May 012020
May Day – Celebrations and Remedies

Happy May Day, everyone! May Day is a big deal in Oxford, and there is great disappointment that the festivities will not take place this year due to the pandemic. Normally, the Choir of Magdalen College sings from the Tower at sunrise and thousands of people gather on and near Magdalen Bridge (many of whom have been drinking all night) to listen, and celebrate. Oxford also has a long history of hosting Morris Dancing. I personally have never been able to get into town early enough to watch the choir sing (or perhaps I just like my sleep too much), but I always enjoy walking to work and watching the dancers jingling in the streets. I will miss it this year, among many other things. Nonetheless, in this post I examine May Day and its Celebrations and Remedies.

There was a virtual May Day, hosted live from 6AM BST, and this is available to watch on Magdalen College’s You Tube channel. I recommend giving it a watch so that you can get a taste of how Oxford normally celebrates.

Now, my intention was to dig through some of my digitized 18th Century manuscripts and give you a couple of culinary recipes for a lockdown May Day feast. But, the thing is, I couldn’t find any! Admittedly, my expertise lies with medical recipes, not culinary, but I was surprised that, after googling and searching databases, I found very little reference to celebrating May Day with food.

So I ask you, people of the internet, do you have any food traditions associated with May Day (other than booze)? Or, if you are a culinary historian, were there any food traditions?

Perhaps eighteenth-century traditions were mainly surrounding the May Pole and dancing, as is discussed in this blog (

Don’t worry though, I know many of you are bored in quarantine and I’m here to tell you that May was a busy month for preparing early modern remedies. So, get out your still and butter churn, and go harvest some snails and spring plants! From poplar buds and elder leaves for ointments, to rosemary and rue for distillations, early modern women [and men] took advantage of the warm, verdant month of May to prepare their medicinal remedies to treat themselves, their families, and their communities.

Disclaimer: Don’t actually test or eat any of these things. I would like to think that is obvious, but recently companies had to tell people not to inject bleach so there you go. 

Still Room

For an eighteenth-century cake recipe see: Reconstructing 18th Century Recipes

For a virtual tour of Oxford see: Visiting Oxford – a virtual tour with me!

I also wrote a post on eighteenth-century Springtime remedies.

May is the ideal time to make Green Balsam which, when rubbed behind the ears, was said to help with aches and anguishing pain, as well as scalds, strains, and the swelling in women’s breasts. A version in the Arscott Family Recipe book (a mid-eighteenth century collection from Devonshire) is as follows:

The Green Balsom

Take Red Sage and Rue of each a pound, Young Bag
leaves and Wormwood of each half a pound wash them
not but stamp them, then take 3 pound of Mutton
Suet hot from the Sheep and mince it small and stamp
it with the Herbs till it be all of one Colour. Then add
to it a pottle of the best Oyl Olive and work it well together
with the rest. Then put it into an Earthen pott, stop it
well and set it in a Cold place. Eight days, then boyle all
together on a soft fire, being half boyled. put into it four
Ounces of Oyle of Spike. Let this Boyl till it be very
Green if it be well Stopt it will last a good many years
The Month of May is the prime time of making it [my emphasis][1]

Spring was also the time of year to make May Butter, an unsalted butter often used for medicinal purposes. Mary Preston’s early eighteenth-century collection describes the process:

Mary Preston May Butter
Welcome Library, MS. 3995, 42-3. Mary Preston, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts’ (early 18th C.). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Best Way of Making it is thus

Take it out of ye Churne & beate oute ye butter
Milke with yr hand as much as yu can yn presently
Sett it upon a headg where ye ayre & ye greatest
Heate of ye Sunne may come to it to melt it
Quite then will what is ill Settle down to the
Bottome of yr butter dish then poore of the
Cleare & put ye drossey stuff into some pot
By it Selfe & Sunn it to with the other & as ye
Sunn Clarifies it poore what is cleare & good
Still to ye best until yu have alle that is good
For ye naughty stuff wth often sunning will
Growe harde at bottom Sunne it thus three weeks
Or a month for the more it is Sunnd ye whiter
It will be Which is ye Best:
Be ware it raines not into it:…[2]

Once you have your May Butter, why not put it to use in an ointment? Lady Northumberland’s recipe “To Make the Green Oytment for a Bruise an Old Ach [in] the Spleen or Gout” says to mix together “8 pound of Butter in the Month of May, fresh without Salt and a pottle of black Snails”.[3]

Boyle - Green Oyntment
Wellcome Library, MS.1340, 34v. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, ‘Collection of Medical Receipts’ (c. 1675–1710). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Alternatively, you could use those handily collected snails to create a distilled snail water (a cure all) or perhaps make a powder for an eye infection by drying them in the oven and then blowing the powder into your eye with a quill [again, please don’t do this].[4]

Lucy and I have been in a losing battle with snails in our garden, so perhaps I should threaten them with becoming a medical ingredient!

Finally, for all you soon-to-be-moms, my heart goes out to you at this uncertain time. But, how about some distilled water made of horse dung to help with those labor after-pains?

A Stitch Water To be made in the Month of May

Take 12 balls of Stone horse Dung fresh, The horse sound
& going To grass, Squeeze them in 4 Quarts of White Wine
Or Strong Ale, And if it be not sufficient To make it As
thick as batter, Take more, And putt to it Fenel seeds
Perely seeds of Each 2 Oz, London Treacle 1 Pd Butcherbrome
Or kuccholine Leaves & Roots, Pelepody roots of Each
2 handfulls, beat the herbes Slice the Roots, & paste
the sides of the still You must putt in 3 Oz Ginger, grossly
beaten & then Distill it Leasurely when you use it Mix
it with Sirrup of Clovegilly flowers or Sugar.
It is good for stitches any where to further Labour after
paines, and for stoppage, 6 spoonfulls or more at a time.[5]

I hope everyone has a good day celebrating in a socially-distant fashion. If you have a May Day tradition you are keeping up this year (or missing out on due to lockdown), please do share!

[1] Wellcome Library, MS.981, 41. Arscott family, ‘Physical Reciepts [sic]’ (c. 1725–76).

[2] Welcome Library, MS. 3995, 42-3. Mary Preston, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts’ (early 18th C.).

[3] Wellcome Library, MS.1340, 34v. Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, ‘Collection of Medical Receipts’ (c. 1675–1710).

[4] Welcome Library, MS. 2840, 17r. Mrs Elizabeth Hirst and others, ‘Collection of medical and cookery receipts’ (1684–c.1725).

[5] Welcome Library, MS. 3582, 70v. Anon., ‘Miscellany Receipts’ (c. 1725).

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