30 Grains of a Dead Man’s Skull: Transcribing Folger MS V.b.380

By Amanda Pickett

What is medicine like today? While the exact picture varies throughout the world, for me and many others, it is a process of expediency. Starting with a quick call to the nearby doctor’s office at my earliest convenience, I summarize my ache or ailment and within hours I get an appointment. The appointment itself entails a speedy check-in, followed by a short examination, where I sit in a room smelling of antiseptic, on a paper-covered table, while a nice man or woman in a white lab coat and gloves surveys me from head to toe. A little poking, some prodding and a couple of clarifying questions and the doctor diagnoses the problem sending me off with a prescription for my local pharmacy sure to cure me in days—simple. However, during the early modern era, medicine was not nearly as reliable or scientifically exact, but nonetheless revolutionary to the development of what the world knows today.

While transcribing an early modern recipe book, which acted as a tangible legacy and everyday manual to an early modern household, I was given the opportunity to glance back into the past. Whereas today medicine and science, especially when treating the common cold or the flu, is uniform to the public—involving labs, research, testing, FDA approval, etc., during the early modern era medicine was dependent on trial and error, often left up to each individual family and their homemade remedies. There was no common antidote or remedy, no vaccines or proper dental care, and the methods in which families treated illness and disease were wholly unique. In fact, medicinal remedies of the early modern era, were produced in kitchens concocted with chosen, personalized ingredients wielded by the lady of the house. The test subjects of these crafted treatments were those of the household, varying in ailments and illness, on whom the effectiveness of each medicinal recipe relied.

F
Folger MS V.b.380, f. 168

For the medicinal recipes I transcribed, each one was rated with a review of good or bad, or ingredients scribbled out and changed, as a signifier of the recipe’s personal success and the care for the smallest details. However, as I read and transcribed, it was hard to imagine anyone, especially the author’s loved ones, consuming the contents of these concoctions. In recipe 154, Convulsion Water, the ingredients are as follows:

     Take one pound of Peony roots scrape ’em cleane, and slice ’em
     into 3 pints of white wine, let it stand Infusing in Embers all night,
     then strain it out very hard. To this a quarter of an Ounce of Castor
     in fine powder, one Ounce of Spirit of Castor, 30 graines of the​ moss of
     dead mans scull, & 30 grains of the​ scull of a dead man, Both the​ scull and
     moss must be beat in to fine powder, mingle these all together
     and shake ’em in a bottle one hour. Take of this 2 spoonful at a
     time 3 morning before the​ ffull & Change of the​ moon if there be
     Occasion as by the fits coming: and the​ same quantity at any other time.
     One spoonful is enough for a Child.  [1]

Admittedly, I was baffled that any one of these ingredients would be implemented for medicinal healing but even more disturbed by the use of actual human remains. Despite the knowledge today that consumption of any human biproduct poses serious health risks, the threat of disease seemed even more impactful during an era of no sanitation or vaccination.

While my initial reaction was that no such remedy could ever or should ever be employed to heal any ailment or be given to any person, especially children, I eventually went on to explore what would prompt someone to consider such ingredients. I came to discover that peonies, something I had classified to be used solely as decorative flowers, actually possess anti-inflammatory properties when boiled down. Additionally, white wine is known for its capabilities in lowering cholesterol and contains important antioxidants that help protect and strengthen the body’s immune system and overall functionality.

So how exactly did the trial and error cooking-chemistry in early modern kitchens, lacking exact measurement and safety regulations, evolve into the expedient, stress-free, FDA-approved industry it is today? In fact, early modern kitchens opened the door for the modern medicine we know and overlook now. Experimentation and testing of medicinal recipe’s began in the home, specifically the kitchen, where women took great care crafting the perfect remedies. Research and development, not unlike today, involved sharing recipes amongst broader social circles all the way to nascent academic institutions. Meanwhile the effectiveness of every recipe was perfected and recorded to for future generations to use and add to. While the difference of the times seems in great contrast, the fundamentals of research and development of science and medicine have been long lasting and still relevant to this day.

[1] “English cookery and medicine book [manuscript], ca. 1677-1711,” Folger MS V.b.380. At lines 3–5 of the recipe, the note “Anne Western }” appears in the left hand margin.           

Amanda Pickett is a Senior at Penn State – Abington, studying with EMROC member Professor Marissa Nicosia in that campus’s ACURA program.


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