I recently wrote a post for the Recipes Project, a wonderful collaborative blog about magic, art, food, medicine and history. I was tracing the origins of a ‘megreeme’ remedy (dated 1606) across printed and manuscript recipe collections – a trail that led through four centuries. Searching the digitised collections of the Wellcome Library’s early modern recipe collections has been one of the joys of this migraine research project – the wealth of medical, culinary and veterinary knowledge within them is astounding. There are also more than thirty remedies for migraine within these manuscripts. From basic plasters to be laid over the head, to complex drinks that required effort and financial outlay to create but would then keep for many years, there is a real sense that many of the compilers of these precious volumes of domestic medical knowledge encountered migraine routinely, and took it seriously. So when I received a tweet asking whether visual migraines were ever mentioned, I was happy for an excuse to return to the collections again.
Mrs Corlyon’s remedy collection (1606) contains three remedies for ‘the Meegreeme’ or ‘megreeme’. While two of these are in the second chapter dealing with disorders of the head, the first appears in the first chapter dealing with diseases of the eye: ‘A Medecine to staye the humours from fallinge to the Eyes, and goode for the meegreeme’. This does not necessarily suggest that the falling humours and the megreeme are linked, just that the remedy is good for both.
A clear contemporary link between migraine and aura at this time would be unlikely because it is a modern diagnosis. Early modern writers identified ‘megreeme’ by the location of pain in the head, reflecting the inheritance of the classical division of headaches into three types: cephalaea, cephalalgia and hemicrania. In his Method of Phisicke (1583), Philip Barrough described hemicrania as ‘a painefull evill remaining in the one halfe of the head, either on the right halfe or on the left, and is distinguished by the seame that runneth along in the skull… this griefe in Englishe is called the migrime’.
It was not until much later that medical writers began explicitly to link migraine with visual symptoms. In 1780, Samuel Tissot discussed a case in which visual symptoms preceded a headache, but it would be another five decades until the French physician Pierre Adolphe Piorry coined the term migraine ophtalmique (1835). English writers were some way behind: in 1873, Edward Liveing published On Megrim, which would become a classic study, in which he brought together a group of ailments under the term megrim. Also in 1873, Peter W. Latham published two lectures On Nervous or Sick-Headache. Despite their theoretical differences, both men dedicated substantial space to discussions of visual disorders, cementing the link between migraine and aura.
Back in the recipe collections, after some experimenting with search terms related to eyes rather than migraine, I uncovered something more exciting, that I hadn’t come across before: Lady Frances Catchmay’s ‘very good medicen for sore eyes that comethe of the migrome’, dated c.1625. The instructions are water stained and difficult to read, but involve dipping flax into a mixture, placing it on your temple at bedtime – making sure that none gets in the eye – and repeating for four or five nights. The recipe clearly links the eyes with migraine, but I’m not convinced that Lady Catchmay’s remedy suggests a much earlier link with aura. In any case, I’ll be keeping my eyes open.