Tag Archives: corlyon


In a recent class session of my graduate seminar, “Thinking Green: Eco-Approaches to Texts,” my students and I transcribed and discussed at length the first recipe that appears in a manuscript book in the Wellcome Medical Library: MS 213, “A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon. Anno Domini 1606.”

Wild daisies

To do this, we worked with the first recipe in the book, “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb or any other soore Eye,” which instructs as follows:

Take one handfull of three leaued grasse that is
most spotted with white: Gather it close to the roote,
as much of wilde Dasye rootes: Stampe them all in a
woodden dishe, and boyle them in one pinte of water, in
a clean brasse skillet with a very soft fyer. When
it is scommed putt in so much Allome as will make the
water tast roughe uppon your tounge. After putt in so
much honny as will make it Looke yeollowe and taste
very sweete. When it hath boyled a pretty while and is
cleane scommed, straine it into a cleane vessell, and
when it is colde poure the clearest into a glasse and
keepe it in a colde place, and it will last three weekes
in Winter and 14. Dayes in the Sommer: The water is to
be applied to the Eyes one hower before they aryse and when
they goe to bedd. If the Eye be very soore dresse it at two of the
clocke in the after noone, and sleepe after it, if they cann.

We then worked together on a (deceptively) simple question: “Who/what seems to have agency in this recipe, and what is the source of authority?” What followed was a 2-1/2 hour collaboration that I would say is at the heart of what I hope recipe transcription can do in our classrooms and central to how I think recipes work.

We began, well, at the beginning. Students turned to the title of the book, a collection of that which had been “experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon.” As such, authority lies in the tried and tested text itself, evidenced too by claims of “probatum” throughout these books. As students pointed out, the user/practitioner was also an authority. To “Gather [the grass] close to the roote” is evidence, that is, of how the woman using this recipe necessarily walked among the plants she gathered, touched them, identified which, in this case, had the white spots and three leaves (and not another grass). She was expected to exercise her discretion, using “so much Allome as will make the water tast roughe uppon [her] tounge” or ascertaining how much honey is just enough to make it “Looke yeollowe” and “taste very sweete.”

As we talked, though, we queried whether the patient him/herself, the treated body, was also a source of authority here. After all, the body receiving the cure, it was hoped, would respond positively to the treatment, whose precise timing was determined, at least in part, by how “soore” the eye was; and the patient’s more willful response played a role in the cure’s efficacy as demonstrated by the directive to “sleepe after it, if they cann.” But what about the potential authority and/or agency of the ingredients themselves, the nonhuman things from which the cure is derived—the grass and daisy roots, the honey, the fire, etc? After all, they contain properties that might be predictable to some extent, but individually and collectively they are arguably not entirely within the control of human manipulation. And we made note that the durability of the product comprised of such ingredients depended on seasonality—it, not surprisingly, lasts one less week during summer than during winter. In this way, do not the seasons dictate terms that the human practitioner cannot entirely mitigate through careful preparation?

What we concluded, and I think it is an important conclusion, is that this recipe illustrates a powerful collaboration of agents—human and nonhuman alike—whose efficacy is determined by multiple sources of authority, all acting together in dance-like fashion, where lines of demarcation between the individual and collective necessarily vanish. Just as importantly, though, we came to these conclusions collaboratively. And that, I would say, gets at the heart of what environmental justice (and ecofeminist) work aims to do and precisely what is, for me at least, what working with these books can teach us. We interrogate and revise together, looking anew at that which we often don’t see or take for granted: the relationship between human and nonhuman comprised, mitigated, and expressed in the most complicated of ways by a multitude of agents, articulated most powerfully in the substratum and the margins. We need to look and listen. And we need to do it together.

**I want to note the outstanding students in my graduate seminar without whose collaboration this post would not exist: Taryn Dollings, Henry Doss, Kailan Smith, and Breane Weber.

Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).

Most of these emotions arise from the awareness of historical difference, the sensation of reaching across time through these documents and sensing the foreignness of the past.

More often, however, are the prosaic moments, when you think, “Oh, well of course they had to worry about THAT, too.” Headaches. Cooking up extra fruit from the harvest. Toothaches.

And pimples. Ah yes, they also had to deal with pimples.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.
Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Corlyon’s A Booke of Diverse Medicines, we find a “A medicine to cure a face that is Redd, and full of Pimples.” It seems unique to me in that similar recipes address redness of the face (perhaps rosacea) or claim to cure pimples or boils, but they are not often treated together. The reason might be the different humoral imbalances thought to cause each: a red face would arise from an excess of blood, while the pus from a pimple or boil would develop from too much phlegm.

Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, however, attempts to treat both at the same time. For curing the redness in the face, she advises, “Take two penny worthe of quicksilver [mercury], putt it in a little glasse add thereto so much fasting Spitle as will serve to kill it, then shake them well together, and the quicksilver when it is killed will looke like duste.”

The concept of “killing” the quicksilver and turning it to dust confused (and intrigued) me. I wonder if perhaps the potassium present in saliva reacts with the mercury to form a precipitate? It might look similar to the reaction in this video “How to Make the Pharoah’s Serpent” around 4:55.


Obviously, the chemicals used in that experiment are purer, but perhaps something similar might have happened in this recipe? (At any rate, and completely off topic, do keep watching the video to see what happens when mercury thiocyanate is ignited—it is one of the coolest and most disturbing things I have ever seen!)

The quicksilver dust is then to be ground with bay oil and made into an ointment used morning and evening for two weeks. The quicksilver, with its cold and dry properties, would balance out the heat and moistness of the excess blood in the skin.

"Cures for red face and pimples." A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon. MS.213 Wellcome Library, London.
“Cures for red face and pimples.” A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon.  MS 213. Wellcome Library, London.

The recipe then tells us that for a week before using the ointment, the person being treated should have been drinking a special brew: 10 gallons of beer to which is added half a pound of madder (a plant often used in dying cloth red, but also valued as a medicinal with hot and dry properties). This was to be drunk in the morning and evening and “at divers times.” The addition of the madder would balance the phlegmatic humor in the body that was causing the pus to form pimples.

Mrs. Corlyon also advises the person being treated “keep close in [their] chamber” as their skin will actually look worse during the treatment, “untill such tyme as the humor be killed that is betwixt the fleshe and the skinn.”

At first glance, this recipe seems ridiculous. Who would smear mercury on their face and stay drunk and locked in their chamber for two weeks in order to get better skin? But then, don’t we still do this with chemical peels and other kinds of non-surgical cosmetic treatments? At least in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, the patient has sufficient beer to drink to lessen the pain.