All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

The Heroine of the Cookbook Story

By Rachel Rich

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every cookbook tells a story about itself, and the imagined reader it addresses is the heroine of that story. In the nineteenth century, following recipes meant embarking on a quest for respectability, stability and family happiness. The author offered guidance, and the reader was warned of the perils of leaving the path of good housekeeping. From start to finish, cookbooks in the nineteenth century had a fairly consistent tone… and a story that was repeated time and again. The introduction was where the reader—the protagonist—was introduced to herself through the eyes of the author-narrator.

Mrs Beeton’s introduction of the central character may the most famous, but it is not the only one. The heroine of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is introduced as ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’. But others had already got the idea that the main character in the story of the cookbook played a role of national significance. As early as 1803, John Armstrong was placing the women of Britain centre stage in the success of the nation:

To the Young Females of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, This Work is most respectfully inscribed, as a new, safe, and pleasant Guide to the purest and most lasting sources of happiness, and which essentially depends on the just performance of the various Duties of their Sex, whether as Servants, Daughters, Wives, Mothers, or Mistresses of Families.[1]

Others were similarly confident about the importance of the reader, and the task she was undertaking in following the instructions which the author could provide. In 1837, one wrote:

The Collection of Domestic Receipts now presented to the public could not have been formed in any age but the present. The wisdom of this age has been to bring science from her heights down to the practical knowledge of every-day concerns’ and the number or its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man.[2]

Eliza Acton entrusted the heroine of her story with no less than the fate of civilization:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skilfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization.[3]

After carefully conveying the importance of her task to the reader, it was now the job of the author to explain the extent to which contemporary women were failing to become the heroines imagined by the author, thus introducing the possibility of adversity and defeat into the story.

Young women utterly ignorant and careless of domestic duties often think themselves fully qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of married life, while at the same time regarding it as derogatory to their dignity to cultivate knowledge on which, unless their husbands are very wealthy, the happiness of their homes must necessarily depend.[4]

In warning women of the adversity they faced, without the help of their cookbooks, Mrs Warren uttered this rousing cry:

Diligently and zealously learn and practise every domestic duty and every feminine accomplishment…and no longer will they say, “We cannot marry, our incomes will not suffice.” [5]

The recipes, then, formed the denouement. Once the tension was set up in the introduction, juxtaposing the importance of domestic management against the price of failure, the need for one more cookbook might seem obvious. But in case it was still an open question, many writers troubled themselves to impress upon the reader how different their own book was, and how important. Miss Renny, who’s What to do with Cold Mutton offered solutions for the use of leftovers, offered this explanation:

It may be thought unnecessary to add another to the already numerous list of books upon Cookery; books as various in their degree of excellence as in price. But this little Work does not profess to teach “the whole Art of Cookery:” it simply aims at supplying a want often felt by the young and inexperienced mistress of a household, where a moderate income, rather than position, renders economy advisable; and who, accustomed to every luxury and comfort in her father’s house, is yet ignorant of the art by which such culinary results are attained, and would gladly see her husband’s more modest table as well ordered, though by more simple means.[6]

The heroine of Miss Renny’s book is a young woman of modest means, who is willing to do what it takes to make a go of it: a true British heroine in the age of self-help and social mobility.

Every cookbook situates its imagined reader within the story of the recipes it holds. In the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered a fairly consistent message about the importance of domesticity to the nation’s success, always placing that story at the edge of the dark, looming clouds of the ruin that awaited women who would not follow the rules.

[1] J. Armstrong, The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness, Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, c.1803. n.p.

[2] Anon. The New Family Receipt Book London: John Murray, 1837. p. vii.

[3] E. Acton, Modern Cookery, For Private Families. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. p. viii.

[4] A. H. Miles, ed. A Look Inside: A Daily Household Guide. London: John Heywood, c. 1898. p. 118.

[5] Mrs Warren, How I Managed my Household on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864. p. iv;

[6] Anon [Miss Renny], What to do with Cold Mutton. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1887. p. 111

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.

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