Women and Early Modern Medicine (Physick)

In class this week, we briefly discussed the ways women engaged in early modern healthcare by concocting their own homemade cures. Within their own home, or even within a broader community, many early modern women unofficially filled the role of apothecary and physician. As we saw in Karlsen’s, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, this on occasion led to charges of witchcraft.

Luckily for us, The Wellcome Library in London has preserved and digitized many of these manuscript physick books. Looking at these books, in which women recorded recipes for their preferred medicinal cures, it can be easy to see how early modern healthcare could conjure perceptions of witches boiling potions in a cauldron.

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Ms. 4051, Receipt-Book, 17th century. The Wellcome Library, London. The full digitized book is available online via The Wellcome Library.

One example from an anonymous recipe book (or, “receipt book”) from the seventeenth century shows us recipes for a purgative and for children suffering from a cough:

A Common Purging Potion to be given to Elder Persons upon any Occasion where Purging is Requisite

Take halfe an Ounce of Tamaraids 2 Drachms of Senea, one Drachm and halfe of Rubarb, boile them in a Sufficent quantity of Watter to 4 oues, then drain them and add Manna Syrrup of Purgeing Apples of Each one Ounce

For Coughs in Children that Can not Spitt

Take oyle of Sweet Almonds 2 ounces Syrrup of Maiden Hair and Violets of Each one Ounce Suger Candy in Pouder halfe an Ounce, let the Child Lick thane of with a Licorish Stick when the Cough comes upon it in Elder persons if the flegm Coms up with Dificulty and is thick give the same Mixture a Spoon full at a time 4 or 5 times in a day, if the Rume be thin Add to the a bone mixture Syrrup of whit Popys 2 ounces and give one Spoon full every 4 hours to an Elder Person

Such recipes offer two examples of the many homemade remedies women created to help cure ill family members, in addition to others. For more on The Wellcome Library’s collection of physick books from the 16-19th centuries, see their website that links to several online manuscripts.

If you are interested in reading more about early modern medicine, see this post by Dr. Alun Withey, “Concocting Recipes: The Early Modern Medical Home.”

Also, for a book on the subject, see: Elaine G. Breslaw, Lotions, Potions, Pills, and Magic: Health Care in Early America (New York University Press, 2012).

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