Category Archives: herbal medicine

Following Valerian: New Name, Old Idea

Katherine Foxhall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling and Practical Skills in Medical Recipes

By Ying Zhang

What constituted a medical recipe in late imperial China? Literati physicians often touted the efficacy of a medical formula by contending that it conforms to traditional order of the emperor and his officials. They might also praise the suitability of the drug combination for treating that individual body’s ills. (See discussion on drug knowledge in China elsewhere on this blog). While texts by literati physicians have attracted most scholarly attention, they might not contain some of the most widely circulated and used medical recipes in everyday settings. People in late imperial China had access to a wide range of vernacular texts to find a recipe for self-treatment. During this period, we see the circulation of many practice-oriented recipes through vernacular literature as well as personal networks. These sources included daily-use encyclopedias, almanacs, meritorious books, and fiction. These recipes functioned as a practical instruction for domestic use and a textual form that articulated practical health care knowledge through literary narratives. They highlighted the techniques of making medicine as an essential part of a medical recipe that non-expert could follow in their own homes.

The first page of the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination.” Image credit: Berlin State Library.

One fascinating example which I’d like to bring to you today is the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination,” which was collected and recorded in A Convenient Survey of Medical Recipes (Yifang bianlan), a manuscript written by a person with the sobriquet Gaoyangshi in the nineteenth century. This recipe presents a story at its beginning, which starts with the encounter in a certain famous mountain between an immortal and a sixty-one-year old men with the surname Zhou from Yunnan who has one wife and nine concubines but has been unable to conceive a child:

…[Zhou] talked about his family [with the immortal], saying that he does not have any children and asking for a good recipe. Moved by his sincerity, the immortal gave him a recipe. The medicine [made according to the recipe] has a character that is clearing but not cooling, warming but not heating. If men take it, [it] could strengthen the muscles and bones, invigorate the vitality, replenish the marrow, nourish the yin, and reinforce the primordial. If women take it, it could regulate the menstrual period, replenish the Blood, prevent miscarriage, regulate the qi, benefit the yin, and ease fertilization. Zhou bowed and received it [meaning the recipe] (bai er shou zhi), and refined and mixed [the medicine] according to the recipe (yi fang xiuhe)…

Following the story, the recipe lists the individual drugs required and, after each drug, it provides instructions on how to process it. For the chuan fuzi (Aconitum carmichalii Debx, Chinese aconite) from Sichuan, for instance, one needs to select the following:

Two pieces with each weighing four liang and five qian, cut off their sprouts and cut each of them into four pieces, soak them with raw gancao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Licorice) water for seven days, change the water every morning, and then cover them with half jin of wet flour, heat until cooked over a slow charcoal fire, cut them into pieces, and then heat to dry.

At the end of its drug list, the recipe summarizes, “to cook and make the listed drugs according to the [described] methods” (yi shang zhu yao ru fa paozhi). The word “paozhi” here refers to processing the drugs according to the methods listed under each drug. The recipe then continues with instructions on how to grind the drugs into powders and mix the powders into pills, and also explains the way to take the medicine.

It is interesting to note that the story at the beginning of the recipe uses the word “yi fang xiuhe,” a more general term referring to all of the work from processing individual drugs to mixing them together into pills. It suggests that the recipe worked well exactly because Mr. Zhou made the pills following all the technical details required by the recipe as a way of self-cultivation and demonstrated his piety in the making process. It was Mr. Zhou, not any physician or pharmacy, made the pills. The narrative episodes not only validated the efficacy by stating the mythical origin of the recipe, but also affirmed the efficacy by stating that this Mr. Zhou then had seven sons after taking the pills and lived to ninety-seven years old. They thereby presented the production of medicine as a personal endeavor that anyone could pursue. While the recipe exhibited a world of practical skills to handle medical substances and required utensils, the story advertised these specialized skills of drug processing as everyday household knowledge. The story also functioned to attract collectors through literary embellishment. This was especially desirable when recipes traveled out of medical contexts and became collectable artifacts in the context of literati sociability, connoisseurship, and moral practice. Recipes garnished with literary creation and moral teaching in this context usually encouraged its collectors to distribute it to more people to accumulate merit. Thus, when we exam the circulation and use of recipes out of medical context, we could find storytelling an essential part of medical recipes intended for household use.

Ying Zhang received her Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. Her dissertation titled “Household Healing: Rituals, Recipes, and Morals in Late Imperial China” investigates China’s rich tradition of household healing practices and reinterprets these practices in relation to religion, gender roles, and morality from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Drawing on a wide range of texts people used in their daily healing practices and texts about household healing, this research contributes to a deeper understanding of the heterogeneous health-related practices beyond the domain of learned medicine. It demonstrates the various ways in which the home served as a central site of healing technology in late imperial China. Through the study of the circulation of health related texts, it also sheds new light on the circulation of information in the context of literati sociability, philanthropic activities, and religious commitment in late imperial China. She can be reached at

My journey towards knotty history with the Recipes Project – reflections of a medical herbalist

by Anne Stobart

Starting from a science background

‘That is bad history!’ scowled my history lecturer back a decade or so. Yikes, what could I have done wrong? I felt struck down, so ashamed to have committed some major error, even deserving of being smitten with boils [Figure 1].

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826 William Blake, Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported),

As a postgraduate, I had discovered women’s history, and become interested in researching seventeenth-century recipes. Deciphering these manuscripts required some skill, and so I had enrolled on a palaeography summer school where our kindly university lecturer introduced us to the transcription of poor law records. But what exactly was my error? From a science background, I knew only how to put together a scientific report with hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions. I had no training in historical methods, so I applied the scientific method, daring to voice a hypothesis about the poor in the seventeenth century.

The details escape me now, but likely my suggestion was a fanciful theory not borne out by the evidence, and the lecturer was trying to warn me about jumping to conclusions. It was a painful lesson about which I have thought many times since, and it certainly motivated me to find out about ‘good’ history. But, as I then began to immerse myself in early modern domestic medicine, I soon learned that ‘good’ history was something of a mirage.

Welcome from history colleagues

Rolling forward some years to growing interest in historical recipes and the Recipes Project, and what a welcome difference I found. I was much encouraged by history colleagues who gave freely of their knowledge and experience. In the early days, this led to setting up the Medicinal Receipts Research Group. I found other scholars developing much expertise in interpreting archival material with limited provenance and anonymous contributions by many hands. Often, the gaps themselves in the archives were meaningful, especially considering the invisible roles and activities of women. My doctoral research was assisted by groundbreaking studies of women’s history which questioned many historical concepts. I did go on to carry out research into historical recipes and domestic medicine (now published by Bloomsbury Academic as Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England).  One of my earliest Recipes Project posts based on my research was about an unusual ‘not-recipe’, a vehicle enabling one woman to express her frustration in seventeenth-century medical matters, albeit in a limited way. It has been inspiring since to see Recipes Project contributions discussing ‘What is a recipe’  in a wide-ranging foray with much interdisciplinary collaboration.

Difficult conversations and living history

But, as a practising medical herbalist, my research also led me into difficult conversations with some herbal colleagues who claimed a romantic past of witches, midwives and healers. At times, I found myself, in turn, warning about ‘bad’ history, arguing for more objectivity about the historical evidence available, and questioning assumptions that all early modern women were expert healers [Figure 2].

Did all women make household remedies in the seventeenth century? Front cover of Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)]

Fortunately, I found other herbalists keen to encourage more scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and this led to setting up the Herbal History Research Network. At the opposite  end of the scale, I found that historical colleagues needed ways to objectively evaluate medicinal plants, especially since many lacked medical or botanical backgrounds. This led me to develop the series entitled ‘The Working of Herbs’ providing a protocol for locating, and distinguishing, past and present understandings about medicinal plants. I have really valued the existence of the Recipes Project, as a sort of ‘room in the ether’ for networking with colleagues, a supportive space to explore such developments and techniques. I remain interested in the tensions between science and history, curious about issues of methodology in historical research, fascinated especially by ‘historiography’, an expansive term which seems to encompass everything about ‘writing’ history, yet draws back under the critical gaze of some historians at the ‘doing’ of history.

Figure 3. Making a traditional recipe today (author’s photo)

Particularly welcome in the Recipes Project has been the pioneering and  positive approach towards the reconstruction of recipes [Figure 3]. As in the theatrical context (see Johnson, 2015), the recreation of living history, though not without drawbacks, brings greater appreciation of both emotive and technical aspects of culture, adding considerable value in interpretation of archives.

A great forum for knotty issues 

For me, the study of historical recipes brings together so many social, cultural, economic and material aspects, that it is not surprising that historiography can be a challenge to articulate, let alone develop. I found that criticising other people’s historical approaches was easier than defining my own perspective. In my research I drew on a wide range of archival sources relating to an individual household, and I was glad to find others describing such a ‘micro-history’ style of working, recognising ‘ragged accounts’ in medical history research (Burnham, 2005, p.141). In further recognition of the importance of context, Wendy Wall (2015) writes of ‘knotty’ (p.91) issues raised by recipes, well illustrating the way in which these need to be carefully teased out. Trying to pin down accurate characterization of historical methods and frameworks is not a small task, but the Recipes Project can provide a great forum for such an endeavour. Long may the Recipes Project, and its tireless editors, continue to offer a rich feast of knotty historical recipe research.

Burnham, John C. What Is Medical History? Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

Johnson, Katherine M. ‘Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography’. Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193–206.

Stobart, Anne. Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

‘Thus it prevails against its time’: distillation and cycles of nature in early modern pharmacy

By Tillmann Taape

In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’.[1] Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.

Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.

An apothecary pounding medicines. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v. © Wellcome Library, London

Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.[2]

Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.

Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’.[3] Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.[4]

While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.[5]

In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.

[1] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[2] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.

[3] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[4] Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.

[5] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.