A Recipe for Disaster? Introduction: Half-Baked Ideas?

The recipe book was often the heart of the household. Most families had at least one where they kept recipes. This could be for food, medicines and recommendations from friends and neighbours. Many recipe books were passed down the generations and represent cross-generational knowledge as families tested and recorded recipes. These would be for both the individual and extended family. This exhibition shows the significance of recipe collections as both a social and cultural phenomenon.

Most medieval and early modern healthcare took place in the home. The management of the household also meant being in charge of health. This could be through prevention, treatment or recovery. Medicinal recipes or ‘receipts’ were widely collected. They were the source of self-help in the home. They often include the ingredients to use and dosage recommendations, and claim to be effective. Not all recipes were created by the author and many include other contributors, whether it was the local physician or a neighbour.

Exchanging recipes was a practice woven into everyday social life. It didn’t matter whether it was for the best methods of baking bread or the most useful cure for gout. Letters, postcards and notebooks abound with materials, production techniques and the desire to produce cures. Many of the masters and mistresses of households had basic knowledge in both culinary and medical craft. It was part of the larger established practice of household management. It highlights the importance of the home in medieval and early modern healthcare.

A recipe often had both medicinal and cookery purposes. A recipe for an apricot cordial may have been medicinal as well as a drink after tea. The cordial was thought to lift the spirit, comfort the heart and aid digestion after a meal. Food and medicine often had overlapping meanings. This suggests why so many appear together on the same page.

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SH/7/ML/MISC/13 – For a Cough

‘Steep a new laid Egg in a sufficient quant[ity] of lemon juice to cover it – when the shell is dissolved take the egg out, and add to it Lem[on] juice, in [1 hour] the Egg is dissolved, a table spoonful of rum and sweeten it with sugar-candy’.

Many recipe collections during this period contained ‘cure-alls’, sometimes referred to as to wonder or miracle water. These cordials often contained sugar and spices and warmed the body. They gave the body strength and prevented weakness. This burst of ‘strength’ tended to be a common cure for anything. From fever to melancholy to a stomach ache, a cure-all was the obvious way to go.

The kitchen often offered the key ingredients for allowing people to self-medicate. This included using butter or fresh eggs for recipes. Many people combined self-diagnosis with self-treatment. The household was often at the forefront of medical knowledge production and distribution. Kitchens, brew houses, distilleries and gardens all helped households make recipes. People often did recipe trials to find the best working materials and methods.

C696, Obstruction of the Menses
Take succotine aloes, one drachm iron filing, two scruples precipitate sulphur of antimony, half a drachm; calomel, a scruple syrup, enough for pills, No. 3 Two to be taken every night.

As this exhibition will illustrate, not every recipe worked. Nor was every recipe, to our twenty-first century perspective, safe to consume or use. Some ingredients are still used today, but we will look at the more disgusting and poisonous ones. In a society with the NHS and other forms of healthcare, we can’t be too cynical about recipes made by people who didn’t have these. Medicine is evolving and one day, practices that are normal to us might seem just as odd as we find medieval ones. The medieval period in particular is often falsely referred to as the ‘dark ages’. It’s important to remember not to put modern perceptions onto those of the past. We often laugh at the odd and stomach-churning ingredients used, but we should also remember that historic medicine and healthcare could be quite sophisticated.

Further information about historical medicine and practices can be found in our Medicine Through Time exhibition: https://wyascatablogue.wordpress.com/exhibitions/medicine-through-time-exhibition-introduction/

WYL280/626 – Exaltatio Natura ad coitum – A high nature for sexual intercourse
Take Ram Stones parboil’d in Good tent Wine and y womb of a Hare prepared in a like manner & let both of them be afterwards dryed gently. Take also mace, cinnamon cloves, Indian Ginger, y Seeds of Ameos of each 2 drachms
Bruise them all & boil them together gently in a vessel cover’d in a quart of Tent about half an hour then let them infuse 3 hours more from y fire close covered. Then strain out y liquor & drink a quarter of a Pint 3 hours before dinner every day