Nicola here. A couple of weeks ago I took part in the UK’s Heritage Open Days Festival, the biggest celebration of history and heritage in the country. The theme of this year’s festival was Edible England and our display, put on by the Friends of Lydiard Park in Swindon, centred on a most fascinating historical document, a “recipe” book that was created by Lady Johanna St John in the 17th century. Lady Johanna, as well as having many menus for sumptuous banquets, also used vegetable, flower, and herbal cures for everything from piles to nosebleeds. These are also included in her books and referred to as “recipes” so there is everything from a mutton stew to a cure for cramp! Some of the recipes are also for cosmetic treatments, such as to make your hands soft. We tried that one and the mixture worked beautifully as a hand cream; the only problem was that the cream – and us – smelled very strongly of vinegar! In fact a number of ingredients in some of the recipes would raise eyebrows now, including the use of cow dung!
As part of the festival, we invited Lucy Whitfield, women’s history specialist, to choose and recreate some of the recipes for visitors in the walled garden at Lydiard Park. The garden, which was created in the Georgian period and restored in 2007, is divided into six sections with wide pathways, a well and a sundial. The narrow beds contain trimmed shrubs and perennial plants, alternating with individual flowers and bulbs. Along the walls and in the centre of flowerbeds are trained apple, pear, greengage, peach, plum, cherry, apricot and fig trees. A part of the garden is dedicated to growing the types of herbs and other plants that Lady Johanna would have used in her recipes so it was the perfect setting to showcase some of the ingredients from the book. (I took lots of pictures which I was hoping to use to illustrate this bog, but when I tried to post them up, they all came up upside down so I've had to improvise!)
Lady Johanna St john was born in 1631 and lived through the turbulent years of the English Civil War. Whilst she spent a great deal of time in London and at the St John estates in Battersea, detailed letters from her to her steward at Lydiard Park give an insight into way that she ordered produce from the estate to make up the recipes in her books. These range from menus for grand dinners: “a brace of deer – som butter chees and rabbits” were ordered on one occasion – as were compounds of herbs such as comfrey and rue, and ones that are more common to us, like sage and lavender. Rose water was used a lot, and the walled garden has some gorgeous specimens of old roses.
Some of the remedies written down in Lady Johanna’s book are published with a personal recommendation: ‘For a Consumption cured my cos Fabian – muscadel a quart walnut water a pint the same of spirmint water a qtr of a pound of Loaf suger a pece of cinomon put all thes together into 2 grt Bottle shake it once a day for 8 days give a qtr of a pint morning & afternoon.’
You get a lot of sugar and a lot of alcohol in some of these medicines!
Another tried and tested medicine was ‘A Wound Drink which a Friend procured me out of Holland it cured Sr John Mince who was run thurow the Lungs & had sore wounds in a Sea Fight.’ That would have come in handy during the civil wars!
Other friends and relatives also contributed cures to the book. Amongst them were Sir Edward Spencer, Lady Manchester and Lady Peterborough who all had remedies for sore eyes. Sir Phillip Warwick was noted to ‘commend Briony roote to weare in the pocket only’ to ward off an attack of the cramp. During this period many men were equally as interested in the medicinal effects of herbs and plants as women were and swapped recipes amongst themselves.
Another notable feature of the recipes is that there was sometimes little distinction made between herbal ingredients and magical ones in cures since medicine as we understand it and the way in which it works, was often mysterious to our ancestors. One recipe, “Banister’s Powder,” thought to be a cure for poison, requires the ingredients of “powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart.” In reality the unicorn horn was often some other animal horn ground up. Bezoars were gallstones from animals which were very expensive to buy. Often fake ones were sold at exorbitant prices but people strongly believed in their curative properties.
Lady Johanna also used almond milk quite a lot in her recipes, recognising its health-giving benefits. It’s interesting how fashions go around and how oat and almond and other milks that were in use in the 17th century are seen as very healthy today!
Below are a few of the recipes that we reproduced for the event, though not necessarily with the precise ingredients mentioned! We didn’t make the custard but it’s an interesting recipe and again, the colour blue is an important magical part of the process for making sure it works.
Take of a boy’s water between 3 and 7 years old and of the thickest cream you can, each alike quantity. Strain into a copper porigner beating them with a copper spoon half an hour at a time twice a day until it come to butter. Spread it all over the inside of the porringer, set it in the oldest chamberly you can get up to the brim of the porringer for 9 days, sometimes spreading it out again. Put as much as a pin’s head into your eye in the morning, be sure you sleep not after, and keep your eye from wind and dust. This do for 3 days, then rest a day and use it again as you see cause.
(Obviously we didn’t use real urine in recreating this one!)
Take bright Seville oranges, parse the outward rind as thin as is possible, put it into a pint of true sherry sack, give 2 spoonfuls night and mornings the well days, and also the fit day, and an hour before the fit.
This also is good for the worms.
(This mixture smelled absolutely delicious!)
A Custard for Weakness in the back.
The yolks of four new-laid eggs, the pith of an ox, almonds. Beat them thoroughly and strain them with a little new cream that is not above 8 hours old. Lay the pith in water to take out the blood and strip it from the skin. Put thereto nutmeg, rose water and sugar. Either make it into puddings or bake it with eggs poached in water where mint has been boiled. Also the milts of all fresh fish is good for the back if the patient be cold in his back.
Oil of camomile, capon’s grease and sandalwood boil it in a pot and anoint the back. Lay it on a blue cloth that is wadded. Lay it next to the skin.
If they be hot in the back, take oil of roses, the seeds of plantain and the youngest plantain you can get and some sandalwood, boil this in a galley pot on a skillet of water and anoint the back. Wear a blue cloth; this will cure the back in a consumption.
To Make Conserve of Hipps
Cut them in half and with a penknife scrape out all the seeds and down. Let them lie 2 days covered in an earthen basin, beat and pulp them through a hard sieve, take the weight of the pulp in sugar, beat them until they are well mixed, take as much as a nutmeg night and morning.
Basically this reminded me of my childhood when rosehip syrup was my favourite drink! However this was a difficult one to source because there are very few rosehips around this year.
The mind boggles at some of these, but perhaps half the battle is in believing that these cures are doing you good! When Lady Johanna died, she left her recipe books to her daughter, making sure to pass on the accumulated wisdom to the next generation.
You can find Lady Johanna’s book in the Lydiard Archives online, along with so many other fascinating records that relate to life at Lydiard Park through a thousand years of history.
My grandmother always used to swear by rubbing goose grease on your chest if you had a cold. Did you inherit any cures or words of wisdom on how to deal with certain ailments? Do you have any old family recipes that you still make? Would you be prepared to try any of Lady Johanna’s recipes? I think I’m sticking with the almond milk!