Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

Early Modern Comfort Foods

By Amanda E. Herbert

Today we associate “comfort foods” with tradition, indulgence, and familiarity.  These humble but beloved foods have received a lot of recent attention from cooks and culinary specialists – the Guardian food blog even produced a full-page spread of its favourites last month.  But what were the early modern equivalents of comfort foods?  And how did early modern people feel about incorporating new or exotic foods into their diets?

A recipe collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts helps to reveal culinary adaptations made by early modern Britons: this is the Charles Brigham Account Book.[1]  Like many early modern manuscript recipe collections, the Brigham book had multiple author-compilers, and was maintained over a long period of time, for nearly one hundred years (c. 1650-1730).  Although little is known about the provenance of the book, at one point it was “given to Sarah [by her mother] when she moved to Grafton amonst the Indians [in] 1731…so that she could do her own Cooking & [doctoring] as there was no Dr in the county.”  This was probably Sarah Prentice (1716-1792), whose ownership mark appears in the book, and who was married to the Rev. Solomon Prentice (1705-1773), the first minister of Grafton, Massachusetts.

But the Brigham Account Book did not originate in Massachusetts.  Early entries in the book suggest that it was instead created in Britain.  It was first compiled by “Anna Cromwell,” who labeled the text “my booke of receipts December the 23 1650.”  Cromwell included a recipe for “fitts of the mother,” which encouraged readers to purchase ingredients from “Mr. Seamer an appothicary over against Aldermanberry Church [London].”  Another one of Cromwell’s recipes taught how “to make a Lestershiere plover.”  As later author-compilers made their own contributions to the book (it contains six different ownership marks), each added their own familiar, go-to recipes.  Some of these “comfort foods” had Scots influences, such as one “to make Skinke” (soup made from beef shin, traditionally from Scotland), and another “to make a haggesse pudding.”[2]  One or more of the compilers also had access to an extensive library of British gardening, cooking, and natural history texts.  The manuscript contains recipes copied from Digbys Closset and Verulams Nat Hist–and specifically fruit wine and cider recipes from Wordlidge Vinet Brit.[3]  There’s even a recipe for “Damson wine with Raysons, Woolley” which matches, ingredient for ingredient, a recipe in Hannah Woolley’s Queen-Like Closet (London, 1670).

But towards the end of the book, the recipes begin to reflect the influence of trans-Atlantic commerce, travel, and trade.  The recipe “to sauce a turkie like stargion [sturgeon]” suggests that one of authors learned how to cook “new world” breeds of animals, like turkeys, by preparing them in the same familiar, comforting way as fish eaten regularly in Britain.  Later recipes in the book celebrate the new plants and foods that were at colonists’ disposals; one recipe “to cleanse a skurffy skin” instructed practitioners to “bath the place where the scurff is with spirit of nicotiane,” a reference to Nicotiana tabacum, or tobacco.  Another recipe provided directions for making “jockaleta biskits,” or chocolate biscuits.[4]  Lists of accounts at the back of the book note the sums paid by the one of the book’s owners for “2 gallons of Rum of River Town,” as well as “2 galons molasses,” and “5 pnd of tobacco,” all popular colonial commodities.  Marginalia, too, reflect a change in geographical perspective, with authors centering themselves in British America rather than in Britain.  The author of a recipe for “incomparable cosmetick of pearl,” noted that “this is one of the most exelent beautifiers in the world this oil if weel prepared is richly worth seven pound an ounce in England.”

The increasing prevalence of “new world” recipes, as well as these subtle geographical and rhetorical shifts, suggest that the Brigham Account Book made a trans-Atlantic voyage sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably carried by one of its owners as they journeyed to a new life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As people struggled to adapt to colonial environments, familiar recipes and remedies from home could have provided comfort to colonial British Americans. Manuscript recipe books, handed down between family members and friends over generations, surely provided important and lasting senses of connection with loved ones who had been left behind. The Brigham book also reveals the adaptability of these early colonists, and demonstrates how recipe authors used their books to learn about and use the plants, animals, and foodstuffs available to them in their new home.

Thanks to Molly Warsh and James Roberts for their help with this post!

[1] Charles Brigham Account Book, MMS Dept., Folio Vols. “B,” American Antiquarian Society.  Charles Brigham was another early resident of Grafton, MA, and his ownership mark also appears in the book.

[2] For more on haggis recipes and their possible origins, see Chris Hilton’s Recipes Project post on Robert Burns Day here.

[3] Probably references to Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie (London, 1669); Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: or A Naturall Historie (London, 1627); John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider (London, 1678).

[3] In the late seventeenth century, “jacolatta” or “jockelatte” were common terms for chocolate.  For example, Samuel Pepys called the cacao-based drink “Jocolatte” when consuming it at a London coffee-house on 24 November 1664.  For more on early modern chocolate, see Amy Tigner’s Recipes Project posts here.

Distilling Vernacular Medicine

By Tillmann Taape

As Katherine Allen has pointed out in her post, distillation was regarded as a powerful way of separating and purifying earthly matter, and was central to the alchemical pursuit of the philosophers’ stone. And, yes, the odd gallon of whisky was also a much-welcomed product. This view of distillation is reflected in the textual processes that charaterise the Western alchemical tradition. Beginning with twelfth-century translations of Arabic texts into Latin, scholars constantly excerpted, compiled, translated, and digested all available knowledge, identified what was useful, and then compounded it to suit different tastes and purposes.

This double importance of distillation – techical and textual – is highlighted in the first distillation handbook ever printed, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus, also known as the Small book of distillation, which was published in 1500 by the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–1512). While this book contains numerous recipes for distilled waters, it can also be seen as representing in itself a recipe for acquiring and presenting medical knowledge. Despite its Latin title, it was written in German, and quickly became a best seller, no doubt cashing in on the growing popularity of distilled medicinal waters. To teach his readers the art of distilling, Brunschwig drew on his wide reading (over three thousand books, according to him) and practical experience to concoct ingredients from different traditions of knowledge.

Brunschwig was well-versed in the alchemical literature, which at the time mainly circulated in manuscript form. Publishing his book in print, Brunschwig introduces a broad public to an  alchemical understanding of matter, and how it can be transformed and purified. In fact, the process of distillation itself is defined in these terms, as “nothing but to separate the subtle from the gross and the gross from the subtle, […] to make the physical more spiritual, [so that it] may more easily penetrate the human body with its secret powers and virtues” (SB 1509, fol. 6r.). This extraction of the useful from the superfluous is also an important process in vernacular medical literature, and Brunschwig extracts not only from alchemical sources, but also boils down the essence of the learned medical tradition.

With reference to ancient textual authorities such as Galen and Dioscorides, he briefly explains the workings of the human body in terms of the four humours which govern an individual’s ‘complexion’, with diseases representing a deviation from this humoural balance. This can be readjusted by administering medicines distilled from plants, or even animals, with the appropriate qualities.[1] This precarious balancing act means that a sound knowledge of medical ingredients was essential, which is why a large portion of the Small book  is taken up by a herbal section. It offers some of the best botanical woodcuts produced at the time, paired with encyclopaedic entries listing each plant’s appearance, medicinal qualities, and the distillation process by which these might best be extracted.

The third major source for Brunschwig’s distillation project, artisanry, has closer links with alchemy than one might at first suspect: as historian Pamela Smith has shown, early modern craftsmen subscribed to an alchemical worldview, and were confident that their personal observation and direct physical engagement with natural material was a reliable source of knowledge.[2] Brunschwig shared this view: based on his own experience with distillation procedures, he is able to anticipate pitfalls (e.g. don’t let a heated glass vessel cool down too quickly, or it will crack!), and to dispense practical advice on the quality and proper manipulation of different stills and vessels. This technical know-how boiled down into an easy-to-follow series of short chapters, which really starts from scratch. There is even a life-sized picture of a mould which should be used to shape the curved bricks needed for building a round furnace, and set in its centre, was a poem summarising the key points to remember.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

A mould for shaping bricks from Brunschwig’s distillation manual. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

Brunschwig’s manual, then, not only contains valuable recipes for harnessing nature’s healing powers through distillation, it also represents in itself a recipe for the production of a best-selling and highly usable book: he compounds his knowledge of texts with his own experience and observation. He digests, extracts, and purifies his intellectual and technical ingredients, and where other compilers often produce turgid mixtures of jumbled-up recipes, Brunschwig manages to distill clear and useful knowledge from learned medical, alchemical and artisanal traditions. His example was followed by many early modern compilers of medical printed books, and the Small book itself went through an intriguing series of transformations in its various editions, including an English translation which appeared as early as 1527. But we certainly shouldn’t think that the story of textual digestion and excerption stops there: as Katherine Allen discussed, and as I have seen in the Small book, readers were assiduously annotating their copies. They highlighted what was most useful for them, added to the information, and cross-referenced entries, thus achieving another level of distilling textual knowledge.

[1.] For more on humoral theory and the logic behind materia medica, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case” and Alun Withey’s post on “‘Weird’ Remedies and the Problem of ‘Folklore‘”.

[2.] P. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Idem., “In a Sixteenth-Century Goldsmith’s workshop”, in L. Roberts, S. Schaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007), pp. 33–57; Idem., “What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, in E. Leong and A. Rankin (eds.) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 47–66.

Oral Testimony and Remedies Over Time

By Alun Withey

When studying the history of recipes, the longevity of certain remedies, ingredients or substances in healing is often striking. In terms of the early modern period, it is often remarked how far back certain remedies into ancient Greek or Latin texts; in many cases, how far forward they survived is also noteworthy – often long after the rise of (modern) biomedicine.

One of the ways through which we can track this process is through surviving examples in oral testimonies. While early twentieth-century antiquarian obsessions with all things weird and grotesque might not fit with modern academic approaches, the records they collected from oral testimonies, especially from people in rural areas, are often fascinating. Indeed, in many ways, these records are often the only remnants of medical traditions now past and, even more interestingly, the fact that they can be traced back through family generations tells us something about transmission.

An interesting survey was taken in the 1970s of herbal remedies still in use in rural Wales, which had some evidence of long-term family use. In many cases, recipes and ingredients they provided can be readily found in early modern collections. In the early modern period, it was common to use snails as ingredients in recipes to treat eye conditions. Typically, they might be impaled on a pin, with the juice allowed to drop into the afflicted eye. In the 70s, interviewees remembered similar recipes used in their families, including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!

Another enduring ophthalmic remedy was the ‘snakestone’ or ‘adder stone’ – essentially a polished river stone resembling a snake’s eye. Directions for use of the snakestone can commonly be found in Medieval and early modern texts and, when the survey was taken, reports were included for glain nadredd – in English, ‘adder beads’.

The example shown here was found in the foundations of an old Carmarthenshire house i 1836, and can be seen in the Carmarthenshire County Museum: –

An 'Adder stone' found in the foundations of a Carmarthenshire house in 1836

It was reportedly common to use the herb rue in preparations for children suffering from worms. Similar remedies occur in several Welsh collections of the 17th century. Lungwort and eyebright were still in evidence in the 1970s for respiratory and ocular conditions, respectively, and can be traced well back almost into antiquity. Human urine was another common ingredient in the seventeenth century in a variety of remedies and, in living memory, has still been noted as having cosmetic value and also in the treatment of ear conditions. Perhaps most interestingly, in a journal article of 1906, it was reported that a Montgomeryshire woman who injured herself with a scythe went back to the scythe for seven days after and repeated an incantation over it. This bears extraordinary similarity to the so-called ‘weapon salve’ noted by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century, whereby the idea was to treat the instrument that had injured somebody, rather than the wound itself.

Image used with permission of the Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

It is also interesting to note some echoes of older practices involving modern substances. For example, inhalants were a common facet of early modern recipes, such as boiling herbs and drawing in the steam or even, in one remedy, inhaling the vapour of Mercury as a cure for worms in the teeth. The modern practice of putting Olbas Oil or Friar’s Balsam into boiling water is little different.

In many respects then, it is worth remembering the longevity both of remedies and medical practices. While manuscript collections give us evidence of usage, of remedy networks and contributors, oral testimonies often yield more direct evidence of the transmission of remedies from generation to generation. They also speak of people’s continuing belief in the power of old remedies, even in the face of modern, scientific, alternatives.

(For a fuller discussion of this survey see Anne E. Jones, “Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales”, Folklife, 18 (1980), pp. 58-68)

See Lisa Smith’s blog post about cure-all medicines here:

Also, for a different version of this post, see my blog article at:

Sticky eyes or weeping wounds: trying to interpret the Pozzino tablets

Thousands of pharmacological and cosmetic recipes have come down to us from the Greek and Roman world. On the other hand, archaeological discoveries of ancient remedies are few and far between, and findings that can be analysed chemically and botanically are even rarer. Recently, ancient medicine made the news with the publication by a team of Italian scientists of the chemical analysis of remedies found aboard a Roman shipwreck – the Pozzino shipwreck, second century BCE [1]. The ship carried numerous pharmacological preparations, some of which are still in the process of being analysed (see here for more detail), and the publication focused on six roundish tablets preserved in a tin box. The scientific analysis revealed that the tablets contained 80% of inorganic materials, mainly zinc oxide and hematite, as well as starch, beeswax, animal and plant fats, pine resin, and other plant remains.

The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found
The tin box (pyxis) in which the tablets were found

The authors of the article, referring themselves to ancient treatises on simple medicines (that is, treatises dealing with one pharmacological ingredient at a time), suggested that these tablets are eye remedies. A search (with the help of the electronic database of ancient Greek texts – the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) through ancient collections of pharmacological recipes also shows that zinc oxide and hematatite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as in the following example, which is extracted form Galen’s collection of Medicines according to Places :(second century CE)

Sweet-smelling remedy of Syneros against long-lasting ailments [of the eyes]: it works against eye-discharge and lachrymal fistula: cleaned Cadmia [zinc oxide], 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 25 drams; Cyprian ash [i.e. copper], 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12. 774 Kühn)

This recipe, like many others, gives very little indication as to how the remedy should be prepared. I would suggest that all dry products should be crushed together in a mortar; diluted in wine and moulded into tablets. These should then be dried and dissolved in a liquid (here an egg) when needed. The modern reader will wince at the use of pepper in eye remedies, but making the eyes cry appears to have been one of the aims of ancient ophtalmological preparations, one of which was so unpleasant it was called ‘the thankless’.

Powdered zinc oxide

While zinc oxide and hematite stone would confirm an interpretation of the tablets as eye remedies, fats, resins and waxes are rarely listed in ancient ophtalmological recipes. To find an ancient recipe combining mineral ingredients, wax, fat and resin, one must look at formulae for cicatrization. The following example is attributed to Asclepiades (first century BCE) and preserved by Galen:

Asclepiades wrote the following concerning cicatrizing poultices…: burnt zinc oxide prepared with wine; roasted copper; of each 16 drams; wax, 80 drams; Colophonian resin, 8 ounces; sufficient amount of Italian wine. Crush the copper and zinc oxide with the wine, until the preparation has the consistency of wet cerate. Break the wax and resin into pieces, place in a ceramic vessel and add to these 1 litra of myrtle oil. Place on coals and stir continuously. When the ingredients have dissolved, remove from the fire and let the preparation cool down. Add the crushed ingredients, mix together, and use diluted with myrtle oil. (Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Types 2.14, 13.524 Kühn)

Experimentation would be required to determine the exact consistency of this remedy, but it is clear that it would have been much waxier than the Pozzino tablets. And here is the crux of the problem: it is impossible to find a recipe that lists all the ingredients entering the composition of these pills. And the same issue occurs every time scholars try to bring together written and archaeological sources in the field of ancient medicine. Some scholars will argue that many written recipes have been lost; others that every physician and pharmacologist in the ancient world had his own ‘secret’ recipes that were never written down. Whatever the case, the fascinating discoveries relating to the Pozzino tablets offer much opportunity for archaeologists, chemists, ethnopharmacologists and medical historians to collaborate and establish sound methodologies to bridge the gap between material and written pharmacological evidence.

[1] Gianna Giachi, Pasquino Pallecchi, Antonella Romualdi, Erika Ribechini, Jeannette Jacqueline Lucejko, Maria Perla Colombini, and Marta Mariotti Lippi, ‘Ingredients of a 2,000-y-old medicine revealed by chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations’, PNAS 2013 110 (4), 1193-1196