All posts by Rebecca Laroche

Rebecca Laroche is Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She has published on Shakespeare, early modern women's writing, medical history, and ecofeminism. In 2009, her monograph *Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550–1650* was published with Ashgate. She was the guest-curator of the recent exhibition “Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science” at the Folger Shakespeare Library. *Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity*, which she co-edited with Jennifer Munroe, came out with Palgrave Macmillan at the end of 2011. She is currently working on a single-author monograph entitled *Shakespeare, the Herbal, and the Intimate History of Plants* and co-authoring *Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory*, again with Jennifer Munroe, for the Arden Shakespeare and Theory series. She is a founding and present member of the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), an international digital humanities project (

“Take Good Syrup of Violets”: Robert Boyle and Historical Recipes

By Rebecca Laroche, in consultation with Steven Turner

Some time ago, Steven Turner of the National Museum of American History and I published our discovery that Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664) reflected knowledge held in historical recipes.[1] In particular, one experiment began with the observation, also recorded in recipes attributed to women, that syrup of violets and syrup of roses changed color when an acid, e.g. lemon juice, was added to it. The juxtaposition of this experiment with historical recipes has led to a second line of questioning, as Boyle begins the experiment with the direction to “take good Syrrup of Violets.” This phrase, coupled with the observations that there were many different recipes for the syrup (two manuscripts at the Wellcome Library have four separate entries),[2] led us to ask what constituted “good syrup of violets” among the many kinds.

Indeed, the basic ingredients—violets, sugar, and water—show very little variation (excepting the addition of acid). One could argue that the recipes differ most notably in the amount of sugar relative to the violets, but the recipe texts also vary in the ordering of the process and the time of boiling the water (sometimes with the sugar). Many pointedly say to “make itt into syrup without boyling.”[3] For example, this recipe held by Elizabeth Jacob (1654-c. 1685) repeats that it is the “best way not to boile the sirup at all,” ending with the direction “leting them come at the fire, w[ith] the flowers in spoiles the colour quite . . . if you will boile it be sure to leaue noe flowers in the Sirrup and boile it a little, though it is not the best way.”[4]

Wellcome MS 3009, image 215.
Wellcome MS 3009, image 215.

Other recipes set flower juices, water, and sugar either in the sun, over low charcoals, or in a waterbath/double boiler, or they add boiling water to the flowers. These are all gentler ways of dissolving the sugar, while boiling the ingredients together would lessen the quality of the syrup.

In looking at the larger record, we observe a tension between preserving efficacy and color and the desire for a longer shelf-life for the syrup. Thus some recipes may attest for it lasting a whole year, but they also require the boiling of the sugar, water, and violet juice together. Two recipes juxtaposed, therefore, may on the left call for boiling all ingredients together, while on the right admonish to “be sure it doe not boyle.”[5] Given an abundance of violets, the recipe maker is left with a choice: to boil or not to boil the flowers.

To anyone who has made preserves, this variation would make sense. Without refrigeration, a solution made with fresh flowers, sugar, and water would have lasted only a month or so,[6] whereas the boiling together of all of the syrup’s ingredients meant a longer shelf-life (if sealed adequately). The downside of this shelf-life, however, would be the loss of freshness, and with that freshness the full medicinal and aesthetic benefits. Syrups infused with fresh flowers tasted better and had a more vibrant hue, i.e. more medically efficacious, thus not boiling the flowers was perceived as “the best way.” Clearly, the unboiled syrup was seen to have qualities special enough to sacrifice longevity. This may not be overtly articulated in every record, but it may be implicit in the juxtaposition of more than one recipe.

When we re-read Boyle’s experiment in this light, we see that it reflects these discernments. In specifying that it is “good Syrrup of Violets,” Boyle points to the syrup made “the best way.” Steve Turner puts the effect this way:

Above 212 degrees (F) some of the liquid inside the cells actually turns into a gas [and] this ruptures the cell walls. The process produces more juice than mashing them in a bowl, . . . But there is also a corresponding loss of flavor, color and chemical sensitivity the longer the Syrup is boiled. The Syrup lasts longer but isn’t as delicious or as sensitive. . . . The Syrup [doesn’t lose] all chemical sensitivity if it is boiled . . . but certainly the longer and more vigorously it is boiled, the more is lost.[7]

The idea that a pre-scientific version of this knowledge is behind Boyle’s experiment is what led us to this juxtaposition in the first place. There are collective observations made in recipe-making that may not be attributed to any one individual but are rather shared in the transmission of one recipe by men and women alike.

[1] This entry builds upon Steven Turner and Rebecca Laroche, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets.” Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390­–91. The research was in part made possible through a short-term fellowship from the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

[2] Wellcome MS 7818.

[3] Wellcome MS 7849/0032.

[4] Wellcome MS 3009/215. My thanks to Pamela Spangler for her help in sorting through the Wellcome online database in a timely manner.

[5] See, for example, Wellcome 7892/175.

[6] One non-boiling recipe at the Wellcome states that after “one month, or 6 week,” mold may start to grow. Wellcome MS 2330/4.

[7] Steve Turner, e-mail to Rebecca Laroche, February 6, 2011.

Exploring CPP 10a214: Overlapping Territories

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

In her most recent entry in this series, Hillary Nunn showed through genealogical and geographical research how the Downings and the Layfields had people and places in common.  This month’s entry raises a related aspect of the manuscript construction as a whole and with it the question of whether or not the two compilers knew each other.  At two places in the manuscript, the two compilers, Calybute Downing, the hand seen here,


and E. Layfield, hand here,

 Probatum Anne Layfield

overlap. This overlap begins on page 74, where the Layfield hand first appears in the manuscript (with pointedly a gout recipe) and which is shared with a Downing recipe for a the scurvy.  The pages then alternate between the Downing hand (pages 75 and 77) and the Layfield hand (76 and 78).  The Layfield hand then takes over what had been the Downing portion with 10 pages that include the recipes from Anne Layfield herself. Now there is a lot of room for speculation in our interpretation of this meeting of the hands in the compilation, but it does suggest that some kind of exchange occurred.

As has been mentioned before in this series, the manuscript as a whole exists in do-si-do format, and the reversed document starting from the opposite side (pages 241 – 207) is dominated by the Layfield hand.  But the page before that section (243) holds a recipe for the ague in the Downing hand reversed from the rest of the recipes in the section. The Downing hand appears again (229–27), in the same direction with the other Layfield recipes; this mini-series includes another recipe for the scurvy.

Now whether this overlap indicates anything more than shared scribes is again difficult to determine, but another intersection, the appearance of two attributions, Master Foule and Master Danell, in both in the Downing hand  and the Layfield hand suggests that two compilers occupied the same ground, either literally or socially, at some point in the construction of the manuscript.  In fact the names of Foule and Dauell (sic) first appear in the Downing hand at 74 and 75, respectively, during the transition into the Layfield section.[1]  Foule contributes three more recipes to the Downing collection and one to the Layfield section, while Mr. Danell or Danill is given credit for several recipes between pages 213 and 208. The identities of these two gentlemen may remain another of the College of Physicians’ many mysteries, but the further we articulate the overlapping terrain between the two dominant portions of this manuscript, the more cohesive the story it tells becomes.

[1] The spelling of Danell as Dauell follows the recurrent interchange between u-s and n-s in the Downing hand.

Although It Be St Anthony’s Face

In my post last month, I discussed an online course in which students contributed their transcriptions of Lady Frances Catchmay’s recipe book to the Textual Communities site.  Two of these students from Fall 2013 continued their work in the spring, and this is the second post showcasing of some of their research.  – Rebecca Laroche

By Katrina Rutz

While transcribing recipes from Lady Francis Catchmay‘s manuscript, I became captivated with the phrase, although it be St. anthonys face. Introduced among her recipes on fevers, from “An other medicen to destroy aheate in the face,” I discovered the phrase St. anthonys  face alludes to a disease distinguished by a raging fever—St. Anthony’s Fire (OED), named erysipelas today—with symptoms often having started in the face (Horsfall, 533).

Catchmay 184aWellcome Library MS 184a, fol. 26v.

St. Anthony the Abbot (c. 251 – 356) was considered the father of Christian monasticism. He was known for fasting over long intervals in isolation, rebuking the devil’s temptations for twenty years. However, St Anthony’s name was not given to St. Anthony’s Fire due to any encounter he had, but was appropriated by Antonian monks, who were credited with many cures, popularizing St. Anthony’s name and life story. This Order of Hospitallers gave the disease its name—St. Anthony’s Fire (De Costa, 1768).[1]

The fever itself continually resulted in mortality; however, the patient could survive often at the cost of mentality or extremity. After enduring nerve tingling in the hands and feet, the patients would experience a loss in their sense of touch before the setting in of gangrene, leading to potential amputation (Horsfall, 533). The patient experiencing St Anthony’s Fire (known also as Holy Fire) would encounter intense burning pain and gangrene of feet, hands, and whole limbs.  In severe cases, affected appendages were dry and black, mummified limbs dropped off without loss of blood, and afflicted patients could attract both the gangrenous and convulsive forms of ergotism. Ergotism had chronic (gangrene) and acute (convulsions) manifestations. The first was St Anthony’s Fire (De Costa, 1768).

Nevertheless, the intercession of St. Anthony was believed to have the healing power to cure St. Anthony’s Fire through prayer, meditation, and the monks’ dedication. With gratitude, the extremities of amputee survivors were repeatedly offered up to the shrines of St Anthony as evidence of the saint’s healing power (De Costa, 1768).

After learning about the history of St. anthonys face, I returned to the actual recipe. I compared my transcription with seven more recipes on St. Anthony’s Fire. I found six recipes entirely divergent in ingredients, but similar in demulcent qualities, which implies no shared ingredients or methods, but an overall focus on cooling ingredients. Compared to six entirely divergent recipes, finding one nearly identical recipe from Elizabeth Jacob’s collection (1654-1685) (below), seemingly a succedent for the recipe in Catchmay’s manuscript compiled in 1625, was a significance not lost on me.

MS3009_0026_Jacob, Elizabeth (& others)Wellcome Library MS 3009, fol. 26v.

In comparison, Catchmay’s recipe is shorter and vaguer in the application of the solution for her patient in relation to Jacob’s recipe. In Jacob’s, the patient is instructed to wash their sore place before bed then continue the treatment for five to six times. To me, the development of Jacob’s recipe brings up the question of how this recipe was passed on and what it means for women to be sharing recipes. Jacob’s recipe (or its source) develops the aspects of Catchmay’s recipe (or its analog) that needed clarification, improving upon the aspects that already worked.

[1] Lara Artemis has blogged on this related topic at Recipes Project in her submission of “The Reformation and a Recipe Book.”

Works Cited

De Costa, Caroline. “St. Anthony’s Fire And Living Ligatures: A Short History Of Ergometrine.” Lancet. Vol. 359, Issue 9319 (May 2002): pp. 1768-70.

“erysipelas.” Oxford English Dictionary. October 2, 2014. Web.

Horsfall, James G.. “The Fight with the Fungi or the Rusts and Rots that Rob Us, the Blasts and the Blights that Beset Us.” American Journal of Botany. Vol. 43, No. 7 (July 1956): pp. 532-36.

“St. Anthony’s Fire.” Oxford English Dictionary. October 3, 2014. Web.

Quantities in Recipes

In my post last month, I discussed an online course in which students contributed their transcriptions of Lady Frances Catchmay‘s recipe book to the Textual Communities site.  Two of these students from Fall 2013 continued their work in the spring, and this post and the next are the results of some of their research.  – Rebecca Laroche

By Kayla Perkins

While transcribing a rather long recipe, “A good Receyte to make matheglin” from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript, I came across a peculiar phrase, “. . .toe hundred gallans of fayre water or more. . .” Two hundred gallons?! Even now that would be quite a feat.  Why so much water? This question drove me to discover what Metheglin is and if using such amounts of water was common practice.

Metheglin is a spiced or medicated variety of mead, originally popular in Wales. Starting with the Wellcome’s amazing cache of recipe manuscripts, I first compared Catchmay’s recipe to six others. Each recipe I read through made Catchmay’s preparation more unique, and they were all variants of each other. Despite the variants, however, there are aspects that each of the recipes share.

For instance, in preparing Metheglin, the two main ingredients are equal parts honey and water boiled together. They are continually boiled until the mixture can ‘bear an egg.’ Catchmay does not include this step within her recipe, which places hers in the minority. For each recipe, the quantities of honey and water vary quite a bit. Where Catchmay calls for two hundred gallons of water, the recipes of Mrs. Carr call for just five gallons, and another recipe calls for just a few quarts.

An assortment of herbs and spices is then added to the brew, the most common among the recipes being ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Catchmay is again differentiating here; her preparation does not call for just a handful of herbs. She has the longest, most detailed list for ingredients required. Not only does she advise when it is best to gather these herbs;[1] she also provides directions on how to clean and prepare said herbs.

While the Metheglin is fermenting one has to periodically skim barm off the top. The liquid is then stored in a variety of containers with directions on how long it keeps and when it should be consumed. Thanks to the honey, Metheglin keeps for quite a while. I believe that is why Catchmay chose to prepare such large batches.

Each recipe shows the different levels of what the compiler expects from her reader. Catchmay is extremely detailed with her ingredients, how they should be prepped, and gives an almost exhaustive description of Metheglin’s preparation. The Jacob recipe, however, is not overly detailed. While, one would like to assume that Catchmay was able to read through and gain inspiration from the others. This is not the case as Catchmay’s manuscript dates to around 1625 and the earliest (Elizabeth Jacobs) of the other recipes is dated at 1654. The six recipes in the Wellcome catalog that I read through share too many similarities for it to be coincidence. I believe Catchmay’s recipe was either isolated from or improved on by others. Either way, it is fascinating to see the uniqueness of the recipes and how each preparer made it her/his own. After becoming familiar with the ingredients, I can see Metheglin being a comforting beverage for these coming winter months. Bottoms up!

[1] Catchmay advises the herbs be picked around the time of Michaelmas and Lammas. Lammas takes place around the 1st of August and is celebrated by baking bread taken from the first harvest. Michaelmas takes place near the end of September, for the feasts of St. Michael. I can see this period of the year being used to stock up for the cold months ahead.