Tag Archives: King’s Evil

Locating Traditional Plant Knowledge in Household Recipes: Part 4

By Anne Stobart

This is the last of four posts about my investigation into traditionally used native (folkloric) plants in medicinal seventeenth-century recipes. In the first two posts (here and here) I looked at the most frequently appearing plants and some differences in recipe indications in print and manuscript contexts. In my third post I discussed some less frequent plant ingredients. In this post I want to flag up some factors which might have affected the inclusion of these plants in remedies. The ideas presented here draw on the chapter on the nature of medicinal ingredients in my forthcoming book Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England.[1]

Views of simples versus exotics

Knowledge of native plants in traditional use may have been regarded by some in the seventeenth century as less than worthy, and Rebecca Laroche notes that the word ‘simples’ was removed by John Parkinson in the title of Theatrum Botanicum (previously the ‘Garden of Simples’).[2] Patrick Wallis describes substantial increases in seventeenth-century medicinal imports, showing that the use of ‘exotics’ was widespread. [3] So it might not be so surprising if native plants appeared somewhat less often in medicinal recipes. If knowledge about such plants was passed on orally then perhaps we might not expect to see any of them in medicinal recipes. However, when I looked at the occurrence of forty common native plants in my database of seventeenth-century recipes I found variable numbers. Thus, some native plants that were also known in the scholarly tradition were almost as common as spices, while others, especially acrid plants, were far less common, particularly in the later seventeenth century.

Fewer recipes for external use in the later seventeenth century?

Another factor affecting the likelihood of a native plant appearing in a recipe might have been the changing nature of recipe preparations: from recipes for external use such as plasters and ointments to those for internal use such as drinks. I compared the numbers of internal and external preparations in my database of 6500 recipes. Such an analysis has to be tentative as the dating of recipes is not always accurate. In the first half of the seventeenth century, they split almost evenly: the printed recipes favoured external preparations at 56% of all recipes, a little more than external preparations in the household recipes at 49%. However, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the balance shifted noticeably towards internal preparations in both household and printed recipes. The proportion of external preparations decreased to to nearly 42% in printed books, and less than 38% of recipes in household collections. It is possible that this shift  could have contributed to less frequent inclusion of some native plants.

Figure 1. Elder flower and leaf (Sambucus nigra)
Figure 1. Elder flower and leaf (Sambucus nigra)






Interest in simples

Conversely, some native traditional plants did reappear towards the latter half of the seventeenth century. An example is elder (Sambucus nigra) (Figure 1), a frequently mentioned ingredient in the King’s evil recipes collected by the Boscawen family in Cornwall. Earlier in the century elder was listed in recipes for burns and sores as well as plague and ague remedies. By the later half of the seventeenth century, use was  recommended by friends and lay advisers for the KIng’s evil.[4] Another suggested recipe contained foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) (Figure 2) as a simple:

Figure 2. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Figure 2. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

An Excelent Medicine for the Kings Evill

Take of the flowers of fox gloves and infuse them in Butter soe long in an oven as may be Convenient to sooke out the vertue of the said flowers then take the butter of and anoynt the plate and the thinn Cloth that is to be applyed and soe Contynnue to dresse it by Anoynting the Cloth as is usuall in a Scald. [5]

Interest in simples was also promoted by Helmontian physicians, and the powers of purified remedies provided strong advertising claims by commercial remedy sellers.[6]


Understanding the knowledge and use of traditional native plants in seventeenth-century medicinal recipes is not straightforward. Many of these plants were included in external preparations which were declining in the seventeenth century. Yet, towards the early eighteenth century some native plants were reappearing in favour both in recipes and as simples.

[1] Anne Stobart, Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[2] Rebecca Laroche, Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550-1650 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), p.151.

[3] Patrick Wallis, ‘Exotic Drugs and English Medicine: England’s Drug Trade, c. 1550–c. 1800’. Social History of Medicine 25, no. 1 (2012): 20–46.

[4] Anne Stobart, ‘”Lett Her Refrain from All Hott Spices”: Medicinal Recipes and Advice in the Treatment of the King’s Evil in Seventeenth-Century South-West England’. In Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800, edited by Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell, 203-24. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

[5] Fortescue of Castle Hill papers, 1262M/FC/7. Exeter: Devon Heritage Centre, item 18.

[6] David B. Haycock, ‘A Thing Ridiculous’? Chemical Medicines and the Prolongation of Human Life in Seventeenth-Century England (London: London School of Economics, 2006), p. 23.

A ‘Not-Recipe’: An Expression of Frustration in Medical Matters

By Anne Stobart

When is a recipe not a recipe? In my experience in research in the history of medicine, a recipe is part of a readily recognizable genre – each one includes elements such as a set of ingredients, instructions, indications and other information which can be collected, shaped and re-issued with, or without, a known author. Probably there are better definitions. But what about medicinal recipes which have not quite made it in terms of recognizable status for use or to show to others? Occasionally, along comes a recipe that started life as a recipe but is no longer a recipe: perhaps we can call it a ‘not-recipe’. One such example can be found in the Fortescue papers at Devon Record Office in south-western England. This item flags up the frustrations felt by one particular individual in her search for therapeutic effectiveness. It reflects another side of the ’emotional life’ of recipes noted in recent posts by Montserrat Cabré and Elaine Leong.

Fig. 1. 'Scrofula' Bramwell, Byrom Atlas of Clinical Medicine v. II, pl. XXXII, p. 5 Edinburgh, Constable, 1893. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Fig. 1. ‘Scrofula’, Byron Bramwell, Atlas of Clinical Medicine v. II, pl. XXXII (Edinburgh, Constable, 1893), 5. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Within the Devon archive there are many medicinal recipes collected by the Boscawen family, particularly Margaret Boscawen (d. 1688) in Cornwall and subsequently her daughter, Bridget Fortescue (1666–1708) in Devon. Both women were married to members of parliament and some correspondence survives to give a picture of family medical matters. Margaret was reputedly ‘much imployed about the sick’ but averse to doctors (1). Bridget suffered lifelong from a condition generally known as the King’s Evil (probably scrofula, a tubercular disease) which caused enlarged and suppurating sores in the neck and head area (Figure 1). While Bridget was still young, Margaret began to collect advice and recipes for the King’s Evil (2).

The recipe for ‘The glister’, apparently in Bridget’s hand, starts off like many other recipes with a list of ingredients but then it rapidly alters in tone, expressing an anguished difference of opinion with her physician(s). The recipe is scrawled on a loose scrap of paper and is undated, it was probably written later in life (see Figures 2a and 2b below). Here is the full text–any errors, my own transcription:

The glister

Figure 2a 'The Glister' Devon Record Office, 200 recipes - mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1688-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8. Courtesy of the Countess of Arran (Fortescue Papers).
Fig. 2a ‘The Glister’, Devon Record Office, 200 recipes – mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1688-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8. Courtesy of the Countess of Arran (Fortescue Papers).

Take of mallowes, pellitory of the wall, violet and mercury leaues of each one handfull of possett drinke one quart boyle these, strain it, Take some what lesse than a pint of it, adde to it, two ounces of browne sugar and two ounces of syrup of violetes and so mert? it warme [‘this is the for Glister for’crossed out] this Glister as it is heare set downe the things that I appoint my selfe but onely the manner and time and measures for my owne good tho the Docters heare thinke it best for mee to beleeue them against my owne sence and fealeing there sight and smell there reason for the know that I complaine of onely of there preprosporous order of things and concluding of my disses ancures according to there own concaites and prescriptions [‘by so’crossed out] unto wch I shuld never yeald, to they granted the thing In generall and to denye the thing In euery perticular that I have any powre to command: for that wch I haue a sence and fealeing and understanding doth mee Good or hurt and yet I must not say so nor desire to haue it don but Answeard onely my delayings and put offs with childish foolish Answears nay wch is worse Answears wch carry in them nothing but falsehoods wch was so very displeasing to God (3).

Much could be said about this not-recipe, which is a vivid demonstration of an individual in conflict with the ‘preposterous’ medical advice about her treatment as she complained about her lack of ‘powre to command’ in medical matters. A recipe that might have revealed a potential for therapeutic determination has become an expression of powerlessness. A key aspect of this not-recipe is that it could never have been included in a collated family recipe book.

Fig. 2b, 'The Glister'
Fig. 2b, ‘The Glister’.

Although the not-recipe started out as a recipe within the accepted genre, it does something other than provide a respectable, therapeutic claim which can be safely aired in public. Rather, this not-recipe revealed private and emotional frustration in medical matters. Perhaps there are more not-recipes: they need attention in our studies of recipe collections, as they help to illuminate beliefs and practice alongside the more visible inclusions in recipe collections.


(1) Devon Record Office, Fortescue 1262M/ FC/1, 54 Boscawen family letters, 1664–1701, ‘Sister Clinton’ to Lady Margaret Boscawen, 28 April 1683.

(2) Stobart, Anne. “‘Lett Her Refrain from All Hott Spices’: Medicinal Recipes and Advice in the Treatment of the King’s Evil in Seventeenth-Century South-West England.” In Reading and Writing Recipes, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming, 2013.)

(3) Devon Record Office, 200 recipes – mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1668-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8, ‘The glister’.