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The Collation

Beyond a Cure for Plague

In the event of a plague infection, the Receipt Book of Sarah Longe (V.a.425, c. 1610) recommended a familiar receipt, “A most excellent drink against the Plague”, recounting a well-known mixture of ingredients often referred to as Doctor Burges’ plague water.1

A two-page spread showing handwritten recipes
Folger V.a.425, Receipt Book of Sarah Longe, p. 58.

The combination of muscadine, sage, rue, long pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mithridate, treacle, and angelica water was in wide circulation as a plague cure in early modern English receipt books. After meticulously detailing instructions for its preparation, the manuscript offers further advice as to how this “excellent drink against the Plague” could also be deployed to treat smallpox, sweating sickness, measles, and surfeits:

if thou be infected with the plague take morning &
evening one spoonfull luke warme, but if not, only thrice
a weeke one spoonfull at a tyme, it have bine observed this
never ifayled, if taken in tyme, it is good against the sweating
sickness, small pox, measells, surfeits if taken vpon the first
in vasion, & soe layd downe to sweat, with poset drink made
with marrigold flowers.2

Early modern citizens turned to a range of receipts to treat their bodily afflictions, with many of these cures prepared in the domestic sphere. In anticipation of my upcoming fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library, addressing “England’s Plague and New England’s Pox: Literary Transactions of Contagious Disease in the Atlantic World, 1550 to 1850”, I wanted to narrow in on moments of intersection between plague and smallpox in two popular plague cures that circulated in early modern English receipt books. My research heretofore has focused on plague writing in early modern England, considering, in part, receipt books; however, plague was but one of the many bodily afflictions endured in this period.

Plague and smallpox were among the causes of death listed in the London bills of mortality – official statistical documents made available to the public that enumerated deaths.3 Plague took up a place of prominence in these bills, with deaths from the disease highlighted against the total number of dead. In the printed collection of London’s weekly plague bills from 1665, London’s Dreadful Visitation (L2926.2), which mapped mortality during the Great Plague of London, the printer included a general bill for the year. The bill, entitled “A generall Bill for this present year, ending the 19 of December 1665. According to the Report made to the KINGS most Excellent Majesty. By the Company of Parish Clerks of London, &c.”, noted that 655 people succumbed to “Flox and Small Pox” during that year, while 68,596 plague deaths were recorded.

A single sheet with an elaborate skeleton covered decorative border. The title is Bill of Mortality and the text is followed by multiple heraldic shields.
Folger L2926.2, London's Dreadful Visitation
A printed document showing different parishes with the amount of people buried in that year and the amount that died of plague

Though plague was perhaps the most notorious of the contagious diseases circulating in early modern England, smallpox had a staggering impact in many areas of European colonization. Despite their distinct pathological bases – smallpox is viral and plague bacterial – both diseases marked their path on the skin. Bubonic plague caused swollen lymph nodes, and victims’ bodies became spotted with the tokens described in early modern medical books. Smallpox infection was accompanied by a rash of spots and sores that could permanently scar the skin. Victims of both illnesses suffered high fevers. Though smallpox would eventually be eradicated by way of variolation and later vaccination campaigns, plague, which is treatable in the present-day with antibiotics, continues to fester, with cases reported around the globe each year.

The following instances of plague and smallpox being treated by the same receipt are found in the Folger’s early modern English manuscript receipt books. I have limited my inquiry into those receipts that foreground plague or are known to be primarily cures for plague, as is the case with Dr. Burges’ plague water.

Plague waters circulated widely in early modern English receipt books, recorded alongside culinary receipts and directions to cure other illnesses. A number of plague waters recommended a similar preparation that often included, but was not limited to, rue, egrimony, wormwood, celandine, featherfew, dragons, pimpernel, burnet, sorrel, balm, mugwort, sage, rosemary, marigold, and white wine.  Some variations of this plague water also purported to address further illnesses, including smallpox. Culinary and Medicinal Recipe Book (V.a.685), for example, includes one such receipt, introduced as “A plague water good for the plague small pox Measels or Surfitts”, which instructs the reader to “take 3 or 4 spoonfulls of this water with a little sugar”.

A single page of a book showing handwritten recipes
Folger V.a.685, Culinary and Medicinal Recipe Book, leaf 30 recto
A single page of a book showing handwritten recipes
Folger V.a.685, Culinary and Medicinal Recipe Book, leaf 30 verso

A similar plague water included in the Receipt Book of Catherine Bacon (V.a.621, 1680s-1739), entitled “The Plague water is thus made”, directs the reader to:

Take Egrimony rue wormewood mint Sallendine Sage mother-
-wort mugwort balme dragons pym[p]ernell Mary golds fetherfew
burnett sorrell Ellicompane roots scrape and slice them small
rosemary as much more as Any of the rest Scabius woodbine
Brome may wood Avens turnmentill Cardius Benedictus
Angelico if you will you must have like of them then mingle
them altogether and shred them very small then Steep them
in the best white wine you gett three or four dayes and nights
stirring them once or twice A day putting no more wine to the
herbes then will cover them when they are thrust downe then
still them altogether In a Common Still & make not too
much of the water According as you feell the strength therof
for else it will be sowre4

A single page of a book showing handwritten recipes
Folger V.a.621, Receipt Book of Catherine Bacon, p. 9

Secondary applications for the cure are detailed at the end of Bacon’s receipt: “its good against the Ague the smallpox measles or any other infections”. In each of these examples, the author recommends the plague water for a range of additional diseases without reservation, extending the usefulness of the receipt.

In several versions of Dr Burges’ plague water, too, the medicine is described as treating a variety of afflictions, including smallpox. In one unattributed version of Dr Burges’ plague water found in Receipt Book (V.b.400, late 17th to early 18th century), it is introduced as follows: “For the plague small pox Measles surfeets and divers diseases, or any hot Desease”. Referring to humoral imbalance, the title designates the medicine as appropriate to treat “any hot Desease”. Toward the end of the receipt, after noting “Take it alwayes warme morning and evning, a spoonfull or tuo att a tyme if yow be allready deseased sweat upon it if not once a day is sufficient if the party be very weake, Boyle three Drames of leave gold in this Drinyk”, the author details more specifically how it works against different bodily complaints:

A single page of a book showing handwritten recipes
Folger V.b.400, Receipt Book, p. 8

As for the plague, This water sends it forth, for the small pox – and the measles, It will not lett them streick to the heart, It will keep if occasion – serve above a year, many use to give it in the beginning of any hot desease – either old or young may take it without any harme, although it seem hott and stronge a spoonfull att a tyme is weell

Instructions to treat smallpox and other illnesses could also be written into the body of a receipt; for example, the Receipt Book of Penelope Jephson (V.a.396, 1671, 1674/5) includes a receipt for “Docter Burges: his Receite for the Plaugue”, noting toward the end of the receipt: “this is not allso good for the Common plaugue but also for the small pox Measles or any other Infectious pestilent diseases”.

Two pages of an open book showing handwritten recipes
Folger V.a.396, Receipt Book of Penelope Jephson, folio 10 verso, folio 11 recto

Doctor Burges’ plague water, as these receipts suggest, was a powerful antidote against much more than just plague.

These instances touch on some of the ways in which the plague cures and plague waters popularized in early modern England denoted broader applications against early modern illnesses, including smallpox. In many of these receipts, the combination of ingredients is presented as a cure-all, having the potential to address multiple ailments with a single medicine.5 In some receipts, the title designated the usefulness of a medicine in treating a broad range of diseases, while in others the author wove this additional advice into the body of the receipt, guiding the reader to prepare the medicine in specific ways to cure complaints beyond plague. Furthermore, there was a striking economy conveyed in these medicines that could address a range of woes that might torment one’s family. While death and illness were constants in early modern England, the ability to take charge of medical care in the domestic space, and the corresponding advice that circulated to treat a range of diseases and bodily afflictions, gesture to the ways in which citizens managed their health.

  1. For additional information on Dr. Burges’ plague water, see: Ryan, Yann. December 14, 2021. “Recipe Books, Plague Cures and the Circulation of Information.” The Collation; Ryan, Yann. March 8, 2022. “Recipes for Dealing with the Plague in Shakespeare’s England.Shakespeare and Beyond; and, Jackson, Jana. January 24, 2018. “Dr. Burges’s Plague Water.Early Modern Recipes Online Collective
  2. Transcription made by Shakespeare’s World volunteers, participants in EMROC classes and transcribathons, participants in Folger paleography classes and transcribathons, and Folger docents. I have added italics. See Folgerpedia for transcriptions of the Folger’s recipe books.
  3. For a detailed consideration of the printing of the bills of mortality, please see: Greenberg, Stephen. 2004. “Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 67 (4): 508–27.
  4. Transcription made by Shakespeare’s World volunteers, participants in EMROC classes and transcribathons, participants in Folger paleography classes and transcribathons, and Folger docents. I have added italics. See Folgerpedia for transcriptions of the Folger’s recipe books.
  5. For discussion of another “cure-all” deemed effective against plague, amongst other illnesses, see: DiMeo, Michelle. November 2, 2014. “The Countess of Kent’s Powder: A Seventeenth-Century “Cure-All.” The Recipes Project


Fascinating stuff!

Given that modern medicine has remained hugely reliant on molecules found in plants, I can’t help wondering how many of the plants mentioned have modern medicinal uses.

Edward Barrett — March 28, 2024


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