Category Archives: Early Modern

A Source for Young Bees: On the Oil of Swallows, Part 2

By Rebecca Laroche, with Michelle DiMeo

In the ongoing dialogue with each other and with the archive, time at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has provided an addendum to our conversation about the medicament Oil of Swallows (see Michelle DiMeo’s analysis in the previous blogpost). The College holds a recipe book with the ownership inscription “Anne Layfielde / her booke of /Physicke & / Surgery / 1640,” and, in its first few pages it contains, like so many collections from this period, a recipe “To make oyle of Swallowes good for / Sinewes that be stray^ned.” As the hand in the section is wonderfully clear, no transcription seems necessary:

MS 10a214, fols. 5-6. Courtesy of the Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

This recipe is very like that found in Gervase Markham’s English Husvvife, with its twenty-two herbal ingredients and 20 “quick” swallows. Indeed, many examples of the Oil of Swallow recipe, such as that found in the 1654 collection of Elizabeth Jacob, seem to be copied verbatim from print sources:

Wellcome Library MS 3009, Digital Image 71

Unlike the Jacob example, however, the recipe from the Layfielde collection contains several variations, most notably, the topic of this post, the addition of “2 handfull of yong bees before they be ready to fly.”

A side-by-side comparison with the Markham makes it immediately clear what the issue is. What is “the tops of young bays” (bay leaves) in the print text miraculously (or less so) metamorphoses into “yong bees.” Whether this has resulted from oral transmission— “bees” sounding like “bays”—in the early modern English tongue or the mistranscription of a cramped italic hand, each is equally a viable possibility. Neither of these explanations, however, accounts for the “before they be ready to fly.”

We thus return to the evolution of a recipe as it makes its way through the archive. The ingredient of 20 quick swallows having necessitated a description of how and when to capture them and what to do with the feathers, the inclusion of young bees also raises the questions of “how” and “when.” The precedent of the swallows thus provides the answer, “before they be ready to fly.” This recipe contains other variations in the addition (tunhoofe, vervain, pellitory, thyme) or omission (tutsan and valerian) of specific herbs, and in the details of where to keep the ointment cool for nine days (Markham says “in a seller or cold place,” and this recipe says to “sett it a foote within the ground”).(1) How and when these changes occur in writing of the recipe is impossible to know for certain.

Also unknowable is whether or not the recipe with the young bees was actually made. We have testimony at the end of the recipe that it is “most approued per Eliza Downing.” Of the 134 recipes written in this humanist italic, 42 are attributed to Elizabeth Downing, “Eliza: Downing,” or “ED,” either alone or in conjunction with another practitioner.(2) This suggests that Elizabeth Downing is a central origin of the collection in general, and the addition to the recipe certainly could have been made after it left her hands in the process of posthumous transmission.

If the variation occurs in her practice, however, does this deviation indicate nothing more than a colorful moment in textual history, and should we thus collect such moments as we do spellchecker bloopers? What if such moments could actually transform the recipe indefinitely, adding and subtracting not through practice but through the fallible processes of transmission? Or, as another recipe proved by Elizabeth Downing later in the collection, one “To provoak urine,” begins “Take dead bees” and others call for honey and beeswax, might we imagine Mistress Downing among her beehives?(3)  Might we consequently see each collection as a new context for potential revision, one provided by the products of the household and the experience of the practitioner, as well as the illegibility of handwriting?


(1) Gervase Markham, Covntrey Contentments, or the English Husvvife (London, 1623), 52.

(2) The identity of Elizabeth Downing as possibly the mother of the historical figure Calybute Downing and/or the “Mrs. Downing” who is named with more than a dozen recipes in Natura Exenterata (1655) is in part the subject of my research during a two-week residence at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I have also begun to locate the Layfields in time and place. Many thanks to the Francis Clark Wood Institute for its support.

(3) This imagining has brought me in dialogue with the recent work of Amy L. Tigner on beehives and honey as she presented it at Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference in Fortworth, TX, October 28, 2011.

On the “Oil of Swallows”, Part 1: Did anyone actually use these outrageous remedies?

By Michelle DiMeo, with Rebecca Laroche

Part of the appeal of old medical remedies is that many are filled with seemingly outrageous ingredients. A recipe “For deaffnesse” attributed to Sir Kenelm Digby, Fellow of the Royal Society, required one to “Take a hare new killed, Take out the bladder in which you will still find some urine … soe pouer into each eare by degrees”. The recipe concludes by suggesting one continue to do this “for several dayes with new hares”.[1] The chemist Robert Boyle’s medical remedy book includes plenty of unsavory ingredients, including wood lice and earth worms, as well a treatment for dysentery that involves drinking baked pig’s dung.[2] This, coupled with the fact that many early modern recipe books do not show all the burns, spills and edits one would expect to find in a heavily used book, leads to the question:  did anyone actually make these recipes? If so, how’d they accomplish it?

The “Oil of Swallows” is one such remedy. An early version may be found in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Husvvifes Ievvel [Housewife’s Jewel] from 1587, which begins “Take eight Swallowes readie to flie out of the nest, driue away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth, stampe them vntill the Fethers can not be perceiued” (fols. 50r-50v). It also requires the addition of approximately five herbs to be mixed with butter, and it eventually produces an oil that should be externally applied to aches and bruises.

The recipe continues to evolve over the next 100 years and seems increasingly less believable. By the mid-seventeenth century, “Oil of Swallows” is almost ubiquitous in recipe books; however, the number of swallows greatly increases, as do the number of additional ingredients. This may be due to certain print versions of the recipe, such as that found in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which requires more than two dozen separate ingredients and as many as 20 live swallows. This example from an anonymous manuscript compiled over the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries requires over twenty ingredients and “twenty Young Quick Swallows”, showing just how complicated the recipe became:

Late-17th-Century Recipe for "Oil of Swallows"
Wellcome Library, Western MS 1795, fol. 222v 

A historian’s first instinct might be to dismiss this as a remedy that was never actually tried. After all, how did they catch 20 live birds, and how did they beat them all in a mortar without the birds flying away? However, a closer reading of how the recipe language evolved over time shows contemporaries trying to sort through these complicated issues, providing tips for how and when to capture the birds, and what to do if you can’t get enough. Dawson’s recipe, quoted above, is an early example of this.[3]

But perhaps the best evidence that the “Oil of Swallows” was used is an undeniable reference to the final product in Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical “Rememberance”, written around 1639. Isham recalls having a recurring pain in her thigh in her early adulthood. In her closet, she found a glass jar, which, upon opening, she “thought it to be by the smell oiles of swallowes”. She deduced that it must be about 40 years old and that it was made by her great grandmother “Who was … very skillful in Surgery”. Isham’s aunt “thought it might have some virtue because it retained the sent [scent]. Being close stoped.” So Isham applied the ointment to her aching thigh and found some relief, noting that “it [came] foorth in a rednes and after weared away by de grees”.[4]

Isham’s “Rememberance” makes it impossible for us to deny that the “Oil of Swallows” was actually made, and it provides contextual information to help us better understand the recipe.  If we continue to read recipes against other available archival material, including letters, diaries, and account books, we might continue to find surprising evidence that these seemingly outrageous remedies really were tried and approved. But while Isham testifies to the use of “Oil of Swallows”, we still don’t know exactly which ingredients comprised the final product she tried. And as Rebecca Laroche will explain in Part 2 of this blog post on Thursday, the ingredients in this remedy were sometimes even stranger than just swallows and herbs…


This blog entry has been from adapted research used in the essay Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[1] British Library, Sloane MS 1367, fol. 19v. Contractions have been silently expanded.

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments (London, 1692), p. 7.

[3] For more examples, and for a more detailed analysis of the language, see the original essay on which this blog post was based: Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[4] Elizabeth Isham, “My Booke of Rememberance”, Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no.62, fols. 26v-27r. For an open-access modern spelling edition, see Constructing Elizabeth Isham, dirs.. Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow,

Word of Mouth: Sharing and Using Recipes in Seventeenth-Century France

Dr Vallant’s Portefeuilles (Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris) are a hodgepodge of information, with recipes for gateaux, remedies in French and Latin, medical case notes, letters, religious reflections, and poems kept side-by-side. Vallant was the household physician of famed salonnière Mme de Sablé (d. 1678) and, later, Mlle de Guise.  He was also regularly consulted by Madame’s friends and family and acted as her secretary. Vallant kept track of all treatments that he tried and the remedies that proved, or might prove, useful in his practice. The notebooks, in some ways, have much in common with our modern personal recipe collections: lots of random bits, from clippings to notes. But it is the informality of the collection that makes it such a useful source of information about the process of collecting and using recipes in early modern France.

The language that Vallant used to describe the transmission of recipes is intriguing: several of his recipes suggest the ways in which knowledge was passed to him by monks and nuns, apothecaries, physicians, and laywomen. Recipes were a form of social currency and were closely tied to patronage. This isn’t always explicit in English, but emerges more clearly in the formality of French. The Duchess of Orléans, for example, seems to have been the originating point for a couple recipes. Mme de la Haye (wife of the Duchess’ apothecary) ‘gave’ a cure for the sciatica, while Mme la Ursée (the Orléans’ governess) ‘shared’ a small pox remedy. The language here suggests that these recipes were gifts of the Duchess.

The reliance on oral knowledge is also striking. Vallant regularly noted that recipes had been passed verbally to him. Various people ‘told’ him their remedies, which he then entered into his notebooks. Mme la Norrice, for example, ‘said’ that after trying many remedies for toothaches she found ease only by putting cold water in her ear. Physician Mr Belay was a particularly frequent source of oral information. He ‘told’ Vallant a remedy for the ‘colours’ [vaginal flows] in 1676 and ‘discussed’ several for blood loss in 1681.

Recipes also took winding routes before ending up in Vallant’s possession. Belay ‘told’ Vallant a remedy for the stone that had been passed to him by Mr de Fromont, secretary to the Duke of Orléans, who had it in turn passed it to him. Belay had used the recipe with great success in treating a mutual patient, Mme de Guise. Vallant also included in his collection occasional recipes from print sources, listing some from Mme Fouquet’s famous book and keeping a cut-out excerpt for Mme Ledran’s balm and unguent.

Madame de Sable (Source: Wikipedia Commons) 

The Marquise de Sablé was condemned by historian André Crussaire as a hypochondriac (Un Médecin au XVIIe Siècle le Docteur Vallant: Une Malade Imaginaire, Mme de Sablé, Paris, 1910), partly because she kept a household physician and partly because so much of the notebooks and correspondence focus on health. But a close inspection reveals that much of the collection was Vallant’s attempt to keep track of his growing medical practice by writing down his successful cures. Under the heading ‘Escrouelles’ (King’s Evil, or scrofula), for example, he provided his case notes and recipe used to cure a thirty-six year old woman.

Elsewhere in the Portefeuilles, it is difficult to distinguish between what is purely Vallant’s or Mme de Sablé’s. In one section, there are several remedies for eye problems; it is perhaps no coincidence that Mme de Sablé suffered from eye trouble.  Three letters were addressed to Madame directly. All eye remedies were sent by friends: Abbé Charrier, Mme Daumon, the Marquis de la Motte, Countess d’Orche, Mr Chartier, Mme de St Ange and Mlle de Vertie. But was this primarily for her use, or for her physician?

Maybe both.

The books were kept as a practical source of working knowledge for both doctor and patron. The care taken in identifying a recipe’s sources and route of transmission was crucial in establishing two matters: reliability and reciprocity. Many recipes may have been passed on verbally rather than in writing, but this was no casual matter. As physician, Vallant needed to know if a recipe could be trusted before he tried it. As patron, Sablé needed to know the precise source of a remedy for social reasons: a recipe gained might be a favour owed… Something to keep in mind the next time you casually take a recipe from a friend and proceed to cram it into your recipe box without a second thought.

Social networks and sharing medical recipes: The receipt book of Amy Rowlands of Henblas

By Alun Withey

Much recent work by historians has highlighted the extent that medical knowledge was part of a ‘knowledge economy’ in the early modern period. Put simply, health and medicine were regular topics of conversation, whether in person or by letter. Just like today people told each other of their symptoms, suggested favourite remedies or recommended particular doctors. In some ways too, early modern people were perhaps more sensitive to their own bodies than we are today; they understood their bodies through a framework of the four humours, and had some idea of their own particular humoral balance. Also, they monitored their health constantly, ever vigilant for potentially unusual or dangerous changes.

With less easy access to medical practitioners for many of the population, self-medication was the first recourse in times of sickness. It made sense to have an armoury of remedies at the ready, just in case. In literate households, manuscript collections of remedies were effectively the next best thing to a consultation with a physician. But how were these collections assembled? Where did the remedies come from? By looking at a typical eighteenth-century recipe book in more detail, we can start to see the ways that medical information travelled through social networks in early modern Britain.

Between roughly 1706 and 1717, Amy Rowlands of the wealthy Rowlands family of Plas Gwyn, Anglesey, compiled her own book of medical and culinary receipts (available to see at the University of Bangor library, as MS Henblas A5). Her book is typical of the form. It is carefully laid out, written in a fair hand and fully indexed, following the format of a ‘receptaria’ medical book.  The image below is from the first page of the book, where Amy seems to be trying out a few writing exercises, based on a moral pnemonic.

Amy’s book contains more than a hundred recipes for a variety of conditions and using a wide range of ingredients. This one, “for the stone”, is fairly typical.

“Dry the roots of Red nettles and make them into pouder and drink a spooonfull of the powder thereof in a draught of white wine something warme and it will break the stone though itt bee ever soe great. And that with speed use it every day until the stone and gravell be all broken and consumed, A thinge of smale prices and great virtue”.

Looking through the book, it is clear that the sources of Amy’s recipes were broad, and included local acquaintances as well as a variety of more intriguing sources. Some, for example, were clearly given directly to her by people from her network of family and friends. Examples of these include:

To make Ginger Bread with honey Madam Griffiths way’‘To make Ginger Bread the best way Cosen Sidney Rowland is way’.

“Madam Griffiths is more difficult to trace, but ‘Cosen Sidney Rowland’ lived in Dewis Bren near Llangollen, and therefore in reasonably close proximity to Amy.  “A Reciept for a Consumptick Cough” was provided by  “Mrs Jane Williams of Ty yn ystrithsons”, clearly another acquaintance, as was a recipe for “flower water” attributed to Mrs Griffiths of Carnarvon – again, in very close proximity to Amy’s Anglesey home.

Aside from family and friends, there were other potential sources of remedies. One recipe, for example, was kept from a consultation with a practitioner:

“A Diett drink Dr Humphreys Recett to me Amy Rowlands

Take of the bark of Ash of the tender twigs of tamarisk of each two ounces of the same of Brooklime: scurvy grass, Liverwort, Hartshorn, Agrimony: Sage of each one handful: of Sene three ounces. Bruse all these and infuse them in seven quarts of smale(?) ale: after 24 hours you may drink of itt about half a pint furst in the morning and last att night you may ad quince seeds Brused to correct the wind if you please”.

For me, these records are especially interesting. Firstly, and obviously, they confirm that Amy sought the help of a doctor – one ‘Dr Humphreys’. Receipts attributed to doctors often appear in remedy collections, without the author having necessarily ever consulted the physician in question. Hence can be found remedies such as “Dr Butler’s receipt for the plague water”, noted in several collections from Wales at this time.  The inclusion of the title leant provenance and value to the remedy, especially if it had a positive reputation. Amy’s note here, however, strongly suggests that she had met (or perhaps consulted by post) this “Dr Humphreys”, and she recorded his directions for future use. Locating Humphreys is difficult given the commonness of his surname, but he was likely a local practitioner or apothecary, and unlikely to have been licensed.

Indeed, Amy Rowlands was seemingly not overly concerned about the ‘professional’ credentials of a practitioner; it was the reputation of a remedy that mattered more. A remedy for a ‘Meigrim in the head’ is included, attributed to “Pembrockshir Bess” – perhaps a cunning woman or magical healer.

Sources could, though, also come from much further afield, and suggested spread by word of mouth, rather than personal acquaintance.  The remedy below is attributed to “Mrs Pitt who lived in Stippleton in Dorsettshire” and is a receipt to make “a very good seercloth”. Amy included a note that she had made this recipe herself, and found it good – perhaps the best indicator of its reliability.

The efficacy of a remedy, though, was not just based on whether it had cured the author of the collection; the opinions and testimonials of others were just as valuable.

‘An infallible cure for sore Eies effected on Captain Fitspatrick in London when Given Over by all doctors, Given me by Mr Moris Owens of Holy Head

Taking some Garlick and pound them and bay salt together into a sort of a pultiss and apling them to the soles of the feet spread on leather for nine nights sucksesifly the which has done a wonderful cure upon the above Gentilman

In this example, the benefactor of the remedy was “Mr Moris Owens’ who perhaps (although by no means certainly) knew the ‘Captain Fitspatrick’ upon whom the initial remedy was so successful. Here, the remedy had travelled a physical distance (from London to North Wales), but had also moved through a social network by several removes, connecting people who otherwise had nothing to link them.

It is this last point that really highlights the value of these fantastic sources. They certainly reveal much about medicines, ingredients and the physical processes of manufacturing remedies in the early modern period. But, in cases where authorship and attributions are known, they also reveal much about the diversity of sources of medical information and the sheer wealth of medical knowledge that was available. Far from being helpless in the face of sickness, people in fact were surrounded by potential sources of relief. Recipe collections offer us a unique insight into this process.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog: (19 July 2012).