The Snail’s Touch: Prescribing Mollusks in Early Modern Receipt Books

By Vincent Sosko

When perusing through the pages of an historical receipt book, a transcriber will encounter many perplexing headings to the various recipes for food and medicine. Those recipe titles that inevitably make the transcriber stop scrolling and their jaws drop in a simultaneous expression of repulsion and intrigue are the ones that stir up the most discussion and research (typically resulting in many odd Google searches for herbs we are not familiar with or things we never thought could be ingredients). On page 8 of Rebeckah Winche’s receipt book, the simple heading “Snail Water” is the cause for one such instance of repulsion, intrigue, and rapid Google searching.

The recipe gets off to a foreboding start when it calls for “a peck of garden snails” that the preparer will “wash in a great bowle of beere” so that they may be cooked in “charcole … till thay be dead.” This seventeenth century barbeque only becomes more entertaining when we add in “a quart of earth wormes” that will be stamped together with the beer-cleansed snails. And with the title of this recipe only stating the end product and not describing any sort of usage or purpose, a reader of this might think this beverage to be just a common spirit of another age. Of course, if the transcriber were to look on the opposing page and see the heading of a recipe saying, “A Drinke for the Plague when it first seses any one,” they might come to the understanding that they are not in the section of the receipt book covering libations.

Winche’s “Snail Water” recipe never actually gives an ailment that this remedy could be attempting to cure though. Historians have identified the use of snails in a number of medical therapies, mostly antiquated, but still some having modern relevancy. One use has been for dermatological treatment of wounds or warts, and this use is still seeing some interest in contemporary medicine (see Steve Thomas’s vivid study using slugs and snails to treat skin lesions). Another broad category of conditions that snails have been linked to treating deals with brain malfunctions and blood-related diseases. Today, neuroscientists are exploring the possibilities of snail venom in decreasing the brain’s reception to addictive drugs. What this broad category ultimately relates to is a disease that this Winche recipe may possibly be aiming to remedy – consumption, or as we call it today, tuberculosis.

From that original combination of garden snails and earthworms, the recipe instructs the preparer to create a base mixture in a “great bras pot” upon which the snail-worm blend will lay. This mixture brings together many handfuls of various plants (“rosemary flowers,” “bearsfoot,” “wood bittony,” etc.) that are present in many other recipes in the Winche collection, and that all hold curative powers. All of these ingredients are met with “3 gallons of the strongest Ale” before they receive some additional herbs and are distilled overnight. The potential use for this “Snail Water” hinges on a couple of interpretations, with the most equivocal issue coming the morning after distillation.

Once the concoction produced has stood in a “limbeck,” or alembic (a stilling vessel) overnight, the preparer should “put fier under it & receve the water.” When a transcriber takes on the task of vetting this recipe, they are faced with the choice of tagging the word “receve” as either a production method, where the water is drained from a boiling process and could be an ointment, or as an administration statement, where one is instructed to drink the water as is. If this instruction is a production method, then we could see this as a medicine for skin lesions and other wounds. But if it is indeed an administration statement, then drinking the water directly after it has been boiled will lend this recipe to being an internal treatment for consumption. The fact that the heading atop this recipe simply describes it as water would lead many to side with the latter therapy. A further examination of the listed ingredients could help ‘clear the waters’.


Vincent Sosko is a PhD student at the University of Texas, Arlington and a member of Professor Amy Tigner’s “Culinary Shakespeare” class.

Works Cited

The following sources provided the supplemental medical information contained in this commentary. The recipe discussed comes the scanned image “page 8 || page 9” from the “Receipt book of Rebeckah Winche” in the EMROC collection.


Archivistkira. “Snail Water? Did I read that right?” What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections?!.

University Libraries, Virginia Tech, September 30, 2011. Web. 25 October 2015.

Bonnemain, Bruno. “Helix and Drugs: Snails for Western Health Care From Antiquity to the Present.” PubMed Central. National Center for Biotechnology Information, January 28, 2005. Web. 26 October 2015.

Thomas, Steve. “Medicinal use of terrestrial molluscs (slugs and snails) with particular reference to their role in the treatment of wounds and other skin lesions.” World Wide Wounds. Medetec Medical Device Consultancy Cardiff, July 2013. Web. 26 October 2015.

Wrathall, Janet. “Snail-Water Information Sheet: A modern analysis of Snail Water.” The Garret. Web. 25 October 2015.

Yuhas, Daisy. “Healing the Brain with Snail Venom.” Scientific American. Nature America, Inc., December 19, 2012. Web. 25 October 2015.



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