Category Archives: Remedies

Storytelling and Practical Skills in Medical Recipes

By Ying Zhang

What constituted a medical recipe in late imperial China? Literati physicians often touted the efficacy of a medical formula by contending that it conforms to traditional order of the emperor and his officials. They might also praise the suitability of the drug combination for treating that individual body’s ills. (See discussion on drug knowledge in China elsewhere on this blog). While texts by literati physicians have attracted most scholarly attention, they might not contain some of the most widely circulated and used medical recipes in everyday settings. People in late imperial China had access to a wide range of vernacular texts to find a recipe for self-treatment. During this period, we see the circulation of many practice-oriented recipes through vernacular literature as well as personal networks. These sources included daily-use encyclopedias, almanacs, meritorious books, and fiction. These recipes functioned as a practical instruction for domestic use and a textual form that articulated practical health care knowledge through literary narratives. They highlighted the techniques of making medicine as an essential part of a medical recipe that non-expert could follow in their own homes.

The first page of the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination.” Image credit: Berlin State Library.

One fascinating example which I’d like to bring to you today is the “Recipe from a bare-foot immortal for pills made with fish maw to help insemination,” which was collected and recorded in A Convenient Survey of Medical Recipes (Yifang bianlan), a manuscript written by a person with the sobriquet Gaoyangshi in the nineteenth century. This recipe presents a story at its beginning, which starts with the encounter in a certain famous mountain between an immortal and a sixty-one-year old men with the surname Zhou from Yunnan who has one wife and nine concubines but has been unable to conceive a child:

…[Zhou] talked about his family [with the immortal], saying that he does not have any children and asking for a good recipe. Moved by his sincerity, the immortal gave him a recipe. The medicine [made according to the recipe] has a character that is clearing but not cooling, warming but not heating. If men take it, [it] could strengthen the muscles and bones, invigorate the vitality, replenish the marrow, nourish the yin, and reinforce the primordial. If women take it, it could regulate the menstrual period, replenish the Blood, prevent miscarriage, regulate the qi, benefit the yin, and ease fertilization. Zhou bowed and received it [meaning the recipe] (bai er shou zhi), and refined and mixed [the medicine] according to the recipe (yi fang xiuhe)…

Following the story, the recipe lists the individual drugs required and, after each drug, it provides instructions on how to process it. For the chuan fuzi (Aconitum carmichalii Debx, Chinese aconite) from Sichuan, for instance, one needs to select the following:

Two pieces with each weighing four liang and five qian, cut off their sprouts and cut each of them into four pieces, soak them with raw gancao (Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Licorice) water for seven days, change the water every morning, and then cover them with half jin of wet flour, heat until cooked over a slow charcoal fire, cut them into pieces, and then heat to dry.

At the end of its drug list, the recipe summarizes, “to cook and make the listed drugs according to the [described] methods” (yi shang zhu yao ru fa paozhi). The word “paozhi” here refers to processing the drugs according to the methods listed under each drug. The recipe then continues with instructions on how to grind the drugs into powders and mix the powders into pills, and also explains the way to take the medicine.

It is interesting to note that the story at the beginning of the recipe uses the word “yi fang xiuhe,” a more general term referring to all of the work from processing individual drugs to mixing them together into pills. It suggests that the recipe worked well exactly because Mr. Zhou made the pills following all the technical details required by the recipe as a way of self-cultivation and demonstrated his piety in the making process. It was Mr. Zhou, not any physician or pharmacy, made the pills. The narrative episodes not only validated the efficacy by stating the mythical origin of the recipe, but also affirmed the efficacy by stating that this Mr. Zhou then had seven sons after taking the pills and lived to ninety-seven years old. They thereby presented the production of medicine as a personal endeavor that anyone could pursue. While the recipe exhibited a world of practical skills to handle medical substances and required utensils, the story advertised these specialized skills of drug processing as everyday household knowledge. The story also functioned to attract collectors through literary embellishment. This was especially desirable when recipes traveled out of medical contexts and became collectable artifacts in the context of literati sociability, connoisseurship, and moral practice. Recipes garnished with literary creation and moral teaching in this context usually encouraged its collectors to distribute it to more people to accumulate merit. Thus, when we exam the circulation and use of recipes out of medical context, we could find storytelling an essential part of medical recipes intended for household use.

Ying Zhang received her Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins University in 2017. Her dissertation titled “Household Healing: Rituals, Recipes, and Morals in Late Imperial China” investigates China’s rich tradition of household healing practices and reinterprets these practices in relation to religion, gender roles, and morality from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Drawing on a wide range of texts people used in their daily healing practices and texts about household healing, this research contributes to a deeper understanding of the heterogeneous health-related practices beyond the domain of learned medicine. It demonstrates the various ways in which the home served as a central site of healing technology in late imperial China. Through the study of the circulation of health related texts, it also sheds new light on the circulation of information in the context of literati sociability, philanthropic activities, and religious commitment in late imperial China. She can be reached at

Mary Napier’s “Snaile Milke”: Transmission, Materiality, and Medical Practice

By Alexandra Kennedy

For a postgraduate project on material texts, I spent several chilly autumn weeks bundled in a scarf and coat in the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections, pouring over a small, leather-bound manuscript of medical receipts by Mary Napier (née Vyner)—a seventeenth-century English doctor’s wife.  After an initial period of transcription, I felt compelled to understand Mary’s lived experience as best I could.  How could the materiality of Mary’s manuscript—in conjunction with its contents—provide clues about her life, and, more specifically, her medical practice? When viewed in contrast to her husband’s writings (also housed in the Ashmole Collection), MS Ashmole 1390 establishes Mary’s engaged involvement in recipe collection and recording. Mary’s active role in her practice becomes especially clear when we look at her recipe for “the snaile milke”—a type of therapy which Jennifer Sherman Roberts has discussed here on The Recipes Project

Snail and fungi. Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii secundo aucti…
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Medicine brought together Sir Richard Napier and his first wife, Anne Tyringham—one of his patients, according to Richard’s casebook (MS Ashmole 177, fols. 2r-3r). After Anne’s death and during his courtship with Mary Vyner, Richard provided several therapeutic recipes of soothing baths and “distilled milk” for his soon-to-be second wife, in which Mary writes she “found great good” (MS Ashmole 1390, fol. 26r). The exchange of medical knowledge continued on throughout the couple’s marriage, evidenced in their recipes for snail milk in the diplomatic transcriptions below. This shared recipe highlights compositional similarities and differences between husband and wife’s written record of the cure:

Sir Richard Napier’s recipe for “The Snayle Milk” in MS Ashmole 1447 fol. 28r Mary Napier’s recipe for “the snaile milke” in MS Ashmole 1390, fol. 63r
The Snayle Milke

Take nine shell snayles with their
shells on & then make a skillet of
water boyle & when it boyles put
in the snayles with their shelles
& let them boyle up, then take them
out & picke them out of their
shells & so put them in a pint of
milke ready boyleinge on the
fire against the snayles be
taken out, & so let it boyle till
it be a quarter consumed.

the snaile milke

take 9 shell snailes with theyr
shells on & make a skellet of
water boile & when it boiles
put in the snailes with theyr
shells on & let them boile
up & then take them out &
picke them out of the shells
& put these into a pint of
milke ready boileing on the
fire against the snailes
bee taken out & so let them
boile till it bee a quarter part
\wasted/ boiled away.

Despite the recipes’ close linguistic proximity, Mary’s spelling varies from her husband’s. Even her word choice differs in a particular moment—“so let it boyle till it be a quarter consumed” becomes, in Mary’s words, “so let them boile till it bee a quarter part \wasted/ boiled away”—the word “wasted” being an interlinear addition to the text.  Mary paints a clearer, one could argue more exacting, picture of what happens to her ingredients as they undergo chemical transformation with applied heat, when compared to her husband’s elegant but less immediate “consumed.”  The orthographic and linguistic peculiarities of Mary’s recipe indicate that she was not a passive receptacle for her husband’s cures and medical knowledge.  Indeed, she could have been the originator of the recipe. Or, perhaps, the couple shared a printed source for this cure. Whatever the recipe’s provenance, Mary owned and adapted the recipe as it made sense to her personally during manufacture.  A splotch on the right-hand corner of the page further attests to Mary’s use of the manuscript as a tool at her side while preparing recipes. We can envision Mary in her stillroom, concocting “snaile milke” with her trusty manuscript at her side, and penning in a line about how her materials transform when boiled, so she’ll know what to look for next time.

Viewing Mary’s “snaile milke,” especially within the context of the Napier family papers, allows us to make contact with Mary’s lived experience of practicing medicine. And if we can achieve this contact in Mary’s case, how many more experiences of healing remain to be discovered within the pages of other recipe books, and among domestic papers in the archival setting? And how can recovering texts of women like Mary—members of families prominent in medical or scientific fields—tells us about their experiences not just as daughters and wives, but as healing practitioners and authors themselves?

Works Cited
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 177
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1390
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1447

Works Consulted
DiMeo, Michelle. “Authorship and medical networks: reading attributions in early modern medical recipe books.” Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800, edited by DiMeo and Sara Pennell, Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 25-48
Ezell, Margaret J. M. “Domestic papers: manuscript culture and early modern women’s life writing.” Genre and Women’s Life-Writing in Early Modern England, edited by Julie A. Eckerle and Michelle M. Dowd, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 33-48
Field, Catherine. “‘Many hands hands’: writing the self in early modern women’s recipe books.” Genre and Women’s Life-Writing in Early Modern England, edited by Julie A. Eckerle and Michelle M. Dowd, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 49-63

Alexandra Kennedy graduated with a Master’s in English (1550-1700) from the University of Oxford in 2016. She earned her Bachelor’s in English at Middlebury College in 2014. She enjoys researching seventeenth-century women’s writing across lines of genre, from drama to biography to medicine. Currently a schoolteacher and freelance writer, she composes book reviews and blogs about the early modern world at You can find her there, or on Twitter @earlymodallie.


Tales from the Archives – Gumpowder? A strange little recipe for sensitive teeth…

In September 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have over 600 posts in our archives and over 150 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

November in the UK is marked by fireworks, which commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot, orchestrated by Guy Fawkes in 1605. When I first moved to the UK in 2001, I was a little surprised to see firework displays in the Autumn – in Belgium and France they are much more common in the Summer. However, I quickly got used to wrapping up warm to go and enjoy sparkling nights.

I have trailed the Recipes Project archive for a firework-related post, and have found this post from 2012 by Katherine Foxhall on the therapeutic uses of gunpowder. Certainly not one to try at home!

By Katherine Foxhall

If you go to your bathroom and check the ingredients in your well-known brand of sensitive toothpaste, you may well find that the recipe contains the active ingredient potassium nitrate. Also known as saltpetre or nitre, this naturally occurring mineral is found in foods as a preservative (e.g. corned beef), and used in fertilizer, cigarettes, blood pressure medicines and fireworks. Since medieval times it has formed one of the main ingredients in gunpowder, and it is this connection that has also given potassium nitrate a long association with teeth and gums.

Many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscripts include treatments for gunpowder burns, but some also proposed that gunpowder could be therapeutic. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (sister to the famous chemist Robert Boyle), recommended a ‘little gunpowder’ applied in a linen cloth to ease toothache. On one page of Anne Brumwich’s recipe book (Wellcome MS 160, p.83) we can find nine recipes for toothache remedies written in two different hands. One, ‘An aproved medecine for ye toothake’ (approved meant that it worked) required gunpowder, aniseed water and lint, mingled together to ‘make a litell thing’.

Once the sufferer had picked their tooth very clean, the recipe instructed them to push the preparation into the tooth, taking care not to allow any of the mixture down the throat.

A century later, in A Treatise on the Scurvy (1795) David Paterson introduced his fellow naval surgeons to a wonderful, and apparently unknown remedy for scurvy: during a voyage in 1784, he claimed, he had restored the health of eighty sick seamen not with lemon juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, but with the potassium nitrate extracted from the gunpowder in his ship’s stores. Paterson’s remedy was soon forgotten, until in 1828, a desperate surgeon named Charles Cameron, having used up all his supplies of lemon juice, remembered Paterson’s recipe. Cameron was stranded in the calms near the equator and he was faced with a ship’s hospital full of scorbutic convicts, less than half way through the voyage to Australia. He extracted the nitre from the powder, dissolved some of it in vinegar, and mixed some more with vinegar and lime juice. He also added a little sugar (to taste?!) The effects were ‘miraculous’.

For the Navy, if Cameron was right, this was a money-saving opportunity; nitre was cheap and did not decompose over time. In the following decades surgeons continued to experiment with different remedies for scurvy until, in 1840, the Admiralty decided to perform a large-scale experiment to determine once and for all the best scurvy remedy. Over the next four years the surgeons of sixty ships transporting fifteen thousand convict men from Britain and Ireland to Australia received crystallised citric acid, potassium nitrate, and lemon juice. Their instructions clearly forbade the surgeons from trying to cause scurvy during the voyage but if the disease did appear, the patients were to be divided into three groups, each group receiving one of the remedies. Of course, the surgeons often had their own ideas, and often altered, combined and varyed the doses according to their own personal favoured recipe. So, while Surgeon Deas mixed some nitre with lime juice and some with citric acid, and felt that both mixtures were useful, Alexander Bryson gave each group the remedies mixed in a glass of wine, water and sugar. After many of the convicts developed severe scurvy, Bryson finally decided that potassium nitrate was ‘objectionable’. The surgeons had come to very different conclusions about the value of potassium nitrate but the results of the experiment were clear; potassium nitrate was abandoned as useless, lemon juice was in for good.

In the mid 1970s, dental researchers – in laboratories this time, rather than on ships – began to report a strange occurrence: mixing potassium nitrate with toothpaste seemed to reduce dental sensitivity in sufferers.  More work confirmed the compound’s beneficial effects, but the scientists still admitted that they were unclear why it should work; being soluble, it seemed that it should simply dissolve in water and wash out of the teeth at first rinse.

Jump forward again to the present, and potassium nitrate is often used as the active ingredient in products for sensitive teeth. So we have come a long way in medical understanding since women like Anne Brumwich stuffed aching teeth with gunpowder soaked lint, or Victorian naval surgeons dosed their convicts with nitre in the certainty that it helped with scurvy, and yet nitre has proved persistent: these earlier ideas about potassium nitrate’s ability to reduce not only the pain of toothache, but the symptoms of scurvy – a disease so commonly experienced in the mouth and gums – are worth wondering about.

Soul Food: Paracelsian Spiritual Mummy and the Virtues of Ingredients

by Jennifer Park

What is it in food that nourishes us? In a curious Paracelsian treatise, Medicina Diastatica, translated into English from the Latin by Ferdinando Parkhurst and published in 1653, it is written that that which is proper for food must be “alible and vitall, because our life and spirit cannot be otherwise sustained, then by the Analogicall and vitall spirit of another” (6). This vital spirit is one that Paracelsus aligns with what he calls spiritual mumie, which can be “taken from a living body” and “separated and prepared accordingly” (8-9).

To explain how the power of this transferable—and ingestible spiritual mummy works, and where to locate it in matter and vitality, Paracelsus compares its virtues to male seed. In the same way that the “seed of man” is “neither part of the man, nor any substantiall of the parts of the same body, but only a power or certain form descending into the Testicles,” and furthermore “augmented by the mechanick and subordinate spirits, and…endued with a multiplying faculty of it self in the place and time appointed by the Liturgie and rule of Nature,” so too spiritual mumie “cannot be part of…the body it selfe; but must of necessity be a kinde of…addition or trajection,” which “dissipates its self, not only amongst the utmost parts of the body, but even into the best disposed matter” (11). In other words, Paracelsus’s spiritual mummy takes on the characteristics of the soul.

It is thus that the soul, or spiritual mummy, “dissipates” itself in matter to be ingested: it “disposeth it self into the alimentall accession of new matter” (12). For Paracelsus, then, spiritual mumie is the key to why various ingredients and simples embody the virtues that they do, and why they might be used in specific types of recipes and remedies, or avoided in other ingestibles for humans. The text mentions that there is a “proper aliment or food ordained for every kinde of Creature” (13). As such, certain animals are able to find nourishment from plants known to be poisonous to humans. For example, a certain kind of fly is able to “feed on the leaves of Napell, by some called Wolfebane,” the starling finds nourishing “Hemlock, which is poysonous to man,” and the quail can feed on “the hearb Hellebore that is noxious to men” (13).

In terms of such “proper aliment,” it is indeed the “Mumie” of the creature which “requireth the proper Mumie of another for the conservation of it self,” in the same way that it was thought that the consumption of bones was needed for bone growth, and the same with flesh for flesh (13). Having made this point, Paracelsus provides a number of recipes or remedies that are in dialogue with analogies in nature that demonstrate the ways in which such spiritual mumie is transferred. The acquiring of mummy is thus essential to curing “Phthysick (or Consumption of the Lungs),” which requires “eating the Lungs of a Fox” for its cure (13-14). So, too, the author reports a remedy from Galen preserving the individual from epilepsy, or the falling sickness, requiring that the “Masculine Paeony” be “hung about one after the manner of an Amulet (or Charm) being gathered in a Balsamick or proper time” (14). These recipes or remedies enable the author to make an argument about how the virtues of spiritual mummy, or the soul, works: it is the “aforementioned faculties or…powers” that “lay hidden in and with the Nerves and strength of its operation,” found in “the Mumie of the Paeony, Rose, or of any other thing” (15).

Martin Schongauer (German, about 1450/1453 – 1491), Studies of Peonies, German, about 1472 – 1473, Gouache and waterolor, 25.7 x 33 cm (10 1/8 x 13 in.), 92.GC.80. Image Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Using these examples, the author seems to attribute to Mumie what others have called sympathies, and provides answers to such mysteries as love potions work to “allure the affections and minds towards this or that party,” as well as provides the explanation for why an ancient fable that recounts how “Tigres and other wilde Beasts have been made tame by being nourished with humane milk,” may not have been simply a fable (15). It is, the author affirms, “Mumie” which is “the cause, foundation, architect, and medium of these things” (15). And thus is mummy Paracelsus’s explanation for the virtues of different natural simples that make them useful in various recipes. Though materia medica and drugs lost their medicinal virtues over time, as Tillmann Taape has examined, Paracelsus’s emphasis is on how despite being “pluckt up and dryed, or in any wise dead,” herbs and plants and other simples are able to retain the virtues of the spiritual mummy that was “first infused into them” (16). Just as we can ingest in “every root of Poeony” what Paracelsus calls an “Antepilepticall faculty” (16) that preserves the consumer from the falling sickness, so too we, and our own spiritual mummy, can continue to be nourished by other herbs and ingredients “till their Mumie is wholly extinguished” (17).