Herbal recipes from days of yore

The Wellcome Library in London has, to my unending delight, digitized many of their domestic herbal and culinary recipe books, which date back to the 1500s. You can access them free online here, and even download pdfs. Today I thought I’d share a recipe from one of these manuscripts–MS.2330, a book simply titled “Family Receipts [Recipes]” and dating to the late 1600s–for your historical interest. I transcribe it below since the writing has faded and is a little difficult to read. I’m transcribing it verbatim, with the original (charming) spellings and punctuation.

Oyl of Charetie from MS.2330, Wellcome Library

Recipe for Oyl of Charetie from MS.2330, Wellcome Library

To make Oyl of Charetie [Oil of Charity]

Take Rosemary, Lavender, Sage, Wormwood, Cammomil, & the Lesser Vallerian, of each 2. handfulls; cut ’em small, & put ’em into Oyl Olive 1. quart; then let ’em stand thus infus’d 4. days; then set it on the fire, & let it but waumble; then strain it from those herbs, & put herbs into the Oyl, & so let it stand other seven days, & do it as before till it ha’s been 3. times seven days infus’d; then put in Valerian only; and waumble it on the fire; then strain it, & keep the (?)clear by itself in a Glass. ‘Tis very good for any inward bruise, or outward; if inward take half a Spoonful in what Liquor you please; if outward anoynt the part; it heals the Green wound; Eases the tooth Ach, if it comes of cold Rheum dipping a cloth in it, & laying it to the Cheek; ’tis good for any swelling in man or horses; & after this manner you may make Oyl of any thing that grows.

I have never seen the word “waumble” before, but presumably it means something like “warm” or “simmer.” I think I should add it to my working vocabulary though, as it’s fun to say. Waumble. Nowadays, “lesser valerian” seems to refer to Valeriana dioica, but I’m not certain that would have been the same 300+ years ago. I imagine any valerian would do if you wanted to try to replicate this recipe. As much as our ancestors have been made fun of for using herbal treatments that supposedly didn’t work, this one is proof of the contrary: rosemary, lavender, sage, and chamomile are of course all excellent for wounds, helping to heal and kill bacteria. But what about wormwood and valerian?

Today we know wormwood best as a digestive bitter and the source of absinthe; Mrs. Grieve lists it as a nervine tonic. Yet it has many more virtues. Culpeper, roughly a contemporary of the person who wrote down his or her Family Receipts, discusses wormwood at length. Mostly this is because wormwood (Artemisia) was considered to be under the astrological rulership of Mars, and Culpeper really wants us to understand that Mars is not a bad guy, as was commonly believed in his day. So I got a chuckle when I next opened Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom to read:

“[The wormwoods] are remedies for people who have been through rough, brutal, dehumanizing events or harsh environmental stress, resulting in emotional and physical coldness, lack of somatic activity, [and] suppressed psychological affect…”

As Culpeper is at pains to point out, Mars may be rough, but “This herb testifies, that Mars is willing to cure all diseases he causes; the truth is, Mars loves no cowards, nor Saturn fools, nor I neither.” (I adore Culpeper. He’s so sassy.) Anyway, it is probably for this reason that wormwood was recommended for wounds and bruises–being caused by Mars, the god of war, they would be cured by an herb of Mars.

As for valerian, Culpeper states: “It is of excellent property to heal any inward sores or wounds, and also for outward hurts or wounds, and drawing away splinters or thorns out of the flesh.” Mrs. Grieve says that in medieval times valerian was regarded as so useful that it was called “all heal.” She notes that in addition to being “quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system,” valerian eases pain.

Nowadays we would probably use arnica and/or comfrey in lieu of wormwood and valerian in this type of remedy, but we know that both of those herbs can be damaging to the liver, so perhaps wormwood and valerian really were the better choices. Also, we wouldn’t heat the oil so much as it is widely maintained that to do so destroys some of the medicinal components in the herbs; but heat infusion is the traditional “folk” method and arguably very necessary in England, where this herbal was written, since you really can’t rely on enough sunshine to warm your oil gradually and consistently. I’d love to try this recipe myself and see how it goes, and when I do I will certainly report the results here.

Finally here’s another recipe, this one for “a scarlet lip salve.” It comes from The toilet of Flora; or, A collection of the most simple and approved methods of preparing baths, essences, pomatums, powders, perfumes, and sweet-scented waters. With receipts for cosmetics of every kind, that can smooth and brighten the skin, give force to beauty, and take off the appearance of old age and decay. For the use of the ladies (dated 1779) (p. 163). The whole volume can be viewed and downloaded free here.

The Toilet of Flora, 1170 - recipe for a scarlet lip salve

The Toilet of Flora, 1170 – recipe for a scarlet lip salve

I haven’t yet tried infusing herbs in fats of animal origin, though it’s said that pork suet has the closest chemical/physical structure to human skin oil and is thus most readily absorbed. Beef tallow is said to be second-best. The problem is that for safety, nutritional density, and quality, you would want to get fat from pastured pigs and render it yourself, and that is both difficult and very expensive for most of us. Another reason I’ve always used vegetable fats (oils) is because they are more widely acceptable (vegetarians and vegans can use them as well as omnivores), but animal fats were widely used in the old days and that is a legitimate method. If any of you have tried it, how did you like it? Leave me a comment!


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