Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Family Medical Receipts" - Regency Remedies and Cures

In these days of heated discussion about health care, it is interesting to reflect on the limitations of Regency medical knowledge. Surgeons were rough men for the most part, not far from the barber-surgeons of the previous century. Physicians were a step above but limited to such treatments as cupping, bloodletting and leeches. Change was coming but it was slow and it is often resisted.

For most people in most situations, the best health care was to be had in the home. And every recipe book, whether purchased or compiled generation after generation, contained cures and nostrums for every ailment.

The book ‘Modern Domestic Cookery’ published in a third edition in 1819, and written by Elizabeth Hammond, was a receipt book that covered every possible household need. From cookery to wine-making, carving to cleaning, it is full of recipes of all kinds.

Medications, remedies, therapies and treatments are found in the section titled Family Medical Receipts ; they are sobering and really make me appreciate the advances of the past two hundred years.

The first receipt in the list is for camphorated oil—a liniment—and the second recipe is for a wound ointment:

Take of bees-wax, white rosin, and frankincense, four ounces each, melt them well together over a slow fire, then add the same weight of fresh lard, and strain it into your jar while warm; this ointment is of great use in cleansing and healing wounds and ulcers.

Chapped lips were apparently as common in Regency times as in our present day, and so there is a receipt for:
Put in a jar four ounces of white wax, one ounce of spermaceti, and half a pint of oil of sweet almonds, cover it close, and put it in a saucepan with as much water as will nearly reach the top of the jar, let it boil till the wax is melted (but observe, none of the water must boil over the jar,) then put in a small quantity of alkanet root tied up in a bag; close the jar again, and boil it till it becomes red; remove the alkanet root, and add a little essence of lemon, or bergamot; run it into your pots, and keep it for use.

For headaches, the following recommendation:
This unpleasant pain may be prevented by wearing the hair short, and by washing the head daily with cold water; then rub the hair dry, and expose it to the air.

Inflamed eyes have their own disagreeable remedies:
Leeches should be applied to the temples, and when the bleeding has ceased, a small blister may be applied, and a little opening medicine taken. Shaving the head, and bathing the feet in warm water, will in some cases, be found very beneficial.

A ‘fever drink’ might sound helpful with a rise in body temperature, but the efficacy of a simple fruit beverage seems questionable to contemporary eyes:
Boil three ounces of currants, two of raisins carefully stoned, and an ounce and a half of tamarinds, in three pints of water, till it is reduced to a quart, strain it, throw in a bit of lemon-peel, and let it stand an hour.
Refreshing yes, therapeutic—well, I don’t know.

Barley water, that staple of Regency novels, is I believe still in occasional use, but I was not familiar with its preparation. Here is the 1819 receipt:
Boil a quarter of a pound of pearl-barley in a gallen of water, till it is quite soft and white, then strain off the water, and add to it a little currant jelly, lemon or milk.
Wash a little common barley, and let it simmer in three or four pints of water with a little lemon-peel. This is prefereable to pearl-barley.

And so it continues--a hopeful panacea for every ailment. After reading the remedies in this two hundred year old book, I am more than content to rely on 21st century science. For once, I don’t at all wish to live during the Regency era.


Jana Richards said...

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Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you, Jana!