Category Archives: Ingredients

The Working of Herbs, Part 3: Herb Qualities and Indications

By Anne Stobart

In my previous posts on the Working of Herbs (Part 1 and Part 2) I flagged up some problems in finding out how medicinal herbs might really work, or finding reliable sources on herbal ‘efficacy’. I set out to try to establish a protocol, or way of thinking about this issue by picking a specific medicinal recipe. My choice was a seventeenth-century recipe for ‘after throws’ (likely for pains after childbirth). The recipe contains hyssop, wild mint, groundsel, pennyroyal and balm. In this post I aim to get an overview of how these herbs might have been viewed at the time that the recipe was being copied, in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Sources for past information on herbal qualities and  indications

Last time I mentioned a useful but dated source in Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal.[1] However, we can also look directly at past material written on medicinal plants, found in herbals, pharmacopoeia or medical advice books, as starting points in providing contemporary indications for medicinal use. There are quite a few 17th/18th century printed sources. My choice of sources is largely pragmatic, based on comprehensiveness and ease of access – especially sources that have indexes which are easy to use, or can be found in a text format which is readily searchable. Here I give selected details from two sources published before and after the likely compilation and recording of this later seventeenth-century recipe. Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians reflects views of medical therapeutics from the early 17th century while John Quincy’ Pharmacopoeia Officinalis was first published 1718. I started to use John Quincy’s book frequently as I am lucky to own

Quincy, John. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed.  London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).
Figure 1. John Quincy. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).

a hard copy of the 8th edition (much-thumbed) – it has both a Latin and common name index for the many items in the materia medica. Descriptions of these herbs often give both their qualities and indications for a range of conditions.[2]

According to Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory (1649, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – Help coughs, shortnesse of breath, wheezing, distillations upon the Lungues, it is of a cleansing quality, kill wormes in the body, amends the whol color of the body, helps the dropsie and spleen, sore throats and noise in the ears (41)
  • Wild Mint – [Of garden mints ] hot and dry in the third degree, [Of water mint and horse mint] ease pains of the belly, head-ach and vomiting, gravel in the kidnies, and stone. (45)
  • Groundsel – Groundsel, cold and moist according to Tragus, helps the Chollick, and pains or gripins in the belly, helps such as cannot make water, cleanseth the reins, purgeth Choller and sharp humors (32)
  • Pennyroyal – Penyroyal, hot and dry in the third degree, provokes urine, breaks the stone in the reins, … strengthens womens backs, provokes the terms, easeth their labour in child-bed, brings away the after-birth, staies vomiting, strengthens the brain, (yea the very smell of it) breaks wind and helps the vertigo (49-50)
  • Balm – Bawm, is hot and dry; inwardly, it is an excellent remedy for a cold and moist stomach, cheers the heart, refresheth the mind, takes away grief, sorrow, and care, instead of which it produceth joy and mirth (45)

According to Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – (Balsamic section), a warm and detergent herb, ‘good for anything’ especially coughs and lung disorders (143)
  • Wild Mint – [mentha] (Diaphoretic section) warm and aperient – reckoned by some to promote menses and urine (176)
  • Groundsel – [Carduncellus] (Emetic section) a good and safe vomit (187)
  • Pennyroyal [Pulegium] – (Nervous simples section) warm and chief virtue is ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’ (89)
  • Balm [Melissa] (Diaphoretics section) of fine cordial flavour but weak and soon fades (177)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) 

Further sources could be consulted but, overall, these two sources identify four of the herbs in the recipe for after throws (hyssop, wild mint, pennyroyal (Figure 2) and balm (Figure 3))  as having qualities of heating and drying. One herb (groundsel) is regarded as cold and moist, a purging remedy and good for ‘pains or gripins in the belly’ while another (wild mint) can also ‘ease pains in the belly’. Pennyroyal is specifically indicated for bringing away the afterbirth and ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’. Hyssop is regarded as ‘cleansing’ and ‘good for anything’. Other specific indications for these herbs include lung complaints (hyssop) and grief (balm). A check of some other texts with seventeenth-century childbirth-related recipes reveals that hyssop was also an  ingredient in other remedies with titles such as ‘For a woman traveling with child’ and ‘An approved medicine to bring away a dead child’.[3]

Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

But was this recipe used?

It does appear that some of the herbs in this recipe were considered by contemporary sources to have relevance in various complaints related to childbirth. And I have found that this particular recipe for ‘after throws’ was repeated at least five times in the recipe collections of one household (more on this in a later post!) so it is possible that it was actually used, or at least was thought to have some ‘efficacy’. However, we cannot assume that the past view of these herbs matches the likely effects based on today’s understanding. In my next post I will look at how these herbs are understood in the present day, and consider how herbal monographs may be useful in this endeavour to find out what the herbs can do.


[1] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses (First 1931 ed. London: Penguin, 1980).

[2] ‘Qualities’ can be thought of as the properties of herbs and  ‘indications’ are suggested uses. Sources used are: Nicholas Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory Made by the Colledge of Physicians in London (London: Peter Cole, 1649); John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730). These texts are on Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and can be accessed through the Wellcome Library website (membership is free).

[3] For example, see A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653, pp. 48, 91); W. J., Dr Lowers and Several Other Eminent Physicians Receipts Containing the Best and Safest Method for Curing Most Dieases in Humane Bodies (London: John Nutt, 1700, p.37).


An early modern Portuguese recipe book of pharmaceutical “secrets”

By Amy Buono

Colleçção de varias receitas de segredos particulares des principaes boticas da nossa companhia de Portugal, da Índia, de Macao e do Brasil compostas e experimentadas pelos melhores medicos e Boticarios mais celebres que tem havido nestas partes aumentada com alguns indices, e noticias muito curiozas, e necessarias para a boa direcção e acerto contra as enfermidades. En Roma, An.M.DCC.LXVI, com todas as licenças necessarias, 20 X 13, 5 cm, 603 p.  [1766]

Colleçção de varias receitas de segredos particulares des principaes boticas da nossa companhia de Portugal, da Índia, de Macao e do Brasil...1766 [Manuscript Opp. NN. 17, ARSI, Rome]
Colleçção de varias receitas de segredos particulares des principaes boticas da nossa companhia de Portugal, da Índia, de Macao e do Brasil…1766 [Manuscript Opp. NN. 17, ARSI, Rome]
The Collection of various recipes of unique secrets from the most important pharmacies of our Society in Portugal, India, Macao, and Brazil, 1766, also known as Opp. NN. 17  is a Jesuit manuscript of medical recipes today housed in the Archivum Romanus Societatis Iesu (ARSI), the central Jesuit archive in Rome. Of interest to scholars of the Society of Jesus and to historians of colonial medicine alike, the 603-page compilation of recipes offers scholars a glimpse into the process of gathering medicinal knowledge from local healers in missionary settings, and then disseminating it via a systematized volume of indexed recipes for the Jesuit’s Portuguese-speaking unit. Among the highlights of the collection are its various recipes for compounding theriacs, medicaments against snake-bites and other poisons.

Though dated to 1766, the volume probably collates recipes collected over the previous two centuries within the “Portuguese Assistancy,” ­­ the oldest of the four territorial and linguistic administrative units of the Jesuit Order, and its most powerful in the early modern period due to strong patronage by the Portuguese Crown. In principle, the Society of Jesus was organized as a centralized command structure in which all data flowed to and from Rome. In practice, however, information and objects  from the Portuguese missions in Brazil, India, Macao (including letters detailing local life, medicinal recipes, natural historical knowledge, maps, and indigenous art) circulated semi-autonomously units, often bypassing the hub of Rome.[1] These internal, Portuguese-language based networks thus offer scholars fascinating insight into how locally-specific medical knowledge moved into wider, global circuits of the early modern world, and how the Jesuit Order’s Portuguese Assistancy acted as a surrogate to the Portuguese Empire.

I am at work on a translation and critical edition of Opp. NN. 17, which will be published with an Introduction, and three accompanying contextual essays by historians of medicine of early modern India, Brazil, and Macao. The aim is to make available to historians of the early modern period not just the particular recipes, but also an exemplary case study of how botanical ingredients entered the market, and how technical and experimental knowledge shaped medical practice within the ambit of the Portuguese Assistancy. Of particular interest to me personally is the discussion within the manuscript about profit-making, which reminds us that materia medica and pharmacies were very much seen as money-making concerns for the Jesuit order.  These issues show up in suggestions about omitting particularly effective but very costly ingredients from recipes and the necessity for protecting pharmaceutical secrets so as to maximize the revenue stream. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

In these blog postings I hope to provide some musings on both the process of creating a translation and critical edition, and on the Jesuit process of “building” a Portuguese-language recipe book of secrets.

[1] Ines G. Zupanov, Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India, 16th-17th Centuries, History, Languages, and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 4.

Garlic and fertility testing in the Greek world

By Laurence Totelin

In my last blog post, I discussed some ancient gender tests. This month, I turn to Greek fertility tests. In the Greek world, women only entered full womanhood upon conception and delivery of a child, preferably a boy. Infertility seriously damaged a woman’s status in her community. It is therefore no wonder that one of the treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of some sixty texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) was devoted to the issue of barrenness: On Sterile Women. This tract includes a few fertility tests, aimed at predicting whether a woman will become pregnant or not.

Representation of garlic in the famous 'Vienna Dioscorides' manuscript (512 CE)
Representation of garlic in the famous ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript (512 CE)

Tests by means of which you will know whether a woman will be pregnant. If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant: give to drink butter [or a plant called boutyron] and the milk of a woman who has borne a male child, whilst she is fasting. If she vomits, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not.

Another: Let her wrap some oil of bitter almonds in wool and apply as a pessary. Check in the morning whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

Another test for the same purpose: apply pessaries that are not particularly strong. If she has pains in the joints, suffers from clattering teeth, dizziness, and yawning, there is more hope that she will pregnant than if she who does not suffer from any of these afflictions.

Another: Having washed and peeled a head of garlic, apply it to the womb, and see the next day whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant, let here drink finely pounded anise in water, then let her sleep. If she itches around the navel, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not. [On Sterile Women 214]

Every single one of these tests would deserve a long explanation, especially since possible Egyptian parallels exist for some of these recipes. Here, however, I will focus on the second and fourth tests, the almond oil and garlic tests. Both rest upon the assumption that women have a sort of tube (a hodos) that runs through their bodies, with two openings: the mouth of the face and the mouth of the womb (=the vagina). In a healthy woman, whose tube was not obstructed, a smell could travel easily from the lower to the upper mouth – hence the use of such smell test.

The smells used here were not chosen at random. Perfumes, such as that of bitter almond, were associated with Aphrodite, love making and marriage ceremonies. Garlic too was associted with sexuality and fertility, although the links are not particularly easy to interpret. In Aristophanes’ comedy, The Women at the Thesmophoria (a festival in honour of Demeter), women use garlic to conceal the smell of wine after a night of drinking and sex with their lovers (v. 495). Garlic masks the smells associated with sex and pleasure. Similarly, according to the historian Philochorus (third century BCE), at the festival of the Skirophoria (a festival in honour of Athena and Demeter), ‘women ate garlic in order to abstain from sex, so that they would not smell of perfume’ (FGRH 328 F 89). Thus, Philochorus presents garlic as an-aphrodisiac, a clear opposite to those perfumes used in sexual foreplay.

The sceptic will no doubt say that garlic was chosen simply because it is a strong smelling, ‘windy’ plant, whose scent would travel easily through the body. Yet, there seems to be something that links it to women and sex in the ancient world. An admittedly much later document, a sacred law from the sanctuary of the healing god Men at Sounion in Attica (IG II2 1365) informs men that they should cleanse if they have been in contact with garlic, pigs and women — a rather puzzling combination unless you know that ‘piggy’ was Greek slang for the vulva.

Anthony Lewis and the Aphrodisiac Remedy

By Jennifer Evans

In early modern England, academic and popular medical writers expressed concern that there were many couples who struggled to conceive and so were childless. An English edition of François Mariceau’s midwifery manual remarked that that he ‘admire[d] the great passion which many have, who complain of nothing with greater regret than to [be] without Children, especially without Sons.’[1] Barrenness though was not only limited to those who were childless; those who had had children previously but now struggled to conceive again were also thought to be barren.

One strategy for remedying barrenness, particularly if it was caused by frigidity (a loss of libido and sexual pleasure caused by cold) recommended by early modern medical writers was to consume ‘provokers of venery’ what came to be called in the late seventeenth century aphrodisiacs. Numerous foods were thought to be aphrodisiacs including, nettles, artichokes, parsnips, mustard seeds and onions. As one published book of medical recipes, Dr. Trigg’s Secrets, Arcana’s & Panacea’s  (1655) declared ‘an excellent secret to help barrennesse’ was ‘The buds of the Sun-flower before it blossome, boiled and eaten with butter, vinegar and pepper, do mightily excite to venery, and provoke lust more than the Artichoke. Nettle seeds are good for the same purpose; so is garden cresses and rocket and purslaine’.[2]

Wikimediea Commons: H. Zell
Wikimediea Commons: H. Zell

Many aphrodisiacs were incorporated into fertility remedies recorded in domestic recipe books, although these texts were rarely as explicit as Dr. Trigg’s secrets in explaining that these remedies were useful because they encouraged couples to engage in sexual activity that would lead to conception. One plant regularly described by medical authors as an aphrodisiac was Eryngo also known as Sea Holly. The roots were often candied, and recipes for this were recorded in several domestic recipe books including an anonymous seventeenth and eighteenth century collection housed in the Wellcome library (MS 8097).[3] The author of this recipe gave detailed instructions for washing, boiling and candying the roots of this plant. The root was also included in several remedies designed to improve fertility. A collection attributed to Elizabeth Okeover included ‘An excellent helpe to conception’ – ‘Take the rotes of seaholly it growth by the sea side & is like to little trees of halfe a yeare height some call it Aringeime take the rootes of this & make it in sirrupe & eate it in the morne & at 4 a clocke take some gentle pills at the beginenge not before every recept’.[4] Similar remedies were also included in a recipe book attributed to Anne Glydd (1656) and one attributed to Bridget Hyde (1676-1690).

Credit: Rowan McOnegal. Wellcome Images
Credit: Rowan McOnegal. Wellcome Images

Despite the frequent appearance of such fertility remedies though, it was rare for manuscript collections to include direct or explicit references to sexual stimulants on their own. The only instance I have encountered so far was recorded in a collection described as ‘Medical Reciepts written by Anthony Lewis, from a book owned by Lady Marquee Dorset’. The recipe stated, ‘Sotherne wood being laid under ye beeds [sic] head, doth provoke venery.’[5] Nicholas Culpeper in his English translations of the Royal College of Physicians Pharmacopoeia Londinensis had also described southernwood as an aphrodisiac listing it as follows:

‘A Brotanum mas, foemina. Southernwood, male and foemale. Is hot and dry in the third degree, resists poyson, kils worms, provokes lust; outwardly in plaisters, it dissolves cold swellings, and helps the bitings of venemous beasts, makes hair grow: take not above half a drachm at a time in pouder’.[6]

Culpeper’s text suggested that southernwood provoked lust when taken as an internal medicine, like many aphrodisiacs. In Anthony Lewis’s recipe, though, the herb was supposed to stimulate sexual desire just through proximity to the body. This was not unprecedented Phillipa Pullar has suggested that the Greeks and Romans enjoyed satyrion root [a type of orchis] because its tuberous and erect fleshy stem was thought to have an effect even when held in the hand.[7]

However, the positioning of the herb within the bed, where it was perhaps expected that sex would take place, is reminiscent of infertility magic where enchantments were placed in the bed of the victim to prevent them from engaging in copulation. For example The Magick of King Karani, a medieval treatise republished in the early modern period, included a spell that appears very similar to the above,

‘hat a Man’s Member cannot be erect, till what is laid be removed. And if one lay the Herb [whores vervain] under the Pillow, he that lies upon it shall not erect, a[n]d if you give a little of the Herb powdered in drink to a Man, he will not erect to coition for seven dayes.

Interestingly, this remedy may have been influenced by ideas of magic, or perhaps counter-magic, against infertility enchantments. However, there is nothing surrounding the remedy to suggest that this was the case. The remedy was also not explicitly related to fertility–there was no suggestion that this was the reason that it had been recorded. It was recorded on the same page as a method for establishing whether a pregnant woman was carrying a male or female child, but was sandwiched between an oil to remove facial wrinkles and a medicine to make the hair grow. If anything this might suggest that this aphrodisiac was included as an anti-aging measure. It was a common humorous trope, and accepted medical reality, that many old men were impotent.

This lone recipe is something of an anomaly then. It is puzzling that this is the only remedy of this type that I have found so far. Recipe books include much material taken from medical texts and from physicians, and it was common for general medical texts, midwifery manuals and herbals to describe aphrodisiacs, so why was this information not more readily incorporated into manuscript texts?

One possible reason was that many aphrodisiacs were described as being effective on their own without much complex preparation–although there were some remedies that combined numerous ingredients. It was perhaps common knowledge that eating artichokes, sea holly, or satyrion would have these effects. Perhaps this remedy merited notation precisely because it was not to be consumed which made it unusual. I have yet to figure out why this lone note is the only explicit reference to aphrodisiacs in manuscript collections, but it does continue to intrigue me.

[1] Hugh Chamberlen, The diseases of women with child … written in French by Francis Mauriceau (London, 1672), 6.

[2] Anonymous, Dr. Trigg’s Secrets, Arcana’s & Panacea’s: Approved by his long admired Experience and Practice, whereby he wrought such wonderfull Cures (London, 1665), p. 141-2.

[3] Wellcome Library London, MS 8097; see also London British Library, M.S. Add. 45196, Brockman Papers: The Receipt Book of Anne Glydd, 1656,; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 2990/27, Bridget Hyde 1676-1690, fol. 27r; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 1511, Mrs Carr 1682, Fol. 18r; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 3082, Johnson Family 1694-1831, Fol. 203v.

[4] Wellcome Library London, MS 3712, Elizabeth Okeover (& others), 141.

[5] British Library Ms Sloane 556: Medical Receipts Written by Anthony Lewis; From a Book Owned by

Lady Marquee Dorset, 1606. fol. 31 r.

[6] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory further adorned by the studies and collections of the Fellows, now living of the said colledg. (London, 1653), p. 13.

[7] Philippa Pullar, Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetites (London, 1970), p.238.