To round up my posts on Sanditon, written to coincide with Laurel’s Group Read of Jane Austen’s unfinished fragment at Austenprose, I thought I might take the opportunity of writing about Jane Austen and donkeys , or asses as they were  then called.

In Sanditon we hear much of Lady Denham’s asses and her money-making plans for them:

Well, Mr. Parker, and the other is a boarding school, a French boarding school, is it? No harm in that. They’ll stay their six weeks. And out of such a number, who knows but some may be consumptive and want asses’ milk; and I have two milch asses at this present time…Going after a doctor! Why, what

should we do with a doctor here? It would be only encouraging our servants and the poor to fancy themselves ill if there was a doctor at hand. Oh! pray, let us have none of the tribe at Sanditon. We go on very well as we are. There is the sea and the downs and my milch asses.


Now if we could get a young heiress to be sent here for her health — and if she was ordered to drink asses’ milk I could supply her — and, as soon as she got well, have her fall in love with Sir Edward!”

Unfortunately for her, the stout defensive attitude of Mrs Griffiths pours cold water on her plans for her asses milk:

Lady Denham had other motives for calling on Mrs. Griffiths besides attention to the Parkers. In Miss Lambe, here was the very young lady, sickly and rich, whom she had been asking for; and she made the acquaintance for Sir Edward’s sake and the sake of her milch asses. How it might answer with regard to the baronet remained to be proved but, as to the animals, she soon found that all her calculations of profit would be vain. Mrs. Griffiths would not allow Miss Lambe to have the smallest sympton of a decline or any complaint which asses’ milk could possibly relieve. Miss Lambe was “under the constant care of an experienced physician,” and his prescriptions must be their rule. And except in favour of some tonic pills, which a cousin of her own had a property in, Mrs. Griffiths never deviated from the strict medicinal page.

Why was asses milk thought  good for invalids particularly consumptives?

Lets turn to William Buchan and his book Domestic Medicine

which was a very popular home reference book in the early 19th century, and one I think Jane Austen may have read., or at least had access to.

This is what he has to say about the use of asses milk, in particular in relation to consumptive patients:

Next to proper air and exercise, we would recommend a due attention to diet. The patient should eat nothing that is either heating or hard of digestion, and his drink must be of a soft and cooling nature. All the diet ought to be calculated to lessen the acrimony of the humours, and to nourish and support the patient. For this purpose he must keep chiefly to the use of vegetables and milk. Milk alone is of more value in this disease than the whole materia medica.

Asses milk is commonly reckoned preferable to any other; but it cannot always be obtained; besides, it is generally taken in a very small quantity; whereas, to produce any effects, it ought to make a considerable part of the patient’s diet. It is hardly to be expected, that a gill or two of asses milk, drank in the space of twenty-four hours, should be able to produce any considerable change in the humours of an adult; and when people do not perceive its effects soon, they lose hope, and so leave it off. Hence it happens that this medicine, however valuable, very seldom performs a cure. The reason is obvious; it is commonly used too late, is taken in too small quantities, and is not duly persisted in.

I have known very extraordinary effects from asses milk in obstinate coughs, which threatened a consumption of the lungs; and do verily believe, if used at this period, that it would seldom fail; but if it be delayed till an ulcer is formed, which is generally the case, how can it be expected to succeed?

Asses milk ought to be drank, if possible, in its natural warmth, and, by a grown person, in the quantity of half an English pint at a time. Instead of taking this quantity night and morning only, the patient ought to take it four times, or at least thrice a day, and to eat a little light bread along with it, so as to make it a kind of meal.

If the milk should happen to purge, it may be mixed with old conserve of roses. When that cannot be obtained, the powder of crabs claws may be used in its stead. Asses milk is usually ordered to be drank warm in bed; but as it generally throws the patient into a sweat when taken in this way, it would perhaps be better to give it after he rises.

It was also thought to be helpful whenever a patient presented with a persistent cough, coupled with other complaints such as smallpox:

When a cough, a difficulty of breathing, or other symptoms of a consumption, succeed to the small-pox, the patient must be sent to a place where the air is good, and put upon a course of asses milk, with such exercise as he can bear.

Or measles:

Should a cough, with difficulty of breathing, and other symptoms of a consumption, remain after the measles, small quantities of blood may be frequently let at proper intervals, as the patient’s strength and constitution will permit. He ought likewise to drink asses milk, to remove to a free air, if in a large town, and to ride daily on horseback. He must keep close to a diet consisting of milk and vegetables; and lastly, if these do not succeed, let him remove to a warmer climate.

Mrs Rundell, in her section of recipes for invalids in her book A New System of Domestic Cookery, ( my 1819 edition) advises the use of  asses milk too.

In actual fact it has now been proved scientifically that  all these old “cures” may have some truth behind them. Ass’s milk has been found to contain less solids than any other sort of milk. It is richer in sugar than other sorts (except for human milk). It is constituted with less curd and fat than other milks and it is consequently easy to digest. A rather good thing for ill people to consume therefore.

For an ass to produce milk of course the Jenny or female donkey had to have produced a calf, which is why Lady Denham is rather proud to have two milch asses and is eager to make the most of their milk producing period. The Jennys were usually milked twice a day, and usually gave up between half a pint to a pint at each milking. Milch donkey could be hired at the cost of one guinea a week, plus expenses of transport ,and no doubt this was Lady Denham’s plan.

But if you could not obtain fresh asses milk then you could make a substitute.

My copy of The Family Receipt Book,

a fanatically detailed and comprehensive encyclopedia of domestic knowledge circa 1810, gives this recipe for artificial asses milk:

And even Mrs Rundell obliged with three alternatives to fresh asses milk:

Some of the ingredients these recipes used may now seem odd to us –snails?– but some are now  virtually unknown.

Eringo root is perhaps the most  puzzling ingredient. It is in fact the roots of the Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum

(Photograph from Wikipeadia Commons)

which have been candied or picked.

Sea Holly is in fact no relation at all to evergreen holly trees but is a tall, bluish-green evergreen perennial found growing wild on coastal areas in England. It is in fact a member of the umbellifer family of plants ( which includes parsley, carrots and parsnips).

Here are some which have been candied by Ivan Day of Historic Foods.

You can see I think the resemblance they have to parsnip tips.

It was fantastically popular sweetmeat in the 17th and 18th centuries and  used not only as a sweet addition to artificial asses milk , but as an aphrodisiac.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare,  Falstaff calls for them:

Let the sky rain potatoes;

let it thunder to the tune of Green-sleeves,

hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes ,

let there come a tempest of provocation…

(See: Falstaff, Act 5, scene v,)

and I suppose at his advantaged age he might have needed them.

Next onto the other use for asses a means of transport and of  which Jane Austen made much use  in her last months at Chawton .