Category Archives: Education

The Working of Herbs, Part 4: The Herb Monograph

By Anne Stobart
In my previous posts I have raised issues about looking at medicinal herbs in terms of contemporary and modern understandings (see the Working of Herbs, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). My interest stems from my background as historical researcher and also as a trained clinical practitioner of herbal medicine in the UK. I have spent over a decade teaching students on one of the few professional practitioner degree courses in the UK at Middlesex University.
So, how do we get accurate information which is based on modern knowledge for each of the herbal ingredients in a recipe? What referenced sources are readily available, and how do we recognise when information about herbs is reliable?  Here I suggest that a way forward is to look for sources that can provide a good herb monograph.

What is a herb monograph?

Essentially, a modern herb monograph is a compilation or report about a specific herb providing detailed information which is organised in a logical structure, including botanical and pharmaceutical information.[1] Monographs can vary in length, from a single page summary to a multi-page text, and may include the following details:

  • botanical and common name(s)
  • identifying characteristics of the plant
  • traditional uses
  • constituents
  • herbal actions
  • research findings
  • clinical indications
  • preparations and products
  • prescribing information with dosages
  • references

Published herb monographs have served an important role in ensuring the quality of herbal supplies by including detailed descriptions of their physical characteristics, particularly of dried herbs in trade.[2] More recently, some excellent updated herb monographs have been compiled by professional clinical practitioners and include safety information such as contraindications and potential side effects, alongside extensive listings of research papers.[3] Such monographs provide a basic foundation for herbal practitioners in training (often students are asked to compile their own). If herb monographs are comprehensive and effectively referenced, with the inclusion of key plant constituents and herbal actions, they should also be helpful to historical researchers. Finding a good range of reliable herb monographs can be a challenge …. but there are some sources online.

Where can you find herbal monographs online?

Figure 1. American Botanic Council monographs
Figure 1. American Botanic Council monographs

(a) The American Botanic Council  has published an extensive set of herbal monographs which are available online to subscribers, particularly useful for herbal clinical practitioners.

(b) European Medicines Agency. These (not very aptly named) ‘community herbal monographs’ are published online, forming the basis of herbal medicine and traditional product regulation in the European Community. A limited range of herbs is covered: for example ash, bittersweet, horehound, lime flower, liquorice, oregano, primula, thyme. Each monograph includes common names in all languages within the European Community and this may be of interest for some researchers.

Figure 2. World Health Organization Monographs
Figure 2. World Health Organization Monographs

(c) World Health Organisation. A range of monographs were published in four volumes between 1999-2005 and some give extensive detail online, including herbs such as cinnamon, lemon balm, mallow, rosemary. Volume 1 can be found online and links to the other volumes are provided. An index is provided for each volume with listings of plant constituents.

(d) Several online subscription-based sources of monographs are regularly updated with the latest clinical research findings. These can provide considerable detail on individual herbs, for example the Natural Standard database where both summaries and extensive versions of natural product monographs can be obtained. Some other collections of information appear to draw on these monographs, for example, the Plant Profiler‘ pages.

Figure 3. Natural Standard on 'Foods, Herbs and Supplements'
Figure 3. Natural Standard on ‘Foods, Herbs and Supplements’

What makes a good herb monograph?

There is no agreed standard for herb monographs and length of monograph is not a guide to quality of information! Some good sources are ‘potted’ versions [4] but others may give very limited information and lack references. Be wary of the summary such as Herbs at a Glance which provides a condensed version of details drawn from other sources, and lacks clear referencing. Or WebMD (for example on Hyssop) which rarely indicates herb constituents and provides very limited references. On the other hand, some lengthy monographs can be so repetitive and technical to the point that it is hard to understand them. Overall, a ‘good’ monograph source should ideally be comprehensible and be well-referenced, but there are several key things to look out for – these are herb constituents and actions.

Need to know herbal constituents and actions

With the rise of evidence-based medicine, many plant monographs are being revised to exclude traditional uses of plants unless some published research has been carried out. This can narrow down details considerably. For historical researchers the modern designations given to health complaints are not necessarily appropriate, indeed sometimes there is no way to identify a specific condition in the past. However, if it is possible to identify herb constituents and associated actions then we can make sense of the many ways in which a herb might be used. Herbal actions are closely connected with plant constituents – for example, an astringent action or drying effect is found in herbs which are rich in tannins. – this may be appropriate in numerous internal and external complaints, for example, from injuries with blood loss to weeping sores. Monograph sources which provide details of plant constituents and herbal actions are definitely worth seeking out and the references below [3 and 4] are useful examples.


The herbal monograph provides an organised set of information about an individual plant, ideally giving details of traditional uses, constituents, actions, and research findings with references.  A reliable herbal monograph saves a lot of time and effort searching for evidence. In my next post I consider further detail about plants in a particular recipe in terms of their active constituents and medicinal actions.


[1] A useful web site in the US which outlines finding and using herbal monographs is run by Bastyr University.

[2] Such information is still useful for bulk herb supplies in the pharmaceutical trade, for example William C. Evans, Trease and Evans’ Pharmacognosy, 16th ed (Elsevier, 2009). Also see British Herbal Medicine Association Scientific Committee, British Herbal Pharmacopoeia (Bournemouth: BHMA, 1983). Some highly detailed US monographs are individually published, such as Roy Upton, ed. American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Therapeutic Compendium: Willow Bark, Salix Spp. Analytical, Quality Control and Therapeutic Monograph. (Santa Cruz: America Herbal Pharmacopoeia, December 1999).

[3] An authoritative text compiled by herbal practitioners is that of Kerry Bone and Simon Mills, The Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine  (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2000). This text is currently being re-issued in expanded form (and would be a good Christmas present for a herbal practitioner!).

[4] For example, the useful brief herb descriptions in Potter’s New Cyclopedia (covering many native and exotic herbal remedies) which have been considerably revised, to the extent that it may be preferable to locate an older edition such as R. C. Wren, Elizabeth M. Williamson, and Fred J. Evans. Potter’s New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations, rev. ed. (Saffron Walden: C. W. Daniel, 1988).

Learning to cook in early modern England. Part I

By Sara Pennell

Where do recipes fit into historical understanding of pedagogical processes around food? Various scholars (including myself) have speculated about the compilation of manuscript recipe collections as part of a domestically-located education for young girls and teens prior to marriage. Some seventeenth-century English printed recipe collections also speak explicitly of who they are intending to educate in the ‘art and mystery’ of cookery (and, in William Rabisha’s case, who not: those without any culinary aptitude, for one).[1]

But here I want to focus on the early modern provision of what some of us might have undertaken ourselves: commercial cookery courses. Today, cookery schools are experiencing a renaissance. In London, the Waitrose Cookery School’s courses are often sold out within hours of being advertised, while eager cooks can enrol for classes on everything from the basics of egg-boiling to sushi-rolling and charcuterie masterclasses. The relative decline of school-based cookery (domestic science or home economics) has created a generation of cooks at a loss of where to start, while TV cookery has encouraged those with basic skills to seek tuition in the more arcane techniques shown on the screen.

<Wellcome Library MS 1176, attributed to Hannah Bisaker, c. 1692, designs for minced pies. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Library MS 1176, attributed to Hannah Bisaker, c. 1692, designs for minced pies. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This sort of demand – prompted by a skills gap and by aspirational appetites – arguably also existed in late seventeenth-century London, where a commercial market for cookery tuition flourished from the 1660s. Our sources for this are print and manuscript recipe collections. While many earlier cookery writers had been gentry or aristocratic experimenters, or members of manuscript coteries with specific intentions, or encyclopaedic hack writers, by the end of the seventeenth century, a new type of author had entered the field: the commercial teacher-cooks.

Perhaps the first, and best known of these, is Hannah Woolley (or Wolley). Woolley’s troubled biography – twice married and twice widowed – is often highlighted as her motivation for having to enter the commercial sphere, and market her domestic knowledge. At the same time, her experience of being a school-master’s wife, and undoubtedly involved teaching herself, make her publications domestic teaching tools, as much as portfolios of professional skills.[2] The last publication that can be securely attributed to Woolley, A Supplement to the ‘Queen-like Closet’, or A Little of Everything (London, 1674), made this explicit. In it, Woolley offers at-home tuition in a range of domestic arts, from preserving to needlework, at the rate of four shillings per diem.[3]

In the last decades of the seventeenth century, three rare texts demonstrate the connection between face-to-face instruction, and cookery books as handbooks to accompany such instruction:

  • The True Way in Preserving and Candying (London, 1681; second edition 1695)
  • The Young Cook’s Monitor; or Directions for Cookery and Distilling Being a Choice Compendium of Excellent Receipts. Made Public for the Use and Benefit of My Schollars… by M.H. (London, 1683; second enlarged edition, 1690)
  • Mary Tillinghast’s Rare and Excellent Receipts, Experienc’d and Taught by Mrs Mary Tillinghast and now Printed for the Use of her Scholars Only (London, 1690).[4]

As Elizabeth Spiller’s recent edition of Tillinghast acknowledges, little is known in any of the existing specialist bibliographies about the anonymous author of True Way, Tillinghast or ‘M.H.’. The 1690 second edition of M. H., ‘with large additions’ is given on the title page as ‘Printed for the author at her House in Lime Street, 1690’, in a relatively wealthy part of the City, which suggests that ‘M.H.’ was at least attempting to appear well-heeled.[5]

Rarer still is the trade card, masquerading as an ‘invitation’, amongst the John Johnson Collection (Bodleian Library), dating to approximately 1680. This ‘invites’ women (it is addressed explicitly to ‘Madam’), to attend a dinner put on by the ‘Ladies & Gentlewomen Practitioners in the Art of Pastery and Cookery’ taught by one Nathaniel Meystnor; acting as a decorative border near the base of the card is a sequence of highly decorated pastryworks, presumably Meystnor’s stock-in-trade.[6]

Perhaps the best known teacher-cook is Edward Kidder (c. 1665/6-1739), whose published Receipts of Pastry and Cookery exist in variant forms (both as engraved and latterly printed texts), from the first two quarters of the eighteenth century (first dated printing in 1720). Kidder was a celebrated teacher of pastrymaking: his obituary in the London Magazine claimed that he had taught ‘near 6000 Ladies the Art of Pastry’.[7]

Exaggerated though this may be, Kidder was quite the pastry entrepreneur (the Magnolia Bakery of his day, perhaps?), running schools in several different central London locations from at least the early 1700s.[8] Indeed, although the published works date to no earlier than the 1720s, a number of manuscript versions of Kidder’s receipts might date to an earlier period, indeed possibly as early as 1702: the engraved, printed titlepage of Brotherton Library (Leeds University) MS 75 is inscribed ‘London 1702’, and is followed by 71 folios of manuscript recipes similar to, if not verbatim copies of, the recipes which appear in the published Kidder texts.[9]

As these publications suggest, there was thus an acknowledged market for didactic materials recording commercial tuition in pastrymaking and cookery skills in and around London, in existence well before 1700. Who took these courses, and why, will be explored in a later post.

[1] William Rabisha, The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (London, 1661; subsequent editions in 1673, 1675 and 1683), sig. A4r.

[2] John Considine, ‘Woolley, Hannah, (b. 1622?-d. in or after 1674)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), accessed 4 June 2013.

[3] Hannah Woolley, A Supplement to the ‘Queen-Like Closet’, or A Little of Everything (London, 1674), pp. 82-3.

[4] The British Library copies of the Tillinghast and second edition of the Young Cooks Monitor were bound together, sometime during the 19th century: BL shelfmarks C.189.aa.10 (1) and (2).

[5] Elizabeth Spiller (ed.), Seventeenth Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Queen Henrietta Maria and Mary Tillinghast (Aldershot, 2008), p. xli.: see BL shelfmark C. 189.aa.(1). So far no other data for this address or author has been uncovered.

[6] Illustrated in Ivan Day, ‘From Murrell to Jarrin: Illustrations in British cookery books, 1621-1820’, in Eileen White (ed.), The English Cookery Book: Historical Essays (Totnes, 2004), pp. 98-151 (on p. 130).  Meystnor may be the ‘Mr Meystnor’ who occurs in several of Windsor’s parochial records in the 1680s: James Hakewill, The History of Windsor (London, 1813), p. 17.

[7] London Magazine 8 (1739), p. 205. See also Simon Varey, ‘Kidder, Edward (1665/6-1739)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), accessed 3 June 2013.

[8] See Peter Targett, ‘Edward Kidder: his book and his schools’, Petits Propos Culinaires [PPC] 32 (June 1989), pp. 35-44; Simon Varey, ‘New light on Edward Kidder’s Receipts’, PPC 39 (Dec. 1991), pp. 46-51 (esp. p. 48); and David Potter, ‘Some notes on Edward Kidder’, PPC 65 (Sept. 2000), pp. 9-27.

[9] Varey, ‘New light’, p. 48; Leeds University, Brotherton Library, Special Collections, Blanche Leigh Collection, MS 75, titlepage.

Victorian Recipes and Public History: My Visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

By: Michelle DiMeo

As an active academic scholar who recently started working for a cultural institution, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the sources I use for professional historical research can be recast for a wider public audience. Recipe books tend to be an easy genre for public history and outreach: off hand, I can think of more public books than scholarly books about historical recipes. That said, not all of these are done well, and I particularly appreciate public histories that include thoughtful reflection on the original historical context, and those which can integrate museum and library collections to provide a more complete look at how the texts were actually used.

An event I recently attended at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – a 17-room Victorian mansion in Philadelphia –  offered a creative, interactive way for guests to learn about historical recipes. Upstairs Downstairs Celebration was the opening event for the Mansion’s new interpretive tour focusing on the challenges and enjoyments of Victorian women across all socio-economic levels. Recipes were not the focus of the event, but were instead integrated into a much larger program. Guests entered the Mansion and were taken into an elaborate dining room, where we were invited to choose a pin featuring a Victorian woman’s portrait. Everyone from suffragists to recipe book writers, and from prostitutes to medical doctors, were represented. (As a medical humanist, it seemed appropriate that I chose Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, though I did seriously consider Philadelphian Eliza Leslie, who wrote nine cookbooks between 1827 and 1857!) Connected to the dining room was the well-preserved nineteenth-century kitchen, where the imposing black iron stove and over-sized kitchen utensils caught my eye before spotting the free champagne and Victorian finger-foods on the table. Guests wandered between the kitchen and dining room, exploring historical artifacts and textual reproductions that served as good conversation-starters.

Victorian Stove, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion
Victorian Stove – Image courtesy of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, was available to answer questions and share interesting facts about the objects the guests viewed. In the kitchen, we could smell the rosewater and fresh nutmeg that Diamond used in the jumbles she baked, which we would later be given as a parting gift (along with her modernized version of the Victorian recipe, adapted from Mrs. Goodfellow’s original). Diamond has recently begun experimenting with the recipes she studies, and she was able to explain the changes in oven temperature, egg size, and available resources today versus the late-nineteenth century. The dining room also contained engaging reproductions of Victorian household guidance books. Who can resist smiling at Mrs. Henderson’s suggestions for a 7-course breakfast party (which, she argued,  were “very fashionable, being less expensive than dinners, and just as satisfactory to guests”) or Mrs. Beeton’s  suggested Bill of Fare for a picnic of 40 people? Of course, reading prescriptive texts in isolation does not give us a completely accurate account of what many Victorian women were actually doing or how they were adapting the guidelines. As such, I appreciated seeing that the Executive Director of the Mansion, Diane Richardson, provided some critical commentary and supplementary images, including an 1881 invitation to a lunch party that Philadelphia socialite Minnie Campbell Wilson (neé Harris) saved in her scrapbook, and a photo of a smaller dinner picnic that was held in the woods of New Jersey in 1888.

Victorian Picnic
Dinner Picnic in New Jersey woods, 1888.  The Library Company of Philadelphia

As I began this post by saying, the event was not explicitly about recipes, and I think this is what I liked most about it. Guests were lured in by a range of other activities broadly related to the history of Victorian women, including the opportunity to do a self-guided tour of the Mansion. We then gathered in the parlor to hear Cordelia Frances Biddle offer an overview of the social and political challenges faced by nineteenth-century American women and to watch actress Megan Edelman read Susan B. Anthony’s Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States (which Anthony read on July 4, 1876 on the front steps of Independence Hall , Philadelphia). This kick-off event, and the guided tours that will continue on the first Friday evening of every month, will primarily appeal to those with an interest in women’s history and the history of Philadelphia, but it would also interest history-lovers more broadly.

Victorian lunch party invitation
Lunch party invitation, 1881. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Most people will not attend the Upstairs Downstairs tour to learn specifically about American culinary history, but they will walk away knowing a bit more about it. For me, this was a good example of how a niche sub-field I study as an academic can be intelligently worked into a broader public history event – one providing enough information to encourage critical reflection and engagement with material culture, but not too much information to alienate or overwhelm the non-specialist.

Thank you to Diane Richardson, Becky Diamond and Nicole Joniec for sharing their research materials with me and answering my questions.

The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.