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Avoid like the Plague!

Well it’s that time of year again – colds and flus are out in full force! As we stock up on various cold & flu medication and the odd herbal tea if you’re that way inclined, did you know that medieval and early modern people concocted an assortment of recipes in the hope of warding off plagues?

Take TCD MS 93 Psalter, for example. This particular manuscript, a book of Psalms, contains seven different recipes for ailments facing contemporaries, including recipes for a sore back, scurvy of the mouth, and a plague preventative.

A manuscript containing a recipe against the plague in TCD MS93 Psalter.
A Recipe ‘Against the Plague’ in TCD MS93 Psalter, f.1r.

TCD MS 93 dates to the later half of the fifteenth century, once belonging to Sir John Wingfield – a lawyer, sheriff, and member of the Privy Council of Edward IV – and his wife Elizabeth Fitz-Lewis. While the manuscript appears to have been commissioned by Wingfield and Fitz-Lewis after 1461, the plague recipe appears in a later sixteenth-century hand. While Psalters were somewhat formulaic, following a set standard of text for devotional use, the recipes with which they are annotated provide us with some insight into the hopes, fears, and concerns of their owners.

A plate of ingredients including figs, walnuts, and herbs.
Figs, Walnuts, and Herbs

The plague recipe is quite straightforward and many of the ingredients listed are still familiar to us today. Shall we try it?* Ok, so, you will need:

  • Walnuts
  • Warm water
  • Leaves of rue (substitute micro herbs)
  • Bay saet (substitute bay leaf)
  • Fig

A nice short list. The instructions are also easy to follow – for the less ambitious potion-makers among us! Having gathered our ingredients, follow these easy steps:

“Pres old walnutes blanched in warme water, then take leaues

of rue an equall quantity & bay [saet], beate theis together and

put it into a figge, and so eate it

Per Lady St Leger.

John Stanley”

A picture of a pestle and mortar used to crush ingredients for the recipe.
A Pestle and Mortar

So, here we have a pretty straightforward recipe with ingredients that might be found in any pantry, from medieval to modern – aside from the rue or saet, perhaps? But more importantly, did it work? Probably not! Nevertheless, some of the measures used in the past have been tried and tested in our modern world quite recently. Parish registers point to restrictions which will be all too familiar to us, like restricting movement and imposing quarantine.

A plate of figs, walnuts, and herbs.
Plate of Figs, Walnuts, and Herbs

So while some measures were more successful than others, the holistic approach to tackling the various ailments facing medieval and early modern contemporaries might not be as removed as we might think. The medieval manuscripts in the Library’s collection are filled with small snippets of the hopes and fears of their owners, some aspects of which we can still relate to today.

*WARNING: This recipe contains nuts. It also won’t protect against the plague!

TCD MS 93 is just one of sixty manuscripts digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project, supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York. This project is part of the Virtual Trinity Library programme which aims to conserve, catalogue, digitise, and promote the Library’s unique collections, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars. For updates and more manuscripts coming soon, stay tuned!

By Dr Claire McNulty