If you have been to one of my lectures or are a long-time reader, you know that I am not a fan of capitalism. There are a few reasons I focus on the period prior to 1700 in my research. It is a time when medicinal preparation hadn’t been commodified as thoroughly as it was in the Georgian and Victorian eras, women’s voices were not silenced as oppressively as occurred after Rousseau’s nonsense, and the schism between the Dioscordian and modern Materia Medica had not yet taken place.
One of the biggest impacts of that commodification was the prioritization of medicines that were difficult for consumers to make at home. Among other impacts, this led to a shift from the topical application of simple preparations to the marketing of various alcoholic extracts produced commercially.
The older methods are those you see passed down in traditional practices, especially in poor or rural populations. It’s called cultural sedimentation. That is the practice I learned from my family. It is a vastly different creature from the professional herbalism marketed in the mid-late 20th century.
If you are from around here, you know about me and my ointments. I pack the mutual aid covid care packages with aromatic chest rub. The street medics I train carry a pot of my green salve in their kits. I still make salves and liniment sprays for my “former” clients. I have even named one Kassia’s Pomade for a friend who requested that I recreate something she bought back home in Scotland.
Once upon a time ointment was just a word for any preparation applied topically. You might also see them called unguents which is a shorthand term for the Latin unguentum. Balm or salve was sometimes used also but in those cases the name of the receipt referred to the action of the preparation, not the preparation method.
Some ointments were thickened with animal fat which hardens as it cools while some were thickened with beeswax or rosin. Some didn’t contain any fats or oils at all. This isn’t a fixed rule but often topicals made without waxes were employed to relieve swelling and pain. Topicals made with waxes (cerates, cerecloth) were made for caring for wounds or drawing out infections.
It was common to see receipts for green salves and my opinion is that this speaks to the preparation method as the ingredients are not at all uniform. The one common feature I have seen in them is that you pound fresh plants to release their juices and thicken the juice that you have obtained. Here are a few examples:
A green Salve for an old Sore.
Take a handfull of Groundsell, as much Housleek, of Marigold leaves a handfull, pick and wipe these Hearbs clean, but wash them not, then beat all these Hearbs in a wooden boul, as small as is possible, then strein out all the juyce, and put in a quan∣tity of Hogs grease…Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent 1651
To make a green SalveNatura extenetera Aleathea Talbot 1655
By Wilsons Wife
Take Rosemary, Time, Lavender, Dill, Bawme, Brooklime, Yar∣row, Lovage, Smallage, Vervain, Camomile, Orpine, Plantane, Night∣yard, Herb Robert, Lingua Serpentina, otherwise called Adders∣tongue, Polipody, otherwise called Fern that groweth on an old oak, Wood-binds, otherwise called Hony-suckles, Daisies, Comfrey, of each a handful. All these Herbs must be taken and beaten smal, and put in a quart of Verjuice, or more if need be; straine these together, and take the juice thereof; then take two pound of new wax, a pound of Colofony, a pint of Oyle Olive, a pound of pitch, a pound of May butter, and seeth all these together till they be molten…
A receipt to make ye Green Ointment that cured Lady Probyn’s Coachman’s back ( Mrs. Lethiculear)The Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe, 1694
Take of Sage and Rue of each one handfulll, of wormwood and bay leaves each half a pound. Gather these in the heat of the Day. They must be unwashed and Shread small. And take a pound and half of sheep suet and stamp it with the herbs until they be alll of one couler: put it in a pint and half of the best Sallet OIl, and stir them well together and put it in a pot and stop it close up, and let it steep nine days. Then boil it the strength of the herb be gon, and take care in boiling that you do not burn it. And when it is boil’d put in an ounce and half fo OIl of spike, and keep it for your use. It is good for all manner of wounds, bruises, burns, and sprains. The best time to make it is May.
I was very excited the day I came across the Blencowe green salve because that is as close as I have seen to my family’s receipt, although no one in my family could afford essential oils. I wonder if one of my people worked in her household?
May is when I make my green salve for the year, so I thought I would share my receipt. If you are going to try this, you need to think ahead of time about how you are going to let it macerate. Crock ware will hold the heat of the sun and keep your preparation at a more even temperature. If you do not have a crock, you can use glassware but place the glassware in a bucket of sand to hold the heat.
If you like you can use the modern alternative… your crockpot, but please be safe about this. You shouldn’t leave an unattended crockpot running in your house. I used to recommend it but learned a hard lesson once. Recently I’ve been experimenting with setting the crock on a seed-warming mat. I’ve heard people recommend placing jars on top of hot water heaters as a constant source of heat.
Receipt for My Green Salve
2 cups fresh wormwood (chopped and packed)
2 cups fresh mugwort leaves (chopped and packed)
1 cup of yarrow flowers or rose flowers
1 cup of fresh rue leaves
1 cup fresh sage leaves
1 tbsp powdered resin
1.5 lbs. sheep tallow or lard (vegetarians could use shea butter)
2 cups sunflower oil or olive oil.
These herbs should be gathered when they are warm and dry. I like to gather them just as the sage flowers are forming and throw those in too. I spin them dry in a salad spinner to clean them. Chop the plant material well before measuring.
Pound the plant material with your fat until the green juice has completely colored the fat green. You can do this by hand if you are dedicated to recreation, but I strongly suggest letting Sir Food of Processor do this task for you.
Place this mixture in whatever vessel you have decided to use for steeping.
Stir in your oil and powdered resin and allow this to macerate for nine days.
After nine days scrape the mixture into a double boiler and gently heat it so that bits can be strained from the salve, although it’s worth pointing out that Mrs. Blencowe at least cooked the mixture until the plant material was broken down and incorporated and did not strain.
You can also add any essential oils you might like. I would do this after you have taken the mixture from the heat. No point in simmering your aromatics off.
Strain the oil if you want and pour this into the pots of your choice for storage.
So, there you have my personal green salve receipt. This is not meant to be a hard cerate. If you want, you can melt 1 oz of beeswax into it after you have strained it. I do this when I am making it for first aid kits that will spend time in the sun along with using plastic containers. I will attach a file below that gives you another ointment receipt.