All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.


* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!

Historical Recipes: A Round-Up

The Recipes Project has an active Twitter account (@historecipes) and November has been very fruitful for interesting links. Maybe it has something to do with the nights drawing in, or the festive season rapidly approaching… The following links are the ones that proved most popular with our followers (at least judging by retweets).

The month started with John Gallagher at Earlymodernjohn reflecting on the history of soul cakes and live-tweeting his baking experience.

The Twitterverse was also all a-flutter with an exciting DIY history project at the University of Iowa Libraries: public transcription of the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks Collection.

On Guy Fawkes Day, we learned how to make fireworks seventeenth-century style at the Whipple Library Books Blog and how to remove ear worms using milk and honey at Sloane Letters Blog. A few days later, Shakespeare’s England shared the secrets of setting a fancy table, napkin folding and turning a peacock into a porcupine. As you do.

There have also been some tantalizing historical recipes: gingerbread (Travels and Travails in Eighteenth-Century England), sippet pudding (Colonial Williamsburg), Louis XIV’s favourite braised chicken (Chateau de Versailles) and — for smelling, anyhow — Martha Lloyd’s milk of roses and pot-pourri (The Jane Austen’s House Museum Blog).

The last entry is a recent discovery on my end rather than one found via Twitter: Sarah Duff at Tangerine and Cinnamon discussing “Dude Food”. Duff neatly pulls together gender, professional kitchen culture, and the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking.

November’s been a good month for blog posts–and it’s not even over yet!

Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

London Seminar on an Early Modern Recipe Collection

This just in from Sara Pennell…

There is an upcoming seminar that may interest many of you. Ashley Buchanan will be speaking on ‘The Alchemical, Medicinal, and Culinary Recipe Collection of an Eighteenth Century Princess: Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743)’.

  • Date: Wednesday, 7 November
  • Time: 5 p.m.
  • Place: University of Roehampton, Roehampton Lane Campus
  • Room: Howard 103, Digby Stuart College

All welcome. If you would like further information, please contact: