Tag Archives: history of recipes

What is a recipe?

By Sally Osborn

Among the recipes for cakes and fritters, wines and pies, Lady Frances Hotham’s recipe book contains an entry that begins:

For little children’s lambswool shoes – Cast 17 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at both ends every other row, till you have 23 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at the end only, every other row till you have 28 stitches.1

Or consider this, from a book of ‘Medical receits for the human and animal species’, probably belonging to a Thomas Chambre:

Paper lamp – Cut a piece of paper into a circular form about the size of a crown piece; twist a wick in the center, & plate it in the manner of a smoak jack. Put this to float in a saucer of oil & water in a large bason, & it will burn all night.2

Can those be described as recipes? Certainly examples such as this are a world away from Jerry Stannard’s model of a recipe as a formula with four essential parts: purpose, ingredients, procedure/equipment, and application/administration.3 Or compare Anne Stobart’s recent suggestion that private and emotional frustration in medical matters can be revealed by the ‘not-recipes’ in recipe books.

While Stannard’s model does not fit the knitting pattern and lamp-making instructions, Stobart’s ‘not-recipes’ do not explain the wide array of non-medical instructional information either. Recipes, as it turns out, are difficult to define. Take, for example, these two from Cornwall, which could loosely be described as veterinary and household respectively:

To prevent lambs from being killed by foxes &c – Take of brimstone gun powder and train oil make an ointment rub behind the ears and tail.4

Fulminating powder – Niter 3 parts salt of tartar 2 parts and sulphur one part mix them togeather by powdring them one dram of this powder will make a report like a musquet.5

Compilers of other collections record information on topics as diverse as ‘How to make a pond by puddling’ and ’To know if a woman be with child’, as well as beauty preparations and gardening tips.6

The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some entries in recipe collections are rather more like aides-mémoire, such as ‘Balsam of Chilie to be had in Black Fryers near the Kings Printing house. Dr Salmons Prescriptions over the Door’ or a ‘shorter receipt for the tooth ach’ – ‘If it be decayed, draw it out’.7 Then there is the fascinating (and sometimes self-evident) list of ‘Things bad for the sight’:

To study after meat, and wines, onions, leeks, lettice going after meat, winds, hot air, and cold air, drunkeness, and gluttony, much milk or cheese, looking on red or white things if bright, mustard, much sleep after meat, too much walking after meat, too much letting of blood, collworts, fire dust, much weeping, and over much watching.8

Part of 'A receipt for a person to make her husband love her'. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
Part of ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

As well as the word ‘recipe/receipt’ being extended in application to a variety of topics, it was played with as a form, as discussed in this post by Anke Timmermann. Poetic recipes can be found in England too, such as the eighteen rhyming lines of ‘A poetical receipt to make a sack posset’.9

Recipes were also employed as metaphors, as in ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’, part of which is reproduced here and which is considerably less sardonic than this ‘never failing receit to cure love’:

Take two ounces of the spirits of reason; three ounces of the powder of experience; five drams of juice of discretion; three ounces of the powder of good advice, and two spoonfulls of the cooling water of consideration; make it into pills and drink a little content after them: one dose cures the head of maggots and whimsies; then take another dose, and drink a little content and you will be restored to your right senses.10

We can compare this to the modern usage of phrases like ‘recipe for success’ or ‘recipe for disaster’.

By closely examining the contents of early modern recipe books, it becomes clear that it is not so straightforward after all to determine just what a recipe is. Recipes as a genre are malleable and adaptable–and these collections were working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.


1. U/DDHO/19/3, Hull History Centre, 1816.
2. MS 7492, Wellcome Collection, late 18th century.
3. Jerry Stannard, “Rezeptliteratur as Fachliteratur”, in W. Eamon, Studies on Medieval ‘Fachliteratur’ (Brussels: OMIREL, 1982).
4. CA/B50/3, Cornwall Record Office, 1777.
5. Pocket book of John Belling, clockmaker of Bodmin, X949/1, Cornwall Record Office, 1737-51.
6. Commonplace book of John Sargent, Wilberforce 291, West Sussex Record Office, 1775; DD\X\FW, Somerset Archive, c.1751.
7. MS 1322, Wellcome Collection, 1660-1750; MS 1795, Wellcome Collection, 17-18th centuries.
8. Medical recipe book, Pares of Leicester and Hopwell Hall, D5336/2/26/9, Derbyshire Record Office, 18th century.
9. ’A collection of the best receits’, Katharine Palmer, MS 7976, Wellcome Collection, 1700–39.
10. MS 5509, Royal College of Physicians, 18th century.

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WellcomeLibraryWMS4171_fn28
An eighteenth-century book of charms. MS 4171, Wellcome Library, London.

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