Category Archives: herbal medicine

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.


Depending on the season

By Jennifer A. Munroe

In Charlotte, NC it was 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) yesterday, with a blistering sun that felt more like mid-summer than mid-spring; today it is 50 degrees and raining so hard we are under a flash flood warning. Also yesterday, Earth Day (April 22) was met this year by a “March for Science” around the globe. Somehow, it all seems fitting: such fluctuations in the weather here in North Carolina are a product (at least in part) of human-precipitated global climate change, a phenomenon still denied by too many people (one is too many, to my mind), especially in Western countries who have too much to gain by the continued overuse of earth’s resources. But what has this all to do with early modern recipes?

Early modern recipes remind us that humans are, ultimately, subject to seasonal change, even if our actions might alter the fluctuations and intensity of temperature and precipitation—or, might affect the way we experience the seasons. That is, although it may seem that we have the power, even to act destructively, our presence on this planet is a shared presence, one borne of interdependence and punctuated by the fact that we are, ultimately, locked in an interdependent relationship with the other animals, plants, soil, and climate on the planet we cohabitate.

At a time when we can access produce like strawberries and avocados in the middle of winter, it may seem we have achieved liberation from the shackles of seasonality. But such mid-winter fruits, as any who have tasted them in January would know, are mere specters of their mid-summer relatives: they may look like the real thing, but taste like it they do not. Early moderns were necessarily bound to the sort of seasonality we aim to circumvent today. As they grew or harvested their own fruits and vegetables, they were (even with hothouse technology) generally subject to the natural course of ripening that comes as a result of having spent enough hours on the vine, stalk, or bush basking in the sunshine, or the slow release of ethylene that makes a tomato red or a blackberry soft. Calcium carbide, our modern-day chemical stand-in, may hasten ripening while a fruit is prematurely transported to market today, but it will not make it taste sweet.

I want to turn to a recipe from the manuscript receipt book of Rebeckah Winche (Folger MS v.b.366) to rethink what it (and others like it) tells us about human dependence on the seasons. If you open a manuscript recipe book, you will notice myriad iterations of “pick it when it is ripe” or “gather in midsomer,” as we do in numerous recipes from the Winche book. These books thus note the optimum time for harvest, when the plant material is at its best. A recipe from the Winche book, “To Preserve Wallnuts,” charges, “Take green walnuts about Midsomer” (153); or another, “To Drie Figges,” similarly calls for one to “Take your figges when thay are ripe & new gathred” (152). Gathering a fruit when it is ripe, or a flower when it is newly-budded, is to take that plant when its oil and sugar concentrations (and its very essence) are at their peak. But I think recipes like these do more than indicate the optimum time for gathering; they also underscore a delicate balance between the desire to thwart time (and seasonality as a marker of time) and an awareness of the futility of halting time and its effects on both humans and nonhumans alike. For while the act of food preservation (here, drying figs) is an endeavor that presumes to hold an object in time and space indefinitely, it is also a sort of hubris—after all, the moment a plant is harvested, its mortality is hastened. Take the recipe “To Drie Figges,” for instance:

Take your figges when thay are ripe & new

gathred. set on a skillet of water then take

your figges & prick them up & down wth a pin

& put them in to the water & let them boyle till

thay bee tender. then take them out & to a pound of

take a pound of loafe suger. then take a quart of

water. & one quarter of the suger & set it on the

fire & when you have scumed it put in your figs

& let them boyle a pritty while then put them in an

earthen pan & so doe for 4 days together put ing in

on gr of ye suger every day until all bee in allways

let ing the sirup boyle before you put in the figs

let them stand 2 days in the sirrup & then lay them

upon a sive & when thay are drayned scrape fine

suger on them & set them in an oven where there

is some little heat or in a stove turning them twice

a day serseing suger on them until thay be dry

then put papers between them & keepe them in a dry place.

As interesting as the instructions for preserving the figs (which ripen in summer) so they last indefinitely might sound–to suspend them in time by way of applying sugar and heat over a prolonged period–this recipe articulates protracted time in such a way that underscores flux, not stasis. Or put another way, even in the act of “keeping” (which implies a holding in time and space of an object’s qualities), recipes like this one underscore fluctuation and change. Taking the figs, “when they are ripe and new gathred” prompts this chain of events, but what follows is a process of “prick[ing],” “scum[ing],” “boyle[ing],” “drayn[ing],” “turning,” and “serseing” over the course of days, even weeks, “until thay be dry” (however long that is). The “ings” here outnumber the “eds.”

We might also recall the numerous recipes from the period in which we find alternative storage directions for different seasons: foods and medicines might last longer in storage in the winter than in the summer. And here, in the simple directions to “keepe them [the dried figs] in a dry place,” we see contingencies of seasonality—keeping something dry in the middle of summer is usually an easier enterprise than keeping it dry in the peak of the spring rains, even if your storage is tucked away and sealed. For that matter, starting a fire and keeping it regulated is easier to do during a drier season than it is a wetter one.

This recipe with a deceptively simple title, “To Drie Figges,” then, reveals a complex and ongoing interaction between human (gatherer) and an array of nonhuman things (fig, sugar, fire, sun, rain, knife, skillet, and more) that seems to defy the very premise of preservation. That is, while the notion of “preserving” seems to imply something very unseasonal—to be kept perpetually in a state over time—“To Drie Figges” reminds us of the multiple states of being, of our dependence on the seasons for the fruit’s ripeness and for its preservation (even after the loads of sugar). Moreover, any user of this recipe would need to know the season when figs ripen, as our instructions indicate merely to “take” when ripe. In England, as in the US, figs tend to ripen in summer, but the moment of optimum ripeness is harnessed not by fixing a date on the calendar to gather, but rather by attending to the particulars of the fruit’s appearance, odor, and texture. As anyone who tends a garden in this time of climate change would know, though, that precise moment shifts from year to year, and is coming earlier all the time, thanks to planetary warming. For these and other reasons, then, recipes remind us of what we might otherwise like to forget: so much is depending not so much on us, but on the season.

Cold Case I. Hidden Identities Between Printed and Manuscript Recipes

Sabrina Minuzzi

 The marginalia of printed books can sometimes reveal hidden worlds. Printed books themselves can be considered historical evidence, as I learned several years ago at university and as I have continued to discover in working more widely with these materials during the last two years. One of the salient features of my current research lies in looking for and interpreting the traces that readers have left on the books they used, and on 15th century books of medicine in particular.

Among the many incunabula kept in the Marciana Library in Venice (around 2,800 titles),  I once came across a mysterious weighty tome whose early-18th-century binding, in full shabby parchment, was not particularly attractive. But, even lying closed upon my reading table, its lack of beauty disclosed clues about its past. The limp binding suggested that it had been handled, comfortably, in frequent readings and the worn appearance of the cover made me think that the tome had been used as a reference book. Indeed the title-page confirmed this supposition.

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
The Marciana incunabulum Inc. 333 is a copy of one of the seven 15th-century editions of the Hortus sanitatis contained within the ISTC census. This one was published in Strassbourg in 1497, and it survives in 90 copies all around the world.

The Hortus (or Ortus) sanitatis, that is, The Garden of Health, is a sort of encyclopedic book of nature which describes the characteristics and medicinal uses of plants and more briefly of animals and minerals. We might really consider it a bestseller among the medical genres, if we take into account the frequency of its Latin editions and translations in the vernacular languages of early modern Europe.

But let us go back to our copy.

Unlike most copies, which feature rich leather bindings with blind tooled decorations on their plates – see, for instance, the Wien National Library exemplar – which seem suggest that these books were precious objects kept on bookshelves and which bear little evidence of their use, the Marciana Library copy is heavily annotated, mostly by one hand.

Almost all of the manuscript notes are recipes written in clumsy Latin.

What a gold-mine of recipes! Unfortunately, no ownership inscription or purchase note peeps out from the initial or the final pages. No claim of possession occurs either in the myriad passages of the printed text, which are densely annotated, or in the eight final pages, which are crammed with further recipes.

So I had to detect the profile of the annotator with my own bare forces.

The handwriting module is very small and looks as if it was gradually shrinking as the blank space available to the writer was decreasing. The hand looks to be Italian, from around the second half of the 16th century. While browsing the pages, among the overflow of recipes in barely-decipherable handwriting, I finally came across a few key sentences which hinted at the geographical origins of the writer. Thanks to a common early modern habit, in which readers translated the names of herbs to those which were more familiar to them locally, the anonymous author writes next to the Atriplex Hortensis ‘Vilani paduani trebese’ and ‘Schiavo Loboda’, which means ‘Paduan paesants call it Trebese’ and ‘in Slavic language Loboda’ (fol. d1r). Many folios later, next to the dandelion, a plant frequently found in temperate climates, the author comments ‘Nos Veneti dicimus lactexuol’ (‘We Venetians call it lactexuol’, fol. h1r) and alongside the description of the Morsus gallinae or Anagallus the author writes ‘quem nos dicimus pavarina’ (‘which we call pavarina, fol. s5r): all undeniable references to the Venetian area, confirmed by Giuseppe Boerio’s Dizionario del dialetto veneziano (Venice, 1829).

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Going through the many recipes I also detected, in the same hand, some rare Italian annotations, characterized by Venetian distortions and scriptio continua (writing with no space between words). Who was the annotator? What was his cultural horizon? He rarely uses symbols for quantities – which are always inscribed in the most common amounts (pounds, ounces etc.) – and almost never uses them for substances, except in the first few pages. For many entries on herbs the anonymous writer adds short notes about their properties, which he extracted from classical and Medieval authorities, such as Serapion of Alexandria, Plinius Secundus, Dioscorides, Mesue, Avicenna, and Magister Maurus Salernitanus (ca. 1160–1214). But sometimes he adds references to plants – drawings and explanations – that offer evidence that he read specific early modern books, such as those written by Jacobus Theodorus (1510-1590) and Castore Durante’s Herbal of 1585. This tells us much more about his background.

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Pausing here in my search for the identity of the first author of the marginalia, I’d like to speak briefly about the subsequent owners of this Herbal.

At the top spine of the early 18th century binding of the book, there is a clear shelfmark, ‘A | 16.3.3’ gilt-tooled on a green leather label.  There is also a lower (and more recent) shelfmark in brown ink: 17.6.19. These are undoubtedly the shelfmarks of a well-organized library, and probably not a private one.

By poring over the Marciana Archives – quite a time-consuming operation! – I discovered that the only Marciana copy of this Herbal came from the Clerics Regular of Somasca, of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Salute, founded in 1656 (BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4): the title of the incunable appears in the 1811 list of books belonging to their library and transferred to the Marciana Library after the Napoleonic suppression of the monastery.  And there is more.  The second shelfmark appears in a 18th century manuscript catalogue of the same religious library, which luckily still survives among the Marciana collections (Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271).

BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812', file 4.  Used with permission.
BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4. Used with permission.
BNM, Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271), entry ‘Hortus’.  Used with permission.
BNM, Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271), entry ‘Hortus’. Used with permission.

In my next post I will thoroughly explore the (print) sources of the 16th century annotator side-by-side with the evidence of his own experience, the extent of his additions, his organizing structure, the materials to which he referred while explaining his recipes (bombaxina, black wool, etc.) and much more.  We will enter into the content of the recipes and there will be several surprises, which will enlighten us as to the anonymous identity of the author as well as the subsequent uses of this fascinating book.

Sabrina Minuzzi is a book historian with strong interests in the social history of medicine and household medicine in particular. Her Ph.D. in Early Modern History focused on the practice, by the Venetian Health authorities, of granting privileges for medicinal secrets devised by common people. She reconstructed the life and vicissitudes of some of them through archival documents and printed sources. Her research has become a book, Sul filo dei segreti. Farmacopea, libri e pratiche terapeutiche a Venezia in età moderna (Milan: Unicopli, 2016). A sample of her investigation will be shortly available in Social History of Medicine (‘Quick to say quack. Medicinal secrets from the household to the apothecary’s shop in early eighteenth-century Venice’). She is now part of the team of the 15cBOOKTRADE.