Plague Water is a name given to a variety of medicinal waters of supposed potency against the plague. Most commonly it was a distillation of various herbs and roots that were believed to be efficacious. Typical recipes contained no less than 22 herbal products, both leaves and roots, all steeped in a white wine and/or brandy and then distilled. Many of the ingredients sound very strange to us indeed, but on further investigation a lot of the herbs grow wild locally, or can be grown in a herb garden, or can be bought online from herbal stockists …
“Take the roots of Tormentil, Angelica, Peony, Zedoarie, Liquorish, Elacampane, of each half an ounce, the leaves of Sage, Scordium, Celandine, Rue, Rosemary, Wormwood, Ros solis, Mugwort, Burnet, Dragons, Scabious, Agrimony, Baum, Carduus, Betony” … etc. Peddlers of the ‘water’s of life’ (who made money selling them) have variously called them, PLAGUE-WATER, BEZOAR-WATER, CELANDINE-WATER, DRAGON-WATER, FUMITORY-WATER, GENTIAN-WATER, JUNIPER-WATER, PEONY-WATER … etc. And if the ‘water’ didn’t work against the plague, it was because you missed out some of the ingredients when you made it, or you took it too late.
Samuel Pepys diary entry, dated 20th July 1665, reads, “So walked to Redriffe, where I hear the sickness is, and indeed is scattered almost every where, there dying 1089 of the plague this week. My Lady Carteret did this day give me a bottle of plague-water home with me… and so to Mrs. Croft’s, where I found and saluted Mrs. Burrows, who is a very pretty woman for a mother of so many children. But, Lord! to see how the plague spreads. It being now all over King’s Streete, at the Axe, and next door to it, and in other places.”
For this Plague Water recipe and list of ingredients we turn to “The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight” written by Sir Kenelm Digby. The cook book was published from his notes in the mid 1600s, (at the time Pepys was writting his diary) several years after his death in 1669.
Sir Kenelm Digby 1669 Recipe
TO MAKE PLAGUE-WATER
Take a pound of Rue, of Rosemary, Sage, Sorrel, Celandine, Mugwort, of the tops of red brambles of Pimpernel, Wild-dragons, Agrimony, Balm, Angelica of each a pound. Put these Compounds in a Pot, fill it with White-wine above the herbs, so let it stand four days. Then still it for your use in a Limbeck.
Note: A Limbeck is used to filter distilled alcohol, from the Medieval Latin alembicum.
Take Rue, Agrimony, Wormwood, Celandine, Sage, Balm, Mugwort, Dragons, Pimpernel, Marygold, Fetherfew, Burnet, Sorrel, and Elicampane-roots scraped and sliced small. Scabious, Wood-betony, Brown-mayweed, Mints, Avence, Tormentil, Carduus benedictus, and Rosemary as much as of anything else, and Angelica if you will. You must have like weight of all them, except Rosemary aforesaid, which you must have twice as much of as of any of the rest; then mingle them altogether and shred them very small; then steep them in the best White-wine you can get, three days and three nights, stirring them once or twice a day, putting no more wine then will cover the Herbs well; then still it in a Common-still; and take not too much of the first-water, and but a little of the second, according as you feel the strength, else it will be sower. There must be but half so much Elicampane as of the rest.
Note: Some of these herb ingredients are harder to come by than others. Get a very good illustrated herb book and go wild herb picking in the countryside, (its a great day out) … also if you have a herb garden these are great additions to make to it … if picking wild herbs please make sure you know what herb you are picking … If unsure all of these ingredients can be bought as dried herbs online safely.
Main Herbs That You Might Not Know Or Have
Angelica: Angelica archangelica. Traditionally the herb takes its name from the story that an angel came to earth when plague was rampant and told people to hold a piece of Angelica root in their mouths to ward off the pestilence. This highly aromatic plant has creamy white flowers and the candied stems are used in cake decorations.
Agrimony: Agrimonia Eupatorium. The Argrimony Herb is a small plant with an array of uses. It is normally found as herbal powder in health shops but you can grow and harvest your own plant for home use.
Rue: Ruta Graveolens. Rue is an evergreen perennial bush with yellow flowers and blue-green attractive foliage. Also known as a Herb of Grace (repentance) due to its bitter taste.
Wild-dragons: this is Tarragon or dragon’s-wort (Artemisia dracunculus) it is a perennial herb in the family Asteraceae related to wormwood. Corresponding to its species name, a common term for the plant is “dragon herb”.
Pimpernel: Sanguisorba Minor. Tiny magenta flowers in summer. Soft, grey, green, toothed leaves. Culinary, the fresh leaves have a cool cucumber flavour. The flowers were made famous in the 1903 play where the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel takes his nickname from the drawing of a small red flower with which he signs his messages.
Please Note: For many people both Mugwort and Celandine should be left off the list of ingredients below, their side effects should be checked out before using them, to see if you are in one of the categories that they may effect. If you are happy to use them, add them in the same quantities, 1/2 tsp. Both are easily available from online herb stores.
- One bottle of white wine (750ml)
- A 1/2 tsp of the following (dried or fresh ingredients): Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon, Angelica, Sorrel, Balm, Rue, Agrimony, Pimpernel Flowers – (optional) Mugwort and Celandine
Chop or grind the herbs in a pestle and mortar, or spice grinder, very finely
In a large non-metallic bowl or container pour in the bottle of white wine (keep the empty bottle and sterilize) then add in to the wine all of the ground herbs.
Stir thoroughly then store the bowl, covered, in the fridge for four days.
After 4 days the herbs will create a thick residue which will have settled to the bottom of the bowl. Using a ladle pass the wine into another container through a strainer or sieve lined with 2 layers of a clean cloth (a cloth with a fine weave) to remove all the finer particles of ground herbs, being careful to leave as much of the residue in the bowl as possible.
Bottle the wine in the sterilized bottle and seal. Place back in the fridge and drink chilled within a few days.