Johanna’s Miracle Garden
Making a play from a recipe book – by Sophie Cummings and Elaine Leong
Lydiard House, the ancestral home of the Viscounts of Bolingbroke and the St John family, is a classic Palladian villa on the western edge of Swindon. On a warm August afternoon in 2012, a public audience crowded into Lydiard’s beautiful walled garden for the opening of Johanna’s Miracle Garden. Starring local teenagers, the play told the story of Lady Johanna St John’s ‘cure for all ills’, written in her 17th-century recipe book, a prized family collection of handwritten household cures.
Lady Johanna was a fascinating and formidable woman. She combined running her household, raising her children and entertaining the King with compiling her book of medical cures. The play and other related activities brought art, history and medical science together to provoke interest, learning and debate about the historical and social origins of modern medicine.
Playwright Mike Akers weaved together early modern medical theory, historical fiction and comedy to create an enchanted world where brainy alchemists, hippy herbalists and spooky superstitionists all competed to deliver the ultimate panacea. The winning cure would not only be used to heal Johanna and her children but also be given pride of place in her recipe book. Akers’s light-hearted dialogue gives a flavour of the play:
Hardyman [Steward at Lydiard]: George, what does it say in the booke?
George [Household servant]: To treat malignant infection, strap a dried toad under each armpit, this will draw out swelling and gradually conquer the infection.
Hardyman: Has it been tried before?
George: It doesn’t say.
Hardyman: Ah well. Lads, the toads please!
As audiences followed each therapeutic attempt, they encountered ancient medical authorities, early modern medical writers, and historical characters from 17th-century Lydiard. Galen and Hippocrates rubbed shoulders with Paracelsus, in the hands of Thomas Hardyman, steward at Lydiard in the 1650s, who assisted Johanna in preparing the household cures. Funded by a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award, Johanna’s Miracle Garden is the first in a suite of public engagement events, ‘Science and Superstition’, designed to bring to life the medical history of Lydiard House and the St John family. Participants encountered the domestic world of a renowned society hostess as a medical practitioner, creating new and wider audiences for the latest research.
At the heart of this community project is a small battered leather- bound notebook. The recipe book is filled to the brim with instructions for making a wide variety of medical remedies addressing all sorts of ailments and sicknesses, from agues to coughs and fevers. This treasure trove of health-related knowledge was compiled by Johanna during the second half of the 17th century. Typical entries include everyday cures for common ailments like nosebleeds, showing a trial-and- error style of household medicine:
For Bleeding at Nose
The Haire of the party burnt or the stink of a candle newly put out
For Bleeding at Nose
A sheet of white paper, wett it in vinegar & dry it in an oven – when it is dry, wett it again and dry it is as before, so doing 3 times, then make it into a powder and snuff up some of it into the nose, often, as well, when it does, and when it bleeds
The book was highly prized by Johanna, who, in her will dated March 1704, bequeathed this “great receipt book” to her daughter Lady Anne Cholmondeley. Early modern recipe books are common finds in British and North American archives, but what makes this one so unusual is that it is accompanied by a rich archive of contextual information.
Johanna was the eldest daughter of Oliver St John, a prominent Parliamentarian and supporter of Oliver Cromwell. Johanna (1631–1705) married her distant cousin Sir Walter St John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire. Sir Walter and Lady Johanna divided their time between their mansion in Battersea and their country estate, Lydiard House. Remarkably, an extensive set of correspondence between Johanna and her Lydiard steward, Hardyman, has survived. These letters indicate that Lydiard Park, far from being simply a summer home for the St Johns, supplied them with all sorts of foodstuffs, from fruits, herbs and flowers grown in the gardens to cheeses, butter and poultry from the nearby farms.
Most interestingly for historians of medicine, the correspondence also reveals that Johanna was in the habit of sending recipes gathered from her London acquaintances to be made up at Lydiard Park, where she relied on a team of expert distillers and herb gatherers. When taken together, Johanna’s great receipt book and letters reveal complex networks of lay medical knowledge among female family members and thus paints a vivid picture of medical activities in an early modern English country house.
In early 2010, the team at Lydiard Park began exploring ways of bringing Johanna, her incredible medical interests and health-related activities at Lydiard to a wider audience. Theatre seemed an entertaining and interactive way of sharing Johanna’s story, and the Lydiard team joined up with Sixth Sense and Swindon Youth Theatre to create an original play targeted at family audiences. The result was Johanna’s Miracle Garden. Just as Johanna’s “great receipt book” is the fruit of a series of collaborative knowledge-making ventures, this project was also driven by collaboration and teamwork.
Initial research was carried out by a team of Lydiard volunteers, many of whom were members of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. They were already well versed in local history and demonstrated great enthusiasm to expand their knowledge of medical history. As some of the project’s most ardent advocates, they have produced a complete transcription of Johanna’s book. The new searchable electronic text provides innovative research avenues for academics and other interested readers. Inspired by the great receipt book and Johanna’s story, one particular volunteer, Kirsti Robinson, carried out a lot of preliminary research and continued her investigation into the recipe ingredients when work took her to Saudi Arabia. The Lydiard team also brought a number of academics on board. Elaine Leong (now based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin) joined the team as a historical consultant, sharing her knowledge on early modern recipe books and household medicine. Professor Timothy Peters (University of Birmingham) joined as a medical adviser and brought his wealth of experience and expertise on early modern learned medicine. Dr Clare Hickman (University of Oxford) shared her wide knowledge of early modern garden history and botany.
At the beginning of January 2012, this diverse collection of people gathered together to translate Johanna’s medical activities into a play. Volunteers and academics contributed interesting historical facts and stories. The Lydiard gardeners offered advice on the varied plant species in situ and on how to fully exploit the physical space of the walled garden. Finally, Sixth Sense and playwright Mike Akers shared their rich experiences of running youth and family theatre. The lively discussions ranged widely: from the coffee trade and gruesome stores of resuscitation to the layout of herbal gardens and the cost of turkey meat in 17th-century England. Building on these discussions, Akers and the Sixth Sense team then ran a series of workshops in schools and with Swindon Youth Theatre to develop leads for the narrative and characters. These varied strands of ideas then formed the basis of Akers’s script.
In mid-August, 30 teenagers from Swindon transformed into historical characters from early modern England. Supported by a backstage and front- of-house crew of 20 community volunteers, our young actors’ efforts to bring Johanna’s Miracle Garden to life were watched by almost 400 theatregoers. Members of the audience reported that they found the play both entertaining and educational.
Johanna’s Miracle Garden has been a fantastic start to our projects in the ‘Science and Superstition’ series. We are continuing to investigate and share Johanna’s story through exhibitions, lectures and family activities. In July 2012, young children were treated to a series of lively and, at times, gruesome reconstructions of the recipes as an introduction to early modern medicine. These included plastering children with make-up to simulate smallpox and jaundice, as well as getting them to search the garden for curative plants. In autumn 2012, the team organised a recipe-themed bubbling potions hunt at Lydiard House. For a more mature audience, we have a new exhibition on Johanna’s fascinating life story. The exhibition, from March to June 2013, highlights her medical skills and is put together by our team of volunteers and graduate students working in the history of medicine. And from March to May 2013, we are offering a lecture series on early modern local history, history of medicine, history of gardens and more.
Our quest to bring Johanna’s work and early modern medical recipes to new audiences does not end here. The lengthy transcription of the recipe book now forms the basis of a new international collaborative digital humanities project based at the University of Saskatchewan. Funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, ‘Recipes: Food, Medicine, Magic and Science’ is run by Frank Klaassen, Laura Mitchell and Lisa Smith at Saskatchewan and by Elaine Leong in Berlin. The project aims to create a one-stop digital hub for studies of pre-modern recipes. It will use crowd-sourcing technology to construct an online open-access corpus of transcribed recipe texts from the medieval period to the present. The Lydiard volunteers’ transcription of Johanna’s book serves as the first test case for this ambitious endeavour. As ‘Recipes: Food, Medicine, Magic and Science’ prepares to go live in mid-2013, it is heartening to know that Johanna’s book and the Lydiard Park team’s vision of bringing it to wider audiences will reach new readers across the digital world. Do get in contact with the team if you have something to contribute too.
Dr Elaine Leong holds a Minerva Professorship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. She was previously a Wellcome Trust-funded research fellow at the University of Cambridge. She is currently completing a monograph on recipes and household medical knowledge in early modern England (email@example.com).