Interview with the author: Elaine Leong

Our very own Elaine Leong’s new book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England has just come out with the University of Chicago Press. We are super excited to offer you this interview with the author.

TRP: Congratulations Elaine on your new book! We have read it with such pleasure. Ina few sentences, could you tell our readers why they should read it too?

Sure! My book offers a window into the rich and diverse knowledge practices in early modern English households. Using a range of sources such as recipe books, letters and more, it brings into focus what I term “household science” – that is, quotidian investigations of the natural world – and situates these within broader and current conversations about gender and cultural history, the history of the book and archives and the history of science, medicine and technology. Using a number of case studies, I argue that household science involved a range of activities from conducting structured, multi-stepped recipe trials to gaining in-depth knowledge about the natural and material world. I also show that knowledge-making in the home was deeply framed by a number of concerns, from social obligations to household economies to family strategies.

All that said, if you’re interested in 17th century methods for fattening turkeys, pickling samphire, brewing ale or creating a family archive, this is the book for you.

TRP: What drew you to researching household medicine? Why is this important?

The sources! Very early on in my research career, I spent a few amazing days in the Wellcome Library looking at their manuscript recipe collections and was hooked! I had so many questions during those first few encounters with the manuscripts, many of which became central themes in the book. For example, my initial curiosity about how these books were created and how the know-how contained within was tried and tested were developed into chapters 1 (Making Recipe Books in Early Modern England), 3 (Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step) and 4 (Recipes Trials in the Early Modern Household) in the book. For me, recovering the everyday knowledge practices of the household is crucial as it pushes us to recognize that exploration of the natural world can happen in the humblest circumstances and conducted by a wide range of actors.

TRP: Your book contains several beautiful illustrations, including photos from manuscripts. Can you tell us a little about the materiality of recipe writing in the Early Modern England?

For sure. As some RP readers might know, I have long been interested in paper use within the household. Working on this project, I was struck by the many ways in which householders used pen and paper to record and communicate knowledge practices. Many used their notebooks from front and back, entering culinary recipes on one side and medical ones on the other. Others used multiple notebooks to separate different kinds of tasks. Within the books themselves, we see householders annotating, writing over and scrawling out recipes. I use these very material practices to tease out the multi-step assessment processes used in recipe trials.

The cheesecake recipe in the Godfrey family collection is one of my favorite examples as it shows how the family tried over and over again to test and modify the ingredient proportions and baking instructions, only to declare it “not to be write”, i.e. not to be added to the family’s go-to recipe book. This eagerness to preserve or salvage the recipe, as I termed it, is due to the fact that the know-how was afforded both social and epistemic value. If recipe exchange was a way to strengthen social relationships and build networks, it makes sense that householders thought twice (or three times) before discarding the gifted recipe.

Cheese cake recipe in the book of the Godfrey family. Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. With kind permission from the Wellcome Collections.

TRP: Since we are in the festive season, could you tell us a bit about ‘Bess’ Turkey’,which you discuss in your book?

Ha! That is one of my favorite episodes in the book. The dozens of detailed letters between Johanna St. John (see here and here) and her steward Thomas Hardyman were a really lucky find and made writing the chapter about household management super fun. In the end, it was difficult to pick and choose between the numerous examples offered by their epistolary conversations. I settled on talking about raising turkeys, maintaining the Lydiard garden and distilling medicines to display the broad range of natural, material and technical knowledge utilised by householders (masters/mistresses and servants) on a daily basis.

The turkey episode was fascinating. At first, I was a little surprised to discover that turkeys occupied such a central place on early modern tables, and reading deeper into the letters, I found the “turkey letters” (as I call them) to be revealing of contemporary knowledge about animals and the difficulties of managing a household from afar. Basically, in this period, Johanna St. John and her family were residing in Battersea but relied upon their country estate at Lydiard Park near Swindon to produce a myriad of foodstuffs from turkeys to bacon to cheese to venison. A run of letters demonstrates Johanna’s particular concerns about her dairymaid Bess’ skills in rearing turkeys. She continually pleaded for more turkeys to be sent to London and repeatedly complained that the sent turkeys were either not fat enough or past their prime. Wonderfully, Johanna tries a number of strategies to encourage or scare Bess into doing a better job and ends up offering detailed instructions on how to feed turkeys. Initially, this seemed like a lot of fuss about poultry but contemporary menus revealed a food economy where one turkey was transformed into a number of meals. Like 21st century cooks, the St. John household first ate their turkey whole and then feasted on the leftovers like cold meat or turkey hash for many meals afterwards. The final piece of the puzzle came when Johanna confided in Hardyman that she’d love a turkey to give away. It turns out turkey was one of Johanna preferred “little presents” (as Felicity Heal terms them), in the vibrant early modern economy of food gifts and returned favors. 

Second to Bess’ troubles with fattening turkeys, my other favorite episode in that chapter involves the runaway gardener and bickering over plant cuttings. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more.

Image of a turkey taken from Conrad Gesner, Historia animalium (Tigvri : Apvd Christ. Froschovervm, anno MDLI[-MDLXXXVII] [1551-1587]). With thanks to the National Library of Medicine.

TRP: One aspect of your work that stood out for us was your attention to recovering the experiences and expertise of servants, not just of gentlemen and gentlewomen? How did you go about this?

This is a wonderful question. As all our readers know, while manuscript recipe books are rich and fascinating sources, they are mostly created by gentlemen and gentlewomen. Early modern gentry households though, as social historians have shown, were filled to the brim with people, each with a specific role. While the mistress and master of the house have received quite a bit of attention in the past, I was really eager to dig deeper into who did what and into the social relationships and power dynamics between the different actors. With my focus on household science, I was also interested in finding out more about what Steven Shapin has termed “invisible technicians”.

As I outlined in the previous question, I was lucky to find the series of letters between Johanna and her steward. Johanna was quite the micro-manager and so it made it possible to understand the various tasks taken on by household servants and the complex web of obligations and expectations held by both parties. Another series of letters, this time about beer brewing and water boiling, between Edward Conway and his nephew Edward Harley further revealed how Conway viewed the Petworth brewers in incredibly high regard, refusing to conduct recipe trials on their advice. The appearance of dairy maids, gardeners, herb women, cheesemakers, brewers, stewards and more in these letters remind us of the need to view early modern households as collective of knowers and makers and to tease out dynamic relations within these communities.

Aside from these two runs of letters,  I also scoured handwritten recipe books for hints of servants’ experiences and expertise. As readers of the book will discover, sometimes these were noted in recipe titles, other times it might just be a change of handwriting. I remain committed to recover the knowledge activities of a wide swath of historical actors. I think that there is still a great deal of work to be done here which makes for many fascinating research projects to come (see for instance Leah Astbury’s project).

TRP: Could you share with us an anecdote or story about your research?

Gosh. This has been such a long project that there are definitely stories, though most are quite nerdy. One thing though sticks in my mind. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Warwick, I sat next to the inestimable Bernard Capp for some seminar or another. In passing, Bernard mentioned to me that he had just read a letter where the writer claimed that he was sent recipes which had originated from the writer’s own collection. I was fascinated and followed-up the generously provided citations. The letter was sent by Viscount Edward Conway to his nephew Sir Edward Harley and one in a series of letters which I now consider one of the most revealing sources about recipe knowledge in early modern England. In them, Conway described how he assessed recipes on paper, assigned expertise and detailed how he sent Harley on recipe hunts or to follow-up on his recipe trials. The Conway/Harley letters formed the central case study for my third chapter “Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step” and were crucial in helping me figure out the rich knowledge practices behind the hundreds of recipe books in our archives. I probably would never have found the letters were it not for the chance conversation. In many ways, this anecdote reflects some of the main arguments of the book – that knowing so often comes from the “practices of everyday life”.

Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is available and also directly from the University of Chicago Press website where readers can 20% off the list price using the code UCPNEW.

HEAT! A Recipes Project Thematic Series

Astronomy- the Earth and the sun during summer in the Northern hemisphere. Wellcome Collection.

As humans, we want to control heat. We want to create heat, temper or even extinguish it, depending on context and purpose. We have a very limited temperature range at which we are comfortable (some microbes and bacteria can survive temperatures as low as -20C and as high as 130C), so we spend an incredible amount of time managing heat, whether it is our body temperature or that of our homes, offices, laboratories, cars, or food.

When we started planning this series of blog posts in early May, we could not have suspected how appropriate the theme would feel by now. While much of northwestern Europe has not seen rain in weeks and is sighing under a heatwave with temperatures rising to 37C/98F, we have fled to airconditioned spaces to edit the posts. Climate-wise, heat is seasonal in these regions, but it has always played an important role in recipes year-round, all around the world, from antiquity to the present day, in fields as diverse as alchemy, chemistry, art, cooking, medicine, and personal grooming.

The common denominators of heat in all these realms are that it is either internal – emanating from the human body – or external, naturally occurring from the sun, thunder, or lava, or man-made through friction or fire. In the posts in this series, we will see a wide variety of attempts to control these different kinds of heat through recipes and instructions.

Managing natural heat: Venice turpentine is a thick paste (aka sticky mess) at room temperature, but becomes fluid around 25C, and nicely mixes into the rest of the varnish ingredients when left out in the sun. Photo: Marieke Hendriksen

Some of our authors recreate such attempts by reconstructing experiments outlined in historical art technical and chemical sources. Indra Kneepkens recounts how she discovered through reconstruction research that sometimes for a recipe to make sense, it should not only be followed to the letter, but also be read between the lines. Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen use their experiments with two reconstructions of small chemical ovens to reflect on the role of experimental heat in the development of theories on the nature of life in the eighteenth century. Working in a similar vein but with culinary recipes, Marissa Nicosia, from Cooking the Archive, examines the problem of heat control in her recipe recreation adventures, outlining the challenges of translating cooking instructions meant for the early modern hearth to the modern gas stove.

The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991. Wellcome Collection.

Other authors in the series took our invitation as an opportunity to investigate heat in medical theories across time and place. Aileen Das kicks off this series by arguing that heat occupied a central place in ancient Greek, Roman and medieval Islamicate theories about the human body and its care. Taking on the smelly problem of perspiration and body odor, Cari Casteel reminds us that this issue is as old as mankind and offers several remedies from Roman authors.  Catherine Rider, on the other hand, examines notions of heat in fertility remedies in medieval England, noting that, whilst popular, heat-based treatments (to either increase or reduce heat in the body) were not the only kind of fertility aid available to English couples. The series concludes with two posts focused on fever and disease. Fittingly in this current heatwave, Laurence Totelin offers a post on fever and dog days of summer in antiquity. Finally, writing on in Late Imperial China, Marta Hanson introduces us to ideas of fever in Chinese medicine.

We’ve had a great time editing this series – hope you enjoy reading the posts wherever you are. Happy summer and stay cool!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong

P.s. We were so inspired by our contributors’ posts that we’ve decided to dedicate the December issue to (you guessed it) COLD!. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, send a short pitch to recipes@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.

Exploring CPP 10a214 – Five Years On: Of Binaries and Collaboration

Editorial: This is the eighth of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Rebecca Laroche and Hillary Nunn

When we began this blog project in February 2013, we did not know where it was going to take us. We always saw our work with College of Physicians of Philadelphia Manuscript 10a214 as a work in progress, a work on progress. Given our different backgrounds and interests, we had a sense of the themes that may emerge, but in reading back through our collaborative endeavor, we can clearly see our efforts to locate the College of Physicians manuscript in time and place, but we also have seen how avenues of inquiry have permeable definition and numerous overlaps, can evolve and change. In particular, we have seen how working with recipe books requires a different sense of textual identity, that the individuals involved are not simply individuals – fixed identities tied to one lifespan and contained geographical boundaries – but rather entities that exist together as an interrelated network of being across time and space.

After all, this is a do-si-do book: on one side a collaborator who seems to have died for the Parliamentarian cause, and on the other, likely a man who was imprisoned as a Royalist. There are two compilers, but to treat them as being in binary opposition is misleading. Furthermore, extending these political differences to their wives and mothers, named as authorities and owners of the book, would be a mistake. There are also numerous people who probably never saw the book but who nonetheless are cited within it and who therefore influenced its creation. How these voices came to be captured within one collection is part of its mystery, but it is clear that these disparate elements are not oppositional, but rather in conversation with each other. The result is a multivocal, overlapping mixture of concerns.

To say that the two of us are working in a binary structure is also a temptation, with Rebecca concentrating on the textual history and Hillary working from a different angle on the geopolitical history. But this is not actually true. Looking at source material, from John Gerard’s Herball to Lancelot Andrewes’s Private Devotions, and imagining recipe exchanges between Anne Dacre and Elizabeth Downing illuminates a text that is many texts, spanning over a century of production, at once. Similarly, finding out more about those less famous people who contributed their recipe knowledge to the manuscript brings a different sense of how domestic practices were communicated outside of print in the time period. In the course of our research, which is indexed here, we have pursued timelines of personal history for those named in the manuscript (birth to death, marriage, children, and occupational appointments), religio-political history (particularly around the English Civil War), and textual history. While most of the relevant dates fall between 1606 (birth of Calybute Downing) and 1680 (death of Edward Layfield), the cross generational circulation of recipes and the staying power of print mean that the earliest associated dates extend well back into the 16th century and forward into the 18th. What we have discovered is that our seemingly separate topics are embedded in interconnected networks. Our efforts have helped us locate the text, but we have come to realize that we may never pinpoint it, and that doing so would be inaccurate and falsely stable. In fact, we have come to see that recipe manuscripts challenge that very desire for stability.

Furthermore, our work has been influenced by a collection of other scholars and texts in a mode that no doubt mirrors the circulation that gave rise to the CPP manuscript. Numerous postings to the Recipes Project blog itself have leaked into our thinking – as have our monthly conversations with Early Modern Recipes Online Collective steering committee members. As a result, Elaine Leong’s name occurs several times in these postings, for example. But there are certainly conversations that we’ve had that have less clear-cut trails through our thinking as well. Attempting to trace these networks is at the heart of our collaborative efforts, even though there will always be elements that escape our recognition.

This is not to say that we have made no progress in articulating the complicating connections embodied in the CPP manuscript. We have realized that, while we first hoped to discover how a Parliamentarian text fell into Royalist ownership, our terminology was unhelpfully confining. Instead, we now hope to articulate how people with such seemingly different views occupied the same, or overlapping, networks. In doing so, we hope to also complicates similar ideological categorizations that might hinder our readings of other texts. In the end, we may have to ask how the fluid nature of recipes and their circulation break apart/open the historicist project.

Without the Recipes Project and the collaborative possibilities it offers, articulating these observations would have been far more difficult. Having the space, and opportunity, to report our research in increments has enlivened our project, allowing room for serendipitous discoveries in the archives, as well as in conversations with colleagues. Our work with the CPP manuscript has already taken us in some surprising directions, and our continued engagement with the text will no doubt bring other unexpected possibilities. And we can’t wait to report them all here in the coming months.

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures

By Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin

Miniature (no. 37.181) from 15th century manuscript in Dresden: Galen, and assistant with a pestle and mortar, and a scribe in an apothecary’s shop. © Wellcome Images

As readers of this blog well know, early modern Europe was aflood with recipes and drugs. One central question has long preoccupied many of us –  just how did our historical actors assess, test and try out recipes, drugs and materia medica? A few summers ago, a group of historians of science and medicine gathered to discuss just this question. This month, we present our ideas and findings in a special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. To celebrate the launch of the special issue, several authors of the volume will share their work on The Recipes Project. Tuesday’s post revisited Ashley Buchanan and Tillmann Taape‘s report on the original 2014 conference. Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn more about the research of Erik Heinrichs, Valentina Pugliano, Alisha Rankin and Justin Rivest. Finally, Tillmann Taape, who just completed his PhD at the University Cambridge (congrats!) also adds his voice to the series by reflecting on how theme of drug testing features in his doctoral dissertation.

To get us started on our month of ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’, we wanted to say a few words as the organizers and editors of the project. First, you might ask, what do we mean by ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’? Over the course of the project, we found that it was useful to view ‘testing drugs’ and ‘trying cures’ as two overlapping but distinct phenomena.

As the essays in the special issue show, physicians and apothecaries developed clear rules and practices for testing drugs as materials – from sensory analysis of materia medica to chemical analysis of substances like mineral waters or alchemical medicines. This kind of ‘testing drugs’ largely focused on gaining knowledge on the substances’ medicinal properties and played a particularly significant role in the discovery and adoption of materia medica from the New World and in assessing and establishing authenticity of exotic and/or expensive medicaments.

Paolo Antonio Barbieri, The Spice Shop, 1637. Image from Wikimedia.

‘Trying cures’, on the other hand, describes the widespread practice of trying remedies and other kinds of cures on human bodies. If ‘testing drugs’ was mainly conducted by learned physicians and apothecaries, ‘trying cures’ was performed by a broad range of healers. Within the home, women and men applied and observed the effects of remedies on family and household members. Likewise, physicians and other practitioners prescribed diets, medicines and other cures to their patients, again observing and recording the effects. Ample evidence of this kind of ‘trying cures’ survive in a range historical sources from the use of ‘probatum est’ to expressions of personal experience, customisation and rejection of recipes in household recipe collections (for more on this, see posts here and here).

For us, these two categories ‘testing drugs and ‘trying cures’ serve as helpful heuristic tools to untangle the assessment practices used by early modern practitioners. We see the two categories not as separate boxes but rather as overlapping and often intertwined practices. Many healers merged testing and trying by using patient tests to determine a substance’s properties or to refine methodologies in both drug production and application. These themes of testing and trying occupied a central place in the making of medical knowledge across a vast chronological span and broad geographical regions and social contexts. The essays in the special issue examine these crucial knowledge practices in Europe c. 1300-1800 (go here for a table of contents).

Several main themes emerged from this collaborative project. First, medicine was always an experiential art and the essays in the special issue demonstrate clear continuities between the learned physicians’ uses of experience/experiment in the Middle Ages and early modern experimental interests. Learned medicine made deliberate use of experience from a very early date and pharmacy was an area where the gathering of experiential knowledge was particularly pronounced. The senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing – played vital roles in determining the properties of drugs and their effects on the human body.

Concurrently, as many essays in the volume demonstrate, structured drug testing had a long history. Medieval physicians developed meticulous rules for drug testing, as Michael McVaugh’s essay shows, although they left no record of actual medical trials. This focus on establishing protocols for drug testing continues throughout the medieval and early modern period, with significant expansion in scale and scope. By the eighteenth century, the testing of mineral spa waters (in Michael Bycroft’s essay) or proprietary drugs (in Justin Rivest’s essay) became large-scale undertakings situated in learned academies and hospitals.

When taken together, the essays in the ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ special issue collectively argue that ‘experimental thinking’ played a crucial role in learned assessments of medicine and drugs throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. From the time of Galen, drug testing was structured and evidence-based with an aim to produce transferable results. For us, this fascinating and multifaceted story of premodern drug testing enriches and extends current histories of experimentation and we hope that our explorations into topic will inspire others to join us too!

Further Reading and Acknowledgements:

This post is a very condensed version of Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin’s ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures: Experiment and Medicine in Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 91 (2017), 157-182. The full version of the article is available here. The entire special issue is available here.

The ‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures’ project was funded by the Max Planck Society as part of the Minerva Research Group’s ‘Reading and Writing Nature in Early Modern Europe’.  We also extend our grateful thanks to all the participants of the 2014 workshop, the editors of the BHM and the anonymous reviewers of the articles in this special issue.