Hannah Woolley is often called the Martha Stewart of the 17th century, but a more apt comparison might be wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow, founder of the lifestyle brand Goop. That’s because Woolley, author of the first books on household management and cookery published in English, didn’t just provide recipes for eel pie and hot chocolate wine alongside tips on seasonally decorating your mantel with mosses and mushrooms. She also offered up recipes for cosmetics, shampoos and medicines—even a guide to performing minor surgery. To treat sore throats, she recommended a syrup of violets. To reduce smallpox scarring, a lemon and sea salt wash. For breast cancer, an ointment of goose dung and juice of the celandine flower, a member of the poppy family.
For housewives in pre-Industrial Revolution Europe, it wasn't enough to know how to cook a good meal, they were also expected to know how to make medicines and treat sick members of their household. While this was likely a worldwide phenomenon (Lady Jang Gye-hyang wrote the first cookbook in Korean in 1670), Europeans left a massive trove of evidence to scrutinize. With increased efforts to digitize all of these texts, the recipes can finally be transcribed and analyzed—and sometimes even revived.
"There was a strong expectation that women from all walks of life would know how to make household remedies, treat common ailments, and care for the sick. Some women with skilled hands and inquiring minds went beyond baseline expectations to become renowned healers in their local communities or further afield,” says Sharon Strocchia, a historian at Emory College and author of Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy.
Housewives would often meticulously compile their remedy recipes in “commonplace” household books that would be passed down to future generations. They’d ask friends, family members and medical professionals for their recipes, which they then eagerly copied into notebooks. Next, the lady and her servants would test and tweak each recipe. Only those that passed muster would be adopted in the household repertoire. Women collected recipes for balms, distillations and elixirs to treat all manner of ailments: from headache, fever, indigestion, weakness, palsy, dropsy and “trapped wind” to acne, melancholy, childbirth or menstrual pain, rickets and plague. (The Essex, England-native Woolley was an outlier for publishing her books for the general public, and she became a household name because of it.)
Curators at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. and the Wellcome Library in London have put a lot of effort into gathering together and digitizing these household recipe books. So far, hundreds have been found. University groups, scholarly websites and blogs are contributing by transcribing these valuable records. The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective instituted an annual transcribathon in 2015. This year’s event takes place on March 4. With more and more recipe books available to study, the significant contributions women made to health care during this era are coming to light.