Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Ill Composed: Sickness, Writing, and Recipes in Early Modern England

By Olivia Weisser

weisser.bookWhen we get sick, it is fairly common to look to others’ experiences to make sense of what ailment we have, where we got it, and when we might recover. The interesting thing about the 1600s is that women made these sorts of comparisons more frequently than men. There are several explanations for this pattern, which I explore in my book, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2015). The explanation I want to discuss here involves recipes (of course!). And that’s because recipes taught users to compare themselves to other people.

Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.
Image credit: Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.

Some inserted the name of the person who provided or recommended a recipe. Ann Fanshawe’s book lists names next to recipes for treating all kinds of conditions, such as bloody flux and the bite of a mad dog. On this page of Fanshawe’s book, for instance, Lady Beadles, Kenelm Digby, and “My Mother” are written in the margins. (On the authorship of these inscriptions, see this post.)

We also see Fanshawe’s own name, which suggests that she tested her recipes to see whether they were worthwhile. As Elaine Leong has discussed in another post, Fanshawe crossed out the recipes that didn’t work.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.
Image credit: Wellcome Library, London, Lady Ann Fanshawe, Recipe Book, MS 7113.

Some women noted others’ experiences alongside recipes in even more explicit ways. Writing in 1674 in a book now held at the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS V.a. 215), Susannah Packe included the following note below a cure for convulsions: “Approved by Ma:Sa: for all her Children was very successful.” Assigning authorship or naming someone who benefited from a recipe proved its worth, and also provided a way for readers to evaluate their own conditions. Packe and Fanshawe compared their own experiences to those of the men and women listed in the margins of their books.

When Elizabeth Hastings learned that her sister-in-law was sick in 1731, she penned a letter almost entirely devoted to the healing properties of snail water. This letter is now housed at the Huntington Library in California (HA 4741). She included a receipt for preparing the water, which is now lost, but may have involved distilling a pasty mixture of crushed snails, milk, mint, nutmeg, and dates. She also included directions for using the water (one spoonful taken with two to three spoonfuls of spa water) and even sent a bottle in the post so that her sister-in-law could “make a tryale of it.” She also listed people she knew who found the snail water useful. “Lady Ramsden from whom I had it has known surprizing Cases in Wastings of the Flesh,” she wrote. Also, “my Sister Ann’s servant Mrs. Dove is one instance who I believe would not have been now alive but for it.” This communal production, circulation, and validation of medical knowledge taught women to assess their bodies by looking to the words and experiences of others.

Why did women look to others to evaluate their ailing bodies more frequently than men? Recipes were not an all-female genre of writing, after all. Men wrote and collected them too. Recipes, however, are one of the only forms of medical writing in the period that substantial numbers of women authored. While men documented medical matters in all kinds of genres of writing, such as casebooks and treatises, recipes were the prime mode by which literate early modern women recorded and shared medical information. Perhaps, then, recipes helped teach women in early modern England to look to others’ bodies as a way of better assessing their own.

For more about gender, illness, and healthcare in early modern England, check out Olivia’s book: Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England.