Home Remedies, Recipe Books and 18th Century Medicine

Today I am going to talk to you guys about something I studied briefly during my masters, but did not really have the chance to look into. Yet, I think it is an interesting topic, and actually very much contemporary. If you are one of those people who worry about being healthy in an age of know-it-alls and what not, you may be aware of the great commotions that self-medicating and diagnosis has caused over the last few years. Well, this is only a very recent apprehension that has developed onto applying medicine yourself by your own procurement. It was certainly not the ordinary folk of the 18th century would have thought much about.

In the 1700s the four humours were still used as the main pathways for medicine. It was all about staying in synch with your body and find balance through diet, exercise and your environment – I guess nowadays we would call it a very holistic way of approaching medicine, right? And people would achieve this balance by obtaining health care by all sorts of ways. Practitioners were usually expensive so these would have been called only in certain occasions perhaps for more severe illnesses, or more frequently for those who could afford them. Mostly people would resource to self-diagnosis, as well as the purchase of commercial remedies, drugs and other type of herbs and natural remedies. Elaine Leong (University of Warwick) has developed her entire research around this subject. One of the aspects of her work that I found most intriguing is the use of gardening books as a compilation of advise and guidance of medical herbs. Books such as The New Art of Gardening with the Gardener’s Almanac would be popular best-sellers of the time. Moreover, people kept recipe notebooks alongside these type of publications where they would annotate lists of medicinal waters, syrups and other type of beverages for the cure of common ailments. These nasty tasting things would often been sweetened with sugar or honey – perhaps not so different from our current thoughts about certain medicines, I presume (Any of you had to take Dalsy or Apiretal when you were little? Did you not wished that their so-called strawberry and orange flavours where actually as advertised?).

These lists compiled over time also give us an insight into how intrinsically linked with the economy this homemade remedy business was. The pages would contain the ingredients required for each “potion” if you like, much like you would find in a cooking book these days. During the 18th century, the importance of international trade becomes transparent through the constant mention of spices and herbs obtained from southeastern Asia as well as the Caribbean. This was a serious task for whoever decided to follow the paths of self-medication and notebook keeping. Just consider the amount of time invested, as well as the money and resources required to get the job done right. So what sot of things did they make back then to keep all good and jolly inside? Well, believe it or not, a very frequent remedy for any kind of malady was a god purge. Purgatives were actively used in medicine, even for things that has nothing to do with the digestive system. And a lot of these laxatives you could just make at home. Here is a recipe for one such a thing that was published in A Book of Phisick, for a “pleasant purge”:

  • Manna – which was this magicky sounding name for the dried sap of the Southern European ash tree.
  • Lemon juice.

Aloe was actually use extensively during the 18th century for these remedies as well – and in fact if you substitute in the above recipe the tree for aloe that would apparently get rid of intestinal worms…One of the most common maladies that we also see cropping up often in these books are headaches – and here you are thinking of the convenience of just popping a couple of tablets of paracetamol/ibuprofen huh? Well, in the same book you find several different types of home treatments, from drinking strong tea or coffee (relatable?) or you know, just comb your hair upwards and rub in some nutmeg and vinegar…

If you are laughing at how silly this all may sound, think that this is a controversial issue nowadays and that the controversy has only started recently in the age of great pharmaceuticals, when you suddenly go to the doctor for the pills you were taking for xyz, and suddenly they change it so something else simply cause its cheaper (even though these pills may in the long run be 3 times worse for you, or have some ridiculous side effects). So perhaps, before you apply your critical eye to the situation of self medicating people or those who go or natural remedies, think that it is a very 21st century problem of 1st world countries, and perhaps you need to take a step back and think that when your granny use to tell you to take some chamomile tea before your exam to cool down, she may have had a point. And that like the good Paracelsus said back in the day  “Sola dosis facit venenum”.


…And if you are intrigued by some of these books and notebooks, here are some links to the Wellcome Library where you can have a peak at some of these manuscripts.



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