Self-treatment in the eighteenth-century was encouraged by receipt books offering advice on both domestic matters and medicine. Historians such as Mary Fissell, Roy Porter and Elaine Leong have focused on how receipt books allowed freedom from often expensive healthcare providers such as physicians. In our last post (Evaluation of methodology (continued):), we explored how different editions of the same book often had changing numbers of receipts, increasing standardisation, and more reliance on contributions. These conscious decisions by female compilers to alter their compiled literature is indicative of experimentation, something which continued from the seventeenth-century onwards. Therefore, we decided to widen our focus by looking at how ingredients were used and prepared. Self-treatment and the importance of ingredients both come under the purview of domestic matters (such as readers preparing their own food) and medical instances, both of which are intermingled within the same receipt books. We know that the circulation of receipts included written pieces by both men and women. However, a female compiler’s choice to use receipts with interlinking natural and pre-processed ingredients shows the consolidation of female knowledge and stimulated experimentation.
Historian Fissell suggests that receipts were ‘composed of ingredients that early-modern readers would have been able to assemble from a kitchen garden, a trip to a market and/ or an apothecary’s shop’ (2). Receipts often contained a mixture of natural ingredients. These were often easily accessible to those who had means of entry to botanical gardens. Additionally, historian Elaine Leong explains how domestic and medical practices were ‘tied to the land’ (1), suggesting that natural ingredients were also readily available in gardens owned by the gentry. Receipts also contained complex ingredients which could be purchased from apothecaries. This highlights the extent of the disparities between types of ingredients and how they were sourced for use in receipts. Eighteenth-century female compilers such as Sarah Jackson included numerous receipts which utilised both natural and pre-processed ingredients to treat their own illnesses. Jackson’s 1754 The director: or, Young woman’s best companion contained a receipt for The Red Powder famous for Curing of Fevers of all sorts, and Agues. Uncomplicated ingredients such as betony were used alongside chemically processed ingredients like Venice treacle. Writers in the century previous to Jackson such as Nicholas Culpeper attempted to heighten the importance of the herb betony, recommending it as ‘a precious herb, well worth keeping in your house’ (3). The complexity of ingredients in receipts is demonstrated in this example. This is because the use of ingredients such as betony provides the reader with a false perception that the receipt is made up of easily-sourced and well-known ingredients.
Alternatively, Venice Treacle is made up of around sixty-four ingredients, and is a concoction of medicines. Combinations of various chemicals relates to the Paracelsian theory of Hermeticism, in which all matter within the universe was interrelated. This suggests that substances including herbs and chemicals could be combined to create ingredients containing medicinal qualities. Venice Treacle was developed before Paracelsian theories came about, but this rise in the popularity of such principles could have contributed somewhat to its persistent usage as an ingredient in receipts. As the receipt doesn’t include instructions on how to prepare this, we can assume that individuals would have bought it from a local apothecary. Venice treacle was also one of the most expensive items to buy from an apothecary. Work by a plethora of historians on both seventeenth and eighteenth-century receipt books has shown the continuous building of the important tradition of charitable medicine by aristocratic women. It might perhaps be the case that, if these women (alongside other male authors) were not part of the aristocracy, then particularly expensive ingredients would not be as commonplace. We have so far struggled to find any background information on Sarah Jackson as a female compiler. The choice to include expensive receipts might therefore suggest to us that she was a woman of aristocratic status.
When focusing on this particular receipt, differences in instructions between the natural and complex ingredients can be found. For example, straightforward techniques are employed, instructing the reader to ‘steep them in three pints of white wine’ for ingredients which would have been easy to collect (4). In contrast, pre-processed ingredients like Venice Treacle were used in conjunction with more complex methods and standardised measurements. Readers had to add ‘half an ounce’ of Venice Treacle, strain the mixture and leave it to dry in the sun (5). Receipts like this allowed women (and occasionally men) to confidently treat their families because they often contained detailed instructions on how to deal with more complex ingredients.
Elsewhere, a receipt For a pain in the head in Anne Battam’s 1759 The lady’s assistant in the oeconomy of the table, outlines where to buy one of the ingredients rather than how to prepare it. The receipt uses a mixture of oyster shell powder, water and milk to aid the symptoms of a pain in the head. Rather than advising individuals on how to prepare oyster shell powder, the receipt suggests ‘one pound of this powder 6d. at Mr Carter’s in the Hay-market’ (6). Advice on where to buy ingredients makes the receipt less demanding by removing complex processes.
From these two examples we can see that the preparation of ingredients was a complex part of self-treatment in the mid-eighteenth-century. The two receipt books studied act almost as advice manuals telling readers how to prepare ingredients, explaining complex processes, and giving information about where to buy ingredients from.
(1) Elaine Leong, Herbals she peruseth: reading medicine in early modern England, Renaissance Studies (2014)
(2) Mary Fissell, Women in Healing Spaces, The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (ed. Laura Knoppers) (2009)
(3) Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654)
(4) Sarah Jackson, The director: or, Young woman’s best companion (1754/55)
(5) Jackson, (1754/55)
(6) Anne Battam, The lady’s assistant in the oeconomy of the table: a collection of scarce and valuable receipts (1750/59)