Recipes in Manuscript Miscellanies

By Eve Houghton

As several scholars have noted, early modern recipes do not only appear in recipe books. Ink recipes in particular are a staple of the commonplace book, as Adam Smyth has pointed out; and as Alun Withey has written on this blog, “[i]t was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records.”

But if, in Jayne Elisabeth Archer’s words, “recipe books did not simply include recipes,” and “manuscripts classified as ‘commonplace books’ or ‘manuscript miscellanies’ sometimes also contain recipes” (119), this generic mixing also raises a host of paleographic and interpretative questions.

  • Is a miscellany with recipes still “a recipe book?”
  • Are the recipes in the same hand as the other entries?
  • Is a recipe always a non-sequitur, or can there be some conceptual link between the content of the notebook and the content of the recipe?

Some compilers seem to have taken steps to clearly differentiate recipes from the other content of their notebooks. One late seventeenth-century manuscript (Beinecke Osborn b115), for example, includes two sections with the handwriting running in opposite directions: the first devoted to commonplaces and poetry excerpts, and the second to recipes, including “pankakes,” “lemon cream,” and “apricock wine.” Another seventeenth and eighteenth-century notebook (Beinecke Osborn b419) has a section devoted to laundry accounts (“my brothers washing”) and a separate section for listing cookery recipes such as “cowslip wine” and “a good sort of gingerbread.” In other manuscripts, however, the distinctions are not nearly so clear-cut.

The notebook Beinecke Osborn c663, compiled by a “Miss Barton” of Suffolk from 1758 to 1766, includes medicinal and cookery recipes which appear as diary entries:

July 10. I heard yt…in Northamptonshire there is a well wch at certain times has a sound like a drum, it has been emptied, & at Bottom tis a mill stone, ye Person sd it was reckoned one of ye worlds 7 wonders. At this place are 3 Hospl [Hospitals], 1 for men 1 for women 1 for children 3 years schooling books some cloathes

To Cure Deafness

Take some green wormwood & rub it in yr hands till it is very moist then put it into ye hollow of yr ear & it will cause <it> to Discharge you must repeat it every day or two (f. 1r)

This at first seems like a bizarre turn: what does a cure for deafness have to do with an empty well and a charitable hospital?

The entry of July 10th, poised somewhere between folklore and local gossip, has certain continuities. After writing about this wondrous well with “a sound like a drum,” Barton’s next subject is the human ear drum. Another entry similarly juxtaposes a medicinal recipe with details of local interest:

Osborn c663, f. 2v (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).
Osborn c663, f. 2v (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).


Mr Alexander’s mill is square its built on a risin hill, I’m told there’s but one more such in Engl, tis what they call a smock mill.

A blood shot eye has been often reliev’d by holding it over ye steam of hot coffee (f. 2v).

Both the recipe and the account of the smock mill are headed “Memorand,” situating these fragments of seemingly unrelated information within the broader framework of “things worth remembering.” Barton seems to have had no need to create a separate heading for her recipes, then, because they are part and parcel of the notable, useful, or amusing matter of her daily life.

A manuscript from the 1620s (Folger X.d.393) is described in the Folger catalogue as a collection of “historical extracts.” However, it also includes a recipe for “a dormant drink,” which appears even more incongruous alongside accounts of Sir Francis Drake’s famous expedition to Cadiz and various military actions in Ireland:

A Dormant drink.

Take Enatnalp, Ecittel, yllil-retaw, yppop, & Edahs-thgin, short Ssom on ye Seert, Enab-neh Esserp-ic-flowers; pown all yes together, & strain ye verdure or juice out: yen take ye Niarb of Senarc, Ecim-rod doolb: warm ye liquor of all yes togither wth Eniw: it will bereave ye sense to cold numbness, & mortify ye Patient by an hour slumbrig for 2 daies, & by no meanes waking (f. 34r).

Folger X.d.393, f. 34r (Folger Shakespeare Library).
Folger X.d.393, f. 34r (Folger Shakespeare Library).

This recipe is in code, but it is not a particularly difficult code to break. One need only reverse the letters to find that this recipe calls for “water-lilly, poppy, & night-shade” in addition to “dor-mice blood & snakes blood.” Two puzzles, then: why write a recipe backwards, and why include a recipe for “a dormant drink” between an account of Shane O’Neill’s rebellion in Ireland and the reign of Richard II? It is possible that the compiler’s mind had turned to libations, since the account of O’Neill’s rebellion includes a reference to the “quaffing & drinking of Wine” (f. 33r). Or perhaps—like many early modern readers—the compiler simply saw no reason not to include a recipe in a manuscript of extracts on other subjects.

Because of the seeming haphazardness and unpredictability of their appearances, recipes which appear outside of recipe books or collections can be difficult to track down, catalogue, and interpret. But as Sally Osborn has argued in a post on this blog, recipe books were “working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.”

The recent work of Sara Pennell, Michelle DiMeo, and Wendy Wall, among others, has highlighted the ways in which heterogeneity (multiple hands, collaborative or anonymous authorship, unstable generic categories) is a hallmark of the recipe genre, placing notebooks like these in a broader context of manuscript miscellaneity. As more recipes are unearthed in diaries, commonplace books, and even collections of “historical extracts,” then, these manuscripts might start to look less eccentric–and perhaps even paradigmatic.


 Works referenced

Archer, Jayne Elisabeth. “The Quintessence of Wit,” Reading and Writing Recipe Books 1550-1800. Eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Smyth, Adam. “Commonplace Book Culture: A List of Sixteen Traits,” Women and Writing, c.1340-c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture. Eds. Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Philippa Hardman. Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2010.

Stone Soup: A new project about recipes and community

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

There’s a beautiful moment in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4” in which travelers from all over the world come together—despite differences in language, experience, and culture–to commune over apple juice and cookies after helping a fellow passenger:

She had pulled a sack of homemade 


cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with

          dates and

nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the


To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like

          a  sacrament.

This poem was a central focus of a structured conversation program I attended about power and place, specifically about diversity and assimilation. Participants in the conversation wondered how they could replicate that kind of scene in their own lives and workplaces, what they could offer that would bring people together in a similar way. As shorthand for this complicated question, people asked, “What is the ‘cookie’?”–i.e., what commonality could bring people from disparate backgrounds and ideologies together in community?

And I thought to myself, “Well, a lot of times ‘the cookie’ is, you know, a cookie.”

I’m a firm believer that foodstuffs and recipes bring us together in a singular way, providing a means of exploring the stories that make us who we are while connecting us to a larger community. Recipes are freighted with meaning, bearing stories and emotions, memories and hopes, community and connection.

And that’s why when our statewide humanities program, Oregon Humanities (an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities) put out a call for topics for a “Conversation Project” program, I immediately thought of recipes and their power to help us connect and commune.

The Oregon Humanities Conversation Project is somewhat unique in the United States. While many humanities councils have speakers and lectures, Oregon Humanities has invested instead in sending trained facilitators all over the state to lead conversations, to (in the words of the mission statement) “[bring] Oregonians together to talk—across differences, beliefs, and backgrounds—about important issues and ideas.”

With that goal in mind, my conversation project (“Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nourish Community”) offers this:

Sometimes the most overlooked objects can offer the most perceptive insights about ourselves and others. In this conversation, writer and independent scholar Jennifer Roberts introduces historical and current recipes and asks, How do recipes work? Why do we collect them? Who do we write them for? By sharing our own assumptions and memories, we will examine how recipes can help us connect and create communities across time, distance, and culture.

(A brief video introduction can be found here. Please ignore the still that makes me look like a braying donkey.)

For this program, I invite participants to bring treasured recipes to share with others (and I in turn share my Grandma Sherman’s recipe for toffee, which calls for, in part, “5 cents worth of Woolworth’s chocolate” and instructions that, in lieu of butter, “the hoi polloi may substitute 1/2 cup margarine”).

Grandma Marian’s toffee recipe

To date, I’ve conducted three conversation projects, all with a similar structure. We open by talking a bit about ideas people associate with recipes. Almost always words like “family,” “nourish,” and “tradition” come up. Then we talk about what makes a recipe a recipe (as opposed to, say, a grocery list or a poem) and quite often people talk about things like measurements, math, and instructions. We discuss the gap between these two ways of thinking about recipes: the evocative, emotional words used to describe recipes and the precise, scientific ways they are presented.

After a short discussion, I show the group some examples of historical medical recipes from the Wellcome’s extensive collection and we talk about how “receipts” have changed over time.  We read the story Stone Soup together and analyze its themes of community, sharing, and belonging.

After some more discussion, I show the group examples of recipe collections that have served or reflected their communities: Freda DeKnight’s A Date With A Dish; a collection of recipes from the women of the German concentration camp Terezín; and the medical recipes of Ing (Doc) Hay, who emigrated from China to John Day, Oregon in 1887 and became a popular medical practitioner for many decades (there is an excellent documentary here).

But while I enjoy sharing these examples, I am far more eager to get the participants talking to each other and sharing their own recipes and histories. In fact, I’m a bit greedy for them, as my long-term plan is to collect enough recipes and stories to offer a free, statewide recipe collection.

Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA
Recipes compiled by Kristin Williams found on site at the Frazier Farmstead in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, USA

The editors of The Recipes Project have kindly agreed to let [editorial correction: were wildly enthusiastic to have] me share some of the insights and stories that arise from this conversation project in future posts. I look forward to reporting back on the results of this exciting project in the coming  year!

EMROC 2nd Annual Transcribathon!

Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.
Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.

Like early modern recipes? Enjoy puzzle solving? Then… how about joining in the 2nd Annual Transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective?

This virtual transcribathon will be taking place on 9 November–and all you need to join is a computer and an internet connection! And NO EXPERIENCE is necessary.

This year, EMROC will be working on the recipe book of Lady Grace Castleton.

For more details on the event and how to join, please see the announcement on the EMROC website.

Scenes from an Anglo-Norman Kitchen, Part 1: Mutton, Parsley, and Pagan Gods

By Winston Black

In this two-part post, I will explore several aspects of recipes, cooks, and kitchens as they appear in a twelfth-century herbal. This work gives us rare and valuable evidence for cooking in Anglo-Norman England.

Anglicanus Ortus cover. Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century herbal describes 160 herbs, spices, and vegetables—with poetry!
Anglicanus Ortus cover. Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century herbal describes 160 herbs, spices, and vegetables—with poetry!

Devotees of medieval cooking have a variety of surviving cookbooks to use. Among the best known are the Forme of Cury and Liber cure cocorum from England, Le Ménagier de Paris and Le Viandier de Taillevent from France, or several versions of the Liber de coquina in Italy. Many of these can be found online, with discussions and modernized recipes, here. Yet all of these cookbooks were produced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and primarily for elite audiences, so they do not reflect cooking in most of the Middle Ages, or for most people.

It is rare indeed to find any culinary recipes before about the year 1300, outside of those in surviving copies of the late Roman cookbook Apicius. Why? To put it simply, manuscript books on parchment were expensive to produce, literacy rates were low, and scribes and authors generally did not consider cooking to be a specialized form of knowledge that needed writing down.

However, some recipes do survive from the High Middle Ages (eleventh through thirteenth centuries), although usually not in formal cookbooks. Rather, they are found in medical contexts, as part of herbals and pharmaceutical manuals, where the authors occasionally indicate which herbs are good in food and not just as medicines.

One such instance is found in the herbal Anglicanus Ortus (“The English Garden”), written by Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon in England, around the year 1135. His herbal is arranged in six books, which contain a total of 160 different herbs and spices, all described in Latin verse (usually with one poem for each herb). Didactic poetry was a popular method for teaching complex material in the twelfth century. For the most part, Henry describes only the medicinal uses of each herb, but he sometimes mentions when an herb, vegetable, or spice can be used in the kitchen—an obvious point to us, but not necessarily obvious in a medicinal herbal.

The herbal author at work. This is an image of Macer Floridus from an early printed edition of De viribus herbarum. Written around 1090, it became the most popular herbal of the later Middle Ages.
The herbal author at work. This is an image of Macer Floridus from an early printed edition of De viribus herbarum. Written around 1090, it became the most popular herbal of the later Middle Ages.

Henry differs dramatically from other herbal authors of this era (like Macer Floridus or Constantinus Africanus) by introducing fictional characters, who variously encourage him, taunt him, or challenge his knowledge of medicine. These include Apollo, as the god of medicine, a naked old man from the Far East, and a drunken cook (I’ll address him in my next post). Henry modeled this cook on the ancient Roman poet Martial, a personal favorite of his, who bore the nickname Cocus, “the cook”.

Henry’s recipes and descriptions of cooks and kitchens appear particularly in his two poems on parsley, the only plant he treats twice in the herbal, indicating the importance of this common plant to both medieval medicine and cooking. In the first poem on parsley, Henry is the narrator, speaking as an authority on herbal medicine, and he specifically says he will not address cooks, by which he means their culinary recipes. But after he dedicates thirteen lines to a standard list of parsley’s medicinal aspects, Apollo suddenly interrupts him:

I would, of course, have passed over the cooks, but Apollo cries out: ‘Thalia, fetch the cooks and order the doctors to depart!’

Nor did the cook [Martial] who wrote in epigrams spurn the cooks,

and perhaps as long as I follow him, I’ll earn the name of poet. (I.21, 14-17)

Fresco from Pompeii of Apollo as god of medicine, Chiron the Centaur, and Asclepius. Several medieval herbals invoke Apollo as the bestower of medicine on mankind, through Chiron and Asclepius.
Fresco from Pompeii of Apollo as god of medicine, Chiron the Centaur, and Asclepius. Several medieval herbals invoke Apollo as the bestower of medicine on mankind, through Chiron and Asclepius.

It is apt that Apollo invokes Thalia here, for she was the Greek Muse of comedy and bucolic poetry, both genres on view in the Anglicanus Ortus. So, at Apollo’s command and in the spirit of imitating Martial “the Cook”, Henry supplies two recipes for sauces featuring parsley:

This [parsley] is the best herb for mutton, the best for pork.

If you ask the method, I will tell you. I’ll indicate for you

the first meats in the first place, the second in the second.

Take Pennyroyal, Cress, and Parsley;

yet if that herb which the crowd is apt to call ius danna

should be present, use it and not the Cress.

Add Cost to these and mix in a bit of Pepper;

you can now mix these with the mutton drippings.

There will be no other flavor better suited to mutton,

or so they relate who are devoted to these arts.

Take Basil and Savory and Parsley

and Cress, unless ius danna is near to you.

Mix together Pepper and Cumin with these juices.

In such a way, if you are eating cold pork,

no other flavor would be made more pleasing than this.

Both recipes in this one poem are similar to many surviving later medieval recipes for sauce verte or juvert, except in those cases the sauces are thickened with bread or ground nuts, in a wine or vinegar base. Here, the herbs are simply mixed with the hot fat from the mutton, and the sauce is used more like a chimichurri.

The first recipe, employing five herbs, is complex enough that Henry attributes it to experts in cooking, those “who are devoted to these arts”. The first three ingredients (pennyroyal, cress, and parsley) are common to northern Europe and easy to identify in the Latin manuscripts. Cumin, while native to the Mediterranean can grow in southern England today, and could well have done in Henry’s day. I have not been able to identify ius danna, which if it means anything in Latin, could be a corruption of “damned juice” or “juice of the lady”. Whatever it is, Henry considered it a useful and possibly spicy herb that could be used to replace cress. The addition of pennyroyal is disturbing, since it often appears in ancient and medieval texts as an emmenagogue or abortifacient. Pennyroyal is said to have a pleasant, minty taste and does appear in early culinary recipes, but obviously, do not try this at home!

The appearance of cost and pepper suggests that these recipes are intended for a wealthier household. “Cost” is probably the Indian costus root (Saussurea costus), and in its own poem Henry calls it a “famous spice”. As a high-ranking clergyman in the English diocese of Lincoln, Henry probably could afford some exotic spices, and if these recipes are any indication, enjoyed them in his meals.

In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the character of the cook, who gives us a glimpse of medieval attitudes about common vegetables and professional cooks.


Winston Black is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles and chapters on high medieval medicine and pharmacy, scholastic theology, and the intersections between medieval science and religion. His first book, Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century, was published jointly in 2012 by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Library. He is currently preparing a reader in ancient and medieval medicine for Broadview Press, and a new, critical edition of the herbal of Macer Floridus.

Follow him on Twitter @WinstonEBlack

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine