By Sierra Skye Gemma (University of British Columbia)
Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History – Published Online (2008)
Introduction: Also, I pray yow that ye wol send me a booke wyth chardeqweyns that I may have of in the mo[r]nyngges, for the eyeres be not holsom in this town. Therfore I pray yow hertely lete John Suffeld bryng it hom wyth hym.
Margaret Paston wrote her husband John this letter, asking him to purchase for her a book with a recipe to combat the unwholesome air, around the middle of the fifteenth century. Some historians have approached these simple recipes for health as ignorant and ineffectual. When Thomas Cockayne published translations of medieval English medical manuscripts in 1864, he described one of the oldest surviving manuscripts as little more than drivel when it was not outright dangerous. Over one hundred years later, when Charles Singer introduced the 1961 edition of Cockayne’s Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, this opinion of medieval English medicine had changed little. Other historians echoed this disparaging view. Clearly, in curing her own ills, Margaret Paston did not share these opinions about medical recipes. In fact, the numerous extant medical manuscripts from medieval England suggest their popularity. In England, there was a long tradition of medical texts written in the vernacular beginning in the ninth century. These texts showed a surprising array of health remedies for women, including prayers, charms, incantations, and herbal concoctions. The sources confirm that women had an abundance of time-tested and relatively effective religious, magical, and pharmacological remedies available to them to provide relief for their particular health issues, such as menstruation difficulties, venereal disease, fertility, abortion, childbirth, and lactation.
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