Houseleeks and Garden Worms

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By | The Researcher’s View

Woodcut of Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) used to soothe inflammations of the skin such as bee stings, rashes, ulcers etc Woodcut 16th century From: Semplici ... liquali in piu pareri à diversi nobili huomini scritti appaiono  By: Luigi Anguillara, and Giovanni Marinello, Published: Appresso Vincenzo Valgrisi, Vinegia  1561  Page 277

Woodcut of Houseleek used to soothe inflammations of the skin, woodcut 16th century, page 277 from Semplici … liquali in piu pareri à diversi nobili huomini scritti appaiono, by Luigi Anguillara, and Giovanni Marinello, Vinegia 1561

Dr Katherine Foxhall is a Wellcome Trust Fellow based at King’s College London. She is currently writing a social history of migraine, looking at how ordinary people and physicians have treated and understood migraine from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

This week, 2-8 September 2012, is Migraine Awareness Week, when some of the leading charities for migraine in Britain (Migraine Action and the Migraine Trust) raise awareness of a disorder that affects ten to fifteen per cent of the population. The WHO estimates that migraine is 19th among all the leading causes of ‘years lived with disability’ (YLD) globally. This is an illness with a very long history – the French word migraine (and the English vernacular word megrim) derive from Galen’s second-century term hemicrania, describing the often one-sided nature of migraine head pain.


Since I began researching the history of migraine three years ago, I have been just as intrigued by the recipe books in the Wellcome Library’s manuscript collections as other contributors to this blog have been. They are a treasure trove of historical information about cooking, cleaning, preserving and – perhaps most importantly – healing. Alongside remedies for consumptions and cloudy eyes, fistulas and falling sickness, dog bites and dropsy, many of these volumes contain remedies for treating migraine.

Jane Jackson’s book is a great example. She carefully compiled her Method of Phisicke and Chirurgery just as Civil War began in England in 1642, and included hundreds of carefully written recipes dealing with everything from common aches, wounds and agues to plague. There are also six separate entries for ‘migryme’. We know virtually nothing about Jane. Did she use any of these remedies herself? Was she a ‘migraineur’? Perhaps. Beyond musing on Jackson’s personal health story, her book reveals a lot about early-modern migraine knowledge. Jackson’s first recipe (p.4b) instructs the reader to take ‘houseleeke and garden worms’, stamped together and mixed with fine flour to make a plaster. Then, the mixture was to be spread on fine cloth, and laid to the sufferer’s forehead and temples. This was a simple and quick recipe, easily made from common and freely available ingredients. Houseleek, still commonly found nowadays in rockeries and gardens, was often used in early modern medicines for its soothing cooling properties. But why worms? Elizabeth Sleigh’s recipe book, also from the mid-seventeenth century, explains that animals such as worms, and snails (though she agreed they were ‘loathsome’ to take), were efficacious because they were ‘bred of putrefaction’. Their medical virtue came from their power to counteract putrefaction in the body: ‘ye subtilest of all motions’ (p.77). 

Going through Jackson’s compendium, the remedies for migraine become more complex and time-consuming to prepare, demanding rarer and more expensive ingredients. The fourth recipe also uses worms, but takes a full day of preparation: the worms to be collected in the morning and left to stand until the evening, before being mixed with rye bread and bound to the temples all night. The fifth remedy demands financial outlay on some exotic ingredients including ‘frankincense, olive oil, linseed, anise powder and cumin’. Once made, however, the mixture would last for twenty years. Migraines come in different forms, and can last from a few hours to three days. If we can imagine the sufferer of an acute attack occasionally heading into the garden for worms, this latter recipe seems tailored to a chronic sufferer, prepared to devote money and time to managing a frequently encountered illness.  


Although great improvements have been made in treating migraine since the seventeenth century, we still don’t fully understand their cause, nor do we have a cure. Millions of sufferers still find their working, personal and social lives disrupted on a regular basis. It is important to understand changes in medical theory, but turning the pages of the Wellcome Library’s recipe books also reveals something of how medical theories have translated to everyday practice, as well as showing that sufferers’ own search for relief has a long, complex but fascinating history of its own.

– Woodcut of Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) from Semplici … liquali in piu pareri à diversi nobili huomini scritti appaiono (1561) (EPB A7052/A)
– ‘For the Migrain in the Head’, detail from Jane Jackson, “A very shorte and compendious Methode of Phisicke and Chirurgery…” (MS.373)

For more information about migraine visit the websites of Migraine Action Association and The Migraine Trust.  Find out more about the Wellcome Library’s digitised recipe manuscripts through our website.


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