Most of us are thankful that we have access to 21th century medicine, and for a good reason. However, our ancestors were not as powerless in the face of disease as it might seem. During a Partnership of Historic Bostons event at the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop, Mass., Lori Lyn Price, a historian specializing in 17th century domestic medicine, talked about the widespread and creative use of plants in the treatment of various conditions in early modern Boston.
Beginning in the 16th century recipes for herbal treatments that had been passed down through generations began to be compiled into handy compendiums in England. Those included Gerard’s Herbal (1597), Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653), The English Housewife (1615, written by Gervase Markham, a man), and The Gentlewoman’s Companion by Hannah Woolley (1673). Soon, these texts circulated on both sides of the Atlantic helping women (and sometimes also men) in making medicines for their families and neighbors. Of course, not everyone was literate enough to read books back then, and many households used simple family recipe books to which they would add their own contributions.
In the 17th century, diseases were not thought of in terms of distinct types that required specific treatments. Instead, the focus was on symptoms that were believed to result from an imbalance of the four basic humors (cold, hot, dry, and wet). Such imbalances had various causes according to the practitioners of the era – they could result from chills, emotional upset, unbalanced diet, miasmas, or, for that matter, sin.
Every house had a kitchen garden where both culinary and medicinal plants would be grown. In some cases – like onion or garlic – they would serve either purpose, depending on their application.
To give us a sense of some of the recipes used in medical treatments, Price gave an example of a cough and consumption draft that called, among other ingredients, for ale (as a base) mixed with sugar, cloves, cinnamon. and elecampane root.
Food, too, was thought to have curative effects, and different foods were ascribed properites similar to the four humors. So, for example, they could be hot and dry (mustard, onions, or garlic), cold and wet (fish, lamb, cucumbers), or cold and dry (beef, legumes, or bread). The idea was to counteract the abundance of one humor by a diet that included foods with the opposite properties.
How effective were these remedies? Let’s just say that the promise of a cure was often accompanied by the caveat “God willing.” It would appear that unless overdosed, these concoctions were at least harmless. Unfortunately, that was not the case with some of the other popular treatments of the day, like bloodletting. Just ask President George Washington, who, in hindsight, should probably have asked for a herbal pill for his sore throat.