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The Collation

"For a cancer in the brest": early modern recipes

receipt title

“For a cancer in the brest”

The large penstrokes of this title caught my eye as I was cataloging a recently acquired receipt book (a book of culinary and medicinal recipes). In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we provide a window into breast cancer treatment in the 17th century. Here is a full recipe, followed by a modernized transcription: 1

"For a cancer in the brest"

“For a cancer in the brest”

For a cancer in the breast

Take 3 pounds of new burnt lime, unslacked, and put it to a gallon of spring water and let it stand four days, then pour the water off as clear as may be. Then take half a pound of sassafras wood and half a pound of licorice and half a pound of anise seeds and half a pound of currants; shave the wood very thin and bruise all the rest and put them in the water and let it stand four days longer. Then drink thereof every morning and about four in the afternoon, a small sack glass full.

  1. Click on any image in this post to enlarge it; a pdf of images and semi-diplomatic transcriptions can be downloaded here.
  2. Pepys’s diary includes 6 references to the young Catherine Mountagu. In the last, dated Saturday 30 May 1668, Pepys mentions “my little Lady Katherine Montagu come to town, about her eyes, which are sore, and they think the King’s evil, poor, pretty lady” ( Sore eyes appear to have been an ongoing complaint, as apparent from two of the recipes explicitly intended for Lady Catherine: “Doctor Ridgley’s receipt for any sort of sore eyes given me by Dr Mapletoft as a most excelent water” (p. 254) and “Doctor Hays Receipt for the eyes given to Mrs Bacon anno 1721” (p. 273).
  3. “Hardness” here likely refers to breasts engorged with milk, although I suppose the ambiguous term might relate to cancer.
  4. Our thanks to Rebecca Laroche in helping us work out what “sowes” was!
  5. In another Folger manuscript, John Ward describes the repeated procedures endured by one Mrs. Townsend after initial removal of a breast tumor: “Euery time they dresst itt they cut of something of the Cancer that was left behind; the Chirugians were for applying a Caustick but Doctor Needham said no not till the last time she could indure the knife. They praepard her body somewhat he let her blood the day before; Shee indured it with infinite patience all along, not offring to lay her hand vppon itt to wash itt but a warme cloth to the other breast all the time” (Folger MS V.a.287, fol. 99v). Despite these efforts, Mrs. Townsend died the following year, and the autopsy revealed metastases throughout the chest cavity down to the womb which “hung much like Ropes of Onions” (Folger MS V.a.295, fol. 33r).
  6. Digital facsimiles of British Library MS Sloane 2485 and MS Sloane 2486 are included in the Perdita Manuscripts, 1500-1700 (available through subscription: Some information, including a partial transcription of MS Sloane 2486, publicly available through the Perdita archives (
  7. Readers interested in the history of recipes should check out The Recipes Project (, a wonderful scholarly blog devoted to the subject.


Great post! Here’s a link to one of Fanny Burney’s letters where she details her mastectomy in 1811.

Roger Whitson — October 30, 2013


Another take on the Folger’s recipe books can be found in the podcast of Wendy Wall’s 2011 Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture:

Kathleen Lynch — October 30, 2013


This is fascinating (though it’s awful to contemplate what women went through). Thank you. It would be neat to get a modern oncologist to weigh in on whether any of these ingredients have some scientific merit to them given what we know now.

Jennifer Howard — October 30, 2013


I noticed when I was doing the modernized transcripts for Nadia’s post and googling the herb names to make sure I was getting them right, that some of them got hits on the American Cancer Society’s list of alternative medicines–most as being non-efficacious. I saw celandine, comfrey, mugwort, and St John’s wort all described as not treating cancer; licorice, apparently, might possibly have some properties that are effective.

Sarah Werner — October 30, 2013


[…] Early modern breast cancer treatments. […]

Sunday Morning Medicine | Nursing Clio — November 3, 2013


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