My fascination with historic cookbooks knows no bounds. It jumps from country to country and century to century. Most recently I’ve been intrigued by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British cookbooks, partly because I’ve spent quite a bit of time in England this year and partly because these books are about much more than just cooking. They are part of a genre of books on household management that give us an insight into the daily lives of the middle class and those striving to climb the social ladder.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, household management books—historically written by men—were popular all over Europe. By the seventeenth century, England had a higher literary rate than elsewhere in Europe and a new market emerged—books written by women for women. Femininity suddenly acquired a feminine voice. Household management books became as big business among women as lifestyle books and blogs are today (and in theory, not entirely different).
I’m especially drawn to The Gentlewoman’s Companion (A Guide to the Female Sex) published by Hannah Woolley in 1673. Woolley is said to have been the first professional female cookbook writer, the first woman to earn her living by the pen, and the first woman to include her portrait in a cookbook. She dedicates her book, “To all Young Ladies, Gentlewomen, and all Maidens whatever,” and either a “Lady at court,” or a “Cook-maid in the country.” By addressing women of all ages and social groups, she proposes a unifying category for womanhood.
Her publications were so popular they went through several editions. The Gentlewoman’s Companion was her third book. Alongside recipes for roasts and stews, Woolley gave advice on how to run a household, tips on child rearing, rules of domestic conduct, table manners, cosmetics and perfumery, the etiquette of letter writing, reading and education, and “Pleasant Discourses and Witty Dialogues” between gentlemen and ladies (securing a good husband was a must during the Restoration period; if you didn’t know how to preserve fruit or cure constipation, chances of finding one were slim.)
It is no secret the ability to cook was indispensable to a woman, but most fascinating was the emphasis on medical skills. Women tended gardens to grow herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes (I like to think of them as living medicine chests). Among recipes and household tips are medical prescriptions. Through the practice of medicine, a woman was valuable to both her household and to the community at large. The lady of the manor might be the unofficial doctor of the village much to the dismay of “official” physicians, a male dominated field.
Hannah Woolley learned about “Physick and Chyrurgery” (the healing arts and surgery) from her mother and older sisters. She developed a good reputation as a healer and in 1675 published The Accomplisht Ladys Delight: In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying and Cookery further demonstrating that medical care was as much a part of a woman’s household duties as cooking. She used her books to advertise her skills and invited her readers to consult her in person. It is ironic that as much as Woolley and other female writers advocated traditional housewife roles in their household management books, they themselves were independent career women.
The “Introduction to Physick and Chyrurgery” section in The Gentlewoman’s Companion begins with the healing properties of spices, which follow the humoral theories popular during the Middle Ages. She goes on to list specific remedies. My favorites include the remedy for a sudden and violent nose bleed, which was to take an eggshell, burn it to a coal, then pulverize and let the person snuff it up his nostrils. To cure bad breath, she instructed to “rub your teeth with water and salt, which has the dual property of helping cure scurvy.” Rosemary boiled in white wine was used “to cleanse the face, and make it look beautiful and fair.” “A well-tried Medicine for the Corns of the Feet or Toes” involved the liquid of a bruised black snail.
In the traditional medicine of the British Isles between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, plants would dictate, through their physical form, the body part they would heal. For example, if a leaf looked like a lung, naturally it would cure lung disease, as ludicrous as that may sound. Many household management medical recipes, treatment with herbs, spices and other natural properties constituted an important aspect of the medical practice of the time. The line between official and unofficial medicine cannot be easily drawn because knowledge of the properties of herbs belongs to an ancient tradition, which survives in today’s alternative medicine.
The recipe that I find most interesting in The Gentlewoman’s Companion is one that appears repeatedly in cookbooks throughout the centuries. That would be a recipe for Plague Water. Plague Water? Yes, plague water. Recipes for plague water were as common then as recipes for lemonade are today (then again sailors drank grog, which was essentially lemonade with rum. The vitamin C in the lemon helped fight scurvy so in theory perhaps it’s not all that different?) The earliest known date of use appears in Samuel Pepys’ diary the summer of 1665 when he was given a bottle of plague water during the height of the plague outbreak.
Although no two recipes were exactly alike, recipes for plague water typically contained no less than twenty-two herbals including leaves, roots, flowers and seeds, steeped in white wine and/or brandy and then distilled (an early form of bitters, perhaps?). Many of the plants used grew wild or were easily grown in herb gardens.
Among the ingredients that overlap are sage and rue. Sage helped with digestion and apparently grew best in households where the wife was dominant. Rue was used as a sedative. Some women added mint to alleviate stomach and chest pain. They used rosemary to boost the immune system. Others combined agrimony, an astringent to heal wounds, with mugwort, to fight unease, fatigue, and evil spirits.
Woolley’s recipe includes mithridate, an expensive medicine made with viper’s flesh infused in alcohol along with fifty-five herbs and spices including cinnamon and myrrh. Later recipes substituted lizard for viper. It was considered a universal antidote against poison and infections and took its name from King Mithridates who, in the first century B.C., was reputed to have made himself immune to poison by constantly taking small doses of mithridate. He was so successful that when he tried to commit suicide he was unable to find anything sufficiently lethal so he had his slave stab him to death (but that’s another story).
Plague water was consumed by mouth, rubbed on the loins or temples, or sniffed. It was said that if the recipe didn’t work, you missed some of the ingredients, or you took it too late.
As an ode to Hannah Woolley and to all the independent women and healers out there, here’s a Plague Water cocktail recipe, because one can never be too sure…
Recipe for Plague Water
Below is Hannah Woolley’s original recipe using bitters and medicinal herbs infused in alcohol. The use of bitters can be traced to ancient Egypt; prior to the 1800s when they were first used in cocktails, bitters were made at home or sold in pharmacies. This can be used as a base recipe, but enjoy getting creative with your own at-home interpretations.
To make the Plague-water — Take a handful of Sage, and a handful of Rue, and boyl them in three pints of Malmsey, or Muskadine, till one pint be wasted, then take it off the Fire, and strain the Wine from the Herbs, then put into the Wine two penny-worth of long pepper, half an Ounce of Ginger, and a quarter of an Ounce of Nutmegs, all grosly bruised, and let it boyl a little again. Then take it off the Fire, and dissolve in it half an Ounce of good Venice-Treacle, and a quarter of an Ounce of Mithridate, and put to it a quarter of a pint of strong Angelica-water, so keep it in a Glass close stopped, for your Use.