‘A Curious Book’: The Many Functions of Martha Hodges’ Manuscript Recipe Book

By Kate Owen

On the inside cover of Martha Hodges’ recipe book (17-th-18th century), written in pencil, is a note that calls the manuscript ‘a curious book’. Although there is no further explanation from the author of this note as to why they deemed the book so curious, it may well have something to do with the manuscript’s varied content and the signs that point to its multiple functions within the home. Palaeographical evidence in Martha Hodges’ recipe book suggests that it acted not only as a place to document recipes and their efficacy, but was actually a site where domestic life took place.

Martha Hodges’ recipe book is a perfect example of how diverse the content of early modern manuscript recipe books can be. As well as recipes, the manuscript contains prayers, excerpts from Erasmus, and the first account of the  Pied Piper of Hamelin printed in English. The prevalence of religious content in manuscript recipe books may suggest that they were resources that encompassed moral and spiritual well-being alongside the physical.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f. 1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

As well as its diverse content, Martha Hodges’ manuscript bears signs of multiple uses. The cluttered nature of fol. 1r. reveals at least two uses of the manuscript recipe book. One function of this page seems to be as a place to remember dead relatives. A note reads:

Our Great Grandmother Hodges her receipt book. She was mother to Mrs. Priaulx who was the Grandmother of Mrs Sarah Tilley by Mr Howes marrying her daughter Mrs Mary Priaulx. Her name is written by herself at the other end. She was sister of Dr. Hodges the writer of a large book of receipts.

The note reveals that manuscript recipe books facilitate a relationship between previous and subsequent manuscript owners. The biographical note acts as a family tree and, although this family tree has a focus on the matrilineal, it carefully associates Martha Hodges with the medical expertise of her brother. This suggests that Martha belonged to a household of medical practitioners, a skilled environment which Martha would have learned from and contributed to. This, and the invitation to view Martha Hodges’ name ‘written by herself’, suggests that the note’s author had a great deal of respect for Martha and that the manuscript may have acted as a site of remembrance.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f.1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

Other uses of this page, however, were less respectful of the memory of Martha Hodges. Smaller and less coherent notes suggest the recipe book may also have been used as scrap paper or for pen-trialling. Due to the price of paper and the use of home-made inks, early modern writers often would test their writing supplies on ‘the nearest available paper, which in many cases would have been in a book’.[1] The ink scratch marks on the recipe book’s inside cover would support such an interpretation. Jason Scott-Warren offers a ‘less dismissive’ interpretation of such marks, arguing that they relate to literacy and are ‘a piece with the practice of alphabets that frequently crop up on flyleaves and around the edges of texts’[2]  Martha Hodges’ recipe book contains evidence to support this idea. Underneath the biography of Martha Hodges, ‘hie hec hoc – April 1 1769’ is written as well as the words ‘I read’.  Towards the centre of the page, ‘booksse’ is written confidently and underneath it is copied in a shakier hand. The page is also littered with the letter W. This would suggest that the page has been used as a space for learning and practising with writing materials.  Further in the manuscript, on fol. 154r., there is further evidence of recipe books being used as a space to practice literacy. On this page, the name William has been practised, paying particular attention to the minims.[3] Kristina Kowalchuk argues that both the kitchen and the recipe book act as educational spaces for the women who owned recipe book  and their female domestic servants.[4] The real question, for me at least, is whether these marks of literacy are purposeful or idle. Thus, have these recipe books been used as scrap paper to practise a certain word before immediately writing it in a ‘cleaner’ manuscript book or letter, or have they been used simply as a place to pass the time. Alongside the repeated ‘Williams’ are some drawings: a house, an animal, and some box-like shapes. Doodles and drawings are not uncommon within manuscript recipe books. Some relate to the manuscript’s content, such as the drawing of a woman cooking from a 17/18th century manuscript recipe book (Wellcome MS1796), and others, such as the doodles in Martha Hodges’ recipe book and the woodcocks from the Springatt recipe book (MS4683), are seemingly unrelated to the topic of the manuscript or have a context that has been lost over time.

To conclude, Martha Hodges’ recipe book had multiple functions within the domestic sphere. For Martha it was a space to document recipes, for at least one of her descendants it was a place to remember Martha, and for others it has been a place to doodle, scribble, and practice their handwriting. The Martha Hodges’ recipe book offers insight into the multiple ways manuscript recipe books functioned within the early modern home and how these texts have been valued by different users over time.


Kate Owen has recently completed her MA, Early Modern English Literature: Texts and Transmission, at King’s College London. She is interested in the many ways early modern manuscript recipe books functioned inside and outside the home. She has also has an interest in the medical humanities and currently volunteers for St Bartholomew’s Museum and Archive. 


[1] Jason Scott-Warren, ‘Reading Graffiti in the Early Modern Book’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3 (2010): 368.

[2] Jason Scott-Warren: 368.

[3] Vertical strokes made when writing, Minims are the main strokes in letters such as m, I, n.

[4] Kristina Kowalchuk, Preserving on Paper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 28-34.

 


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