“Astonishable composed posset”: Comestible, Curative, and Poison

By Bethan Davies

We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.

A receipt ‘Mrs Fanshaw of Jenkins, her receipt to make a sack posset. the best that is,’ from the receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707). Image © Wellcome Library, London, MS.7113, p.320.

Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.

Posset pot, with a spout for drinking the syrupy liquid (c.1650-1655). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’.  Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments.  Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9),[1] ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).

Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.

However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.

We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5).  The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.

Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.


Remembering Terry Turner (1929-2019): Pharmaceutical History Collector Extraordinaire

By Laurence Totelin, with input from Briony Hudson

A few years ago, my colleagues Heather Trickey (social sciences), Julia Sanders (midwifery) and I decided to put together a small exhibition on the history of infant feeding, with a focus on Wales where we are based. I immediately thought that the exhibition would benefit from the input of Terry Turner OBE, emeritus professor of Pharmacy at Cardiff University. I had met Terry on several occasions, usually in the Cardiff University staff refectory at Aberdare Hall, and knew that he would have something to contribute to the project.

Two ceramic tops with holes in the middle. The topc are both inscribed.
Two ceramic tops for the so-called ‘murder bottles’ from Terry Turner’s personal collection. A tude was passed through the hole. Because that tube was very difficult to clean, it harboured dangerous bacteria. This type of bottle caused the death of many babies, hence the name of ‘murder bottles’. Photo: Laurence Totelin

With his habitual generosity with time and expertise, Terry accepted to talk to me and invited me to his house. In the morning that I spent with him on this occasion, I learnt more on infant feeding than I would have done reading several books. Terry showed me examples of historical feeding bottles and nipple-shields from his collections and explained how they were used; told me about the mixing of baby formulas; discussed past treatments for breast engorgement; and gave me useful insights into the commercial aspects of the pharmaceutical trade. He also returned to some of his favourite topics: the pharmacognosy of the Strychnos plant genus, with which he started his academic career (MPharm 1960); some of his adventures in collecting pharmaceutical artefacts and plant specimens; and his disdain for modern pain relief, and in particular paracetamol.

Photo of two historical metallic nipple shields with their original carboard box.
Two metallic nipple shields and their original cardboard box from Terry Turner’s personal collection. Photo: Laurence Totelin

Terence (Terry) Dudley Turner was a key actor in the pharmaceutical community in Wales. He entered the profession at the grand old age of 14, working at the renowned Cardiff Pharmacy Robert Drane. He formally registered as a pharmacist in 1955, and saw his profession change almost beyond recognition over his long career: almost gone today are the pestles and mortars, which had been the symbols of the profession for so long; almost complete now is the separation between botany and pharmacy. Terry was rightly proud of his knowledge of plants and his ability to extract from them healing substances. He travelled the world to collect plant specimens and knew their names in several vernacular languages (in addition of course to their Linnaean names).

Picture of two glass historical baby feeding bottles. The bottles are made of glass and are banana shaped. They are accompanied by two rubber teets in their original wrappings.
Banana-shaped baby feeding bottles with rubber teets from Terry Turner’s personal collection. Photo: Laurence Totelin

With a changing profession in the background, Terry developed an interest in the history of pharmacy. He was a founding member of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy (established 1967), which honoured him with the Leslie Matthews Medal in 2017 for his contribution to the history of British pharmacy. He taught his students about the history of the discipline, he wrote on the topic, but above all he collected artefacts in their thousands and could tell entertaining stories about many of them.

His collection soon became too large for his residence, and he started in the early 1980s to exhibit, loan, and donate it. It is currently displayed in two main locations: the Redwood Building, Cardiff University, and in the Apothecary’s Hall at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The Turner Collection, formally donated to Cardiff University in 2009, comprises some 1500 artefacts, exhibited over three floors of the Redwood Building, currently curated by Sarah Daly and Briony Hudson. At the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the visitor will enjoy a reconstructed historical pharmacy. While it is in many ways ahistorical, gathering in the same place artefacts produced over many decades, it does capture the feeling of being in a pharmacy around the end of the nineteenth century. I am particularly fond of the scales for weighing babies. Terry also donated and catalogued around 500 materia medica specimens for the National Museum of Wales. While these are not on display, they are a key part of the museum’s economic botany collections.

Terry passed away aged 90 on 13 October 2019. I often wonder what he would have to say about the current pandemic. His wit, optimism and humour are sorely missed.

You can find more information about the history of the School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University, and the Turner Collection in Briony Hudson’s 2020 book 100 Years (1919-2019): Cardiff University School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, dedicated to Terry Turner, and available freely on Achive.org.


Cherries Galore in a Cesspit

By Merit Hondelink

As an archaeobotanist, an archaeologist specialised in studying plant remains found in archaeological excavations, I aim to reconstruct and interpret the relationships between humans and plants in the past. Archaeological plant remains, also known as subfossil plant remains, help us to reconstruct the former landscape and inform us how humans exploited it and even transformed the vegetation. Archaeobotanists do not necessarily study one time period, nor a specific region or topic. They can study plant remains from the Palaeolithic or the 20th century, and everything in between. They can focus on one specific site, work across the country or continent, and even work worldwide. They can delve into topics such as natural vegetation, forestation, domestication, trade, food consumption and much more. The one thing that all of this has in common is the link between humans and plants. But most archaeobotanists do specialize, most notably in the plant parts they study, such as fruits, seeds, pollen, wood or phytoliths. And most archaeobotanists have a beloved time period, favourite region or topic that they find most intriguing. In my case my research focuses on early modern Dutch urban food consumption.

I study what people ate in early modern Dutch cities, and how this changed through time. The best way to study what people ate in the past, is to look at their excrement and kitchen refuse, both of which can be found in the archaeologists treasure trove: the cesspit. These latrines were used to empty one’s bowels, but also served as a place to discard kitchen refuse and household waste. The content of a cesspit consists of organic remains from plants and animals, inorganic (culinary) material culture such as earthenware, glassware and ceramics, but also wooden cups and plates, as well as (decorative) objects, personal belongings and much, much more.

Figure 1: A selection of faunal and floral items found in a late medieval cesspit sample from Groningen. Photo: Dirk Fennema.

The content of an archaeobotanical cesspit sample consists of, among others, floral remains in different shapes and sizes (Figure 1). The items are sorted with the use of a microscope (Figure 2) and identified on a species level (and sometimes even on the level of species variety) by using a reference collection (Figure 3). The Groningen Institute of Archaeology offers a wonderful digital, open access, reference collection, see https://www.plantatlas.eu/.

Figure 2: A peek through the microscope. Visible is a fragment of text and different seeds and fruits, taken from an early modern Delft cesspit sample. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

When the content of a cesspit sample is analysed, sorted and identified, the interpretation begins. What can these plant remains tell us about past human-plant relationships? Most plant species are interpreted in a standardized way: wild plants inform us about the vegetation composition, make-up of soils and hydrology, whilst agricultural weeds in particular inform us about the crops grown and their local, regional, international or even global provenance. Wild but poisonous or toxic plants inform us about potential medicinal applications. A majority of plant species found in cesspits are classified as economic plants, grown as a food crop or cultivated for other useful purposes, such as fibres for textiles or seeds for oil. Identifying edible plants helps us better understand what plants people used for food and which parts people consumed. It also helps us better understand how food was prepared in the past, as preparation marks can be left behind on seeds and fruits.

Some preparation marks are easier to identify than others: nuts need to be cracked to get to the seed; apple seeds may be sliced when cutting up an apple, cereals can be ground, resulting into fragmented bran. But sometimes the archaeobotanist finds fragmented plant parts that, at a first glance, do not make sense.

Figure 3: A small selection of the tubes from the archaeobotany reference collection housed at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology (GIA) at the University of Groningen. Photo via GIA.

I have come across dozens and sometimes hundreds (or even more) cherry stones and plum stones in a single cesspit sample. No surprise there, cherries and plums were grown in local orchards, sold in the market and consumed with gusto. Most of these stones will have been discarded in the cesspit as a result from eating the fruits and spitting out the stones, or after de-pitting the fruits for dinner preparation. Only a small percentage is assumed to have been accidentally swallowed and secreted as excrement. Still, archaeobotanists find many fragments of cherry and plum stones (Figure 4). This is something that raises questions when you think about it. Why would these sturdy fruit stones be fragmented? A more pressing question when you are aware that the Rosaceae family, among others also including almond, peach, and even apple, contains – to varying degrees – hydrocyanic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide and sometimes called prussic acid. The seed coat and fruit wall protects the consumer from digesting this acid, which can be poisonous when consumed. So why would someone break the stones of these fruits?

Figure 4: Two fragments of cherry stones found in an early modern cesspit in Vlissingen. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

To test the assumption that cherry stones were fragmented intentionally, and not through, for instance, pressure, an experiment was devised. Cherries were bought at the farmer’s market and taken to a physics lab to measure the pressure required to fragment the stones. After a number of tests, the calculated force to fragment a cherry stone averaged 23,9 kg or 239 Newton (Graph 1). This makes it more plausible that the stones were intentionally fragmented, as opposed to – for instance – fragmentation due to soil pressure.

Graph 1: Force needed to fragment a cherry stone. On the vertical axis the force (N), on the horizontal axis the elongation (μm). The point where the line falls is the moment the cherry stone breaks (max. force – max. elongation).

Consulting early modern cookbooks provided me with a list of recipes requiring the cook to de-stone cherries for the preparation of jams, sauces, syrups and tarts. Delicious experiments ensued, but I did not manage to fragment cherry stones whilst cutting and de-stoning, pressing through a cloth or colander, or by just baking the fruit with stones in a tart in the oven. Working a batch of cherries with a mortar and pestle did the job, though. But than you would have to pick the fragmented stones from the mushy cherries: not ideal at all. Picking up the eighteenth century encyclopaedia compiled by Noël Chomel gave me the hint I needed. In the Dutch version of his Dictionnaire œconomique (Algemeen huishoudelijk-, natuur-, zedekundig- en konst- woordenboek), he mentions different recipes for preparing cherries. Two recipes for cherry liquor instruct the reader to fragment the cherry stones by using a mortar and pestle (Figure 5). The fragmented fruits, including the stones and (I assume) the seeds are added to the brandy (Dutch: brandewijn) and, after closing the bottle, the mixture is put in the sun to infuse. Adding spices such as cinnamon, cloves and sugar is optional, according to the author.

Figure 5: How to make a pleasant cherry liquor (Noël Chomel, 1778).

So, it is plausible that the fragmented cherry stones found in early modern cesspits are the result of the domestic production of cherry liquor. Other fruits, such as plums and peaches, are also used to make a fruity liquor according to Chomel’s encyclopedia. However, what happens to the acid contained in the seeds? That requires further research. It might be that the prescribed infusing in the sunlight helps denature the acid into harmless molecules, leaving only the (bitter) taste behind. This line of research will be undertaken come summer with the aid of a brewer and some chemical analysis. In the meantime, a cherry and cinnamon flavoured lemonade is my poison of choice. Bottoms up!

Powerful Bundles: The Materiality of Protection Amulets in Early Modern Switzerland

By Eveline Szarka

If you shop around for a protection amulet today, you will most likely stumble upon ornamental jewellery. More often than not these pieces are round in shape, and pieces featuring Kabbalistic or runic symbols are especially popular. The term ‘amulet’ is described as a “piece of jewellery some people wear because they think it protects them from bad luck, illness, etc” in the OED. However, when it comes to premodern protection practices, the efficacy of amulets depended on both the production process and the materials and ingredients used. There are two additional significant differences between contemporary and early modern understandings and applications of amulets: First, in early modern Europe, amulets were not only carried around as mobile objects but also attached to houses or buried into the thresholds. Second, amulets were often used to protect valuable livestock against diseases thought to be caused by supernatural agents.

In my research, I understand amulets as powerful bundles, often of diverse materials, which take effect through physical contact between the amulet and the object (person, animal, house) to be protected. As I discuss below, the materials commonly used include herbs, plants, food stuff, words (both spoken and written) and time. For example, it was believed that gathering plants at a certain time of the day or on a holiday enhanced the amulet’s power.

While many recipe books containing instructions on how to make amulets are now lost, it is a stroke of luck that some 17th and 18th-century handbooks are still preserved in the State Archive of the Canton of Berne, Switzerland thanks to early 20th century folklorists and collectors. Unfortunately, these books are difficult to date and connect with specific authors, owners and users. However, comparisons with court documents show that people commonly produced and applied amulets throughout the early modern period. For example, in a court case in Basel 1719, a folk healer called Friedrich Fritschi defended himself for putting hazel rods underneath a window as a way to protect the house owner from a spectre.[i] Although we do not know much about these books, the recipes and the arrangements of the instructions offer valuable insights into the contemporary relevance and ideas about the efficacy of such practices and artefacts. For instance, instructions about the production of amulets are written alongside suggestions on how to get rid of cheese-eating mice, indicating that the production of amulets against evil forces belonged to everyday house care (Hauspflege) .

Basic materials and ingredients of an amulet: linen, a cord, rods, plants, salt and bread. Source. E. Szarka

Let us now turn to an example that illustrates the concepts underpinning the efficacy of the protection amulet:

To insert into houses and barns in case of foul ghosts

Take some good vines, rods, melissa, brown periwinkles, communion bread and salt, [and bind] everything together in the three holy names with a string. Make as many as you need and drill [a hole] in both the barn and above the doors and thresholds. Put a small bundle in every hole and speak: “I put you in here in the name of God”.[ii]

This instruction exemplifies the three main production steps required to ensure the efficacy of the early modern amulet. First, people needed to gather the listed materials and ingredients. Some plants were commonly believed to be inherently powerful against evil forces, such as hazel rods. Salt and communion bread – liturgically and ritually blessed objects (so-called “sacramentals”) – were reoccurring ingredients in these kinds of recipes. Sometimes, makers also used or added slips of paper furnished with bible verses to the amulet to intensify its efficacy. Second, one had to mix the materials and ingredients, form a bundle and tie it with a string. Finally, the amulet had to be applied accordingly. It could be attached to an animal’s neck, to a door, buried into the thresholds or hidden in a drill hole above the house so that it kept malevolent entities from entering. People considered uttering sacred words both during the production and application process to be highly potent.

Drill hole in a wooden beam for a protection amulet found in an 18th century house in rural Basel, State Archive of the Canton of Basel-Land, SL 5250.5024. Source: E. Szarka

As we have seen, the gathering of materials and ingredients, the production as well as the application of the amulet were considered necessary consecutive steps to accumulate divine power. The ingredients were either inherently powerful or charged with sanctity in a liturgical context. Language, both uttered orally during these three steps or added in the form of paper slips, formed essential material ingredients that enhanced the amulet’s efficacy as it drew upon divine power. Similarly, the timing of the production could play a crucial role. For example, one had to collect the plants or apply the amulet at a particular holiday or a sacred time of the day. Time, just like language, acted as a “material” component charged with sacred power that could be transferred to the amulet through the specific production circumstances. Once applied to houses or animals, these effective little packages containing both visible and invisible materialities provided a metaphysical shield to unseen forces.

As I argue in my dissertation on ghosts and spirits in Post-Reformation Switzerland[iii], early modern people believed the world to be permeated by multiple invisible forces. Handling constant supernatural attacks from spirits and witches called for specific measures. Women and men tried to tackle and manipulate the supernatural sphere with elaborate rituals written down in recipe books. Practices concerned with amulet making disclose different concepts of causal relations in the physical and metaphysical world. Above all, they mirror a specific understanding of materiality, according to which certain plants and aliments, but also language and time, contain power that people can accumulate, enhance, and transfer to other materials, places and living beings to preserve their living environments.

[i] State Archive of the Canton of Basel, Criminalia 4, 22.

[ii] State Archive of the Canton of Berne, DQ 888, translated from the original German text by E. Szarka.

[iii] Eveline Szarka, Sinn für Gespenster. Spukphänomene in der reformierten Schweiz (1570-1730), doctoral thesis at the University of Zurich, 2020, upcoming Spring 2021.


Academic biography:

Eveline Szarka completed her PhD at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and specters in Switzerland from 1570-1730. This year, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2020-2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. However, due to the pandemic, she will likely postpone the start of the fellowship until 2021. Eveline’s  upcoming project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650-1850). Her research interests lie in early modern world views, historical conceptions of (im)materiality, causality, and magic as well as the potentials of human manipulation of the physical world.