Some Herbal History

We must be grateful to all those of the bygone era who took the time to pass on their experiences, whether passed from elder to younger within a family line, or in still-room books and herbals.

In 1994 the botanist Gabrielle Hatfield published a survey into the current use of country remedies in East Anglia, England. She reported: “After the great advances of modern medicine over the past fifty years, it comes as a surprise to discover that so many natural remedies are still in circulation, even though largely within the over-sixties age group.”

The remedies she recorded are simple and universal, such as chewing on a clove to relieve tooth ache, she concluded that ‘this is a critical time for folk medicine if we do not want to lose our experience of plants which have proved their efficacy over centuries.’ Understanding the plants and remedies around us provides a sense of unity, place purpose and belonging. Care for ourselves also means caring for the plants and the planet which ultimately provides sustenance for us all!

The most famous book written for the layman is Culpeper’s Herbal which has been reprinted many times since 1652. However, many other people also compiled books for themselves, listing the skill and plant knowledge they needed to survive. In the past such knowledge was vital to everyday life, having a sound and intimate knowledge of their natural surroundings, being able to make do, to find, to stretch and substitute, to respond flexibly no matter what the season or the situation may be. In large houses of gentlemen and ladies, such experiences were written into household or still-room books to be passed on, together with tips, time savers, recipes and comments. A good example of this is ‘Mary Doggett, her book of recipes’ (1682) which contains recipes such as the following:

  • Grapes in Jelly
  • To preserve blew violets for salletts
  • Almond milk,
  • Plaisters for bruises,
  • Balm water,
  • To perfume gloves in the Spanish manner,
  • Sweet powders for linen
  • Orange biskett,
  • Orange butter,
  • To keep cherries all year,
  • Paste for hands,
  • Pickle cucumbers,
  • To candy oranges or lemons or any kind of sucketts
  • To make cowslip wine
  • Drinks to cause sleep
  • A perfume for a sweet bag.

Many of the traditions and skills are still most valuable and relevant today. These still-room books contain the everyday knowledge needed, not only to survive in harmony with nature, but to get the best from life. During the golden age of the 17th century, every household would have one.

The authors of still-room books would swap recipes and remedies often; however, some were kept secret and became the subject of gossip and intrigue. History usually recounts the major events of the dominant culture, but in still-room books, history comes to life and is humanised in such a charming, quaint and delightful way! For example, ‘The Lady Sedley her Receipt Book’ tells us of many famous personages of the time, including the three doctors who attended Charles II, another recipe is from the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth, and even recalls the Archbishop of Canterbury managing to obtain a ‘secret’ held recipe from a Dr Stephens just before his death, although it doesn’t tell us how the archbishop accomplished this task!

But imagine all those Dukes and Lords of the day swapping recipes for anything from spots to bad breath whilst engaged in the complexities and politics of the state!



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