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Early Modern Comfort Foods

By Amanda E. Herbert

Today we associate “comfort foods” with tradition, indulgence, and familiarity.  These humble but beloved foods have received a lot of recent attention from cooks and culinary specialists – the Guardian food blog even produced a full-page spread of its favourites last month.  But what were the early modern equivalents of comfort foods?  And how did early modern people feel about incorporating new or exotic foods into their diets?

A recipe collection at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts helps to reveal culinary adaptations made by early modern Britons: this is the Charles Brigham Account Book.[1]  Like many early modern manuscript recipe collections, the Brigham book had multiple author-compilers, and was maintained over a long period of time, for nearly one hundred years (c. 1650-1730).  Although little is known about the provenance of the book, at one point it was “given to Sarah [by her mother] when she moved to Grafton amonst the Indians [in] 1731…so that she could do her own Cooking & [doctoring] as there was no Dr in the county.”  This was probably Sarah Prentice (1716-1792), whose ownership mark appears in the book, and who was married to the Rev. Solomon Prentice (1705-1773), the first minister of Grafton, Massachusetts.

But the Brigham Account Book did not originate in Massachusetts.  Early entries in the book suggest that it was instead created in Britain.  It was first compiled by “Anna Cromwell,” who labeled the text “my booke of receipts December the 23 1650.”  Cromwell included a recipe for “fitts of the mother,” which encouraged readers to purchase ingredients from “Mr. Seamer an appothicary over against Aldermanberry Church [London].”  Another one of Cromwell’s recipes taught how “to make a Lestershiere plover.”  As later author-compilers made their own contributions to the book (it contains six different ownership marks), each added their own familiar, go-to recipes.  Some of these “comfort foods” had Scots influences, such as one “to make Skinke” (soup made from beef shin, traditionally from Scotland), and another “to make a haggesse pudding.”[2]  One or more of the compilers also had access to an extensive library of British gardening, cooking, and natural history texts.  The manuscript contains recipes copied from Digbys Closset and Verulams Nat Hist–and specifically fruit wine and cider recipes from Wordlidge Vinet Brit.[3]  There’s even a recipe for “Damson wine with Raysons, Woolley” which matches, ingredient for ingredient, a recipe in Hannah Woolley’s Queen-Like Closet (London, 1670).

But towards the end of the book, the recipes begin to reflect the influence of trans-Atlantic commerce, travel, and trade.  The recipe “to sauce a turkie like stargion [sturgeon]” suggests that one of authors learned how to cook “new world” breeds of animals, like turkeys, by preparing them in the same familiar, comforting way as fish eaten regularly in Britain.  Later recipes in the book celebrate the new plants and foods that were at colonists’ disposals; one recipe “to cleanse a skurffy skin” instructed practitioners to “bath the place where the scurff is with spirit of nicotiane,” a reference to Nicotiana tabacum, or tobacco.  Another recipe provided directions for making “jockaleta biskits,” or chocolate biscuits.[4]  Lists of accounts at the back of the book note the sums paid by the one of the book’s owners for “2 gallons of Rum of River Town,” as well as “2 galons molasses,” and “5 pnd of tobacco,” all popular colonial commodities.  Marginalia, too, reflect a change in geographical perspective, with authors centering themselves in British America rather than in Britain.  The author of a recipe for “incomparable cosmetick of pearl,” noted that “this is one of the most exelent beautifiers in the world this oil if weel prepared is richly worth seven pound an ounce in England.”

The increasing prevalence of “new world” recipes, as well as these subtle geographical and rhetorical shifts, suggest that the Brigham Account Book made a trans-Atlantic voyage sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably carried by one of its owners as they journeyed to a new life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  As people struggled to adapt to colonial environments, familiar recipes and remedies from home could have provided comfort to colonial British Americans. Manuscript recipe books, handed down between family members and friends over generations, surely provided important and lasting senses of connection with loved ones who had been left behind. The Brigham book also reveals the adaptability of these early colonists, and demonstrates how recipe authors used their books to learn about and use the plants, animals, and foodstuffs available to them in their new home.

Thanks to Molly Warsh and James Roberts for their help with this post!

[1] Charles Brigham Account Book, MMS Dept., Folio Vols. “B,” American Antiquarian Society.  Charles Brigham was another early resident of Grafton, MA, and his ownership mark also appears in the book.

[2] For more on haggis recipes and their possible origins, see Chris Hilton’s Recipes Project post on Robert Burns Day here.

[3] Probably references to Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie (London, 1669); Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum: or A Naturall Historie (London, 1627); John Worlidge, Vinetum Britannicum, or, A treatise of cider (London, 1678).

[3] In the late seventeenth century, “jacolatta” or “jockelatte” were common terms for chocolate.  For example, Samuel Pepys called the cacao-based drink “Jocolatte” when consuming it at a London coffee-house on 24 November 1664.  For more on early modern chocolate, see Amy Tigner’s Recipes Project posts here.

Love and the Longevity of Charms

By Laura Mitchell

For a long time I have been interested in the endurance/longevity of charms and recipes over extended periods of time, a topic which Alun Withey addressed in a recent post. The major tropes that make up medieval medical charms, for example, appear with relatively minor variations from the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (at least in England, the area I focus on),[1] and of course there’s those herbal remedies discussed by Dr. Withey. A few years ago I encountered a somewhat surprising form of this longevity with a sixteenth-century love charm from Trinity College Cambridge MS O.1.57 (1081).[2]

This manuscript is a household notebook originally owned by the Haldenby family, members of the lower gentry in late medieval Isham, Northamptonshire. Largely written in the first half of the fifteenth century, it contains several later additions including a collection of (mostly) medical recipes written in the margins by a sixteenth-century hand. One of these later additions is a love charm on folio 20r:

To know who shalbe his wiffe or hir husband.

Say thus: “hempe seed, hempe I thee sow lede and vnlede. she that shalbe my worldes make come after one and rake sleepe sleepe and I her see, wake and her know.” this most be done on new yeares day at even taking alitle hempe seed in one hande and going thrise aboute the fire, sowing the hempe seede aboute the fier but not in the fyer. then go to bedde and lie downe vpon the right side speaking never a worde to no body but to say your pater noster and your Credo.

Imagine my surprise while watching an episode of the BBC show Victorian Farm where the presenter conducted a very similar Victorian ritual! The episode in question takes place at Midsummer’s Eve. The presenter, Ruth Goodman, and her daughter, Catherine, go out at midnight to the local churchyard. Catherine scatters hemp seed while saying:

Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.

According to Goodman, the future husband was supposed to appear in the churchyard, or possibly that night in a dream.

Obviously there are some differences between the sixteenth- and late nineteenth-century rituals. They take place on different dates: one on New Year’s Day; the other at Midsummer’s Eve. Only the first part of the ritual, spreading the hemp seed[3] and reciting the special words, appears in the nineteenth-century version – there is no fire and no prayers. Naturally, we must also keep in mind that aspects of the charm and ritual might have been changed for television – doing magic is not necessarily entertaining to watch after all! As well, a popular history show is not the best source for scholarly work. Nevertheless, I find this example very interesting and a good starting point to think about the traditions of charms over long periods of time. How did a charm get from the sixteenth century to the Victorian era and finally to a television show in the twenty-first century?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, medieval medical charms continued to be used throughout the period with little variation in the major tropes used. Owen Davies has also shown that medieval and early modern magical texts continued to be used by cunning-folk in England right into the modern period.[4] The long-term use and survival of these kinds of charms speaks to the ingrained belief among people that magic worked. Much like the Welsh herbal remedies, magic charms and rituals continued to appeal to people for a very long time.

[1] See Lea Olsan’s article “The Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books,” in Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 214-237; and Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England: Introduction and Texts (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).

[2] Naturally, the charm may have earlier antecedents but I am not aware of any at the moment. As a medievalist and not an early modernist or Victorian historian, I do not know of later examples of this charm, but I would be very interested if any readers know of other examples of this charm.

[3] I am not aware of any special property of hemp seed that might explain its inclusion in those sort of charm, although it has been suggested to me that it might be drawn from the use of hemp to make rope and thus “tie” the two people together somehow. Presumably the growing of the seed is meant to parallel the growing of the love between the two people. I am, of course, open to other suggestions.

[4] See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

Distilling Vernacular Medicine

By Tillmann Taape

As Katherine Allen has pointed out in her post, distillation was regarded as a powerful way of separating and purifying earthly matter, and was central to the alchemical pursuit of the philosophers’ stone. And, yes, the odd gallon of whisky was also a much-welcomed product. This view of distillation is reflected in the textual processes that charaterise the Western alchemical tradition. Beginning with twelfth-century translations of Arabic texts into Latin, scholars constantly excerpted, compiled, translated, and digested all available knowledge, identified what was useful, and then compounded it to suit different tastes and purposes.

This double importance of distillation – techical and textual – is highlighted in the first distillation handbook ever printed, the Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus, also known as the Small book of distillation, which was published in 1500 by the Alsatian surgeon and apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (c.1450–1512). While this book contains numerous recipes for distilled waters, it can also be seen as representing in itself a recipe for acquiring and presenting medical knowledge. Despite its Latin title, it was written in German, and quickly became a best seller, no doubt cashing in on the growing popularity of distilled medicinal waters. To teach his readers the art of distilling, Brunschwig drew on his wide reading (over three thousand books, according to him) and practical experience to concoct ingredients from different traditions of knowledge.

Brunschwig was well-versed in the alchemical literature, which at the time mainly circulated in manuscript form. Publishing his book in print, Brunschwig introduces a broad public to an  alchemical understanding of matter, and how it can be transformed and purified. In fact, the process of distillation itself is defined in these terms, as “nothing but to separate the subtle from the gross and the gross from the subtle, […] to make the physical more spiritual, [so that it] may more easily penetrate the human body with its secret powers and virtues” (SB 1509, fol. 6r.). This extraction of the useful from the superfluous is also an important process in vernacular medical literature, and Brunschwig extracts not only from alchemical sources, but also boils down the essence of the learned medical tradition.

With reference to ancient textual authorities such as Galen and Dioscorides, he briefly explains the workings of the human body in terms of the four humours which govern an individual’s ‘complexion’, with diseases representing a deviation from this humoural balance. This can be readjusted by administering medicines distilled from plants, or even animals, with the appropriate qualities.[1] This precarious balancing act means that a sound knowledge of medical ingredients was essential, which is why a large portion of the Small book  is taken up by a herbal section. It offers some of the best botanical woodcuts produced at the time, paired with encyclopaedic entries listing each plant’s appearance, medicinal qualities, and the distillation process by which these might best be extracted.

The third major source for Brunschwig’s distillation project, artisanry, has closer links with alchemy than one might at first suspect: as historian Pamela Smith has shown, early modern craftsmen subscribed to an alchemical worldview, and were confident that their personal observation and direct physical engagement with natural material was a reliable source of knowledge.[2] Brunschwig shared this view: based on his own experience with distillation procedures, he is able to anticipate pitfalls (e.g. don’t let a heated glass vessel cool down too quickly, or it will crack!), and to dispense practical advice on the quality and proper manipulation of different stills and vessels. This technical know-how boiled down into an easy-to-follow series of short chapters, which really starts from scratch. There is even a life-sized picture of a mould which should be used to shape the curved bricks needed for building a round furnace, and set in its centre, was a poem summarising the key points to remember.

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

A mould for shaping bricks from Brunschwig’s distillation manual. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Res 2 35, f. 11v-12r. (

Brunschwig’s manual, then, not only contains valuable recipes for harnessing nature’s healing powers through distillation, it also represents in itself a recipe for the production of a best-selling and highly usable book: he compounds his knowledge of texts with his own experience and observation. He digests, extracts, and purifies his intellectual and technical ingredients, and where other compilers often produce turgid mixtures of jumbled-up recipes, Brunschwig manages to distill clear and useful knowledge from learned medical, alchemical and artisanal traditions. His example was followed by many early modern compilers of medical printed books, and the Small book itself went through an intriguing series of transformations in its various editions, including an English translation which appeared as early as 1527. But we certainly shouldn’t think that the story of textual digestion and excerption stops there: as Katherine Allen discussed, and as I have seen in the Small book, readers were assiduously annotating their copies. They highlighted what was most useful for them, added to the information, and cross-referenced entries, thus achieving another level of distilling textual knowledge.

[1.] For more on humoral theory and the logic behind materia medica, see Lisa Smith’s post on “Medicinal Compounds, Efficacious in Every Case” and Alun Withey’s post on “‘Weird’ Remedies and the Problem of ‘Folklore‘”.

[2.] P. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Idem., “In a Sixteenth-Century Goldsmith’s workshop”, in L. Roberts, S. Schaffer and P. Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007), pp. 33–57; Idem., “What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, in E. Leong and A. Rankin (eds.) Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 47–66.

Exploring CPP 10a214: The Angel (not) in the Recipe

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

Last month, Hillary Nunn (20/02/21013) introduced our series of entries that are considering an exceptional manuscript owned by one Anne Layfielde and dated 1640 housed at the Medical Historical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.  Our interest in the manuscript stems largely from the remarkable number of attributions the section compiled by one “Cal: Downing” records.  Over 100 of the 134 recipes written in that hand have some version of a “probatum per” or “proven by” attached to them.  The first recipe, “To make an excellent Salue called Flos vnguentorum,” along with 41 others, is attributed to a woman named Elizabeth Downing.

Recipes for “Flos Unguentorum” or “The Flower of Ointments” are ubiquitous in various versions throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The version in The College of Physicians manuscript begins “Take Rosen & Perosen of each / halfe a pound.”  The reader is thereafter instructed to heat together several gums and powders with “virgin wax,” which are cooled “till [the mixture] be bloode warme.”[1] The page following these directions is dedicated completely to “the vertues of this salue,” which include, among many others, the curing of “old wounds,” head aches, and hemorrhoids.

Now I mentioned briefly back in October (18/10/2012) that the Elizabeth Downing who is the source of so many recipes in this manuscript may have some connection to the “Mistress Downing” named thirteen times throughout the print collection Natura Exenterata: Or Nature Unbowelled (1655), and a couple of the print recipes do have suggestive overlapping ingredients and wording with recipes from the Layfielde collection. Natura Exenterata, which is clearly connected to the House of Arundel through its front matter, also includes a recipe for “Flos Vnguentorum” (but one not attributed to Mistress Downing) in which the virtues and directions are reversed, but the directions are almost exactly the same, starting with like ingredients, including an allusion to blood temperature, and ending with the directions to put the salve into rolls for the later use of the practitioner.

The Arundel example, however, includes one detail in its list of virtues not found in Layfielde manuscript: “it cometh of Jesu Christi by an Angell to a house of Religion at the red hill in Almayn [Germany], which wrought there many marvails.”[2] A third manuscript, an anonymous one found at Bryn Mawr dated 1649 (before the print text) also includes the recipe for the flower of ointments, one which almost exactly corresponds to the recipe in Natura Exenterata and includes the origin myth. The Bryn Mawr manuscript also includes several recipes from the Countess of Arundel, Anne Dacre Howard (1557–1630), mother-in-law to Aletheia Talbot Howard (d. 1654), whose portrait graces the front matter of Natura Exenterata.[3]  The inclusion of Mistress Downing in the Natura and the naming of the Countess of Arundel in the Bryn Mawr manuscript, along with the overlap in the Flos Unguentorum recipes, suggest a triangle of relations, at least in the generation before the decade of compilation around the 1640s.

The correspondences in the recipes may imply a fourth outside source, but if this is the case, somewhere in transmission the origin myth was omitted from the list of virtues in the Downing example. What, if anything, can the mythic origin of this recipe, its inclusion or exclusion, tell us about a recipe’s more immediate historical source, particularly of collections compiled in years of religious conflict? The Countesses of Arundel were known Catholics, and the inclusion of divine intercessors in manuscripts and books of their circle would not have been unexpected.  All signs (including his mother’s name, Elizabeth), however, point to the “Cal: Downing” of the Layfielde manuscript being Calybute Downing (1606–44), Protestant minister (as also possibly Anne Layfielde’s husband) and Parliamentarian, whose doctrine would be less likely to include such intercessors. Was this omission then made for expediency’s sake or was it indicative of the beliefs of the compilers?

This is the second in a series of monthly posts on this topic.

[1] College of Physicians Manuscript 10a214, page 1.

[2] Natura Exenterata, 332. Another Elizabethan print source which, like the Downing recipe includes the directions first then lists the virtues, recounts the origin in Germany, but not the angel, Thomas Lupton, A thousand notable things of sundry sortes (London, 1579), 104.

[3] Bryn Mawr College Special Collections MS 19, fol. 5.