The collection of books at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the life and times of not just William Shakespeare, but of his family and friends too. Some items in this collection are what we might now recognise as ‘lifestyle guides’, offering advice and practical tips on day to day living in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Such works have their uses even now. At this festive time of year, when over-indulgence is pretty much an ongoing part of the celebrations, you might first come over to the Shakespeare Centre Library and gather some top tips on how people in Shakespeare’s time attempted to cure the inevitable side-effects of all that excess food and alcohol. Although we don't recommend you try these at home!
For example, Gervase Markham, the author of The English Housewife (call it up from the library with the number SR - 93.02/) has the perfect treatment to avoid drunkenness. ‘If you would not be drunk’, he writes, you should mix some powdered wood, betany and colewort, and make sure you ‘eat it every morning fasting’ – that is, do not sprinkle it on your cornflakes. Ideally the quantity should be as much as can ‘lie in a sixpence’ (about the size of a 5p coin). This is enough, apparently, ‘to preserve a man from drunkenness.’
As for the matter of eating too much at the dinner table, especially the traditional seasonal over-eating of sprouts, Markham has a useful recipe to alleviate the attendant stomach problems. The ‘wind colic’ as he calls it ‘is a disease both general and cruel’ to which many can testify. Take several nutmegs, ‘sound and large, and divide them equally into four quarters.’ The next morning ‘as soon as you rise, eat a quarter, thereof.’ The next morning ‘eat two quarters, and the third eat three quarters, and the fourth morning eat a whole nutmeg.’ Having accustomed your stomach to the nutmeg you should continue to eat a whole one every morning whilst the colic afflicts you.
If that does not work then Markham advises that you ‘take a handful of clean wheatmeal’ – lovely healthy wholegrains – and mix it with two eggs, a little vinegar and some water so that it makes a kind of small cake. He suggests baking it on a ‘gridiron’, making sure to ‘turn it often’ and baste it with water using a feather, but I think a pastry brush would be just as effective. Once warmed, you are told to place it on yourself ‘somewhat higher than the pain is, rather than lower.’
Reading about these curious cures, we can be grateful medical advice has moved on and we can now buy our remedies at the local chemist!
Markham, Gervase. 1683. The English housewife, containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman. London: Hannah Sawbridge.