Reading British Library Sloane MS 559, a seventeenth-century receipt book, I came upon a recipe with the following efficacy statement: “I have knowne a woman heale many blind people with this medicine following” (MS 559 6v). The sentence was striking, not only because it places powerful healing with Biblical resonance in the hands of an unnamed woman, but because I had already seen it in another early modern receipt book.
The sentence appears word-for-word in British Library Sloane MS 2488; both manuscripts contain this specific and seemingly personal testimony: “I have known…” Confronted with two handwritten accounts, the identity of the first-person pronoun becomes murky. Did either scribe witness this miraculous healer?
At a glance, these manuscripts do not seem to have much in common. Sloane MS 2488 is a fair-copy folio in a neat italic hand, with the owner’s mark “Elizabeth Beere: her booke” (fol. 1r). In contrast, Sloane MS 559 is a quarto-sized receipt book in secretary hand, with the owner’s mark “James Manninge” (1v).
However, while these receipt books are not identical, they contain many of the same recipes in the same order. Both feature organizational headers that divide medical recipes by afflicted body parts, beginning with “The Head,” before listing a series of identical recipes for various head ailments.
Both manuscripts also share numerous recipes and their organizational structure with Ralph Williams’ printed Physical Rarities containing the most choice receipts […] (first published 1651). Williams’ longer text contains many additional recipes, and this printed book likely served as a source that was copied into manuscript to create a “starter” recipe collection.1
Williams’ printed text is not the only source of overlapping passages between these manuscripts. Both receipt books include a passage about “pluresy” (MS 559 38r; MS 2488 31v-32r) that does not have a clear print analogue, although it has similarities with a description of pleurisy attributed to Galen in Christopher Wirtzung’s The General Practise of Physicke (1617). Additionally, both manuscripts contain a collection of confectionary recipes beginning, “Heere follow notes how to make certaine conserues and other thinges” (MS 2488 84r), including: “To clarify sugar” (MS 559 133r; MS 2488 84r), “To make oil of roses” (MS 559 134r; MS 2488 85r), and “To make snow” (MS 599 137; MS 2488 87r).
Each manuscript also contains recipes that do not appear in the other, including Sloane MS 559’s “Weapon Salve” (148r-149r), attributed to Paracelsus, and Sloane MS 2488’s recipes attributed to Thomas Noble (MS 2488 88v-89v). These differences reflect their compilers’ interests and needs; despite their similarities, these manuscripts appear to have been expanded and customized over time.
However, given their notable textual overlap, these manuscripts likely have a shared textual genealogy, even if their precise relationship is unclear. Sloane MS 559 includes “For a copper face” (MS 559 19r) − a recipe from Physical Rarities that does not appear in Sloane MS 2488 − which signals that Sloane MS 2488 is likely not an intermediary text between Sloane MS 559 and Physical Rarities. While it is possible that Sloane MS 559 served as a source for Sloane MS 2488, there could just as easily be another unknown manuscript or manuscripts that served as intermediaries between these receipt books. A preliminary comparison does not yield a definitive answer, but further comparison between and beyond these two receipt books, as well as research into their provenance, may help illuminate their relationship.
Despite this uncertain relationship, an intertextual comparison challenges assumptions that conflate first-person accounts with the scribe’s experience. As it turns out, neither scribe witnessed the woman who miraculously healed blind people. Instead, Williams’ Physical Rarities features the attestation in print: “I have knowne a woman heale many blind people with this medicine following.” This first-person efficacy statement was copied and recopied in these extant manuscripts and may have been copied additional times.
Comparing these three receipt books, two manuscript and one print, demonstrates that the use of first-person statements in early modern receipt books is not always indicative of the compiler-practitioner’s own experience. After all, domestic receipt books were created for personal or familial use, and the scribe likely did not consider how these texts might be interpreted by archival researchers.
Furthermore, the transcription of first-person accounts demonstrates the weight that compiler-practitioners gave to experience, whether that was their own experience or the declared experience of a trusted source. The writing and rewriting of first-person accounts do not undermine the importance of experience within early modern recipe culture. Rather, the repeated transcription of first-person accounts demonstrates the weight of personal accounts as evidence and the central role of experience in demonstrating a recipe’s efficacy.
1 For more on “starter” collections, see Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2018), p. 20-23.
Margaret Maurer is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Margaret is currently a Dissertation Fellow at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, studying “everyday alchemy” in early modern households, paper mills, printing houses, and beehives.