Exploring CPP 10a214: Elizabeth Downing’s Busy Month of May

By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche

Elizabeth Downing was busy in the month of May. Several of her recipes in the opening section of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia manuscript 10a214 specify that they should be made only during that month, and other recipes in the collection call for “May butter” – unsalted butter made in spring – as a key ingredient. The array of herbal ingredients used in these recipes make it easy to picture them being concocted in a rural location, one with ready access to fields blooming with new Spring growth.

In the manuscript as a whole, only April, May, and June are explicitly designated as months when certain recipes should be prepared, presumably because that is when plant-based ingredients would be freshest. May is by far the busiest, with five recipes specifically designated for preparation that month. The recipe for an ointment for “aches, anguishe or swelling of wounds,” attributed to Hellen Jones and endorsed at its end by Elizabeth Downing, requires that it be “made in may and no time else.”

The Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript 10a214, fol. 10
The Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Manuscript 10a214, fol. 221.

April and June, moreover, are only named once each, and their mention seems designed to even out the workflow during May’s busier days. Downing, for example, offers her probatum to an “excellent Oyntment for the spleene,” which calls for fresh millelot that “groweth a mongst corne, and is to be gotten the latter end of May or Iune.” A cure for an old sore in the manuscript’s second part, meanwhile, suggests making the herb water on which it is based “in the moneth of Aprill or May, for it cannot be made all the year after.”

This recipe for an old sore, however, is the only one in the manuscript’s second section that explicitly associates a recipe with a production date. While the section includes recipes that demand may butter, it conjures few images of the practitioner gathering ingredients, yet alone collecting them from surrounding countryside. Reading the manuscript’s first section, however, we not only can imagine a housewife picking millelot from amongst the corn; we can also picture her in the fields before dawn assembling ingredients to treat a “blasting by lightning or otherwise”:

Take a faire linnen cloth, and in the
month of may in a morning before sunrise
wipe of the dew of the green wheat with
the cloth & wring it out into a basen
and keep it in a glass close stopped …

The first section’s recipes assume that the recipe maker will be near a wheat field, as well as fresh millelot. As Rebecca Laroche pointed out to me earlier, the ointment for “aches, anguishe or swelling of wounds” demands that it maker collect its ingredients – “the youngest bay leaues & wormwood of each halfe a pound” – during “the heate of the day,” suggesting the plants are readily available, growing nearby.

The manuscript’s second section, however, rarely offers such glimpses of the recipe maker outside the house, collecting her raw materials. This only compounds the mystery that Rebecca outlined in her last entry about the manuscript’s area of circulation. Does the collection, she asked, reflect a Middlesex or Essex location? Whether the first and second sections’ different images of the recipe makers at work hint at changes in the owner’s residence or social network remains unclear, but it is yet another aspect to consider in our attempts to place the manuscript.

This is the thirteenth post in a series on this topic.


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