All posts by Melissa Reynolds

Melissa Reynolds is a PhD Candidate in History at Rutgers University. Her dissertation compares "practical" knowledge in fifteenth-century manuscripts to sixteenth-century printed books to understand how changes to the presentation, circulation, and reception of mundane but useful information shaped early modern English culture. She is one of the RP's social media editors and is a current 2018-19 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow.

Shopping for Recipes in Early Modern London… Virtually

By Melissa Reynolds

Within just a few decades after William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476, Londoners had their choice of printed collections of medical recipes, herbal lore, instructions for distillation, and surgical instruction. Most of these editions were printed versions of texts that had been popular in Middle English manuscript collections, and printers did their best to choose from among these handwritten collections to produce printed editions that were better organized or more comprehensive.

Between 1525 and 1526 the printer Richard Banckes produced a suite of medical books, each of them sourced from Middle English manuscripts. Banckes’s medical books were the first of their kind printed in English: a medical recipe collection, known as The Treasure of Pore Men, with remedies collected from a number of manuscript collections; an herbal, known as The virtues & properties of herbs, based on the Middle English Agnus castus; and a uroscopy treatise known as The seynge of urynes, which was probably based on British Library MS Sloane 382, a manuscript created around 1450. In other words, the volumes that Banckes printed in the mid-1520s contained medical knowledge that had been widely read in England for a century or more.

But in print, century-old remedies were hugely popular. Banckes’s herbal and remedy collection were best-sellers among English readers. After Banckes left the printing trade in the late 1520s, rival printers began printing their own editions of his medical texts. By 1550, thirteen different editions of Banckes’s herbal had been issued by nine different printers. The same was true of a most printed medical collections.  By 1550, the London book market was glutted with reprints of the same remedy collections and herbal treatises, most of them sourced from manuscripts that were also still in circulation. 

So how did early modern readers decide on which recipes to read?

As scholars of recipe knowledge, we presume that our historical subjects were interested readers—that is, that they had a vested interest in assessing the value of the recipes or remedies that passed through their hands. Given the sheer number of recipe collections, herbals, and surgical collections on offer in what was a largely unregulated market, I imagined sixteenth-century London as the perfect environment for English consumers to begin honing their critical faculties, selecting from among dozens of inexpensive printed remedy books. For a few pennies, these readers could access a wealth of knowledge that had previously only circulated in manuscript. But for them to become discerning readers, they would need to be aware that choices could be made.

Though in the later sixteenth century, London’s booksellers would crowd the alleys around St. Paul’s Cathedral, this was not yet the case in the first half of the sixteenth century. With bookshops scattered throughout the old city, were sixteenth-century consumers really able to compare editions or locate the best prices? Could they hope to visit more than one or two shops in a single outing? 

The GoogleMyMaps above developed as an answer to those questions. It features the locations of English bookshops in London between 1525 and 1555, divided up by decade. In what follows, I’ll briefly describe the process of creating it, not because I think others will have the same questions about recipe shopping in London, but because creating a historical map to understand the circulation of recipe knowledge or material texts could be useful in a variety of classroom settings.

GoogleMyMaps is a totally free platform that will work for anyone with a Google account. Get started by visiting mymaps.google.com and clicking “Create A New Map.” Creating a personalized map is as easy as clicking the map to plot a location and then labeling it—at least, it’s that easy if you’re dealing with locations that actually exist on a contemporary Google map.

To create my map of early sixteenth-century locations, I couldn’t find Wynkyn de Worde’s shop at “the sign of the Sun” in twenty-first century London. Though printers’ colophons do include information on their shops’ locations, those locations are only described in relation to other sixteenth-century landmarks like churches or bridges. To find the print shops, I would need to find those landmarks on a sixteenth-century map. And luckily, I knew of one I could search: the Map of Early Modern London.

A nineteenth-century reproduction of the “Agas Map” of London, a woodcut map created in the 1560s and digitally annotated by the Map of Early Modern Project.

The amazing team at the MoEML project has digitally annotated the “Agas Map,” a woodcut map of London created sometime in the 1560s, so that a user can search for churches, parishes, alehouses, bridges, streets, prisons, playhouses, and almost everything in between. With the help of the Agas Map, I was able to find St. Dunstone’s church, which is where first Robert Redman, then William Middleton, then William Powell had their shops at the “sign of the George.”

For the most part, once I found a church on the Agas Map, I was able to find the same church on the contemporary Google Map. In some instances, I did my best to approximate a print shop’s location using street names on the Agas Map cross-referenced with modern streets in London. Because I had already carefully read the colophons of a number of early printed books and compiled a list of their locations, the production of my personalized Google map only took a few hours, and they were hours well spent. The exercise of searching the Agas Map and plotting early modern locations onto the streets of modern London gave me a much better sense of the early modern city I study, one which I’d never quite been able to visualize without buses or tube lines or high-rises crowding my mental picture. I felt I could really picture my sixteenth-century consumers, walking Fleet Street from one shop to another, looking for an herbal or remedy collection.

Google MyMaps are an easy, free, and accessible way for students to start to think concretely about the circulation of recipe knowledge, whether in early modern printed books, or among a network of friends or family, or as a collection of ingredients sourced from around the world. In my case, creating my personal Google map did help me to better conceive of the choices English consumers made about which books to buy. And for those of you interested in early English print, I hope you’ll find the map useful for research, too, whether inside or outside the classroom.

Call for Editors: Social Media and Acquisitions

The Recipes Project is looking for new editors to grow our readership and expand the range of scholarship we feature on the blog. Are you a savvy Tweeter who loves the back-and-forth exchange of social media? Are you a regular reader with ideas about what you’d like to see us feature on the blog? Do you love thinking about recipes in all their myriad forms? Then you might make a great social media or acquisitions editor, and we would love to hear from you!

Editorial duties include:

Social Media Editors

  • Amplifying, sharing, and promoting writing on recipes, especially by underrepresented groups 
  • Running our social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)
  • Regular liaising with co-editors about site development, content, and promotion

Acquisitions Editors

  • Engaging with underrepresented groups and areas of study related to recipes, especially among underrepresented groups and non-Western societies
  • Connecting with and inviting potential contributors 
  • Organizing, editing, and uploading posts in rotation with other co-editors 
  • Regular liaising with co-editors about site development, content, and promotion 

About Us

The Recipes Project is an interdisciplinary, volunteer organization. This work is the unpaid product of a community of passionate scholars of recipes.

We welcome candidates from all backgrounds, including those engaged with the culinary arts, creative food writing, and academic research. We welcome scholars from a variety of disciplines: anthropology, comparative literature, classics, history, linguistics, literary criticism, sociology, and more. Graduate students are valued members of our community.  We particularly invite submissions from those from underrepresented groups and non-Western societies. 

The Recipes Project has an international reach that explores recipes of all kinds: medical, culinary, scientific, magical. Our posts cover a range of topics relating to historic cookbooks, instructions, ingredients, guidelines, and methods of cultivation and production across time and place. We value new writers and early career researchers, giving them a platform for new writing and supporting and amplifying their work. We have a broad audience—in 2021, we averaged 18,000 unique site visitors per month, and we have over 11.5K Twitter followers. We look forward to expanding further, with your help!

Application Details

To apply, please include a CV and one-page pitch describing what you wish to bring to the team. Acquisitions Editors: include two ideas for a month-long series and how you might expand our reach to new audiences. Social Media Editors: include two ideas for a week-long social media campaign that reaches distinct and diverse groups. Have other ideas? Send them our way! 

Please submit applications via email to recipesproject@brocku.ca. First review will begin on Feb. 1, 2022 and will continue until positions are filled.

Current Editorial Team

  • Clare Gordon Bettencourt
  • Jessica Clark
  • Amanda Herbert
  • R.A. Kashanipour
  • Sarah Peters Kernan
  • Melissa Reynolds
  • Joshua Schlachet
  • Miles Wilkerson

Perpetual Prognostications: Medieval ‘Recipes for Living’

By Melissa Reynolds

The year is 1459, and you are a relatively prosperous landowner in Oxfordshire. Now that spring is in the air, you must go and visit your merchant friend in London, but you find yourself uneasy about the journey. With the poor condition of recently thawed roads, the trip could take as much as two days. Of course, if you had access to GPS or GoogleMaps, you would simply chart your course beforehand and find stopping points along the way. But you don’t have either digital tool. What you have, instead, is a prognostication.

Maybe you own a manuscript similar to Wellcome Library MS 411, a book of medical treatises by well-respected medieval authorities like Arnold of Villanova and Constantine the African, which also happens to contain a series of prognostications on its opening pages. One of these prognostications instructs the reader on how to know the “good dayes” of the year from the “evyl dayes.” It promises to specify which days are good to begin “viagis [voyages] both by water & by lond [land].” You scan the entries and discover that the “second day is profitable” to “travayle by shippe, to do viage [voyage] & to purchase hous & land & to clothe man & woman in new clothes.” You console yourself that all will be well if you leave on the second of April.

Prognostication of "lucky and unlucky days" in Middle English
The opening of the treatise on “lucky and unlucky days” in London, Wellcome Library MS 411, f. 4r.

The prognostications found in Wellcome MS 411 were widely popular in later medieval England, and they are most often found in manuscripts otherwise filled with medical content like recipes and instructional treatises. Some, like this one, established which days were good for which activities—activities like bloodletting, traveling, getting married, and buying or selling property. Others extrapolated predictions from the cycle of the calendar year or the weather. One popular series predicted the weather and harvest yields for the coming year according to whether one heard thunder in a given month. Another series predicted the weather, crop yields, wars, and diseases for the coming year according to the day of the week on which Christmas Day or New Year’s Day fell.

Most often, these prognostications circulated in Middle English or Latin prose or verse, but intriguingly, at least a dozen different medieval English manuscripts contain versions of these prognostications rendered in pictures and icons. The version of the prognostication from New Year’s Day pictured below appears on the front flyleaf of a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Similar pictorial versions of the prognostication on “lucky and unlucky days,” the prognostication from thunder, and the same prognostication from New Year’s Day, can all be found in a late fourteenth-century manuscript at the Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D. 939.

Pictorial prognostication according to the dominical letter from Houghton Library MS Richardson 35
Annual pictorial prognostication according to New Year’s Day (dominical letter) from Harvard, Houghton Library MS Richardson 35, f. 1v.

What should we make of a manuscript like Wellcome MS 411 or Rawlinson D.939 with multiple versions of prognostications copied one right after another? Surely a reader would find inconsistencies or outright contradictions across these multiple sets of predictions? How might a reader determine which prediction to turn to and which set of advice to follow?

To understand how prognostications functioned for medieval readers, I like to think of them as “recipes for living.” Like traditional recipes, they encouraged their readers to move through a set of instructions, drawing from their own observations and experiences to then proceed with a set of actions. Now, it is true that prognostications don’t follow exactly the same format as a traditional recipe, which typically instructs the reader to take some set of ingredients and then do some set of processes that will transform the ingredients into a wholly new substance that is greater than its individual parts. Nor, of course, do prognostications produce a physical product like an ointment or a curative drink.

The comparison makes a lot more sense, however, if we think about prognostications sitting right alongside recipes in medieval manuscripts. Just as compilers chose to record version after version of competing—and sometimes contradictory—prognostications in their manuscripts, so too did they often choose to copy version after version of different recipes to cure the same ailment. All this repetition suggests that medieval people wanted a range of options for managing their health and well-being. They made interpretive decisions about which versions of recipes or prognostications to follow based on prior experience or observation. Prognostications, like recipes, promised a set of predictable results.

Perhaps because of the uncertainty and chaos in the world at the moment, I find myself returning to the perpetual prognostications of the medieval era with a new appreciation. Whereas before I wondered at how obviously intelligent and capable medical practitioners took comfort in a set of verses that offered an impossibly repetitive set of predictions—could medieval readers really have believed the second day of the month to be propitious every month?—I now recognize medieval readers’ desire to impose order on the world through simple “recipes for living.” Though none of us can tell the future, maybe now we understand a little more intuitively how it feels to want to try.

A Recipe for Reproductive Healthcare

Melissa Reynolds

Last month I wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post’s Made by History section addressing the crisis in maternal mortality in the United States. Drawing from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reproductive recipes, I argued that pre-modern gynecological practice frequently emphasized the mother’s health over that of her fetus, in part because pre-moderns recognized that pregnancy and childbirth could be quite dangerous, and in part because fetal development was little understood and medical intervention in-utero was impossible. This attention to maternal health, I contend, is missing within the American culture of pregnancy, too often focused on the well-being of a fetus instead of its mother.

Figures illustrating malpresentations of a fetus, 17th century. The Wellcome Collection.

The kernel of the OpEd emerged when I began tracking occurrences of reproductive recipes in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English recipe books. As I encountered numerous recipes to aid conception, to bring about menstruation, to halt menstruation, to aid in childbirth, as well as numerous versions of recipes to deliver a deceased fetus, I found myself surprised by their straightforward, immensely practical tone. I think I expected something more ideological, more representative of misogynistc medical theories on reproduction that insisted on the toxicity of women’s bodies, expressed suspicion about women’s “secret” power of generation, or worried over the undue (and dangerous) influence women had on fetal development. These anti-woman sentiments were common to pre-modern medicine, yet in large part I found little evidence of these attitudes in late medieval recipe books.

Instead, in at least forty different manuscripts, I found recipes that offered women some control over their reproductive health, addressing the same range of concerns voiced by women today. For example, British Library MS Additional 34210, an early fifteenth-century medical manuscript, contains recipes for “Medicine to delivere a woman of a dede child” (f. 19r), for “Helpyng to conceive a chylde,” (f. 45r), “For to make a woman dolyver the hedde of a childe” (f. 45v), “For to sese a womanys flowris” (f. 47r), and one “For a woman that has lost her flowres”:

For a woman that has lost hur flowres when þay be destryed. This medicine faylis neuer but looke that sche be not with chylde. Take rote of gladon and sethe hit in vinegre or in wyne when hit is well sodyn set hit in to þe grounde and let hir stryd on so that þer may noone eyre a way but evyn up in to hur privite. (BL MS Additional 34210, f. 47r)

For a woman that has lost her flowers [menstrual flow] when it is destroyed. This medicine never fails but be sure that she is not with child. Take root of gladdon [acorus calamus, or sweet flag] and seeth it in vinegar or wine; when it is well sodden set it in the ground and let her sit on it so that no air escapes but goes only up in to her privates.

Like most vernacular recipes, these have their roots in much older medical traditions. For example, while at first I was surprised to see that recipes to “deliver a woman of a dead child” often outnumber other childbirth-related recipes in late medieval miscellanies, the prevalence of these directives makes sense given their prominence in ancient and earlier medieval gynecological writings. From RP Editor Laurence Totelin’s Hippocratic Recipes and Ann Ellis Hanson’s translations of the Hippocratic “Diseases of Women I ,” I learned that recipes to expel a dead fetus were not uncommon within ancient Greek medicine. From Monica Green’s translation of the Trotulagynecological writings in Latin from twelfth-century Salerno, Italy, I found recipes instructing women to drink rue and mugwort steeped in wine if they need to deliver a dead fetus—the same ingredients listed in two different English recipes for stillbirth from BL Additional 34210.

Artist unknown. The birth of a baby. 18th century. The Wellcome Collection.

These recurrences within reproductive recipes—many of which span centuries—indicate that while learned medical theory may have emphasized female weakness or toxicity, often the everyday practice of reproductive healthcare was responsive to women’s needs. Those needs remained much the same from ancient Greece to medieval England, and so, too, did elements of many of these recipes.

At the same time, ancient Greece, medieval Italy, and early modern England were still intensely misogynistic societies. The reproductive recipes common to late medieval English recipe books, no matter how attentive to women’s needs, are not evidence for some bygone era of egalitarian healthcare. Far from it. Even so, the prevalence of practical and relatively woman-centered reproductive recipes in late medieval miscellanies shows that even within a culture that was steeped in misogynistic medical theory, when push came to shove (or perhaps simply when it came time to push), pre-modern people needed remedies that set aside ideology and instead attempted to address women’s needs. If there is a lesson to be taken from pre-modern reproductive recipes, perhaps it is just that.