Recipes for dealing with the plague in Shakespeare’s England

Burges's water for the plague
“Burges’s water for the plague.” Receipt book V.a.140. folio 31 recto. Compiled ca. 1600. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare’s England was one well used to contagious diseases, and none more so than the bubonic plague. As Austin Tichenor has eloquently written on this blog, there is no one ‘plague play’, but death, disease, and contagion are favorite and familiar themes throughout Shakespeare’s work. One instance of plague in the works of Shakespeare I find particularly interesting is that in Romeo and Juliet. Whereas Shakespeare often uses plague metaphorically, in this play the disease is painfully close to home, and the agent for a crucial and tragic plot point: Friar John, entrusted with delivering the message to Romeo that Juliet’s poisoning was temporary, is unable to do so because his house was sealed up on suspicion of infection (5.2.5–12).

Juliet examining the potion
Nicole Lowrance (Juliet), Romeo and Juliet, directed by PJ Paparelli, Folger Theatre, 2005. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Romeo and Juliet was probably written in about 1595, not long after one of the many outbreaks of the plague which blighted England and Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These outbreaks are considered part of the same centuries-long pandemic which brought both the ‘Black Death’ to Europe between about 1346 and 1353, and the Great Plague of London in 1665.

Living through plague in Stratford and London, Shakespeare may have bought one of the many waters, potions, powders, and remedies purported to be cures for the disease. He certainly wrote about potions, from the fateful sleeping drug taken by Romeo, to the ‘potions of eisel’ [vinegar] written about in Sonnet 111 to cure the author of his ‘strong infection’: a corruption contracted in part through a life lived too publicly.

Recipes for these potions are often found in household recipe books of the time. The Folger holds a collection of 127 such books, many of which have been transcribed by a team of volunteers working with Shakespeare’s World and the EMMO projects. One example, found in many of the books and which has been written about on the EMROC blog, is a recipe usually found under the name ‘Doctor Burges’s remedy’. To make it requires boiling Malmsey (a type of wine) with sage and rue until it reduces, then adding long pepper, ginger, nutmeg, London treacle (a pre-made mixture of substances), and Mithridate (something similar). These recipes demonstrate, among other things, the extent to which global ingredients were available to people living in England: long pepper is native to India, ginger and nutmeg come from South East Asia and the Moluccas, and London treacle could contain cinnamon, pepper, and a whole host of other ingredients not native to England or western Europe.

Burges's water for the plague
Receipt book V.a.140. folio 31 recto. Compiled ca. 1600. Folger Shakespeare Library.

I’m really interested in the impact of contagious diseases on our ability to communicate. While covid-19 has led to novel—if sometimes tedious—methods and habits of communication, in early modern Europe infectious diseases put much more of a damper on things. Indeed, not only is Friar John unable to deliver the message to Romeo, but he also can’t send it back via another messenger—the letter itself was seen as a potential carrier of infection (5.2.15–16). This wasn’t unusual: during the Great Plague in 1665, the London postmaster James Hickes kept the postal service running only by working throughout the night to air the letters in vinegar in the hope that it would work as a disinfectant.

The recipe books can also be considered a medium of communication. The earliest version of Doctor Burges’s recipe found within the Folger recipe books is one from a book compiled in about 1600, and it is possible to trace its transmission—a variant of the recipe can be found in at least ten of the manuscript recipe books transcribed by the Folger, and I have found the recipe in printed news written during the Great Plague of London in 1665, and even in newspaper articles in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Much like printed news, these recipes tended to circulate as discrete snippets of information, with occasional changes but overall remaining remarkably similar to the original.

It is perhaps obvious that these cures were likely useless at best, on occasion actively dangerous, and often sold by opportunistic quacks. But even so, their existence was another way in which valuable information about the plague could circulate. In the earliest version I’ve found (call # V.a.140), for example, underneath the recipe for the aforementioned plague remedy, the author of the recipe book writes:

Though there is noe one sure or generall way other to prevent
the sicknes but keepinge far from infected places and persons,
much lesse any certaine waie or generall to cure all, yeat
vsinge ordinarie good meanes there is better effect founde.
than where those meanes are not vsed.

Even in Shakespeare’s time, the efficacy of these cures could be called into question, something worth reflecting on as the world deals yet again with the dangers of disinformation surrounding a deadly disease.

The full transcription of the recipe:

D Burg^es water for the plag^ue
Take iij pints of Malmesie and boyle therein of sage
of rue of each an handfull vntill a pint be consumed
then straigne it and sett it ouer the fier againe, then
putt to it a penny worth of longe pepper and halfe
an ounce of ginger and a quarter of an ounce of
nutmegs all beaten together and lett it boyle a
litele and then putt to itt 4d of Metredate 2d of treacle
Angelica water a quarter of a pinte. Keepe this as
youre life a boue all wordly treasures take it allwaise
allwaies warme both morninge and evening a
spoonefull or 2 If you be allreadie infected one
sponfull a day is sufficient halfe a spoonefull in
the morninge and halfe a spoonefull at night
In all the plague time vnder God there is was
neuer man woman or Childe deceaued

(both transcriptions from Receipt book [manuscript], created by Walter Baley and Richard Blundell, approximately 1600. Folger call# V.a.140. Transcribed by EMMO and volunteers (https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Transcribers#V.a.140)).


Yann Ryan is a Folger Institute 2021-2022 Research Fellow. Learn more about his research on The Collation: Recipe Books, Plague Cures and the Circulation of Information.