Following a Recipe through Different Manuscripts

By Catherine Rider

Recently I’ve been looking through medieval recipe collections for remedies and tests relating to infertility, the subject of my new research project.  At first I was looking for any remedies, from the fairly mundane (mares’ milk) to the ones that look more exotic, at least to modern eyes (numerous animal testicles and a few charms) but recently I’ve taken a more targeted approach, comparing the different manuscripts of a single recipe collection to see if the infertility recipes change as the collections were copied.  I’m hoping that these changes will tell me something about the priorities of the various different copyists and owners of the manuscripts, and so shed light on how infertility remedies may have been used in practice – or at least, how the scribes who were paid to copy collections of recipes thought they might be used.  Monica Green has taken a similar approach to manuscripts of gynaecological texts in her book Making Women’s Medicine Masculine.[1]

I started this when I noticed that a few collections included recipes which assumed the man would take a role in seeking or administering a cure for infertility.  For example one recipe to aid conception in the Liber de Diversis Medicinis (Book of Diverse Medicines), an English recipe collection published by Margaret Ogden from a fifteenth-century manuscript, opens with the heading ‘If a man will that a woman conceive a child soon.’[2]  This interested me because it’s often assumed that in the Middle Ages infertility was seen as a female condition and women therefore bore much of the responsibility for seeking treatment, and yet here we have the suggestion that a man might take the initiative in seeking a remedy.  I wondered how typical it was.  One way to find out was to look at the other manuscripts and see if they kept the same heading, or substituted a different one.

The Liber de Diversis Medicinis was a good collection to start with because it was quite widely copied: the volume of the Manual of the Writings in Middle English dedicated to scientific and medical texts listed sixteen manuscripts, and several were in London or Cambridge and so fairly easily accessible for me.  I spent some time in the British Library and a couple of Cambridge college libraries, checking their copies against Ogden’s edition; I still need to get to Oxford, Durham and Manchester for the rest.  Many of them look a bit like this – a 15th-century recipe book in the Wellcome Library:

L0000832 Receipts for cataract and teeth whitening
15h-century leechbook. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of difference between manuscripts.  Scholars have often noted that medieval recipe collections display significant variations between manuscripts and in the case of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis the differences were very large. One fifteenth-century manuscript in the British Library (Egerton MS 833) omitted a large section of the collection, including the infertility recipes – although this may have been because pages had been lost from the manuscript, or from the exemplar copied by the scribe, rather than because the scribe had decided not to copy them.  Another British Library manuscript (Royal MS 17.A.VIII) included only a few remedies for each ailment, rather than the much greater number of possibilities recorded in the manuscript used by Ogden.  Moreover, the infertility remedies it gave were very different, as were the headings used to introduce them.  Gone was the recipe for a man who wanted a woman to conceive soon, and instead there was a heading which encompassed both sexes: ‘To do a man gete child and a woman bere child.’[3]

Another manuscript again (British Library MS Sloane 962) included a recipe for conception in Latin alongside the English ones.  Switching between languages is not unusual in medieval recipe manuscripts but it still tells us something about the scribe and the person who owned it – both had at least a basic knowledge of Latin, the language of university medicine, which suggests this manuscript is more likely to have been aimed at a male medical practitioner than an interested amateur.

So far, though, I haven’t found another manuscript which includes Ogden’s heading, aimed at a man who wants a woman to conceive, so perhaps the idea that a man might take the initiative was unusual after all.

I’m still thinking about what all this means and how significant these variations are.  In some cases variations may be the result of missing pages in a manuscript, or simple miscopying.  Even when they are not, it is difficult to tell how far scribes were consciously making these changes in order to adapt the text to the needs of a new reader – one who could read Latin, for example, or one who imagined that men would come seeking help to make their wives conceive.  However, in most cases these manuscripts do show us scribes who did not copy blindly, but rather were familiar enough with recipes to change things in ways that made sense to them.   By tracking these variations I’m hoping to uncover as many medieval attitudes to infertility and its treatment as possible.

[1] Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[3] London, British Library MS Royal 17.A.VIII, f. 63v.

The Working of Herbs, Part 3: Herb Qualities and Indications

By Anne Stobart

In my previous posts on the Working of Herbs (Part 1 and Part 2) I flagged up some problems in finding out how medicinal herbs might really work, or finding reliable sources on herbal ‘efficacy’. I set out to try to establish a protocol, or way of thinking about this issue by picking a specific medicinal recipe. My choice was a seventeenth-century recipe for ‘after throws’ (likely for pains after childbirth). The recipe contains hyssop, wild mint, groundsel, pennyroyal and balm. In this post I aim to get an overview of how these herbs might have been viewed at the time that the recipe was being copied, in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Sources for past information on herbal qualities and  indications

Last time I mentioned a useful but dated source in Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal.[1] However, we can also look directly at past material written on medicinal plants, found in herbals, pharmacopoeia or medical advice books, as starting points in providing contemporary indications for medicinal use. There are quite a few 17th/18th century printed sources. My choice of sources is largely pragmatic, based on comprehensiveness and ease of access – especially sources that have indexes which are easy to use, or can be found in a text format which is readily searchable. Here I give selected details from two sources published before and after the likely compilation and recording of this later seventeenth-century recipe. Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of the Pharmacopoeia Londonesis of the Royal College of Physicians reflects views of medical therapeutics from the early 17th century while John Quincy’ Pharmacopoeia Officinalis was first published 1718. I started to use John Quincy’s book frequently as I am lucky to own

Quincy, John. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed.  London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).
Figure 1. John Quincy. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730 (title page).

a hard copy of the 8th edition (much-thumbed) – it has both a Latin and common name index for the many items in the materia medica. Descriptions of these herbs often give both their qualities and indications for a range of conditions.[2]

According to Culpeper’s A Physicall Directory (1649, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – Help coughs, shortnesse of breath, wheezing, distillations upon the Lungues, it is of a cleansing quality, kill wormes in the body, amends the whol color of the body, helps the dropsie and spleen, sore throats and noise in the ears (41)
  • Wild Mint – [Of garden mints ] hot and dry in the third degree, [Of water mint and horse mint] ease pains of the belly, head-ach and vomiting, gravel in the kidnies, and stone. (45)
  • Groundsel – Groundsel, cold and moist according to Tragus, helps the Chollick, and pains or gripins in the belly, helps such as cannot make water, cleanseth the reins, purgeth Choller and sharp humors (32)
  • Pennyroyal – Penyroyal, hot and dry in the third degree, provokes urine, breaks the stone in the reins, … strengthens womens backs, provokes the terms, easeth their labour in child-bed, brings away the after-birth, staies vomiting, strengthens the brain, (yea the very smell of it) breaks wind and helps the vertigo (49-50)
  • Balm – Bawm, is hot and dry; inwardly, it is an excellent remedy for a cold and moist stomach, cheers the heart, refresheth the mind, takes away grief, sorrow, and care, instead of which it produceth joy and mirth (45)

According to Quincy’s Pharmacopoeia Officinalis (1730, pages consulted are in brackets):

  • Hyssop – (Balsamic section), a warm and detergent herb, ‘good for anything’ especially coughs and lung disorders (143)
  • Wild Mint – [mentha] (Diaphoretic section) warm and aperient – reckoned by some to promote menses and urine (176)
  • Groundsel – [Carduncellus] (Emetic section) a good and safe vomit (187)
  • Pennyroyal [Pulegium] – (Nervous simples section) warm and chief virtue is ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’ (89)
  • Balm [Melissa] (Diaphoretics section) of fine cordial flavour but weak and soon fades (177)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
Figure 2. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) 

Further sources could be consulted but, overall, these two sources identify four of the herbs in the recipe for after throws (hyssop, wild mint, pennyroyal (Figure 2) and balm (Figure 3))  as having qualities of heating and drying. One herb (groundsel) is regarded as cold and moist, a purging remedy and good for ‘pains or gripins in the belly’ while another (wild mint) can also ‘ease pains in the belly’. Pennyroyal is specifically indicated for bringing away the afterbirth and ‘absterging all Impurities from the Womb’. Hyssop is regarded as ‘cleansing’ and ‘good for anything’. Other specific indications for these herbs include lung complaints (hyssop) and grief (balm). A check of some other texts with seventeenth-century childbirth-related recipes reveals that hyssop was also an  ingredient in other remedies with titles such as ‘For a woman traveling with child’ and ‘An approved medicine to bring away a dead child’.[3]

Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Figure 3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

But was this recipe used?

It does appear that some of the herbs in this recipe were considered by contemporary sources to have relevance in various complaints related to childbirth. And I have found that this particular recipe for ‘after throws’ was repeated at least five times in the recipe collections of one household (more on this in a later post!) so it is possible that it was actually used, or at least was thought to have some ‘efficacy’. However, we cannot assume that the past view of these herbs matches the likely effects based on today’s understanding. In my next post I will look at how these herbs are understood in the present day, and consider how herbal monographs may be useful in this endeavour to find out what the herbs can do.


[1] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses (First 1931 ed. London: Penguin, 1980).

[2] ‘Qualities’ can be thought of as the properties of herbs and  ‘indications’ are suggested uses. Sources used are: Nicholas Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory Made by the Colledge of Physicians in London (London: Peter Cole, 1649); John Quincy, Pharmacopoeia Officinalis & Extemporanea: Or, a Complete English Dispensatory, in Four Parts. 8th ed. (London: J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1730). These texts are on Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and can be accessed through the Wellcome Library website (membership is free).

[3] For example, see A Choice Manuall of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chirurgery (London: R. Norton, 1653, pp. 48, 91); W. J., Dr Lowers and Several Other Eminent Physicians Receipts Containing the Best and Safest Method for Curing Most Dieases in Humane Bodies (London: John Nutt, 1700, p.37).


An early modern Portuguese recipe book of pharmaceutical “secrets”

By Amy Buono

Colleçção de varias receitas de segredos particulares des principaes boticas da nossa companhia de Portugal, da Índia, de Macao e do Brasil compostas e experimentadas pelos melhores medicos e Boticarios mais celebres que tem havido nestas partes aumentada com alguns indices, e noticias muito curiozas, e necessarias para a boa direcção e acerto contra as enfermidades. En Roma, An.M.DCC.LXVI, com todas as licenças necessarias, 20 X 13, 5 cm, 603 p.  [1766]

Colleçção de varias receitas de segredos particulares des principaes boticas da nossa companhia de Portugal, da Índia, de Macao e do Brasil...1766 [Manuscript Opp. NN. 17, ARSI, Rome]
Colleçção de varias receitas de segredos particulares des principaes boticas da nossa companhia de Portugal, da Índia, de Macao e do Brasil…1766 [Manuscript Opp. NN. 17, ARSI, Rome]
The Collection of various recipes of unique secrets from the most important pharmacies of our Society in Portugal, India, Macao, and Brazil, 1766, also known as Opp. NN. 17  is a Jesuit manuscript of medical recipes today housed in the Archivum Romanus Societatis Iesu (ARSI), the central Jesuit archive in Rome. Of interest to scholars of the Society of Jesus and to historians of colonial medicine alike, the 603-page compilation of recipes offers scholars a glimpse into the process of gathering medicinal knowledge from local healers in missionary settings, and then disseminating it via a systematized volume of indexed recipes for the Jesuit’s Portuguese-speaking unit. Among the highlights of the collection are its various recipes for compounding theriacs, medicaments against snake-bites and other poisons.

Though dated to 1766, the volume probably collates recipes collected over the previous two centuries within the “Portuguese Assistancy,” ­­ the oldest of the four territorial and linguistic administrative units of the Jesuit Order, and its most powerful in the early modern period due to strong patronage by the Portuguese Crown. In principle, the Society of Jesus was organized as a centralized command structure in which all data flowed to and from Rome. In practice, however, information and objects  from the Portuguese missions in Brazil, India, Macao (including letters detailing local life, medicinal recipes, natural historical knowledge, maps, and indigenous art) circulated semi-autonomously units, often bypassing the hub of Rome.[1] These internal, Portuguese-language based networks thus offer scholars fascinating insight into how locally-specific medical knowledge moved into wider, global circuits of the early modern world, and how the Jesuit Order’s Portuguese Assistancy acted as a surrogate to the Portuguese Empire.

I am at work on a translation and critical edition of Opp. NN. 17, which will be published with an Introduction, and three accompanying contextual essays by historians of medicine of early modern India, Brazil, and Macao. The aim is to make available to historians of the early modern period not just the particular recipes, but also an exemplary case study of how botanical ingredients entered the market, and how technical and experimental knowledge shaped medical practice within the ambit of the Portuguese Assistancy. Of particular interest to me personally is the discussion within the manuscript about profit-making, which reminds us that materia medica and pharmacies were very much seen as money-making concerns for the Jesuit order.  These issues show up in suggestions about omitting particularly effective but very costly ingredients from recipes and the necessity for protecting pharmaceutical secrets so as to maximize the revenue stream. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

In these blog postings I hope to provide some musings on both the process of creating a translation and critical edition, and on the Jesuit process of “building” a Portuguese-language recipe book of secrets.

[1] Ines G. Zupanov, Missionary Tropics: The Catholic Frontier in India, 16th-17th Centuries, History, Languages, and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 4.

Garlic and fertility testing in the Greek world

By Laurence Totelin

In my last blog post, I discussed some ancient gender tests. This month, I turn to Greek fertility tests. In the Greek world, women only entered full womanhood upon conception and delivery of a child, preferably a boy. Infertility seriously damaged a woman’s status in her community. It is therefore no wonder that one of the treatises of the Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of some sixty texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) was devoted to the issue of barrenness: On Sterile Women. This tract includes a few fertility tests, aimed at predicting whether a woman will become pregnant or not.

Representation of garlic in the famous 'Vienna Dioscorides' manuscript (512 CE)
Representation of garlic in the famous ‘Vienna Dioscorides’ manuscript (512 CE)

Tests by means of which you will know whether a woman will be pregnant. If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant: give to drink butter [or a plant called boutyron] and the milk of a woman who has borne a male child, whilst she is fasting. If she vomits, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not.

Another: Let her wrap some oil of bitter almonds in wool and apply as a pessary. Check in the morning whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

Another test for the same purpose: apply pessaries that are not particularly strong. If she has pains in the joints, suffers from clattering teeth, dizziness, and yawning, there is more hope that she will pregnant than if she who does not suffer from any of these afflictions.

Another: Having washed and peeled a head of garlic, apply it to the womb, and see the next day whether she smells of it through the mouth; if she smells, she will be pregnant, if not, she will not.

If you want to know whether a woman will be pregnant, let here drink finely pounded anise in water, then let her sleep. If she itches around the navel, she will be pregnant; if not, she will not. [On Sterile Women 214]

Every single one of these tests would deserve a long explanation, especially since possible Egyptian parallels exist for some of these recipes. Here, however, I will focus on the second and fourth tests, the almond oil and garlic tests. Both rest upon the assumption that women have a sort of tube (a hodos) that runs through their bodies, with two openings: the mouth of the face and the mouth of the womb (=the vagina). In a healthy woman, whose tube was not obstructed, a smell could travel easily from the lower to the upper mouth – hence the use of such smell test.

The smells used here were not chosen at random. Perfumes, such as that of bitter almond, were associated with Aphrodite, love making and marriage ceremonies. Garlic too was associted with sexuality and fertility, although the links are not particularly easy to interpret. In Aristophanes’ comedy, The Women at the Thesmophoria (a festival in honour of Demeter), women use garlic to conceal the smell of wine after a night of drinking and sex with their lovers (v. 495). Garlic masks the smells associated with sex and pleasure. Similarly, according to the historian Philochorus (third century BCE), at the festival of the Skirophoria (a festival in honour of Athena and Demeter), ‘women ate garlic in order to abstain from sex, so that they would not smell of perfume’ (FGRH 328 F 89). Thus, Philochorus presents garlic as an-aphrodisiac, a clear opposite to those perfumes used in sexual foreplay.

The sceptic will no doubt say that garlic was chosen simply because it is a strong smelling, ‘windy’ plant, whose scent would travel easily through the body. Yet, there seems to be something that links it to women and sex in the ancient world. An admittedly much later document, a sacred law from the sanctuary of the healing god Men at Sounion in Attica (IG II2 1365) informs men that they should cleanse if they have been in contact with garlic, pigs and women — a rather puzzling combination unless you know that ‘piggy’ was Greek slang for the vulva.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine