From the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London
The Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine in London houses one of the most remarkable collections of unique medical texts in the world. Collected by the founder of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Henry Wellcome, the remedy books presented here for the first time are a moving, personal and under-utilized source of information about lay-medicine in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries in particular. Each of these 247 books are very obviously cherished, highly valued, inherited objects which handed down wisdom and tradition from mother to daughter.
The heyday of domestic remedy books is the 16th and 17th centuries. By the mid- to late-18th century, medicine was becoming a male, scientific, professionally-regulated domain, and women were being disenfranchised. This may well have been to the benefit of many people's health as some of these recipes are positively dangerous. One recommends putting freshly cut, sugared turf on an open wound.
Especially popular among the medical recipes are "waters" for dropsy, ague and plague, ointments, potions, cosmetics - lip balm made from beeswax is particularly popular - all jumbled along with cookery recipes. Part of the delight of these books is their haphazard, "as it occurred to them" contents - Dorcas Gwynne's mid-17th-century book at one point runs: "to make a custard; to make a hedghogg pudding, a medicine for all manner of bruises, an almond milk against aboundance off heate whereby the head or body is distempered". There are lady alchemists, high born aristocrats, such as Lady Anne Fanshaw, and there are social climbers whose recipes are headed in clear large letters, "I had this custard off Lady So-and-So"; but what all the books in this collection possess is folk-wisdom, and the living record of everyday reality and of domestic life.