The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

“For a cancer in the brest”: early modern recipes

receipt title
“For a cancer in the brest”

The large penstrokes of this title caught my eye as I was cataloging a recently acquired receipt book (a book of culinary and medicinal recipes). In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we provide a window into breast cancer treatment in the 17th century. Here is a full recipe, followed by a modernized transcription: 1

"For a cancer in the brest"
“For a cancer in the brest”

For a cancer in the breast

Take 3 pounds of new burnt lime, unslacked, and put it to a gallon of spring water and let it stand four days, then pour the water off as clear as may be. Then take half a pound of sassafras wood and half a pound of licorice and half a pound of anise seeds and half a pound of currants; shave the wood very thin and bruise all the rest and put them in the water and let it stand four days longer. Then drink thereof every morning and about four in the afternoon, a small sack glass full.

This remedy appears in Folger MS V.a.621, a receipt book owned and compiled by Lady Catherine Bacon, the youngest daughter of Samuel Pepys’s cousin and patron Edward Mountagu. 2 It is a particularly extensive compilation, with most of the 300+ pages bearing between 2 and 5 receipts and many specifying sources. It appears to have been compiled over a period of several decades: the earliest recipes likely date from shortly after Lady Catherine’s first marriage in the 1680s, but several others date from well into the 18th century, including a final recipe under the heading “Anno 1738-9 Evening Post against the small-Pox to prevent infection.” The contents include a wide range of culinary preparations along with medical formularies. The organization is haphazard at best (reflecting the order in which the recipes were collected more than anything), although a partial contemporary manuscript index provides some guidance.

As I continued to examine this manuscript, I was struck by other recipes for treating breast ailments. Many pertain to frequent complaints associated with nursing (“for sore nipples when one give suck” [p. 145], “for hardness in the breast” [p. 163], and “A Diet Drink for sore breast” [p. 168]). 3 The manuscript also includes a more elaborate medicinal draught “to prevent the growing of a cancer in the brest” (brace yourselves for an unexpected ingredient!):

title of receipt
To prevent the growing of a cancer in the breast 

To prevent the growing of a cancer in the breast

Take of sowes [wood-lice] a pint; put them in an earthen pot with fennel to sucker themselves and let it stand about 24 hours. Then take them out of the pot, wash them, and bruise them into a hair bag tied up, and put the bag into a vessel of good strong beer, about 5 gallons. And also put into the vessel these herbs following, namely sanicle, agrimony, self-heal, sebium, bugles, five-finger grass, mouse-ear, comfrey, plantain, wood betony, avens, St John’s wort, mugwort, calamint, chervil, ribwort, or as many of them as you can get. And let the sowes and herbs infuse in the beer for a week or 10 days, then broach it and drink it as your ordinary beer as long as you please, but the best season for drinking of the same is in the spring and fall of the leaf. 4

Treatments for breast ailments are common in receipt books; indeed, I recently came across several others in another manuscript in my cataloging queue, a receipt book compiled by Margaret Baker (Folger MS V.a.619). Here, on either side of a single opening, are two simple topical remedies: no. 76 “for the canker in a womans breste” and no. 80 “for to aswage the swelling of a womans pappes” (i.e. breasts).

two topical remedies
two topical remedies

76: For the canker in a woman’s breast

Take the dung of a white goose and the juice of celandine and bray them well in a mortar and lay thereof to the sore pap, and that will slay the canker and heal it.

80: For to assuage the swelling of a woman’s paps

Take black mint, stamp and strain it with swine’s grease; lay it to the sore pap and it will put away the pain.

As unappealing as woodlouse beer and goose dung or pig fat ointments might seem to a modern audience, these were not uncommon ingredients and provided women of the period with an alternative to surgery, which was an aggressive and painful form of treatment. 5 An almost identical goose dung and celandine recipe appears in Hannah Woolley’s The accomplisht ladys delight in preserving, physick and cookery (1675), which appears to have been Margaret Baker’s source for several other recipes.

We know little about Margaret Baker, but her relationship to the Corbett family of Shropshire emerges through multiple attributions both in this manuscript and in two additional autograph receipt books, now in the collections of the British Library (MS Sloane 2485 and 2486). 6 As with the Catherine Bacon receipt book and many other domestic receipt books of the period, the medical and culinary content is interspersed (one page includes a recipe “for the collick & stone” followed by two for “sassages after the Bolognia fation”).

This miscellaneous nature of receipt books’ contents poses problems when it comes to providing comprehensive access through catalog descriptions: it is rarely feasible to record every recipe in a single record, and it can be difficult to decide which details to draw out or omit. For instance, both of the dealer descriptions for the two receipt books referenced above were fairly robust, but neither mentioned women’s health. While exhaustive description may not be practical in an online catalog environment like Hamnet, it is the job of Folger catalogers to provide enough information so that researchers can identify potentially useful materials. Most Folger catalog records for receipt books summarize general themes or topics (such as a striking number of veterinary remedies in W.a.283), include notes about sources, and possibly highlight a few notable recipes (for example, our newer records routinely record recipes for ink, as in V.b.363). In the case of the two receipt books discussed in this blog post, remedies for breast ailments are but one feature I’ve chosen to draw out in scope notes.

Such details facilitate discovery by scholars. These two receipt books join over 80 others in the Folger collection which are yet to be fully studied by historians of medicine. 7 Our hope is that eventual digitization and full-text transcriptions of our receipt books will make it possible for a wider audience to read them. For those of us who have survived breast cancer or known someone with breast cancer, these treatments can be tough to read, as we inevitably wonder about the fates of the women who were treated 350 years ago.

  1. Click on any image in this post to enlarge it; a pdf of images and semi-diplomatic transcriptions can be downloaded here.
  2. Pepys’s diary includes 6 references to the young Catherine Mountagu. In the last, dated Saturday 30 May 1668, Pepys mentions “my little Lady Katherine Montagu come to town, about her eyes, which are sore, and they think the King’s evil, poor, pretty lady” ( Sore eyes appear to have been an ongoing complaint, as apparent from two of the recipes explicitly intended for Lady Catherine: “Doctor Ridgley’s receipt for any sort of sore eyes given me by Dr Mapletoft as a most excelent water” (p. 254) and “Doctor Hays Receipt for the eyes given to Mrs Bacon anno 1721” (p. 273).
  3. “Hardness” here likely refers to breasts engorged with milk, although I suppose the ambiguous term might relate to cancer.
  4. Our thanks to Rebecca Laroche in helping us work out what “sowes” was!
  5. In another Folger manuscript, John Ward describes the repeated procedures endured by one Mrs. Townsend after initial removal of a breast tumor: “Euery time they dresst itt they cut of something of the Cancer that was left behind; the Chirugians were for applying a Caustick but Doctor Needham said no not till the last time she could indure the knife. They praepard her body somewhat he let her blood the day before; Shee indured it with infinite patience all along, not offring to lay her hand vppon itt to wash itt but a warme cloth to the other breast all the time” (Folger MS V.a.287, fol. 99v). Despite these efforts, Mrs. Townsend died the following year, and the autopsy revealed metastases throughout the chest cavity down to the womb which “hung much like Ropes of Onions” (Folger MS V.a.295, fol. 33r).
  6. Digital facsimiles of British Library MS Sloane 2485 and MS Sloane 2486 are included in the Perdita Manuscripts, 1500-1700 (available through subscription: Some information, including a partial transcription of MS Sloane 2486, publicly available through the Perdita archives (
  7. Readers interested in the history of recipes should check out The Recipes Project (, a wonderful scholarly blog devoted to the subject.


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