An Interview with Hannah Bower, author of Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play (Oxford University Press, 2022)
This month, we have the pleasure of highlighting the work of Hannah Bower, author of Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 1375-1500, published by Oxford University Press in 2022. Dr Bower is a Junior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Find out more about her research and interests here. Below is an edited conversation between Elizabeth Hunter, Recipes at Play Series Editor, and Hannah Bower.
Elizabeth Hunter: Hannah, so glad you could chat with us! Your expertise is in medieval English Literature. How did you come to study recipe books? Can you explain that journey?
Hannah Bower: I first came to study recipe books during my master’s degree. I was looking for some texts that had not been closely examined in their manuscript contexts and our course leader, Daniel Wakelin, suggested that recipes would be a good place to start. As soon as I started looking at a few collections in the Bodleian Library, I was hooked! The collections appealed to me because of their strange mix of the formulaic and the whimsical, the predictable and the eccentric. On the one hand, many of the recipes contained the same structural features (lists of ingredients, imperatives, promises of efficacy) but, on the other hand, the recipes could be combined with one another in different ways, copied into large recipe collections or alone on a spare flyleaf, rubricated or left plain, amended and added to, annotated, or struck out. I was keen to pay them closer attention by analysing in detail the choices that different scribes, writers, and compilers made. To me, then, their textual and material forms invited a kind of close reading that had many parallels with the close reading techniques of literary criticism.
“Recipes taught readers to prepare healing treatments but they could, this study argues, also act as nexus points for the intersection (and playful redefinition) of different written and spoken styles, spaces, and identities”Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 2.
EH: The title of this series is ‘Recipes at Play’, and play is also in the title of your book. What did the term play imply in this period and how important was it in the recipe form?
HB: Play had a wide range of meanings, including merriment, pleasure, entertainment, theatrical performance, spectacle, game, music-making, jest, joke, and trick. Of course, these are not normally things that you would associate with recipes for broken bones and pus-filled boils! But there are some surprising connections. For instance, medical recipes can contain a lot of sound play: alliteration, rhyme, and puns all recur. Sometimes these devices may have made the recipe easier to remember by heart; sometimes they might have convinced readers that the recipe carried an occult power supplementary to its ingredients; at other times, these embellishments may suggest pride or pleasure in the copying of the recipe. Interestingly, this patterning does not normally appear in every recipe in a collection or even in all parts of a recipe: it is one example of the sporadic and whimsical aspect that I was mentioning a moment ago that contrasts and coexists with the genre’s more formulaic aspects. This opens up further parallels with play as formulated by the cultural historian John Huizinga: like recipes, play has boundaries, rules, and repetitive structures but it is also flexible and adaptable. Writers and readers of recipes could experiment (or ‘play’) with the text before them, adapting or adding to its instructions as they enacted it (like a theatrical performance or ‘play’).
“[R]ecipes can be activated or translated into action like instruments are played; they can be connected, ordered, and rearranged by imaginations in play; and they can be mischievous, comic, or playful in content”Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 26.
EH: What were you hoping to find when you first began your research? What surprised you along the way?
HB: When I began, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find; I just wanted to sit and read texts that often hadn’t been read closely in a long time and weren’t normally considered to contain any literary potential! What surprised me was the care that could be invested by writers, scribes, and readers in the copying, embellishment, and preservation of the recipes. Some scribes copied hundreds of recipes and some—though not all!—invested a lot of time trying to make those recipes navigable and usable. I was also surprised by the way that the language deployed in recipes and related medical texts could tap into commonplace images also used in literary and devotional writings. We might deride such commonplaces as trite and jaded, but they clearly had great explanatory purchase and could—I think—not only be deployed to make bodily afflictions easier to identify but also to make those bodily afflictions less offensive and gruesome to think about. For instance, urinary texts sometimes copied alongside medical recipes sometimes compare sediment in urine to specks of dust in the sunlight…quite a beautiful image!
EH: In the book you cover a number of genres of imaginative literature, including Chaucer, romances and fabliaux. How important do you think the imagination is in the reading and writing medieval recipes?
HB: Very important! Many readers were probably persuaded to translate a recipe into practice because they could imagine themselves—or the person they were treating—becoming healthy through it. To embark upon the task in hand, they must also have been able to imagine themselves acquiring, collecting, and preparing all of the ingredients in the correct order.
What I found particularly interesting, though, was the way that some medieval writers seem to use echoes of the recipe form in their writing to encourage readers to imagine their bodies in different ways. For instance, in the book, I discuss an example from Thomas Malory’s romance Le Morte d’Arthur where recipe discourse is used to situate the bodies of two knights in several different time schemes simultaneously. Readers are encouraged to connect the knights’ bodies at once to life and death, earth and heaven, sickness and health. It is ironic that recipes—a form we normally associate with linear sequences of action (‘do this…do that…do this…’) instead work in that text to stimulate temporal and imaginative flexibility.
[W]riters of remedies and writers of more consistently literary or imaginative texts influenced one another in more precise ways than have hitherto been acknowledged, and both groups partook in shared cultural modes of creative expression. Tracing possible connections and overlaps will allow us to arrive at a more nuanced, holistic understanding of what ‘practical’, ‘careful’, ‘imaginative’, and ‘playful’ might have meant for late medieval writers and readers.Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 3-4.