Collaboration in the Production of Recipe Books

By Simone Zweifel

Printed recipe books in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were often compilations of recipes copied out of already existing books or manuscripts. I use “recipe book” as an umbrella term to bring together Books of Secrets, cookery books, and other recipe books. Johann Jacob Wecker (1528-1586/88), city physician of Colmar in the late sixteenth century, was an important translator and editor of recipe books in the German speaking area. He published, amongst other books, so-called Antidotaria, and translations and editions of Books of Secrets. While the first publications of Books of Secrets were translations into Latin and German of the Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio piemontese, the later ones were augmented versions, compiled from different books.[1] These later versions were issued several times over a long period of time, and some were even translated into French and English.[2] The many editions and translations of the texts indicate their popularity.

Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Lo VI 50: De secretis libri XVII. Image Credit: University Library Basel. © University Library Basel.
An example of a Book of Secrets: Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Lo VI 50: De secretis libri XVII. Image Credit: University Library Basel. © University Library Basel.

The publications of Johann Jacob Wecker, I argue, were not a product of one person alone, but a collaboration of several actors.[3] This can be observed on the basis of the correspondence between him, Theodor Zwinger (1533-1588), Pietro Perna (1519/20-1582) and Samuel Grynaeus (1529-1599). Zwinger was a professor of ethics at the University of Basel and presumably corrector at Perna’s printing shop, while Perna issued most of Wecker’s publications in Basel. Grynaeus seems to have provided Wecker and Zwinger with books containing recipes. These men collaborated to produce and print recipe books in Wecker’s name. Their correspondence is part of the Zwinger Correspondence, which today is held at the Basel University Library. While the correspondence contains around 2350 letters, I looked at a selection of fifty-six letters, of which Wecker wrote fifty-one.[4]

Wecker, of course, needed books to copy from in order to produce the compilations. To obtain such exemplars, he wrote to Samuel Grynaeus:

I am still lacking several secreta theologica for my librum de secretis. I would like to collect several [secreta, SZ] from them, and would like to do it soon. I would send them back to you shortly after [using them, SZ] or pay them.[5]

Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Frey-Gryn Mscr II 4: Nr.326: Brief an Theodor Zwinger. Image Credit: University Library Basel. © University Library Basel.
An example of a letter of Johann Jacob Wecker: Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Frey-Gryn Mscr II 4: Nr.326: Brief an Theodor Zwinger. Image Credit: University Library Basel. © University Library Basel.

Wecker thus asked Grynaeus for “recipes” which he could use. It seems that making a “voluminous opus” was important to him. He wrote to Zwinger: “I made the [Book of Secret, SZ] as voluminous as possible. Had I had or known more authors, I would have made it even bigger.”[6] The letters also suggest that Zwinger supported Wecker by correcting and improving his texts: “I owe you special thanks for the very fine and best improvement of my tables”.[7] In addition, it is possible that Zwinger wrote some of the prefaces for Wecker.[8]

Even though only Wecker’s name appears on most title pages of the recipe books I’ve examined, those books were the fruits of a collaboration between Wecker, Perna, Zwinger, and Grynaeus. We do not know if there were even more people involved in the production of Wecker’s texts! What we do know, thanks to the letters that they sent each other, is that the collaboration of several people was the basis for the production of the books in the end published in the name of Johann Jacob Wecker. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about the “authorship” of early modern recipe books.


[1] A possible “original” edition could have been: Piemontese, Alessio. Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio piemontese [pseud.? i. e. Girolamo Ruscelli?]. Nuovamente posti in luce. Opera utile, et necessaria universalmente à ciascuno […], Venetia: Sigismondo Bordogna, 1555.

[2] Amongst others: Wecker, Johann Jacob. Les secrets et merveilles de nature. Recueilis de divers autheurs & divisez en 17, livres. Lyon: B. Honorati, 1586; Wecker, Johann Jacob; Read R. Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art & Nature Being the Summe and Substance of Naturall Philosophy, Methodically Digested, London: Robert Stockwell, 1660.

[3] See Zweifel, Simone. Communitas epistolaria am Oberrhein, das Ärzte-Ehepaar Anna (gest. 1596/97) und Johann Jacob Wecker (1528-1586/88) und ihr Umfeld, Masterarbeit Universität Basel, Basel 2012.

[4] On the Zwinger Correspondence, see: Wilhelm Kühlmann and Joachim Telle (eds.). Der Frühparacelsismus (Teil II, Berlin, Boston 2004), 772.

[5] “Es manglen mir noch etliche secreta theologica in mein librum de secretis. Wolte gern darauß ettliche colligieren soll baldt geschechen, vnd euch auffs kürtzest widerumb zugeschickt werden, oder bezalt werden.” Universitätsbibliothek Basel. G2 I 30 fol. 187. Wecker, Johann Jacob. Brief an Samuel Grynaus.

[6] “Daß [Book of Secret, SZ] hab ich so groß gemacht, als mir müglich gwesen, het ich mher athores gehapt oder gewüst, welte ichs auch vil groser gemacht haben.” Universitätsbibliothek Basel. Fr. Gr. Ms. II, 4, N° 326. Wecker, Johann Jacob. Brief an Theodor Zwinger.

[7] “Pro tabularum mearum emendatio re pulcherrima atque optima, summas tibi gratias ago.” Universitätsbibliothek Basel. Fr. Gr. Ms. II, 4, N° 316. Wecker, Johann Jacob. Brief an Theodor Zwinger.

[8] Kühlmann/Telle, Der Frühparacelsismus, 746.


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