Category Archives: Family and Household

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,

‘The Art of Distillation’: Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books

By Katherine Allen

Two aspects of eighteenth-century recipe books that interest me are the use of distillation in domestic medicine and the relationship between print and manuscript sources of medical and scientific knowledge. Rebecca Tallamy’s recipe book beautifully illustrates the union of both these aspects as she recorded her recipes in a 1691 edition of John French’s ‘The Art of Distillation’. This alchemical guide was one of many published in late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, and it reflects the popularity of Paracelsianism and the growth of distillation in industry. We can therefore use this manuscript to explore briefly the ways in which the household acted as a space where domestic knowledge interacted with social and cultural developments in distillation.

The Art of Distillation
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 1r.

Like many recipe books, this manuscript was a family collection. The ownership tag ‘Rebecca Tallamy her book of Receipts’ appears several times, however Patience and William Tallamy were also named as owners. Evidently, the Paracelsian alchemical guide was owned by a member of the Tallamy family and presumably handed down until Rebecca gained ownership, recording her recipes between the years 1735-38. A few recipes were added by a later hand in the early nineteenth century, thus emphasising the multi-generational use of this distillation text/recipe collection.

Rebecca Tallamy's Title
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 40v.

But, what is distillation? Distillation is a process used to separate mixtures and purify liquids that was used by alchemists and natural philosophers to experiment in hopes of making gold, the Elixir of Life, and a range of medical cures. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some elite households had stills for making medical waters, which were used to combat indigestion and low spirits.

What is distillation?
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 2r.

The manuscript is approximately 500 pages, and the majority of the pages contain printed text with handwritten additions scribbled in the margins, between figures, and overtop of text. The remaining recipes were recorded on the blank pages added at the end of the book. Rebecca’s additions included culinary recipes, housekeeping notes, and a standard collection of medicinal recipes like ‘For a Feaverish Disorder in Children or others’, which involved a poultice of tobacco and currants wrapped on the wrists (f. 28v.). This simple recipe is juxtaposed beside a detailed figure of a distillation furnace and signifies that, through the act of recording recipes, Rebecca Tallamy engaged with technical instructions on distillation. Moreover, some of her recipes were traditional cordial waters prepared via distillation. I should note it is likely that Rebecca copied at least some of her material from other sources simply because there are many duplicate recipes. There are also a number of copied botanical descriptions at the end of the manuscript resembling those found in Nicholas Culpeper’s ‘The English Physician’. Far from being purely a collection of recipes, Rebecca Tallamy’s book encompasses several genres and text types, demonstrating the scope of natural knowledge used in the home.

Distillation Furnace
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 28v.

The combination of manuscript and print within one material source highlights the active transmission of knowledge between textul media as well as the value placed on technical guides as sources of household information. Rebecca’s choice to record her recipes on the pages of an alchemical text shows that women were exposed to and could own ‘scientific’ and technical guides, but also indicates her interest in distillation and, more broadly, the continued presence of distillation in the household. Even by the eighteenth century, alchemy had a place in domestic knowledge.




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).

To Preserve Quinces, White or Red?

By Rebecca Laroche

Wellcome Library, Manuscript 1340, Digital Image 0087

Through a current collaboration with Thomas Ward (United States Naval Academy), I have found something of interest in early modern quince preserves.[i] Across the Wellcome Library Digitised Collection, examples of recipes “To preserve quinces” evenly divide between two (or three types), “To preserve quinces red” and “To preserve quinces white” (the third category being some mixture or in-between of the two).[ii] Regularly, a white quince recipe will be on the same page as a red one, which presents an immediate choice to the preserver. In close reading, I have come to realize that this choice is about something more than color.

Setting a red recipe next to a white one, we can begin to suss out the issues, but three late seventeenth/early eighteenth century recipes provide both the red and white options within one entry and thus make the differences most apparent.  Generally, red quinces are  boiled at a “leisurely” pace (one recipe, MS 3341/009, records a four hour process,), covered, and with lower grade of sweetener (not necessarily refined sugar, even using fruit juices instead, which also added a gelling component).  White quinces are often boiled rapidly in the syrup made with double refined sugar, sometimes cooked before being added to the syrup, and, at some point determined by fruit tenderness, color change, and/or syrup thickness, the quinces are removed from the syrup to cool while the syrup continues to thicken, and then they are added again later in the process.  Much of the time making red quinces is uninterrupted, allowing for “multi-tasking,” either in or out of the kitchen.

Not necessarily so in preserving white quinces.  Not only are you often told to boil the quinces “as fast as you can uncouered” (see MSs 7818/52, 7999/10, 3341/10), which would present the danger of boiling over and burning, the added step of taking them up before they turn red requires extreme care.  One recipe even calls for “shifting” the quinces into “water ready to boil,” not once or twice, but “into seuerall such waters till they be tender (MS 2330/5).

Clearly white quinces are more difficult to make as they require extra care and a larger proportion of time spent watching the pots. Because much of this care is about anticipating the moment of color change, the implication is that the more a person makes the white quince recipe, the more aware she or he would be of signs of the oncoming change. That is, the more experienced preserver would be more prepared and his or her quinces would thus be whiter.

It follows, then, that the choice between red and white quinces has meaning beyond a color preference or even taste. Whether or not white quinces taste better than red ones is almost beside the point. If you present white quinces at the table, you signified an occasion deserving of the more “high maintenance” preserve, whereas red quinces, made at a more leisurely pace and with cheaper ingredients, are likely to be your “everyday” variety. At least the experienced cooks among your guests would appreciate the difference.

[i] I have also noted this variation with pippen preserves.

[ii] All parenthetical citations refer to the manuscript and image number accessed through the Wellcome Digitised Collection page: