Concocting Recipes: The early modern medical home.

It has long been argued that the early modern home was a medical hub. And, in many ways, so it was. Sickness was first and last a domestic experience. It was almost always treated in the home and, given the range of potential conditions, the presence of one or more sick members of the family was doubtless a fairly regular occurrence.

In the main, it was women who were expected to take responsibility for medicating the household.  Women were assumed to be natural carers, and also to have acquired some skill in the preparation of medical recipes, and their application, by the time they reached the age of consent to marry. There were books dedicated to schooling literate women in the art of physick, many including what was effectively a ‘starter’s collection’ of remedies to enable them to treat a large number of common conditions. Indeed, medicine was part of the wider role of ‘housewife’, and ‘huswifery’ meant looking after the inhabitants, as well as maintaining the living space.

The role of men in household medicine is far less defined. There were, for example, no books specifically written to help men cope in the case of domestic illness. And yet they clearly did cope. Diaries, such as those by Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire, and Robert Bulkeley of Dronwy, Anglesey, both note sickness episodes of their wives, and suggest that they played a part in caring for them. It is also clear that men played a part in the acquisition of ingredients, often keeping records of where they found herbs for sale cheaply, or which apothecary they regularly purchased from. In this sense, medicine still fitted in to the patriarchal male family role, since it involved a broader input into the physical care and support of the family.

One question that remains largely unresolved, however, is that of how well equipped the early modern home was to cope with sickness. The contents of domestic recipe books suggest not only that a very broad range of skills were needed to be able to concoct remedies, but also that a range of equipment would also be necessary. How well equipped were ‘ordinary’ homes to meet these needs?

One body of sources that lets us peer back inside the early modern home are probate records. When a person died, the probate process often required a list of their household contents to be made to allow their estate to be valued. For the study of the material culture of this period, these sources are incredibly valuable. They are, however, often frustratingly vague, and all depends on the diligence of the individual surveyor. For example, a detailed record might list every individual possession, room by room, including furniture, ornaments, valuables, but also sometimes even book titles and foodstuffs held in storage. Much depended on the intrinsic value of the goods; if they had a resale value, they might be worth including. In less detailed inventories, however, a whole room might be listed under a single entry, with a generic term like ‘household stuff’.

In terms of medical items, this causes a problem. Things like herbs and, perhaps, individual jars of ointments or medicines were too impermanent to list, so don’t appear in the inventories of ‘ordinary’ households and very seldom even in elite household inventories. Equally, finding any equipment that can be definitely be classified as ‘medical’ is problematic, since many had dual usage. Nevertheless, it is still worth speculating based on available evidence, to see if any hints about the material culture of domestic medicine can be gleaned from these sources.

Whilst writing my PhD thesis, to try and address this question, I looked at over 1300 inventories from 82 parishes in the county of Glamorgan in South Wales. I decided to look for two items of equipment in particular – the pestle and mortar, and the brewing still. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century self-help books extolled the virtues of a well equipped kitchen. For the seventeenth-century medical writer Thomas Brugis, top of the list of items desirous for those people wishing ‘to compound medicine themselves’ were ‘a great mortar of marble and another of brasse’. A long list of other items were included, from ‘copper pannes to make decoctions’, ‘glasses for cordiall powders’ and a range of medical implements. The popular medical author Gervase Markham, also entreated his idealised English housewife to ‘furnish herself of very good stills, for the distillation of all kinds of waters…for the health of her household’, and the emphasis all round lay firmly with a well-equipped kitchen, able to minister autonomously to sick family members within a household.#

As a baseline test, over 91% of the inventories contained at least one item of kitchen equipment, including pots, pans, crocks and so on. Overall, the suggestion was that the vast majority of homes had at least the ability to concoct basic remedies. As Elaine Leong has recently noted, for example, boiling was needed in around 20-30% of early modern remedies.

But what of more specialised equipment? The results were interesting. Out of 1248 inventories, only 148 (11%) had listed a pestle and mortar. Before 1635, there were no occurrences whatsoever, and a peak of ownership didn’t seem to occur until the early eighteenth century. Whilst this figure of 11% should definitely be taken as a bare minimum to allow for inevitable under-recording, this still seems surprisingly low. What was also clear, though, was that the item was more common in better-off households, and also in urban areas. The pestle and mortar would have been a basic utensil for grinding herbs and spices into powder. Whilst not owning one certainly can’t be used as evidence to say that a home wasn’t ‘medical’, its lack of appearance is still noteworthy.

Turning to the ‘still’ or ‘limbeck’ the results were even more striking. A still was a multi-purpose item, which could be used for home brewing, as well as the distillation and fermentation of substances for medical recipes. It has recently been calculated that around 10% of remedies required a still in this period. Despite this, the Glamorgan inventories yielded a total of only 41 references in 1248 inventories, giving an average of less than 3%. Here again, ownership was general limited to wealthier households.

[A full statistical analysis, including comparisons with other Welsh counties was included but, for the sake of brevity, it’s not detailed here. See Alun Withey, Health, Medicine and the Family in Wales, 1600-1750 (Swansea University, Phd Thesis, 2009)]

It is also worth noting (albeit perhaps unsurprisingly as noted earlier) that no inventories contained any reference to medical remedies, ingredients or substances, and only a bare few contained items which could be construed as ‘medical’, such as a blood dish in one home, and a ‘nurseing chayre’ in another.

What do these results tell us? They certainly don’t tell us that early modern homes did not manufacture their own medicines, nor that they were incapable of doing so. Even the most basic of utensils could be used in this process, and the majority of homes possessed these.

They also don’t reveal much physical evidence of medicine, such as a ‘storehouse’ of remedies or ingredients, but this is, in many ways, entirely logical. Medicine was transitory and pragmatic. Recipes were often concocted as and when needed. Some, like ointments, could last for years and be kept, but many were too impermanent to keep. Also, just because they weren’t listed, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Whilst some historians are beginning to question the extent to which each household physically grew its own herbs, it’s plausible that many did.

But what is also interesting is the availability of ingredients for remedies in even the smallest rural shops. People could purchase exotic herbs and spices from their village shop, as well as compound remedies such as plague water and Venice Treacle. It is entirely possible that the extent to which domestic production was intertwined with the medical marketplace has yet to be appreciated.

In any case, there is a need for more studies into the material culture of early modern domestic medicine. If the early modern home was indeed a medical hub, a wider study should give us a broader understanding not only of what medicines people used in their homes, but how they made them.


7 thoughts on “Concocting Recipes: The early modern medical home.

  1. Excellent and fascinating article which casts a light on how the theories published in EM books were implemented in real homes. The statistics on the incidences of pestles and mortars in the home are very illuminating. I’m wondering if there’s a correlation with the development of brass founding technology at the time. I have noticed a similar relationship between the development of glass making and EM dining etiquette.

    1. Thanks for this Matthew – very kind of you. Your question about brass technology is one I hadn’t really considered…rather shamefully, given that the last book was all about new metal technologies! I’m definitely going to give this some thought; there was some work done recently on instances of brass and pewter in inventories, and the impact of metalwares on household goods, so I think I’ll revisit that. Thanks again,

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