Promoting passion in book collecting

Why Are There Medical Recipes in Antiquarian Cookbooks?

If you’ve ever perused a culinary manuscript, you may have noticed that recipes for delicious dishes are commingled with treatments for common ailments.  A recipe for roast quail might be followed by a method for curing a weak bladder. And published antiquarian cookbooks often contain not only recipes and household hints, but also a section on preventative medicine or home remedies. This practice seems rather foreign today, but it made perfect sense before the modernization and professionalization of medicine.

Medical Treatment as a Domestic Affair

Before the early twentieth century, medical treatment was a largely a domestic activity; when someone became ill, it was often a mother, sister, or daughter who would administer care. The family might also have called on the local midwife, an itinerant healer, or a local “root woman” for additional care. Only in dire emergencies were doctors called in–if available–and the doctor, too, would administer care in the patient’s home. For centuries, surgeons (who were also often barbers) were considered separate and of lower status than doctors. They would routinely perform work like bone setting, blood letting, and teeth cleaning. It’s important to remember that these surgeons generally had little professional training, and they would be responsible for performing amputations and other treatments that were quite violent–there was, after all, no local or general anesthesia.

People typically treated illnesses from the outside in, and virtually everyone, from family members to physicians, had the same basic understanding of how the body worked and how illnesses were treated. Meanwhile, many medical treatments were quite unpleasant. It’s no wonder that people would seek out alternatives in domestic medicine and home remedies. Lay collectors would gather recipes that would ordinarily fall within the domain of midwives and physicians, recording them in their cookbooks or creating separate books for medical recipes.  People were particularly interested in avoiding surgery, which is why it’s not uncommon to see recipes for medical ailments like bladder stones and cataracts. Some manuscript cookbooks even contain recipes for treating serious conditions like gangrene and fistulas.


An illustration of Woodall’s trepanning tool

Surgeons knew that their treatments were in many cases barbaric and violent. Some even acknowledged that they could learn from domestic healers. Key member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company and first Surgeon General of the East India Company John Woodall is best known for his Surgions Mate (1617), which became the definitive English text in surgery at sea. The book went into multiple editions over the next fifty years. Woodall is also known for the creation of a trepanning tool and for being an amputation expert. Yet even he admitted that surgeons were often too aggressive, jumping into surgery before allowing nature to heal an injury. Woodall also argued that surgeons could learn from female domestic healers, who generally took a gentler, more patient approach and administered home remedies to cure patients.

Recipe Collecting as Knowledge Gathering

The practice of gathering medical recipes has a long history, stretching back to ancient times and tapering off during the nineteenth century. Collecting these recipes wasn’t exclusively a woman’s work; even prominent men took part. Around 1650, Edward Viscount Conway and Colonel Edward Harley exchanged and discussed medical recipes in their correspondence. And Sir Peter Temple created a custom medical recipe book for his daughter Eleanor. Indeed, it wasn’t until around the eighteenth century, when women were more likely to be literate, that the preponderance of medical recipes were recorded by women.

The commonality among collectors of medical recipes throughout history was not necessarily age, gender, or socioeconomic status. Rather, it was an intense intellectual curiosity and a willingness to evaluate the authority of their sources. Whether a home remedy could be considered reliable generally depended on the anecdotal evidence of the person who offered the remedy. Had he or she used the remedy successfully? Or was the recipe deemed effective only through hearsay? Compilers of these domestic medical recipes have served a critical function for historians because they have given us a window into not only medical practice and scientific knowledge of a given period, but also a glimpse into how people of a given era approached the task of accumulating knowledge.

Domestic Medicine in Early Modern England

The early modern period is particularly interesting to scholars because the eighteenth century was a time of great change, not only in the history of medicine, but also in the history of the book. It’s quite clear that medical recipes were a treasured possession at the time. In 1710, for example, Lady Johanna St. John drew up her will, leaving her Bible to her eldest son and sums of money to loyal servants–nothing unusual. Then St. John specified recipients for her cookbooks. Her “great recipe book” would go to her daughter. The book contained an alphabetically organized list of medical remedies that St. John had collected throughout her lifetime. And in October of the following year, an elderly woman of Norfolk, Elizabeth Freke, took an account of all her most valued belongings. She carefully detailed the contents of a locked cabinet in her closet–which contained quite a quantity of cordial water, syrups, and other ingredients for making medicaments. Medical production was obviously an important household activity.

Meanwhile publishing domestic medicine books was a burgeoning industry in England. John Wesley’s Primitive Physick (1747) ran into seventeen editions. William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1767), one of the best known of the genre, was still in print almost a century after its first publication. And in the United States, Samuel Thomson published a botanic medical guide in 1835 that popularized “Thomsonian” medicine. Thus books of domestic medicine were a phenomenon not only in manuscript, but also in print. As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, and then the twentieth, the practice of medicine left the home. These books show us how home-based and commercially available medical treatments coexisted during that transition.

Cookbooks That Incorporate Domestic Medical Recipes

The English House-Wife

Markham_English_House_WifeOriginally published in 1623, Gervase Markham’s The English House-Wife has quite the drop-title:  “Containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleate woman. As her skill in physicke, surgery, cookery, extraction of oyles, banqueting-stuffe, ordering of great feasts, preseruing of all sorts of wines, conceited secrets, distillations, perfumes, ordering of wooll, hempe, flax, making cloth, and dying, the knowledge of dayries, office of malting, of oates, their excellent vses in a family, of brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to an houshold.” Markham’s instructions include advice on everything from the plague to baldness and bad breath, with guidance on brewing beer, growing flax and hemp for thread. This 1631 edition is a fascinating look at hearth, health, and home in seventeenth-century England. Details>>

Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts

Mackenzie_Five_Thousand_ReceiptsColin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts in All the Useful and Domestic Arts (1829) could serve as the definitive guide for living off the grid! It contains instructions for making paint, drying paper, and engraving, along with directions for distillation, cookery, horticulture, and, of course, medicine. Details>>

The Skilful Housewife’s Book

Skilful_Housewifes_BookPublished in 1846, The Skilful Housewife’s Book includes 659 recipes. It also has “Miscellaneous Hints on the Formation of Character, Habits, Etc, Simple and Safe Remedies for Common Diseases and Accidents.” The guide includes guidance on gardening, flowers, birds, and other sundry domestic topics. Details>>

La Cocinera Poblana

Cocinera_PoblanaThis third edition of La Cocinera Poblana, published around 1888, is a practical kitchen manual for Spanish, French, English and Mexican cuisine that contains more than 2,000 recipes, along with remedies to preserve health and prolong life. Concentrates mainly on recipes, formulas, and methods used in domestic Mexican households of average means. The first volume starts with soups, broths and juices. There are sections on Hare, Birds, Roasts, Sausage, Meat, Fish, Savory tarts, Fruit, Eggs, Vegetables, and the volume ends with a chapter on Importance of preventing mistakes when dealing with potatoes, beef, beans, etc. The second volume begins with a chapter on Mexican cuisine with suggestions on making cheese, quesadillas, cactus, etc. The remaining recipes are for pastry, liquors, fruit wines, and ending with a chapter on domestic hygiene; how to die hair black, water for dentures, how to clean specific objects, varnishing floors, etc. There are also chapters on manners and domestic economy. For example, there is a section on how a gentleman should slowly escort a lady towards the dining room, suggestions on never bringing a dog to dinner, never bring a child under eight unless the child has been specifically invited. Details>>

Twentieth-Century Manuscript Recipe Book

Cookery_Manuscript_Recipe_Book-20CThis 173-page handwritten recipe book starts with a poem, “But where is the man who can live without dining?” The book is chock full of recipes for bread, cake, ice cream, sherbet, cookies, puddings, supper, and salad. There are also many recipes and instructions for canning, pickles, and meat. It concludes with home remedies for constipation, croup, weak bladder, and white liniment. Handwriting is unchanging, on lined paper, with acknowledgment to original authors. Details>>




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This entry was posted on April 10, 2014 by in Food and Literature, History and tagged , , , .
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