Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gender and Domestic Medicine: Analysis of a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

A lot of people ask for details about my thesis, so I decided to write a blog post so that I can refer people here. The working title is "Gender and Domestic Medicine: Analysis of a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book". I am purposely being vague about the manuscript and its author to protect my findings until I can publish them.

My thesis is an analysis of medicinal recipes from a 17th century manuscript that originated in England and eventually made its way to America and into the vault of a local historical society. There are about 450 medicinal recipes in the book, about 400 of which are readable. The handwriting is tiny, but neat. The primary reason for a recipe not being readable is due to torn pages. For the most part, the recipes were collected by the same person and written in the same hand. As there is evidence that the recipes were collected over time and the same handwriting is used, I don't think a scribe was used. I recently figured out who the compiler was and know that she could both read and write.

Medicinal recipes are basically home remedies to treat a wide variety of ailments. They are primarily herb-based, but also include animal products, minerals and alcoholic beverages. People often ask about my favorite recipe. It changes from day to day, but currently my favorite recipe is for toad oil. Take about 100 toads and build a brick furnace in the yard. Start a fire and put in the live toads. After a couple of days, take the furnace apart and save the oil to be used in other recipes.

Almost all of the recipes have a note about who contributed the recipe. There are 90 different contributors. Based on notations such as "my sister", "Mr" and "Dr" I can determine whether the person was male or female, related or not (which assumes that notations such as cousin, sister, aunt, etc. refer to familial connections), and whether the person was a doctor or apothecary vs. not in the medical profession. I am comparing characteristics of the recipe with contributor type (male vs. female, related vs. not, medical profession vs. not). I am comparing such things are complexity of the recipe (number of steps, number of ingredients, number of days to make the recipe, etc.), whether it was a panacea or for a specific disease, whether a statement of efficacy of the recipe was included, whether directions for administering the treatment were included, whether elements of superstition and astrology were included, etc.

Although I am looking at 3 types of contributors, where I have the most variety and largest numbers are for gender, so I think that will be the primary focus of my thesis (and hence the title) but that could change as I finalize the analyses.

I am happy to be able to combine my love of history and statistics in this project. I have created a database of over 50,000 data elements and will analyze them using my statistical knowledge. Using statistics in history is rare, so the quantitative aspect of my research is innovative.

One thing that I am finding challenging is categorizing the diseases. Belief in the humoral system of balance was still strong there and disease per se was not defined. All symptoms were caused by imbalance of the humors. So even if a specific disease was mentioned in the recipe, it could be just the symptoms. They also had treatments for things such as "wind in the spleen" or to "comfort the heart". How does one categorize this? Into body systems affected, into symptoms, into something else???

Currently I am finalizing the database, then will finalize the analysis and submit my thesis proposal.

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