A Little find in the archive

This week I have been up to the record office in Stafford to read volume one of Richard Wilkes’ journal. This is a great resource for early eighteenth-century medical and social history. Wilkes likes to record special medical cases he has been involved in, in a nice amount of detail, but as he went on to write a history of the county he also records local family histories, interesting news stories, and scandals. I found one such story particularly fascinating, Wilkes recorded that a young man living with his uncle lost his mind and attacked, and killed, the maid with a razor. He also attacked his uncle who narrowly escaped before slitting his own throat. The man and maid were subsequently buried together (I’m not sure how she would have felt about that).1

I finished reading through the diary and had some time to spare so I turned, as I always do, to reading a seventeenth-century recipe book that was housed in the collection of the Stafford Estate, attributed to the Jerningham Family, of Costessey, Norfolk.2 The book was very interesting as it functioned both as a space to record recipes but also as a compiled index of references to the authors’ collection of medical texts. The book was organised with a separate condition or illness on each page and, usually two, distinct hands recorded useful remedies and notes about effective remedies that could be found in Culpeper’s Dispensatory, William Salmon’s Dispensatory, Daniel Sennert’s medical texts and Lazarus Riverius’ medical text.

Now as we might expect, I was particularly excited when I discovered that the authors had included in their transcriptions from such texts remedies for priapism (continual painful erection), conception, barrenness and, most exciting, lust.

This is only the second time I have found recipes for aphrodisiacs listed explicitly, and separated from barrenness and conception, in a domestic recipe collection. The first I have written about on the recipes blog was a brief note that ‘Sotherne wood being laid under ye beeds [sic] head, doth provoke venery.’ There are obviously hundreds I haven’t read yet so I’m hopeful there are others but it always makes me happy to find a new reference – even if it is too late to be included in the book.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Courtesy of Pixabay

The author of this particular section explained that Rocket was a good aphrodisiac. Indeed rocket was often described as an aphrodisiac in this era for its heating qualities. They then went on to note that a better aphrodisiac was Balsamum ed Venereum from Salm. Disp. They offered no further details about what was in this wonderous compound. So on my return I couldn’t resist looking up what it was. In the 1702 edition of William Salmon’s translation of the London Dispensatry on page 746 I found ‘Balsamum Venereum, sam provoking Lust’

The compound is packed full of well know early modern aphrodisiacs including the rather dangerous Cantharides – which I have written about elsewhere – oil of ants, oil of cloves, oil of nutmegs, mace, as well as musk, and civet. Salmon writes of it that ‘ It excites Lust anointing the parts of Generation.

The author finished their transcription by repeating the word vide. ‘See’ [?] times. Who knows if the author ever made use of the recipe but they were clearly interested in it. I might no longer be researching aphrodisiacs as my main interest but these references continue to capture my interest and spark the ultimate question I had of did people make and use these substances, and if so what were their motivations.


  1. Staffordshire Record Office, 5350, Dr Wilkes’ Journal.
  2. Staffordshire Record Office, D641/3/H/3/1. Jerningham Family, of Costessey, Norfolk. 17th c. Recipe Book.
  3. British Library Ms Sloane 556: Medical Receipts Written by Anthony Lewis; From a Book Owned by Lady Marquee Dorset, 1606. fol. 31 r.

One thought on “A Little find in the archive

  1. Pingback: Dog Danger | Early Modern Medicine

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