In medieval medicine, humoral medicine was a common practice. (For more about the humors, see my earlier post here.) When patients were ill, food and drugs – often plant-derived – were prescribed, taking into account not only the symptoms, but also his or her temperament, age, location, and time of year.
Balancing the humors seems to me to have been somewhat precarious at times. If one was too choleric (hot and dry), foods and herbs that were considered cold and moist were prescribed. However, too much could cause a swing in the opposite direction. Foods were assigned qualities similar to those of the four humors – for example, cucumbers and watermelons were considered cool and moist.
What is a recipe? Is it instructions from which one can prepare a meal, a snack, a dessert? Or is it how to mix the best cocktail? Or how to cure acne? Or how to care for a bee sting? What other knowledge does one need to properly take advantage of the advice in a recipe? Recipes found in medical books are no different than ones found in food cookbooks; it’s just that the desired outcome is different than a crowd-pleasing cake.
The Historical Medical Library holds over 20 manuscript recipe (or “receipt”) books, dating from the 17th century up through the early 20th century. The majority of our recipe books are medical in nature, but many include food, drink, and household cleaning recipes as well. I’ve even seen recipes for ink in a couple of our 19th century books.