By Amanda Torres
With a receipt titled, “A Receipt to take away the red spots out of the Face after the small pox are gone,” one has to wonder the intention behind offering such a promise. Was this particular disease proliferated by festering spots left untreated, or was the receipt’s intent driven by cosmetic ritual, simply to rid the face of unsightly blemishes and ghastly disfigurement. First we must identify what these incremental ingredients signify or stand in for. “Tansey water” was likely derived from the tansy plant, an invasive and flowering sort. Regarding tansy, the Oxford English Dictionary states that “all parts of the plant have a strong aromatic scent and bitter taste”; therefore the plant would be better suited for medicinal application rather than ingestion.
“Sulphur vivum” means “native or virgin sulphur,” an active, bacteria-killing ingredient typically used for the treatment of skin conditions in the form of topical ointments. “Leamons” or lemons are also employed for their cleansing properties. Recurring in the Granville and Winche receipt books is the mention of “camphire,” or camphor, which The OED defines as a “whitish translucent crystalline volatile substance, belonging chemically to the vegetable oils, and having a bitter aromatic taste and a strong characteristic smell.” The OED also states it was formerly regarded as an “antaphrodisiac” and therefore used to combat venereal disease. Modern science endorses camphor for its soothing and decongestant properties.
All of these units combine to absolve a patient from the aftereffects of a horribly painful disease. Billed between a receipt for “possett” and a “plaister for the spleene,” alleviating “smallpox spots” reinforces the critical anxieties of the early modern period, as disease and plague indiscriminately conquered countless lives. The recipe’s main goal seeks not to cure the disease itself, but to create a solution for the “pustules,” or blistering pus-filled sores that covered a victim’s face and body. Sores would often leaving scarring and permanent damage, so the Granville entry remains a hopeful fix. Also important to note is the category of ingredients called for, as lemon, sulfur, and camphor are still in use today for their antibiotic properties. The use of proven antibacterial ingredients suggests a scientific understanding of how these ingredients worked, a knowledge that if not formally acquired, was established through trial and error.
My uncertainty still lies with “Cemitary water,” which seems to suggest a contaminated product, marred by disease or death. Despite these connotations relating to the nature of smallpox, I’m unsure of how this ingredient fits in with fighting against the disease. Following my primary receipt of study is “Another Receipt” which suggests a variance on treating smallpox sores. The key difference in this receipt happens with the use of “milke.” On the next page we see “An ointment to take the spotts out of the Face after the small Pox” and “A very good ointment for a tetter or any Itching.” The physical appearance of disease is aggressively targeted specifically in this set of receipts. The topicality of these receipts parallels the humoral notions of early modern health we’ve discussed, as internal strategy plays a significant role in guiding food and medicine across this period.
Amanda Torres is an MA student at the University of Texas, Arlington and a member of Professor Amy Tigner’s “Culinary Shakespeare” class.