The Measure of Ingredients in Early Modern Recipes

By Juliet Claxton

Modern cookery books list recipe ingredients that are carefully weighed out using standardized units of measurement. It is precise calibration that allows for a recipe to be replicated with accuracy, even by a novice cook. Early modern recipe collections, however, are often frustratingly reticent about the exact quantities involved – so observation and experience must have been an important part of practical cookery. The expanding demand for texts of culinary and medicinal recipes from the early seventeenth century onwards, however, reveals that measurements, cooking times, and instructions had to become increasingly precise. Cooks and housewives needed the information to reproduce a recipe without prior experience. Knowing the measure of ingredients was a key aptitude, but contemporary inventories show that owning kitchen scales, while recommended, was not habitual until the mid-eighteenth century.[i] How were ingredients measured when the most frequently given instructions were to use ‘a handful’ or ‘a pretty quantity’?

The evidence from one of the earliest volumes of medicinal recipes, 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, dated 1606 and attributed to the countess of Arundel (Wellcome: MS 213), reveals that ingredients were measured using a combination of weight, volume, and sight. To assist and guide in this procedure the recipes turned to both bodily parts and quotidian, domestic objects that were familiar to the early modern householder.

Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Fig. 1. Nicholas Culpeper. Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Naturally a cook’s hands and fingers were the primary gauges.  The recipe for ‘A Medicine for those that have a moist Stomake’ calls for ‘a toste of white Breade of a reasonable thickness and of the breadth of your two fingers’ (MS 213/60). A ‘handful’ or ‘half a handful’ are the volume’s most often cited units of measurement, but hand sizes varied. As Nicholas Culpeper scornfully noted: ‘An Handful is as much as you can gripe in one Hand; and a Pugil as much as you can take up with your Thumb and two Fingers; and how much that is who can tell?'[ii] A need to refine this measurement was often necessary, and the recipe for ‘A Salue to cure every olde Sorre’ calls for ‘3 slyces of yeollowe rustye Bacon the slyces so long and brode as a large hand’ (MS 213/144). In a later printed volume, Natura Extentratealso attributed to the countess of Arundel, the term ‘handful’ was further defined.  Instructions for herbs were marked with the letter ‘M’ indicating a good or large handful, while directions for flowers had the letter ‘P’ to indicate a small handful.[iii] 

Other recipes in A Booke of diuers Medecines turn to kitchen paraphernalia to ascertain accurate quantities. Ladles and spoons appear, but so do objects from the natural world, particularly beans and nuts, which are usually consistent in size. For example, ‘A cure to take away the pynn and webb in the eye’ itemizes ‘fyne white sugar as much as a walnut and a piece of Sanguis Draconis as bigg as a Beane’ (MS 213/12). Sometimes this measurement was even further refined: ‘A Salue for any Soore’ instructs the cook to putt into this salve ‘so much Pitche as a greate wallnut’ (MS 213/144), while another recipe for an ‘olde Sore’ uses ‘a piece of white Copperesse of the quantitye of an Hassell [hazel] Nutt’ (MS 213/151). Even living creatures such as shellfish or birds are regarded as a useful comparable unit. For example, a water for ‘any newe or olde Soores’ uses ‘as much Allome as a crabb’  (MS 213/146), and an ‘Oyntement called Pampilion’ needed ‘a great lappfull’ of Popler leaves ‘before they be opened any bigger than a young cockes combes’ (MS 213/155).

Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection.CC BY
Fig. 2. Apothecary dispensing medicine using scales, from Tacuinum sanitatis. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Standard units of pounds and ounces appear less frequently in the manuscript and are often used for ingredients that were purchased commercially and weighed in store – unlike domestic kitchens, apothecaries usually owned a set of scales. The most expensive ingredients, however, were often cited in pecuniary terms. ‘A Medecine food for those that are apte often to caste through weakeness of the Stomacke’ uses ‘two penny worthe of Saffron’ (MS 213/62).  ‘A Medicine for the Collick and the Stone’ uses ‘a pennyworth of cloves and mace an halfepennye worth of longe pepper, and two pennyworth of Turmarick’ (MS 213/68/70), while another has ‘the weight of eyghte pence in Parmacetye, two pennyworthe of cloues’ and ‘half a crowne of the powder of Mastick’ (MS 213/76).

Many elite women of this period were responsible for large households and often relied upon senior servants, both male and female, to produce food, brew beer, and distil medicines. Providing careful notes that allowed for various units of measurement meant that recipes could prepared despite the absence of the householder.


[i] Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 98.

[ii] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory, (London: 1653).

[iii] Elizabeth Spiller, Seventeenth-century English Recipe Books, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), xxxvi.

Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine

By Katherine Allen

Over the holiday I was working on a transcription of an eighteenth-century recipe book and came across an initially humorous recipe for treating ‘the winde & Collick’ (Wellcome, WMS 3500) which goes as follows:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)

This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

Tobacco Plant. Image Credit:

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a type of herb in the night shade family Solanaceae. It was smoked by indigenous peoples in the Americas as far back as 1000BC, but gained popularity in Europe and in global markets through trade in the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, tobacco was a popular luxury good in England and was increasingly consumed more for pleasure than medicinal treatment.

But how was tobacco used as medicine in the early modern era? Discussing the humoral and astrological qualities of tobacco, Nicholas Culpeper stated in an eighteenth-century version of his herbal that it was a hot and dry herb under the dominion of Mars. Tobacco was useful as an infusion for vomits, rheumatic pain, and piles. As a distilled oil, it was used for aching teeth however, ‘the distilled oil is of a poisonous nature; a drop of it taken inwardly will destroy a cat’. Culpeper also praised tobacco as an expectorant, a digestive aid, and a pesticide for vermin and for preventing plague.[1]

Those who are familiar with recipe collections will have surely come across at least one recipe using tobacco, and the most common recipe seems to have been a tobacco ointment. The Tyrrell Family collection has one such recipe which called for bruised tobacco leaved infused in red wine and then boiled in hog grease along with tobacco juice and beeswax.[2] Tobacco has astringent qualities and acts as a coagulant, and would have been an effective ingredient in salves for treating wounds. Another recipe stated that the tobacco salve ‘is an excellent Mundifier [cleanser] and healer of old sores, and Ulcers, if the sores be first washed with a little good brandy, which ought to be done, till the sores look fresh, which it will do in 3 or 4 dayes if this course be taken.’[3]

Wellcome, WMS 7822, fol. 11r. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

But, when and how did tobacco smoke enemas come into use and how did this treatment come to be in a household book of remedies? The phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse’ means to get a rise or reaction out of someone, sometimes by giving them insincere compliments for attention. This phrase originates from the practice of using smoke enemas to resuscitate near-drowned victims via stimulation and it was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America.[4]

During the eighteenth century, tobacco smoke enemas were used by humane societies across Europe, including the Royal Humane Society in London, to resuscitate victims.[5] Culpeper included the tobacco enema under treatment advice for the inflammation of the intestines induced by colic or hernia and suggested that it ‘is of singular efficacy in obstinate stoppages of the bowels, for destroying those small worms called ascarids [roundworms], and for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.’[6] Physician Richard Mead was a proponent of the tobacco glister, using it to treat iatrogenic drowning caused by immersion therapy for hydrophobia and mania, and later Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.[7] The use of this treatment declined in the early nineteenth century when it was affirmed that the nicotine found in tobacco can stop blood circulation if there is too much in the body, as in the case of an enema.[8] By the mid-nineteenth century the enemas were not used by the medical faculty.

Tobacco Pipe Enema circa 1773. Image Credit:

There is no author associated with the tobacco glister recipe found in MS 3500, but it is likely that this information was communicated to the compiler by a physician. This particular collection is dated 1688-1727 and was owned by a Mrs. Meade (and others), but it does not appear that she was related to Dr. Richard Mead. Several of the recipes are however directly attributed to Dr. Richard Lower for treating the young Nathaniel Meade, one of which is a purge dated the 1st of December, 1688.  There is also one recipe attributed to Dr. Needham on the page before the tobacco glister recipe.

Considering that tobacco enemas were only in vogue from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, it is unusual to find this medical advice in a domestic collection, let alone one dated from the early eighteenth century. As it is improbable that an eighteenth-century household would have had its own tobacco pipe for administering a glister for bowel complaints, I suspect that this recipe is an example of a physician’s remedies being copied into a domestic collection. More importantly, this is an example of how recipe books were continually evolving and being updated alongside innovations in the medical faculty. What started as a chuckle over an amusing recipe has led me to explore the history of this peculiar remedy from its use by the medical faculty to its indigenous origins; giving a whole new meaning for me to the phrase ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’.


[1] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Family Physician; or Medical Herbal Enlarged. Vol. 2 (London, 1782). p. 134.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 7822. Anon [Tyrrell], ‘Collection of Medical and Cookery Receipts, 17thC-18thC’, fol. 11r.

[3] Wellcome, WMS 1796. Anon, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts, c. 1685-c.1725’, fol. 64r.

[4] Raymond Hurt et al., The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery from Early Times (London: Parthenon, 1996). p. 120.

[5] Lawrence Ghislaine, ‘Tools of the Trade, Tobacco Smoke Enemas’ The Lancet vol. 359 issue. 9315 (April 2002): 1442.

[6] Culpeper, p. 281.

[7] Thomas Sydenham, ‘Schedula Monitoria, or an Essay on the Rise of a New Fever’ in Benjamin Rush, The works of Thomas Sydenham, M.D., on acute and chronic diseases: with their histories and modes of cure (Philadelphia: B & T Kite, 1809). p. 383.

[8] Ghislaine, 1442.