Category Archives: Jennifer Munroe

Harvesting Earth: Where Sustainability and Recipes Meet

By Jennifer Munroe


Dirt. Soil. These terms seem synonymous, but as a 2008 exhibit at the Smithsonian attests, they are far from the same thing. In fact, some would say (and I am one of them) that the vocabulary we use to describe the growing medium, the material beneath our feet, expresses our orientation to it. To call that thing “dirt” is to denigrate it, at least implicitly, as illustrated by the way we so often respond when a piece of food falls on the ground–“It’s dirty,” we say, unfit for consumption, and then we discard it. To call that thing “soil” gives it a purpose, assigns it value in the general context of using it–to grow food and other plants–which also values that particular relationship between humans and nonhumans.

And so, in the context of thinking about how vocabulary matters, I come to a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book with an eye toward soil. Or rather, “earth.” It is “A good Receypte to make metheglin,” about a third of the way through the book. In it, the person preparing the drink, “gather[s] around Michelmas or Lammas” an assortment of herbs: fumitory, fennel, rosemary, hyssop, chamomile, thyme, marigolds, ribwort, parsley, selfheal, and others. And then we get the following instruction: “When you haue gathered thes hearbs and roots, make them very cleane that no earth be lefte vpon them” (f.28r). To use the term “earth” begs a different way of thinking about the relationship between human and nonhuman things here. This recipe expresses an intimacy between the woman who gathers, slices, boils the plants–articulated, for instance, in the reminder to “haue care to slitt the ffenell roots and take out the harts stringe which groweth in the middest”–in water, over fire whose temperature she aims to regulate during the process. But what does it mean that she would remove the earth from the herbs, clean them so that “no earth be left vpon them”? Is this a disavowal of the unity of plant and earth, between the material growing and material grown? Or does the touching of earth by water and human hands, even if to remove it, simply express a different aspect of this intimacy?

This recipe, like so many others, articulates points of contact between human and nonhuman that are key to thinking about sustainability. If we understand this contact only insofar as it allows for separation–the slicing to sever leaf from stem of herb, the cleaning to remove earth–then perhaps we are simply reproducing the same distinction of dirt and soil with which I began this post. That is, to see dirt as that thing that is necessarily not part of “us,” of that which is separate from the human world; it would presume that nonhuman things are inherently not “human.” Removing earth from plant might seem to evoke this to be sure. But to have “no earth left vpon them” is only possible by way of the tactile contact between human and nonhuman; and perhaps it suggests that “earth” is not gone but rather just part of another (or multiple) thing/s and that it is intrinsically linked with the human? If the cleaning process uses water, then the “earth” is mingled with water; or if the cleaning amounts to brushing the earth from plant with the hand, then hand and earth mix, earth falls perhaps back to, well, earth. What if, that is, the process of cleaning and removing earth, as described here, details not a distancing of human and nonhuman thing but rather an ever-intimate reciprocal relationship that is bound by circular comings and goings and not teleological notions of here and gone? After all, that same earth will be the medium from which the woman harvests new herbs in the future, the surface upon which she walks to locate the herbs and do said gathering, as she repeats this and other recipes in the course of her domestic labor. And so, to understand “earth” in this recipe as we do “dirt” today seems at odds with the task the early modern woman would have undertaken. Rather, it seems that this recipe, its evocation of “earth,” suggests instead a process of something more akin to what we would think of as a sustainable and perpetual return of material to material, of intimate connections between human and nonhuman, whether that nonhuman thing is plant, element (fire, water), or “earth.”

Note: Transcription credit for this recipe goes to Kailan Sindelar.


In a recent class session of my graduate seminar, “Thinking Green: Eco-Approaches to Texts,” my students and I transcribed and discussed at length the first recipe that appears in a manuscript book in the Wellcome Medical Library: MS 213, “A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters, Syroppes and Oyntementes of which many or the most part haue been experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon. Anno Domini 1606.”
Wild daisies

To do this, we worked with the first recipe in the book, “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb or any other soore Eye,” which instructs as follows:

Take one handfull of three leaued grasse that is
most spotted with white: Gather it close to the roote,
as much of wilde Dasye rootes: Stampe them all in a
woodden dishe, and boyle them in one pinte of water, in
a clean brasse skillet with a very soft fyer. When
it is scommed putt in so much Allome as will make the
water tast roughe uppon your tounge. After putt in so
much honny as will make it Looke yeollowe and taste
very sweete. When it hath boyled a pretty while and is
cleane scommed, straine it into a cleane vessell, and
when it is colde poure the clearest into a glasse and
keepe it in a colde place, and it will last three weekes
in Winter and 14. Dayes in the Sommer: The water is to
be applied to the Eyes one hower before they aryse and when
they goe to bedd. If the Eye be very soore dresse it at two of the
clocke in the after noone, and sleepe after it, if they cann.

We then worked together on a (deceptively) simple question: “Who/what seems to have agency in this recipe, and what is the source of authority?” What followed was a 2-1/2 hour collaboration that I would say is at the heart of what I hope recipe transcription can do in our classrooms and central to how I think recipes work.

We began, well, at the beginning. Students turned to the title of the book, a collection of that which had been “experienced and tryed by the speciall practize of Mrs Corlyon.” As such, authority lies in the tried and tested text itself, evidenced too by claims of “probatum” throughout these books. As students pointed out, the user/practitioner was also an authority. To “Gather [the grass] close to the roote” is evidence, that is, of how the woman using this recipe necessarily walked among the plants she gathered, touched them, identified which, in this case, had the white spots and three leaves (and not another grass). She was expected to exercise her discretion, using “so much Allome as will make the water tast roughe uppon [her] tounge” or ascertaining how much honey is just enough to make it “Looke yeollowe” and “taste very sweete.”

As we talked, though, we queried whether the patient him/herself, the treated body, was also a source of authority here. After all, the body receiving the cure, it was hoped, would respond positively to the treatment, whose precise timing was determined, at least in part, by how “soore” the eye was; and the patient’s more willful response played a role in the cure’s efficacy as demonstrated by the directive to “sleepe after it, if they cann.” But what about the potential authority and/or agency of the ingredients themselves, the nonhuman things from which the cure is derived—the grass and daisy roots, the honey, the fire, etc? After all, they contain properties that might be predictable to some extent, but individually and collectively they are arguably not entirely within the control of human manipulation. And we made note that the durability of the product comprised of such ingredients depended on seasonality—it, not surprisingly, lasts one less week during summer than during winter. In this way, do not the seasons dictate terms that the human practitioner cannot entirely mitigate through careful preparation?

What we concluded, and I think it is an important conclusion, is that this recipe illustrates a powerful collaboration of agents—human and nonhuman alike—whose efficacy is determined by multiple sources of authority, all acting together in dance-like fashion, where lines of demarcation between the individual and collective necessarily vanish. Just as importantly, though, we came to these conclusions collaboratively. And that, I would say, gets at the heart of what environmental justice (and ecofeminist) work aims to do and precisely what is, for me at least, what working with these books can teach us. We interrogate and revise together, looking anew at that which we often don’t see or take for granted: the relationship between human and nonhuman comprised, mitigated, and expressed in the most complicated of ways by a multitude of agents, articulated most powerfully in the substratum and the margins. We need to look and listen. And we need to do it together.

**I want to note the outstanding students in my graduate seminar without whose collaboration this post would not exist: Taryn Dollings, Henry Doss, Kailan Smith, and Breane Weber.

Transcribing in Baby Steps

By Jennifer Munroe

Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540.  Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A woman, all layers lowered, (after restoration) Engraving Published: circa 1540 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

When I decided to have students work on transcribing a manuscript recipe book, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. After all, I have been transcribing manuscripts for over ten years, and at this point I am finally getting fairly good at it. I had to some extent forgotten the pleasure and pain associated with my first try at the difficulties of reading secretary hand. But including manuscript documents in our collective research and teaching gives us a way to uncover voices previously silenced, experiences and perspectives hitherto only marginalized, which allows us new ways to think about questions of feminism and ecofeminism alike related to the women’s relationship in particular with the nonhuman world.

By exploring alternative perspectives on this relationship, students learn more than just how early modern Englishwomen engaged with plants and animals in symbolic as well as very practical ways (though that would be reason enough). What I aim to facilitate is their understanding of the reciprocity that is inherent to living on this planet for women (and, of course, men) then and now. The climate change crisis that we face today is only the latest symptom of what many have argued is a larger problem that begins with our neglecting our fundamental connection to the nonhuman things that surround us, are within and comprise us (if we recall Michael Pollan’s New York Times piece on the microbiome).  The work I was asking students to do was, therefore, aimed at facilitating greater sensitivity to such relational thinking, and it materialized in the intellectual understanding they gained as much as the collaborative relationships they developed with each other.

Last fall, I taught a graduate seminar that looked at the human/nonhuman relationship in early modern English texts. The course considered a range of texts from the most canonical, literary (Shakespeare, Milton, Cavendish) to print and manuscript recipes. The transcription took place during a four-week unit embedded within the course. Students worked first with a partner and then by themselves to transcribe two total manuscript pages of recipes. Students in the course had no experience with transcription, which was actually a positive thing as far as I was concerned because it allowed them to see this material with fresh eyes. I used the Cambridge site as a primer for students and spent one week of our unit working through the basics of paleography. It was a crash course, really. Even with such minimal preparation, and some work on their own with exercises on the Cambridge site, students were ready to start their transcriptions during the following class.

By Week 2, students were still apprehensive about working with manuscripts, but they partnered with another student to transcribe one page (usually two or three recipes) from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript recipe book, available digitally through the Wellcome Library.  The time spent during class working through the transcription helped me realize several pedagogical goals: first, our classroom became a laboratory of active learning, as students struggled with the details on the page; second, that learning was collectively achieved by way of their discussing with each other how they might interprets letters and words that at first glance may as well have been a completely foreign language. By the third and fourth weeks, students transitioned to working on a page of their own, but the classroom became no less a collaborative space. In fact, at this point students had achieved a high enough level of comfort with their discomfort with the text that room began to sound a bit like an auction house; students called across the room to one another to ask for help with a particular word or, as happened especially during week four, to explicate with wonder, excitement, and sometimes revulsion (puppy water anyone?), the details of a particular recipe they finished.

Why do this work, though? If measured by the total number of pages students transcribed by the end of the unit (only approximately 10 or 15), one might wonder if the product warrants the number of weeks dedicated to the exercise. But that’s really not the point as far as I’m concerned. Most immediately, having transcribed these recipes offers students access to a different perspective about the relationship between humans and nonhumans, at the very least because the print texts we have from this period are almost exclusively by men. But doing this work also connects students to something bigger than they are: the imperfections of paper and ink that made someone from the past seem more human; the nonhuman ingredients used by an early modern woman for sustenance and health that reflected her interdependence with the earth and its resources; the relationships students forged with each other through trial and error that allowed them to make these discoveries. While I won’t claim that all of the students in the class decided that further transcription is in their future, I feel confident that they were changed by the experience. Their understanding of relationships of various kinds expanded. They came to see in a different way the historical particulars of how women used plants and animals even as they became participants in a dialogue that is greater than themselves. And that’s reason enough for me.

A cordial for those on a budget

By Jennifer Munroe

When we read recipe books, we are accustomed to seeing lists of ingredients (and accessories) that might lead us to infer a difference in how much they cost to make. One recipe from the Sloane collection in the British Library helpfully makes these differences explicit for the reader: “The Great Palsy Water” or, a “Lavendar Cordial” from “My Lady Rennelaghs Choice Receipts: as also Some of Capt Willis who valued them above gold” (Sloane 1367, ff. 7v-9):

The great palsy water, wch also is of exceeding vertue in all soundings, weaknesse of the [drawn pic of a heart] & decaying of the spirits & ye best remedy in all apoplexy, palsy, epilepsie both to help in the fitt & to prevente it, also in all pains of the joints coming of cold, in all bruises outwardly bathed or diped clothes in it & laid to it, It strigthneth and comforst all animals vital & natural spirits [cleareth] ye external senses, strengthneth the memory, restores lost appetite, all weaknesse of the stomake both taken inwardly and bathed outwardly. It taks away gidenesse of the head & helps lost memory, brings a pleasant breath, it helps ye lost speech & all cold dispositions of the liver & a beginning dropsie, it helps all cold diseases of the mother (f.7v).

The list of ingredients includes such common plants as lavender, cowslips, betany, and borage; but it also includes items that would be more difficult to obtain and expensive, such as cinnamon and orange flowers. One of the most striking features of this recipe is the number of ingredients—over nineteen total—and the rather complex process of combining, steeping, distilling, pressing, and straining that is involved.

But under the same recipe heading for the palsy we also find an alternative version, “An other water of the same of lesse price”. This second, cheaper version has approximately half the ingredients, most of which could be grown or easily obtained by the user: lavender, rosemary, sage, or marjoram. The process of preparing said water/cordial is also more simple, substituting, for example, a “gallon glass” for the proper limbeck. Although the ingredients must be distilled and takes six weeks preparation time for each version, the second involves fewer steps and omits the more specific imperative found repeatedly in the other version: to keep it “very close stoped & clad with a bladder & see nothing may breath out.”

So what might we make of these differences? Why would someone, when it was not the common practice, offer alternative recipes for the same ailment with clear delineation by cost? And why include the two different versions of the same recipe under the same heading, when it was common to see multiple recipes for the same ailment listed under separate headings anyway, as was the case in this book as well?

This two-tiered (according to cost) recipe has me wondering who the book’s compiler imagined as his audience. The book seems to have been compiled by Captain [Thomas?] Willis, a Civil War soldier and esteemed physician, but the recipes here are attributed to the well-known sister to Robert Boyle, Katherine Jones (Lady Ranelagh). In addition to the attribution of these remedies to such a respected source, there are other hints that Willis was interested in it serving as a comprehensive and authoritative source for remedies. For instance, the book incorporates scientific symbols for measurements.

Willis’ differently-priced versions suggests how the book was imagined as both authoritative and inclusive. It allowed for a professional (or pseudo-professional) readership and users who might be interested in recipes as a form of “experiment”, while inviting a more common practitioner to share the discursive and practical space on the page and in a kitchen-laboratory.

I don’t know the answers. But what I do know is that seeing such differentiation in this book has made me ask new questions about other ones and to look for further evidence of class distinctions within recipes—whether in the accessibility and costs expressed in lists of ingredients, or the availability of materials that are required for the processes they describe.

At the same time, it makes me think that we should be asking ourselves whether these recipes can tell us something about the daily experience of early modern people, with moments of inclusion less bound by class than we might otherwise believe. It seems that a person using this recipe, even with its declared different versions, finds it as part of a larger manuscript that did not to hierarchize based on cost, education, and access to professional circles. After all, why would someone who might need a lower cost water for the palsy consult a book in which we find evidence of an interest in more professional “scientific” approaches to remedies if that person did not have some interest in and feel qualified to use the other recipes as well?

So, this blog post really offers less in the way of answers and proposes questions that I hope we can address collectively. And somehow that seems to suit the spirit of such a book!