Searching for Recipes: A Glimpse of Early Modern Upper Class Life

By Marieke Hendriksen

On this blog we tend to hear a lot about English household manuscript recipes but lively traditions existed elsewhere, as Sietske Fransen and Saskia Klerk also show in their series on a Dutch manuscript of recipesIn my own search for eighteenth-century Dutch medical and chemical recipes, I often come across manuscript recipe books that lack a detailed catalogue description, so I have to check them page-by-page to see if there is anything relevant for my current research.

Often these recipe books have little to do with medicine or chemistry, or they contain only a limited number of medical home remedies. Yet this does not make these books any less interesting to researchers. This week, when I opened a manuscript at Museum Boerhaave (inventory number BOERH a 176) which was marked in the catalogue as ‘medicine book and recipes, before 1860’, I caught a fascinating glimpse of early modern upper class life.

Kitchen interior, oil on canvas, Dutch, anonymous, second half of 17th C.
Kitchen interior, oil on canvas, Dutch, anonymous, second half of 17th C. Courtesy of RKD images.

Judging by the spelling and state of the paper, my guess is that this manuscript is quite a bit older than ‘before 1860’, it dates probably from the eighteenth or maybe even the seventeenth century. This is supported by the fact that underneath one of the recipes someone has noted in a different hand ‘1721: selfs geprobeerd’ (‘tried myself’). The cover and a number of pages are missing, but it contains a wealth of recipes for food, human and veterinary medicine, household chores, and home decorations. As many of the cookery recipes list expensive ingredients spices and lemons, and as the book also contains recipes for gilding, ink, paints, wax fruit, and a special recipe for nightingale food, it seems most likely that the recipes were collected in an upper class household, like that of an aristocratic or well-off merchant family.

Unfortunately the manuscript is anonymous, and the few names that are mentioned give little direction either. The only names mentioned are a certain mister Plaatman as the source of a recipe against kidney stones, and with a recipe for a potion, the author has noted ‘bij Susanna ghebruijckt in haer siekte’ (‘used with Susanna in her illness’). Given the distinct upper class feel of the recipes, and that fact that they are written in high Dutch in seventeenth and/or eighteenth century, the first Susanna that springs to mind is Susanna Huygens (1637-1725), daughter of Constantijn. Of course there must have been more women named Susanna, but the population of the United Provinces around 1800 was small – roughly 2 million people – and the upper class thus too, so it would be interesting to see if additional research can confirm this surmise.

Pieter Holsteyn I, Nightingale, crayon and gouache on paper, ca. 1656-1667.
Pieter Holsteyn I, Nightingale, crayon and gouache on paper, ca. 1656-1667.  Courtesy of RKD Images.

Whether this recipe book was owned by the Huygens family or another upper class Dutch family, it gives a fascinating insight in daily life. And for those of you wanting to take up a nice early modern hobby over the holidays, like keeping a nightingale as a pet, here is the recipe for nightingale’s food: ‘Mix finely cut lamb’s heart, hemp seed, parsley, rusk, egg yolk and sweet almonds. Can be fed every two hours.’


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