Visitors to Little Moreton Hall have been helping us prepare our sleep remedies over the past month, stocking up our still room with lots of different ingredients from our sleep bed and seeing what they think of some of our tips for getting a good night’s sleep Tudor-style. There are no surviving recipe books from the Moreton family who lived at the hall but they may well have used similar remedies to those that follow, which date to the same period. Try them for yourself and see which, if any, work for you. Our remedies have been taken from 16th and early 17th century housewifery and medical manuals and personal handwritten recipe books from the Wellcome Trust’s collection, which are digitised and available online.
Fennel Seeds and Rose:
In a pestle and mortar, crush your fennel seeds and add to them a little rose water. Empty the mixture into a piece of linen (you could use a piece of old cotton sheet if you have it) and roll into a pouch. Tie each end with string and then tie around your head so the pouch rests under your nose. Go to bed with your sleepy nose bag attached and let the cool, refreshing scent clear your head and help you drift off to sleep. As with a lot of these remedies, its ingredients were believed to cool the body. The smell they emitted is similar to various chest rubs and oils you can buy today to clear a blocked nose and head.
A Lettuce Poultice:
With your pestle and mortar, crush lettuce leaves (including the stems) so that you can extract the lettuce juice. To this add a little rose water and milk. Early modern recipes called for breast milk but, for obvious reasons, we’ve been using a little full-fat milk at the hall. Mix together and then spread over a linen strip (again an old piece of cloth will work well). Lie down on your bed and place the poultice on your forehead. The poultice gives a lovely cooling sensation, relieving any tension in the head and helping to cool the mind on a hot night and lull you to sleep. Advice stated not to keep the poultice on above four hours – we have been trying to guess at the hall why that might have been. Maybe your brain or stomach would be in danger of over-cooling, or the smell from the poultice would be too much to bear! Certainly any Beatrix Potter fans will already know of the soporific properties of lettuce from when the flopsy bunnies fell asleep after over indulging in the stuff!
Lettuce Seed, Rose and Nutmeg:
Another poultice where the ingredients were ground up together and applied on a strip of linen to the forehead. Expensive spices like nutmeg or cinnamon were often included in sleep remedies but only the wealthy could afford to use them on a regular basis. With many of these remedies, the use of pleasant, relaxing scents was important for getting you in the right frame of mind for sleep.
You may know that too much caffeine in the latter part of the day may interfere with your sleep. As an alternative you might try a herbal tea – the Tudors were no different. They didn’t have tea or coffee as we do but they still knew that a hot drink before bed would help. They made herbal infusions with a whole variety of soporific and calming ingredients. Brewed individually these make a relaxing cuppa or you might want to try mixing a few together. At the hall we brewed up a batch using the following herbs, infusing hot water with them before straining through a linen cloth into our cups – fennel, camomile, hops, lemon balm, rose, lavender, bergamot and cowslips. There are a wide range of these herbal teas available in the shops as well as ‘sleepy’ teas which include different sleepy combinations. Certainly warming the body through a hot drink is a good idea whatever the temperature at night as the subsequent cooling of your body after drinking supports the natural drop in temperature your body experiences as it gets ready for sleep, causing the drinker to feel drowsy.
Sleepy Sweet Bags:
Another familiar remedy we may have all used – a lavender or hop pouch you place under your pillow to ease you to sleep. If we were asked to name just one sleepy ingredient the majority of us would probably say lavender and it definitely does the trick for a lot of people. We made our sweet bags by combining dried lavender, rose petals, hops and camomile with a little orris root powder. The orris root powder (dried and ground iris root) is a fixative which will preserve the scent of the floral ingredients as well as adding an extra violet note to the pillow. Tried with a ribbon these can be taken to bed and used amongst the bed sheets.
These are very fashionable again nowadays in vintage-style cake decorations but they were also used a lot in Tudor cooking to decorate puddings, marzipans and sweetmeats. Some little crystallised rose or violet petals before bed would be a good idea so the sleeper could benefit from these flowers’ sleep inducing properties. Separate the petals from the roses and violets, removing any white, bitter parts. Then dip in either egg white or rose water before dipping in sugar and allowing to dry. These petals will set hard and will keep for a long time.
Rose Petal Preserve:
Similar to the crystallised flower petals, this could be added to puddings or used to flavour hot milky drinks before bed. It was also a useful way to preserve valuable ingredients at the height of summer. Place rose petals (again, removing any white, bitter parts) in a pestle and mortar and crush with sugar until the mixture resembles a pink paste. Pot up in jars and this will keep for a long time. The Tudors wouldn’t have done this but a little on some hot toast with butter is a very welcome treat. There are many rose petal jams and conserves available to purchase in Asian supermarkets and they are well worth a try.
Poppy Seed Drink:
Now we wouldn’t advocate messing around too much with poppies, especially not consuming the petals and leaves as these can be far too strong! The Tudors, however, used a whole variety of different poppies, picking the leaves and petals to make syrups and conserves. They knew to be sparing with it but a little spoonful before bed would certainly help you to sleep. For something a bit gentler, you might prefer to try this old recipe. Take poppy seeds (purchased from a shop so you know they are safe) and grind them in a pestle and mortar. Once ground add them to the following alcoholic drink, depending on your age: If you are young mix your seeds in beer or ale, for the middle aged you need to consume your poppy seeds in white wine and for the elderly, your seeds need to be taken with a strong, fortified wine. This was because the Tudors believed the elderly body was dry and cool and so needed the concentrated moisture and heat of a fortified wine to aid sleep. For someone young, they were hot and moist already and so didn’t need something that packed such a punch. Again, we’ve been wondering at the hall whether it was the wine or the poppy seeds that did the trick (or both!). We’ll leave it up to you to decide which age bracket you fall into.
Other Things We’ve Been Trying:
- Infusing water with floral, sleepy essential oils like lavender, rose and bergamot and sprinkling them on our rush floor mats with our watering pot. This would keep the mats supple so that they lasted longer but also added to the layers of sleepy, sweet scent in the bedchamber that aided sleep and kept infection at bay. The Tudors believed you got sick through bad smells and noxious night time air so fumigation through scent would keep the air ‘clean’.
- We’ve been looking at how our fuming pot would work. The equivalent of a ceramic oil burner, pieces of smouldering charcoal would be placed in a little hole at the bottom of the pot and herbal material such as rosemary placed inside the body of the pot. This has holes in and so, as the rosemary was gently heated, the essential oils from the herb would be distributed through the air. For an extra layer of scent, a separate bowl of essential oil could be placed on the very top of the pot as you would with an oil burner today.
- We have also been making our own sleepy pot pourris which have been contributing to our wonderful smells in our activity room. We have certainly been a little drowsy by the end of the day. Lavender, rose, camomile, hops, fennel, lemon balm, bay and bergamot have all been dried and added, filling the air with fragrance and keeping those nasty infections and nightmares at bay.
- We have been making sure that our bedchamber itself is full of relaxing, soothing, sleepy scent too. The room has a display of sleep remedies as part of our Sleep Walk Trail. If you go up close you will notice the floral aromas, particularly rose, coming from the bottles. We have also been creating more sleep pot pourris and sprinkling rose petals on our bed to further build up those sleepy smells. Do you sleep better when the bedding smells nice and fresh?
- Lastly we have been having fun with our posset pot and puzzle jug. Both were fun ceramic pieces used to consume sweetened milky drinks curdled with ale or wine. These would be drunk as part of a celebration but also were of use in preparing for sleep if the milk was infused with a sleepy element such as rose or carduus thistle. Spouts would allow the drink to be shared whilst the curdled, custard like froth that floated on the top could be eaten with a spoon. Certainly an acquired taste and not that easy to drink in practice. Possets or caudles were often treated as a medicinal drink given to the sick, young and elderly.
Jane at Little Moreton Hall getting to grips with a Tudor puzzle jug. To successfully drink from the jug without getting wet, the user needs to block a series of holes and figure out how to access the drink without the water coming out of the various cut away pieces in the neck of the jug!
A recipe for a Tudor Posset: taken from J. Partridge The Widowes Treasure (1585) and adapted by English Heritage in their book Tudor Cookery: Recipes and History (2003)
575 ml (1 pint) milk
275 (1/2 pint) strong brown ale
Cinnamon and ground ginger – optional – you could substitute these for some other sleepy ingredients like rose or lemonbalm
Beat the eggs into the milk, and heat gently, stirring continuously, until the mixture has thickened and is about to rise to the boil. Meanwhile, heat the ale almost to boiling point and pour into a large warmed bowl. Quickly pour the hot egg and milk mixture into the ale from a good height, cover the bowl and leave in a warm place for 5 minutes to allow the curd to set. Sprinkle with a little cinnamon and ginger over the posset, which is now ready to be served. Alternatively, infuse your milk with lemon balm or add a little rosewater before you use it.
We have been having lots of fun with our sleep remedies throughout June and will be continuing our work in the still room in August, making possets, preserves, candies and cordials to help us sleep well. Monday 14 – Sunday 20 August 2017.
 For early modern recipe collections see: The Wellcome Library, https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/recipe-books/ , last accessed 27th June, 2017.