Originally composed for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Beyond Shakespeare blog, this primary source highlight from Lucy Mookerjee, a Research Fellowat the Folger, invites the reader to think beyond the study the recipe as a set of instructions to be performed, and to consider the recipe itself as a generative composition with much to tell us about origin and loss, remembrance and ignorance, revival and rebirth.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5
On learning of her father’s death, Ophelia, the heartbroken heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, falls into a “weeping brook” and quietly allows herself to drown (4.7). While modern scholarship has tended to construe Ophelia as ‘feminist heroine’; critics in the Victorian period perceived Ophelia as a deranged ‘madwoman’; not only has she losther father and her lover, but she has also lost her mind. In the words of Hamlet’s mother, she is “incapable of her own distress” which is to say: she has forgotten her ‘self’ (4.7). It is curious, then, that the “sweet flowers” – pansies, forget-me-nots, rosemary sprigs –which surround her in the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, and which are frequently referenced in the play, should have a long history as symbols not of loss, but of memory.
The term pansy comes from the French pensée, meaning “thought” or “remembrance”. Legend has it that forget-me-nots are named after a medieval knight who died while picking the delicate flower for his lover and spent his last breath crying out: “Forget me not!” In Ancient Greece, students wore circlets of rosemary to school to increase their capacity to remember their lessons.
While memory-enhancing herbs have a rich legacy in symbolism, the evidence of herbal consumption – though less studied – is well represented in the historical record. Recipes for memory-boosters surface in early modern manuscripts in the form of charms, spells, and medical treatises. Hundreds of these recipe books — digitized and transcribed into Modern English — can be found here.
The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619), compiled in 1675, contains a recipe for a memory-potion called“Confect of Coriander Seed” and provides step-by-step instructions for a brew to “helpe the memorie … by comforting of the braine.”
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.
We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.
Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.
Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’. Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments. Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9), ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).
Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.
However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.
We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5). The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.
Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.
As spring is on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, this post from our archives presents a wonderful reminder of the ways that seasonality figured into early modern remedies and recipes. This piece originally appeared on March 17, 2016. Just as spring was thought to be an industrious time in 18th century England, let us all hope for vernal productivity in 2022! – R.A. Kashanipour
Spring has sprung and I can’t help but ponder the significance of spring for recipe collectors in the late 17th and 18th century. Citations of spring in recipes highlight the importance of changing seasons and new growth, in terms of both health and productivity in the household. As Melissa Schultheis recently explored, temporality was closely connected to understanding the body. Here I consider two aspects of springtime: the prominence of spring and changes in climate for humoral-based regimens, and spring as the season for gathering (or purchasing) medical ingredients.
In recipe collections, we often find information on what time of year and for how long a person should take a remedy, and the two seasons most often cited are spring and fall. In 18th-century recipe books, remedies for the king’s evil, scurvy, rickets, dropsy, and gout were often recommended with this temporal remit. Springtime regimens were used to treat and prevent ailments arising from shifts in temperature and climate, changes in activities, and diet modifications with seasonal food availability (and potentially allergens).
Galenic medicine, and with it the concept of balancing the four humors, remained fundamental in medical practice into the 18th century. Spring was a warm and moist time of year, meaning that its favoured constitutions were more sanguine and less melancholic. It was a time of rejuvenation, longer daylight, and individuals were encouraged to avoid napping and to exercise in the morning. Bleeding and purging in spring were also believed to be preventative measures for avoiding ailments like fevers.
Sister Arscott’s ‘Collick Drops’ remedy was said to cure the ‘Morbus Galicus’ (syphilis), among other ailments, when taking in two ounce doses three days a week in spring and fall. Sometimes recipes indicate specific months. The Trumbull family’s collection has a remedy for a rupture approved by an Aunt Barker, which included wearing a plaster and a truss while anointing it with amber oil twice a day, ‘especially [in] ye monthes of February March & April’.
Even commercial medicines specified spring as an ideal time to purchase and take a remedy. For treating scurvy, the well-known patent cure ‘Vegetable Syrup’ advertisement noted that a T. Huckings felt it was necessary to take ‘a quantity every spring and autumn’. Huckings claimed that he intended to begin a course ‘on the first of March next’. This testimony served as a marketing technique for promoting the remedy’s repeated use.
Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe ‘to make Green oyntment’ for conditions like burns used pilewort which, ‘in A forward Spring’ you can ‘get it ye end of April wn ye Green leafe is Something like A Scurvy Grass leaf & bares A yallow flower like A Crasie’. The Tyrrell family’s collection similarly has a wound drink listing 23 herbs to be ‘gathered in May to keep all the year’. The herbs were ‘not good after they are a yeare old, & after two yeares stark nought’. One eye remedy even went as far as specifying that the ‘briony [bryony] must be taken up ye 10th of march’.
Animals too were collected in spring. This is likely because animals were more active in spring, and juveniles (with their stronger medicinal properties) were also available. To make worm powder for treating colic and convulsions 14-15 worms were to be collected, and April and May were ‘the best time for making this’. Another remedy for convulsions was a powder made of moles, ‘to be made only in March & September’. Indicating that ‘a dead Mole is good for nothing, you must cut the throat alive’, suggests that this remedy was best prepared in the months when the moles were most active and also medicinally efficacious.
Spring was an industrious time in 18th century English households. It was a time to be pro-active in preventing illness through regimens of medicine, exercise and diet, particularly as the social and agricultural seasons approached. The environment’s influence on the body was a feature of 18th century healthcare, and remedies both made and purchased were tied to the centrality of self-management in changing seasons. Forward planning was also clearly necessary to source plant and animal-based ingredients and to create medicines. Recipe books hence usefully document spring as a productive time for household and health management.
 MS.981, f. 138. Wellcome Library, London.  Add.72619, f. 114. British Library.  MS.2363, f. 64. Wellcome Library, London.  MS.3029, f. 50. Wellcome Library, London.  MS.7822, f. 11r.-11v. Wellcome Library, London.  MS.27466, f. 85. British Library.  Add.72619, f. 115v. British Library.  D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.