52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, week 38: how to take a 16th century bath
For this week’s how-to, I thought I’d try some 16th century recipes from the first English translation of Europe’s most popular apothecary of the 15th and 16th century. I’ve grabbed St Andrews’ copy of A most excellent and perfect homish apothecarye, with an aim to recreate some of Hieronymus Brunschwig’s recipes and also with an aim to not maim myself in the process, but, after the stress of trying to find so many crazy ingredients (and convincing my wife that these recipes were safe!), I’ve resigned myself to just taking a bath!
A most excellent and perfect homish apothecarye is the first English translation of Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Thesaurus pauperum: Hauß apoteck first published as an appendix to his famous Liber de arte distillandi in 1507 (St Andrews has a copy of the 1519 edition) and first as a stand-alone book in 1537. This translation was published in 1561 in Cologne by ‘Arnold Birckman’ and is commonly found bound with the Birckman publication of part 2 of William Turner’s A new Herbal (ESTC S117784) as St Andrews’ copy is. The Birckman family history is confused. The name ‘Arnold Birckman’ may relate to someone who died in 1542; there is also record of an Arnold Bryckman made brother of the Stationer’s Company in Feb 1556, also ‘Arnoudt Birickman’ listed as ‘boeckvercooper’ in the St Lucas-Gilde at Antwerp in 1559. In the 1560’s he was importing books from Koln via Frankfurt and Antwerp into England. For more on the Birckman confusion, see James Worman’s Alien members of the book-trade during the Tudor period (London: Bib. Soc., 1906).
John Hollybush is listed as the translator on the title page, however this is potentially a pseudonym for John Turner. There was a translator by the name of Hollybush publishing in the 1530s and 1540s largely Latin translations into English; however this is the only work of German translation with his name against it. Whatever the case, we know that this is a translation of Brunschwig’s work, both by content, but also by the translator’s admittance to the fact on leaf b5r:
“as Jerome of Brunsweig, autor of this treatise, have sen my selfe.”
St Andrews’ copy of this work is quite a handy volume: if you have any questions about the plant names referred to in Hollybush’s text you can turn back to Turner’s Herbal and get a full description and often a very good woodcut! Hollybush’s translation literally offers cures for the body from head to toe: it starts with cures for lice and nits and headaches, toothaches, stomach ailments, bladder stones (several pages devoted to this!), fevers and jaundice.
It also includes ways to “knowe whether a man be possessed wyth an evill spirit and how he maye be holpen” and also how to “wax drunken and yet not drincke over much” and to avoid “febled braynes” by doing so! However, the translator does state on leaf b2r that “I rede that if a man do eat thre[e] carnels of Almondes he doth not lightely ware drunken” (three and only three!). I’ll try this out next time I have a night on the town and let you know how it goes!
For this week’s how-to, I thought I’d try out a few of the … “less detrimental” recipes found in this work, but some of the ingredients were quite hard to come by or just really quite expensive. First up, found under the heading “A medecin awaking a man sore, and with standeth slepe greatly” (leaf a4v) is a little recipe for curing sleepless nights due to stomach pains: “But if the upbraythinge come by reason of a colde stomacke, then were it good to eate Coriander sede after breakfast, the which is stiped in vinegre a day and a night, and dryed agayne, thys withstandeth the upbraythynge of the stomack.” Interesting, but the thought of eating pickled coriander seeds for breakfast doesn’t sound too appealing. Or, on leaf a6v, you can try this lovely and simple cure:
“If one slepeth unrestly, let him eat lettice: but is it a chylde, let the lettice be well sodden in water and geve him the same to drinke.”
I tried to convince my wife to try this on our son, needless to say she wasn’t impressed.
Some recipes are wonderfully fantastical, for example to detect if someone is possessed: “It is good to take the harte and liver of a fyshe called a Pyck and put the same into a pott wyth glowyng hote cooles and holde the same to the patient so that the smoke maye entre into hym. If he is possessed he can not abyde that smoke but rageth and is angry.” Certainly one recipe I won’t be trying is for curing disease of the eyes which involves the thin of an egg white, “as much woman milke that sucketh a boye” and the same amount of rose water together and then apply to said infected eye. No thanks. Red or runny eyes, a common hay fever ailment of this blogger, can be cured by taking “the water that sta[n]deth in the wilde Tasill [Basil?] leaves or els water of the vynestock the weight of half an unce & the weight of ten cornes or greyness of whyte Amber: put the same into a glasse and let it stande viii. Dayes before ye occupy it, shake or stere it every daye thre or foure tymes in the daye: the elder it is the better is it”. Sounds tempting, but I think I’ll avoid splashing 16th century 8-day-old mystery tea on my eyes, thank you very much.
Two other recipes that I thought I’d try out are two of the general cures and drinks listed in the middle of the text: a very good way to round off this experiment a drink and a bath!
Labelled as “A good drinke that strengtheth the hart and all the membres if a man drinke halfe an egges shale full in the morning and evening wyth as muche good wyne.”
“Take the beste Aqua vite (again, whisky) that ye can gette, take also a pece of fyne golde, make it gloynge whote ix. tymes and quenche it agayne, the more ye quenche it the stronger wareth the water and better. Put into the same Aqua vite half a quarter of an unce of saffron[n] and a quarter unce of Cinamon both beaten, let them stand four dayes well stopped and steare it every daye ones, but when you wilt take it then let it stande still unstered, that it maye be clere. Thys water warmeth the colde stomacke, geveth strength to all the membres, speciallye to aged folke that have ben overlonge sycke whose strength is consumed: for it co[m]fortieth and strengtheth the hart out of measure.”
I was going to give this drink a try, however I couldn’t convince my wife to give up a bit of gold jewelry to give this a go. Also, have you seen the price of saffron these days? £5 for a tiny vial?! To think that such a valuable spice (with a very interesting history) and a piece of fine gold was used for this recipe in the 16th century is quite interesting, but I didn’t try this out as it was a bit too rich for my blood (hah!).
So, finally, I’ve come to a recipe which I thought I’d try, which sounding relaxing, not life-threatening, and actually quite pleasant.
For “A good bath and natural, for it draweth furth evil heat and strengtheneth well, take heath or lynge, penyreal, wormwood, sauge, fenel of eche a handful, put it into a bagge and laye it into a kettle that it maye be thorow hote. And whan ye bathe than sit upon the bagge: howbeit ye nede not to put it agayne into the kettle for the water should ware to stronge.”
I didn’t know what was meant by ‘heath’ in this sense, so I turned to Turner’s Herbal and found its Latin and Greek name (Irica or Erice) and refers to any heath shrub or general heather, so I’ve procured heather flower for this experiment. I took 50 grams of each of the herbs (dried sage, fennel seeds, pennyroyal, dried wormwood and heather flower) and followed Hollybush’s directions by placing them into two muslin sacks (I didn’t have one big enough for 250g of spices!). All of these herbs have been sourced from British suppliers, but have been cultivated in countries such as Turkey, Morocco and Hungary, mimicking the far-flung nature of the spice trade in the 16th century, so this is about as close as I could get to the 16th century recreation. I had never worked with pennyroyal or wormwood before, and was struck by how pungent they both were: pennyroyal was like a steroid-laden mint plant and wormwood was earthy and rich.
I brought my water to a boil and then turned the heat down; Brunschwig/Hollybush is quite specific about the temperatures of water especially when it comes to boiling, and in this instance I took “thorow hote” to be very hot but not boiling. I then steeped the sacks of spices in a large pot of thoroughly hot water, for about the time it took for me to draw a hot bath (around 20 minutes).I then added the pot of spiced-water to the bath, stirred it around and then jumped in. I followed the directions and even spent some time sitting on the sacks of spices (after they cooled off).
The resulting bath was pleasant and extremely aromatic. The pennyroyal, sage and wormwood make for a very interesting perfume with a nice under-tone of fennel. The whole mixed together in a hot bath in a warm room made for a very heady experience, very relaxing and intense at the same time. After the bath I felt fine, no hallucinations just a bit warm and sweaty which means that maybe this recipe was doing its job. The entire house ended up smelling like this bath, and lingered until the morning after, so if you don’t mind your house smelling like an old-world apothecary shop then this recipe might be for you!
(Rare Books Librarian, Official Renaissance Bath Tester)