Category Archives: Posts

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Layfield Hand

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

Since March 2013, Hillary Nunn and I have been using this forum to test out our various theories about one mid-seventeenth-century manuscript held at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia owned by Anne Layfield and dated 1640. So far, we’ve closely examined recipes from the first part of the book (pages 1 through 72), which were written in a clear humanist italic and reportedly compiled by a “Cal. Downing” (06/08/13).Hillary Nunn’s last post pointed to the other dominant hand in the collection, which I will describe further.

We first see the hand in the title of the document, “Medicinae Liber” (“Book of Medicines”) which appears on the front page of the Downing portion. Reading through that section, this handwriting does not appear again until page 74.

The Downing and title-writing hand (hereafter Hand 2) exchange a few pages, then at 79, Hand 2 takes over.It is at this point we catch a glimpse of how this hand connects with the manuscript owner Anne Layfield.On page 79, the recipe is titled “An admirable receite to make a water that /will cure any old sore, giuen to my deare wife /by the Lady Ashborneham as a great treasure/ tryed by her Ladyships sister who got both great /creditt, & rewards for cures done with it”

2012-10-15 DearWifeCpp[1] and another “The rare water to cure all soares made /by my Deare wife” (82).  The attribution of the next recipe for a balsam does not appear in its title, as it is long (6 lines of script), but rather at the end of the directions as “Probatum by Mistress / Anne Layfielde”: [2]

Probatum Anne LayfieldNow the surmise that Anne Layfield is the owner of the recipe book and the same “dear wife” of the previous recipes comes through a close analysis of another part of the collection (pages 207 to 241), almost all of which exists in Hand 2 and is upside down (because of a do-si-do compilation) relative to the Downing portion.

In this section, the compiler, the doting husband of the recipe from page 79, indicates his social network and his medical concerns. As with Calybute Downing, this compiler also ascribes recipes to himself with a “probatum per me” (223), but only with the calligraphic initials ESL:

ESLThe elongated descender of the L, similar to that in “Anne Layfielde,” shows the connection between the attributions, and suggests that Anne Layfield and the “deare wife” may be one and the same. A London marriage recorded between an Edmond Layfield and an Ann King in October of 1640 (the year of the manuscript) affirms this theory. [1]

Other evidence that the “ESL” in question is named Edmund Layfield lies latent in Hillary Nunn’s post in which she reported that the death of George Wilmer (possible husband of the Mistress Wilmer of Bowe in the attribution) was witnessed by Edmund Layfield of St. Leonard-of-Bromley.

This preacher was also the author of two sermons printed in the 1630s, the first of which had as a dedicatee another widow Wilmer of Bowe [2], and the second named an Elizabeth Toppesfield, daughter of Susan Ferrers and wife of William Toppesfield, Esquire. [3]  Testimony to this same social connection can be found in the section compiled by Hand 2, as it contains “Mistris Toppisfields Diett drinke” (231).  Remembering Calybute Downing’s Hackney appointment, we begin to uncover the circulation of recipes within a network of Protestants inhabiting the London area in the 1630s and 1640s. That this network, in the previous generation, may have included Catholics and, in the next decade, may have held both Parliamentarians and Royalists is the subject of our further analysis and research.

All images appear courtesy of The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

[1] (Accessed 01/02/2104).
[2] Edmund Layfielde, The Mappe of Mans Mortality and Vanity (London, 1630).
[3] Edmund Layfielde, The Sovles Solace (London, 1633).

The Working of Herbs, Part 5: Medicinal Herb Constituents and Actions

By Anne Stobart

In this post I look at some plant constituents and actions. I am especially interested in the plants in a seventeenth-century recipe introduced in Working of Herbs, Part 2. Previously I raised issues related to finding out how medicinal herbs might work (Part 1), and locating modern herbal monographs (Part 4). Here I look at herb constituents and their actions because these are directly relevant to considering how a herb may take effect (or not) in a recipe. Of course, not everyone feels comfortable with the chemistry of plants so I have added some further suggestions in case this topic makes you go ‘AAArgh!’.

Phytochemicals and actions

Phytochemicals, or herb constituents, are fascinating (to me at least!). Knowing the likely effects of some key phytochemicals can be a great help in considering the herbs in recipes. Amongst the  thousands of chemicals in each plant, it is often the ‘secondary metabolites’ produced as a defence against pests and diseases that can be used to some effect in our own bodies.[1] Some have powerful effects, like Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) which contains toxic alkaloids (Figure 1). Many phytochemicals are surprisingly well-researched so that we know about their likely effects – their herbal actions – even though clinical uses are much less well researched. Here I introduce an important group of plant constituents – the terpenes.

Figure 1. Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) image from Wikipedia
Figure 1. Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) image from Wikipedia

What are terpenes?

Terpenes consist of chains of carbon and hydrogen units. They act as a deterrent to insect pests as well as inhibiting fungi and bacteria. The terpenes and related compounds are highly aromatic: many evaporate readily and form the basis of essential oils extracted from plants by distillation.

Plants in the Mint family (Lamiaceae, previously known as Labiatae) contain terpenes which vary considerably in action from stimulant to sedative effects. The simpler stimulant monoterpenes include molecules like menthol with a recognisable minty aroma. Some of these smaller molecules are highly active, often metabolized quickly in the body, with significant neurotoxic effects. Thujone (Figure 2)  is one such monoterpene with a reputation for toxicity. It is found in wormwood (Artemisia absinthum), an extremely bitter-tasting plant in the Daisy family used in the making of absinthe.[2] Thujone is also found in some Mint family members like hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and sage (Salvia officinalis). This monoterpene acts on uterine muscle, causing contractions, and hence has a reputation as an abortifacient. Such plant constituents are one reason for caution regarding the use of essential oils in pregnancy.[3]

Figure 2. Thujone
Figure 2. Thujone

Other terpenes, such as diterpenes and sesquiterpenes, have a wide range of therapeutic effects – often particularly anti-spasmodic and calming actions. Both the Mint family (such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)), and the Daisy family (such as chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium)  demonstrate these actions.


Other plant constituent groups

Figure 3. Cyanidin, a flavonoid (Wikipedia)
Figure 3. Cyanidin, a flavonoid (Wikipedia)

Another important group of constituents is that of flavonoids which can often be recognised by plant colouring (especially yellows, reds, purples). Flavonoids are polyphenols, consisting of linked rings of carbon atoms (Figure 3), and many are antinflammatory. Some other groups of plant constituents are less obvious, such as the colourless and odourless alkaloids. Alkaloids can significantly affect the nervous system either as stimulants (like caffeine in coffee berries) or as sedatives (morphine-like compounds in poppies). These and other kinds of plant constituents provide for an extensive range of herbal actions.

Conclusion – ask a herbal expert!

I guess some readers will be thinking ‘This is too much chemistry – help!’. If you are not so keen on the chemistry then perhaps you could link up with a clinical herbal practitioner who can help with understanding herb constituents and actions. In the UK you can find a herbalist through a professional organisation like the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. Alternatively you could consider posting a question to HIST-HERB-MED. This is a JISC-MAIL email discussion list which I help to co-ordinate for active researchers in the history of herbal medicine – replies are not guaranteed but might provide useful leads to helpful individuals or sources.


[1] A standard text on plant constituents is William C. Evans, Trease and Evans’ Pharmacognosy, 16th ed. (Elsevier, 2009). Also see Gunnar Samuelsson, Drugs of Natural Origin: A Textbook of Pharmacognosy (Stockholm: Swedish Pharmaceutical Press, 1992).

[2] However, the toxicity of absinthe may be partly due to the high level of alcohol consumed by regular drinkers, Karin M. Hold, et al., ‘A-thujone (the active component of absinthe): G-aminobutyric acid type a receptor modulation and metabolic detoxification’. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 97, no. 8 (2000): 3826–31.

[3] More on herbs with abortifacient actions in John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

First Monday Library Chat: British Library

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! We’ve been talking to libraries in the USA and Canada, but today we jump across the pond to the British Library in London, England. The British Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, with around 14 million books and a grand total of over 150 million items, print and digital.

Today I’m chatting with Dr. Arnold Hunt, Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, about some of the manuscript recipe books in their collection.

The British Library has an impressive assortment of bound manuscript recipe books, and some loose recipe collections. Can you give us an idea of the scope of the library’s holdings?

Our subject-index of manuscripts lists over 300 items under the heading ‘Recipes’ or ‘Receipts’, ranging in date from medieval to nineteenth century, but chiefly from the early modern period.Some could be categorized as ‘cookery’ or ‘medicine’, but others are just listed in our catalogue as ‘miscellaneous receipts’ with no clear indication of their contents, so there’s still a lot of work to be done in describing and cataloguing them all properly.This is definitely one of the more neglected areas of our manuscript collections – partly, I suspect, because until recently these manuscripts would have been regarded as women’s work and therefore not very important.

I have a particular love for Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of manuscripts, which includes several early modern medical and scientific recipe books. Can you tell us a bit more about why the Sloane collection is important, and when and how the British Library acquired these works?

Sloane specialized in medicine and botany, though he collected very widely in other areas as well.For the first half of the eighteenth century, right up to his death in 1753, he was the pre-eminent English collector in these fields, so he had the pick of everything that came onto the market.One reason why his collections are important, though, is that he wasn’t fussy about what he acquired – he just collected everything he could lay his hands on – so his library is full of manuscript recipe books, including a lot of those ‘miscellaneous receipts’ that I mentioned just now, that a more fastidious collector might have discarded.After his death his collections were bought by Parliament and became the foundation of the newly-formed British Museum, later sub-divided to create the National History Museum and the British Library.

The Sloane collection includes some manuscript recipe books by both well-known and lesser-known figures. Why do you think Sloane was interested in collecting these? How do they fit into his book collection as a whole, or what can they tell us about Sloane?

Sloane’s motives for collecting aren’t always clear.But as a good Baconian, he wanted to get rid of the medieval tradition of ‘books of secrets’ and bring science and medicine into the realm of public knowledge.By acquiring these recipe books, he was bringing their contents into the public domain where they could be empirically tested by enlightened physicians like himself.The good recipes could be adopted, the bad ones could be discredited, and medical knowledge would thus be advanced.In other words, he seems to have looked on these manuscripts as potentially valuable resources for his own clinical practice.

I’ve noticed that many of the British Library’s recipe books, in the Sloane collection and in others, have been rebound. The new bindings are far less fragile and easier to use, but without the original bindings we lose some clues to the original composition process and use. Can you talk a bit more about conservation decisions? How do modern conservation practices differ from older ones?

Many of Sloane’s manuscripts were rebound in the nineteenth century.This was done for what at the time seemed to be perfectly good reasons, but it had some unfortunate results.I particularly regret the loss of some of Sloane’s notes on the flyleaves of his manuscripts, as well as notes by previous owners which might have told us something about their earlier provenance.Conservation nowadays is carried out with a lighter touch, and when manuscripts are rebound we generally preserve the covers of the old binding.  Our Collection Care blog explains the reasoning behind some of our conservation decisions.

Can you describe a couple of interesting recipe-related manuscripts in the Sloane collection that could inform us a bit about the scope of Sloane’s collecting practices?

Sloane MS 703 is a volume of household receipts, very neatly copied in a late seventeenth-century hand, which Sloane’s librarian Humfrey Wanley described as ‘A great Collection of Receits in Cookery, Physick, and other matters Relating to Women’.

Sloane MS 703, f. 43. Credit: British Library, London.
‘To make Oring Marmelett’. British Library, Sloane MS 703, f. 43v.

Sloane MS 1000 is a more miscellaneous collection, copied in a variety of different hands, often on small scraps of paper, which Sloane listed in his catalogue as ‘Processes and receits’ collected by ‘Mr Bonivert’ (i.e. Gideon Bonivert, one of Sloane’s correspondents).

Sloane MS 1000, f. 195. Credit: British Library, London.
‘A water for the head’. British Library, Sloane MS 1000, f. 195r.

What these two manuscripts show is that there’s very little distinction, in the early modern period, between receipts collected for domestic and household use and those collected for professional or medical use.Bonivert’s collection includes examples of both, and Sloane himself collected right across the spectrum.

Do these recipe books factor into any institutional digitization priority lists that might eventually provide free access?

For many of Sloane’s manuscripts we’re still reliant on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century catalogue descriptions, so at the moment I feel the priority is to get the collection properly catalogued to modern standards.Ideally this would include digitization as well, but the scale of Sloane’s collection makes this a dauntingly large task.However, we’ve been working with the British Museum and the Natural History Museum on a project called Sloane’s Treasures, which has the ultimate aim of bringing together all Sloane’s collections – books and manuscripts, prints and drawings, artifacts and specimens – into a single database where they can be studied as a unified whole.

Can anyone visit the collections in the Manuscript Reading Room?

Most of our manuscripts are available for consultation by anyone with a BL reader’s pass, though for some manuscripts we ask readers to supply a letter of introduction from an academic colleague or tutor.  If you’re planning a visit to the BL, and you already know what you want to see, you can order items in advance.  If you have a question about a particular manuscript in our collection, you can contact us at

If you would like to suggest a library for the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.

Our Most Popular Posts of 2013

'Indigestion', by George Cruikshank, ca. 1835. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
‘Indigestion’, by George Cruikshank, ca. 1835. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still suffering from the over-indulgence of the last few weeks–and it’s not even Twelfth Night yet! As usual, Wellcome Images offers up some historical cures.

Carter’s Little Liver Pills will help you to skip along the beach, feeling and looking fresh as a daisy!

Carter's Little Liver Pills for headaches, biliousness, torpid liver, constipation & indigestion, ca. 1910. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Carter’s Little Liver Pills for headaches, biliousness, torpid liver, constipation & indigestion, ca. 1910. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

BiSoDol is useful in getting it all out…

Ephemera Collection, Bisodol Showcard, ca. 1930s. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Ephemera Collection, Bisodol Showcard, ca. 1930s. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of course, we all make New Year’s resolutions to exercise more. Here is a handy home work-out kit from 1900.

The Sandell-Gray Figure Trainer, a  "unique apparatus ... for making the body graceful, erect and symmetrical by a few week's use. Attaches directly to the user's body". It also cured indigestion, constipation, stomach troubles, corpulence and spinal curvature (1900). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The Sandell-Gray Figure Trainer, a “unique apparatus … for making the body graceful, erect and symmetrical by a few week’s use. Attaches directly to the user’s body”. It also cured indigestion, constipation, stomach troubles, corpulence and spinal curvature (1900). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But if you can’t face all that hard work, there is always a stimulating electropathic belt to help steady your nerves, relieve constipation, cure obesity, aid manly vigour.

Magazine insert or leaflet advertising the therapeutic belts available at the Medical Battery Company Limited at 52 Oxford Street, London. They were supposed to invigorate the debilitated and cure: rheumatism, constipation, palpitation, neuralgia, nervousness, back pain, sciatica, lumbago, obesity, ladies' ailments (menstruation disorders) and impaired vitality (male impotence). The illustration shows a nurse presenting 2 belts to a man and woman sitting by a table with fruit and a bottle on it (1893). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Magazine insert or leaflet advertising the therapeutic belts available at the Medical Battery Company Limited (1893). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If none of these treatments appeal, perhaps you might instead prefer to distract yourself by checking out our top five posts from 2013.

5. Katherine Allen’s delightful “Tobacco Smoke Enemas” explores the medical significance of blowing smoke up one’s rear end.

4. Karin Leonhard and David Brafman offer some tips on “Dyeing Wool in Seventeenth-Century Germany“, with instructions for music and reflections on death included alongside the wool dyeing.

3. Laura Mitchell considers whether medieval healing charms were “Magic or Medicine“. Plus… evil eye!

2. I examine a modern cure-all, finding that coffee was “A Remedy Against the Plague“. Coffee: even more useful than we think.

1. And our most popular post of the year was Laurence Totelin’s “Recipe Fit for a King“, in which she considers King Attalus as a serious scholar who had a deep knowledge of poisons.

An interesting list that reveals much about the wide-ranging interests of our readers and contributors! Elaine Leong and I are looking forward to another fun year for Recipes Project in 2014.