The best medicine to treat jaundice in the 1600s? Snails boiled in beer

Snails boiled in beer and swallows crushed to a pulp are among some of the medicinal cures listed in a newly unearthed 17th century handbook. 

It is believed that a kitchen worker employed by a wealthy British household wrote the 170-page leather-bound manuscript, titled Cordial Waters & Surrups.

One of the concoctions likely to raise some eyebrows is “snail water”, created as a supposed cure for jaundice.

The instructions tell the reader to tip a pack of garden snails into a bowl of beer, which is then boiled over a fire, “shells and all”.

Pages from the 17th century manuscript, believed to have been written by a kitchen worker employed by a wealthy British household

Credit: TWGaze/BNPS

Another recipe is for “hott surfett water”, which was said to “allay ye heat of a ffeavour” [sic].

The cook is instructed to combine a liver and shoulder of lamb, the livers of two black rabbits, the lungs of a fox and two sheep hearts with half a pound of dates and half a pound of currants, all ground in a mortar.

This was all distilled in rose water before mixed with 2lbs of brown sugar.

To make “swallow water”, a cure for tuberculosis, required between 50 and 60 young swallows “crushed to a pap in a mortar” before blending them with castor oil. 

TW Gaze, the Suffolk auctioneers which sold the manuscript for £2,700, nine times its original estimate, revealed that the document had belonged to a private collector who collected it at a book fair several decades ago for a small sum of money.

The manuscript went under the hammer for £2,700, nine times its original estimate

Credit: TWGaze/BNPS

Robert Henshilwood, the head of books and manuscripts at TW Gaze in Diss, said: “The manuscript is unique in that there are others like it, but none are the same. It is a mix of cookery and medicinal recipes, which are quite revolting.

“We don’t know who created it or where, but it is likely to have been somebody working in the kitchens of a big country house. Some of the ingredients for cooking would have been quite expensive to acquire in the 18th century.

“It gives us a really good snapshot of life in those times, what herbs and spices they had access to, what they were using daily, and what people thought about illnesses then.”

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