Oral Testimony and Remedies Over Time

By Alun Withey

When studying the history of recipes, the longevity of certain remedies, ingredients or substances in healing is often striking. In terms of the early modern period, it is often remarked how far back certain remedies into ancient Greek or Latin texts; in many cases, how far forward they survived is also noteworthy – often long after the rise of (modern) biomedicine.

One of the ways through which we can track this process is through surviving examples in oral testimonies. While early twentieth-century antiquarian obsessions with all things weird and grotesque might not fit with modern academic approaches, the records they collected from oral testimonies, especially from people in rural areas, are often fascinating. Indeed, in many ways, these records are often the only remnants of medical traditions now past and, even more interestingly, the fact that they can be traced back through family generations tells us something about transmission.

An interesting survey was taken in the 1970s of herbal remedies still in use in rural Wales, which had some evidence of long-term family use. In many cases, recipes and ingredients they provided can be readily found in early modern collections. In the early modern period, it was common to use snails as ingredients in recipes to treat eye conditions. Typically, they might be impaled on a pin, with the juice allowed to drop into the afflicted eye. In the 70s, interviewees remembered similar recipes used in their families, including one involving skinning 12 black snails, putting sugar on them and leaving them overnight, before eating the gooey remains the next day!

Another enduring ophthalmic remedy was the ‘snakestone’ or ‘adder stone’ – essentially a polished river stone resembling a snake’s eye. Directions for use of the snakestone can commonly be found in Medieval and early modern texts and, when the survey was taken, reports were included for glain nadredd – in English, ‘adder beads’.

The example shown here was found in the foundations of an old Carmarthenshire house i 1836, and can be seen in the Carmarthenshire County Museum: – http://www.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/english/education/museums/carmarthenshirecountymuseum/pages/home.aspx

An 'Adder stone' found in the foundations of a Carmarthenshire house in 1836

It was reportedly common to use the herb rue in preparations for children suffering from worms. Similar remedies occur in several Welsh collections of the 17th century. Lungwort and eyebright were still in evidence in the 1970s for respiratory and ocular conditions, respectively, and can be traced well back almost into antiquity. Human urine was another common ingredient in the seventeenth century in a variety of remedies and, in living memory, has still been noted as having cosmetic value and also in the treatment of ear conditions. Perhaps most interestingly, in a journal article of 1906, it was reported that a Montgomeryshire woman who injured herself with a scythe went back to the scythe for seven days after and repeated an incantation over it. This bears extraordinary similarity to the so-called ‘weapon salve’ noted by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century, whereby the idea was to treat the instrument that had injured somebody, rather than the wound itself.

Image used with permission of the Wellcome Trust/Wellcome Images

It is also interesting to note some echoes of older practices involving modern substances. For example, inhalants were a common facet of early modern recipes, such as boiling herbs and drawing in the steam or even, in one remedy, inhaling the vapour of Mercury as a cure for worms in the teeth. The modern practice of putting Olbas Oil or Friar’s Balsam into boiling water is little different.

In many respects then, it is worth remembering the longevity both of remedies and medical practices. While manuscript collections give us evidence of usage, of remedy networks and contributors, oral testimonies often yield more direct evidence of the transmission of remedies from generation to generation. They also speak of people’s continuing belief in the power of old remedies, even in the face of modern, scientific, alternatives.

(For a fuller discussion of this survey see Anne E. Jones, “Folk Medicine in Living Memory in Wales”, Folklife, 18 (1980), pp. 58-68)

See Lisa Smith’s blog post about cure-all medicines here:http://recipes.hypotheses.org/800

Also, for a different version of this post, see my blog article at:  http://dralun.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/weird-remedies-and-the-problem-of-folklore/

Pilau, eighteenth-century style

To follow Katherine Allen’s post on tobacco: some thoughts on a different colonial import. Researching in recipe books often presents tempting diversions, and this recipe for ‘Pilau after the East Indian manner’ looks pretty tasty.

Sarah Tully [and others], Book of receipts for Cookery and Pastry, eighteenth century. Wellcome Library MS 8687. Image credit: Wellcome Library (author’s own photo).
Boil half a pound of Butter to a pound of Rice & when the Butter is turn’d to Oil put in some Mace Cloves whole pepper & cinnamon together with the Rice and stir it about & let it fry till the Butter is almost dryd & soak’d away, Let a Fowl at the same time be boiling in Mutton Broth till it be enough & then pour as much Broth upon the Rice as will cover it about three Inches & let that boil away without stirring, only raising it now & then from the bottom for fear of its being burnt, then add by degrees a little & little more Broth until the Rice is boiled           th[r]ough and quite Dry, then Dish it, putting the Fowl in the Dish first & pouring the Rice over it with some Salt according to your Taste.

The recipe comes from Sarah Tully’s recipe book which she probably began when she married Sir Richard Hoare, heir to Hoare’s bank and, by 1745, Lord Mayor of London. A portrait of Sarah Tully in the National Trust collection depicts her amid rural scenery, dressed as a shepherdess. Unfortunately, Sarah died only four years after her marriage. She left one son, and other anonymous hands continued her recipe collection.

We have seen in recent posts about chocolate and gingerbread that spices such as cinnamon and cloves were common ingredients in the early modern household, but the Hoare household seemed to have been uncommonly fond of foreign flavours for their time. Recipes include ‘A Loyn of Mutton Kebob’d’, ‘currie powder’ and ‘Indian pickle’, in addition to cosmopolitan European recipes for ‘Parmason cheese’ and ‘Fromage Fondu’. Hoare’s Bank held investments in the South Sea Company, Royal African Company and East India Company. While other investors including Isaac Newton lost a great deal of money when the South Sea bubble burst in 1720, perhaps the fact that Hoare’s Bank made a substantial profit from ‘riding the bubble’, contributed to their culinary as well as financial enthusiasm for the exotic.

Several printed books from the late seventeenth century mention pilau (other spellings include pellow and peelaw). In the 1690s, Simon de La Loubere’s  A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam explained that ‘the Levantines, or Eastern People, do sometimes boil Rice with Flesh and Pepper, and then put some Saffron thereunto, and this Dish they call Pilau’ while Antoine Galland described ‘a great Dish of pilau’, made of rice, and dressed with butter, fat or gravy.

Other writers were less than complimentary; according to Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s Collections of travels through Turky into Persia (1684) the Turks’ use of three pounds of butter to six of rice (the same ratio as in Sarah Tully’s recipe), made the dish ‘so extraordinary fat, that it disgusts, and is nauseous to those who are not accustom’d thereto, and accordingly would rather have the Rice itself simply boyl’d with Water and Salt’. In 1709, William King dismissed Peter Heylin’s suggestion that the inspiration for European silver forks had originally come from China, scoffing that ‘These sticks are of no use but for their sort of meat, which being Pilau, is all boil’d to Rags’.

It is likely that the pilau recipe in Sarah Tully’s book dates from the middle of the eighteenth century; Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contained what seems to have been the first published curry recipe in England as well as a very similar recipe to Tully’s for ‘a pellow the Indian way’–though in Glasse’s recipe the fowl is also accompanied by bacon, half a dozen hard eggs and a dozen onions ‘fried whole and very brown’. By the nineteenth century, ‘curry’ was commonplace in English households – even if the pre-mixed powder commonly used bore little relation to its ‘authentic’ Indian roots.

Dating recipes is one thing, but understanding their meaning in households is another. In Nabobs (2010), Tillman W. Nechtman argues that hookah pipes, turbans and curry powder exposed Britain as ‘an irretrievably imperial nation’, but, as Troy Bickham has commented, it is difficult to find evidence of how items such as recipes were used in practice. This early pilau recipe copied into a private book suggests that recipe collections might be a good source for understanding the changing ways in which the empire was incorporated into the daily routines of British homes.

I’ll admit, I’m still tempted to make this pilau, though maybe I will leave out some of the butter.