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.

Around the Table: Chat with a Scholar

This month on Around the Table, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation with architectural historian Sarah Milne. She was introduced to an early modern English manuscript in the archives while researching another project. That text, the Dinner Book of the London Drapers’ Company, grew into a project of its own, and her newly-published edition is sure to be of great interest to historians of architecture, civic life, and food. In April, her research came full circle as she publicly launched her book at the site of the dining in the manuscript: Drapers’ Hall in London. Following my conversation below, Recipes Project editor Lisa Smith, who was able to attend the book launch, shares some comments about the presentation.

Sarah Milne speaking in Drapers’ Hall, where the dinners take place. Photo courtesy of Sarah Milne.

Could you describe the Dinner Book and how you found it? On what type of project were you working?

Rather unusually, I first came across the Dinner Book as a postgraduate architecture student trying to get to grips with the City of London as a place, so that I could design for it effectively. Walking around its streets, I identified the livery company (guild) halls as important footholds, entry points into the guilds themselves, and I set myself the task of designing a new livery hall for recently formed guilds. It did not take me long to figure out that one of the focal-points of company life was the annual ‘Election Dinner’, when new leaders of the companies were invested in their new roles at grand dinners held in the halls. For me, in representing guild hierarchies structured within the hall, this was a critical moment to design for, and I was keen to research the history of dinners as much as I could in order to uncover the meaning and cultural context of these long-standing events. To be honest, my design project was over and done with far too quickly, but I was able to develop my interest through a written dissertation. Influenced by Carolyn Steele’s writing on how food shapes cities, I wrote to a number of guild archivists enquiring records which would give me insight into the sorts of foods presented at the dining tables of the Election Dinners. I was intrigued by the mercantile guilds’ attitudes to ‘new world’ products, and the extent to which dinners were experimental or conservative. Penny Fussell at the Drapers’ Company invited me to visit Drapers’ Hall to see a document she thought I might be interested in. That was the Dinner Book.

At the time I encountered it, I didn’t really have the skillset to deal with it effectively, I was not trained in palaeography for a start, but I knew that this account book seemed rare and important. Spanning from 1564–1602, though mostly weighted towards the 1560s and 1570s, it listed the foods, drinks, suppliers, servants, attendees and their positions within Drapers’ Hall at a series of Election Dinners. For me at that time, the potential of the document was to ground City sociability in a place, a space and a time, allowing for present-day dinners to be read through the lens of the past. Slowly but surely I made progress in making sense of the document.

It was only many years afterwards during my PhD, and several drafts of transcriptions of the Dinner Book later, that I was able to say with more certainty why this book was important for early modern historians, and suggest its significance for food historians. The period covered by the Dinner Book was one of particular instability and change in the City. The Drapers’ dinner records for the closing decades of the sixteenth century indicate that livery companies recognised the potential of their annual Election Dinners to reinforce the antiquity of corporate authority, inferring a mythical past as a means of legitimizing their stake in the future. Naturally, the food presented was implicated in this endeavour, and mostly tended towards traditionally high-status meats such as venison.

Sarah Milne showing the Dinner Book to a Draper. Photo courtesy of Sarah Milne.

It is interesting how such a beautiful space (Drapers’ Hall) has such a rich accompanying textual history; that is not always the case! Is this kind of menu book unique to the Drapers? Do you know of other examples of similar guild records (in London or elsewhere), particularly ones accompanying an existing architectural space?

Though the Great Twelve Companies shared a common culture of dining and a concern for their orchestration, it does appear that The Dinner Book is the only coherently detailed document which accounts for a series of these sorts of dinners. It seems to have been produced as a sort of aide memoire to inform the planning of future dinners as well as giving an account of what was spent year by year. There may well have been other Dinner Books, but they have not survived, excepting one very partial record from the late seventeenth century. In individual guild archives and at the Guildhall, the odd account of comparable Election Dinners of other companies can be found, but nothing quite matches the Dinner Book.

I am very thankful for the ways in which the Drapers’ Company accommodated me in their Hall over many years. To be able to research the Dinner Book in near enough the same location as it was produced, and the kitchens where the dinners actually prepared, was quite special. Indeed, though Drapers’ Hall has been rebuilt many times, the memory of the sixteenth-century Hall persists in the arrangement of interior spaces, so that the present-day main hall where the dinners were eaten is effectively in the same location, and of a similar scale, as it was at the time the Dinner Book was written-up. Other companies too retain Halls, though none survive from the sixteenth century (excepting the fifteenth-century kitchens of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall).

Has working with the Dinner Book influenced your other research interests and recent projects?

My encounter with the Dinner Book affected the trajectory of my working life quite significantly. From a focus on architectural design, I shifted to focus on architectural history, understanding that the two need to be held in tension, especially when the complexity of a city like London is in view. If it is not already apparent, I should clarify that I take architecture to be a broad discipline concerned with how space is produced by many hands over time. Architecture is always relational, contingent, and, at its heart, it is really about people. In this way, the study of food exchanges and dining practices can be very relevant to urban and architectural historians interested in working from the inside out of buildings, or thinking about flows of traded goods in the city more generally. Indeed, I feel strongly that the link between designers, urbanists and architects on the one hand, and historians on the other, needs to be cultivated so that cities can be acted within and planned for with sensitivity and wisdom. Spatial ‘micro-histories’ can be very effective in engaging a broad-range of people in deep conversations about the way cities change over the long-term.

Now I work for the Survey of London, a group of historians who write histories of London’s built environment, paying attention to all sorts of stories of the capital city and addressing a huge range of buildings past and present. We tend to work parish by parish, and currently I am working on an especially experimental project centred on Whitechapel in East London. We have taken a participatory approach to this project, inviting the public and professionals to enter into dialogue with us and each other about the area, sharing their research, memories and archives, as we share our findings, all framed within the context of a digitally accessible online map. Speaking to people, it is amazing to see how often food or dining comes up, especially in relation to migrant experiences of settlement and inter-cultural exchanges. We have been especially excited to commission a film about the local South Asian restaurant trade – Changing Tastes.

Thanks, Sarah, for chatting with me about such an interesting project! You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahannmilne.

And now, Lisa Smith’s comments on the book launch.

On April 8, I had the pleasure visiting the Drapers’ Hall in London to celebrate a book launch for Sarah Milne’s edited volume of The Dinner Book of the London Drapers’ Company 1564-1602. Although I’ve visited a range of splendid medical buildings, from the Royal College of Surgeons (London) to the Académie Nationale de Médecine (Paris), this was my first experience of an actual London guild hall. To say that the Drapers’ Hall is very grand would be an understatement; the marks of power, pomp, and ceremony remain visible to historians, even if the main hall is now bookable for wedding receptions.

In the introduction to The Dinner Book, Dr Milne describes the ‘theatre of hospitality’; beyond the grandeur of a hall, the guild displayed its wealth through elaborate feasts. At the Election Dinner of 1564, for example, the first course included foods like swans, pikes, venison pasties, and custards; the second course included lighter foods, from quails to marchipane; and the banquet course was comprised of sweet items, like spicebread, wafers, fruits, and hippocras. The necessity of luxury was so important that the guild hall even had a separate space for preparing the banquet course—the hippocras house, which was staffed by three servants during the 1564 dinner.

“Interior of Drapers’ Hall” From Old and New London, Volume I, by Walter Thornbury (1897). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There is no modern-day hippocras house, but the book launch took place in the same room as the early modern great hall. A modern chef attempted to recapture some of the early modern flavours for us, too, with treats such as venison pasties and pottage…

In her talk, Dr Milne discussed the complicated nature of space and public activities in early modern London; the domestic, social, and business worlds co-existed behind the guild hall gates. The great hall may have been used for corporate assemblies, but the courtyard house was the Master’s residence. The parlour was the site of the guild’s day-to-day business. Corporate celebrations, such as Election Dinners, included entire families: widows, wives, and occasionally young children. And the garden provided the fruits, nuts, and herbs used in creating grand dinners.

The Dinner Book is a wonderful window into the food, people, and activities of an early modern guild hall, listing as it does the foods served, the people paid, and the activities undertaken. In preparation for the feast dinner of 6 August 1571, for example, we learn that Treacle the Cook spent two days preparing the meal; that Mr Crowley preached for two days; that the Master Wardens’ wives sold the hall comfits and biscuits; that the grocer Henry Falks provided a substantial amount of luxury spices and dried fruit; and that the hall bought eighty pounds of butter from the market.

Thanks, Lisa! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.