“Astonishable composed posset”: Comestible, Curative, and Poison

By Bethan Davies

We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.

A receipt ‘Mrs Fanshaw of Jenkins, her receipt to make a sack posset. the best that is,’ from the receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707). Image © Wellcome Library, London, MS.7113, p.320.

Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.

Posset pot, with a spout for drinking the syrupy liquid (c.1650-1655). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’.  Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments.  Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9),[1] ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).

Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.

However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.

We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5).  The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.

Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.


‘Dwale’: A Medieval Sleeping Drug in a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

Elizabeth K. Hunter

As part of my research into early modern sleep disorders, I have been examining the wide variety of sleep remedies available in England at the time.  Browsing through the manuscript receipt collections at the Wellcome Library in London, I came across one with this unsettling title:

To make a drinke to cause a man to sleepe till hee bee ript

Take 3 spoonfull of the gall of a barrow swine and for a woman of a gelt swine and 3 spoonefull of hemlocke the iuyce and 3 spoonefull of henbane and 3 spoonefull of the wilde nep [bryony] and 3 spoonefull of lettice and 3 spoonefull of popy and 3 spoonefull of eysell [vinegar] and medle them all together and boyle them a little and cloe them in a glasse well stoped and put therein 3 spoonefull to a pottle [half a gallon] of good wine and medle it well together till it bee used and lett him that shalbe cut sitt against a good fire and make him to drinke thereof untill hee bee asleepe and then mayst thou surely carve him and when thou sure hast donne thy cure and wouldest haue him to awake take vinegar and salt and wash his temples therewith and his wound and hee shall awake imeadiately. [Wellcome MS 373, fo. 99r-v]

Figure 1. A patient about to undergo a surgical operation, early 1700s. A man approaches with a cup containing a fortifying or anaesthetic drink. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Rather different from the milk thistle possets and linen-wrapped compresses of rose water and poppy seeds I was used to, this was clearly not a remedy for sleeplessness, but a powerful drug intended to ‘knock’ a patient out who was about to undergo surgery.  It was written down by a woman called Jane Jackson in a book of recipes for physic and surgery she compiled in 1642.

Although the name of the drug does not appear anywhere in the source, upon further investigation I discovered that this is dwale, a recipe that had been in circulation in England since the twelfth century.  The Middle English word dwale (pronounced dwahluh), is derived from Old Norse dwol, dvalar, dvali meaning ‘sleep’ or trance’.  Well known in the medieval period, it is mentioned in famous works of literature, such as The Canterbury Tales and the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman.

Dwale was still known about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as can be seen from publications from the time.  Thomas Lupton included it in his book of secrets A Thousand Notable Things (1579) – ‘This I had also out of an olde wrytten booke’, he wrote.[1]  More suggestive of use in actual practice is Thomas Bonham’s inclusion of it in his collection of recipes for surgeons, published in 1630, where the ingredients are in Latin.[2]  It is likely that Jane Jackson copied it down from a similar publication.

Figure 2. Illustration of four poisonous plants – (clockwise from top left) hemlock, henbane, autumn crocus and wild lettuce. All except crocus were ingredients in English sleep medicine. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

What is striking about dwale is the potentially deadly mixture of poisonous plants with gall and wine.  It is based on ingredients associated with sleep since ancient times – henbane, wild lettuce and the white opium poppy.[3]  The anaesthetist Anthony J. Carter has hypothesised that, at one point, it may also have contained another ‘sleepy’ herb, mandrake.  At some point Bryony, a plant native to England that bears some resemblance to mandrake, has been substituted.[4]


While wild lettuce and white poppy were sometimes included in bed-time drinks and possets, henbane and mandrake were considered highly dangerous, and it is very rare to find a sleep recipe that recommends using them in anything other than topical medicine.  Jackson’s version of the recipe also contains the poison hemlock, and Linda Voigts and Robert Hudson found a number of fifteenth-century recipes for dwale that included the even more lethal plant morel (deadly nightshade).[5]  All these plants were considered useful in sleep medicine because they were believed to cool the humours, reducing the temperature in the brain.  Used excessively, however, they could be too effective, causing the body to fall into a lethargy from which the patient would never recover.

The inclusion of dwale in seventeenth-century sources demonstrates the continuity between medieval and early modern sleep medicine, and provides further evidence of the use of poisons in surgical anaesthetics around the world.  We will never know whether Jane Jackson ever attempted to use it to help a patient undergoing surgery, but her interest in copying it down is an indication of the ambitious nature of domestic medicine in relation to surgery (as has been written about by Seth LeJacq).  It is also further evidence of the importance of knowledge of handling poisons in early modern medicine, as discussed on this blog (here and here).  This was particularly important in sleep medicine, in which the ‘coldness’ of the traditional ingredients could be fatal.


If you would like to read more about the use of poisons in early modern sleep medicine, see my article “To Cause Sleepe Safe and Shure”  published in Social History of Medicine.


This research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Midnight Vapours: Sleep Disorders in Early Modern England, 1550-1700” [Grant No. 109069/Z/15/Z]

[1] Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things, of Sundry Sortes (London, 1579), p. 79.

[2] Thomas Bonham, A Chyrugians Closet (London, 1630), pp. 244-245.

[3] Ioanna A. Ramoutsaki, Helen Askitopoulou, Eleni Konsolaki, ‘Pain Relief and Sedation in Roman and Byzantine Texts: Mandragoras Officinarum, Hyoscyamos Niger and Atropa Belladona,’ International Congress Series: The History of Anesthesia, 1242 (2002), 43-50.

[4] Anthony J. Carter, ‘Dwale: An Anaesthetic from Old England,’ British Medical Journal, 319 (1999), 1623-1626, at p. 1624.

[5] Linda E. Voigts and Robert P. Hudson, ‘A Drynke Ϸat Men Callen Dwale to Make a Man to Slepe Whyle Men Keerven Hem: A Surgical Anesthetic from Late Medieval England,’ in Sheila Campbell and David Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), pp. 34-56.

Pain, poison, and surgery in fourteenth-century China

Yi-Li Wu

It’s hard to set a compound fracture when the patient is in so much pain that he won’t let you touch him. For such situations, the Chinese doctor Wei Yilin (1277-1347) recommended giving the patient a dose of “numbing medicine” (ma yao).  This would make him “fall into a stupor,” after which the doctor could carry out the needed surgical procedures: “using a knife to cut open [flesh], or using scissors to cut away the sharp ends of bone.” Numbing medicine was also useful when extracting arrowheads from bones, Wei said, enabling the practitioner to “use iron tongs to pull it out, or use an auger to bore open [the bone] and thus extract it.” More generally, Wei recommended using numbing medicines for all fractures and dislocation, for it would allow the doctor to manipulate the patient’s body at will.

Wei’s preferred numbing medicine was “Wild Aconite Powder” (cao wu san), and he detailed the recipe in his influential compendium, Efficacious Formulas of a Hereditary Medical Family (Shiyi dexiao fang), completed in 1337 and printed by the Imperial Medical Academy of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). In his preface, Wei affirmed that medical formulas were the foundation of medicine and that a doctor’s ability to cure depended on his ability to use these tools skillfully. Wei’s family had practiced medicine for five generations, and he synthesized their knowledge with that of other doctors to produce a comprehensive treatise encompassing internal medicine; the diseases of women and children; eye diseases; illnesses of the mouth, teeth, and throat; ulcers and swellings; and diseases caused by invasions of “wind” (ailments with sudden onset, including febrile epidemics and paralytic strokes). Numbing medicine appeared in Wei’s chapters on bone setting and weapon wounds.

Wei’s Wild Aconite Powder is the earliest datable recipe that I have found for surgical anesthesia in a Chinese text, and it is a valuable window onto practices that were largely transmitted orally, whether in medical families or from master to disciple.  Dynastic histories relate that the legendary doctor Hua Tuo (110-207) employed a formula called mafeisan  to render his patients insensible prior to cutting them, even opening up their abdomens to excise rotting flesh and noxious accumulations. Some scholars have hypothesized that mafeisan (literally “hemp-boil-powder) may have contained morphine or cannabis (ma), but its ingredients remain a mystery.  A text attributed to the twelfth-century physician Dou Cai (ca. 1146) recommended using a mixture of powdered cannabis and datura flowers (shan qie zi, also called man tuo luo hua) to put patients to sleep prior to moxibustion treatments, which in this text could involve a hundred or more cones of burning mugwort placed directly on the patient’s skin.  Wei Yilin’s recipe provides important additional textual evidence for a tradition of anesthetic formulas based on toxic plants, one that was clearly in circulation long before he wrote it down.

At least as far back as the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica (3rd c.), medical authors had described aconite as highly toxic (for contemporary Roman views of aconite, see blogpost by Molly Jones-Lewis). In the right hands, however, aconite was a powerful drug, and part of the Chinese practice of using poisons to cure (see blogpost by Yan Liu).  Warm and acrid, aconite could drive out pathogenic wind and cold from the body, break up stagnant accumulations, and invigorate the body’s vitalities. In the language of Chinese yin-yang cosmology, it nourished yang—all that was active, heating, external, and ascending. The main aconite root was considered more toxic than the subsidiary roots (designated by the separate name fu zi, “appended offspring”), and the wild form was more potent than the cultivated variety.

Images of toxic medicinal plants from China’s most celebrated pharmacological work, Li Shizhen (1518-93), Compendium of Materia Medica (author’s preface dated 1590). Woodblock edition of 1603. Wild aconite is the middle image in the top row. Cultivated aconite (main and subsidiary roots) are in the bottom right corner. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.
Images of toxic medicinal plants from China’s most celebrated pharmacological work, Li Shizhen (1518-93), Compendium of Materia Medica (author’s preface dated 1590). Woodblock edition of 1603. Wild aconite is the middle image in the top row. Cultivated aconite (main and subsidiary roots) are in the bottom right corner. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.

Wei’s numbing recipe consisted of 13 plant ingredients, including the main roots of both wild and cultivated (Sichuanese) aconite, along with drugs known as good for treating wounds:

Young fruit of the honey locust (zhu yao zao jiao)
Momordica seeds (mu bie zi)
Tripterygium (zi jin pi)
Dahurian angelica (bai zhi)
Pinellia (ban xia)
Lindera (wu yao)
Sichuanese lovage (chuan xiong)
Aralia (tu dang gui)
Sichuanese aconite (chuan wu)
Five taels each[1]

Star anise (bo shang hui xiang)
“Sit-grasp” plant (zuo ru), simmered in wine until hot
Wild aconite (cao wu)
Two taels each

Costus (mu xiang), three mace

Combine the above ingredients. Without pre-roasting, make into a powder. In all cases of crushed or broken or dislocated bones, use two mace, mixed into high quality red liquor.

Wei most likely learned this formula from his great-uncle Zimei, a specialist in bonesetting and wounds. Its local origins are also suggested by its use of zuo ru, literally “sit-grasp”, a toxic plant whose botanical identity is unclear. However, according to the eighteenth-century Gazetteer of Jiangxi (Jiangxi tong zhi), sit-grasp was native to Jiangxi, Wei’s home province, and was used by indigenes to treat injuries from blows and falls.  While classical pharmacology focused on the curative effects of aconite, Wei’s anesthetic relied on aconite’s ability to stupefy and numb, while curbing its ability to kill. If an initial dose failed to make the patient go under, Wei said, the doctor could carefully administer additional doses of wild aconite, sit-grasp herb and the datura flower.

Additional images of toxic medicinal plants from Li Shizhen, Compendium of Materia Medica. Sit-grasp herb is in the middle of the top row, and datura flower in the middle of the bottom. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.
Additional images of toxic medicinal plants from Li Shizhen, Compendium of Materia Medica. Sit-grasp herb is in the middle of the top row, and datura flower in the middle of the bottom. Image credit: National Library of China. Posted on-line at the World Digital Library.

In subsequent centuries, as medical texts proliferated, we find additional examples of numbing medicines that employed aconite, datura, and other toxic plants, employed when setting bones and draining abscesses, and to numb injured flesh before repairing tears and lacerations to ears, noses, lips, and scrotums.  Such manual and surgical therapies are an integral part of the history of healing in China.

Yi-Li Wu is a Center Associate of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (US) and an affiliated researcher of EASTmedicine, University of Westminster, London (UK).  She earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and was previously a history professor at Albion College (USA) for 13 years.  Her publications include Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor, and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press, 2010) and articles on medical illustration, forensic medicine, and Chinese views of Western anatomical science.  She is currently completing a book on the history of wound medicine in China.

This research was funded by the Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Beyond Tradition: Ways of Knowing and Styles of Practice in East Asian Medicines, 1000 to the present” (097918/Z/11/Z). I am also grateful to Lorraine Wilcox for directing me to the work of Dou Cai.


[1] The weight of the tael (Ch. liang) has varied over time, but during Wei’s lifetime would have been equivalent to 40 grams.  A mace (Ch. qian) is one-tenth of a tael.

Anecdotes and Antidotes

By Alisha Rankin

How did early modern individuals test and try their recipes and cures? This question is at the heart of the special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in which I participated as both a co-editor and an author. My article, “On Anecdote and Antidotes: Poison Trials in Early Modern Europe,” examines the ways in which early modern practitioners tested a specific kind of cure: antidotes to poison. It contains some information I discussed in earlier posts on this blog – here and here – but adds many details and thoughts about testing in general. Most cures, I argue, tended to be tested in the course of regular clinical experience. A patient got sick; a practitioner tried a particular remedy, observed the results, and frequently shared anecdotes of success or failure. The scale of this kind of testing could be small or large, but in most cases it involved patients who were already sick.

Poison antidotes were a little different, because practitioners could actually create the condition of illness by giving poison to a test subject. In 1563, for example, the royal surgeon to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, Claudius Richardus, wrote a letter describing the marvellous virtues of bezoar stone. As avid Harry Potter readers will know, bezoar was an animal byproduct prized as a poison antidote and cure-all. Richardus recounted a series of marvellously successful tests he had conducted on bezoar at the Emperor’s behest. In two of them, patients received bezoar in the midst of a serious illness – the usual practice. In the other two, bezoar was tested in contrived trials on condemned criminals.[1]

Bezoar stones from the imperial Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Photo by Alisha Rankin.

This second kind of test – which I call a poison trial – has a long history dating back to antiquity. Many ancient kings, most famously Mithridates VI of Pontos (135-63 BCE), used condemned criminals to test poison antidotes, from which he developed his famous antidote and cure-all, mithridatium. The Greco-Roman physician Galen reportedly tested theriac, a derivative of mithridatium, on roosters, and versions of this test appeared in the writings of several Arabic physicians, including Avicenna’s highly influential Canon of Medicine.[2] Medieval physicians repeated the description of Galen’s test as well. However, poison trials tended to be described as theoretical tests that one could conduct rather than as anecdotes about tests that had actually taken place, and they were mainly suggested as a means to test whether a batch of theriac was inferior, fraudulent, or old – not whether theriac actually worked. From the time of Galen, moreover, poison trials were conducted exclusively on animals, not humans. The dominant argument for the efficacy of these drugs remained anecdotal reports of their use on sick patients.

In the Renaissance, poison trials expanded significantly, as did their role in medical communication. From the 1520s, powerful rulers began to revive the gruesome tradition of using condemned criminals to test a variety of poison antidotes – not just theriac. In addition, these tests were reported and circulated as anecdotes rather than being described as theoretical suggestions. The first known example comes from Rome in August 1524, when Pope Clement VII directed his medical personnel to test an antidote oil created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. He granted the medics two Corsican criminals who had been condemned to death by beheading. Both prisoners were given a strong dose of the deadly herb wolfsbane (aconitum napellus). Caravita then anointed one prisoner with the oil. The other, a “savage spirit,” was given no antidote. The first man survived; the other died in much agony.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

A second successful test was conducted on a Mantuan prisoner given arsenic. Soon thereafter, the medical personnel published a public service pamphlet describing these trials in detail.[3]

A shorter version of this anecdote also appeared in the famous herbal published by Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544 (with a Latin version in 1554). Mattioli’s influence helped spread poison trials around Europe. From 1561-67, a number of contrived trials on condemned criminals took place under powerful princes, including Emperor Ferdinand I, King Charles IX of France, and Duke Cosimo II de’Medici. Significantly, royal physicians and surgeons spearheaded these poison trials, and they communicated the results in anecdotes that appeared both in private documents and printed books. Claudius Richardus’s bezoar trials were part of a series of such events.

These anecdotes demonstrated careful thought in how the trials were devised and conducted. They described the trials in in excruciating detail, including the number of times a prisoner had vomited and defecated as well as the hour at which these events had occurred. In some cases, physicians attempted to created conditions that would lead to a useful outcome. Richardus’s letter described how food was withheld from a prisoner before the test, “so that one could be more certain of the trial.” This step came in response to a previous case in which the physicians had trouble getting the poison to work. Finally, physicians took care in reporting and circulating their reports about the trials, clearly imbuing them with significance. A series of poison trials on dogs conducted in 1580 by a German prince circulated in both manuscript and print as a detailed Observatio, a report intended to be shared.

Poison trials represented only a miniscule part of drug testing in early modern Europe. Indeed, anecdotes about drugs used successfully on sick people helped drive the interest in new drugs from around the globe, as described in this post by R.A. Kashanipour. Nevertheless, the anecdotes about antidotes demonstrated significant developments in both testing practices and medical communication. To find out more, read my article!


[1] Richardus’s letter, to Archbishop Nicholas Olahus, was later published in Latin and German. Thomas Jordan, Pestis phaenomena (Frankfurt, 1576), 621–630; Johann Wittich, Bericht von der wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (Leipzig, 1592), 21.

[2] Galen’s poison trial appeared in the treatise On Theriac to Piso, which may be spurious. However, scholars in the Islamic world and Europe assumed it was authentic. See Robert Leigh, On Theriac to Piso, Attributed to Galen: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[3] The pamphlet was signed by the physician Paolo Giovio, the apothecary Tomasso Bigliotti, and the senator Pietro Borghese. Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524).