All posts by jenshermanroberts

I hold a Ph.D. in Early Modern (Renaissance) literature and spent a fair amount of time studying the history of science and medicine. I’m now writing a novel loosely based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, and poet. I am also the mother of two daughters, partner of a family practice doctor, writing teacher, board member of a nonprofit library, and caretaker of one very freaky greyhound dog.

A Stitch in Thyme?: Why Are There So Few Knitting Patterns in Recipe Books?

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

When I first began researching early modern recipe books, I was struck by how they upended my expectations of the genre.

Some of the recipes seemed to me, quite frankly, weird: the making of puppy water, the application of dung to a wound, the addition of ground human skull to a medicine. And it became clear that they comprised all manner of early modern daily life, not just food. I was struck by how the recipes jostled together on the page, often with little overt organization.

In thinking about the genre, it struck me that this kind of writing is relatively unique to the domestic sphere. Recipe books look nothing like court documents or epic poetry, sermons or stage plays.

The Knitting Woman, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Knitting Woman, William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
They do, however, resemble another kind of domestic writing: knitting patterns. Since early modern recipe books contained instruction for making food and medicine and cosmetics, why not instructions for making clothing?

From my experience with modern recipes and knitting patterns, it seems like a perfect fit: like recipes that specify ingredients and quantities in cups and teaspoons, modern knitting patterns indicate necessary materials in fiber content, exact yardage, and the diameter and length of needles. As with a recipe, this quantification is followed by instructions for converting the raw material to the finished product. The writing is plain and seldom figurative. Indeed, one could call a knitting pattern a “recipe” for clothing.

Knitting patterns, however, are singularly absent from recipe books of the early modern period. There is, however, a telling exception. Sue Davies has pointed out that the 1655 medical compendium Natura Exenterata: or Nature Unbowelled by the Most Exquiste Anatomizers of Her, contains several pattern at the end of the work.

In the Natura Exenterata, the patterns, like recipes, are laid out one per entry to favor ease of location and organization. And like recipes, the instructions are written in a straightforward, matter-of fact tone, with very little editorializing or figurative language.

To make Network like seven Eyes.
The first course, wind your thread about your pinne at every stitch, and the second course take two long stitches upon your needle and turne the second stitch into the first long stitch inward to your hand and pull it through your first stitch, and the thread of your first stitch, turn it inward through the second stitch down to your pinne like a loop or a Nouse, so that the thread of the loop must lye upon the nouse upper∣most, then work your nouse down to your pin, and the next stitch or thread that lyeth upon your nouse work down to your pinne, and make a stich.
Provided alwayes if your work go true you have two knots toge∣ther, and a wide bout between, and the next third course begin your work again and round your thread about your pinne at every stitch, as you did before at the beginning of your work.

It’s telling, however, that with the knitting patterns in this compendium there is no indication of the quantity or type of materials needed. The knitting pattern is composed exclusively of instructions, unlike a contemporary pattern.

It would be fascinating to know when that shift occurred. One

The ladies' knitting and netting book, 1838; University of Southampton Knitting Reference Library
The Ladies’ Knitting and Netting Book, 1838; University of Southampton

excellent resource for such a question is the digitized Knitting Reference Library at the University of Southampton. In that database, we can see some movement towards quantification happening in the mid-19th century. In The Ladies Knitting and Netting Book of 1838, for example, there is only occasionally mention of the type of yarn (“German Wool”) and no note of the size of needles required. By 1874, however, we can see in The Lady’s Knitting Book that “pin” (needle) sizes and type of yarn are frequently listed.

I wonder if the shift into recording the exact quantities of materials–together with the addition of pictures of the final product (as seen here)– reflects a contemporary insistence on mass reproducibility. There is an implied guarantee that, if the identical brand of yarn, the exact fiber content, and precisely the same size needles are used, the final product will be an exact replica of the (perfectly lit, professionally photographed) final object.

I wonder, too, about the future of these genres, recipes and knitting patterns. Crafting books and cookbooks are now often published under “celebrity” names. There are famous knitters like Kaffe Fasset, Debbie Bliss, and even Vanna White (of “Wheel of Fortune” fame). Issuing cookbooks are any number of cooking channel celebs, from Padma Lakshmi to Emeril Lagasse to Nigella Lawson. And both genres are being revolutionized by the digital world: whether one needs a recipe for crepes or cardigans, one need only consult Google.

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 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Temporal muscle–lateral view, by Anatomography (, 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!)

Prick’t By Benedictus: Blessed Thistle and Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons
Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a playful moment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that occurs after the darker elements of the play have been set in motion but while the tone is still comedic. Margaret is helping Hero prepare for her wedding, and Beatrice, feeling ill and out of sorts, reluctantly joins them. Hero and Margaret, who have been conspiring to make the marriage-averse Beatrice and Benedick fall in love, begin teasing Beatrice. In response to Beatrice’s declaration that she is “stuffed” and sick, Margaret recommends a dose of a well-known herb, Carduus benedictus (also known as blessed thistle or holy thistle):

MARGARET. Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus, and lay it to your heart: it is the only thing for a qualm.
HERO. There thou prick’st her with a thistle. (3.4.71-74)

Beatrice immediately picks up on the Benedick/benedictus pun and Hero’s naughty “prick’st” joke.

BEATRICE. Benedictus! why Benedictus? you have some moral in this Benedictus.
MARGARET: Moral! no, by my troth, I have no moral meaning; I meant, plain holy-thistle. You may think, perchance, that I think you are in love: nay, by’r lady, I am not such a fool to think what I list; nor I list not to think what I can; nor, indeed, I can not think, if I would think my heart out of thinking, that you are in love, or that you will be in love, or that you can be in love. (3.4.75-84)

(Unabashed Tangent: I love how this scene distills the mixture of giddiness, wit, and affection – with perhaps a touch of cruelty – that prompts friends to tease each other about their crushes. In modern terms, the scene reminds me of this meme.)

While the Benedick/benedictus pun would be hard for a modern audience to catch, it would have been much plainer to an Elizabethan audience, as Carduus benedictus was far better known and utilized. The herbalist John Gerard writes that blessed thistle (also known, rather delightfully, as “wilde bastard saffron”) was “diligently cherished in gardens in these Northern parts.

Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinque foil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinquefoil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Given the popularity of Carduus benedictus, it is no surprise that it should make an appearance as an ingredient in early modern recipe books. Even so, the properties attributed to it in Wellcome MS 6812, a medical recipe book compiled from 1575-1663, are prodigious, taking up an unusual seven pages of the manuscript. Here is a partial list of the wonders of this plant:

  • If the herb is eaten or the herb’s powder or juice drunk: Good for headache and migraine. Sharpens memory and wit. Helps with sleep and hearing
  • Juice of the herb laid on the eyes: “Quickens” the sight, relieves redness and itchiness
  • Rubbed on a cloth with water: good for strengthening the teeth
  • As a powder: good for staunching the flow of blood from the nose
  • Cooked in wine: good for stomachache; also, “causeth an appetite to meat”
  • Powder mixed with honey: helps void phlegm and “gross humours”
  • Chewed: helps with “stink of the breath”
  • Leaves boiled in water: “provoketh sweat”
  • Powder (as preventative): prevents infection from pestilence; powder (after exposure): “expelleth the venome of the pestilence from the heart”
  • Juice or powder of the herb: combined with covering with hot wool cloth for three hours, causes intense sweating that expels poison
  • Herb boiled in wine: “dries agues”
  • Herb juice with wine: eases aches of all kinds, shortness of breath and diseases of the lungs
  • Herb boiled “in the urine of an healthfull man Child”: prevents dropsy and falling sickness
  • Powder eaten or drunk: eases side stitches and trembling due to palsy, helps with colic
  • Boiled or drunk with wine: breaks up “the stone”; when inhaled as a vapor, helps ease green sickness
  • Juice or powder of the leaves: heals canker sores and “old rotten festered sores.” Bruised leaves help with carbuncles.

This exhaustive list of blessed thistle’s curative powers is echoed in Gerard’s Herbal, where Carduus benedictus begins to sound like a miracle drug (and is even considered beneficial for “the French disease”).

So while Margaret’s comment about Carduus benedictus is meant to prod Beatrice to confess her love for Benedick, it also invokes the powers of an unusually efficacious plant, a trusted remedy capable of curing any malady—except, happily in Messina and the world of the play, the scourge of lovesickness itself.


Wigging Out: Mrs. Corlyon’s Method for Extracting Earwigs From The Ear

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Unidentified species of Earwig, order Dermaptera, possibly Forficulidae, by JonRichfield,Wikimedia Commons
Unidentified species of Earwig, order Dermaptera, possibly Forficulidae, by JonRichfield,Wikimedia Commons

There is a remarkable passage in a sermon John Donne preached before the king in Whitehall in 1627. Donne reiterates the need for an openness to the word of God, to an ear that is receptive to the Word. “Take head what you hear,” he recites again and again, “take heed what you hear.” Be open always to Christ, loquens Scriptura, the “living, speaking Scripture.”

And yet, while emphasizing the critical import of a perennial openness, Donne also preaches caution about WHAT enters the ear. Unlike the eyes or the mouth, we cannot close off our ears: “Our Savior Christ proposes it as some remedy against a mischief, That if the eye offend thee, thou mayst pull it out, and if thy hand or foot offend thee, thou mayst cut it off, and thou art safe from that offence. But he does not name or mention the ear: for, if the ear betray thee, though thou doe cut it off, yet thou art open to that way of treason still, still thou canst hear.” The ear is a profoundly vulnerable site of ingress.

To emphasize the vulnerability of hearing treason or libel, Donne brilliantly turns to the analogy of an earwig that crawls into the ear at night, when we are at our most vulnerable and open: “And certainly, there is no Lycanthropie so dangerous, not when men are changed into devouring wolves, as when these Earwigs are transformed into men.”
The power of Donne’s analogy lies in part in the long-held fear that earwigs take advantage of nighttime to crawl into people’s ears and, not to put too fine a point on it, eat their brains.

Of course, it wasn’t just earwigs that were feared—people were also nervous about fleas and lice. But the earwig held pride of place in this fear because of the specificity of its name (though the idea that earwigs might crawl into a sleeping person’s ear is false). That fear was widespread and continues to this day (see below for video of Taylor Swift sort-of-pretending to be afraid of earwigs crawling in her ear for an example of how persistent this idea remains):

While there are many recipes for obstructions in the ear, in Anne Corlyon’s recipe book, we find a treatment specifically for earworms:

A Medicine to drawe an Earwigge out of the Eare
Take a sweet Aple and rest it in the fyer until it be half roasted, then take of the softest of it, and spreade it very thick upon a lynnen cloth, and lay it so your eare is hot as you can suffer it, and lye upon the same syde, and when you do feel it stir, you must lye very still until it be come to the Aple, and then you must very sodainely pluck it away lest the Earewigge retorne into your heade againe. And if you thinkcke there be any extra laye a new one to your ear.

Presumably the earwig will be tempted by the sweet roasted apple and the warmth of the linen cloth and venture out of the ear canal, where he will be “sodainely” snatched away.

The use of smells to treat bodily ills was widespread, and in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipes for treating issues in the ear, smells and heat seem to be critical elements. On the same page as the earwig treatment, there are three recipes for “the singing in the Eares.” The first calls for baking a loaf of bread and spicing it with nutmeg, then placing it “as hotte as you may suffer it” next to the ear. The second such recipe advises boiling a quart of sack, spicing it, and pouring a little bit in the ear canal. And the third advises cutting off the top of an onion and filling it with mithridate (an unspecified poison antidote), salad oil, and aquavitae, then roasting the onion, wrapping it in a cloth, and holding it next to the sufferer’s ear.

Not all earwig recipes relied on heat and smell, however. Over at the blog Early Modern Medicine, Jennifer Evans has an example of an earwig recipe that uses no heat at all, but instead calls for poisoning the earwig with a combination of wormwood, rue, and southernwood.

Whether the literal bug or the figurative metaphor of a man who implants treason or heresy by crawling into the listener’s ear, earwigs clearly pointed to an early modern anxiety about vulnerability and interiority. If only a little bit of roasted apple placed on the ear could draw out all such anxieties!