Category Archives: Rebecca Laroche

On the “Oil of Swallows”, Part 1: Did anyone actually use these outrageous remedies?

By Michelle DiMeo, with Rebecca Laroche

Part of the appeal of old medical remedies is that many are filled with seemingly outrageous ingredients. A recipe “For deaffnesse” attributed to Sir Kenelm Digby, Fellow of the Royal Society, required one to “Take a hare new killed, Take out the bladder in which you will still find some urine … soe pouer into each eare by degrees”. The recipe concludes by suggesting one continue to do this “for several dayes with new hares”.[1] The chemist Robert Boyle’s medical remedy book includes plenty of unsavory ingredients, including wood lice and earth worms, as well a treatment for dysentery that involves drinking baked pig’s dung.[2] This, coupled with the fact that many early modern recipe books do not show all the burns, spills and edits one would expect to find in a heavily used book, leads to the question:  did anyone actually make these recipes? If so, how’d they accomplish it?

The “Oil of Swallows” is one such remedy. An early version may be found in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Husvvifes Ievvel [Housewife’s Jewel] from 1587, which begins “Take eight Swallowes readie to flie out of the nest, driue away the breeders when you take them out, and let them not touch the earth, stampe them vntill the Fethers can not be perceiued” (fols. 50r-50v). It also requires the addition of approximately five herbs to be mixed with butter, and it eventually produces an oil that should be externally applied to aches and bruises.

The recipe continues to evolve over the next 100 years and seems increasingly less believable. By the mid-seventeenth century, “Oil of Swallows” is almost ubiquitous in recipe books; however, the number of swallows greatly increases, as do the number of additional ingredients. This may be due to certain print versions of the recipe, such as that found in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which requires more than two dozen separate ingredients and as many as 20 live swallows. This example from an anonymous manuscript compiled over the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries requires over twenty ingredients and “twenty Young Quick Swallows”, showing just how complicated the recipe became:

Late-17th-Century Recipe for "Oil of Swallows"
Wellcome Library, Western MS 1795, fol. 222v 

A historian’s first instinct might be to dismiss this as a remedy that was never actually tried. After all, how did they catch 20 live birds, and how did they beat them all in a mortar without the birds flying away? However, a closer reading of how the recipe language evolved over time shows contemporaries trying to sort through these complicated issues, providing tips for how and when to capture the birds, and what to do if you can’t get enough. Dawson’s recipe, quoted above, is an early example of this.[3]

But perhaps the best evidence that the “Oil of Swallows” was used is an undeniable reference to the final product in Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical “Rememberance”, written around 1639. Isham recalls having a recurring pain in her thigh in her early adulthood. In her closet, she found a glass jar, which, upon opening, she “thought it to be by the smell oiles of swallowes”. She deduced that it must be about 40 years old and that it was made by her great grandmother “Who was … very skillful in Surgery”. Isham’s aunt “thought it might have some virtue because it retained the sent [scent]. Being close stoped.” So Isham applied the ointment to her aching thigh and found some relief, noting that “it [came] foorth in a rednes and after weared away by de grees”.[4]

Isham’s “Rememberance” makes it impossible for us to deny that the “Oil of Swallows” was actually made, and it provides contextual information to help us better understand the recipe.  If we continue to read recipes against other available archival material, including letters, diaries, and account books, we might continue to find surprising evidence that these seemingly outrageous remedies really were tried and approved. But while Isham testifies to the use of “Oil of Swallows”, we still don’t know exactly which ingredients comprised the final product she tried. And as Rebecca Laroche will explain in Part 2 of this blog post on Thursday, the ingredients in this remedy were sometimes even stranger than just swallows and herbs…


This blog entry has been from adapted research used in the essay Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[1] British Library, Sloane MS 1367, fol. 19v. Contractions have been silently expanded.

[2] Robert Boyle, Medicinal Experiments (London, 1692), p. 7.

[3] For more examples, and for a more detailed analysis of the language, see the original essay on which this blog post was based: Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, “On Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Oil of Swallows’: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, eds. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 87-104.

[4] Elizabeth Isham, “My Booke of Rememberance”, Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection RTC01 no.62, fols. 26v-27r. For an open-access modern spelling edition, see Constructing Elizabeth Isham, dirs.. Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow,

To Preserve Quinces, White or Red?

By Rebecca Laroche

Wellcome Library, Manuscript 1340, Digital Image 0087

Through a current collaboration with Thomas Ward (United States Naval Academy), I have found something of interest in early modern quince preserves.[i] Across the Wellcome Library Digitised Collection, examples of recipes “To preserve quinces” evenly divide between two (or three types), “To preserve quinces red” and “To preserve quinces white” (the third category being some mixture or in-between of the two).[ii] Regularly, a white quince recipe will be on the same page as a red one, which presents an immediate choice to the preserver. In close reading, I have come to realize that this choice is about something more than color.

Setting a red recipe next to a white one, we can begin to suss out the issues, but three late seventeenth/early eighteenth century recipes provide both the red and white options within one entry and thus make the differences most apparent.  Generally, red quinces are  boiled at a “leisurely” pace (one recipe, MS 3341/009, records a four hour process,), covered, and with lower grade of sweetener (not necessarily refined sugar, even using fruit juices instead, which also added a gelling component).  White quinces are often boiled rapidly in the syrup made with double refined sugar, sometimes cooked before being added to the syrup, and, at some point determined by fruit tenderness, color change, and/or syrup thickness, the quinces are removed from the syrup to cool while the syrup continues to thicken, and then they are added again later in the process.  Much of the time making red quinces is uninterrupted, allowing for “multi-tasking,” either in or out of the kitchen.

Not necessarily so in preserving white quinces.  Not only are you often told to boil the quinces “as fast as you can uncouered” (see MSs 7818/52, 7999/10, 3341/10), which would present the danger of boiling over and burning, the added step of taking them up before they turn red requires extreme care.  One recipe even calls for “shifting” the quinces into “water ready to boil,” not once or twice, but “into seuerall such waters till they be tender (MS 2330/5).

Clearly white quinces are more difficult to make as they require extra care and a larger proportion of time spent watching the pots. Because much of this care is about anticipating the moment of color change, the implication is that the more a person makes the white quince recipe, the more aware she or he would be of signs of the oncoming change. That is, the more experienced preserver would be more prepared and his or her quinces would thus be whiter.

It follows, then, that the choice between red and white quinces has meaning beyond a color preference or even taste. Whether or not white quinces taste better than red ones is almost beside the point. If you present white quinces at the table, you signified an occasion deserving of the more “high maintenance” preserve, whereas red quinces, made at a more leisurely pace and with cheaper ingredients, are likely to be your “everyday” variety. At least the experienced cooks among your guests would appreciate the difference.

[i] I have also noted this variation with pippen preserves.

[ii] All parenthetical citations refer to the manuscript and image number accessed through the Wellcome Digitised Collection page: