By Eve Houghton
As several scholars have noted, early modern recipes do not only appear in recipe books. Ink recipes in particular are a staple of the commonplace book, as Adam Smyth has pointed out; and as Alun Withey has written on this blog, “[i]t was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records.”
But if, in Jayne Elisabeth Archer’s words, “recipe books did not simply include recipes,” and “manuscripts classified as ‘commonplace books’ or ‘manuscript miscellanies’ sometimes also contain recipes” (119), this generic mixing also raises a host of paleographic and interpretative questions.
- Is a miscellany with recipes still “a recipe book?”
- Are the recipes in the same hand as the other entries?
- Is a recipe always a non-sequitur, or can there be some conceptual link between the content of the notebook and the content of the recipe?
Some compilers seem to have taken steps to clearly differentiate recipes from the other content of their notebooks. One late seventeenth-century manuscript (Beinecke Osborn b115), for example, includes two sections with the handwriting running in opposite directions: the first devoted to commonplaces and poetry excerpts, and the second to recipes, including “pankakes,” “lemon cream,” and “apricock wine.” Another seventeenth and eighteenth-century notebook (Beinecke Osborn b419) has a section devoted to laundry accounts (“my brothers washing”) and a separate section for listing cookery recipes such as “cowslip wine” and “a good sort of gingerbread.” In other manuscripts, however, the distinctions are not nearly so clear-cut.
The notebook Beinecke Osborn c663, compiled by a “Miss Barton” of Suffolk from 1758 to 1766, includes medicinal and cookery recipes which appear as diary entries:
July 10. I heard yt…in Northamptonshire there is a well wch at certain times has a sound like a drum, it has been emptied, & at Bottom tis a mill stone, ye Person sd it was reckoned one of ye worlds 7 wonders. At this place are 3 Hospl [Hospitals], 1 for men 1 for women 1 for children 3 years schooling books some cloathes
To Cure Deafness
Take some green wormwood & rub it in yr hands till it is very moist then put it into ye hollow of yr ear & it will cause <it> to Discharge you must repeat it every day or two (f. 1r)
This at first seems like a bizarre turn: what does a cure for deafness have to do with an empty well and a charitable hospital?
The entry of July 10th, poised somewhere between folklore and local gossip, has certain continuities. After writing about this wondrous well with “a sound like a drum,” Barton’s next subject is the human ear drum. Another entry similarly juxtaposes a medicinal recipe with details of local interest:
Mr Alexander’s mill is square its built on a risin hill, I’m told there’s but one more such in Engl, tis what they call a smock mill.
A blood shot eye has been often reliev’d by holding it over ye steam of hot coffee (f. 2v).
Both the recipe and the account of the smock mill are headed “Memorand,” situating these fragments of seemingly unrelated information within the broader framework of “things worth remembering.” Barton seems to have had no need to create a separate heading for her recipes, then, because they are part and parcel of the notable, useful, or amusing matter of her daily life.
A manuscript from the 1620s (Folger X.d.393) is described in the Folger catalogue as a collection of “historical extracts.” However, it also includes a recipe for “a dormant drink,” which appears even more incongruous alongside accounts of Sir Francis Drake’s famous expedition to Cadiz and various military actions in Ireland:
A Dormant drink.
Take Enatnalp, Ecittel, yllil-retaw, yppop, & Edahs-thgin, short Ssom on ye Seert, Enab-neh Esserp-ic-flowers; pown all yes together, & strain ye verdure or juice out: yen take ye Niarb of Senarc, Ecim-rod doolb: warm ye liquor of all yes togither wth Eniw: it will bereave ye sense to cold numbness, & mortify ye Patient by an hour slumbrig for 2 daies, & by no meanes waking (f. 34r).
This recipe is in code, but it is not a particularly difficult code to break. One need only reverse the letters to find that this recipe calls for “water-lilly, poppy, & night-shade” in addition to “dor-mice blood & snakes blood.” Two puzzles, then: why write a recipe backwards, and why include a recipe for “a dormant drink” between an account of Shane O’Neill’s rebellion in Ireland and the reign of Richard II? It is possible that the compiler’s mind had turned to libations, since the account of O’Neill’s rebellion includes a reference to the “quaffing & drinking of Wine” (f. 33r). Or perhaps—like many early modern readers—the compiler simply saw no reason not to include a recipe in a manuscript of extracts on other subjects.
Because of the seeming haphazardness and unpredictability of their appearances, recipes which appear outside of recipe books or collections can be difficult to track down, catalogue, and interpret. But as Sally Osborn has argued in a post on this blog, recipe books were “working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.”
The recent work of Sara Pennell, Michelle DiMeo, and Wendy Wall, among others, has highlighted the ways in which heterogeneity (multiple hands, collaborative or anonymous authorship, unstable generic categories) is a hallmark of the recipe genre, placing notebooks like these in a broader context of manuscript miscellaneity. As more recipes are unearthed in diaries, commonplace books, and even collections of “historical extracts,” then, these manuscripts might start to look less eccentric–and perhaps even paradigmatic.
Archer, Jayne Elisabeth. “The Quintessence of Wit,” Reading and Writing Recipe Books 1550-1800. Eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.
Smyth, Adam. “Commonplace Book Culture: A List of Sixteen Traits,” Women and Writing, c.1340-c.1650: The Domestication of Print Culture. Eds. Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Philippa Hardman. Rochester: Boydell and Brewer, 2010.