A Recipe for Reproductive Healthcare

Melissa Reynolds

Last month I wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post’s Made by History section addressing the crisis in maternal mortality in the United States. Drawing from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reproductive recipes, I argued that pre-modern gynecological practice frequently emphasized the mother’s health over that of her fetus, in part because pre-moderns recognized that pregnancy and childbirth could be quite dangerous, and in part because fetal development was little understood and medical intervention in-utero was impossible. This attention to maternal health, I contend, is missing within the American culture of pregnancy, too often focused on the well-being of a fetus instead of its mother.

Figures illustrating malpresentations of a fetus, 17th century. The Wellcome Collection.

The kernel of the OpEd emerged when I began tracking occurrences of reproductive recipes in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English recipe books. As I encountered numerous recipes to aid conception, to bring about menstruation, to halt menstruation, to aid in childbirth, as well as numerous versions of recipes to deliver a deceased fetus, I found myself surprised by their straightforward, immensely practical tone. I think I expected something more ideological, more representative of misogynistc medical theories on reproduction that insisted on the toxicity of women’s bodies, expressed suspicion about women’s “secret” power of generation, or worried over the undue (and dangerous) influence women had on fetal development. These anti-woman sentiments were common to pre-modern medicine, yet in large part I found little evidence of these attitudes in late medieval recipe books.

Instead, in at least forty different manuscripts, I found recipes that offered women some control over their reproductive health, addressing the same range of concerns voiced by women today. For example, British Library MS Additional 34210, an early fifteenth-century medical manuscript, contains recipes for “Medicine to delivere a woman of a dede child” (f. 19r), for “Helpyng to conceive a chylde,” (f. 45r), “For to make a woman dolyver the hedde of a childe” (f. 45v), “For to sese a womanys flowris” (f. 47r), and one “For a woman that has lost her flowres”:

For a woman that has lost hur flowres when þay be destryed. This medicine faylis neuer but looke that sche be not with chylde. Take rote of gladon and sethe hit in vinegre or in wyne when hit is well sodyn set hit in to þe grounde and let hir stryd on so that þer may noone eyre a way but evyn up in to hur privite. (BL MS Additional 34210, f. 47r)

For a woman that has lost her flowers [menstrual flow] when it is destroyed. This medicine never fails but be sure that she is not with child. Take root of gladdon [acorus calamus, or sweet flag] and seeth it in vinegar or wine; when it is well sodden set it in the ground and let her sit on it so that no air escapes but goes only up in to her privates.

Like most vernacular recipes, these have their roots in much older medical traditions. For example, while at first I was surprised to see that recipes to “deliver a woman of a dead child” often outnumber other childbirth-related recipes in late medieval miscellanies, the prevalence of these directives makes sense given their prominence in ancient and earlier medieval gynecological writings. From RP Editor Laurence Totelin’s Hippocratic Recipes and Ann Ellis Hanson’s translations of the Hippocratic “Diseases of Women I ,” I learned that recipes to expel a dead fetus were not uncommon within ancient Greek medicine. From Monica Green’s translation of the Trotulagynecological writings in Latin from twelfth-century Salerno, Italy, I found recipes instructing women to drink rue and mugwort steeped in wine if they need to deliver a dead fetus—the same ingredients listed in two different English recipes for stillbirth from BL Additional 34210.

Artist unknown. The birth of a baby. 18th century. The Wellcome Collection.

These recurrences within reproductive recipes—many of which span centuries—indicate that while learned medical theory may have emphasized female weakness or toxicity, often the everyday practice of reproductive healthcare was responsive to women’s needs. Those needs remained much the same from ancient Greece to medieval England, and so, too, did elements of many of these recipes.

At the same time, ancient Greece, medieval Italy, and early modern England were still intensely misogynistic societies. The reproductive recipes common to late medieval English recipe books, no matter how attentive to women’s needs, are not evidence for some bygone era of egalitarian healthcare. Far from it. Even so, the prevalence of practical and relatively woman-centered reproductive recipes in late medieval miscellanies shows that even within a culture that was steeped in misogynistic medical theory, when push came to shove (or perhaps simply when it came time to push), pre-modern people needed remedies that set aside ideology and instead attempted to address women’s needs. If there is a lesson to be taken from pre-modern reproductive recipes, perhaps it is just that.

Pigeon slippers

By Robert Ralley and Lauren Kassell

The Casebooks Project, a team of scholars at the University of Cambridge, has spent a decade studying 80,000 consultations recorded by the seventeenth-century astrologer-physicians Simon Forman and Richard Napier. To mark the completion of our work, we selected 500 cases for full transcription. When the launch was announced on 16 May 2019, it received considerable media attention. Headlines included ‘Prescribing deer dung and pigeon slippers’ (BBC news), ‘Purges, angels and “pigeon slippers”’ (The Guardian), and ‘“Kisse myne arse”: Doctor’s notes reveal bizarre medical notes from 400 years ago’ (c/net).


Fig. 1: Richard Napier’s CASE51060, MS Ashmole 414, f. 76r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

When Mrs Elizabeth Chester, suffering from hot, red eyes, consulted Richard Napier, the Anglican rector and astrologer, in June 1620, his remedy included ‘a pigon slitt & applyed to the sole of each foote’ (see Fig. 1). Applying freshly killed pigeons to the feet or other parts was not one of Napier’s standard treatments, but we have spotted references to it in around 30 cases. More instances await discovery amidst the 70,000 consultations that Napier recorded between 1597 and 1634. Roughly half record treatments. Often unhelpfully shortened to ‘pig’ – whence remarks such as the cryptic-looking ‘pig to the feete’ – this remedy appears often enough for Joanne Edge, one of the Casebooks Project’s editors, to dub it ‘pigeon slippers’.

We don’t know whether Napier read about the use of pigeons in a medical book or learned it from another healer. It’s not amongst the treatments, as far as we can tell, that he learned from his mentor, Simon Forman. Napier first recommended slit pigeons, twice, in March 1607 (see here and Fig. 2; and here), and occasionally thereafter for the rest of his career.

Fig. 2: Richard Napier’s CASE30882, MS Ashmole 193, f. 113r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Pigeons were common in early modern Europe. People kept and ate them, their broths were fortifying, and distillations made from them were good for the skin. English medical texts, typically translated from earlier Latin and vernacular editions, regularly referred to blood drawn from under their wings to help with eye troubles. From antiquity, pigeon dung featured in plasters and drinks for numerous remedies. Galen, the great second-century physician, had recommended the application of freshly-killed pigeons, puppies and ram lungs to the head. Medieval medical treatises and recipe collections perpetuated the practice, especially for cases of frenzy. Physicians trained at Montpellier applied pigeons to the chest to comfort the heart. Sixteenth-century books of secrets recommended pigeons—either freshly killed or live with their tail feathers plucked—to draw foul matter out of plague buboes. Napier duly noted, ‘apply halfe a pigeon new slitte to the outsyde of the sore’.

Medieval texts often recommended rubbing the feet, and other extremities, with salt, vinegar and wine, but so far the earliest reference we’ve found to ‘A quick Pidgeon cut in two, and bound to the soles of the feet’ is by Felix Platter, the distinguished Basel physician, in his extensive 1614 medical book.[1] Used with other remedies, pigeons to the feet helped ensure a speedy recovery. By 1638, the Hull physician James Primerose noted that ancient and modern writers advised applying pigeons to the head in diseases of the brain, but, to his knowledge, this was rarely done in practice. Rather, ‘the common people’ and ‘very many physicians’ instead applied pigeons to the feet.[2] Napier’s casebooks attest to this. He usually recommended slit pigeons to the feet for problems of the head or throat, whether a swollen face (see Fig. 3), hot, running or sore eyes (see Fig. 4), or even a bad cough. A handful of cases concern the mind, from what Napier called ‘lightheadedness’ (not dizziness), via melancholy, up to frenzy. Occasionally he chose the neck instead or both neck and feet. He always combined pigeons with other therapeutics (various internal medicines, ointments, clysters, blisters and bloodletting, for instance). When in 1632 the vicar of Westmill, Hertfordshire reported to him that a parishioner had been treated for frenzy with pigeons to her feet and a slit cock all over her head, Napier replied suggesting a sigil and a list of medicines.

Fig. 3: Richard Napier’s CASE23369, MS Ashmole 238, f. 212v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

In seventeenth-century England, pigeon slippers seem to have become standard in the medical repertoire. John Hall, the physician from Stratford-upon-Avon who married Shakespeare’s daughter, recorded that when he suffered from a ‘light Delirium’ caused by a dangerous fever in 1632, the cure included ‘a Pigeon cut open alive, and applied to my feet to draw down the Vapours’.[3] Theodore de Mayerne and fellow royal physicians applied a pigeon to the head of the ailing Prince Henry in 1612, and a slit cock to his feet, without success.[4] Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, recorded the treatment’s use when patients’ lives were in danger: in October 1663 he noted that Catherine of Braganza ‘was so ill as to be shaved and pidgeons put to her feet, and to have the extreme unction given her by the priests’; in January 1667/8 he visited the house of a man whose ‘breath rattled in his throate, and they did lay pigeons to his feete while I was in the house, and all despair of him, and with good reason’. There is no sign that Napier regarded the treatment as a last resort.

Fig. 4: Richard Napier’s CASE23227, MS Ashmole 238, f. 190r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

For learned physicians and laypeople alike, pigeon slippers worked through attraction. Just as Hall explained that they had ‘draw[n] down the Vapours’, so in 1604, Napier noted that William Godfrey, who suffered from bloodshot eyes and a hot rheum, had ‘applyed a pigeon slitte to his necke which drew the rheume thither & eased’. In May 1600 Napier recorded that Mother Gale had decided that a boy’s burning shoulders, aching back and swollen knees were because he was forspoken (bewitched), and treated him by putting ‘a cock pigion slit to his … face’ and throwing his nail parings in a fire. Perhaps her rationale was to remove some sort of poison, as when slit pigeons were applied to plague sores. Primerose considered and dismissed the possibility that the pigeons’ gentle heat on a patient’s feet could affect the head and its humours at all. ‘Nevertheless’, he wrote, ‘I doe not absolutely speake against the applying them to the soles of the feet, because it may doe a little good, and cannot doe hurt.’[5]


[1] Platerus golden practice of physick fully and plainly discovering, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, 1664, Bk 2, Ch. 2, Of fevers.

[2] James Primerose, Popular Errours, trans. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 397.

[3] John Hall, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases (transl. James Cook, 1679), OBSERV. LX.

[4] Hugh Trevor-Roper, Europe’s Physician (2006), p. 172.

[5] James Primerose, Popular Errours, transl. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 400.

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.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!


Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.