A Restoration Era Cure for Smallpox

I’ve taken a bit of a break recently, both from Yesteryear Cooking Today, and other blog activities to re-center myself. Sometimes, stepping away from the internet and social media is one of the best things we can do for our mental health. It certainly was a requirement for me this past week. I found time to read, share grand conversations with my lovely husband, work on my novel, write a few greeting cards, and continue on my historical research for this website.

I’ve been working through Hannah Wolley’s restoration era cookbook. But the treasure trove within the book contains more than just old, delicious recipes. And trust me, that is certainly contained within. Some of the most fascinating recipes within her book are the medications, syrups, and cures for 1660s ailments. These are recipes that provide the roots to many of our old wives’ tales. They are the legacy of our medication, back before medical schools, when your best bet at surviving routine matters (the flu! Childbirth! food poisoning!) were not so routine. The days when diarrhea could and did kill you.

V0010611 Victims of the plague in 1665 being lifted on to death carts

Image: See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the most feared and terrifying diseases up into the 20th century was Smallpox. Deadly and disfiguring, the disease tore through communities back during the restoration, killing with abandon. No one then understood viruses. Blame was often put upon bad water, rats, witches, and an imbalance of humors. The treatment and “cures” were just as higgly piggly.

But Hannah Wolley had a treatment for smallpox, and other “plagues.” And yes, plague in this context refers to the famed Bubonic Plague. Her recipe states:

The Plague-Water which was most esteemed of in the late great Visitation.

Take three Pints of Muskadine, boil therein one handful of Sage, and one handful of Rue until a Pint be wasted, then strain it out, and set it over the Fire again.

Put thereto a Penniworth of Long Pepper, half an Ounce of Ginger, and a quarter of an Ounce of Nutmegs, all beaten together, boil them together a little while close covered, then put to it one penniworth of Mithridate, two penniworth of Venice Treacle, one quarter of a Pint of hot Angelica Water.

Take one Spoonful at a time, morning and evening always warm, if you be already diseased; if not, once a day is sufficient all the Plague time.

It is most excellent Medicine, and never faileth, if taken before the heart be utterly mortified with the Disease, it is also good for the Small Pox, Measles, or Surfets.


First, let’s break down the recipe and see what we are working with.


Image: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What is Muskadine?

Muskadine in this case is likely referring to Muscadine wines, which were founded in what is currently the Southern United States in the 1600s, and would have been a novel, new, high-end ingredient.

What is Rue?

Rue in this case is not the french cooking term. Instead, Wolley is referencing a perennial evergreen shrub that was commonly used in herbal medications, especially during the Restoration Era.

What is a Penniworth of…?

This little piece is an interesting bit. What is a penniworth? Likely, this refers to an equivalency measurement, where the cook should use pepper and mithridate of the same size as that of an old penny.

What is Mithridate?

Mithridate is one of the most fascinating ingredients on this list. According to Wikipedia the all-knowing, Mithridate is a “semi-mythical remedy with as many as 65 ingredients.” The mixture was a common, all-purpose treatment throughout the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and even into the 1800s. I will return to this ingredient in a future blog post, as the history and composition is fascinating.

What is Venice Treacle?

Venice Treacle, also known as Theriac, is another all-purpose medication from the Mediterranean that was often used as a cure-all during this era. Though Wolley includes both Mithridate and Theriac, these were often the same ingredients the Treacle was a syrupy version of the Mithridate mixture. Further, though these ingredients were listed in a common cookbook, they were only available to the extremely wealthy and this treatment would be focused on the aristocratic families of the time period.

What is Hot Angelica Water?

Hot Angelica Waters refers to the tea waters left after the Angelica root has been steeped. It is another ingredient common in herbal infusions and Restoration medicine.


Image: Illustration from Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time from 1893 by Litchfield, Frederick, (1850-1930) – Interior of an Apothecary’s shop. Late XIV. or Early XV. Century. Flemish. (From an Old Painting.)

Though I’m not going to make this particular recipe, mainly because no one is sick in my family. But also, there are some ingredients that are just as dangerous as a nasty sniffle (especially in the Mithridate), though certainly not as deadly as smallpox. So what is this particular recipe telling us to do?

A Plague-Water Recipe

Boil 3 pints of Muskadine with a handful of Sage and a handful of Rue. One one pint is boiled off, strain the mixture and place back on the fire.

Add to the muskadine a long pepper, ginger, nutmeg and boil together.

Add mithridate, Venice treacle, and a pint of hot Angelica Water.

Take a spoonful in the morning and in the evening when the plague is present.

Though absolutely fascinating, I believe I will stick to antibiotics, vaccinations, and modern medicine. What do you think? Would you try it?

Feature Image: See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


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