Category Archives: Jennifer Roberts

Hang Your Head: Mrs. Corlyon’s Unique Headache Treatment

Jennifer Sherman Roberts

One of the most challenging tasks in deciphering early modern medical recipes is knowing what illness the recipe is meant to treat. Some recipes address recognizable conditions: cancer, miscarriage, bruises. Some are for diseases whose names have changed significantly: the king’s evil (scrofula), the bloody flux (dysentery), consumption (tuberculosis). And some seem plain enough at first but then reveal confounding and intriguing details.

One such example is in the recipe book of Mrs. Corlyon (Wellcome MS.213), “The trew cause whence many of the Paines of the heade do proceeded, how to know those paines and the Reameadyes for them.” This recipe first caught my eye because of its sheer length—at almost two full pages, it is one of the longest I’ve seen. But it isn’t just length that sets this recipe apart; it seems to be somehow qualitatively different from the standard recipe form.

At first the recipe is straightforward enough–headache treatments are common in early modern recipe books (some great examples from Jennifer Evans can be found here at the Early Modern Medicine blog).

While most recipes begin with simple, prescriptive directions (“boil ye rosemary…” for example, or “take ye dung of cowes…”), this recipe immediately provides an almost academic discussion of the causes of this particular headache:

One of the principall causes whence many of the paines of the Heade do proceede is the opening of the heade the which doth happen comounly by one of these three meanes viz. By over much moisture beying about the Braine: by a sodaine iump or fall: Or by vehement ryding or such like.

The recipe becomes even more unique, however, by the inclusion of a diagnostic tool, making it sound more like a medical text than a recipe book:

The best meanes to know when your heade is open is this: Bowe down the end of your thombe, and if you cannot receave the space that is betwixt the two ioyntes between your teethe, the upper ioynte beyinge towards your upper teethe and the lower ioynte to your lower teethe then your head is opened.

It took me a little while to understand this test, but after a lot of rather silly looking maneuvering (thank goodness I wasn’t writing in a café!), I think I figured out that the test goes something like this.

Photo my own.
Photo my own.

If you can open your mouth enough to fit the area between the two arrows between your teeth (I couldn’t bring myself to post a picture of me doing so), you’re fine. If not, or if it causes you pain, you have an “open head.”

The big problem here? I have no real idea of what an “open head” is (or a “closed head,” for that matter).

At first I assumed that an “open head” was caused by excessive humors, given that one of the causes is too much “moisture beying about the Braine.” But as we shall see, the treatment provided by the recipe doesn’t fit that model

As Katherine Foxhall has pointed out in a recent post on this blog, headache recipes tended to involve cookery of herbs (and indeed, the other recipes in Mrs. Corlyon’s book stay true to that form). And Samantha Sandassie has described non-herbal remedies, which ranged from the mild (plasters and ointments) to the extreme (incisions and trepanning).

“The trew cause…,” however, suggests treatment through physical manipulation of the head:

Leane your selfe upon your elboes with your heade somewhat lowe over a table, putting your face betwixt your hands, setting your thombes under the greatt skull Bone, that is behind your eares, your fingers reaching upp towardes the moulde of your heade. Gather your face in your hands leaning somewhat harde and squeasing your face and the temples of your head together, let your fyngers meete about your heade and this continue for the space of halfe an hower at a tyme, using thus to do often so long as you shall fynde occasion: you shall know when your heade is closed by your thumbe as is aforesaid.

Connecting the thumb test, which determines jaw mobility and pain, with the placement of the hands “on the large skulle Bone” behind the ear, it seems plausible that this recipe describes the stretching and massage of the temporal muscle, which begins behind the ear and fans out across the head. It is often associated with temporomandibular joint disorders (sometimes called TMJ).

Temporal muscle--lateral view, by Anatomography (, via Wikimedia Commons
Temporal muscle–lateral view, by Anatomography (, via Wikimedia Commons

I am really intrigued by the uniqueness of this recipe. Does its emphasis on causes,diagnoses, and nonherbal treatment reveal an evolution within the recipe form itself? Does it hint towards the split between the domestic sphere and the medical world that would come to divide the preparation of food and the preparation of medicine?

But recipe books can be such an odd mixture of structure and jumble, perhaps this recipe simply adds more to the mix.

(And if anybody figures out what an “open head” is, let me know!)

Prick’t By Benedictus: Blessed Thistle and Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons
Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a playful moment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that occurs after the darker elements of the play have been set in motion but while the tone is still comedic. Margaret is helping Hero prepare for her wedding, and Beatrice, feeling ill and out of sorts, reluctantly joins them. Hero and Margaret, who have been conspiring to make the marriage-averse Beatrice and Benedick fall in love, begin teasing Beatrice. In response to Beatrice’s declaration that she is “stuffed” and sick, Margaret recommends a dose of a well-known herb, Carduus benedictus (also known as blessed thistle or holy thistle):

MARGARET. Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus, and lay it to your heart: it is the only thing for a qualm.
HERO. There thou prick’st her with a thistle. (3.4.71-74)

Beatrice immediately picks up on the Benedick/benedictus pun and Hero’s naughty “prick’st” joke.

BEATRICE. Benedictus! why Benedictus? you have some moral in this Benedictus.
MARGARET: Moral! no, by my troth, I have no moral meaning; I meant, plain holy-thistle. You may think, perchance, that I think you are in love: nay, by’r lady, I am not such a fool to think what I list; nor I list not to think what I can; nor, indeed, I can not think, if I would think my heart out of thinking, that you are in love, or that you will be in love, or that you can be in love. (3.4.75-84)

(Unabashed Tangent: I love how this scene distills the mixture of giddiness, wit, and affection – with perhaps a touch of cruelty – that prompts friends to tease each other about their crushes. In modern terms, the scene reminds me of this meme.)

While the Benedick/benedictus pun would be hard for a modern audience to catch, it would have been much plainer to an Elizabethan audience, as Carduus benedictus was far better known and utilized. The herbalist John Gerard writes that blessed thistle (also known, rather delightfully, as “wilde bastard saffron”) was “diligently cherished in gardens in these Northern parts.

Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinque foil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinquefoil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Given the popularity of Carduus benedictus, it is no surprise that it should make an appearance as an ingredient in early modern recipe books. Even so, the properties attributed to it in Wellcome MS 6812, a medical recipe book compiled from 1575-1663, are prodigious, taking up an unusual seven pages of the manuscript. Here is a partial list of the wonders of this plant:

  • If the herb is eaten or the herb’s powder or juice drunk: Good for headache and migraine. Sharpens memory and wit. Helps with sleep and hearing
  • Juice of the herb laid on the eyes: “Quickens” the sight, relieves redness and itchiness
  • Rubbed on a cloth with water: good for strengthening the teeth
  • As a powder: good for staunching the flow of blood from the nose
  • Cooked in wine: good for stomachache; also, “causeth an appetite to meat”
  • Powder mixed with honey: helps void phlegm and “gross humours”
  • Chewed: helps with “stink of the breath”
  • Leaves boiled in water: “provoketh sweat”
  • Powder (as preventative): prevents infection from pestilence; powder (after exposure): “expelleth the venome of the pestilence from the heart”
  • Juice or powder of the herb: combined with covering with hot wool cloth for three hours, causes intense sweating that expels poison
  • Herb boiled in wine: “dries agues”
  • Herb juice with wine: eases aches of all kinds, shortness of breath and diseases of the lungs
  • Herb boiled “in the urine of an healthfull man Child”: prevents dropsy and falling sickness
  • Powder eaten or drunk: eases side stitches and trembling due to palsy, helps with colic
  • Boiled or drunk with wine: breaks up “the stone”; when inhaled as a vapor, helps ease green sickness
  • Juice or powder of the leaves: heals canker sores and “old rotten festered sores.” Bruised leaves help with carbuncles.

This exhaustive list of blessed thistle’s curative powers is echoed in Gerard’s Herbal, where Carduus benedictus begins to sound like a miracle drug (and is even considered beneficial for “the French disease”).

So while Margaret’s comment about Carduus benedictus is meant to prod Beatrice to confess her love for Benedick, it also invokes the powers of an unusually efficacious plant, a trusted remedy capable of curing any malady—except, happily in Messina and the world of the play, the scourge of lovesickness itself.


Scratching “The Itch Infalable”: Johanna St. John’s Anti-Itch Cure

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Physical or metaphorical, itches are funny things.

"Just a little to the left" (Image credit: Vannie via Wikimedia Commons)
“Just a little to the left” (Image credit: Vannie via Wikimedia Commons)

Physical itches, as Atul Gawande points out, may well have been a response that evolved to alert us to insects and poisonous toxins. Previously thought to be triggered by the same nerve cells that control the sensation of pain, researchers have discovered that itching actually has its own special neural pathway, hence the biologically distinctive need to scratch (what Montaigne calls “one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any”).

Metaphorical itches, too, need to be satisfied: the itch to write, the itch to see a country, the itch (as my graduate-student knitting circle phrased it) to stitch and bitch.

But then there is “the itch infalable,” a cure for which can be found in Joanna St. John’s 1680 recipe book (Wellcome Library MS4338). If itching is one of our primal biological functions, an “infalable” itch, one that could never be conquered, sounds like pure misery. Here is the text:

For the Itch infalable
Put the 3d part of an ounce of white mercury into a qrt of spring water with an ounce of salt peter & a small handful of ordinary salt let them boyle together gently an hower &a halfe and as it boyles put in more water to keep the same quantity let the party stand naked by the fire & dab in a rag wheresoever you se any itch let it dry in & wear stil the same shirt boyle the shirt in an earthn pot that may be broke & break the bottle for tis poison.

I’ll admit that I was drawn to this recipe by the poetry of the title rather than the contents of the cure, but after taking a few self-indulgent moments to admire what a fine novel title “The Itch Infallible” would make, I began wondering about the actual malady.

With lice, fleas, and newly documented scabies prevalent, itching in the seventeenth century would be a pretty common occurrence. But these were all relatively temporary conditions that could be eliminated, or at least ameliorated, by bathing and disinfecting. What then would an “infalable” itch be?

Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea (Image credit: Wellcome Library)
Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

Could it have been responsible for the one mysterious death by “Itch” recorded in John Graunt’s 1679 book, Natural and Political Observations … upon the Bills of Mortality?

The only connection I could find between the seventeenth century and any sort of persistent itching condition is a circuitous, even backwards, one: a very modern and highly debated condition known as Morgellons Disease. Morgellons was named in 2002 by a woman researching the cause of her two-year-old son’s painful itching and lesions. She examined his skin under a microscope and disovered multiple fibers. Her search into medical history yielded an anecdote told by Sir Thomas Browne in a 1674 letter about children in the Languedoc region of France, “called the Morgellons,” who grew “harsh hairs” on their backs.

Full and nuanced discussions of the debate about Morgellons Disease can be found here and here, but to summarize, those who suffer from Morgellons have an insatiable desire to scratch in order to extract what feel like bugs burrowing into their skin. A hallmark of this condition is that sufferers find fibers in the lesions—fibers they say indicate an external source of their misery.

Many medical experts, however, believe that the mysterious fibers are simply from clothes, hair, and lint, and that the source of the patients’ suffering is parasitosis, a psychosis in which people believe they have been infested with parasites. Other experts believe that Morgellons sufferers have a very real neurological condition that causes them to feel the sensation of something crawling on them.

I am in no way suggesting that a person treated using St. John’s recipe in the seventeenth century would have suffered from Morgellons or even from Browne’s “harsh hairs,” but thinking about the possibility of a psychological connection to the very real feeling of bugs crawling over or burrowing into the skin (gah–it’s hard to write that without shivering) might help us reconstruct the lived experience of this treatment .

I could easily imagine a scenario in which a person experienced a real infestation of lice or fleas or scabies and then could not stop imagining the accompanying sensation and itching. If that were the case, a rather elaborate sort of “cleansing” in which one stand naked and exposed, wounds treat and clothing burned–such as we see in St. John’s recipe–could provide a healing for the mind.

Whether or not this treatment would be healthy for the body is another question altogether: contact with mercury is toxic. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of mercury poisoning include vomiting, incontrollable shaking, and blindness.

And, in a bitter twist…itching.