To celebrate Halloween Molly Fennelly looks at a strange recipe book from the collection of the Royal College of Nursing Library and Archives. It is one of a series of blog posts on the theme of Magic and the Supernatural, as part of History Day 2017.
Our collection holds the 17th century recipe book of Richard Morton. All of his recipes are hand-written, carefully chosen by him for their proven success. Many of them marked ‘probatum’. The aged pages start out as you would expect. A carefully crafted recipe for gingerbread declares it a ‘tasty pudding.’ A recipe for ‘White Marmalade’ would still work today, calling for a pound quinces, sugar and a pint of water. Others are perhaps less widely known today, but Oyster Tart and Almond bread still sound delicious.
Reaching the second half of the book, the recipes take a turn. No longer just remedy for an empty stomach, these recipes list how to make the best medicines of the day. Morton has again taken the time to write these out for their perceived effectiveness. They detail all the afflictions a seventeenth-century man would be worried about – dropsy, ‘the biting of a Madogg’ and the plague.
However, the real horror is not just the illnesses themselves but the ineffective advice Morton offers to combat them. The book shows the completely different approach to medicine the seventeenth-century had. Morton, like many doctors of his time, believed there to be four ‘humours’ in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. You became ill if you had an excess of one of the humours. He therefore attempts to cure illnesses by rebalancing the humours. His advice to ‘break any bile’ is a ‘Quart of Ale.’ Not the most elaborate cure. Ale features quite heavily throughout the book. Other ingredients he uses includes; the blood of a ‘pigg two daeys auld’, munkey-pease [woodlice] and – rather mysteriously – Dragon. I dread to think what this really was. A few recipes call for spittle, a completely revolting idea for us in our germ-conscious society. Of course Morton had no concept of germs – germ theory would not be popularised until the late 19th century – or how infections were passed on. Along with the main thinkers of his day, it’s likely he believed disease was spread through bad air. These ‘cures’ were mostly based on personal beliefs and inherited superstition, and with ingredients like spit were quite likely to make you feel a whole lot worse.
We assume Morton was from a relatively wealthy family as he could afford to read and write. Recipe collecting was therefore mostly the preserve of those who could afford it. Recipes books were common within the literate classes, and passed down through the generations, often amended and added to throughout the years. Morton gave his book to Anne Morgan, who we assume was his daughter. An inscription tells us that a few months after Morgan received the book Morton died. Perhaps his recipes were keeping him alive after all.
Some Richard Morton approved cures for you to definitely not try at home:
For sore Eyes
Take munkey-pease [woodlice] stamped & strayned into a little beer & drink it.
For a soare Throate
Rost a new layde egg till it be only through warme. Chop open it att the topp withe your knife, and stir it very well about but put not salt in it. Then the patient sup it as surely as hee can and let him swallow as little as possible not going downe, ans within the houer or two take another in lyke sort. And this will woork a better effect then perchance you will expect from so easy a medicine.
To stay Vomiting
Take a crust of bread and spread upon it new treacle and lay it to the stomack. You must lay also to your soles of your feet toasts of bread made moist with vinegar.
To make one sleep that hath not Slept in a Long time before.
Take white poppy seeds, and Anniseeds of each a like pinch, and beate them together to a fine powder. Then take Rosewater the white of an Egg and mingle them, but first beate the white of the Egg very much, and take the froath. Cover the forehead then take the flaxe and sprinkle on top.