Early Modern Nitpicking

By Lisa Smith

Robert Burns was inspired to write an ode “To a Louse” (1786) when he observed a cheeky louse running over a woman’s bonnet during a church service.

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665). Image of a louse under a microscope.

The ode reflects on the social meanings of lice, a great leveler that might affect beggars and beauties alike. And once those “ugly, creepin, blastit wonners” arrive, they are dashed difficult to destroy–as Laurence Totelin made clear earlier this month. Like Laurence, I was inspired to investigate the treatment of early modern lice after the crowlin ferlies dared to take up residence on my family. The lived experience of suffering from lice today has many parallels with our early modern counterparts: the social stigma of living with vermin, the desperate methods of trying to kill them, and the physical intimacy of catching and removing them.

After catching lice, my little one described feeling ashamed and dirty, despite the lice spreading like wildfire through the entire class and our reassurances that it was normal. An internalised message of dirtiness is potent indeed—and it is an old message, as Lisa Sarasohn discusses. The Bible, for example, indicates that lice were among the ten plagues sent by God to punish the Egyptians for not letting the Israelites go. The metaphor of lice was also often used in early modern society to describe any group that threatened the social order or to represent internal moral degeneration. Lousy people were akin to the vermin who inhabited their bodies.

Of course, as Karen Raber points out, lice sometimes had positive meanings. In the Renaissance, suffering from lice could be an aid to religious contemplation, offering a chance to reflect on social status and vanity, or a form of penance. By the seventeenth century, however, lice were associated with a moral failing. If cleanliness was next to godliness, the presence of lice suggested that one was neither clean nor godly.

Medical explanations for lice also emphasised a connection with dirt. Lice, which could infest the head or the pubic region, were seen as transmissable through sexual intimacy (Sarasohn); they were filthy critters in more ways than one! Early modern medicine drew on ideas from Antiquity (Fornociari et al.). Aristotle, for example, considered lice to be creatures spontaneously generated from decaying matter on animals, while Galen explained that lice were created through warmth and excess humidity below the skin. By the late eighteenth century, moreover, army physicians increasingly understood that there was a connection between typhus and lice (Willingham).

Early modern remedies were based on humoral theory or methods of suffocation, poisoning, and containment. All six lice treatments in The Vermin Killer (1680) included ingredients such as hog lard, butter, smashed apple, olive oil, or wax; these would have suffocated or immobilised the lice. Vinegar and salt water, with their drying qualities, also appeared, as did the poisonous sandarac (sulphide of arsenic) and quicksilver (29-31). The twelve remedies in The Compleat English and French Vermin-Killer (1710) were similar, but also introduced a common herb for treating lice: stavesacre (also known as lousewort or Delphinium staphisagria). This could be put into hair powder or mixed with other ingredients. The 1710 edition also recommended containment, whether by ensuring that the patient wore a cap during treatment or had a hair cut (20-22). By 1777, the fourteen remedies of The Complete Vermin-Killer (1777) remained the same. But the new presence of a recipe that included oil of mustard suggests that humoral explanations for lice still underpinned treatments (5). Culpeper, for example, indicated that mustard was good for resisting poison and drawing out bad humors.

In looking for early modern remedies, I was surprised to find so few (digitally searchable) manuscript recipe books in the Wellcome Library or the Folger Shakespeare Library that had lice treatments. Perhaps this is explained by the wide range of published remedies, which were included in books such as Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physician or The Vermin Killer—both reprinted many times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The manuscript remedies reflect both the familiar, domestic location of treatments and the growing use of global commodities—sometimes in the same book. There are two lice-related recipes in Elizabeth Jacob’s “Physicall and chyrurgicall receipts” (c. 1654-1685). One “To Quite your selfe of Lice” recommends taking a piece of linen cloth, used by a goldsmith to wipe an object during gilding, then placing it under one’s arm pits and neck. Jacob explained the logic: the goldsmiths used quicksilver in the gilding process, which was a very effective lice killer (143). Quite clearly, this was a thrifty remedy that recycled a trade-related material rather than purchasing new ingredients from the apothecary. Significantly, it also suggests that this was an urban household with easy access to the tools of goldsmithing.

From Elizabeth Jacob (Wellcome MS 3009). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Jacob family must have been well-connected to global trade, too. Another “receipt to kill lice” used “Endicockle berys from the Apothecarys”, which were to be powdered and strewn in the head (fol. 56).

From Elizabeth Jacob (Wellcome MS 3009). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Endicockle berries do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any books in the Historical Texts database. It was only when I looked up “fish berries,” mentioned in another remedy “For Scabs & lice in ye head” (Wellcome MS 635, 94), that I discovered they also went by the name Cocculus Indicus; endicockle, then, is a phonetic version of India Cockle berries. John Hill described the berry in A History of the Materia Medica (1751) noting that it was highly poisonous and came from Asia. It had been known for anti-lice properties in England since the late seventeenth century (504). The Jacob family benefited from their urban location in another way: an opportunity to learn about newly-imported global remedies.

John Hill, A History of the Materia Medica (1751) , p. 504.

The most effective remedy, both then and now, however, is the time-consuming process of combing and nitpicking; if catching lice is a mark of intimate relations, so too is this remedy. But it is not one found in a recipe book. The first time I discovered lice in my child’s hair, I combed and searched for over two hours. This was no mean feat with a wriggly small child. Subsequent combings have been shorter, but they take longer than a regular hair-brush. Often, she watches TV, but other times we chat.

Bartolomeo Pinelli, La famiglia dei pedochiosi. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Early modern images of nitpicking suggest a similar intimacy—the family grooming each other that Pinelli depicts or Piloty’s old woman examining the child’s head. During a lice infestation, it is, quite literally, all hands on deck (as Pinelli shows). The casual intimacy in the images is striking; the child leans against the woman’s legs, the husband places his head in his wife’s lap. Lice removal might be time-consuming, but the physical intimacy brings a pleasure of its own.

An old woman picking fleas from a young boy’s hair. Lithograph by F. Piloty after B.E. Murillo. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Or is that intimacy animal-like? Dogs often appear in images of delousing, blurring the animal and human worlds; indeed, lice itself blurred the two worlds. The natural rambunctiousness of small children is also, perhaps, animal-like. Piloty’s young boy plays with the puppy and eats a chunk of bread; the smallest child in Pinelli’s picture is chained to the wall, straining against confinement. This reflects a reality: small children have little patience for the process of nitpicking and need to be entertained or constrained. But it also places the children and their families close to the animal world.

A nitpicking monkey — a handy labour-saving solution, though it brings the animal world even closer. Image Credit: Arthur Pond (eighteenth century), British Museum U,1.215.

The co-existence of lice and humans is intimate indeed—no wonder Burns’ louse was so bold. The experience of lice historically and today has many similarities. Sufferers still feel embarrassed, despite the commonness of the complaint, and we still try a range of remedies to poison or suffocate the vermin. Above all, the most effective method remains the same: physical removal of the crowlin ferlies. Family closeness is nice, but even nicer when the lice are gone.

Further Itchy Reading

Evans, Jennifer. “Feeling ‘Louzy’”. Early Modern Medicine, 24 September 2014 (https://earlymodernmedicine.com/creepy-crawlies/).

Fornaciari, Gino, et al. “The Use of Mercury against Pediculosis in the Renaissance: The Case of Ferdinand II of Aragon, King of Naples, 1467–96.” Medical History 55, 1 (2011): 109-115. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3037217/)

Raber, Karen. Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Sarasohn, Lisa. “The Microscopist & Voyeur: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental Philosopy,” pp. 77-100 in Sigrun Haude and Melinda Zook (eds) Challenging Orthodoxies: The Social and Cultural Worlds of Early Modern Women. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.

Willingham, Emily. “Of Lice and Men: An Itchy History.” Scientific American, 14 February 2011 (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/of-lice-and-men-an-itchy-history/).

Wolfe, Heather. “Early Modern Head Lice Remedies.” The Collation, 15 May 2018 (https://collation.folger.edu/2018/05/early-modern-head-lice-remedies/) .

Something to Share: Food from Home to Home

By Megan Daigle, with Maria Wilby and Iman Mortagy

Food brings people together. That simple idea is what underpins Something to Share, a cookbook produced in 2018 by Refugee Action—Colchester, a small but mighty voluntary organisation that works to help newcomers settle into the town, access services, and feel at home. There is, of course, a broad base of research demonstrating that cookbooks shape notions of belonging and community, from the local to the national—and all the more so for social justice groups seeking to promote inclusion and fund their work.[1] When we set out to produce Something to Share, however, what interested us was what we had seen in action ourselves.


Refugee Action—Colchester’s cookbook, Something to Share, is available to order online. Thanks to generous support from Linklaters LLP, all proceeds in their entirety go to support RA–C’s work and clients. The cookbook would also not be possible without support from Firstsite.

Since 2016, RA–C has operated the Syrian Pop-Up Café, which sees local refugees catering for community groups, churches, colleges, weddings and birthdays, the University of Essex, the Roman River Music Festival, and local arts venue Firstsite. The first café took place at the opening of Gee Vaucher’s Introspective exhibition at Firstsite, and Gee later came on board to design our cookbook. We now run regular cafés and cookery classes, with the goal that these will become self-supporting and refugee-run enterprises. Food and recipes have thus helped RA–C to build bridges of all kinds, and they have been a catalyst for integration, solidarity, and togetherness for our refugee chefs.

We hope that Something to Share makes a meaningful contribution to how Colchester sees itself as a welcoming and multicultural town. This book brings together family recipes from local refugees, asylum-seekers, and volunteers, placing them alongside personal stories of memories connected to food, long and difficult journeys, and the building of new homes and friendships. It presents an image of Colchester as a place with a long history of welcome and the courage not to look away from those in need.

Below, you will find an excerpt from the book where two of RA–C’s founders, Maria Wilby and Iman Mortagy, reflect on how food and recipes underpin everything they do.

The Transformative Power of Food: A Conversation

Maria: Everyone says the kitchen is the heart of the home, meaning what gets created in the kitchen. Food nourishes people, and not just physically. I think it’s a really important element of what we do at Refugee Action—Colchester.

Iman: Cooking and the kitchen are important to me too as part of my spiritual journey on the Sufi path. […] I think others may relate to this too. In the tradition and writings of Rumi, seekers need to be ‘cooked’ themselves in order to be matured into purer and tastier beings! […] In Sufism, there’s an emphasis on being very present in anything we do, treating it like a meditation, with reverence. The idea is that the cook transfers her or his energy into the food that’s being cooked. In fact, Rahaf [whose recipes appear in the book] tells me that her mother also does a prayer while she’s cooking, the same one that I do while stirring the pot. She will silently chant Ya Wadud (literally, ‘Oh Source of Love’). It’s all about love really, isn’t it? Interestingly, many people have commented that the food at the Syrian Pop-Up Cafe is very good because it’s made with love.

Maria: It’s similar to British culture where, traditionally, families used to say prayers before meals. I noticed with the Syrian community that there is a deeper reverence for the food and an absolute understanding of what they’re cooking and how flavours work together. There are regional variations in their recipes that I realise personalise their dishes.

Iman: When you’re preparing a meal in the Middle East, it’s about honouring the guest. For thousands of years, one of the most important values in Middle Eastern culture has been generosity. There are so many proverbs and poems that tell you to bring everything out of the cupboard for your guests. What I present to you on the table is a testament to what you are worth to me.

Maria: In one of the cookery classes, Dalchah [another contributor] made a biryani and it was huge. One of the participants wrote it all down, and when she made the recipe at home it turned out to be enough for about 23 people. So she phoned up everyone in her road and had an impromptu party because she said, ‘What could I do? I had to share it.’ One of our chefs once said to us, ‘For me, cooking is a noble thing. It’s not something I feel embarrassed about doing. To be able to do something that makes people happy like this shows me that I still have something to give and something to share.’

Iman: I think we all bring our own backgrounds and experiences to the table when we’re making food for the Pop-Up Café.


[1] Jen Bagelman, Maria Astrid Nunez Silva, and Carly Bagelman, “Cookbooks: A Tool for Engaged Research,” GeoHumanities 3, 2 (2017): 371–372; Sidney W. Mintz. Tasting food, tasting freedom: Excursions into eating, culture, and the past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); Priscilla Pankhurst Ferguson. Word of mouth: What we talk about when we talk about food (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014).

Sloane Family Recipes

By Lisa Smith

The famous eighteenth-century physician, Sir Hans Sloane, occasionally pops up in the pages of The Recipes Project, with patients keeping recipes or Sloane collecting manuscript recipe books. And, although the Sloane family had an illustrious physician and collector in their midst, they collected medical recipes like many other early modern families. Three Sloane-related recipe books that I’ve located so far provide insight into the family’s domestic medical practices and emotional lives.


Elizabeth Fuller: Collection of cookery and medical receipts
Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Two books are held at the British Library, donated in 1875 by the Earl of Cadogan. A book of household recipes, primarily for cookery, was owned by Elizabeth Sloane—Sloane’s daughter who married into the Cadogan family in 1717 (BL Add. MS 29739). The second book, c. 1750, contained medical, household and veterinary recipes (BL Add. MS 29740), including several attributed to Sir Hans Sloane. A third book, which belonged to Elizabeth Fuller, is held at the Wellcome Library (MS 2450) and is dated 1712 and 1820. Given the initial date and name, it is likely that the book’s first owner was Sloane’s step-daughter from Jamaica, Elizabeth Rose, who married John Fuller in 1703. Sloane’s nephew, William, married into the Fuller family as well in 1733.

Elizabeth Sloane, of course, compiled her collection long before her marriage; born in 1695, she was sixteen when she signed and dated the book on October 15, 1711. This was a common practice for young women who were learning useful housewifery skills. The handwriting in the book is particularly good, with lots of blank space left for new recipes, suggesting that this was a good copy book rather than one for testing recipes. There are, even so, some indications of use: a black ‘x’ beside recipes such as “to candy cowslips or flowers or greens” (f. 59), “for burnt almonds” (f. 57v) or “ice cream” (f. 56). The ‘x’ was a positive sign, as compilers tended to cross out recipes deemed useless.

The Cadogan family’s book of medicinal remedies appears to have been intended as a good copy, but became a working copy. In particular, the recipes to Sloane are written in the clearest hand in the text and appear to have been written first. Although there are several blank folios, there are also multiple hands, suggesting long term use. There are no textual indications of use, but several recipes on paper have been inserted into the text: useful enough to try, but not proven sufficiently to write in the book. As Elaine Leong argues, recipes were often circulated on bits of paper and stuck into recipe books for later, but entering a recipe into the family book solidified its importance—and that of the recipe donor—to the family.

Sloane’s recipes are the focal point of the Cadogan medical collection. Many of his remedies are homely, intended for a family’s everyday problems: shortness of breath, itch, jaundice, chin-cough, loose bowels, measles and worms. There are, however, two that spoke to his well-known expertise: a decoction of the [peruvian] bark (f. 8v)—something he often prescribed–and “directions for ye management of patients in the small-pox” (f. 10v).

Elizabeth Fuller compiled her book of medicinal and cookery recipes several years after her marriage and the book continued to be used by the family well into the nineteenth century. The book is written mostly in one hand, but there are several later additions, comments and changes in other hands. The recipes are  idiosyncractic and reflect the family’s particular interests: occasionally surprising ailments (such as leprosy) and a disproportionate number of remedies for stomach problems (flux, biliousness, and bowels). The family’s Jamaican connections also emerge with, for example, a West Indies remedy for gripes in horses (f. 23). There are no remedies included from Sloane, but there were several from other physicians.

This group of recipe books connected to the Sloane Family all show indications of use and, in particular, the Cadogan medical recipe collection and the Fuller book suggest that they were used by the family over a long period of time. Not surprisingly, the Fuller family drew some of their knowledge from their social and intellectual networks abroad.

But it is the presence or absence of Sloane’s remedies in the books that is most intriguing. Did this reflect a distant relationship between Sloane and his step-daughter? Hard to say, but it’s worth noting that his other step-daughter, Anne Isted (and her husband), consulted him for medical problems and the Fuller family often wrote to him about medical education, books, and curiosities.

Or, perhaps, it highlights the emotional significance of collecting recipes discussed by Montserrat Cabré. Sloane was ninety-years old when the Cadogan family compiled their medical collection.

Hans Sloane Memorial Inscription, Chelsea, London. Credit: Alethe, Wikimedia Commons, 2009.

It must have been a bittersweet moment as Elizabeth Cadogan (presumably) selected what recipes would help her family to remember her father after he died: not just his most treasured and useful remedies, but ones that evoked memories of family illnesses and recoveries.

An earlier version of this post was published at The Sloane Letters Project.

Bitter as Gall or Sickly Sweet? The Taste of Medicine in Early Modern England

Figure 1: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; © Städel Museum – U. Edelmann – ARTOTHEK

Adriaen Brower’s The Bitter Potion (1640) depicts a man’s reaction to the taste of a medicine – his face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion (Figure 1). The image seems to confirm Roy Porter’s generalisation that ‘pre-modern medicine tasted foul’.[1] Contemporary medical recipes and patients’ memoirs tell a more complicated story, however. While some remedies were full of bitter ingredients, others were pumped with sugar. Below, we will see why this was the case, and discover that the actual flavours of medicines sometimes bore little relation to how they were actually experienced. This research is part of a new Wellcome Trust project, Sensing Sickness, which investigates the impact of disease on the five senses, and uncovers the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the early modern sickchamber. I also discuss some of these issues in my forthcoming open access book, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (OUP, June 2018).

Bitter medicines

Amongst the most common bitter ingredients in early modern medicines were the herbs wormwood and aloes. Lady Barret’s remedy against ‘any illness in the stomach’ contains 4 drams of aloes, together with myrrh, saffron, and brandy. The Ayscough family’s recipe book suggests a remedy ‘to drive away agues’ composed of wormwood, marigold leaves, agrimony, and mugwort. A rare insight into the imagined reaction of a patient to these bitter drugs is provided in a collection of Italian medieval novels, published in English in 1620: as ‘soone as’ the man’s ‘tongue tasted the bitter Aloes, he began to cough and spet extreamly, as being utterly unable to endure the bitternesse’. Once taken, the mere sight of ‘the vessel in which the potion is kept’ is enough to provoke vomiting in some patients, wrote the physician William Bullein (c.1515-76). So notorious was the bitterness of aloes, it was used as a metaphor for describing any unpleasant experience, including pain, grief, and spiritual guilt.[2]

Figure 2: ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Figure 3 : ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Why did medicines contain these bitter ingredients? According to popular legend, the medicine has to be ‘as bitter as the disease’ for it to work. This idea is rooted in Galenic understandings of disease and treatment. Disease was due to the malignant alteration of the body’s humours, the constituent fluids of living creatures, and it was removed when the humours had been rectified or evacuated. Bitter medicine facilitated this process in two ways – first, it helped ‘devide, [and] extenuate…grosse and clammy humours, that they may be ready to flowe out’ of the body’.[3] Metaphors of cleaning were used in this context: the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius (1505-68) averred, ‘the filth…of the humours stick no lesse to these mens bodies than the…dregs do to vessels, which must be soked…with pickle’, a bitter vinegary mixture, ‘to make them clean’. The second stage of evacuation was the movement of the humours from the body’s interior to its exit points, such as the bowels, where it could be expelled through defecation. Bitter medicines could be given to induce such movements. Lemnius explained that seeing that ‘attraction is made by the similitude of substance’, there must be a ‘natural familiarity’ between ‘the humour [to be evacuated] and the medicament’. Since the most noxious humours were bitter, medicines should be bitter too. Quoting Hippocrates, Lemnius expanded, ‘Physick when it come[s] into the body, it first…draws unto itself, that which is most…like unto it, then it moves the…humours…and forceth them out’. This idea was familiar to laypeople as well as doctors.

Sweet medicines

Although bitterness was necessary for purgative physic to work, the ‘cunning Physician…tempereth his bitter medicines with sweet and pleasant drinke’.[4] It was hoped that by disguising the bitter flavour, the medicine would be easier to swallow. This intervention was particularly important when it came to treating children, whose tolerance for bitter tastes was especially low due to the sensitivity of their taste-buds. This is still an issue today: in one survey, over 90 percent of paediatricians reported that a drug’s taste is the biggest barrier to completing a course of treatment. The most popular sweeteners in early modern England were sugar and honey. Speaking of her ‘speciall medecine’ for jaundice in c.1608, Mrs Corlyon instructed that ‘you must make it pleasant with Sugar according to your taste more or lesse’ (Figure 4). Anne Glyd’s recipe ‘Against the chin cough’ from the mid-seventeenth century states that it should be taken with ‘hony…or what the child likes best’.

Figure 4: Extract from Mrs Corlyon’s ‘A Booke of divers medecines’, 1606; MS 313, Wellcome Library, London

Intriguingly, these sweetened medicines did not always taste sweet. Recalling a recent illness, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91), observed that some of his remedies had been, ‘sweetened with as much Sugar, as if they came not from an Apothecaries Shop, but a Confectioners. But my Mouth is too much out of Taste to rellish anything’. The Galenic explanation for these altered perceptions was that the organ of taste, the tongue, is ‘filled with some strange fluid’ during acute illness, which mixes with the gustatory juice of the medicine, so that ‘all things would seem salty to taste, or all bitter’.[5] Other causes were the drying of the tongue from the ‘fiery heat’ of fevers, or the presence of bitter humours in the mouth.[6] So familiar was the experience of altered taste that religious writers found it a useful metaphor to invoke when describing the more abstract idea that sinners fail to relish wholesome counsel. The Yorkshire minister Thomas Watson (d.1686), wrote in his treatise on repentance, ‘Tis with a sinner, as it is with a sick Patient[:] his pallat is distempered; the sweetest things taste bitter to him: So the word of God which is sweeter than honey-comb, tastes bitter to a sinner’.

We tend to be disparaging about premodern medicines, assuming they were deeply unpleasant. This brief foray into the gustatory qualities of remedies demonstrates that such a reading is too simplistic, and does not take into account the often benevolent intentions behind the use of bitter treatments, nor the attempts of practitioners to make their remedies more palatable. In any case, I think we need to be more wary about assuming the actual qualities of medicines were perceived by patients, since many diseases impaired the patient’s capacity to taste. In the next stage of my project, I seek to discover how the other four senses were affected by illness and treatment.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

[1] Roy and Dorothy Porter, In Sickness and in Health: The British Experience 1650-1850 (London, 1988), 105; see also Lucinda Beier, In Sickness and in Health: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1985), 170.

[2] E.g. Mark Frank, LI Sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank (1672), 391.

[3] A. T., A rich store-house, or treasury for the diseased (1596), preface. See also William Bullein, The government of health (1595, first publ. 1559), 9-10.

[4] William Kempe, The education of children (1588), image 31.

[5] Galen, ‘On the Causes of Symptoms I’, in Ian Johnston (ed. and trans.), Galen on Diseases and Symptoms (Cambridge, 2006), 203-35, at 220-21, 189. This text was available in Latin in the early modern period, translated from the Greek by Thomas Linacre as De symptomatum differentiis et causis (1524).

[6] Helkiah Crooke, Mikrokosmographia a description of the body of man (1615), 631.