In a recent class session of my graduate seminar, “Thinking Green: Eco-Approaches to Texts,” my students and I transcribed and discussed at length the first recipe that appears in a manuscript book in the Wellcome Medical Library: MS 213, “A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon. Anno Domini 1606.”
To do this, we worked with the first recipe in the book, “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb or any other soore Eye,” which instructs as follows:
We then worked together on a (deceptively) simple question: “Who/what seems to have agency in this recipe, and what is the source of authority?” What followed was a 2-1/2 hour collaboration that I would say is at the heart of what I hope recipe transcription can do in our classrooms and central to how I think recipes work.
We began, well, at the beginning. Students turned to the title of the book, a collection of that which had been “experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon.” As such, authority lies in the tried and tested text itself, evidenced too by claims of “probatum” throughout these books. As students pointed out, the user/practitioner was also an authority. To “Gather [the grass] close to the roote” is evidence, that is, of how the woman using this recipe necessarily walked among the plants she gathered, touched them, identified which, in this case, had the white spots and three leaves (and not another grass). She was expected to exercise her discretion, using “so much Allome as will make the water tast roughe uppon [her] tounge” or ascertaining how much honey is just enough to make it “Looke yeollowe” and “taste very sweete.”
As we talked, though, we queried whether the patient him/herself, the treated body, was also a source of authority here. After all, the body receiving the cure, it was hoped, would respond positively to the treatment, whose precise timing was determined, at least in part, by how “soore” the eye was; and the patient’s more willful response played a role in the cure’s efficacy as demonstrated by the directive to “sleepe after it, if they cann.” But what about the potential authority and/or agency of the ingredients themselves, the nonhuman things from which the cure is derived—the grass and daisy roots, the honey, the fire, etc? After all, they contain properties that might be predictable to some extent, but individually and collectively they are arguably not entirely within the control of human manipulation. And we made note that the durability of the product comprised of such ingredients depended on seasonality—it, not surprisingly, lasts one less week during summer than during winter. In this way, do not the seasons dictate terms that the human practitioner cannot entirely mitigate through careful preparation?
What we concluded, and I think it is an important conclusion, is that this recipe illustrates a powerful collaboration of agents—human and nonhuman alike—whose efficacy is determined by multiple sources of authority, all acting together in dance-like fashion, where lines of demarcation between the individual and collective necessarily vanish. Just as importantly, though, we came to these conclusions collaboratively. And that, I would say, gets at the heart of what environmental justice (and ecofeminist) work aims to do and precisely what is, for me at least, what working with these books can teach us. We interrogate and revise together, looking anew at that which we often don’t see or take for granted: the relationship between human and nonhuman comprised, mitigated, and expressed in the most complicated of ways by a multitude of agents, articulated most powerfully in the substratum and the margins. We need to look and listen. And we need to do it together.
**I want to note the outstanding students in my graduate seminar without whose collaboration this post would not exist: Taryn Dollings, Henry Doss, Kailan Smith, and Breane Weber.