Untold lives blog

135 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

02 June 2020

A rebus puzzle

During the last few months you’ve probably puzzled over at least one emoji quiz, one of many inventive online distractions people are sharing to while away the time during lock-down.  These quizzes have something in common with the 'rebus' – a kind of picture puzzle which gained popularity in Europe from the 16th century onwards.  In place of words, the writer inserts pictures and letters whose names sound out the meaning of the sentences.

A childhood letter in the form of a rebus addressed to two young girls survives among the papers from the Granville family archive preserved by Harriet Cavendish, later Lady Granville (1785-1862), now part of Add MS 89382.

Lady Harriet CavendishPortrait of Lady Harriet Cavendish, Countess Granville (1785-1862) by Thomas Barber the elder, from the collections at Hardwick Hall © National Trust 

In 1790, young Harriet and her siblings Georgiana and William, the three children of William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire (1748–1811), and his wife Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806), were joined in their nursery at Chatsworth by two new playmates – five year old Caroline Rosalie St Jules and two year old Augustus Clifford.

View of Chatsworth House by Paul SandbyView of Chatsworth House by Paul Sandby, published by George Kearsley in The Copper Plate Magazine 1775. British Library, Kings Topographical Collection. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Caroline and Augustus were actually the children’s half sister and brother. They were the illegitimate children of their father, the Duke, and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who had been living with the Duke and Duchess in a long-lasting ménage à trois.   The children had been born abroad where they spent their earliest years, and only came to live with their mother at Chatsworth in 1790.

Caroline was almost exactly the same age as her half-sister Harriet (or Hary-o, as she was called by the family).  Both girls had both been born in August 1785, though far apart.  From this time on, from the aged of five, they spent the rest of their childhoods together.  Besides having the company of their three brothers and sisters, they were often joined for visits and on holiday by Hary-o’s cousins, including Caroline Ponsonby, later Caroline Lamb, who was also born in 1785, the same year as the two sisters.

The rebus letter is addressed to both Hary-o and Caroline St Jules, but it is unsigned.  Could it have been written by their cousin Caroline Ponsonby?  Or was it from another young friend of their acquaintance?

Rebus
Rebus letter to Harriet Cavendish and Caroline St Jules. Undated c. 1795-1800 (Add MS 89382/3/5) 

Can you read the letter? If you know the French for 'well' and 'sea' and the names of the notes in the sol-fa music system you are nearly there!  Our imperfect attempt is at the end of this post.  Bonus points if you can hazard a guess at the identity of the village or town drawn at the foot of the page.

This charming and affectionate letter must have held particular significance for Hary-o, who kept it all her life.  It came to the British Library folded in a silk purse, along with surviving letters from her mother Georgiana and other treasured papers.

Tabitha Driver
Cataloguer, Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Address: A[mi] Le[Dé] Henriette [E] [A] Mademoiselle [Ka]roline St Jeule

Letter:
Accep[Té] cheres [E] douce a[mi]
Acceptez chères et douces amis
[Sept] fidelle pettit ^gaie [ré- bé/si(?)]
cette fidelle petit gaie rebus
[E] [croix] combien les [heures]
Et crois combien les heures
[Cent] les [deux] [Dé]lice de ma vie
Sont les deux délices de ma vie
[E –la], Je [ré]grette a[mer]ment
Hélas, Je regrette amèrement
Que je ne [puits] vous conter a pres[cent]
Que je ne puis vous conter à présent
Ce qui [E] passé de[puits] quelque Jours
Ce qui est passé depuis quelques Jours
[Cent] les [deux] a[mi] de mon [coeur]
Sans les deux amis de mon coeur
Maïs jamais Je ne soufrir[ré]
Mais jamais je ne souffrirai
[Un] jour de passé (?) [cent] [ex]primé
Un jour de passer sans exprimer
A mes a[mi] bien aimee
À mes amis bien aimées
Que je ne [puits] les oubli[E]
Que je ne puis les oublier

 

21 May 2020

Researching Suffragettes in the British Library’s Modern Manuscripts and Archive Collections

Like many, the Covid-19 lockdown has provided British Library staff a bit more space and time to get through some spring cleaning.  You might think that archivists would find themselves a little distanced from their cleaning tasks with all their precious archives locked up in their respective institutions, but there is always more to sort in the archive sector, whether physically or digitally.  Whilst quarantined the Modern Manuscripts team has taken this opportunity to sort through reams of our metadata in order to write new collection guides.

We have been working on summarising our archive collections relating to the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom.  The women’s suffrage collection contains the archives of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth and Harriet McIlquham, but we have also had the opportunity to sift through some of our catalogue records and identify some fascinating suffrage campaigners, whose correspondence is held across various collections.

Some examples of these campaigners include:

Barbara Bodichon, 1827-1891

Sketch of Barbara BodichonBarbara Bodichon, Sketch by Samuel Lawrence, 1861 Wikimedia Commons

Barbara Bodichon was an early suffragist and women’s rights activist.  She began meeting with friends in the 1850s to discuss women’s rights in a group which became known as the ‘Ladies of Langham Place’.  She co-founded the English Woman’s Journal, which examined women’s position and rights in society.  She published her thoughts on women’s right to property in her essay, Brief Summary of the Laws of England Concerning Women.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Clough-Shore papers (Add MS 72832 A) and the William Lovett Papers (Add MS 78161).

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, 1833-1918

Photograph of Elizabeth Wolstenholme ElmyElizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy Photo via Wikipedia

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was a feminist and suffrage campaigner.  She founded the Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women in 1866 and would campaign for women’s suffrage for over 50 years.  The British Library holds six volumes of papers relating to her work in the suffragette movement at Add MS 47449-47455, which contains her correspondence with many prominent women activists.

Hertha Ayrton, 1854-1923

Painting of Hertha AyrtonPainting of Hertha Ayrton, c. 1905, by Héléna Arsène Darmesteter via Wikimedia Commons

Hertha Ayrton campaigned for the women’s vote with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, as well as Emily Davison.  She was also an engineer, mathematician and physicist whose work was awarded the Hughes Medal.  There is correspondence between her and her friend Marie Stopes in the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58685 and Add MS 58689).

Ethel Snowden, 1881 -1951

Photograph of Ethel SnowdenPhotograph of Ethel Snowden, by S. A. Chandler & Co, 1921 via Wikimedia Commons

Ethel Snowden was a socialist, feminist activist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. In 1907 she wrote a book called The Woman Socialist, which advocated the collective organisation of housework and a state salary for mothers.  Items of her correspondence can be found in the Mary Gladstone papers (Add MS 46253), the Burns Papers (Add MS 46300) and the Koteliansky Papers (Add MS 48974).

These individuals are just a few of the many fascinating women who feature in the Modern Manuscripts collections.  As we continue to explore our collections from home, we hope that we will find many more which we can bring to light in our collection guides, so that many more people will eventually be able to explore the papers of these ground-breaking women.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
For more information on British Library collections relating to the women’s suffrage campaign, visit Votes for Women BL.

 

12 May 2020

Lady with the Lamp at 200: Florence Nightingale’s Bicentenary

Florence Nightingale was an icon of the Victorian era and her name still inspires confidence today.  It was the name given to the seven temporary intensive care hospitals set up by the NHS in response to the Covid-19 epidemic in recognition for her work to the nursing profession.  It is interesting to note that the origins of pre-fabricated temporary hospitals come from the Crimean War, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel was directed to design a temporary hospital for use at Renkioi in the Dardanelles.  Despite arriving late in the war, the hospital proved a success with a lower death rate than the hospital in Scutari, Turkey.

Photograph of Florence Nightingale about 1860Photograph of Florence Nightingale c.1860 British Library Add. MS 47458, f.31 Images Online

Nightingale is best known for her nursing work during the Crimean War.  At the request of her friend Sidney Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, she led a party of 38 nurses to work at the hospital in Scutari.  This was an unprecedented decision by Herbert as women had never been officially allowed to serve in the army and Nightingale reported directly to the Secretary of State. Reports had reached Britain of a shortage of nurses, medicine and a lack of hygiene that meant that soldiers were not just dying from battle wounds but from poor conditions.

Hospital ward at Scutari One of the wards in the hospital at Scutari. Image from The Seat of War in the East - British Library 1780.c.6, XXXIV  Images Online

Scholars disagree over the impact of Nightingale’s work in Scutari but essentially she implemented basic hygiene and sanitation practices such as cleaning the wards and hand washing.  These practices alongside the additional nurses began to have a significant impact on the survival of soldiers.

First page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert
Letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert dated 19 February 1855, Add MS 43393 f.164

In this letter from 19 February 1855, Nightingale writes to Herbert to inform him of the falling death rate at the hospital in Scutari.  Nightingale was a talented statistician becoming the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Statistical Society in 1858 and a pioneer of data visualisation as seen in the diagram below, which shows the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East.  The diagram corroborates the falling rate of deaths, mentioned in her letter, from preventable causes.  The number of deaths had climbed since the start of the war and reached a peak in January 1855.  Nightingale arrived in Scutari in November 1854 and once her efforts began to take affect within a couple of months the death rate began to fall.  The diagram will be on display in the Treasures Gallery once the British Library has reopened.

Diagram of the causes of mortalityFlorence Nightingale, 'Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East', Add MS 45816, f1 Images Online


Nightingale continued to advocate the importance of good sanitation and environmental conditions for patient health throughout her life.  A letter from 1860 describes how she believed that ‘open air’ and ‘ventilation’ could help a patient to recover.  Using these methods, Nightingale set out to professionalise the occupation of nursing for women and eventually set up a nursing training school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.  She was keen to end the stereotype of the ‘fat drunken old dames’ previously employed as nurses, such as the character of Mrs Gamp used by Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit.  Nightingale was prominent in promoting sanitation reform to the wider British Empire, especially in India. Documents about her work in India can be found in the British Library’s India Office Private Papers.

Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert

 

Page of letter from Florence Nightingale to Sidney Herbert

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Edwin Chadwick dated 8 September 1860, Add MS 45770

The two letters and diagram by Nightingale form part of her significant personal archive of correspondence, reports, accounts and administrative papers held as part of the Library’s modern archive and manuscript collections.  This collection guide created for her anniversary provides more detail on these collections.


Laura Walker
Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

08 May 2020

75 years since Victory in Europe

‘My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class.  It’s a victory of the Great British nation as a whole…’
[Extract from Winston Churchill’s speech on 8 May 1945].

Looking back on the celebrations of VE day in 1945 seems especially poignant this year in our current crisis.  Stories told to me by my grandmother of air raids, evacuation and rationing have a new meaning given current restrictions.  Shortages of eggs, toilet roll and soap, empty shelves in supermarkets and long queues have become the new norm.  Yet we still cannot truly know what the Second World War generation went through 75 years ago.

A line of London buses enmeshed in the vast crowd, occupying Whitehall on VE Day

A line of London buses enmeshed in the vast crowd, occupying Whitehall on VE Day. Image by kind permission of Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 140178

After the unconditional surrender of the German forces on 7 May 1945, Churchill announced that the following day would be a national holiday.  Up and down the country the celebrations started almost immediately and continued on 8 May with street parties, dancing, music, speeches by Churchill and King George VI and large amounts of beer.  Beer had not been rationed during the war and women were, for the first time, encouraged to drink it.  In advance of VE Day Churchill had personally checked with the Ministry of Food that there were enough supplies for the celebrations.

Children's street party at Brockley in London on VE Day 1945Children's street party at Brockley in London on VE Day 1945. Image by kind permission of Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 49482


During his speech, Churchill had made clear that the war was not yet over and ‘let us not forget the toil and efforts that lie ahead’.  The war against Japan continued until two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire was one of the official British observers of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki. His eye witness account can be found in the Modern Archives and Manuscripts collections (Add MS 52572).  Cheshire describes how the photographers were unable to capture accurate photographs of the blast as they were overawed by the scene.  Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945, which is now commemorated as Victory over Japan (VJ) day.

As the Second World War fades from living memory the archival collections that record ordinary people’s lives and experiences become ever more important.  Contained within the British Library's collections are glimpses of a defining moment in the history of our nation.

A collection that is one of my favourites is the archive of Edgar Augustus Wilson and his second wife Winifred Gertrude née Cooper.  Contained within their personal archive are manuscript and printed ephemera that provide a personal insight into their lives in St Albans during the War.  Both husband and wife enlisted as Air Raid Wardens and served until 1945.  Their Air Raid Warden ID cards, badges and whistle as well as government-issued pamphlets, handbooks and post war food and clothing ration books form part of the modern archive collections.

Air Raid Warden ID card for Winifred Wilson

Air Raid Warden ID card for Winifred Wilson [Add MS 70760 A f.73 (2)]   Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Wilsons' Air Raid Warden badges

The Wilsons' Air Raid Warden badges [Add MS 70670 D (2)]  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The official 75th VE day anniversary celebrations have now been postponed or cancelled due to Covid-19 but this will not stop us commemorating VE day. We remember the War as a moment when the country pulled together in support of a greater cause. T he need to social distance will have a lasting impact, celebrations such as those in 1945, are now impossible but living in the digital age means that we can still celebrate together by joining a moment of reflection and remembrance at 11am, watching the Queen’s speech, having a ‘street party’ in our homes and gardens, raising a ‘Toast’ or by placing a Tommy in our window to remember what our parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents endured.

But in the context of VE Day and the current conflict we face…

‘Let us remember those who will not come back, their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy: let us remember the men in all the Services and the women in all the Services who have laid down their lives.’
[Extract from King George VI’s speech on 8 May 1945]

Laura Walker
Lead Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts


More information on the British Library’s modern manuscript collections relating to the Second World War can be found here:

Second World War: Internment

Second World War: Life on the Home Front

Second World War: Modern Archives

 

04 May 2020

A (g)lovely gift from Peter the Great to John Evelyn

Gloves are an indispensable accessory.  They protect our hands from all manner of harm, and have served as a glamorous fashion statement for centuries.  Before their wider availability in the mid-18th century, gloves were treated as the embodiment of both power and protection; their luxury status and embedded symbolism making them the ideal gift of the wealthy.

John Evelyn's doe-skin glovesAdd MS 78429, John Evelyn's Doe-Skin Gloves, 17th century, British Library. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These 17th century gloves belonged to the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706).  Typical of their time, they are made from light doe-skin, embroidered with fine gold work flowers, and lavishly embellished with spangles (the 17th century equivalent to sequins) and gold fringe.  The significant skill required to produce gloves at this time rendered them a particularly expensive accessory, worn chiefly by the elite.  Designs were elaborate and ornamental, and as a general rule, the more ostentatious the glove, the more commanding (and rich) the hand.

Historically the gloves were believed to have been gifted to Evelyn by Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672- 1725).  The story goes that whilst a tenant at Evelyn’s London property Sayes Court in 1698, Peter all but trashed the house and grounds.  From destructive wheelbarrow races through Evelyn’s immaculately landscaped gardens, to using paintings for target practice and furniture for firewood, the young Tsar was not as ‘great’ as his epithet may imply, and certainly not a model tenant.

Sayes CourtAdd MS 78628. A Plan of Sayes Court and its Gardens. Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Since it had been William III who had arranged the Tsar’s tenancy, the Treasury covered the £350 9s 6d of property damages incurred from his wild antics.  The gloves were sent by the Tsar to Evelyn as an apology for the terrible inconvenience.

Beyond merely being an expensive gift, the act of presenting gloves at this time was intimately connected to their symbolic and ceremonial past, and had accumulated numerous motives: a royal or political sanction, a gift of honour, a symbol of challenge, or of amity, a figurative token of love or a legal exchange.  The act was even embedded in the ceremonial investiture of monarchs, and in international diplomacy as a token of fidelity.  Queen Elizabeth I, who is alleged to have owned over 300 pairs of gloves, is believed to have engaged extensively in political glove gifting. The Evelyn Gloves are in fact remarkably similar to a pair that now reside at the Ashmolean Museum, that were presented to the Virgin Queen during a visit to Oxford.  By the 17th century, gloves were exchanged frequently between the wealthy, and so symbolic was the act that it wasn’t even seen to matter if they fit.

Unfortunately, the story behind the gifting of these gloves has never been corroborated with evidence, and so continues to remain speculation.  However, if we are to believe the myth, the message the Tsar was sending was far grander than a simple ‘sorry’. Not only would they have served as a not so subtle reminder to Evelyn of the Tsar’s superior status, but could also be seen as a humble extension of respect and friendship.  One wonders however, if this is the case, whether Evelyn might have preferred instead that the Tsar show his respect by not ruining his lawn.

Zoe Louca-Richards
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Angus Trumble, The Finger: A Handbook, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2010)
British Library, Evelyn Papers, (Add MS 78168-78693)

 

21 April 2020

From our homes to yours - the work of the Modern Archives and Manuscripts team

Like many people, British Library staff have been working from home over the past few weeks and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.  Whilst there are of course tasks we are unable to perform without direct access to the physical collections, we are utilising this time to focus on the many ways we can share the Library’s fascinating items and their stories with you digitally - from our homes, to yours.

The Modern Archives and Manuscripts team manages collections dating between 1601-1950. Here are just a few of the things they are working on, and some ways you can access and enjoy our collections from the comfort of your home.

Cataloguing Collections

Screenshot of Explore Archives and Manuscripts online catalogue

The British Library is constantly adding, through gift or purchase, new manuscript and archive material to the collection.  Our teams record information on our collection catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts so you can discover and access the items.

At present we are focusing on some acquisitions that have been patiently awaiting cataloguing.  These include a harrowing day-by-day account by Herbert F. Millar of his failed polar rescue mission; a bundle of letters by playwright George Bernard Shaw; and a letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday.

Letter written by Jane Austen on her final birthday
Letter from Jane Austen, written on her 41st birthday.

Once cataloguing is complete, these incredible documents will be discoverable online and ready to be made available in our reading rooms when the Library’s doors re-open.

Digital Engagement
The Modern Archives & Manuscripts team has an active presence on Twitter.  Our team has been using the platform to highlight our material on Digitised Manuscripts and Discovering Literature , to promote blogs and podcasts, and to engage with trending global topics.  Curator Alexander Lock gave a “Twitter Tour” of our William Wordsworth 250th birthday celebration display which opened in the Treasures Gallery shortly before the Library closed.  You can follow the Modern Archives and Manuscript team at @BL_ModernMSS.

Twitter Tour of Wordsworth exhibition

We will be working on more in depth explorations of our collection material through the Untold Lives and the English and Drama blogs.  Look out for posts exploring the ‘lost’ manuscript chapter from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Land of Mist, and a closer look at the Jane Austen letter pictured above.

The team are still available to answer enquiries although the extent of assistance we can offer may be limited at this time.

Collection Guides

A large selection of collection guides can be found on the British Library website, each providing an insight into the variety of material we hold on a number of fascinating subjects and themes.

Screenshot of Collection Guides webpage

Our team is working to create more guides on interesting new themes including Food, Architecture, and Politics.  These will provide a vital starting point for user research, whether for work or pleasure.

During this time, it is incredibly important to the British Library and its staff to do all we can to keep your library alive and accessible.  This challenging situation is affording the Library staff the opportunity to become digital users, so we can better understand and improve digital access, not only to mitigate short term restrictions, but for the long term as well. 

Zoe Louca-Richards
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

05 March 2020

Internment during the Second World War – Part Three: imprisonment for insurrection in the Channel Islands

This is the final blog of a series on internment, highlighting the experiences of both civilians and military personnel detained across the globe in the Second World War.

The following experience took place in the only part of the British Isles occupied by Germany during the Second World War: the Channel Islands.  The present account has been revealed from a letter dating from 1954, almost a decade after the conclusion of the War.  It was sent from Vyvyan MacLeod Ferrers, a retired HM Consul, who was 65 years old when he was incarcerated.  He was sentenced and imprisoned in France, before being moved to Germany.


Why was he interned?  Apparently, he was guilty of stirring up an insurrection.  Furthermore, he admits that he had been helping and would continue to help the ‘Resistance’.  More detail is given in a book he wrote while in prison, The Brigadier.  He refused to believe in the fall of Singapore, and repeatedly told others ‘Do not be believing them: it is all lies together’.  Therefore, he was deemed ‘a man so dangerous that the Court dare not let me run loose’.  He would not do so until VE day, when he was liberated by the US Army.

First page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod FerrersThe first page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod Ferrers  – Add MS 89060. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Unlike other accounts which reflect on hardship in captivity, Ferrers writes little of the conditions, instead emphasising his thoughts on the German people.  He comments that the common man had little power but to go along with the machinations of the state, stating that ‘After a phase of indiscriminate indignation I found it possible to confine my resentment to the real ruffians, and to feel some sympathy with the decent man, of whom there were plenty, who could hardly do otherwise than play into their hands’.

Instead, he lays the blame firmly on the Gestapo.  Ferrers does not disguise his scorn for them, arguing that ‘The Gestapo was a stench in the nostrils of every decent man: and among the Germans there were as many decent men as anywhere else’.  He writes that the group ‘hardly concealed its contempt’ for the German courts, manned as they were by the common people.  Throughout the short four-page letter, Ferrers repeatedly emphasises how ordinary citizens were effectively powerless, ‘Called up, willy-nilly, from their own affairs, they were compelled to do what they much disliked’.  Rather than blaming them for his years of imprisonment, as many understandably would, he sympathises with them.

Final page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod FerrersThe final page of the letter from Vyvyan MacLeod Ferrers  – Add MS 89060. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This empathetic outlook (written while Britain still had rationing because of the War!) is an uncommon find.  Indeed, Ferrers finishes the letter noting how he has been ‘surprised to find how many people are surprised at my point of view’.  While recent understandings of Nazi Germany have emphasised the normality of life for the common people in the fascist regime, Ferrers already understood this, despite his experiences.  He argued that the German people were not the real enemy – but Hitler and the Gestapo.

Ferrars died less than a year after sending this letter, on 6 March 1955 in Brighton.

Jack Taylor
Doctoral researcher at the Open University.  His CHASE-funded research explores sexual violence between men in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Further Reading:
Add MS 89060 - Letter from V. M. Ferrers to Sir Amberson [Barrington Marten].
Gilly Card, Vyvyan Macleod Ferrers
Vyvyan Ferrers, The Brigadier (London: Art & Educational Publishers Ltd, 1948).

 

25 February 2020

17th Century Recipes for Those Feeling Under the Weather

It is that time of year again when almost everyone is getting ill.  Luckily, the British Library manuscript collections are full of historic and innovative gastronomic concoctions to help alleviate your various ailments.

A fine place to start is with the Sloane manuscripts, which contain a formidable number of medical recipes, or receipts, as they were known before the 1700s.  On his death, collector and physician Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his vast collections to the nation.  Chief among Sloane’s academic interests was medicine and he collected many manuscripts that illuminated approaches to medicine through the ages.  These manuscripts date back as early as the 10th century.  They form a fascinating record of the varying treatments used for illnesses over time, as well as highlighting the persistent impulse to treat ailments with food.

From the 1600’s onwards, we can read some of these recipes in modern English and see just what sort of potions we may have had to drink for an illness had we lived during the 17th century.  Here are a few informative examples:

Recipe for the treatment of consumptionRecipe for the treatment of consumption, Sloane MS 3949 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For the treatment of consumption, it was recommended to take 3 pints of cow milk, 12 yolks of fresh eggs, 6 ounces of fine breadcrumbs, 3 ounces of fine cinnamon, 2 or 3 pieces of fine gold (surely a staple of every good chef’s kitchen cupboard), 5 ounces of fine sugar, mix together and bring to the boil.  Then one would drink as much of it at a time as possible, or as the recipe states, as much ‘as you shall think convenient’.

Recipe2Recipe to ward off fever, Sloane MS 3949  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This was a nice simple recipe to ward off fever:  Take a piece of white bread and dip it in red rose water, then strew it with sugar and eat it an hour before the fit (obviously it helped to know when you were due to be ill for this one).

Recipe 3Recipe against the plague, Add MS 4376 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

If you were feeling particularly unwell, had buboes in your armpits and a progressively aggressive fever that hinted at your impending doom, then you more than likely had the plague.  In this case, you would have needed to consult the following advice by order of the Corporation of London.  It involves taking rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender and infusing them together in a gallon of white wine vinegar (so far, so very Waitrose), cooking them in a pot for eight days, draining the liquid and then applying this to the body every day.  You would also have to pour a bit of the mixture onto a sponge to smell when you happened to pass by a particularly plague-ridden avenue.  This receipt even includes its own product review.  It states that criminals would put some of the recipe on their bodies before robbing the houses of those deceased from plague, and that despite them entering these sites of contagion, they had remained healthy.

Although very different from a modern cough medicine, one can recognise in these recipes a few familiar tendencies, such as: equating infused herbs with health; using warm dairy products to comfort; and the use of sugar to make the mixtures more palatable.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Ayscough, S., A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Preserved in the British Museum (London: John Rivington, 1782), 2 vols
Hunter, Michael, and others, eds, From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his Collections (London: British Library, 2012)
Scott, E. J. L., Index to the Sloane manuscripts in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1904)

 

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