Take our first First Lady’s cookbook, add a healthy serving of medicinal recipes from 16th and 17th century English women, plus a sprinkling of witches’ brews, and you have an intriguing new exhibit at DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library.
Martha Washington, like many of these Renaissance women – from a queen to countesses to servant women – brewed up syrup of violets, one of the more palatable potables in the Folger’s free exhibit “Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science”.
“The whole violet family, including pansies or ‘Heart’s Ease’, bring about ‘feel good qualities’,” noted exhibit curator Rebecca Laroche. She has sampled syrup of violets, and pronounced it “beyond delicious — calming, but not inebriating.”
Alas, poor Ophelia sought violets to make the homeopathic remedy, “but they withered all when my father died”. Without her father, or her beloved Hamlet who had rejected her, Ophelia was “self-medicating, but her tragedies were too great,” Laroche told a press preview.
Naturally, the Folger Shakespeare exhibit reflects these nature-based remedies in his plays.
The comforting scent of a “bank of Violets” is praised by the melancholic Duke Orsino as “Twelfth Night” opens. The heroine, named Viola, weds Duke Orsino as the play ends.
In “All’s Well that Ends Well”, Helena knows “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie”. She knows also a home remedy that cures the king, her very first patient. He rewards Helena by forcing her beloved Bertram to wed her, although the count loathes her.
Actually, in Shakespeare’s time and beyond, women who accepted any recompense were punished, sometimes as witches.
The “Macbeth” witches’ “charm of powerful trouble”, consists of, among other things, dragon scale and “Liver of blaspheming Jew, Gall of goat and slips of yew…” Although a few of its ingredients, like “mummy”, are on display in the exhibit, others like “Finger of birth-strangled babe” are not.
“Many will come to the exhibit to see the witches – they do have their role,” said Laroche, “We hope that this reorients people’s view of that ‘hell-broth boil and bubble’ speech, to see it as a recipe.”
The exhibit of elaborate texts, drawings, objects, and videos highlights the Folger’s collection of “dozens” of recipe books.
Many of these recipes’ exotic ingredients, lent by the Smithsonian, are displayed. Ranging from gold to mother’s milk to ground deer antlers, their uses are explained delightfully on a touch-screen monitor.
Bezoar stones, an antidote to poison, are mentioned in three Harry Potter books, noted Laroche, author of the recently published book “Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550-1650 (Ashgate Publishing).
Mole blood was used to re-grow hair, an “early Rogaine”.
Some of the recipes are kindly provided, like for snail water to cure consumption and/or jaundice. Its labor- and time-intensive recipe calls for a peck of garden snails washed in “a great bowl of beer”, a quart of earthworms, a quart or two of rosemary flowers, rue… But “3 Gallons of strong Ale” might just be the key ingredient.
When a pregnant woman at the press preview got the “vapors”, Laroche prescribed ginger, a major remedy then as now. She added that “One of the first recipes recommended white wine.”
Many of the works deal with midwifery. One book shows “Venus with her guts hanging out,” pointed out Laroche, Chair and Associate Professor of the English Department at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Seriously, the exhibit demonstrates amply that “women did hold deep knowledge, gained from hands-on experience, in what have now become the fields of anatomy, botany, and chemistry.” Many of “the observations they made were in line with those explained by early scientists.”
(Women were not admitted to Britain’s Royal College of Physicians, which licenses practitioners, until 1934, according to the book “The Royal College of Physicians: An Illustrated History”.)
This exhibit pays glorious tribute to 16th and 17th century women medical practitioners, and their contributions to science as well as their patients.
It’s on through May 14 at the Folger, just one block east of the US Capitol, where the House of Representatives has voted to repeal the health care bill. As we know, medicine has never been without controversy.
For more info: Folger Shakespeare Library, www.folger.edu,“Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science”, www.folger.edu/Content/Whats-On/Folger-Exhibitions/On-Exhibit-Beyond-Home-Remedy, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC, 202-544-4600.