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.
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. 
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.
 “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.
I had the opportunity to lead a directed study for a graduating student last summer. The student had been interested in taking my early modern literature class focused on early modern women’s writing, but had not been able to fit it with her schedule. As I was planning a new paleography unit based on Mary Baumfylde’s manuscript for the class at the time, the student agreed to work alongside me as a test subject for the materials I had drafted in addition to other readings and assignments. As I embarked on my task, one of my guiding questions was “What is the value in actually preparing and trying the recipes from this manuscript?” With every task, it became increasingly clear that researching, preparing, and tasting/using these recipes led us to a level of close reading and immersion that would not have been achievable without our material engagement.
Transcription, Gathering, and Planning
Transcribing the recipe “A pultis to allay paines swellings or any anguish” with the goal of actual preparation required a degree of engagement that that the many transcriptions I had previously carried out did not. Understanding the ingredients became less about deciphering the what and more about comprehending the why.
A pultis to allay paines swellings or any anguish. Take straroberrie leaves, violett leaves collumbine leaves, of and blynde nettles of each a like quantitie, boyle them in fayre water, and thicken itt with oatemell and apply itt to the place grieved as Warme as you can suffer itt.
Gerard’s Herbal addresses the topical application of both strawberry and violet leaves. According to that volume, strawberry leaves “taketh away the burning heate in wounds” and violet leaves, “mitigate all kinde of hot inflammations.” Columbine leaves are known for aiding sore throats and sluggish livers, but their topical application is not addressed. And “blynde nettles” are not nettles at all. Gerard refers to them as Archangell, or “dead Nettle,” a term used interchangeably with “blind nettle” for non-stinging nettles. As it turned out, the purple blind nettles, known colloquially as “red henbit,” is a plant very familiar to me, as it grows on the roadsides throughout my neighborhood in spring. This plant is, in fact, part of the mint family and is credited with anti-inflammatory properties both today and in Gerard’s Herbal, and so it makes sense in this poultice recipe.
The oatmeal with which Mary Baumfylde would have been familiar would have likely been “rough oats,” slightly finer than “pinhead oats,” which were cut in half and sifted to remove the floury substance.Steel-cut oats come closest to approximating this texture, so these make the most sense for preparing this recipe. In the early modern period, oats would have been cooked slowly into a porridge using only water and salt. Considering the moderate temperature of cast iron cooktops, this recipe should be done at a relatively low temperature on a gas or electric stove, so “boyle” almost certainly does not refer to rolling boil we think of today, but instead probably means something more proximate to “heat” or “cook.” By the end of my transcription, I had a plan: prepare oatmeal first, then gather all of my herbs fresh in a single morning or afternoon before compounding the poultice. It would be interesting to make a salve with these same herbs to try out the combination in a less perishable way.
I had my next significant experience of connection with the text in venturing outside, clippers in hand, to seek out the plants I would need. The first two ingredients, strawberry leaves and violet leaves, were easily obtainable in my back yard. As I searched my back yard for the wild violets that I knew grew in the shade of my Japanese Maple tree, though, I began to appreciate the fact that the plants were small in the dryness of the Pacific Northwest late summer. I thought about the early modern women stewarding the herbs that grew nearby their homes and carefully removed only a few leaves from each plant, so as not to cause undue stress and to ensure the continued health of the herbs.
Finding columbine leaves and red henbit proved trickier in late summer: I don’t grow Columbine and couldn’t find “blind nettles” in my neighborhood park where I knew them to grow in other seasons. I could have tried my luck at a garden center, but I thought of the manuscript authors and instead paid a visit to my friend Rebecca and her sprawling forested land while we searched out and (again, carefully) gathered enough columbine leaves to prepare the recipe. Alas, though, it seemed that red henbit had fallen victim to either summer heat or hungry bunnies. I don’t believe seasonal unavailability would have stopped our early modern medicine-makers, so I prepared to carry out my plan without them.
My day of gathering was deeply satisfying and connecting, both to the land and plants of my own yard, neighborhood, and my friend’s land, and to the women who wrote and read Mary Baumfylde’s book.
The transcription and planning process for my student, Kynna, was similarly broadening. She chose to prepare the recipe “How to Make Cheese Cakes.”
To Make Cheese Cakes Take 6 qrts of new milk and one part of cream Sett it as you do a cheese but in stead of – Warming the milk putt in as much hot water As will make it fitt & when it is com’d brek itt & pour it in to a Cloth & whey it between two & when the whey is very well draind take the curd & breake it with a pound of fresh butter some mace & a pound of suger, the yelks of 14 Eggs & whites of 8. Make Them upon plates in a very good puff past When they are risen & craterd they are enough.
This recipe is different because the ingredients were all relatively familiar to us: milk, cream, hot water, butter, mace, sugar, and puff pastry. However, there were some immediate procedural questions that Kynna had to understand in order to move forward. The recipe begins by instructing the cook to take the quantities of new milk and cream and “sett it as you do a cheese.” From reading Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudoras part of the class, she knew that cheesemaking was part of the daily household routine. . However, it was during one of our early meetings that I guided her to picture something akin to cottage cheese or ricotta (not cheddar) as the product these women were making daily. Kynna observed that the experience made her realize how much rich knowledge the writers of the Baumfylde took for granted, and how much homesteading knowledge has been lost.
Kynna proceeded to research early modern methods for making basic cottage cheese in the library before confidently moving forth with her gathering and preparations. She also did some calculations and downscaled the recipe to 2/3, not having a kettle in her kitchen that could comfortably hold the requisite six quarts of milk and one quart of cream, plus an unknown amount of boiling water to make the cheese curdle. At this point, she expressed some concern over the final line of the recipe: “when they are risen and craterd they are enough.” She wondered whether she would know when they were sufficiently risen and catered, and precisely what “catered” meant, but moved toward her recipe preparation phase with a spirit of adventure nonetheless.
Compounding the poultice at the stove with my 8-year-old son was the quickest and easiest part of my endeavor. First, we chopped the leaves I had gathered and measured one packed tablespoon of each type: strawberry, wild violet, and columbine. The next time I make this recipe I hope to use red henbit as well, and I will probably double the amounts I gather in order to also infuse some oil for a salve.
Next, we measured one cup of water and combined it with the chopped leaves on the stove over medium-low heat.
And then we waited for the heat to slowly bring the liquid to a simmer.
When a simmer was achieved, we added 1 and 1/4 cups of “oatemell.” I used cooked steel cut oats, as discussed above, because this type of porridge would have been on hand as the base for daily porridge in the early modern household.
We mixed these together with the heat still on.
After a few minutes to thicken, we spread the warm mixture thick on brown paper.
And applied it to “the place grieved” (an insect bite on my son’s arm) “as warme as [he could] suffer it.” My patient pronounced the remedy “weird,” but soothing. After a few minutes, some of the redness and itchiness had abated.
I dried a bundle of my carefully obtained columbine leaves in the event that they’re not available next time I want to make this recipe.
In her own kitchen, Kynna made cheese for the first time.
She proceeded to strain the cheese and mix up her cheesecake mix as instructed in the recipe.
She decided to bake them in a variety of pans to see which would best work as the “plates” the recipe calls for, and put them in an oven set to 325 degrees, figuring that by the afternoon (cheesemaking time), and after all the breads were baked, the temperature of the typical early modern oven would be on the lower side.
Kynna let them bake 20 minutes and then checked every three minutes after that, knowing they would finish at different times because of their different sizes. She was delighted when the smallest cake first appeared puffed and pocked with an uneven surface that looked like tiny craters: “risen and cratered.” As each cake took on this appearance, she removed it from the oven and set it to cool.
She explained her relief afterwards: “‘risen and cratered’ sounds vague, but it perfectly describes what it looks like when it’s done.” The cheesecakes came out quite delicious: less sweet than the cheesecakes to which we were both accustomed, but a nice, fluffy texture; creamy; and slightly lemony from the mace.
These experiences have given us both a unique and moving connection to the material culture of the period. I gained an appreciation for the plants I used, the community that brought them to me, the intensive planning and comprehension that goes into even a very simple and seemingly straightforward recipe, and the joy of preparing an old-fashioned remedy that brought some comfort (and levity) to my kiddo. It is notable to me, as someone who has studied the material culture of the period and prepared many recipes in the past, that the process of moving from handwritten manuscript to completed recipe engendered a deeper experience than transcribing one recipe and preparing another, exercises I’ve done many times. Kynna was moved in a similar way, working in her kitchen to comprehend and recreate the intricacies of cheese-making and baking practices that early modern cooks took for granted: “After doing the recipe, I knew I could read the words and trust that, when the time came, I would know what to do.” Our Baumfylde authors and readers were resourceful chemists, healers, and artists. By inhabiting this manuscript, Kynna and I understood and became these things too.
In my previous post, I discussed Mistress Vernam and her contribution to Lady Frances Catchmay’s Booke of Medicins (http://emroc.hypotheses.org/879). I had run across a single possible match for Mistress Vernam in the genealogical database Ancestry.com: the search pointed to Jess Cox, a woman who was married to John Vernam in Hardwicke, Gloucestershire in 1613 (Ancestry.com). Despite this find, however, I was hardly closer to discovering her connection to either Lady Catchmay or seventeenth-century medical practice.
I used the result from Ancestry.com to try and locate Mistress Vernam in other contemporaneous medical books. Unfortunately, her lack of genealogical records makes Jess Vernam’s possible medical connections difficult to pinpoint. There are quite a few references to various doctors named “Cox” in several early modern databases; but without a record of Jess’s birth, there is no way to know if these doctors were related to her. Rather than continuing to search for Mistress Vernam by her name, I decided to look for her through her recipes.
At the present moment, searching for recipes across texts is a messy and imperfect process due in part to the fact that we as a scholarly community are still in the earlier stages of transcribing and coding these early modern books. As this process comes closer to completion, it will be much easier to search through them in a thorough and efficient manner. What the Wellcome Library has transcribed into their database thus far, however, is absolutely invaluable: I was able to look for Mistress Vernam’s recipes via their titles by breaking each title into its keywords and searching for their variant spellings.
My search revealed a link between the penultimate recipe within Mistress Vernam’s medicines and a recipe in MS 373. Mistress Vernam’s “A medicine to Clarifye the Eyesighte” instructs to “Take the gaules of swine, of an eele, & of a cocke, temper them well together with honney & fayre water & keape it in a cleane glasse, for your vsse: when you haue neade annoynte the eyes therwith” (MS184a/34)
MS 373/121 contains a nearly identical recipe called “To Clarifie the Sight”:
MS 373 belonged to and was written by Jane Jackson in 1642 (MS 373), meaning that it was compiled almost twenty years after Lady Catchmay’s Booke of Medicins. Unfortunately Jackson does not give any attribution for this recipe, nor does the book contain any of Mistress Vernam’s other medicines. Still, this find suggests one possible connection between Mistress Vernam and the wider medical community. With this new insight, the next step would be to find out who Jane Jackson was and whether or not she was connected to Lady Catchmay and Mistress Vernam. And if she was not, then what might Jackson and Vernam’s common source have been?
This line of inquiry is outside the scope of this post, although it is certainly one that should be pursued at some point in the future. For now, I will leave you with this: it is likely that I missed several matches for Mistress Vernam’s recipes and thus I likely also missed several connections. Although I only found two iterations of the above recipe in my own searches, it is quite possible that versions of “A medicine to Clarifye the Eyesighte” appear in other manuscripts beyond the two mentioned here. I encourage my fellow scholars to look for this recipe elsewhere so that we can discover more connections between Mistress Vernam and the medical community.
As evidenced by the two recipes above, titles can vary between sister recipes both in terms of spelling and phrasing; it is simply not possible for a single person to account for every variation. A much more detailed method of search would look not only for titles, but also for ingredients. Searching for uncommon ingredients would help scholars to find connections between medical texts, their authors, and their contributors. This type of search will not be possible for several years yet. When it is possible, it will be a powerful tool for piecing together an accurate picture of the vast early modern medical community. Searching for recipes in addition to names will allow us to see connections and relationships within the medical community that might not have been apparent otherwise. And it will hopefully some day allow us to find out the true identity of the mysterious Mistress Vernam.
Monterey Hall, is an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and is a student of Rebecca Laroche.
Ancestry.com. Ancestry, 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2015.
Catchmay, Lady Frances. A Booke of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye. 1625. Wellcome Library MS 184a. Web. 2 Nov 2015
Jackson, Jane. Booke of Medical Receipts. 1642. Wellcome Library MS 373. Web. 16 Dec 2015.
Monterey Hall is a student at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She worked with Professor Rebecca Laroche in an independent study on the Catchmay Manuscript in Fall 2015.
Inset within Lady Frances Catchmay’s Booke of Medicens (Wellcome MS 184a) is a group of recipes attributed to one Mistress Vernam. This individual contributed thirty-two recipes to the manuscript spanning from folios 32r to 33v, making her Lady Catchmay’s single biggest outside contributor. These recipes are also prefaced by a marginal note stating “Mr:s: Vernams: medicens:” and appended by another marginal note stating “The End of Mr:s: Vernams medicens:” (Catchmay), making her the manuscript’s only contributor to be differentiated by any sort of individualized heading. And yet, despite having contributed a large amount of material to Lady Catchmay’s Booke of Medicins, Mistress Vernam appears nowhere else in any early modern database.
The sheer volume of recipes that Mistress Vernam contributed to MS 184a implies that Lady Catchmay had a great deal of respect for her. There are two possible reasons why Mistress Vernam has so many recipes within the manuscript: this collection might be a starter manuscript like those discussed by Elaine Leong; or, more likely, Lady Catchmay might have collected these recipes during the manuscript’s original compilation. The lack of other such sections in the book seems to discredit the theory that this particular collection could be a starter manuscript. If Lady Catchmay had left blank sections open for starter manuscripts, then we would expect to find several different collections like Mistress Vernam’s. Since this collection is entirely unique within the manuscript, it is far more likely that Lady Catchmay collected these recipes during the book’s original compilation.
Lady Catchmay must have had a close relationship with Mistress Vernam to have collected and included so many of Mistress Vernam’s recipes in her manuscript, but discovering the nature of this relationship has proven challenging. Mistress Vernam did not have an official title, so she could not have been of the same social status as Lady Catchmay. She might have worked in the Catchmay household, but it is difficult to say this for certain without a written record detailing as much. In order to find out what Mistress Vernam’s relationship to Lady Catchmay might have been, I looked for her in other contemporary manuscripts with the help of Dr. Rebecca Laroche. If Lady Catchmay respected Mistress Vernam enough to accumulate four whole folios’ worth of her recipes, then I thought that surely Mistress Vernam must appear in another medical text. Dr. Laroche and I searched for every variant of the name “Vernam” that we could think of on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s HAMNET catalogue, the Wellcome database, and the Luna database without finding a single hit. I continued to search for her on my own within these same databases, and I also perused the Defining Gender database with just as little success. Even a simple Google search turned up nothing. Each of these failures to find her only served to make me even more curious about Mistress Vernam’s identity.
I then turned to the database Ancestry.com to try to find Mistress Vernam in genealogical records. An individual would have to meet three criteria to be considered a match: her married name would have to be a variant of Vernam; she had to have been married within fifty years or so of 1625, the rough date of the manuscript’s original compilation (Rutz); and she had to have lived near St. Briavels, Gloucestershire, the place in which Lady Catchmay lived and likely where she compiled her manuscript (Rutz). I found many individuals that met two of the three criteria, but only one individual matched on all three. Jess Cox was a woman who married John Vernam in Hardwicke, Gloucestershire (about 25 miles from St. Briavels) on the 2nd of November, 1613 (Ancestry.com). Although there’s no way to know for certain if this is the same Mistress Vernam as the one who is referenced in Lady Catchmay’s manuscript, she is the only individual on all of Ancestry.com that matches well enough on date, place, and name to be considered a likely candidate.
Rather than giving a definite answer to the question of Mistress Vernam’s identity, however, this discovery raises even more questions. Neither Jess nor John Vernam have any other records in the genealogical database, so there is still no way of knowing precisely how Mistress Vernam is connected to either Lady Catchmay or seventeenth-century medical practice. To find out, I will have to turn to other medical texts to see if Mistress Vernam’s recipes have been accumulated by other manuscript or print compilers.
Monterey Hall is a student at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She worked with Professor Rebecca Laroche in an independent study on the Catchmay Manuscript in Fall 2015
Catchmay, Lady Frances. A Booke of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye. 1625. Wellcome Library MS 184a. Web. 2 Nov 2015.
Ancestry.com. Ancestry, 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2015.
Leong, Elaine. “Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household.” Centaurus 55.2 (2013): 81-103. Wiley Online Library. Web. 3 Dec 2015.
Rutz, Katrina. “Frances Catchmay.” EMROC.hypotheses.org. July 2014. Web. 23 Nov 2015.