The Adventure of the Vanished Recipes

By Anke Timmermann

One of the great perks of a fellowship relating to specific manuscript collections is dedicated archive time. One is at leisure to look at manuscripts from cover to cover, stroll through the pages and discover new things – an experience akin to an unguided walk through a foreign city, as opposed to an organised guided tour of its best features. So I keep coming across scores of little or unknown alchemical recipes on a daily basis!

But no good research experience goes unpunished.

My journey through Cambridge manuscripts is goal-oriented; in addition to case studies, I am drawing up a catalogue of alchemy in Cambridge collections. Most of the recipes I now find myself in the need of documenting have never been recorded before. Like those who have gone before me,[1] I find that recipes in particular slow down my progress… And though comprehensiveness and sanity seem to be incompatible, one fact remains: if the bibliography is to be both consistent and useful, it must be based on the complex task of simplification.

A model for the cataloguing of recipes is difficult to identify. Many existing catalogues do not capture recipes at all, while others record them collectively and generically (e.g. as ‘ff. 50r-76v: Recipes’), but do not recognise or describe them individually. On their journey from manuscript to catalogue, recipes often perform a disappearing act. Many await scholarly rescue from obscurity. Who knows what recipes we will find in the manuscripts themselves? One is almost (almost!) reminded of the now-famous fourteenth century cookbook rediscovered in the British Library (Geoffrey Fule’s cookbook, England, mid-14th century), from which the following image is taken.

London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, here f. 138r: The remains of a grilled unicorn. Click the image to get to the related BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog post. Republished with the permission of the British Library.
London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, here f. 138r: The remains of a grilled unicorn, a reminder of the fate of lost recipes? Click on the image to get to the related BL Medieval Manuscripts Blog post (mind the date…).
Republished with the permission of the British Library.

It would be easy to criticise the mentioned type of bibliographies for their treatment of recipes, but that would be both historically insensitive and uncharitable. Their practices often developed in a bibliographical tradition focused on names and titles (and thus oblivious to texts perceived to be minor, including recipes), or were born out of common sense in service of the reader. Given the constraints of time, money and space that apply to most cataloguing projects, it is by far better to produce a wide-ranging resource on time than to spend the same amount of time to describe selected items in much detail, perhaps even risking the appearance of the resource altogether.

For new bibliographies there is always scope for reflection and improvement. As a historian of alchemy working on Cambridge manuscripts I may look towards some excellent recent developments. Several bibliographies in the history of science in print and digital form have made successful attempts to grasp recipes and other anonymous, practical texts.[2] There have also been fresh bibliographical accounts of Cambridge manuscript collections, with different foci on individual repositories, collections or aspects of manuscripts.[3]

And finally, this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of a seminal article on the cataloguing of recipes by one of the editors of the Index of Middle English Prose, Kari Anne Rand.[4] Rand mentions that, due to the editorial procedure enforced for the IMEP, Elredge’s 1992 volume on the Bodleian Library’s Ashmole Collection[5] was unable to record approximately 4,480 recipes. The implications of this large number of silent recipe witnesses for unknown material in other archives are staggering. I refer the interested reader to the article for further information. For finishing today’s post, however, I will borrow from its conclusion, with a hopeful outlook for the future as pertinent today as it was two decades ago:

On the basis of the experience of the last fifteen years and given all the possibilities inherent in electronic publishing, it should be possible to produce an even better […] [bibliography] – one which is more inclusive and caters for more needs.[6]


[1] See bibliographies relating to Cambridge University Library manuscript collections are introduced here; further noteworthy are M.R. James’s catalogues for college libraries e.g. for St Johns’s and Trinity College.

[2] A fairly recent example in this subject area is the expanded and revised version of Linda Ehrsam Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz, Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000) (eVK2).

[3] Most notable in recent years for images in Cambridge manuscripts are P. Binski, P N. R. Zutshi, and S. Panayotova, Western Illuminated Manuscripts: A Catalogue of the Collection in Cambridge University Library (Cambridge: CUP, 2011); K.L. Scott, and A.E. Nichols, An Index of Images in English Manuscripts from the Time of Chaucer to Henry Viii, C. 1380-C. 1509: I (London: Miller, 2008).

[4] K.A. Rand Schmidt, ‘The index of Middle English prose and late medieval English recipes’, English Studies, 75:5 (1994): 423-429.

[5] L.M. Eldredge, A Handlist of Manuscripts Containing Middle English Prose in the Ashmole Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).

[6] Rand, p. 429.


One thought on “The Adventure of the Vanished Recipes”

  1. If you send me your e-address, Anke, I’ll send you the flyer on the two websites which provide on-line access to eTK and eVK2. Linda

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *