Healthcare was largely a woman’s province in the early modern period. Diseases were fought and injuries treated at the home and it was women’s work to know how to treat all sorts of these problems. That’s why, when you venture into manuscript collections of the period, you’ll find a serious gender divide in what readers collected in their commonplace books.
A commonplace book was a collection of texts and tidbits appealing to its owner. I’ve studied many commonplace books over the years, men’s and women’s. Most of the men’s collections included witty epigrams and learned passages taken from longer works of scholarship. Women’s commonplace books are almost always very practical collections. We might call many of these “recipe books” although the recipes within weren’t always food for the table. Instead, they were recipes for the medicines these women would prepare and use to treat people in their household.
In 1639, Katherine Packer collected “Very Good medicines for Severall deseases wounds and sores both new and olde”. These weren’t evidence of idle curiosity as Packer’s next line indicated. Instead, these recipes were tried through “carefull practice.”
Here’s one example I transcribed a few years back:
To make childrens teeth grow with little paine hang about the necke anoules tooth that the child may red the goomes . . . when you make the first pape for the childe the mother must milke therein a little of her milke & let the childe eate * the teeth will grow wthout paine. Probatum est
Probatum est – “It has been proven”. Packer had either herself enjoyed success with this cure for a child’s teething pain or known someone who had done so. Fascinating, no?
Examine some of Packer’s medical manuscript thanks to the fabulous Folger Digital Image Collection (This is Folger MS Va 387 if you’re interested).