Trading Medicines: The Global Drug Trade in Perspective
10th January 2014, The London School of Economics
Organized by Clare Griffin (Cambridge) and Patrick Wallis (LSE)
This half-day workshop examines the supply and reception of medical drugs during the creation of an early modern global market from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth centuries. It addresses a key question in the history of medicine: how did early modern globalisation impact medicine in Europe?
The workshop explores developments across various European nations, their empires, and global trading networks. Papers will focus on the broad sweep of medical commodities that were exchanged, taking a long view and considering as many different substances as possible, in order to build a big picture of developments across the early modern period.
For more information see:
To register email: Dr Clare Griffin at email@example.com
It happens at every university, every year, and is often known as ‘fresher’s flu’. This cocktail of viruses arrives at the start of term, along with students and their unprepared immune systems. After countless hours spent in the germ-infested libraries, we are now experiencing a full blown assault of sniffles and coughs, all the while chanting ‘I don’t have time to get sick!’.
During a recent pharmacy visit to stock up on Lemsip, my mind wandered to recipe books and eighteenth-century strategies for battling the common cold. How did the eighteenth-century upper sorts deal with scratchy throats, and the dreaded ‘man cold’?
In the eighteenth century catching cold was linked to climate. In his popular work Domestic Medicine (1772 edition) William Buchan explained that catching cold was a result of ‘obstructed perspiration’ and that the secret to not getting sick was avoiding extremes in temperature. Buchan observed that, ‘the inhabitants of every climate are liable to catch cold, nor can even the greatest circumspection defend them against its attacks’. For treatment Buchan advised rest, fluids, light foods, and an infusion of balm and citrus. He also cautioned that ‘Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.’
Coughs were ubiquitous in the eighteenth century, but it would be misleading to say that this symptom (as we know it) was only associated with non-life threatening conditions. Sometimes recipes in domestic collections grouped coughs with colds, while others treated coughs associated with more serious ailments (see The Sloane Letters Blog).
John Wesley divided coughs into several categories in Primitive Physick (1792 edition) including: asthmatic, consumptive, and tickling. For ‘Violent Coughing from a sharp and thin Rheum’ Wesley suggested a bolus of conserve of rose with powdered frankincense. Or, one could try the milk of sow thistle which ‘has the anodyne and antispasmodic properties of opium, without its narcotic effects.’
Newspapers were an excellent source for cough and cold remedies; the Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), for instance, had a remedy ‘A Plaister for a Sore Throat’. Made from melted mutton suet, rosin, and beeswax, this paste was spread on a cloth and pinned on from ear to ear. Newspaper clippings were also pasted into manuscripts. Dr James Malone’s ‘Recipe for a Cold’, shown below, is a balsam-style remedy that boasted to be ‘almost an infallible remedy’ and was inserted into Mrs Myddleton’s book.
Letters indicate the regularity of which remedies were exchanged, and document how individual’s expressed their cold symptoms. Mrs Gell thanked her sisters for ‘ye receipt which I believe very good in [this] time of yeare’ adding ‘thanke God & ye Drs skill & care & friends nursing am very well againe my cough is gon[e] & I am about house’. In another case, Judith Madan wrote to her daughter giving details of an illness and declared ‘My Cough is less violent and comes seldemer. As for the Phlegm which has been my torme[n]t, it must have time to subside.’
A variety of cough and cold remedies were featured in recipe books. Alongside restorative broths (like modern chicken soup), artificial asses’ milk, and milk-based diets in general, were associated with treating coughs (discussed by Sally Osborn). Topical therapies were also used, such as Emily Jane Sneyd eighteenth-century version of VapoRub; a mixture of sweet almond oil and syrup of violets along with a plaster of candle wax, saffron, and nutmeg applied to the stomach.
Syrups and electuaries were popular remedies. One seventeenth-century recipe, ‘a most excellent electuary given to Lady Lisle by Dr Lower’, was a mixture including conserve of red roses, balsam of sulphur, oil of vitriol, and syrup of coltsfoot. Opiates were common in cough remedies, for sedation. Mrs Cotton suggested a mixture of liquorice, vinegar, salad oil, treacle, and tincture of opium when ‘the cough is troublesome’.
Finally, lozenges were used to alleviate sore throats. Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe book (1706) includes her own method of making lozenges ‘very good for Coughs Comeing by takeing Cold’. Jenner’s method involved creating a stiff paste of sugar, herbal oils and powders, and rose water, rolling out the paste, punching out rounds with a thimble, and then drying them in the oven.
These treatment examples reflect the variety of sources available for medical advice. As the case of the common cold demonstrates, individuals were opportunistic by collecting and trialling new remedies, while also relying on standby cures. Kith and kin were proactive in exchanging remedies and were not shy about discussing their conditions, including ‘tormenting phlegm’.
But, despite an arsenal of remedies, advice for the common cold in eighteenth-century England appears strikingly similar to our current approach: stay home, rest, forego partying for a few days, and perhaps try some cough syrup. Feel free to post a comment on your own ‘go to’ remedies for coughs and colds, be it contemporary or historical!
 William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772), 192-3.
I told my children we were making hedgehog pudding for Halloween.
They were horrified.
So was I when I read the title of an entry in the recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe (1625-1680), “To make a Hedg-hogg.” (I’ll admit to some hypocrisy in this. Why it would be more viscerally disgusting to eat a hedgehog than, say, a pig has to do with mere custom and perceived adorableness. That and the question of what to do with the sharp, prickly bits.)
The kids were relieved, as was I, to learn that the hedgehog in question was made up of only a few ingredients, and hedgehog wasn’t among them:
To make a Hedg-hogg
Take 3 pints of sweet creame, and boile in it some Nutmegg and Mace and when it boiles put in being very well beaten five Eggs white and all, and so stir it and let it boile and when it is turned to curds and whey poore it into a strainer and so hang in up to drayne for 6 or 8 houres when the whay is runne all out take halfe a pound of Almonds blanched and very finely beaten with Rosewater and temper them with the curd and sweeten it well with Sugar, and put some Rosewater and Ambergreice into it and soe make it up in the fashion of a Hedghogg and put in two Currants for the eyes and stick all Almonds all over the back of it, and put it into a dish and into the dish put white wine & Sugar or raw Creame and serve it to the table. (303)
This hedgehog, then, is not just food: it’s food art. It’s also an excellent example of the early modern period’s preoccupation with making food look like something it’s not, turning the gustatory experience into a visual pun or trick–nourishment for the eyes as well as the palate. Ken Albala, writing about the banquet in Europe between 1520 and 1660, discusses this predilection for spectacle: “a meal [was] a form of theater . . . replete with an audience, stage sets, props, and interludes.” He goes on to note that “if abundance and variety itself could no longer impress, then culinary virtuosity, wit, and allusion take their place” (12).
As the wife of Sir Richard Fanshawe (1608-66), ambassador to Madrid, Lady Anne Fanshawe’s table would have been such a place of political theater, a stage for displaying power, wealth, position, and intention.
An examination of the rest of Fanshawe’s recipe book, however, finds that the entries tend more to the useful, practical, and every day. In this, it is an example of the growing popularity of cookbooks for women in this period. Sara Mueller notes that “prior to the late sixteenth century, elaborate banquets . . . were prepared by professional male chefs for royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical households. However, beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, cookery books featuring banqueting receipts began to be published on a large scale” (107).
Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe collection was not published; rather, like other early modern receipt books, it was a highly personal and eclectic assortment of instructions for things as diverse as making laudanum, concocting a powder to aid in miscarriage, and stewing a lamb’s head.
But like those banqueting recipes in the published cookbooks, the inclusion of this recipe points to a common theme in early modern aesthetics: the interplay of art and nature. In this case, that intimate connection is implicit in the cooking process: like other fields of artistry, raw materials are transformed by skill, by techne. Mueller provides an extraordinary example of this preoccupation with culinary transformation that highlights the maker’s artistry:
After giving a detailed receipt for cooking a peacock that will look even more striking dead than it did alive—a feat achieved by carefully killing the bird, removing the ﬂesh from the still-feathered skin, roasting the ﬂesh, and then sewing the cooked ﬂesh back into the raw skin—the English translation of Giovanne de Rosselli’s receipt book, Epulario, or The Italian Banquet, published in England in 1598, gives instructions on how to make the dish even more spectacular: ‘If you will have the Peacoke cast ﬁre at the mouth, take an ounce of Camphora wrapped about with Cotton, and put it on the Peacockes bill with a little Aquanity, or very strong wine, and when you will send it to the table, set ﬁre to the Cotton, and he will cast ore a good while after. And to make a greater shew, when the Peacoke is rested, you may gild it with leafe gold, and put the skin upon the same gold, which may be spiced very sweet.'(106)
Lady Fanshawe’s homey little hedgehog pudding was not intended to compete with the grandeur of the transformed (and reformed) peacock described here, but as disparate as they are, the two dishes share an emphasis on transfiguration and display.
As for our little hedgehog pudding, the kids and I agreed that we would leave out the ambergris. None of us wanted to hunt down a source for expensive whale vomit, which in any case is for the best. I’ve since learned that it’s illegal to possess ambergris in the United States. I bought some rosewater at a local Lebanese restaurant/store, and I cooked up the curds and whey while the kids were at school. Our final creation was a bit squat, a bit formless, but identifiable as a hedgehog. It tasted sweet, the rosewater a faint scent that I imagine would have been overdone by the distinctive, earthy ambergris. Overall, it was a conditional success… It worked, but I wouldn’t do it again.
I do not think we’ll be attempting the gold-leafed, fire-breathing peacock for Thanksgiving. Turkey will do, thank you very much.
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.
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.’ 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:
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.’
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.
 Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
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.
 London, British Library MS Royal 17.A.VIII, f. 63v.