Medical recipes in the 18th century

This is part of a paper given at the Roehampton University Postgraduate Conference, 17 June 2010

Medical remedies were often kept in the same book as cookery recipes, usually with the food recipes at the front and the medicine at the back, after turning the book upside down. However sometimes they were mixed up – a remedy for the ague might be right next to recipes for forcemeat balls, calves’ head hash and pickled cucumbers. Some were fair copies, even including an index or alphabetical tabs for the pages, and these were often created as gifts or presentation copies, from a mother-in-law or a patron. Others were random and in many hands, with remedies for various diseases presumably written out as they were collected.

The provenance of the recipes is often recorded, which is useful for the historian, particularly as it indicates that they came not only from members of the family but also the aristocracy, who may or may not have been related. This indicates the use of recipes, both culinary and medical, as a form of social currency. There are also remedies from doctors; again, these may have been friends of the family or local practitioners, or indeed the recipes may have been passed on from someone else.

The fact that a recipe was included in a collection doesn’t at all mean that it was used, rather like the cookery recipes – or in fact cookery books – we collect today. However, sometimes individual recipes are marked ‘probatum’, meaning proved, or in one particular collection ‘dun’, what looks like ‘undun’ – so maybe it didn’t work – and ‘yea’. Letters, diaries and sometimes household accounts also provide evidence of the actual extent of usage of these recipes as the 18th century wore on and the medical environment changed.

In an individual medical recipe book there tends to be a wide range of remedies. You may get a recipe for ‘a pain in the side’ that consists of half a hot loaf of bread spread with treacle and camomile, then held to the area of pain, as well as complicated waters that need to be distilled several times over a number of days. The spelling in this one for orange water is rather amusing:

Oring Water

take 2 gallons of brandy, & the out-ward rines of 3 or 4 dozen of oring’s according as thay are in bigness, put them into your still, with your brandy, & keep the first & 2 runings by them selves, keep your still head very close, & when you find the water begins too come well, quicken your fire to set it of, the next day, take 2 pound of sugar, & 3 quarts of spring water, boyle it quick to a syrup, that it doe not ticken, when its cold, mix it with the oring water to your liking, then clear it throw a brown paper done like a fundish, into your bottles.

You have powders and pills, syrups and salves, like this delightful one for sore breasts:

The Lady Puckrings Salve for sore brests

take of the best oyle, olive, one pound of red lead, put the red lead into the oyle and stir them well together, then set it on the fire & boyle it till it turn black. then dip a little lineing cloth into it & if it stick not to your fingers it is boyled enough, then oyle a bord and power the salve upon it and make it in rouls. in boyling of it you must take it of the fire & let it coole a while, set it on the fire a gaine, when you will use it, you must spread it on a cloth, let your cloth be large to come over the breast, & in the middle of the cloth cut a hole for the breast head to come through, & warm the plaster, & do not chang it in 8 or nine dayes.

You also find home recipes for commercial or quack medicines, such as the famous Daffy’s Elixir or Lucatelli’s Balsam. The recipe for the latter goes on for pages and is said to be effective for wounds inward or outward, broken bones, putrefaction, burning, cuts and bruises, catarrh, headaches, colic, a stitch in the side, poison, overindulgence, bites of scorpions, vipers and snakes, measles, ulcers, worms, vermin, digestion and even plague. Apparently:

The saied Lucatelly, to give satisfaction to the people of the goodness of the said balsome, not onely cured himself therewith, being scalded with scalding grease of porke, & another time with scalding lead; but also healed himself with it, after he had peirced himself thorough the flesh of his owne side with a sword, in the presence of diverse people.

You can truly discover recipes for almost anything. I came across this one pasted into the front of a manuscript book, and I suspect it was devised by a man:

How to Cook a Husband

As Mr Glass said of the hare, you must first catch him. Having done so, the mode of cooking him, so as to make a good dish of him is as follows: Many good husbands are spoiled in the cooking; some women go about it as if their husbands were bladders, and blow them up. Others keep them constantly in hot water, while others freeze them by conjugal coldness. Some smother them with hatred, contention and variance, and some keep them in pickle all their lives.

These women always serve them up with tongue sauce. Now it cannot be supposed that husbands will be tender and good if managed in that way. But they are, on the contrary, very delicious when managed as follows: Get a large jar called the jar of carefulness, (which all good wives have on hand,) place your husband in it, and set him near the fire of conjugal love; let the fire be pretty hot, but especially let it be clear – above all, let the heat be constant. Cover him over with affection, kindness and subjection. Garnish with modest, becoming familiarity, and the spice of pleasantry; and if you had kisses and other confectionaries let them be accompanied with a sufficient portion of secrecy, mixed with prudence and moderation. We would advise all good wives to try this receipt and realize how admirable a dish a husband is when properly cooked.

3 thoughts on “Medical recipes in the 18th century

  1. I would just like to echo your comments about recipies and medical remedies being treated together. I am fortunate enough to have all my 4 x great grandfather’s papers dating from the 1750’s- from his shopping lists to his journals, from lists of ‘what I need to pack to go on my journey’ to what it cost at different turnpikes, what medicines he took etc. I have several of his prescriptions still, and I can confirm that his notebooks on what he ate were frequently interspersed with cures and quack remedies for everything from ‘his nerves’ to an upset stomach. Cutting behind the ear and inserting a pea, in order to cause a blister, seems to have been his favourite treatment for most ailments!

  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque 64 « Shakespeare's England

  3. love ‘how to cook a husband.’
    My great gran kept her receipts thus in the late 19th century too, cooking at one end, and medicine at the other, the difference being she would record fairly precise amounts for medicine and her recipes would begin along the lines of “Take enough flour and shortening to make a pie for the family….” because she never needed to measure that. As I was taught to cook by her daughter, my great aunt, it came as a revelation to me when I did my Girl Guide cook’s badge that most people used scales and things…
    Most of her remedies involved honey.

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