Cures for melancholy: Swallow water

28 Oct|Matthew Green

Baby swallow juice was reputed to cure melancholy in the 17th century

Matthew Green writes: I found this in a recipe book written by Viscountess Katherine Ranelagh, the brightest female intellectual of the mid 17th century

The recipe is billed as the perfect remedy for melancholy and other mental disturbances like the falling sickness (epilepsy) and lovesickness.
The recipe instructs apothecaries to go into the woods, preferably in midsummer, and find 40 or 50 baby swallows who are yet to take their first flight – the recipe is very clear on this point – they must not have taken their first flight.
You are then instructed to capture them, tumble them into a sack, and carry them back to the still-room. There you must pour them into a mortar and ‘bruise them to a pulp with feathers and all’. Then, distill the birds’ remains with two ounces of castor (a pungent reddish-brown oily gunk extracted from the groinal sacs of beavers) along with three pints of vinegar.
Once everything’s ready, give the patient two or three spoonfuls of the swallow water sweetened with sugar. Watch their eyes gleam and the colour return to their face.
It seems that the idea is to thieve the imminent first flight of the baby swallows, transfer its essence into a potion, and feed it to the patient – in effect, to lift their spirits in the same way that the swallows would have soared into the air, thereby restoring the mental faculties. But I wouldn’t try it at home.
The Swallow Water
The Swallow Water, good for the passion of the heart, the falling sickness, apoplexy, lethargy or any other impediment proceeding from the head, it comforts the brain too… is good for those that are distracted or in extremity of sickness, one of the best things.  That may be administered in hot fever, if your party talks oddly, it will restore him the memory.
Take 40 or 50 swallows when they are ready to fly from their nests, bruise them to pulp in a mortar with feathers and all, then put two ounces of castor beaten into powder, and three pints of strong white wine turned of itself into vinegar, distil it as you do rosewater.  After you have mixed up the swallows, castor, white wine together from this quantity you may draw one pint of good water.  You may give to a patient 2 or 3 spoonfuls sweetened with sugar.  If you cannot get so many swallows as are proscribed then take such as you can have, set them in an oven, and half dry them.  This way you may keep them 4 or 5 days then mix them with such others as you shall get in a month’s time. About midsummer is your best time for then the young swallows are ready to fly.
Matthew Green is a historian who runs Unreal City Audio, immersive walking tours around old London town (@UnrealCityAudio). He wrote the Idler Books pamphlet The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse, and is working on the forthcoming The Time Traveller’s London Handbook, to be published by Penguin in Easter 2015.