Interview with the Editors: The Cultural History of Medicine

By Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith and Laurence Totelin

The Cultural History of Medicine, a six-volume collection under the direction of Roger Cooter, was published in April 2021 by Bloomsbury. The editors of three of its volumes happen to be past or present editors of The Recipes Project: Laurence Totelin edited volume 1 (A Cultural History of Medicine in Antiquity, 500 BCE–800 CE); Elaine Leong co-edited volume 3 with Claudia Stein (A Cultural History of Medicine in the Renaissance, 1450–1650); and Lisa Smith edited volume 4 (A Cultural History of Medicine in the Age of Enlightenment, 1650–1800). Each volume follows the same structure: an introduction, followed by chapters on Environment; Food; Disease; Animals; Objects; Experiences; the Mind/Brain; and Authority. In this post, Elaine, Laurence and Lisa share their experience of participating in the project, and discuss what the reader of The Recipes Project will find of interest in the volumes.

Photo of six books standing up. The books are the six volumes of the Bloomsbury Cultural History of Medicine series.
The Cultural History of Medicine. Reproduced with the permission of Bloomsbury.

What attracted you to this project?

Laurence: I had already contributed to one of the other Cultural Histories, the Cultural History of Women with a chapter co-authored with Steven Muir on ‘Medicine and Disease’. I enjoyed the format and the potential that the volumes have for teaching. So when Roger Cooter contacted me and told me about his list of chosen topics for A Cultural History of Medicine, I could not refuse. I was delighted when I heard that Elaine and Lisa would also be editors.

Lisa: Like Laurence, I loved the idea of a series on the cultural history of medicine; it seemed the right moment for delving into the topic, as the field had slowly become more cultural – taking into consideration emotions, materiality, and more. The list of topics that Roger had chosen reflected these wider concerns, including – for example – environment. It struck me that there was a lot of scope for authors to play with these themes in interesting ways, which would appeal to students and colleagues alike.

Elaine: Like Laurence and Lisa, I felt like it was the right historiographical moment to bring together such a series. I also really welcomed the opportunity to work with my co-editor Claudia Stein and the series editor Roger Cooter. As I was working in a research institute at the time, I jumped at the chance to reflect upon pedagogy with an amazing group of scholars. The authors for the ‘Renaissance’ volume met up in 2016 and it was just wonderful to spend two days discussing the various strategies we use to teach histories of early modern medicine and health, and to collaboratively create teaching materials designed for the modern classroom.

Was your experience as an editor of The Recipes Project helpful in any way when editing your volume of A Cultural History of Medicine?

Lisa: My experience on the blog gave me a lot of experience in working with authors to make their work really readable to non-academics, which I hope will appeal (especially) to students. It also made me realise just how much I enjoy writing with others. Historians still typically work alone, but over the past decade, I’ve been increasingly involved in collaborative projects of which the Cultural History of Medicine is one. In fact, collaborative work is something that helped me through the pandemic! Co-writing with others and editing (the Recipes Project and the Enlightenment volume) encouraged me to find time to write or to talk about ideas amidst the deluge of teaching and home-schooling. There is a particular joy in writing with others to create something different than what you would do on your own. Editing, too, is deeply satisfying; I enjoy helping writers to sharpen their ideas and to pull out their voices.

Laurence: I started work on this project at the same time as on another edited collection. These were my first two larger-scale editorial projects. I am really glad I had gained experience from the Recipes Project as otherwise I would have been entirely overwhelmed. I knew how to write to authors to commission work and how to edit in – hopefully – supportive manner.

Elaine: Yes, absolutely – I echo all the points raised by Laurence and Lisa above!

Had any of your authors contributed to The Recipes Project?

Elaine: Yes, a number of authors in our volume are Recipes Project contributors. Alisha Rankin, who has written about testing and trying medicines, poison trials and panaceas for the Recipes Project wrote a wonderful chapter on ‘Experiences’, skillfully covering the experience of illness, religious experience, experience and medical practice, experience and empire and experience and commerce in a mere 8000 words. I think that it would be rather hard to find a better introduction to the topic! Secondly, Olivia Weisser, who blogged about searching for syphilis in recipe books, penned a fascinating chapter on ‘Disease’ which masterfully offers a overview of various approaches to study the history of disease; detailed case studies of how early modern men and women such as Samuel Pepys (1613–1703) viewed their sickness experiences and an introduction on analysing patient’s narratives to learn more about attitudes to sickness and disease in the past. Offering both a broad historiographical overview and rich case studies, Olivia’s chapter works particularly well for seminar discussions.

Lisa: Marieke Hendriksen wrote a wonderful chapter on objects, focusing on bone as a material. She did talk a bit about recipes, such as how to clean bones and bones in remedies, though this wasn’t her focus. Erin Spinney wrote a great chapter on environment, looking at the built environment of naval and military hospitals in the Caribbean, including the defined roles of particular bodies (according to race and gender) within them. Erin was not a Recipes Project contributor, but she did work as an administrative assistant for us for a summer!

Laurence: David Leith, who wrote the ‘Brain’ chapter had contributed a post on ‘Painting Plants in Roman Egypt‘ for the Recipes Project.

Are recipes discussed in your volume?

Laurence: Recipes are mentioned here and there in various chapters: John Wilkins’ chapter on ‘Food’; Chiara Thumiger’s chapter on ‘Animals’; Rebecca Flemming’s chapter on ‘Experiences’; and my own chapter on ‘Authority’. In addition, Ido Israelowich’s chapter on the ‘Environment’; Patty Baker’s chapter on ‘Objects; and Julie Laskaris’ chapter on ‘Disease’ discuss various ingredients and treatments. Even though recipes were already well covered, I decided that they needed to be given more prominence. So I chose to centre my introduction, which was meant to be a piece of scholarship in and of itself, on a recipe which I keep returning to in my work: Mithradates’ antidote, allegedly created by the King of Pontus in the first century BCE. I found this a very useful device to introduce all the themes in the volume. In a way, that has always been what attracts me to recipes: their structuring power.

Lisa: Beyond Marieke’s chapter, no…. But E.C. Spary’s exciting chapter on food starts with the question ‘what is a food’, as she considers how its definitions are constantly contested and shaped by structures of power. This is very much the sort of thing we’re interested in at the Recipes Project! Despite the lack of recipes, I was pleased with the focus on the dark side of the Enlightenment that emerged in my volume: the tensions between imagination – or the supernatural – and reason (Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein on mind and Angela Haas on authority), the interest in human curiosities as animal-like (Monica Mattfield), and the multiple ways in which race, class and gender were inscribed on the body. It also highlights the continued, but changing, relationship between mind and body, despite the modern tendency to assume a Cartesian split in this period (Micheline Louis-Courvoisier on experiences and Lina Minou on disease).

Elaine: Yes, of course recipes are featured and in so very many of the chapters!  In Olivia Weisser’s chapter on ‘Disease’, for example, recipe titles are used to explore how early modern men and women tended to define diseases as clusters of symptoms. Karin Eckholm’s illuminating chapter on ‘Animals’ explores the use of animal products in early modern medicines, outlining both the use of kitchen staples such as eggs, animal fats and honey and more costly animal ingredients such as spermaceti, ambergris and bezoar stones. Sandra Cavallo discusses recipe collections alongside notebooks and other medical texts in her chapter on ‘Objects’ and, somewhat predictably, recipes and recipe books are dotted throughout Alisha Rankin’s thoughtful chapter on ‘Experience’. Furthermore, centred on Felix Platter, Sachiko Kusuksawa’s chapter on ‘Authority’, discusses Platter’s endeavors in medicinal recipe collection and exchange whilst a student at Montpellier, and places of this kind of informal learning and networking with fellow students and professors within Platters general pursuit of medical knowledge and construction of medical authority. Finally, while recipes are not explicitly featured in Rebecca Earle’s chapter on food, diet and health or Natalie Kauokji’s chapter on environment, diet and natural conditions, these chapters would certainly be of interest to The Recipes Project readers!

 

Revisiting Lisa Smith’s Coffee: A Remedy Against the Plague

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by our editor Lisa Smith on the use of coffee as an eighteenth century cure-all against smallpox and the plague. The botanist Richard Bradley claimed that coffee would be effective in treating such diseases because it ‘lifted the spirit’. I certainly find that caffeine lifts my spirits, even if temporarily, but we know that high spirits are unfortunately no protection against COVID-19 and other viruses. Still, there is no harm in taking a break – caffeinated or not – and I hope that this post will give you good cheer. Laurence Totelin


By Lisa Smith

1721, London: The plague raging in Marseilles threatened London’s busy ports. The British government took action, asking a core group of physicians to devise a plan in case the plague reached London. Smallpox was already rampant and the King had ordered a series of inoculation experiments on prisoners. Troubled times.

Enter the impecunious botanist Richard Bradley. (I discussed his interesting life in a recent blog post.) When he wasn’t in debt to booksellers, he made a living from popular medical and scientific writings, such as The virtue and use of coffee, with regard to the plague, and other infectious distempers (London, 1721). He wrote: “At this time, when every Nation in Europe is under the melancholy Apprehension of an approaching Plague or Pestilence, I think it the Business of every Man to contribute, to the utmost of his Capacity, such Observations, as may tend to the Service of the Publick.”

And in the face of the plague and smallpox he offered… coffee. Remedies prescribed by other physicians, he insisted, “are little different from each other.” Coffee, however, “is of excellent Use in the time of Pestilence, and contributes greatly to prevent the spreading of Infection.” Who knew?

Apparently the Turks. Bradley explained: “in some Parts of Turkey, where the Plague is almost constant, it is seldom mortal in those Families, who are rich enough to enjoy the free Use of Coffee.” In his treatise, he discussed coffee’s efficacy and provided (most tantalizingly for the coffee-mad Brits) “an Account of the best Method of roasting the Berries, and preserving them after roasting.”

Coffee tree (Coffea arabica). Line engraving by H. Burgh, c.1726
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

I present to you Bradley’s instructions for preparing coffee. First, he recommended spreading out the ripe berries to dry and harden beneath the sun. The husks were then to be removed so that the berries could be toasted in an “airy place to clean them.” Finally, the berries were ready for the roaster, and this was an important step: the roasting process, Bradley claimed, would determine “the Goodness of the Liquor.” Never fear, though, Bradley had “taken some pains to experience the best Method of roasting it.” His conclusion was that the berries would be heated most equally by placing them in an iron vessel and turned on a spit over a clear or charcoal fire. His personal preference was “roasted in a middle way, not overburnt.” To modern readers, this seems like a lot of work, but Bradley reassured his readers that this process could easily be done at home, as apparently many “Persons of Distinction in Holland” did.

Making the beverage also required special equipment and techniques. To prepare the decoction, earthen or stone vessels were best, as metal spoiled the flavour. Boiling the coffee evaporated “too much of the fine Spirits”. Pouring boiling water over the powder of ground berries and infusing it for four or five minutes in front of the fire would be better and “much exceeds the common way of preparing it.” He provided an alternative, too: grinding the berries into powder, adding the powder and water into a stone or silver coffee pot and leaving the pot in front of the fire for a couple minutes. The liquid was always “thick and troubled” after brewing, but could be made “clear enough for drinking” by adding a spoonful or two of cold water to force the grounds to sink.

Coffee was worth the effort, being the ultimate cure-all. Bradley described its many virtues, which included treating head pains, vertigo, lethargy, coughs, moist and cold constitutions, consumptions, swooning fits, digestive problems, sleepiness, running humours, sores, scrofula, drunkenness, rheumatism, gout, intermitting fevers and infection. It could also purify the blood, provoke urination, stimulate the menses and deworm children. Indeed, it was particularly beneficial for menstruating women. According to Bradley, Arabian women drank coffee during their “periodical Visits, and find a good Effect”, such as contraction of the bowels and toned up genitals. Coffee was not for everyone though. Those suffering from melancholy vapours, hot brains, or paralysis should avoid it.

The reason that coffee would be so efficacious in treating infectious disease was that it lifted the spirits—and those “whose Spirits are the most overcome by Fear, are the most subject to receive Infections”. The correct use of coffee supported the drinker’s “vital Flame”, protecting the drinker from fear and despair. To gain coffee’s maximum benefits, Bradley recommended the following dosage: at least twice a day, first in the morning and at four in the afternoon.

Coffee breaks: good for your health!

Recipes for Mud Pies

By Lisa Smith

Beginning a mud pie.

By the end of February, I had set up nearly all of this month’s posts to publish. But not this one. It’s been less than a month, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, I was preoccupied with the community that came from the UK strike. Since then, though, a pandemic has been declared — and it’s increasingly clear that virtual community is  more important than ever.

Today’s post had not yet been set, as I was planning to cross-publish something.  But things had gotten on top of me before I could do it… like (virtually) coming back from strike to move all of my teaching for the last week online because our university had more-or-less closed.  

I’ve been working from home all week, with a tiny co-worker keeping me company. Being at home with her has meant enforced time out in my day to play and to breathe fresh air. On today’s menu: making mud pies.

My mud pie.

Throughout our playtime, the child narrated how to make a mud pie.

Take some dirt from this pile, then add leaves, twigs, and plant scraps. Tap it into your pail. Turn it upside down for serving.

Another variation included the fancy pies (see below) that could be served in their dishes.

What the child didn’t say, though, is that making mud pies is a fundamentally sociable activity. What is the point of making them if you don’t have someone to share them with?

The Recipes Project  had already been taking stock of our future direction by looking at our blog stats and audience. We had been wondering what they could tell us about our wider community and what you might like to see from us. Over the past week, we’ve also been thinking a lot about the sudden changes in our (and our contributors’) work and personal lives. And virtual communities have become even more important than ever! 

As ever, we’re delighted to hear from you and would love it if you let us know in the comments what you would like to see from us in the future, whether content, community building, or events…  Please join us in making mud pies — or, thinking about what we want to see from our wonderful community of readers and contributors.

A fancy mud pie offering.

British? Or European?: George III’s dinner table and the taste of the nation, 1788-1801

By Rachel Rich and Lisa Smith

James Gillray, ‘Temperance enjoying a frugal meal’, 28 July 1792. Image credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

If we are what we eat, and the king is the father of the nation, then George III’s menus must have something to tell us about who the British people were at the end of the eighteenth century, as Britain moved from early modernity to modernity. As patriotism in the face of perceived French aggression gave way to a new sense of nationalism and national identity, it is revealing that the British persisted in giving their most elegant menu items French names and even French flavours.

Thanks to a grant from the British Academy (as part of their ‘Tackling the UK’s International Challenges’ scheme), we are–along with Adam Crymble–digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus for each day when they were in residence at Kew Palace between 1788 and 1801. Doing this allows us to understand what was served each day, how it was served, and what kinds of ingredients were necessary to keep the kitchens going, and to keep the nation’s first family on their feet.

It is quickly apparent that the royal family’s meals were dependent on a number of networks. At Kew, food was prepared in one building, then carried to multiple buildings (the princesses, guests, and King, for example, all resided in different houses) and multiple dining rooms (even the main building had separate tables for the king, queen, equerries, etc.) around Kew. Kinship and friendship networks were at work providing local game and produce through the tradition of giving gifts of food.

Britain’s naval and imperial position in the world is well-documented in the menus, with numerous spices and condiments listed as staples of the grocery and oilery lists that had to be approved by the Board of Green Cloth. Britain’s place in Europe, even while France went through its revolution and war was declared, remained firm with French, German, Dutch and Italian dishes appearing frequently at their majesties’ table. As these overlapping and interlocking networks and trade routes suggest, to understand British identity is also to understand that Britain was a part of Europe, even as the metropole of an Empire that had yet to reach the height of its global power.

Writing about the late nineteenth century, April Bullock has argued that recipes were sources of cosmopolitanism, a way for aspiring middle-class men and women to experience the exoticism of abroad from the comfort of their own table. A century earlier, this kind of dining-chair travel was only available to the elite, and George III’s menus might, indeed, be representative of the ways in which people sought to recreate earlier experiences—of travel and adventure, or of the comfort they had known elsewhere—on a daily basis in the domestic realm. The question, though, is what the elite desire for foreign flavours in the domestic dining room actually meant. Does an ethnically German and proudly British King, for example, eat Dutch ‘Metworst’ and Italian ‘macarony’ because he is British or because he is foreign? And if Kew was the royal family’s retreat from the glare of public life, did the food they eat there reflect their real tastes or the fashion of the moment? 

Our diets are one of the areas that most quickly reveal how complex the construction of identity is. What we say about ourselves is one thing, but what we put into our bodies in another; our choices are bound by social and historical forces we seldom consider. It is far easier to assess other people’s choices. In the late eighteenth-century, one’s diet was treated as a symbol for personal qualities and morality. James Gillray, for example, regularly conflated nation, food, and identity in his political cartoons, as in ‘Temperance enjoying a Frugal Meal’ (1792) where the King’s personal stinginess was extrapolated onto the national stage. 

The wonderful Georgian Papers Project has just launched an interesting exhibition on The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient, George III. When we think of the health of Georgian monarchs, George III’s case is often the first thing that comes to mind–and rightly so, given how evocative it is! However, as our project will show, the royal household’s menus and food accounts can offer other insights into the daily lives of the royal household members, particularly in terms of their health, diet, cultural choices, seasonality and supply, and personal relationships.

Although sources such as the ordinary royal menus have often been overlooked, whether owing to the difficulty of interpreting them or to their ordinary domestic nature, they are–quite literally–accounts of national importance.  After all, what the king chose to eat (or not) shaped the culture and politics of the emerging British nation.