Raisins are nutritious and delicious, but did you know that they were also the ingredient of choice in many early modern medicines?
Early modern diners were very partial to a bit of dried fruit, which sweetened dishes without the use of expensive sugar. Ward, however, seems to have been particularly keen. Making notes about the mystery illness of a ‘Mr. Thornton’, he decided to advise him to take raisins every morning alongside an ‘electuary’, or sweetened medicine (Vol 4., 61r). He also took note that raisins ‘improved’ cider, though it’s not clear whether the fruit was to be boiled with cider, or maybe eaten at the end like a sort of early modern Pimms (Vol. 5, mf.1074). What’s more, it wasn’t even necessary to ingest raisins to get their benefits; raisins ‘stamped’ [crushed] and mixed into a paste were apparently a sovereign remedy for gout
For ye Gout: raisins of ye sunne stamp ym and apply ye plaister to ye grief: (Vol.7, 53r)
As always, Ward probably got his ideas from his extensive reading of medical texts, where raisins were listed as an ingredient in remedies treating everything from cancer to the common cold. The anonymous A Physical Dictionary, published in 1657, provided a recipe for an electuary containing raisins, whey, rhubarb and ginger, claiming that
‘This confection purges both the Biles, and salt phlegm; and thence conduces to the Canker, Leprosie, Raving, Melancholy, Tetter, Itch, Scab, and such cutaneous affection. Barber-Chirurgeons use this, to purge all such as are infected with the French disease’ (562-3)
Probably the raisins weren’t doing anything much in this remedy apart from making it taste better, since the final ingredient was wormwood – a potent and famously bitter substance which was later the basis for absinthe. According to WebMD, wormwood contains the chemical Thujone, which *might* help with digestive disorders and, will definitely affect the nervous system in large doses.
Elsewhere, the famous surgeon and sometime correspondent of Ward, Richard Wiseman, recommended ‘Raisins of the sun stoned and beaten with Rue and Garden Nightshade into a Pultice’ for helping to allay cancerous tumours (Several Chirurgical Treatises. London, 1686: 102). Wiseman may in turn have taken that recipe from Alexander Read, who included ‘a cataplasme of raisins stoned, Rue and the leaves of Night-shade’ in his own 1650 text (The works of that famous physician Dr. Alexander Read, 1650:174)
Did these raisin remedies actually work? Being partially dried, raisins have a high concentration of vitamins relative to their size, but not so high as to have much effect on diseases – and they certainly don’t contain anything known to cure cancer. Still, they were a convenient source of sugar for sick patients with little appetite, and they were a lot nicer than most of the other options on offer. When sugar was scarce, raisins helped the medicine go down.