Foot of a cat, fat from a pig, an old onion, some fresh eggs, hen’s droppings and horse dung – not a Scottish play potion, but the poultices offered to treat the burns of the Great Fire of London.
While most exhibitions in this anniversary year focus on how the fire ravaged the buildings, London’s Royal College of Physicians is look at how medics of the time tried to treat the damage to humans.
The physicians are showing off some of their collection of 17th century recipe books and herbal medical texts detailing common remedies for burns and scalds.
Handwritten recipe, or ‘receipt’ books, used by medical professionals and lay people alike, particularly women at the head of large households, often incongruously listing stomach-churning ingredients for cures alongside instructions for making fruit preserves and tempting jellies.
Animal waste, in all its forms, was a favoured material for easing the pain of burns.
One recipe advises that horse manure is best, though only if the animal is reared ‘at grasse’. Another advocates frying hens’ dung with herbs to make a paste, a third adds sheep’s droppings to a complex mix including ‘barrowes grease’, the fat of a neutered male pig. Elsewhere, sheep’s fat, known as ‘tallowe’ is boiled with ‘bore’s grease’ and butter, to make up a odorous oily ointment.
While ‘cat’s foot’ might sound an equally unpleasant ingredient, the reality is much more benign. It is in fact a common name of the plant Glechoma hederacea, also called ale hoofe or gill go by ground. This aromatic herb, with a mild peppery flavour, is still used as a salad leaf and to make tea in some parts of the world, and was a key component in the battle against fiery injuries.
Much more everyday are eggs and onions, preferably red, both of which appear in many of the recipes. Eggs are used to bind mixtures together, or sometimes as a main ingredient, beaten or ground with an antique version of a pestle and mortar and applied directly to the wound. Onions are similarly ‘stamped’ into a paste and then placed on a thin cloth covering the sore.
Whilst the recipe books and herbals open a fascinating window onto the very organic world of 17th century medicine, the exhibition and season of events as a whole focuses on the chaos of this tumultuous period in British history.
Original artefacts that avoided the destruction of the 1660s go on public display including, not only the ‘receipt books’, but other archives, precious silver, rare books and an assembly of portraits, some touched by the fire itself and bearing the scars to prove it.
The exhibition, ‘To fetch out the fire: reviving London, 1666’ is open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm from 1st September to 16th December 2016.
Entry is free.