Precious Secrets – Pearls & Coral in Early Modern Recipes

By Juliet Claxton

Pearls and coral have been worn on the body not only for adornment, but also for the belief in their powerful and mysterious properties as an effective prophylaxis against injury and disease. In literature, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat gave Sir Lancelot a red sleeve of scarlet embroidered with great pearls worn on his helmet during a tournament, while archaeological grave goods reveals that pearl or coral amulets and beads were worn for protection both in this world and the afterlife. Images and portraiture, of children in particular shows coral jewellery was worn in the belief that the stones would protect them in their fragile early years (fig 1). From a lay perspective the use of precious stones was not ‘enchantment’ but stemmed from a belief in a cosmology in which the divine was present in and could work through the natural world. Indeed, only a diminutive gem was needed – rings could incorporate just a tiny shard of material to make them efficacious as no matter how infinitesimal, it was the material’s presence that counted. 

Fig 1: Boy with coral c.1650-1660, © Norfolk Museums

Taken internally the protective and healing power of pearls and coral have been revered for their medicinal properties and they have an extensive history in pharamacology, particularly in traditional Chinese and Far Eastern treatments where they remain in use to this day. In the early modern period European doctors praised them for their efficacious medicinal uses and they were taken either in the form of ground powder or dissolved in acid solutions such as lemon juice. Albertus Magnus, a Dominican scholar born in Germany in the 12th century, wrote that pearls were used in mental diseases, in affections of the heart, haemorrhages and dysentery. The 13th century Lapidario of Alfonso X of Castile, noted:

“the pearl is most excellent in the medicinal art, for it is of great help in palpitation of the heart and for those who are sad or timid and in every sickness which is caused by melancholia because it purifies the blood clears it and removes all its impurities. Powders applied to the eyes because they clear the sight wonderfully, strengthen the nerves and dry up the moisture which enters the eyes.”

Even more miraculous properties were ascribed to pearls by Anselmus de Boot, the physician to Emperor Rudolph II, whose recipe for aqua perlata claimed to be: ‘most excellent for restoring the strength and almost for resuscitating the dead’. The English philosopher Francis Bacon also noted that pearls were used for in recipes for the prolongation of life. 

For the European market, pearls came from India and the Middle East, while coral was fished from the Mediterranean coast around Naples, Capri and Sardinia. As an expensive, imported ingredient pearl and coral were usually sourced from an apothecary’s supplies, where they were dispensed from decorated mayolica or pottery jars (fig 2). Coral, for example, is itemised in the 1571 inventory of the the Southampton apothecary John Brodocke. 

Fig 2: 18th-century apothecary jar, aqua-colored glass container. Marked in alternating red and black paint CORAL ALBI. ©Smithsonian

From the early 16th century pearl and coral appear in many domestic recipe collections, although as a costly element the quantities used are generally quite small. Dorothy Pennyman’s 1698 manuscript (FSL digital image 130614) has a recipe ‘For a Cough. Cousin Wakes it has done great cures’ that included ‘Powder of Red Coral 2 drams’.  The gems often feature in remedies for the most serious maladies when they were frequently credited to a well-known doctor or came with aristocratic provenance. Mr Gaskin’s ‘Cordial powder’ first published in Natura Exenterata (London, 1655), and attributed to the countess of Arundel, instructed: “Take the rags of pearle or seed pearle, of red Corrall, of Crabs Eyes, of Hawthorne, of white Amber, being all severally beaten into fine pouder, and searced through a fine searce.” It purported to prevent small-pox, cure consumption, mitigate against fits and even claimed to cure plague and all other burning fevers. Hannah Wooley’s Accomplished Ladies Delight (London, 1675) contained a recipe called the countess of Kent’s Powder that called for a mixture of “magistery of pearl [pearl dissolved in vinegar], prepared crabs eyes, white amber and hartshorn,” which claimed to be: “Excellent against all Malignant, and Pestilent Diseases, French Pox, Small-Pox, Measles, Plague, Pestilence, Malignant or Scarlet Fevers, and Melancholy; twenty or thirty Grains thereof being exhibited (in a little warm Sack, or Harts-Horn-Jelly) to a Man, and half as much, or twelve Grains to a Child.” As well as featuring in general panaceas pearl and coral also had more specialist uses.  Coral was an important ingredient for toothpaste, and certainly ground calcium carbonate is an effective scouring agent. The countess of Arundel’s own manuscript (Wellcome MS 213/34) includes: “A Medecine to skower the teethe to make them cleane and stronge, and to preserue them from perishyinge beyng vsed two or three tymes a weeke,” which used equal parts of finely beaten coral and amber blended with honey rubbed onto the teeth with a coarse cloth. While the Queen’s Delight (London, 1671) contained a recipe for powdered pearl or mother of pearl mixed with lemon juice that was used as a face wash. Both traditions that continue to the modern day – babies still chew on coral teething rings, while references to pearls remain a consistent feature of expensive face creams and make-up.

Early Modern Comfort Foods

By Amanda E. Herbert

Today we associate “comfort foods” with tradition, indulgence, and familiarity.  These humble but beloved foods have received a lot of recent attention from cooks and culinary specialists – the Guardian food blog even produced a full-page spread of its favourites last month.  But what were the early modern equivalents of comfort foods?  And how did early modern people feel about incorporating new or exotic foods into their diets?

A recipe collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts helps to reveal culinary adaptations made by early modern Britons: this is the Charles Brigham Account Book.[1]  Like many early modern manuscript recipe collections, the Brigham book had multiple author-compilers, and was maintained over a long period of time, for nearly one hundred years (c. 1650-1730).  Although little is known about the provenance of the book, at one point it was “given to Sarah [by her mother] when she moved to Grafton amonst the Indians [in] 1731…so that she could do her own Cooking & [doctoring] as there was no Dr in the county.”  This was probably Sarah Prentice (1716-1792), whose ownership mark appears in the book, and who was married to the Rev. Solomon Prentice (1705-1773), the first minister of Grafton, Massachusetts.

But the Brigham Account Book did not originate in Massachusetts.  Early entries in the book suggest that it was instead created in Britain.  It was first compiled by “Anna Cromwell,” who labeled the text “my booke of receipts December the 23 1650.”  Cromwell included a recipe for “fitts of the mother,” which encouraged readers to purchase ingredients from “Mr. Seamer an appothicary over against Aldermanberry Church [London].”  Another one of Cromwell’s recipes taught how “to make a Lestershiere plover.”  As later author-compilers made their own contributions to the book (it contains six different ownership marks), each added their own familiar, go-to recipes.  Some of these “comfort foods” had Scots influences, such as one “to make Skinke” (soup made from beef shin, traditionally from Scotland), and another “to make a haggesse pudding.”[2]  One or more of the compilers also had access to an extensive library of British gardening, cooking, and natural history texts.  The manuscript contains recipes copied from Digbys Closset and Verulams Nat Hist–and specifically fruit wine and cider recipes from Wordlidge Vinet Brit.[3]  There’s even a recipe for “Damson wine with Raysons, Woolley” which matches, ingredient for ingredient, a recipe in Hannah Woolley’s Queen-Like Closet (London, 1670).

But towards the end of the book, the recipes begin to reflect the influence of trans-Atlantic commerce, travel, and trade.  The recipe “to sauce a turkie like stargion [sturgeon]” suggests that one of authors learned how to cook “new world” breeds of animals, like turkeys, by preparing them in the same familiar, comforting way as fish eaten regularly in Britain.  Later recipes in the book celebrate the new plants and foods that were at colonists’ disposals; one recipe “to cleanse a skurffy skin” instructed practitioners to “bath the place where the scurff is with spirit of nicotiane,” a reference to Nicotiana tabacum, or tobacco.  Another recipe provided directions for making “jockaleta biskits,” or chocolate biscuits.[4]  Lists of accounts at the back of the book note the sums paid by the one of the book’s owners for “2 gallons of Rum of River Town,” as well as “2 galons molasses,” and “5 pnd of tobacco,” all popular colonial commodities.  Marginalia, too, reflect a change in geographical perspective, with authors centering themselves in British America rather than in Britain.  The author of a recipe for “incomparable cosmetick of pearl,” noted that “this is one of the most exelent beautifiers in the world this oil if weel prepared is richly worth seven pound an ounce in England.”

The increasing prevalence of “new world” recipes, as well as these subtle geographical and rhetorical shifts, suggest that the Brigham Account Book made a trans-Atlantic voyage sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably carried by one of its owners as they journeyed to a new life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As people struggled to adapt to colonial environments, familiar recipes and remedies from home could have provided comfort to colonial British Americans. Manuscript recipe books, handed down between family members and friends over generations, surely provided important and lasting senses of connection with loved ones who had been left behind. The Brigham book also reveals the adaptability of these early colonists, and demonstrates how recipe authors used their books to learn about and use the plants, animals, and foodstuffs available to them in their new home.

Thanks to Molly Warsh and James Roberts for their help with this post!

[1] Charles Brigham Account Book, MMS Dept., Folio Vols. “B,” American Antiquarian Society.  Charles Brigham was another early resident of Grafton, MA, and his ownership mark also appears in the book.

[2] For more on haggis recipes and their possible origins, see Chris Hilton’s Recipes Project post on Robert Burns Day here.

[3] Probably references to Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie (London, 1669); Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: or A Naturall Historie (London, 1627); John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider (London, 1678).

[3] In the late seventeenth century, “jacolatta” or “jockelatte” were common terms for chocolate.  For example, Samuel Pepys called the cacao-based drink “Jocolatte” when consuming it at a London coffee-house on 24 November 1664.  For more on early modern chocolate, see Amy Tigner’s Recipes Project posts here.