Category Archives: Early Modern

Indigo or no indigo?

Marieke Hendriksen

Fermenting indigo at Ock Pop Tock, Laos. January 2018.

When you say indigo, the first thing many people will think of is blue – jeans blue. (Or if you’re me, you’ll think first of a seventeenth-century recipe to make decorative blue prunes from wax with indigo. Occupational deformation.) But historically, indigo has been used in many more ways, and to make more dye colours than just blue, as I recently discovered. Today, most jeans are died using a synthetic blue dye, but indigo dyes, made from some of the over 750 species of the genus Indigofera as well as from some other plants, have been used to dye textiles for at least 6,000 years, while other subspecies of Indigofera were traditionally used as analgesics with anti-inflammatory properties.

The term ‘indigo’ according to the OED started to occur from the sixteenth century onwards in various European languages to denote blue dyes from India (or east Asia more generally), but can now also refer more generally to dyes, violet-blue light, or blue hues. It might be argued that the term only really applies to dyes created from Indigofera subspecies, while it could also be said that indigo is any dye created from plants through the decomposition of the glucoside indican, which exists not merely in the indigo-plant, but in woad and various other plants too.

Wash the freshly picked leaves…

While on holiday in Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a weaving and dying workshop with Ock Pop Tock, an organization that was established to preserve the traditional Laotian craft of making hand-loomed textiles. There, I discovered that there is more indigo besides Indigofera, and that one indigo plant can give many more dyes than just blue. They also have a wonderful informative website on natural dyes. At Ock Pop Tock, the plant species used to create indigo dyes is Persicaria tinctoria, or long leaf Japanese indigo, a plant indigenous not to Japan but to China, Vietnam, and Laos. Depending on how the leaves are treated, it can be used to create blue, green, black, and mauve.

…give them a good pounding to create a dye.

Using the fresh leaves creates a green dye, fermenting them for at least five days and adding limestone as a mordant gives a blue dye. Traditionally, the Lao believed that the dye was female, and that it fermented because it attracted a male spirit. To coax the spirit, the pots containing the dye would be dressed in a skirt, and a knife placed on top of the lid to ward off evil spirits that could ruin the dye. The fermentation is actually a naturally occurring oxidation process, with atmospheric oxygen as the oxidant. Regular stirring ensures the process continues. The longer the indigo mixture is left to ferment, the darker it turns. If this mixture is boiled, it turns black. Alternatively, a rare indigenous plant, mak bow or bow vine, can be added to the blue dye to create mauve.

The end result: a beautiful scarf

As part of the half-day workshop, I got to dye a silk scarf with a dye of my choice. I love green hues and wanted to make a dye from start to finish, so I chose to dye my scarf ‘indigo’ green. This was, apart from some pretty intense pounding of leaves, surprisingly easy. I got to pick fresh Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the beautiful garden, washed them, and mashed them vigorously in a mortar for about five minutes. Then I transferred the mashed leaves into a tub, added some cold water and then the raw silk scarf. After kneading the dye into the fabric for a couple of minutes, I could rinse my scarf and hang it to dry. The end result is a beautiful soft green scarf, that is not just a souvenir, but a tangible reminder of the traditional Laotian knowledge about natural dyes preserved and shared at Ock Pop Tock.

Placing Historical Recipes in Fiction: The Lady of the Tower

By Elizabeth St.John

Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthven being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she (Lucy St.John Apsley) suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians. By these means she acquired a great deal of skill, which was very profitable to many all her life. She was not only to these, but to all the other prisoners that came into the Tower, as a mother. All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made them broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.

Lucy Hutchinson
Biographical Fragment
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson

Leaping from the pages of Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs, this insight to a seventeenth-century woman’s life within the Tower of London immediately set me on a hunt for more information about Lucy St.John and the world she inhabited. Writing about her mother, Lucy Hutchinson chose to focus on the attributes of medicinal skills and recipes she used to tend to the prisoners within the Tower. This paragraph inspired the writing of my debut best-selling novel, The Lady of the Tower, and sent me on a glorious journey into the methods and curatives that were an everyday part of Lucy’s life.

Portrait of Lady Johanna St.John by kind permission of Lydiard House & Park.

These  seventeenth-century remedies were precious commodities exchanged by family and friends alike. And since Lucy St.John would have known her nephew’s wife, Lady Johanna St.John, it was no stretch of the “probable” for me to think that Lucy would be familiar with the recipes within Johanna’s collection, or may even have contributed some of her own.

Already acquainted with Lady Johanna and the Lydiard estate through my own family records, I delved into her recipe book, which is archived at The Wellcome Library in London. (Ed. note: this recipe book has been of much interest to many of us here at The Recipes Project, too! See these posts.) The beautifully preserved leather-bound book contains recipes designed to help a knowledgeable and educated woman manage the health of her family, servants and livestock. Relying on a great deal of herbal wisdom, as well as the more exotic ingredients found in the London apothecaries, Lady Johanna’s book is a testament to the importance placed on remedies, in an age where so little was still known about the body and its infirmities. When I decided to use extracts from the book to illustrate Lucy’s learnings in The Lady of the Tower, I was fascinated to discover that many of the herbal properties and therapies Lady Johanna recommend are still used in pharmaceutical production today.

Extract and Photograph is of Lady Johanna Saint John’s Recipe Book, archived at The Wellcome Library, London, MS 4338.

One particular recipe of interest is that for “Gilbert’s Water.”

It is bad for nothing it cures wind and the colick restoreth decayed nature good for a consumption expels poison & all infection from the Hart helps digestion purifies the blood gives motion to the spirits drives out the smallpox for the grippes in young children weomen in labor bringeth the Afterbirth stops floods for sounding and faintings

Lady Johanna St.John
Recipe Book

Lady Johanna devotes two pages of her precious recipe book to Adrian Gilbert’s Cordial Water, which was perhaps indicative of the importance she placed on its curative powers. The recipe itself was complex, requiring Dragons Burnett leaves (probably the simple dragon’s mace, a common weed), and then moving on to a page full of rarer ingredients, such as “Crab’s eyes taken in the full of the moon.”  Promoting the contemporary belief man shared the virtue of the plants digested, Mr Gilbert was taking no chances with his curative, empowering the recipient with dragon strength to fight his condition.

But there is more to the story. Adrian Gilbert was a well-known alchemist and amateur scientist, and half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, himself a distinguished botanist. Adrian’s brother, Humphrey Gilbert, was under the patronage of Robert Cecil and Robert Dudley who maintained an alchemical laboratory in Limehouse. Now it gets interesting. When Sir Walter Raleigh was under the care of Lucy St.John during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, Lucy funded his scientific experiments, lending him her hen house in which to perform his alchemy. I don’t believe it is that much of a stretch to think that Sir Walter and his half-brother Adrian Gilbert traded medicinal recipes, nor that Lucy St.John would keep a record of any precious curatives that came into her possession. For her to then pass these on to her niece, who shared her passion for botany, gardens and curatives, would be a natural occurrence.

Writing credible historical fiction is always about linking the probables, and in connecting Lucy St.John with Lady Johanna and using their common interest in medicinal curatives, I brought truth to my narrative. What is undisputed is these interesting women’s common desire to protect their families and charges from the dangers of seventeenth-century life, and a shared concern for health, hope for treatment, and the rewards of recovery.

The Lydiard Chronicles. Available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.


Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost.

Following Valerian: New Name, Old Idea

Katherine Foxhall

In late August, 1781, Sir Charles Blagden, physician, Francophile, army surgeon and Fellow (later to be Secretary) of the Royal Society of London received a letter from his friend, Thomas Curtis. Curtis was concerned about the health of his son, who for more than a decade had suffered a ‘very peculiar kind of head ach’ with ‘a dizziness, or partial vision’, and which recently seemed to coincide with the fortnightly full or changed moon. Curtis had sought the opinions of plenty of doctors, but their prescriptions had failed. Blagden responded swiftly. He proposed that the young man was suffering from what the French called migraine. Blagden was not convinced that the moon’s phases were causing Curtis’ illness, but if the young man’s disease returned on 12 September 1781 (the date of the next full moon), Blagden instructed that the young Mr Curtis should have twelve ounces of blood taken a week later, and then to trial valerian ‘in considerable doses’, increasing the dose until his stomach could bear no more.

'Valerian'. Credit: Wellcome Collection:
‘Valerian’. Credit: Wellcome Collection:

Having long been known as an anticonvulsant, by the middle of the eighteenth century the herb Valerian had become something of a fashionable prescription for treating migraine. The distinguished physician Richard Mead, author of the famous Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies (1748) recommended frequent use of valerian root for periodic diseases of the head ‘pulverized before it shoot out its stalk’.[1] This seems to have prompted the Scottish physician John Fordyce to try it for his own hemicrania. Finding it of very great benefit, he recommended taking drachm doses of valerian three or four times a day in his essay De Hemicrania (1765). Erasmus Darwin included both bleeding and valerian in Zoonomia as treatments for the symptoms of hemicrania, and physicians throughout the nineteenth century would continue to recommend the herb. Such influential texts explain why Blagden turned to valerian for his young patient’s periodic ailment, but it struck me that this had not been one of the herbs that I had come across during the many months I had spent researching the Wellcome Library’s collection of recipe books for seventeenth century migraine remedies, though Nicholas Culpeper talked of valerian’s warming properties, and recommended the root for headache, diseases of the eyes, wounds splinters and thorns. I forgot about Curtis, and moved on. Then, by accident, I discovered that the valerian family also contains a plant called spikenard, and the penny dropped. Like valerian root, spikenard has an earthy musky odour, and a similar effect on the body – having sedative and relaxing properties. Suddenly, valerian didn’t appear to be an eighteenth-century story, but an episode in a longer history, which I’ve written about here before.

But the story goes back even further. The dispensatory of the Nestorian physician and pharmacologist Sābūr ibn Sahl, from southwestern Iran, is one of the earliest pharmacopeia written in Arabic. Dating from the ninth century CE, it provides important evidence of medieval Eastern Arabic medical practice. In Chapter Four of the dispensatory instructions set out the preparation of nard oil, an expensive essential oil with sedative properties used to treat hemicrania, among other things. This was an expensive recipe requiring a large investment to collect over twenty herbal ingredients (including cyprus, laurel, elecampane, citronella, myrtle leaves, wild caraway, forget-me-not, sweet marjoram, stalkless roses, fresh myrtle-water, myrrh and grape ivy), and prepare them with different liquids in three stages taking several days. The third stage took Indian spikenard (the ingredient that gave ‘nard oil’ its name), pounded together with cloves, storax, nutmeg, added to fresh water, balm oil and the strained oil from the previous two stages. Then the whole concoction should be boiled until the water had disappeared, before being bottled, stored and used as required.

Remedies for 'Mygreyn' in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136:
Remedies for ‘Mygreyn’ in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136:

Several centuries later, we find a mid fifteenth-century English ‘leechbook’ contained a recipe for migraine attributed to ‘Galen the good philosopher’ that required several of these same ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a pennyweight of ‘spiknard’, anise, elecampane, liquorice, and sugar. By the sixteenth century, spikenard was appearing in print. In 1526, the anonymously published A New Book of Medecynes gave a recipe for migraine, postume and dropsy requiring ‘iiii peny weyght of the rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, ground together and boiled in good vinegar. The compilers of recipe books (including this blog’s favourite Mrs Corlyon) adapted these remedies to local conditions, substituting herbs of similarly warm, dry and aromatic qualities (such as sage and rosemary) that they could more easily obtain or grow. Following translations is notoriously hard, as Sietske Fransen’s post shows, but spikenard and valerian have weaved their way through more than a thousand years of migraine history. Does it work? Perhaps. It certainly has sedative properties, so today it’s more commonly used for insomnia.

[1] Richard Mead, A Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced trans. Richard Stack (London: J. Brindley, 1748), 84-6

Katherine Foxhall is Lecturer in Modern History at University of Leicester. Her new book, a history of migraine, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.

Old Cookbooks, New Audiences

By Sarah Peters Kernan

In my last post I mentioned that relatively few medieval cookbooks included menus for actual events. The ones that did were typically included in cookeries originally composed for noble households; by the fifteenth century, these cookeries were being used by gentry and professional households as aspirational texts. That is, readers would use these cookbooks to learn about the foods served in the social class to which they aspired.[1] This continued into the early years of printing. In England, Richard Pynson printed the first vernacular cookery in 1500, based on recipes originally circulated in manuscript form.[2] Despite being a printed book, the Book of Cookery is very similar to typical medieval cookeries. The size of the book and appearance of the text mirrors many fifteenth-century manuscript cookeries. The black gothic typeface is unadorned, nary a decorated capital or border in sight. Clearly differentiating the printed text from a manuscript one is the lack of rubrication, which speckles so many handwritten recipes.

Printer's mark of Richard Pynson.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Printer’s mark of Richard Pynson. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Book of Cookery begins with the menus of several fourteenth and fifteenth-century noble feasts: one hosted by Henry IV at a Smithfield joust, the coronation feast of Henry V, a feast of the Earl of Huntingdon at Calais, a feast held for the king in London by the Earl of Warwick, the installation feast of Bishop Clifford in London, and an installation feast for the Archbishop of York in 1465.[3] The author describes several other untitled feasts before discussing dishes appropriate for various seasons. Following this calendar, which also serves as a recipe index, the author provides 275 recipes for dishes familiar to late medieval nobles. The text is filled with high status birds and fish fit for noble tables.

Longleat House. John Edward Jackson, The History of Longleat (Devizes, 1857), 10. Source: The British Library.

The Book of Cookery now exists as a unique copy in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House. It is bound with a fragment of a tract, also printed by Pynson in 1500.[4] This text, Remembraunce for the traduction of the Princesse Kateryne, lists noblemen and women assigned to escort Catherine of Aragon through England upon her arrival from Spain in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur. Only two leaves of the tract are bound with the Book of Cookery. This tract presents an interesting counterpoint to the cookbook, as the list of nobles seems an appropriate way to conclude a book which begins with descriptions of feasts for or hosted by specific nobles in the preceding century.

I have located a reference to one other copy of the 1500 edition of the Book of Cookery in a list of books in the possession of James Morice, a gentleman in the service of Lady Margaret Beaufort.[5] Morice recorded a list of his twenty-three books in his copy of Cicero’s De senectute. His copy was bound with seven other texts, including books on courtesy, carving, and verse.[6] Morice’s books appealed to nobles and gentry refining their manners and intelligence.

Shortly after he printed the Book of Cookery, Pynson moved his printing shop inside the city of London and became the royal printer.[7] He printed a variety of texts and genres within the reading preferences of professionals, gentry, and nobles. His wholesale book prices reflected this range, priced between 20 d and 10 s, with most valued at 2 s.[8] The Book of Cookery was probably priced at 2 s. Given that 2 s was the equivalent of four days wages for a master craftsmen, the Book of Cookery was an expensive book, though still more affordable than manuscript cookeries.[9]

Once printed, the Book of Cookery made a noble manuscript cookery available to a larger number of people. Such a book would appeal to noble households as a tool for planning meals, as well as gentlemen aspiring to be more like their social superiors. The cookery’s incipit specifically targets these higher status readers rather than reaching out to a broad audience. Neither Pynson nor any other hand involved in the printing changed the incipit to reflect a desire to reach a new audience. Pynson’s output also targeted a higher status audience, one that encompassed professionals, gentry, and nobles. The tract fragment bound with the extant Book of Cookery also suggests a gentry or noble reader who wanted or needed information about Catherine of Aragon’s travels. Additionally, the two known copies of the book were housed in the private libraries of noble estates. It is notable that the extant copy of the book was consistently preserved in an estate library, passed down through several generations.

The Book of Cookery is an excellent example of the way readers used cookbooks at the turn of the sixteenth century, devouring menus and recipes to learn how to imitate higher social classes.



[1] Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016).

[2] Here begynneth a noble boke of festes ryalle and Cokery (London: Richard Pynson, 1500). Henceforth I will refer to this book as the Book of Cookery. For the book’s manuscript sources, see Constance Hieatt, “Richard Pynson’s Noble Boke of Festes Ryalle and Cokery and its Relationship to Two Analogous Manuscripts,” Journal of the Early Book Society 1 (1997), 78–95; Robina Napier, ed., A Noble Boke off Cookry ffor a Prynce Houssolde or eny other Estately Houssolde; Reprinted Verbatim from a Rare MS. in the Holkham Collection (Elliot Stock, 1882).

[3] Book of Cookery, fols. aiir–avir.

[4] Kate Harris, “Richard Pynson’s Remembraunce for the Traduction of the Princesse Kateryne: the Printer’s Contribution to the Reception of Catharine of Aragon,” The Library XII, no. 2 (June 1990): 99.

[5] J. C. T. Oates, “English Bokes Concernyng to James Morice,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 3, no. 2 (1960), 124–32.

[6] Oates, 130–31.

[7] Frank Burgoyne, “Printers of England, I.—Richard Pynson,” The Library Assistant: The Official Organ of the Library Assistants’ Association IV (1905): 148.

[8] Henry Plomer, “Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson,” The Library X, no. 38 (April 1909): 126–27. The “d” is an abbreviation for pence. There were twelve pence in one shilling (s), and twenty shillings in one pound.

[9] “Prices & Wages (Munro),” MEMDB: Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank,