Noel Chomel’s Dictionaire oeconomique : or, the family dictionary was first published in French in 1709, with the English revised version by Richard Bradley appearing nine years later. It has an amazing long title, almost listing every subject it covers but what is “oeconomique”? Obviously it has something to do with economics, so were better to look than the book itself:
“Oeconomy, a certain order in the management of a family and domestick affairs: Hence the word Oecominist, for a good manager. But oeconomy may be taken in a more extensive sense, for a just, prudent, and regular Conduct in all the parts of life, and relative capacities.”
The book does contain information relating to this definition and a lot more. So should you need a remedy for an illness for yourself or an animal, need to know what you should be planting in your garden in a certain month or fancy trying a bit of distilling, this book is the place to go. Of course being a book from the eighteenth century it contains many things that would be considered outdated and bizarre today. The remedies can be especially cruel or just disgusting. If you suffer from asthma, how about a nice cup of alcoholic woodlice tea (see photo below showing how to make this lovely brew). There is a cure for deafness which involves dripping three drops of cat wee into the ear of the deaf person. The cat has to be black and to have been kept in a basket for three days. Some of the remedies for humans and animals, and even to treat problems in the home, are quite cruel. One cure for clap in horses is horrible:
“The method to cure it, is to cut off the head of a cat, and her legs, then to rip her open at her back, laying her insides, guts and all, to the sinew, with her back closing together upon the fore-part of the horses leg”
This has to be applied while the cat is warm and if needed more cats should be used so that the treatment can last up to four hours. They don’t like cats in this book very much, a treatment for getting rid of bedbugs involves killing and roasting a cat, mixing “the stuff that drops from her” with egg yolks and oil of spike and then placing the mixture where the bugs live.
The Dictionaire oeconomique, when not killing animals, does have lots of information about them. It can guide you through the different types of horses and what tasks they are best suited for. It also has sections on wild animals including birds, sadly some of the information reverts to cruelty and provides guidance on the best methods of catching them and in some cases preparing them to eat. I enjoyed reading some of the descriptions of insects including bees and ants. The bee is, according to Chomel, ruled by a King who is the only one to reproduce and there are “…also several princes or nobles, who compose the sovereign council of the kingdom”. These noble bees are bigger and more beautiful than the other bees and don’t have stingers, instead of looking for food, their job is to maintain peace in their kingdom (the hive). The king bee is larger than all the other bees but has smaller wings so, the author tells us, if he goes out of the hive and falls to the ground his nobles guard him until he can fly off again. However, should he die while stuck on the ground they will take his body back to the hive “as if they would bury him honourably in the tomb of his ancestors”. There is mention of a Queen bee as well but only briefly. Ants are also interesting and along with the bees have teeth (see photo).
Domestic affairs are cover in the book, as seen above with the bedbug treatment, as well as with the description of various food stuffs such as vegetables and ideas are given on how they should be prepared. There is even a guide on how to set out a “Desert or Banquet of Sweet-Meats” including two models, one of an oval table and the other for a round table (see photos)
In some sections of the book it is made clear who the author is, either by mentioning Chomel by name or by saying “The English author says…”. There are also sections when cultural differences between France and England are mentioned, for example the section on artichokes states “The remaining part of the French account being somewhat confused, and not so well suited to our English way of culture…”. The two authors do seem to have had very different lives. Noel Chomel was born in 1632 (dying in 1712) and was a priest based in Lyon. His family have been noted for containing a few scientists and doctors, including Charles de Lorme (1584-1678) who was chief physician to French Kings and is credit with inventing the plague mask. The English author, Richard Bradley (1688-1732) was a botanist, writer of popular scientific and medical works and the first professor of botany at Cambridge. He, however, failed to keep his promise of setting up a botanical garden at the university and had debt problems for most of his life, even leaving his once wealthy wife in debt after he died.
Overall, the Dictionaire oeconomique is a very interesting book and wouldn’t be out of place in any 18th century family bookcase.
Parker, J. (1995) “The development of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden” in Curtis’s botanical magazine, 23 (1) pp.4-19
Egerton, F.N. (1970) “Richard Bradley’s illicit excursion in to medical practice in 1714”, in Medical history,14 (1) pp.53-62
Edmondon, J. (2002) “Richard Bradley (c.1688-1832): an annoted bibliograohy, 1710-1818” in Archives on natural history 29(2) pp.177-212
Egerton, F.N. (1970) “Richard Bradley’s relationship with Sir Hans Sloane” in Notes and records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 25 (1) pp.59-77
Santer, M. (2009) “Richard Bradley: a unified, living agent theory of the cause of infectious diseases of plants, animals, and humans in the first decades of the 18th century” in Perspectives in biology and medicine, 52 (4) pp.566-578
Hamshaw Thomas, H. (1952) “Richard Bradley, an early eighteenth century biologist” in Bulletin of the British Society for the History of Science, 1, pp.176-178
Spary, E. “’Peaches which the patriarchs lacked’: natural history, natural resources, and the natural economy in France” in Schabas, M. & De Marchi, N. (ed.) Oeconomies in the age of Newton PP14-41 Duke University Press, 2003