‘The Best That Ever I Had’: Gifting a Medical Recipe in Early Modern Yorkshire

By Emma Marshall

On 4th September 1700, the elderly gentlewoman Alice Thornton sat down to write to Lady Henrietta Maria Yarburgh. Both women lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Thornton opened her letter by saying that she was ‘soe a great a stranger to your Person’, suggesting that she had never met Lady Yarburgh. [1] She was also of a lower social status and addressed her deferentially, repeatedly ‘begging your Ladyship’s pardon’ for having ‘committed a great piece of Rudeness to be soe free with a person of your quality’.

Image credit: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15)

What did Thornton have to say to this ‘stranger’? She explained that she had heard from friends and servants that Lady Yarburgh’s husband was suffering from ‘Paraleticks and Convolutions’. Thornton’s own deceased husband, William, had experienced similar ‘fits’ and she wanted to recommend a recipe for a ‘glister’, or suppository, which she had received from ‘the ablest Physsions’ and described as ‘the best that ever I had to preserve the life of my dere husband’. Thornton included this recipe as a separate insert so ‘that it may be more convenient to Read’, perhaps imagining that Lady Yarburgh would paste it into a book or circulate it among her own acquaintances, both common practices. Thornton also asked Lady Yarburgh to ‘do me the favoure to send me the Paper of Receipts backe againe for I am now very Aged; & cannot see to write the same and have great occasions for it’. These notes on the materiality of medical recipes shed light on their circulation, use and reuse. As proof that the glister was popular and effective on a wide scale, Thornton described using it to ‘cure many more in the same distemper’ as her husband, and clearly copying the recipe out on a regular basis was physically strenuous. However, hinting at its status as a treasured possession also emphasised her respect for Lady Yarburgh and encouraged trust between the two women. Unfortunately, the recipe has been separated from the letter and lost, perhaps suggesting that Lady Yarburgh did indeed return it to Thornton, or pass it on to friends. 

Aware that she was unknown to Lady Yarburgh, Thornton used the recipe’s accompanying letter to recommend her own expertise and character. She did so through narrative episodes, recounting her husband’s fits and her responses in detail. For example, William appeared as if he ‘had bin dead & without breathing or mocion or life 2 daies & 2 nights’ during his first attack, which she remedied with the glister. Emphasising the severity of his illness also stressed the efficacy of her recipe. This was reiterated by her account of William’s death, which she blamed on his disregard of her ‘extreame earnest’ pleas for him to ‘take yt order as usuall’. Thornton also expressed her own emotional reaction to William’s illness through conventional feminine behaviour, stating that she ‘cannot but sympathise with Your Ladyship having had so many frights & tears and watching & excessive sorrow in every fitt my dere husband had’. The link between physical gestures and emotion in sickchamber narratives has been explored by Hannah Newton, and in this letter they were used to communicate shared experience and feeling between writer and recipient. [2] Thornton’s desire to gift the recipe to Lady Yarburgh was explained in similarly personal terms: ‘haveing bin my selfe vissited with ye like calamity I am obliged in Charity to assist others […] in distress.’ She also added that God’s blessing on the medicine and ‘Christian patience’ were needed for positive results. Thornton used the letter to perform her identity as a skilled medical practitioner, loving wife and pious Christian, thus approaching Lady Yarburgh as a virtuous and empathetic friend. 

Despite the loss of the recipe itself, the letter sent alongside it shows how written medical instructions interacted with other forms of inter-household paperwork in early modern England, as described by Katherine Allen. Like her famous autobiography, Thornton’s recommended recipe was bound up with personal memory and emotional experience, a topic discussed by Montserrat Cabré amongst others, but it was also socio-politically significant. Thornton was 74 years old in 1700 and had suffered poverty since her husband’s death. In this context, her medical gift was a strategy to cross social boundaries and form an alliance with a potential patroness. As Elaine Leong notes, reciprocity was key to informal medical exchanges and Thornton could expect material, financial or social favours if the recipe was well received. [3] Of course, asserting medical authority to an unknown social superior could disrupt customary power dynamics, which Thornton navigated with care. She emphasised the recipe’s reliability through storytelling, describing her extensive and successful experiences of its use. However, she also had to prove her personal integrity if she was to be trusted by Lady Yarburgh. Thornton consequently used accounts of the remedy to present herself as a humble and compassionate gentlewoman, in line with traditional gender roles. The gifting of recipes was an important token of friendship and knowledge exchange, but it could also be used to construct self-identity and negotiate relationships rooted in social hierarchy, power and obligation.


Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

Gout and the Golden Fleece: Experimentation on Recipes through Chymical Correspondence

Michael Döring’s (d. 1641) gout and arthritis* pains were sometimes so severe that he could not leave his house on foot to visit patients throughout the city of Breslau (a.k.a. Wroclaw). Desperate to find a cure, or at least some respite from his miserable condition, he spent his adult life searching for a recipe that he could use to make a medicine.

Daniel Sennert. Line engraving by S. Furck, 1650.
Fig. 1: Line engraving of Daniel Sennert by S. Furck, 1650. Image from Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Licence.

We know this because Döring was a tireless writer of letters, and a large number of the epistles he exchanged with his brother in law, the Wittenberg professor of medicine Daniel Sennert (1572-1637; see Fig. 1), were saved for posterity and published in the 1666 Lyon edition of Sennert’s complete works (see fig. 2), nearly a quarter century after both Döring and Sennert had died. Sennert is remembered by historians for his experimentalist atomism and his philosophy of generation, but Döring has been largely forgotten, save the occasional mention that he and Sennert were the first to accurately describe the symptoms of scarlet fever.

Nevertheless, over the two decades from which letters have survived, the two physicians candidly discussed a variety of topics, including medical observations, noteworthy case histories, questions about religion and natural philosophy, and even the movements of troops during the Thirty Years’ War. Among such issues, however, the search to find a cure for gout and arthritis was paramount, for Sennert also suffered from a similar affliction, although apparently less so than Döring.

Title page of 'Tomus Quintus' of Sennert's 1666 Opera Omnia
Fig. 2: Title page of ‘Tomus Quintus’ of Sennert’s 1666 complete works, which contained his letters with Döring. Image from Google Books, used under Creative Commons Licence.

Like most academically trained physicians of their day, Sennert and Döring understood pathology and therapy in a Galenic framework; that is, diseases were caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humors, and treatment involved the balancing of these humors through diet, bloodletting, and the administration of purgatives. Even so, Sennert and Döring also promoted the use of new chymical drugs made from minerals and metals, and they believed that diseases could have causes besides the humors. In the case of gout and arthritis, one of the causes lay in the excess consumption of tartar, which they believed was found throughout the vegetable world, but in especially large amounts in wine. The iconoclastic Paracelsus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) had popularized this understanding of tartar in the sixteenth century, but Sennert and Döring were hardly alone among learned physicians who had adopted such ideas.

So, what is one to do with a gouty body riddled with tartar? In short, you have to expel the tartar, and Döring wrote that this could be done by combating the weakness of the “natural faculty,” that is, the body’s ability to rid itself of excrements and disease-causing agents like tartar. The medicines that he and Sennert hoped might accomplish this, which they discussed in letters, most often included gold in their ingredients, and were thought to work against almost all maladies.

Sennert noted in a letter from 1619 that he wanted to synthesize the famous ‘potable gold’ of the Englishman Francis Anthony (1550-1623), but had not yet had success. Döring responded that they ought to attempt to create a similar compound called the “Golden Fleece,” for he had found a recipe for the substance which promised that the drug had freed one Johann Weidner from excruciating gout pains. As Döring put it, “if that Golden Fleece carries away the feebleness of the natural faculties, it would not undeservedly be had for a panacea.”

In short, the recipe and protocol called for the dissolution of twelve sheets of gold leaf in a preparation of May dew over the course of nine months, and in 1621, Döring wrote to Sennert that he and an apothecary had acquired enough gold to begin the synthesis.

In May of 1622 Döring reported to Sennert that the Golden Fleece had apparently failed, for the gold had not gone into solution. Sennert consoled him, writing, “What has happened to you in the production of the Golden Fleece has happened to many others in chymical labors: when you make a trial, what was predicted from most certain things does not succeed.”

What is especially striking about this episode is that the interpretation of and experimentation upon recipes was done collaboratively through the undoubtedly tedious process of sending letters between Breslau and Wittenberg – a 350 km trip. It is similarly notable that physicians – working during a period in which recipes for universal remedies and promises of their effectiveness were ubiquitous – actually tested recipes for the synthesis of medicines, occasionally found them wanting, and reported failures to one another. Such experimentalism and candid communication represent archetypal values and ideals that would later be codified as hallmarks of modern science and medicine.

* Physicians often believed that gout and arthritis were the same disease or at least had the same root cause.

Curing Coughs and the Common Cold in Eighteenth-Century England

By Katherine Allen

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.[1] Buchan observed that, ‘the inhabitants of every climate are liable to catch cold, nor can even the greatest circumspection defend them against its attacks’.[2] 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.’[3]

William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia]
William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia- Credit: US National Library of Medicine]
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).[4]

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.[5] Or, one could try the milk of sow thistle which ‘has the anodyne and antispasmodic properties of opium, without its narcotic effects.’[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

'Recipe for a Cold' Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.
‘Recipe for a Cold’ Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
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’.[9] 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.’[10]

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.[11] 

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.[12] 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’.[13]

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.[14]

'To make Lozenges for a Cough my way' Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.
‘To make Lozenges for a Cough my way’ Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
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!

 


[1] 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.

[2] Buchan., 193.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Serious coughs could be symptomatic of, for example, croup, whooping cough, consumption, or internal bleeding.

[5] John Wesley, Primitive Physick: or, an easy and natural method of curing most diseases [twenty-fourth edition] (London: 1792), 62.

[6] Wesley., 63.

[7] Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), Burney Collection

[8] Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.

[9] Derbyshire CRO D258/38/11/48, loose sheet.

[10] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc d. 637-8, f. 39.

[11] Wellcome, WMS, 3029, f. 38.

[12] Wellcome, WMS 3295, f. 28.

[13] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc es 49. f. 6r.

[14] Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.

The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence

By Katherine Allen

In this post I would like to link several themes that have been explored on this blog recently: recipe exchanges, letters, and the role of emotions. Historians are frequently asked how compilers got their recipes (something that Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche raised in their post on the Countess of Exeter). In other words, we are continually searching for evidence from recipe books that suggests a wider network of information exchange.

In the case of eighteenth-century recipe books, attributions and marginalia can indicate an exchange, though these are often ambiguous. Occasionally longer anecdotes are included, revealing the circumstances of a specific recipe’s inclusion. Rarer still, letters associated with a recipe book can provide significant insight into the compiler’s health history, or domestic duties, as discussed by Elaine Leong in her recent post on Johanna St. John. Some sets of letters that are not associated with a recipe book can still tell us much about the creation and use of recipe books, as well as domestic medical care’s social milieu.

One collection of mid-eighteenth century letters that I am using in my doctoral research belonged to the Cox family, landed gentry based in Herefordshire. The majority of the letters are addressed to the elderly family benefactress, Mrs. Elizabeth Witherstone. Montserrat Cabré recently proposed that exchanging and preserving recipes can be emotionally charged. In the typical recipe collection, emotions and hidden lives are not always transparent, but they do emerge in letters that discuss recipe exchange.

Letters were crucial for keeping up-to-date on the extended family’s wellbeing and life events, and the Cox family kept each other informed about health matters in very intimate detail. Concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s poor health, cousin Alicia Cox wrote ‘let me beg you to take care of your health, kitchen physick as Broaths, and Jellys, are the best medicines at your time of life’.[1] Mrs. Witherstone also occasionally exchanged letters containing recipes. An acquaintance, S. Phillips, thanked Mrs. Witherstone for sending a receipt of ‘Turner’s Cerate’ for her mother’s leg. In exchange, she included a recipe for the Chin Cough, which she had used for her children and was ‘of great service to them’. This remedy was an ointment of spirit of hartshorne and powdered amber, which was to be rubbed on the children’s palms, soles of their feet, and pits of their stomachs for several days, morning and night.[2]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756
Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756

In a follow-up letter, Mrs. Phillips again thanked Mrs. Witherstone for the Cerate recipe, proclaiming that her mother thought ‘it has been of great use to her for thank god she has now little or no pain. She did not put it on just on the place of the wound’.[3]

Mrs. Witherstone’s family also sent her remedies to preserve her health in old age. Upon receiving an account of Mrs. Witherstone’s illness, Alicia Bund [Cox] concluded that the woman’s blood was poor and her frame ‘languid’; restorative medicines would be beneficial. She wrote: ‘I beg you would make trial of, its recommendation is the nurrishment it affords at the same time it never loads the stomach’. Alicia’s recipe for a restorative broth was as follows:

You must get a tin can to hold about a pint & quarter with a cover to it, for it is to be  done by a slow infusion the least boiling spoils it but I will set it down as particularly as I can. Take half a pound of lean Beef cut into small pieces and pick of[f] every bit of skin and fat and put a pint of boiling water to it and let it gently stew it is reduced to a strong broath. Put in 3 or 4 pepper corns but no salt till you drink it and eat with it a bit of  toasted bread and would advice (if it agrees) to make it your Breakfast and supper.[4]

Another relative, Elizabeth Saunders, was also concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s health and recommended an eye drop remedy that she described as ‘trifling but I have known it of use’. Confident of the remedy’s efficacy she concluded ‘I hope your next Letter will bring better News of your Eyes as you have no pain in them I flatter myself the complaint may get of the sooner.’[5]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Exchanging remedies was evidently an important part of the Cox family’s lives and these letters exemplify how the responsibility of family health care extended beyond each household to include the advice and remedies of concerned relatives and friends.

Letters are valuable resources for revealing the exchange process of a recipe’s history and the close relationship that recipe books had with the letter-writing tradition. Within these letters, expressions of authority, sympathy, hope, and desperation bring out the emotionally charged nature of recipes. Letters can provide recipe historians with a more complete picture of approaches to health care among England’s upper sorts, and they are important supporting documents for understanding the place of recipe books in a wider information exchange.


[1] Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone July 5 [no year]’.

[2] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756’.

[3] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone May 25, 1756’.

[4] Ibid., ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone Jan 11, [no year]’.

[5] Ibid., ‘Eliz Saunders to Mrs Witherstone March 27 [no year]’.