Good For What Ails You

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Summer 2016

The U's collection of 'medical receipt books' is a fascinating catalog of centuries-old home remedies, from syrup of violet to pickled herring.

By Tim Brady


You're Marmaduke Rawdon living near your hometown of York, England, in the last half of the 17th century. You've spent much of your adult life managing a family-owned vineyard in the Canary Islands, but now, away from sunny climes and back in the damp air of York, you've caught a cold and your limbs are aching. What do you do to relieve your misery?

Luckily for you, you've had the means to collect a library's worth of manuscripts of all kinds over the years, even though personal libraries are not commonplace. At least one untitled volume on your shelf is of a sort that 21st century archivists will call a 'medical receipt book', a thick, handwritten collection of recipes, diet suggestions, home remedies, and cures for a potpourri of ailments - sort of a combined Anthony Bourdain cookbook and WebMD. The remedy "For Cold and Ache in Limes [limbs]" is found on page 11:

"Take a handful of sugar a handful of endive a handful of the red Flower of Archangell, and a quantitie of dandelion, and Seeth the Same with mutton, and eat the mutton and drinke the broth and you shall find ease."

As a cure for the common cold, mutton "seethed" in endive, sugar, dandelion, and "the red flower of Archangel" - what we know as red deadnettle - remains as good as any. It is far from the only sage advice to be found in Marmaduke Rawdon's book, which now rests under great care at the University of Minnesota's Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine.

The author is a woman named Mary Pewe; or possibly Carew (the name is obscured but might correlate to the initials M.C., which appear throughout the book). Personal information about her can be gleaned from the text, and it appears that she survived the plague in 1625 and learned many recipes from her grandmother. Rawdon purchased it in 1664.

In pages surrounding the Remedy for Cold and Ache in Limes are found Pewe's careful handwritten correctives for sleep ailments and melancholy; a description of the best sorts of drinking water; ways to walk past sleeping dogs without waking them; and treatments for bruises, broken bones, and "all maner of bones that ache." Elsewhere in this remarkable manuscript's 1,080 pages are found hundreds of prescriptions for an array of everyday health problems familiar and unfamiliar, from suggestions on how to "draw forth splinters" to how to "cleanse olde stinking and corrupt sores & ulcers. . . ." If it was a household or health problem in 17th century York, Mary Pewe provided a solution.

The Rawdon manuscript, along with 30 other rare handwritten medical receipt books published between 1540 and 1820 in the Wangensteen Library, is the largest collection of its type in the Midwest and one of the largest in the nation.

In the context of this collection, the word 'receipt' is synonymous with 'recipe', and many items deal with food ingredients. In a historical context, however, diet has always been associated with health, and the receipt books in the Wangensteen collection do not consist strictly of cooking recipes. The 30 handwritten manuscripts, and many more printed books, also found in the medical receipt book collection at the library, offer a wide array of prescriptions for an assortment of ailments, from plague to bald spots on top of ye olde middle-aged head. The "eye of newt"-style remedies are interesting, but even more valuable to scholars is the window these intimate details provide into the home lives of 16th, 17th, and 18th century people.

Emily Beck (B.A. '96), a Ph. D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, who is currently working with the medical receipt book collection at the Wangensteen, says, "If there are 10 to 15 different recipes concerning mad dog bites in one of these books, it doesn't mean that there were rabid dogs everywhere, but that it was a particularly concerning problem in eras before rabies vaccination. If there seem to be a lot of recipes for curing the cough of a cow, it has more to do with the economic value of domestic livestock to these families than an overabundance of concern for the sniffles of a heifer."

Lois Hendrickson, curator of the collection, is a longtime archivist with the University of Minnesota Libraries. She says scholarly interest in medical receipt books is a relatively recent but growing phenomenon in the world of public and private library collections. The Wangensteen became interested in establishing its own collection in the late 1980s and has added to it ever since.

The increased interest in medical receipt books at the Wangensteen Library is evidenced in a variety of scholarly disciplines from biology to drama and literature. The Wangensteen recently received a grant from the University of Minnesota's Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World to host a reading group that gathers to discuss recipes. Students of Shakespeare have studied the books to better understand the culture of the period, including a Hamlet scholar interested in how skulls might have been employed in 16th and 17th century recipes. A scholar of literature searched for ways in which armor might have been cleaned. Medical students have closely examined the books to discern what science might lie behind the recipes offered.

The Wangensteen continues to build its outreach programs. It recently hosted an event focused on the history of chocolate and an exhibit called "Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation". Among other parts of the exhibit on fermentation and distillation, one section examined the historical uses of beer: how it was used, how it was brewed, what herbs and grains were employed in making it, and what health and nutritive properties historical beer recipes might have held.

Parts of the collection have drawn interest from community members hooked into the popular artisanal movement in the region. A Minneapolis restaurant called Gyst, which is interested in traditional fermentation processes in foods like cheese, chocolate, and pickles, as well as beer and wine, cohosted the chocolate event at the library. Topics of discussion included the historical uses of chocolate, its availability in Shakespeare's time, and what it might have tasted like given the recipes and limitations of the day (the lack of sugar, for instance).

The Wangensteen Historical Library is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. It is located on the East Bank at 505 Essex Street. Visitors are welcome.

An excellent medicine for an ague

Take the juice of tansie, and mingle with oyle of roses, and a little before the fit commeth let the patient be anointed therewith, and it will quit expel the ague, probatum est.

And also syrup of violet is good against all malefactions of the liver and breast and against the plurisi and drought.

Take a herring that is well pickled and split it on the belly side and make the same very hot, and lay it to both the soles of the feet of the parti and this will help immediately be it quotidian tertian or such.


Which is the best water

The best is rayne water The next is running water if it runs from the est to the weast The third is river or brooke water running on gravell or pibles Standing water that is refreshed with a spring is commendable Let water stand two or three houres in a thing Before you use it to settle and then straine it If any drink wine with water let them seeth the water and after it is cold put it to the wine. But it is best to drink stilled water to wine. It is not good to drink wine or ale before a man doe eat somewhat. Ale should not be drunk till it be five or six days ould

For melancholy

The tyme to sleep is 2 or 3 houres when as the meat is now settled at the bottom of the stomach and it is good to lye one the right side first, because at that side the liver doth rest under the stomach not molesting any way but heating him as a fire doth a kettle. Seaven or eight houres sleep is enough. . .

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