Job opportunity: funded PhD studentship at the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is advertising three funded PhD studentships as part of a new project on the Boughton House estate and the Montagu family called ‘The English Versailles: Refashioning the Eighteenth-Century Landed Estate’. The lucky candidates get to work with Professor Roey Sweet, Professor Pete King or Dr Elizabeth Hurren. Dr Hurren, in particular, is for someone to study ‘Household Cures and Female Charity: The Welfare and Well-being of the Estate’. The student will examine, amongst other things, the financial accounts, personal papers and recipe books of the Montgue family in order to further understand healthcare in the 18th century country house.

More details can be found here.

The Working of Herbs, Part 1: Did Herbal Recipe Ingredients Really Work?

By Anne Stobart

As a clinical herbal practitioner with a research background in the history of medicine, I am sometimes asked the question: ‘Did the herbs work?’. In this post, the first of a series (The Working of Herbs), I consider how we might examine whether medicinal plants in recipes might have worked.

The question may seem simple, but it is a tough one to answer. It provokes even more questions, including:

  1. What are the herb constituents (phytochemistry and pharmacognosy)?
  2. What research has been done on the effects of medicinal plants (herbal pharmacology)?
  3. Should we be thinking about efficacy (historiography and medical history)?
  4. Do we know the parts of herbs, the preparation and dosage of the recipe (pharmacy)?

[Pharmacy: Illustration of pharmaceutical chest] Carl Linnaeus, Materia medica, Liber I. De plantis (Holmiae - Laurentii Salvii, 1749, title page & frontis). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
[Pharmacy: Illustration of pharmaceutical chest] Carl Linnaeus, Materia medica, Liber I. De plantis (Holmiae – Laurentii Salvii, 1749, title page & frontis). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
It is unsurprisng that historians often avoid raising the question in the first place. But I believe that we need to clarify the potential effects of medicinal recipes, and I have been thinking about how to establish a rational protocol for answering this question in relation to a medicinal recipe. I hope that other readers will chip in with their thoughts and useful advice!

Figure 2. [Plants of medicinal value to particular human body parts], Michael Bernhard Valentini, Medicina nov-antiqua (Francofurti ad Moenum: Joan, Maximiliani à Sande, 1713,  fol. 286). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Figure 2. [Plants of medicinal value to particular human body parts], Michael Bernhard Valentini, Medicina nov-antiqua (Francofurti ad Moenum: Joan, Maximiliani à Sande, 1713, fol. 286). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.


A discussion of how herbal ingredients of recipes might have worked raises at least three problems of historiographical concern.

First, we need to be aware of ‘presentism’. Current knowledge about plant constituents and medicinal effects can easily influence our view of what people knew/did in the past. Second, implicit assumptions that the use of medicinal herbs was connected to therapeutic efficacy should be questioned since there might have been other reasons for their use. (Figure 2 shows the links between plants and body parts, some of which were probably based on shape). Third, some authors suffer from what I call ‘plantaholicism’–overly sympathetic and exclusively plant-focused view of the past. This may provide a narrow viewpoint, particularly when we consider that many other items were used in the materia medica including animal and mineral ingredients.

I fully understand that I may be guilty at times of demonstrating all of the above problems, and part of my rationale for drafting these posts is to help to clarify how to manage these issues.

Finding out more

This post flags up some problems in trying to assess efficacy. Although my examples in this series will be drawn from early modern sources, I hope that some points made will be relevant to other periods.[1] In further posts in this series I aim to provide some pointers for historians and others looking at recipes who wish to seek out reliable sources and information about herbal constituents and their actions.

Coming up in future posts…

  • how to locate reliable information about herbs
  • why the herbal monograph can be a useful tool
  • how to consider the effects of combining herbs in a recipe


[1] See for example, classical pharmacology in Laurence M. V. Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece (Boston: Brill, 2009).

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Wilmer Connection

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

In her last post on College of Physicians manuscript 10a214 (26/09/2013), Rebecca Laroche examined the collection’s attributions to one “Dnam Yelverton” to explore the varying statuses of women who contributed to the volume. This entry not only continues that line of exploration, but incorporates a new geographical twist that allows us to make some exciting new connections among the manuscript’s compliers.

Page 61 of the CPP manuscript contains three recipes, the first and third attributed to Mistress Wilmer of Bowe – “To cause to avoyde grauell” and “To driue away small pocks or measles.” The second recipe, which uses dead dead bees to provoke urine, is labeled as “per Eliza: Downing.”

While Mistress Wilmer is not the only contributor to be directly linked with a place, her association with Bowe is particularly interesting. After all, if it is fair to associate Bowe with the area of London once known as Stratford-at-Bow, then the geographical scope of our volume grows even wider. As we noted in an earlier post (20/06/2013), the parish of Hackney on London’s west side, as well as the town of Stamford, can already be associated with the manuscript.

Mistress Wilmer, however, adds to the network in a second, even more interesting way. According to Charles Wilmer Foster’s The History of the Wilmer Family, George Wilmer earned a degree at Cambridge, married Margery Thwenge before 1606, and resided at Stratford-le-Bow.[1] George died in 1626, and Margery remarried prior to 1630.[2]

George Wilmer’s will, however, is what offers us the most tantalizing connection to the CPP manuscript. The document’s fourth witness is one E. Layfield, whom Foster connects to Edmund Layfield, preacher at the nearby St. Leonards-Bromley. The will was proved on 26 May 1626, just short of three years before Layfield delivered a subsequently published sermon entitled The mappe of mans mortality and vanity at St. Leonards.[3]

As Rebecca Laroche will show in the next post, Edmund Layfield is very likely the husband of Anne Layfield, who stakes the only direct claim to the CPP manuscript. The inscription “Anne Layfield, her Booke of Physicke and Surger, 1640” appears on the flyleaf, and, thanks to Mistress Wilmer, we can be more certain than ever as to the nature of the networks in which she moved.

But this connection between the Wilmers and the Layfields introduces new challenges as well. If, as we have been positing, the first section of the CPP manuscript, where Mistress Wilmer’s recipes appear, can be associated with Calybute Downing and his mother Elizabeth, how might they fit into the network? The Downings certainly must have enjoyed a connection to the Layfields, since the book eventually made it into Anne’s possession. The positioning of Mistress Wilmer’s recipes, however, suggest that the Downings must have had their own connection to her east end household, the exact nature of which remains to be uncovered.

[1] Charles Wilmer Foster and Joseph A. Green, The History of the Wilmer Family (Leeds, 1888), 114. The book is available via the Internet Archive, at

[2] Foster, 117.

[3] The mappe of mans mortality and vanity. A sermon, preached at the solemne funerall of Abraham Iacob Esquire, in the church of St. Leonards-Bromley by Stratford-Bow. May. 8. 1629. By Edmund Layfielde Bachelour in Divinity, and preacher there.

William Hunter: Recipe Collector

By Anke Timmermann

Historical collections provide wonderful glimpses into the minds of exceptional individuals. Objects, once placed into collection contexts, silently embody the interests and personalities of their collectors. Their organisation within a collection demonstrates a certain, historical way of navigating the world of knowledge. And taken individually, each object taunts us with questions about its raison d’être: how did this get here, and what does it mean?

The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.
The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.

I recently decided to trace the ‘collective’ history of an alchemical manuscript featured in my previous blog post. GUL MS Hunter 110 escaped the fate of damage by water, fire or other destructive, if not alchemical, elements, thanks to William Hunter (1718-1783), Scottish anatomist and founder of what is now The Hunterian at Glasgow University. During a lifetime spent mostly in London (eventually eclipsed by his younger brother, surgeon John Hunter), with strong connections to Glasgow and Paris, Hunter became famous in medical circles for his work on the gravid (pregnant) uterus. He was also a teacher both brilliant and popular with medical students. Alongside his research, practice and teaching Hunter gathered thousands of books and objects relating to anatomy, natural history and art, from familiar and far-away lands, and dating from various periods of time. The mentioned alchemical volume is only one of ca. 650 Hunterian manuscripts.[1]

Despite their humble appearance, Hunter’s manuscripts may be the most intriguing part of his collections. Acquired at a time when manuscripts were cheap and generally unappreciated, they include Western and oriental items, medieval, Renaissance and contemporary treatises, and cover medical and chymical, historical and theological and linguistic themes. Some of them are likely to have come to him as part of bulk acquisitions at auctions. But what motivated Hunter’s hunt for manuscripts in general, and how did they merge with his other collections, a material lexicon of world knowledge?[2] The recipes in Hunter’s manuscripts throw some light onto these questions, especially those situated between the disciplines of medicine and chemistry.[3]

Among the various items related to materia medica, pharmacy and prescriptions in Hunter’s collections, those written by his mentor, anatomist and accoucheur (‘man-midwife’) James Douglas are noteworthy. In addition to treatises on surgical procedures Douglas also produced notes on medicinal plants including tea, a history of chocolate and bibliographical notes on authors on saffron, and a very interesting record of ‘Chymical potions made by my order at Mr Durhams Laboratory in Cheesewell Street London. 1723’.[4] All of these would have been of interest to Hunter on the page, in his professional life in London, and as a legacy of a beloved teacher and friend – they were in his possession before his thirtieth birthday, seven years after Douglas’s death.

William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)
William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)

In some ways, Douglas’s medico-pharmacological writings, then, represent the logical core of Hunter’s more wide-ranging interests in recipes, which extended back to the twelfth century.[5] Hunter’s fragmentary copy of the ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis’ of 1650 (and thus predating Hunter’s medical practice by a century and by several reviewed versions of the edict), may be considered within this context: it shows a merging of Douglas’s contemporary interests and Hunter’s investigation of the history of pharmacy and its practices.[6]

In this light Hunter’s copy of the ‘Cursus Chemicus’ of Christopher White, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford (d. 1696), too, emerges as more than a noteworthy excursion into medico-chemistry. Continued by White’s son or later descendant (up to 1755), it contains generations of recipe reception: ‘sets of receipts, medical and culinary’, ‘receipts for Cattle Distemper’ with newspaper clippings, an advertisement for the cinnabar/quicksilver mines of Almadén and for a cure ‘for the bite of a mad dog’, among other things.[7] This accumulation of materials appears as wondrous as that of Hunter’s collected objects.

Here and elsewhere, it seems that Hunter’s books and things, recipes and materials intersect in various ways. Indeed, the thought of a history of collections written through the history of recipes seems positively gravid with possibilities. Might an interdisciplinary study of Hunter’s collections give birth to a more integrated history of science?

[1] Hunter’s DNB biography was written by Helen Brock, who has also published extensively on the man and his collections. Information on Hunter’s life mentioned throughout this blog post is based on the DNB article.

[2] See e.g. this recent talk on Hunter’s book collections: Francesca Mackay, ‘Hunter’s Book Collection: The man and his time’. Manuscripts from the library of William Hunter are listed with the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

[3] Recipes have not been researched in detail for Hunter’s collections to date: Neil R. Ker, William Hunter as a collector of medieval manuscripts (Glasgow: 1983), which I was not able to access, does not seem to consider the recipe genre in itself. This older but more inclusive article merely mentions ‘some medical prescriptions’ among sundry items within the collections: Charles Illingworth, ‘William Hunter’s manuscripts and letters: the Glasgow collection’, Med Hist. 15 (1971), 181–186.

[4] Presumably Chiswell St. GUL MS Hunter 624.

[5] Early relevant items are, in roughly chronological order, GUL MSS Hunter 64, 435, 190, 95, 117, and others.

[6] GUL MS Hunter 243 (Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and anonymous medical notes). See also, for example, GUL MS Hunter 626, for which one of Douglas’s children is listed as an amanuensis, entitled Catalogus Pharmacorum (with a section dedicated to a Catalogus Chymicum).

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine