Dr. Burges’s Plague Water

By Jana Jackson

For early modern pious women, the religious obligation to be healers and competent housewives catalyzed the compilation of extensive medical receipt books during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Accordingly, recipes considered to be particularly essential to domestic medical practices were shared over and over. Though the communal nature of recipes certainly allowed for editing and refinement to improve efficacy as the recipes passed from hand to hand, the essential stability of ingredients, amounts, and directions for administration is remarkable even among recipes that were handed down generationally. Dr. Burges’s recipe for plague water, for example, can be found in Mary Granville’s book of recipes (1641), in Lady Katherine Ranelagh’s receipt book (17th century), in Charlotte Johnstone, Dowager Marchioness of Annandale’s receipt book (c.1725), and in Eliza Smith’s published The Compleat Housewife (1741), (41r, 5v, 99r, 237), among others.

From Folger V.a. 430, Granville Family Receipt book

A comparison of this popular recipe in these four texts reveals their similarity in ingredients and amounts, even though the approximate dates of these texts span almost a century.

Granville (1640) Ranelagh (1615-1691) Johnstone (1725) Smith (1741)
3 pints malmsey 3 pints malmsey or muscadine 3 pints malmsey or muscadine 3 pints muscadine
Handful of rue Handful of rue Handful of rue Handful of rue
Handful of sage Handful of sage Handful of sage Handful of sage
1 pennyworth long pepper 1 pennyworth long pepper 1 pennyworth long pepper 2 pennyworth long pepper
½ oz ginger ½ oz ginger ½ oz ginger ½ oz ginger
¼ oz nutmeg ¼ oz nutmeg ¼ oz nutmeg ½ oz nutmeg
4 pennyworth  mithridate —- ¼ oz mithridate
2 pennyworth London treacle 4 pennyworth treacle ¼ oz Venice treacle
¼ pint angelica water ¼ pint angelica water ¼ pint angelica water ¼ pint angelica water
1 oz angelica root
1 oz zedoary root
½ oz Virginia snake-root

Though malmsey as the principal ingredient transitioned to muscadine over the course of a century, most of the herbal ingredients, both by kind and by amount, are consistent: rue, sage, long pepper, ginger, and nutmeg.[i] Smith’s addition of three varieties of root is the most significant variation to the recipe. Interestingly, Eliza Smith claims on the title page that her receipt book is “[a] collection of above Two Hundred Family Receipts of Medicines. . .never before made publick.” By 1741, however, Dr. Burges’s plague water recipe had been making the rounds among household practitioners for at least 100 years. Perhaps this claim compelled her to add the additional ingredients so that the recipe would be considered original. Regardless, the remarkable similarity among the four versions of Dr. Burges’s recipe, in both written and printed texts, attests to domestic medical practitioners’ concern for accuracy even if, as in the case of the bubonic plague, the efficacy of the physic was more of a hope than a reality.

From Wellcome MS 3087 Charlotte Van Lore Johnstone, Dowager Marchioness of Annadale

 

[i] Malmsey wine originated from the Mediterranean (see OED “malmsey”). Muscadine was a “wine made from muscat or similar grapes” that was a product of France and Italy during the seventeenth century (see OED “muscadine”). Both were “sweet wines” and therefore might be used interchangeably in physic during the period (see Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, 638).

Works Cited:

Smith, Eliza. The Compleat Housewife, Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. London: J. Pemberton, 1741. Google Books Online. Web.

Manuscripts:

BL Sloane MS 1367

Lady Katherine Ranelagh

Lady Rennelagh’s choise receipts (17th century).

Folger V.a. 430

Granville Family

Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family (c.1640).

 

Wellcome MS 3087

Charlotte Van Lore Johnstone, Dowager Marchioness of Annandale

Receipt-book (c. 1725).

 

Jana Jackson is a recent MA from the University of Texas, Arlington