Category Archives: Jennifer Munroe

Depending on the season

By Jennifer A. Munroe

In Charlotte, NC it was 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) yesterday, with a blistering sun that felt more like mid-summer than mid-spring; today it is 50 degrees and raining so hard we are under a flash flood warning. Also yesterday, Earth Day (April 22) was met this year by a “March for Science” around the globe. Somehow, it all seems fitting: such fluctuations in the weather here in North Carolina are a product (at least in part) of human-precipitated global climate change, a phenomenon still denied by too many people (one is too many, to my mind), especially in Western countries who have too much to gain by the continued overuse of earth’s resources. But what has this all to do with early modern recipes?

Early modern recipes remind us that humans are, ultimately, subject to seasonal change, even if our actions might alter the fluctuations and intensity of temperature and precipitation—or, might affect the way we experience the seasons. That is, although it may seem that we have the power, even to act destructively, our presence on this planet is a shared presence, one borne of interdependence and punctuated by the fact that we are, ultimately, locked in an interdependent relationship with the other animals, plants, soil, and climate on the planet we cohabitate.

At a time when we can access produce like strawberries and avocados in the middle of winter, it may seem we have achieved liberation from the shackles of seasonality. But such mid-winter fruits, as any who have tasted them in January would know, are mere specters of their mid-summer relatives: they may look like the real thing, but taste like it they do not. Early moderns were necessarily bound to the sort of seasonality we aim to circumvent today. As they grew or harvested their own fruits and vegetables, they were (even with hothouse technology) generally subject to the natural course of ripening that comes as a result of having spent enough hours on the vine, stalk, or bush basking in the sunshine, or the slow release of ethylene that makes a tomato red or a blackberry soft. Calcium carbide, our modern-day chemical stand-in, may hasten ripening while a fruit is prematurely transported to market today, but it will not make it taste sweet.

I want to turn to a recipe from the manuscript receipt book of Rebeckah Winche (Folger MS v.b.366) to rethink what it (and others like it) tells us about human dependence on the seasons. If you open a manuscript recipe book, you will notice myriad iterations of “pick it when it is ripe” or “gather in midsomer,” as we do in numerous recipes from the Winche book. These books thus note the optimum time for harvest, when the plant material is at its best. A recipe from the Winche book, “To Preserve Wallnuts,” charges, “Take green walnuts about Midsomer” (153); or another, “To Drie Figges,” similarly calls for one to “Take your figges when thay are ripe & new gathred” (152). Gathering a fruit when it is ripe, or a flower when it is newly-budded, is to take that plant when its oil and sugar concentrations (and its very essence) are at their peak. But I think recipes like these do more than indicate the optimum time for gathering; they also underscore a delicate balance between the desire to thwart time (and seasonality as a marker of time) and an awareness of the futility of halting time and its effects on both humans and nonhumans alike. For while the act of food preservation (here, drying figs) is an endeavor that presumes to hold an object in time and space indefinitely, it is also a sort of hubris—after all, the moment a plant is harvested, its mortality is hastened. Take the recipe “To Drie Figges,” for instance:

Take your figges when thay are ripe & new

gathred. set on a skillet of water then take

your figges & prick them up & down wth a pin

& put them in to the water & let them boyle till

thay bee tender. then take them out & to a pound of

take a pound of loafe suger. then take a quart of

water. & one quarter of the suger & set it on the

fire & when you have scumed it put in your figs

& let them boyle a pritty while then put them in an

earthen pan & so doe for 4 days together put ing in

on gr of ye suger every day until all bee in allways

let ing the sirup boyle before you put in the figs

let them stand 2 days in the sirrup & then lay them

upon a sive & when thay are drayned scrape fine

suger on them & set them in an oven where there

is some little heat or in a stove turning them twice

a day serseing suger on them until thay be dry

then put papers between them & keepe them in a dry place.

As interesting as the instructions for preserving the figs (which ripen in summer) so they last indefinitely might sound–to suspend them in time by way of applying sugar and heat over a prolonged period–this recipe articulates protracted time in such a way that underscores flux, not stasis. Or put another way, even in the act of “keeping” (which implies a holding in time and space of an object’s qualities), recipes like this one underscore fluctuation and change. Taking the figs, “when they are ripe and new gathred” prompts this chain of events, but what follows is a process of “prick[ing],” “scum[ing],” “boyle[ing],” “drayn[ing],” “turning,” and “serseing” over the course of days, even weeks, “until thay be dry” (however long that is). The “ings” here outnumber the “eds.”

We might also recall the numerous recipes from the period in which we find alternative storage directions for different seasons: foods and medicines might last longer in storage in the winter than in the summer. And here, in the simple directions to “keepe them [the dried figs] in a dry place,” we see contingencies of seasonality—keeping something dry in the middle of summer is usually an easier enterprise than keeping it dry in the peak of the spring rains, even if your storage is tucked away and sealed. For that matter, starting a fire and keeping it regulated is easier to do during a drier season than it is a wetter one.

This recipe with a deceptively simple title, “To Drie Figges,” then, reveals a complex and ongoing interaction between human (gatherer) and an array of nonhuman things (fig, sugar, fire, sun, rain, knife, skillet, and more) that seems to defy the very premise of preservation. That is, while the notion of “preserving” seems to imply something very unseasonal—to be kept perpetually in a state over time—“To Drie Figges” reminds us of the multiple states of being, of our dependence on the seasons for the fruit’s ripeness and for its preservation (even after the loads of sugar). Moreover, any user of this recipe would need to know the season when figs ripen, as our instructions indicate merely to “take” when ripe. In England, as in the US, figs tend to ripen in summer, but the moment of optimum ripeness is harnessed not by fixing a date on the calendar to gather, but rather by attending to the particulars of the fruit’s appearance, odor, and texture. As anyone who tends a garden in this time of climate change would know, though, that precise moment shifts from year to year, and is coming earlier all the time, thanks to planetary warming. For these and other reasons, then, recipes remind us of what we might otherwise like to forget: so much is depending not so much on us, but on the season.

Recipes and the “Weird”: A Halloween Rumination

By Jennifer Munroe

Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).
Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).

We might recall Shakespeare’s “Weird Sisters,” the seemingly-sinister witches from Macbeth. Their “Double, double toil and trouble” resonates in our memories as it does in their incantation before Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble: / Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble” (4.1.20-21). As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, it seems to me useful to revisit their charms; or, as it were, how we might use our sense of Macbeth’s witches to rethink some of the more unsavory of ingredients in early modern recipes, and how we might use these recipes to rethink our assumptions about the witches.

The Weird Sisters’ “hell-broth” includes such mammalian and amphibious creature parts as “eye of newt,” “Gall of goat,” “Adder’s fork,” “Wool of bat,” and “tongue of dog.” Macbeth is appalled at the concoction they brew, and, as it seems, so are audiences (especially modern).  The witches, so often portrayed today as elusive, macabre, dangerous, even grotesque, have been written into our modern imagination as integral to the darkness engulfing Dunsinane.

But what if their witchy-work is not-so-sinister after all? What if they simply get a bad rap? After all, it is Macbeth who does the killing in the play; they merely prognosticate his actions.

I turn to the manuscript recipe book of Rebeckah Winche, a contemporary source, though not of the kind we typically turn to when we ask about early modern witchcraft. For that, we more often go to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or the like. However, such animal ingredients were not uncommon in early modern recipes; and in those books, they certainly do not denote the dark arts. In Winche’s book, we find a series of recipes for “The King’s Evil,” Scrofula (or, tuberculosis), one that helps to identify the disease, and two to cure it:


A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings

Take a grownd worme & lay itt alive to the place greved &
take a green docke leafe or 2 andlay them upon the worme
& bine them to the place at night when the patient goes to
bed & if it be the kings evill itt will turne to dust or poud
=er by the morning otherwise it will remayn dead in his owne
former forme as it was a live

A perfect remydy to cure the desease called the kings evill
Take an ounce of pure yellow bees wax or something more
& an ounce uenice turpentine a good quantity of sheepes
suet clarified. boyle them alltogether & when thay are well
boyled put therein 2 good handfulls of the purest barly flower
clear without weedes then temper this flower with the other
things. then put therein 3 spoonfulls of the urin of a man
childe he being not above 3 years olde then boyle it agane
put itt in some earthen or gally pot & stop itt close, keepe it
for your use: when you use it spread it on a peece of fine
linin or on lether and lay it on the sore plaster waise &
by gods helpe it will cure the patient

A nother for the same deseas
Take a live toade & cut of one of her hinder legs
sewe it up in a pece of silke & hange it presently about the
neck of the party greeved. observe if it be a boy or man that
is greeved then a girl or woman must kill the toade but if
a girle or woman be ill then a man must kill it
this hath cured many however if doth sertanly help the other
remydy or any other you shall apply to the sore (if any) to
worke the better efect & sooner cure.

To diagnose “The King’s Evil,” one is instructed to lay a live worm to the aggrieved area, to fix to the unfortunate worm to  “green docke leafe” and wait to see whether the worm desiccates or remains plump (but still deceased) to determine whether the patient is indeed infected.

And to cure “The King’s Evil,” should the patient (and the worm) be so unfortunate, the practitioner summons not the powers of the otherworld, but the urine of a man-child… or the pieces of a toad, who is taken alive and dismembered, removing one of her “hinder legs,” which is then sewn into a silk parcel and hung from the patient’s neck. If a male patient, a woman kills the toad; if a female patient, then a man.

Certainly, this diagnosis and cure might strike some as hocus-pocus, drawing on superstition more than sound medical training and having no more validity than, say, snake oil or verging on something much darker. However, early modern medicine is flush with examples of such diagnoses and cures, and its practitioners appeared quite ready to employ them.

While early modern men and women used these cures as healers and patients, this sort of household medicine was also (and increasingly) understood as inferior relative the professional medicine of scientists and doctors, as practice not to be trusted—or, as we see so often in depiction of witches, as that which ought make us suspicious of its source and its agents.

So what is it about domestic medicine and cookery that has lent itself to this sort of denigration, or the fear associated with witchcraft that enables its marginalization? After all, early modern domestic medicine is not unlike modern herbal medicine, both of which have been relegated to inferior practice, nudged out by codified and “professional” modes of healing that tend to privilege machinery over touching, pharmaceuticals over tinctures and teas.

By juxtaposing Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters” with the recipes from the Winche book, both of which contain what are often associated with “witchy” ingredients, we focus less on the contents of the concoctions. Instead, we are forced to see the ways in which both highlight ways of knowing that are not easily quantified; this is not the ostensible “objective” knowledge of (early modern) science, but something more murky.

This does not mean they are at best silly frivolities and at worst sinister machinations. For Macbeth’s witches are guilty of nothing more than “knowing” (or foreknowing, since they merely predict his actions); they no more dictate Macbeth’s murderous ambitions than he can direct their appearances and disappearances. Early modern recipe practitioners who administer the earthy worm, who collect and pour the spoons full of man-child urine and dismember the toad and make a modern reader say, “Ew,” arguably did no less to diagnose and cure tuberculosis than the scientists of the day.

And as these amateur practitioners worked their medicine, they were necessarily called upon to observe their patients (and their ingredients) in ways that professional doctors and scientists were beginning to move away from: their tactile contact with worm, toad, urine, human skin, and the intensive observation within natural surroundings (rather than a lab) meant that they had to look, listen, and touch differently. Rather than in the laboratory, such amateur practitioners adapted their cures on site, modified their medicine according to individual need (see the many recipes “for another”) rather than generic conditions.

And so, I wonder if on this All Hallow’s season we might take the opportunity to revisit what seems “weird” about the sisters, and how the ingredients and practices of so many early modern men and women, might help us revisit the seemingly strange aspects of medicine in the period and its relation to its ostensible opposite, science. For in these recipes, the strange, the “weird,” may indeed be the very thing that we have made alien—the intimate connections between person and patient, between animal or plant and human, between self and Other–rather than what has in fact been alien all along.

Recipes and the Unanticipated

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, Jen Munroe discusses the unintended – and wonderful – consequences of bringing recipes and transcription into the curricula.]

Hubert Robert (French, 1733 - 1808) A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery, about 1765, Red chalk 45.7 × 33.7 cm (18 × 13 1/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Hubert Robert (French, 1733 – 1808)
A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery, about 1765, Red chalk
45.7 × 33.7 cm (18 × 13 1/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

By Jennifer Munroe

Teaching recipe transcription has become a regular part of my classroom practice. And the more I teach about recipes and transcription, the more I’m convinced that one could do so in virtually any class context. The connections are there in more obvious ways when I am teaching a course on early modern texts and culture—a graduate seminar on knowledge-making in the period or an undergraduate/graduate “Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory” course, for instance. Its relevance is perhaps less obvious to an “Introduction to Graduate Studies” or “Ecological Theory” course, but the import of recipes and transcription have resonated in ways that neither I nor the students anticipated.

My focus here is on the unanticipated consequences of teaching recipes, on the ways that they have come to the connective tissue between theory and practice not only for me as a scholar, but in my classroom and beyond. In spring 2015, I had the pleasure of teaching “Thinking Green: Ecological Theory” to a group of some of the most talented graduate students in our Master’s program. In that course, I introduced them to early modern manuscript recipes, to the practice of transcription, and to the Folger’s incredible transcription software, Dromio. As we turned to the opening page of “A Booke of such medicines as have been approved by the special practize of Mrs. Corlyon” (Folger MS v.a.388) with our focus on ecological theory meant that we asked questions about how the recipe for “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb, or any other soore Eye” related to how it reflects the relationship between the practitioner and the nonhuman world. But something else happened in that classroom, something I didn’t expect: the ink on the page, the curious qualities of stamped wild daisies and yellowing honey, the “soft fier” compelled the students, made them obsessed, really, to do more.

That one class period on recipes turned into a summer-long directed reading of transcription, which then became a full-on student organization on campus committed to the study and transcription of recipes: that is, the several hours of discussion I planned became much bigger than I or that group of students in the room with me. It was in that room, and because of Mrs. Corlyon, that EMPS (the Early Modern Paleography Society) was born.

Our summer of transcription was, then, without our realizing it at the time, a prelude to these amazing students fully embracing their obsession with early modern recipes. True to their fashion, the students who did the Directed Reading with me during the summer wanted a special challenge: not only did they want more transcription, they wanted a more difficult hand. So we turned to Lady Frances Catchmay’s “A booke of medicens” (Wellcome MS 184a), a difficult book in multiple hands, including secretary. Over the summer, these students became more than familiar with this challenging book and its component parts; they became fluent with the particulars of early modern handwriting, of the domestic practice and relation to the household and its surrounds articulated in the book. Such fluency laid the groundwork for the year that followed, in which these impressive students joined with others and made early modern recipes have a greater presence in our English department and on our campus.

In fall, 2015, Breanne Weber, Taryn Dollings, Kailan Sindelar, Robin Kello, and Nadia Clifton became the co-founders of an official UNC Charlotte campus organization, EMPS. [Editor’s Note: in our next post, the members of the EMPS offer their own post on their group and its activities.]  Over the course of the academic year, EMPS transcribed one full book during their regular meetings—the “Cookbook of Mary Cruso and Timothy Cruso” (Folger MS x.d.24), composed blogs about their experiences (which were featured on the EMROC website), and hosted a transcribathon where they transcribed a second book, an anonymous 17th century cookbook (Folger MS w.b.653). At the transcribathon, they also served candied angelica (which they made using a recipe from the Cruso book) and hosted a panel of faculty, graduate students, and an employee of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, who grew the angelica for the event. The panel discussed a range of topics from researching early modern recipes to growing and harvesting plants to the relationship between recipes, domestic practice, and sustainability issues today. And more than 70 students, faculty, and others participated in the transcribathon, a much higher turnout than achieved for most campus events.

What began with a handful of students in a small classroom with no windows over a year ago, then, transformed into something much bigger, something very much unanticipated. And isn’t that one of the things recipes do? They remind us that what we think might happen doesn’t always happen, or at least it doesn’t always happen in the ways we expect; and their sphere of influence extends beyond the individual to the others, the many named and unnamed whose practice is contained in their pages.


Jennifer Munroe is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches courses in early modern English poetry and prose, Shakespeare, ecofeminism and ecocriticism, gender studies, literary theory, and film. She is co-author (with Rebecca Laroche) of the forthcoming Shakespeare and Ecofeminist Theory (Bloomsbury/Arden, 2017), author of Gender and the Garden in Early Modern English Literature (Ashgate, 2008), and editor of Making Gardens of Their Own: Gardening Manuals For Women, 1550-1750 (Ashgate, 2007). Munroe is co-editor (also with Rebecca Laroche) of Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (Palgrave, 2011); and with Lynne Bruckner and Edward J. Geisweidt of Ecological Approaches to Early Modern Texts: A Field Guide to Reading and Teaching (Forthcoming. Ashgate, 2015). She has published articles in Shakespeare Studies, Tulsa Studies for Women’s Literature, Prose Studies, Early Modern Studies Journal, Renaissance Studies, and Pedagogy. Munroe is currently working on a monograph, an ecofeminist literary history of science that examines the relationship between women’s everyday practices, nature, and writing in seventeenth-century England. In addition, Munroe is a founding member and blogger for EMROC (Early Modern Recipes Online Collective), a group that is developing a public-access database of transcribed manuscript recipe materials from the early modern period. Munroe’s work with EMROC stems from her interest in making women’s manuscript recipes (and the way women’s everyday practices with plants in particular are instructive about their relationship with the nonhuman natural world) available to a wider public as well as from her commitment to collaborative research.

What Recipes Can Teach Us About Reading

Frances Catchmay, Recipe Book (c. 1625), MS184A/65, Wellcome Library. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. The digital image of this item is copyrighted work made available under Creative Commons (by-nc 2.0 UK: England & Wales).
Frances Catchmay, Recipe Book (c. 1625), MS184A/65, Wellcome Library. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. The digital image of this item is copyrighted work made available under Creative Commons (by-nc 2.0 UK: England & Wales).

By Jennifer Munroe

When I teach recipes, I often focus on what they might tell us about women’s domestic work, questions of amateur versus professional labor, and the historical context of early modern science. But recipes have much to teach us about the practice of reading as well. This summer, Rebecca Laroche and I co-lead a workshop at the Attending to Early Modern Women Conference where just such a question emerged.  Attending to Early Modern Women is a unique academic meeting: rather than traditional panels, the conference hosts a series of 90-minute workshops which facilitate active participation and focused discussion.  Workshop organizers circulate readings, questions, and other materials in advance, and then on the day of the conference, they frame them and open up discussion.

Conference Website, Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.
Conference Website, Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.

We divided our participants into small groups (4 or 5 people each) and had them transcribe a recipe. Our directions were deceptively simple: after they transcribed the recipe, they were to consider what they think they know about it as well as what questions it raised for them.

"Teaching Early Modern Recipes in the Digital Age," Program for Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.
“Teaching Early Modern Recipes in the Digital Age,” Program for Attending to Early Modern Women 2015. Accessed August 2015.

When we discussed their findings, one of the groups commented that they were surprised how recipes work against our typical linear narrative reading practice. This comment has left me pondering. Such comment caused me to reconsider how I might use recipes not only in classes with early modern concerns but courses that query the nature of texts and textuality more broadly. This fall, I will teach a graduate seminar that introduces students to the discipline of English—literary theory, textuality, authorship, etc. What if, I’ve been thinking, I have these students think about how recipes make us read differently, how they make us rethink how texts work?

A very good aproved medicine for soore eyes

Take in the month of May milke from the cowe before it be cowlde

& put it into a still & distill it when you have the water sett it

in the sonne x: or xij dayes then put to every pinte of water

as much camphire as a walnutt, if there be any heate in the

eyes use it cowlde, if not use it blood warme


Take this recipe I cite above, from Lady Frances Catchmay (d. 1629), “A booke of medicens” (Wellcome ms. 184a). What this recipe does not include is perhaps as interesting as that which it does. We know that one should collect milk in a specific month, May, warm milk (it is fresh); we know that once the milk is distilled, one should combine what remains with a walnut-sized portion of Camphire (probably camphor); and we know that the temperature of the eyes matters: if a patient has cold eyes, the application will be different than if s/he has warm eyes. But as each progressive step is dependent on what precedes it, the practice of creating this recipe, let alone reading it, is predicated on a folding back onto itself of information and action. How “cowlde” would be the right temperature? How much distilling is required to “have the water sett”? How would one know if ten or twelve days is the correct number to leave the distilled liquid in the sun? While walnuts have a generally consistent size one to another, how can one be sure to use the right walnut as sizing agent for the camphor? And what if the eyes are somewhere in-between warm and cold? How to know whether to apply the remedy on the colder side or “blood warme”?

This recipe (and I would say most other recipes) permits us to proceed in a linear way, but to understand it fully, we must move back and forth through it multiple times, ultimately coming to interpretation rather than answer. And isn’t this how texts work, really? We think we know, and we want the teleology of beginning-to-end movement, but to experience a text fully necessitates that we navigate it in messy ways, negating the definitive qualities of what we think are “page” or “book.” Reading is a practice, and the practice of (and articulated by) recipes-as-texts can help us reorient ourselves to other texts with which we are more familiar—literary or practical. Or so I hope to convince my students this fall.