even when they are not, it is difficult to tell how far scribes were consciously making these changes in order to adapt the text to the needs of a new reader – one who could read Latin, for example, or one who imagined that men would come seeking help to make their wives conceive.  However, in most cases these manuscripts do show us scribes who did not copy blindly, but rather were familiar enough with recipes to change things in ways that made sense to them.   By tracking these variations I’m hoping to uncover as many medieval attitudes to infertility and its treatment as possible.

[1] Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[3] London, British Library MS Royal 17.A.VIII, f. 63v.

Medieval Fertility and Pregnancy Tests

By Catherine Rider

Tests are a familiar part of modern pregnancy.  There are tests to show if a woman is pregnant and track the progress of the pregnancy, often revealing in the process whether she is expecting a boy or a girl.  If a woman does not conceive after several months of unprotected sex, there are also tests which aim to find out if anything is wrong.  These tests are based on modern technological advances and medical understandings of how the body works, but the desire to understand, predict and test matters concerning pregnancy and fertility is not new and tests for many of the same purposes appear frequently in medieval and early modern recipe books.

Recipe books contain numerous tests to show whether a pregnant woman is expecting a boy or a girl – for example, place a drop of milk from her breasts in water, and if it sinks then the child is a boy, but if it floats, the child is a girl.[1]  However, the majority of tests were for when pregnancy did not happen.  They claimed to tell the reader whether a woman could conceive, or whether the ‘fault’ lay with the man or the woman.   The most popular was a test that had to be performed by both partners.  As one anonymous fifteenth-century English recipe collection explained:

Knowing the default of conception, whether it belong to the man or the woman. Take two new earthen pots, each by itself; and let the woman make water in the one, and the man in the other; and put in each of them a quantity of wheat-bran, and not too much, that it be not thick, but be liquid or running; and mark well the pots for identification, and let them stand ten days and ten nights, and thou shalt see in the water that is in default small live worms; and if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.[2]

M0007080 A monk-physician examining a flask of urine

Physician examining a flask of a woman’s urine, c. 1300, © Wellcome Library, London

This test had a long history.  It can be found as early as the twelfth century, in a southern Italian gynaecological treatise that was attributed to a female physician named Trota.[3]  Along with other fertility tests, it continued to appear in medical textbooks throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, and was often copied into recipe books.

I’m interested in what this and similar fertility tests can tell us about medieval understandings of infertility.  For example, the bran-and-urine test shows medieval and early modern medicine recognised that men as well as women could be infertile.  This was certainly true in longer, more academic medical texts which often contained numerous recipes for medicines to cure infertility in either sex. In the recipe books, remedies for male infertility are much rarer, but the fertility tests show that many recipe collectors acknowledged it as a possibility – in theory at least.

But how exactly were these tests intended to be used?  It is very difficult to know.  The recipe collections do not tell us who used these tests, or under what circumstances, or even if they were used at all.  So far I haven’t found any references to them in other sources that might shed light on these questions.  In theory it is possible that they were used to test the fertility of a prospective husband or wife before marriage.  This would be an attractive (and logical!) idea because in pre-modern society having children was important for both men and women, but infertility was not recognised as a ground for divorce.  Once you were married to an infertile partner, you were stuck with him or her.  However, if the tests were used in this way it has left no trace in the sources.

Another possibility is suggested by the last line of the recipe: ‘if there appear no worms in either water, then they be likely to have children in process of time when God will.’ An alternative version of the same recipe, copied in the fifteenth century by an educated layman named Robert Thornton, gave a different interpretation: if no worms appeared in the water, ‘then may men help them to have children with medicines.’[4]  It was possible that the test would show neither partner to be infertile. In these cases, the tests may have been designed not primarily to lay blame, but to offer reassurance that conception was possible and that the couple would conceive in time. It was worthwhile seeking medical treatment or praying in the hope of attracting God’s favour.

A final reason why pregnancy and fertility tests may have been so popular in medieval and early modern recipe books is perhaps the simplest of all.  They promised clear answers about the mysteries of conception and pregnancy for men and women going through a process which was – and still is – fraught with as much uncertainty and anxiety as excitement.


[1] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series. 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[2] Warren R. Dawson, ed., A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the 15th Century (London: Macmillan, 1934), p. 171.

[3] The Trotula: a Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, ed. and trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 76-7.

[4] Liber de diversis medicinis, ed. Ogden, p. 56.