As well as its terrible consequences for health and mortality, plague in early modern England had a major impact on the communication and circulation of information. Movement was restricted, towns with suspected cases were put on severe lockdowns, and ships from places known to be ‘hot’ with the plague were held in ports for up to forty days (quarantined). During the Great Plague of London in 1665, the court moved to Oxford and the postmaster, James Hickes, forwarded important letters to the Undersecretary of State Joseph Williamson, airing them over vinegar in the hope that this would remove any potential infection before they were sent. It is telling that Shakespeare’s most famous use of plague as a plot device—in Romeo and Juliet—is not as a source of sickness or death but rather for its impact on communication: Friar John, entrusted with delivering the message to Romeo that Juliet’s poisoning was temporary, is unable to do so because his house was sealed up on suspicion of infection.
My Folger Fellowship sought to use digital techniques to understand more about this impact on information. I used the time to construct a corpus of letters mentioning the disease taken from the English State Papers, and I intend to use the metadata (the people and places) to understand more about where plague was appearing and who was leading the conversations about the disease. I’ve found evidence of news, rumours, cures, and lots of local informants, worried about the economic effects of lockdowns and quarantines, downplaying reports of plague in their own locales. I’ve found that outside of the major outbreaks, government communication regarding plague was minimal: the official memory seems to have been very short.
Information on the plague circulated outside official government correspondence in a number of ways, including news-books, pamphlets, weekly ‘Bills of Mortality’, and recipe books. Alongside the work in the State Papers, I sought to use the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections to contextualise the information I was gathering. The Folger has a range of material related to various plague pandemics, including a copy of ‘London’s Terrible Visitation’, a special Bill of Mortality printed at the end of 1665, showing in detail the shocking death statistics, parish by parish, of the Great Plague (see L2926.2 in the Folger Digital Image Collection and the Collation post by Dr. Kristin Heitman). Thanks to a tip-off from Abbie Weinberg, I concentrated my search in the many recipe books held by the Library. Because I also wanted to experiment with the whole corpus as a dataset for text mining, I downloaded the full-text transcriptions from the Folgerpedia page. At present, there are 52 full-text transcriptions listed, and I found 166 hits for the word ‘plague’ across 28 different recipe books.
Given that the bubonic plague was so feared and in some ways the disease in early modern Europe, it’s perhaps unsurprising that plague cures and preventatives are very common in these recipe books, but the extent of the circulation of some of the recipes is still surprising. I’m going to focus on one famous example: a plague cure attributed to one ‘Doctor Burges’.
This recipe called for boiling Malmsey (a type of wine) with sage and rue until it reduces, then adding long pepper, ginger, nutmeg, London treacle (a complicated compound of substances, bought pre-made), and Mithridate (a similar concoction). Jana Jackson has written about the recipe and its variations in some detail on the EMROC blog. A recent paper examines a copy found in the papers of Andrew Marvell, claiming that he may have died of poisoning by opiates found in the Mithridate.
Fol.30v-31r from Folger MS V.a.140 showing Dr. Burges’s recipe against the plague.
Perhaps due to its simplicity and relative cheapness (at least in comparison to some of the more elaborate plague waters and powders found in the recipe books), the recipe can be found in an impressive number of the manuscripts: I’ve found this one in ten of the transcribed books owned by the Folger: V.a.140, V.a.396, V.a.425, V.a.430, V.a.452, V.a.563, V.a.600, V.a.619, W.a.332, and E.a.5. The ingredients and instructions are remarkably similar in all copies. The earliest is probably V.a.140, compiled in about 1600. Sarah Longe’s recipe book, V.a.425, has a copy, though, as with several others, it doesn’t mention Dr. Burges by name. Thomas Sheppey’s recipe book from 1675, V.a.452, adds wormwood, and several suggest Muscadine can be used in place of Malmsey wine. Margaret Baker’s version, V.a.619, uses another name for rue, ‘hearbe of grace’, but is otherwise the same.
What really interests me is, just like printed and manuscript news, these recipes circulated in discrete snippets, and often contained information not directly related to the content but which was kept there to establish credibility. As well mentioning the supposed source (Dr. Burges), the recipe in V.a.140 ends with a line praising the effectiveness of the cure: ‘In all the plague time vnder God there [is] was neuer man woman or Childe deceaued.’ A variation of this line can be found in W.a.332 (‘all the Plague time vnder God trust to it for certaine it neaver deceiued man woman or child’), V.a.430 (‘in all the time of the plague, vnder God trust to this for this neuer did faile either man woman or child’). Almost all other versions have something similar.
Folger MS W.a.332, p.70-71, the Cookery Book of Ann Goodenough, showing a recipe entitled ‘Docter Burges his Remedy Against the Plague’.
In fact we can even trace the recipe from manuscript to printed news. During the Great Plague, Roger L’Estrange’s printed news-book, The Intelligencer, carried numerous advertisements and recipes for plague cures, including this familiar one:1
I shall now give you a Repetition of a Receipt mentioned in my last, being a sovereign Water for the Plague, recommended and experimented by the Right Honourable and learned, the late Lord Ruthuen, and also by others, even since the last Publication to be of admirable effect, being also (beside the excellency of the rememdy) very cheap, and easily to be procured.
Take three pints of Malmesey, or Muscadel, or Sage and Rue of each an handfull: Boyl them gently till one pint be consumed, then strain in , and set it over the fire again, and put thereto a Pennyworth of Long-Pepper, half an ounce of Ginger, and a quarter of an ounce of Nutmeg, all beaten together: Then let it boil a little, and taking it from the fire very hot, dissolve therein six pennyworth of Mithridate, and three pennyworth of Venice Treacle, and when it is almost cold, put to it a quarter of a pint of strong Angelica water, or good Aqua vitae, and so keep it in glass close stopped.
To a man or woman give three good spoonfulls, and let the Patient to to bed, and be carefully laid to sweat; which will be most [effusive?], as soon as ever the infection is taken; but if the distemper e high, repeat it again and again, and despair not although you see the Tokens, but give a double quantity after the same manner.
Taking it for Prevention, a spoonfull in the morning, is the Dose; and to a Child half the quantity.
I’ve even found the recipe reprinted in a number of provincial newspapers from October and November 1770, as well as several versions in nineteenth-century titles and one from a newspaper of 1951 (published as an interesting antiquarian tidbit rather than actual medical advice, thankfully).
As the epidemic progressed, unscrupulous apothecaries also repurposed existing recipes, claiming that they now had been tested and confirmed to work as plague cures. Several issues of the Intelligencer in 1665 contain an advertisement for ‘Lady Kent’s Powder’, a recipe containing lots of expensive ingredients, found in recipe books V.a.215, V.a.563, and V.b.366, claiming that it had ‘been lately experimented upon divers infected persons with admirable success’, and mentioning a number of apothecaries where it could be purchased in London, along with instructions on how to use it.
There are doubtless other cures to be found in both the Folger recipe books and the pages of seventeenth-century news-books. We might think of these recipes as acting as a store of folk memory of an important and fearful disease. They circulate through (and even function as) alternative information channels, and as they are passed down they continue to keep the disease in the collective memories of those who read, copy and circulate them—even to the point where they are advertised in newspapers and sold by unscrupulous quacks. The Folger recipe books serve as a valuable resource which help to contextualise the official networks of information on the pandemic, based at the centres of power.
Using AI to generate new early modern plague cures
A nice thing about having the full text transcriptions of the recipes available to download is that they can be analysed computationally. Word embeddings, for example, can cluster ingredients together and help us understand how they might be related to each other and how those relationships changed over time. For fun, I tried feeding the recipes to GPT-2, an open-source artificial intelligence which generates new text by mimicking the style of that it’s been trained with, but often coming up with strange and wonderful new ingredients and techniques. Here are a few of the more interesting inventions—luckily scientists have already developed real cures and vaccines so we can skip these ones…
This one calls for ‘Leavs of an Elephant’:
Take a quart of running water two ounces of the Leavs of an Elephant boyl it a little Some tyme it and take a spoonefull or two of the best Leavs and eat them fasting, And if the Plague be not out, take a spoonefull of Alette and sett it into a pynte of the water.
This one seems to be mostly wine:
Take a pint of white wine and an handfull of sage;
put to it of the leaves of plantane, of fennel and stampe,
of sage, of each half a handfull, of the Iuice of
fennel, of each two handfulls; the juice of a
lemon, of all these putt to a pint of white wine,
and as much rose water, and let it stand in a
cold place till it be cold, then take a spoone
with a spoone full of rose water, very gently
sett it in the sun, and let it stand a whole while
then take a quart of white wine, and as much sugar
as will sweeten it to your taste, and stirr it
well together, and sett it in the Sunn againe
twice in the day, and let it still stirr, till it
be thick, then take it of the bottom of an
Earthen pott, and put it into a dish, and so pour
it into it, and when it is cold put into the pott
a quart of white wine, and let it stand all
I’m not sure if my local grocery store has a good stock of ffengallberrys:
To prevent the plague you may take the powder of Violets with a spoon or a spoonfull of this water
Take of the best ffengallberrys and flowers of each of these an handfull
and boyle them in a pinte of Aqua vitae till the water be so thick as to cause the
Iuice to come off, then take it from the fyre and boyle it to a syrup
and let the Patient take a quarter of a pinte in the morning
fasting and drink a quarter of a pinte morning and night
or make a syrup of it
Handily, this also prevents ‘plague of the mother’:
To prevent the plague and plague of the mother, then draw a pottle of faire water
and as much vinegar, and putt therein as much Acacia, and as much pepper
as will mould the vinegar, and let them lye in the water till
their skins be hard, then take it out, and then putt
it into a pottle of faire water, and putt thereto three pound
of Limons, and let it lye till they be very sweet, then
sett it on the fyre againe, and let it boyle till they be very
thick, then take them out and putt them into a pottle
of the same water, and let them lye in the water till
they be very thick. Then take out the Limons and set them
on the fyre againe, and let them lye in the water till they
be thick, then putt them into your pottle againe, and let
them lye in the water till they be very thick, then putt
in a little more vinegar, and so lett them lye in the water
half an hower, and so strain it through a cloath.
This just seems like a waste of vinegar:
For the plague, take half a pint of white wine and a pint of
white wine vinegar, boyl the white wine and vinegar in water till
the vinegar be dissolved. Then take half a pint of the best white wine
and boyl it in water.
Finally, this one is short and perhaps a bit optimistic:
To prevent the plague, take a cloth and rub the party
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