Wednesday 8 July 2020

Cooking the books!

Like many archives around the country, the team at Cheshire Archives have been working remotely from home during lockdown with no access to the original records. The role of archive staff has changed massively over the years and luckily there is plenty of digital engagement work and cataloguing improvements that we can do to occupy us from afar. However, the archives themselves are still at the heart of what we do.

No one could have envisaged this rather surreal and strange period of isolation, and even after the first week I found myself missing looking at and handling original archives. It’s the feel of archives and, dare I say it, the smell of them!

Amongst the archives you can’t help but have particular favourites, and I am certainly missing some of my ‘old friends’. Obviously all of the archives we have our special but there are some that you form a special attachment to or bond with; the quirky archives that are just plain weird and those that you are proud and excited to show off to the groups that come into the archives.

A number of years ago we hosted a ‘Cooking the Books - A culinary adventure through history’ event where we did a show and tell session focusing on some of the food related records in our collection. We looked at everything from recipes for quaking puddings and drunken loaves to remedies for the treatment of fiery noses and the plague! Many of the staff decided to try and recreate some of the recipes in the books. This proved to be interesting for some of the dishes where measurements and quantities aren’t always given. It was definitely a case of trial and experience. I do remember the very nice herb pie for lent though! You can find the recipe for this here.

We were quite taken by surprise with how popular the event was and it resulted in lots of publicity and even a radio interview that resulted in a whole show with folk ringing in about their remedies for ailments…

One such archive is Lady Stanley’s medical remedy and recipe book or DDX 361 if you want its official archive reference. It’s a small A5 size book bound in vellum and it definitely fits into the category of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. On the outside it’s a rather battered, worn and unpromising volume but when you open it you are taken on a wonderful journey through 17th Century plants, herbs and medicine.

Lady Elizabeth Stanley began the book around 1620. The volume begins in a very neat secretary hand, and as the book goes on we get different handwriting. Subsequent members of the family, maybe? I like to think that it was a treasured book that was passed down through generations... It was important enough for Lady Stanley herself to inscribe ‘the ever honoured and right worshipfull Mrs Elizabeth Stanley of Alderley oweth this booke. July 16th 1653.’

The book begins with medical remedies, and towards the end of the book you are in the more familiar territory of ‘eel pye’, cooking partridge, veal and mutton and pickling red cabbage:

It wasn't until the end of the 17th century that a more clinical and scientific approach to the treatment of ailments and sicknesses began. Prior to this it would have been local folk with a knowledge of the virtues of plants and medicinal properties. The gardens would have been not only the larder for the family but also their medicine cupboard. 

Probably the first thing that strikes you as you look through the remedies in Lady Stanley's book isthat they cover everyday ailments for which we would nowadays pop to the pharmacy: remedies for colds using masses of honey, cures for gout and tooth ache, for freckles, a remedy for stinking breath and "an excellent water for the face to cleare the skinn and to keep it from wrinckles".

Other remedies were attempts to tackle some of the more serious, killer diseases about at that time- "a good drink for the pestilence" "to destroy all poison and plague" and "Mrs Katherine Booth’s recept to out pitts in the face after ye smallpox". 

It's hard to think from our modern vantage point with so much medical science and knowledge behind us that people were fighting these diseases with the help of what they could grow in their gardens. 

Some of the ingredients, such as ‘the six spoonfulls of dragons water’ and ‘treacle of jeane’ used in the pestilence remedy, sound rather alien to us nowadays but would have been popular and accepted ingredients at the time. (What is treacle of jeane you ask? A bit of further research tells me it was a genoa treacle or syrup recipe, a popular family medicine of the times which was often used to remove infections from the body. I’m still working on dragon’s water!)

Like us, when they discovered rememdies that worked for them and proved to be beneficial they shared them amongst their local community e.g. ‘Mrs Fallow’s syrup for the cold’, ‘Mr Crewe’s receipt for wormes’ and the ‘Countess of Derbye’s dyett drinke’.  At the end of many of the remedies you will find the words ‘probatum est’ which means that it had been proven to work. Although looking at some of the ingredients you wonder how and what side effects they would have had!

Finally the book conveys perfectly the superstition of the times and some of the more fantastical remedies are ‘how to bring forth haires upon a bald man’s head’, ‘to know whither a woman be with child of a male or female’ and perhaps most worryingly ‘to know whither one shall live or dye’.

You can’t get much better than a book that tells you what folk were eating in the past, which plants and herbs were readily available, the state of medicine and health in the 17th century and lots and lots of wonderful social history!

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