Following a Recipe through Different Manuscripts

By Catherine Rider

Recently I’ve been looking through medieval recipe collections for remedies and tests relating to infertility, the subject of my new research project.  At first I was looking for any remedies, from the fairly mundane (mares’ milk) to the ones that look more exotic, at least to modern eyes (numerous animal testicles and a few charms) but recently I’ve taken a more targeted approach, comparing the different manuscripts of a single recipe collection to see if the infertility recipes change as the collections were copied.  I’m hoping that these changes will tell me something about the priorities of the various different copyists and owners of the manuscripts, and so shed light on how infertility remedies may have been used in practice – or at least, how the scribes who were paid to copy collections of recipes thought they might be used.  Monica Green has taken a similar approach to manuscripts of gynaecological texts in her book Making Women’s Medicine Masculine.[1]

I started this when I noticed that a few collections included recipes which assumed the man would take a role in seeking or administering a cure for infertility.  For example one recipe to aid conception in the Liber de Diversis Medicinis (Book of Diverse Medicines), an English recipe collection published by Margaret Ogden from a fifteenth-century manuscript, opens with the heading ‘If a man will that a woman conceive a child soon.’[2]  This interested me because it’s often assumed that in the Middle Ages infertility was seen as a female condition and women therefore bore much of the responsibility for seeking treatment, and yet here we have the suggestion that a man might take the initiative in seeking a remedy.  I wondered how typical it was.  One way to find out was to look at the other manuscripts and see if they kept the same heading, or substituted a different one.

The Liber de Diversis Medicinis was a good collection to start with because it was quite widely copied: the volume of the Manual of the Writings in Middle English dedicated to scientific and medical texts listed sixteen manuscripts, and several were in London or Cambridge and so fairly easily accessible for me.  I spent some time in the British Library and a couple of Cambridge college libraries, checking their copies against Ogden’s edition; I still need to get to Oxford, Durham and Manchester for the rest.  Many of them look a bit like this – a 15th-century recipe book in the Wellcome Library:

L0000832 Receipts for cataract and teeth whitening
15h-century leechbook. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of difference between manuscripts.  Scholars have often noted that medieval recipe collections display significant variations between manuscripts and in the case of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis the differences were very large. One fifteenth-century manuscript in the British Library (Egerton MS 833) omitted a large section of the collection, including the infertility recipes – although this may have been because pages had been lost from the manuscript, or from the exemplar copied by the scribe, rather than because the scribe had decided not to copy them.  Another British Library manuscript (Royal MS 17.A.VIII) included only a few remedies for each ailment, rather than the much greater number of possibilities recorded in the manuscript used by Ogden.  Moreover, the infertility remedies it gave were very different, as were the headings used to introduce them.  Gone was the recipe for a man who wanted a woman to conceive soon, and instead there was a heading which encompassed both sexes: ‘To do a man gete child and a woman bere child.’[3]

Another manuscript again (British Library MS Sloane 962) included a recipe for conception in Latin alongside the English ones.  Switching between languages is not unusual in medieval recipe manuscripts but it still tells us something about the scribe and the person who owned it – both had at least a basic knowledge of Latin, the language of university medicine, which suggests this manuscript is more likely to have been aimed at a male medical practitioner than an interested amateur.

So far, though, I haven’t found another manuscript which includes Ogden’s heading, aimed at a man who wants a woman to conceive, so perhaps the idea that a man might take the initiative was unusual after all.

I’m still thinking about what all this means and how significant these variations are.  In some cases variations may be the result of missing pages in a manuscript, or simple miscopying.  Even when they are not, it is difficult to tell how far scribes were consciously making these changes in order to adapt the text to the needs of a new reader – one who could read Latin, for example, or one who imagined that men would come seeking help to make their wives conceive.  However, in most cases these manuscripts do show us scribes who did not copy blindly, but rather were familiar enough with recipes to change things in ways that made sense to them.   By tracking these variations I’m hoping to uncover as many medieval attitudes to infertility and its treatment as possible.


[1] Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[3] London, British Library MS Royal 17.A.VIII, f. 63v.


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