The Ayscough Project

Click for Liza Blake’s keys to the alphabet and brevigraphs used in the Ayscough manuscript.

Lady Ayscough’s book of ‘Receits of phisick and chirurgery’ at Wellcome Collection is notable, not only because it was the first domestic recipe book to enter the collection, but also because it is the earliest documented library acquisition.

Purchased in 1897 at auction for £2 10s (£160) by one of Wellcome’s agents, C.J.S Thompson, it became the first of many manuscript recipe books acquired by Henry Wellcome. The collection continues to grow and now amounts to over 270 books.

The act of compiling recipes for medical complaints or for the kitchen formed the very essence of healthcare and maintaining wellbeing over the centuries. As a woman of high status, Lady Ayscough was not alone in collecting recipes on behalf of her family and wider circle of dependants. Also in the collection are the recipe books of Lady Fanshawe (Ms.7113), Lady Pulston (Ms.8048), Lady Eleanor Dundas (Ms.2242) and most noble of all, Princess Maria Rosalia, Duchess of Troppau and Princess of Liechtenstein (Ms.2290), among others.

There are no known portraits of Ayscough, nor do we know where in England it was drafted. However, we can get a sense of her and the skills she practiced from contemporary publications which would have been read and used by women of her standing:  The Accomplished Ladies Rich closet of Rarities was published by John Shirley in 1691, contemporary with Ayscough’s recipe book. The vignettes in the frontispiece to this book illustrate the type of activities practiced by women including baking, churning, distilling, and nursing.

Bound in original vellum, Ayscough’s book was written in a clear English script from 1692. Containing over 200 pages, the first 93 feature medicinal recipes and there are 7 pages of culinary recipes at the back – both written in the original hand, probably by a professional calligrapher since it was not common for high status women to do this work themselves. The remainder is in another contemporary script. The strategy of turning the book upside down to enter recipes at the ‘back’ of the volume was widely adopted and is known as ‘reverse casting-off of blanks’.[1] It was a way of separating medical from culinary recipes as well as filing other miscellaneous information that the owner might want to include. Unusually, in Ayscough’s book, there are no additions.

Aycough’s book takes us back to a previous age of sickness and healthcare. There are recipes for complaints that may not seem recognisable to us today, but it is often simply the language that appears strange – for example, a recipe for ‘running of the reins,’ means gonorrhoea. There was anxiety about venereal disease throughout the 17th century so finding a recipe for such complaints is not unusual. Confusion between syphilis and gonorrhoea was also common – both were believed to be triggered by disturbance of the humours proceeding from a ‘venomous cause’ and were often treated with similar toxic remedies. [2]

Recipe for Diascordium, f.52, Ms.1026     

 

The first ingredient in the above recipe meant to cure gonorrhoea is ‘Turpatine,’ a variant of ‘Turpentine’ in which it is recommended 3 well washed beans should be smeared then served in a white wine-based posset drink and drunk each morning. This same recipe for gonorrhoea featuring the resin of the turpentine fir tree appeared, almost word for word, in John Gerard’s The Herbal, or General History of Plants which was first published in 1597. [4] Ayscough would have been familiar with this encyclopaedic text since it became the most prevalent botany book in English in the 17th century. 

Diascordium – a Latin term originating from the Greek word for ‘preparation’ and ‘scordium’, a strong-smelling plant mentioned by the ancient Greek physician, Dioscorides – is a kind of electuary, or opiate consisting of the dried leaves of scordium and was used against malignant fevers, the plague, worms, colic, to promote sleep, and resist putrefaction. Its use is not indicated in Ayscough’s book, suggesting the reader needed no reminder what to use it for. The ingredients for Ayscough’s version are simply poppy heads and their seeds boiled down in water and sugar to form a thick and potent syrup.

Plague remained a constant threat throughout 17th century England, particularly in1665 when an epidemic hit London. Although the pneumonic plague of the late Middle Ages had disappeared, the bubonic form of the disease remained prevalent. Cases may have decreased by the time Ayscough wrote her recipes, but the threat persisted, and localised incidents might have still occurred.

Plague recipe, f.15, Ms.1026

 

There are two recipes listed specifically for plague in her manuscript.  The recipe above includes a drinking concoction containing mithridate which consisted of up to 65 ingredients. This would have been a costly and complex compound that could only have been purchased from an apothecary shop.  Also known as treacle or theriac, it was originally made as an antidote to poison in classical times. The recipe  recommends this be drunk morning and evening if the patient has already contracted the plague, if not once a day is enough.

It is also advised to take this concoction for small pox and the ‘sweating sickness’, a mysterious and contagious disease that first struck England and later continental Europe in a series of epidemics in the late 15th century. After an outbreak in 1551, it is believed to have vanished though mention of it in Ayscough’s book puts this in question.

There are different recipes for the same ailment throughout the book. This either suggests that these complaints were common or that few recipes worked which accounts for the numerous attempts to heal it.

‘A Wat. For ye stone, f.11, Ms.1026

 

One complaint that appears frequently is the ‘stone’, meaning kidney stones – there are seven remedies listed to treat this painful condition including a ‘water for a stone’ – this condition was commonly caused by dehydration, diet and obesity: alcohol was the go-to fluid in the absence of the clean running water that we take for granted today so dehydration is not surprising at this time.

There was clearly a demand for recipes that could dissolve the ‘calculi’ or stones that could build up in the urinary tract since the costly and highly dangerous surgery known as lithotomy was probably less appealing. Case-studies featuring lived experience of this agonising condition testify to this: In an account that laid out the pros and cons of the quack remedy of ‘Mrs Stephens’ that claimed to dissolve the stone published in 1739, a Mr Ravenell claims he had already splashed out a good deal of money on attempts to cure himself of the unbearable condition over many years until he was forced to pay for an examination by the eminent physician surgeon, Mr Cheselden.[3] While Mrs Stephen’s drinking recipe included calcined shells, herbs, vegetables, honey and soap[4], Ayscough’s ingredients appear more plausible: the main ingredient is saxifrage, which literally means ‘stone-breaker’ in Latin, an indication of its antiseptic properties that were thought to break down the calculi accumulations. This was distilled in ‘cow’s milk’ and ‘horseradish’ in ‘6 spoonfulls’ of white wine, nutmeg and sugar. In contrast, another recipe for a ‘drink for ye stone’ in Ayscough’s book excludes saxifrage and uses, instead very different yet presumably stimulating ingredients: ‘lignum vitae’ (guaiacum), coriander and fennel seed, ‘liquorish’, ‘ellicampane root herb’ (elecampane or horse-heal), and ‘horseradish root’. [5]

A Diet drink for the scurvy, f.7, Ms.1026

 

Scurvy is also frequently mentioned. A disease that resulted from a lack of vitamin C, that could be obtained from fresh fruit and vegetables, which may have been scarce in winter time. The symptoms included weakness, feeling tired and sore arms and legs. The ‘diet’ drink recommended by Ayscough is intended to supplement what is lacking in the diet. Agrimony, wormwood and scurvy-grass form the basis of this brew which is made in huge quantities suggesting volumes (‘10 gallons’) of the concoction would have been required.

The main ingredient in this recipe is, not surprisingly, scurvy-grass. It’s antiseptic, diuretic, and mild laxative properties had long been used by sailors to counteract the lack of fresh foods in their diet. The yellow-flowered Agrimony was a popular domestic medicinal herb that would have been commonly available in hedge banks and the sides of fields. It had been used for centuries to treat skin conditions as well as jaundice, so it is not unusual to find it in this recipe. Wormwood would have helped lift the spirits with its bitter, stimulant qualities. Sassafras added an aromatic taste and is frequently mentioned in the recipes within this book for this same purpose..

Capt. Green’s Red Plaster for a Sore Breast, f.30, Ms.1026

 

Although compiled by a woman, several recipes are attributed to men, as was the case in many recipe books. The first recipe for a balsam in the book is attributed to a ‘Mathias Tucantella’ for instance but it is Captain Green’s recipe for a red plaster to treat a sore breast that is particularly noteworthy. It includes the toxic mineral red and white lead that probably did more harm than good – such toxic ingredients were often added to topical remedies to draw out poison in a wound or ulcer, a theory that was promoted by the Renaissance Swiss physician, Paracelsus, a pioneer in the use of minerals and chemicals in medicine.

The digitization of Wellcome’s recipe book collection (which is still in progress) has encouraged research interest around household medicine and made transcribathons possible. These manuscripts throw light on everyday life in pre-industrial societies and help to explore the role of laymen and women involved in delivering early modern healthcare.

Much can be gleaned about healthcare and society during the late 17th century by analysing Ayscough’s recipe book. The act of compiling the 138 recipes in her book is consistent with the way in which knowledge was collected at the time. The fact that women were at the centre of this collating reinforces their role within the household. While some recipes and conditions appear familiar, those that are less so offer a window into a world in which classical traditions and reliance on age-old ingredients seem unusual to us today.

 

References:

[1] Finding Recipes – The Recipes Project (hypotheses.org), Elaine Leong, 2012

[2] William Salmon, Ars Chirurgia, 1699, cited in A. Fessler, Venereal Disease Phobia in the 17th Century, Brit. J. vener. Dis. (1955), 31, 190.

[3] David Hartley, A view of the present evidence for and against Mrs Stephens medicines as a solvent for the stone. Containing some 155 cases. With some experiments and observations. London, 1739, Mr Ravenell, Ch.XXXII, p.41

[4] Mrs Stephens’ Cure for the stone, Royal Museums Greenwich blog, 21 December  2012,

[5] Ms.1026, f.84