But does it work? Playful magic and the question of a recipe’s purpose

By Melissa Reynolds

An early sixteenth-century recipe for “good gome” in Wellcome Library MS 406, f. 23r. Digitized images of the manuscript available at https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18935709.

One of the many pleasures of studying late medieval English “how-to” manuscripts is the wide and often surprising array of knowledge to be found within them. Most contain a good bit of medical information, such as herbal recipes and instructions for bloodletting, and many also contain useful household information, like directives for animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, sewing, ink-making, and so on. Also common to these collections are charms for curing fevers, staunching blood, and protecting women in childbirth. Some medieval English collections of recipes also contain magic of a lighter sort, like directions to “make a woman lift her skirts” or “to make thunder and lightning,” discussed in earlier posts by Laura Mitchell and Catherine Rider.

One such example of a light—and somewhat lascivious—recipe is found on folio 20 of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1389, a late fifteenth-century recipe collection compiled by William Aderston, probably a surgeon working in London.[1]

To make men & women to take off their clothes

Take grain with evil thistles [thystylls] which grow above the ditch & make from that a powder & put it in someone’s lap & immediately he or she will take off his or her clothes.[2]

Image credit: British Library, from Prudence Guilllaume de Roujoux, Histoire d’Angleterre (Paris, 1844), text added by Melissa Reynolds.

Certainly, as Mitchell has suggested, recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are inherently playful. Yet I am also inclined to agree with Rider who points out that there is little evidence that medieval compilers drew a sharp distinction between lighthearted recipes and straightforwardly practical ones. In the case of Ashmole 1389, the recipe to make men and women shed their clothes appears within a short section of non-medical recipes in an otherwise overwhelmingly medical collection. Most other non-medical entries in the manuscript are clearly useful, like a recipe to make glue or instructions for fishing and engraving on metal.

So why was this recipe included in an otherwise useful collection, and what can its inclusion teach us about late medieval culture?

Historians can read 500 year-old recipes for medicine, agriculture, textile production, or cooking and understand why such knowledge was selected for “how-to” manuscript collections, even though the materials and techniques described are unfamiliar to us now. We can understand why so many collections feature useful, natural magic, as there was little distinction between magical and non-magical cures in medieval culture. In these cases, our understanding of the medieval recipe book rests on the basic premise that people wanted acces to useful (and useable) knowledge.

But recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are perhaps more illuminating precisely because they don’t fit this mold. They challenge our presumptions about the purpose and function of a recipe. This recipe isn’t obviously practical, nor is it even apparent that it could be, or ever was, attempted by its compiler.

Though lighthearted magic like that in Ashmole 1389 is not nearly as common as healing magic, its presence in medieval collections should encourage us to reflect on what we expect from a recipe, and how those expectations color our historical interpretation. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if our focus on finding out how pre-modern recipes “work” always reflects the focus of pre-modern compilers and readers? Attempts at recipe reproduction can yield unmatched insights into pre-modern worldviews, materials, and techniques; hands-on and collaborative research into recipes should by all means continue! But while we’re building furnaces, making chacolet, and casting flowers, let us also remember that a pre-modern recipe might have had any number of meanings or uses for the pre-modern reader, some of which we may not yet fully understand.


[1]Aderston left his signature at the bottom of a recipe on folio 14v (“per me W. Aderston”) and a record at the National Archives of the UK contains reference to a “William Aderston, of London, surgeon” as plaintiff in a trespassing case against the sheriffs of London sometime between 1483–1515.

[2]Ad faciendum homines & mulieres deponere pannos suos / Accipe grana malignos cardenibus ^thys tylls^ qui crescunt super fossat & fac inde pulvere & ponite in gremio alicuius & statim exuet pannos. The Latin gremio could be “lap, bosom” or “womb; female genital parts.” You can see how a different translation would change the sense of the recipe entirely.


My journey towards knotty history with the Recipes Project – reflections of a medical herbalist

by Anne Stobart

Starting from a science background

‘That is bad history!’ scowled my history lecturer back a decade or so. Yikes, what could I have done wrong? I felt struck down, so ashamed to have committed some major error, even deserving of being smitten with boils [Figure 1].

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils c.1826 William Blake, Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03340

As a postgraduate, I had discovered women’s history, and become interested in researching seventeenth-century recipes. Deciphering these manuscripts required some skill, and so I had enrolled on a palaeography summer school where our kindly university lecturer introduced us to the transcription of poor law records. But what exactly was my error? From a science background, I knew only how to put together a scientific report with hypothesis, methodology, results and conclusions. I had no training in historical methods, so I applied the scientific method, daring to voice a hypothesis about the poor in the seventeenth century.

The details escape me now, but likely my suggestion was a fanciful theory not borne out by the evidence, and the lecturer was trying to warn me about jumping to conclusions. It was a painful lesson about which I have thought many times since, and it certainly motivated me to find out about ‘good’ history. But, as I then began to immerse myself in early modern domestic medicine, I soon learned that ‘good’ history was something of a mirage.

Welcome from history colleagues

Rolling forward some years to growing interest in historical recipes and the Recipes Project, and what a welcome difference I found. I was much encouraged by history colleagues who gave freely of their knowledge and experience. In the early days, this led to setting up the Medicinal Receipts Research Group. I found other scholars developing much expertise in interpreting archival material with limited provenance and anonymous contributions by many hands. Often, the gaps themselves in the archives were meaningful, especially considering the invisible roles and activities of women. My doctoral research was assisted by groundbreaking studies of women’s history which questioned many historical concepts. I did go on to carry out research into historical recipes and domestic medicine (now published by Bloomsbury Academic as Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England).  One of my earliest Recipes Project posts based on my research was about an unusual ‘not-recipe’, a vehicle enabling one woman to express her frustration in seventeenth-century medical matters, albeit in a limited way. It has been inspiring since to see Recipes Project contributions discussing ‘What is a recipe’  in a wide-ranging foray with much interdisciplinary collaboration.

Difficult conversations and living history

But, as a practising medical herbalist, my research also led me into difficult conversations with some herbal colleagues who claimed a romantic past of witches, midwives and healers. At times, I found myself, in turn, warning about ‘bad’ history, arguing for more objectivity about the historical evidence available, and questioning assumptions that all early modern women were expert healers [Figure 2].

Did all women make household remedies in the seventeenth century? Front cover of Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016) www.bloomsbury.com/uk/household-medicine-in-seventeenth-century-england-9781472580368/]

Fortunately, I found other herbalists keen to encourage more scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and this led to setting up the Herbal History Research Network. At the opposite  end of the scale, I found that historical colleagues needed ways to objectively evaluate medicinal plants, especially since many lacked medical or botanical backgrounds. This led me to develop the series entitled ‘The Working of Herbs’ providing a protocol for locating, and distinguishing, past and present understandings about medicinal plants. I have really valued the existence of the Recipes Project, as a sort of ‘room in the ether’ for networking with colleagues, a supportive space to explore such developments and techniques. I remain interested in the tensions between science and history, curious about issues of methodology in historical research, fascinated especially by ‘historiography’, an expansive term which seems to encompass everything about ‘writing’ history, yet draws back under the critical gaze of some historians at the ‘doing’ of history.

Figure 3. Making a traditional recipe today (author’s photo)

Particularly welcome in the Recipes Project has been the pioneering and  positive approach towards the reconstruction of recipes [Figure 3]. As in the theatrical context (see Johnson, 2015), the recreation of living history, though not without drawbacks, brings greater appreciation of both emotive and technical aspects of culture, adding considerable value in interpretation of archives.

A great forum for knotty issues 

For me, the study of historical recipes brings together so many social, cultural, economic and material aspects, that it is not surprising that historiography can be a challenge to articulate, let alone develop. I found that criticising other people’s historical approaches was easier than defining my own perspective. In my research I drew on a wide range of archival sources relating to an individual household, and I was glad to find others describing such a ‘micro-history’ style of working, recognising ‘ragged accounts’ in medical history research (Burnham, 2005, p.141). In further recognition of the importance of context, Wendy Wall (2015) writes of ‘knotty’ (p.91) issues raised by recipes, well illustrating the way in which these need to be carefully teased out. Trying to pin down accurate characterization of historical methods and frameworks is not a small task, but the Recipes Project can provide a great forum for such an endeavour. Long may the Recipes Project, and its tireless editors, continue to offer a rich feast of knotty historical recipe research.

Burnham, John C. What Is Medical History? Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

Johnson, Katherine M. ‘Rethinking (Re)Doing: Historical Re-Enactment and/as Historiography’. Rethinking History 19, no. 2 (2015): 193–206.

Stobart, Anne. Household Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Wall, Wendy. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Sweet Endings

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Pastern.

The Recipes Project team would like to thank everyone who participated in our month-long Virtual Conversation on ‘What is a Recipe?’ It was a wonderful month in which had a chance to explore a question near and dear to our hearts, as well as to meet (virtually) people working on recipes in a wide-range of ways.

On 10 July 2017, we hosted a two-part discussion on Facebook Live, in which the RP editors (Amanda Herbert, Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Laurence Totelin) joined Elma Brenner at the Wellcome Library, London. The first part is available here, or on Facebook.

In this section, we chatted about some of our favourite recipe books at the Wellcome Library, as well as four themes that came up during the conference: recipe-like things, reconstruction, celebrity, and stories.

Laurence also put together a great Pinterest board on Cleopatra as a celebrity endorsement of products.

In part 2, we opened with a discussion about how different archives–the Wellcome Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library–have collected recipe books, followed by an examination of two sources that Laurence brought in from her own collection: an early twentieth-century advertisement for Allenbury’s food (infant formula) and a 1960s Australian edition of Mrs. Beeton. These sources led us to a conversation on empire, race, and recipes.

We then took questions from our Facebook audience. Unfortunately, Facebook has lost our video! Some questions were quite general (e.g. how can you start researching recipes), while others were much more specific (e.g. why do we assume recipes only mean food today?).

For those of you interested in researching recipes, please take a look through our blog, which is a snapshot of recipes scholarship. Our First Monday Library Chat series also offers a glimpse into various recipe collections around the world. We also have a Zotero bibliography in which several recipe scholars have shared details of  useful primary and secondary sources. And, eventually, we will have an exhibition site of our entire virtual conversation — so please stay tuned!

As to why we think of recipes being food… We considered, in particular, the ways in which the term ‘recipes’ is used in a lot of ways, even today — such as IFTTT ‘recipes’ or recipes for paint. It’s just that these occur within more niche groups. And when it comes to science and medicine, the search for precision has led to the use of the term ‘formula’ rather than ‘recipe’.

A fine place to conclude our many discussions on ‘what is a recipe?’… We still can’t pin down the term, as flexible boundaries are useful when looking at the subject. But the distinction between formula and recipe also links back to our earliest discussions on recipes being alive and in the wild. We can’t detach experience, embodiment, and constant change from the concept of ‘recipe’. Whatever a recipe is, it is NOT precision.

And that is what makes them so much fun.

Thank you once again for your presentations, your chats, and your interest that have made our virtual conversation such a success! Regular blogging resumes next Tuesday. Please don’t be a stranger.

Day 9: What is a Recipe?

Ferdinand Wright, Summer Landscape, 1877. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

We hope you’re still enjoying this brilliant weather and are equally as excited for our last big event day of the virtual conversation on ‘What is a Recipe?’. We’ve got some brilliant new topics coming your way and some of our oldies, but goodies, joining us too.

“Teaching Cookbooks: A Twitter Conversation on Food, Gender, History & Writing” from Emily Contois with the hashtag #teachingcookbooks. Twitter: @emilycontois and website: bit.ly/foodgender. Emily will be sharing her reading list, lesson plan, and teaching tips—plus some of her students’ cookbook analysis essays in a 24 hour twitter chat on the topic starting from 8am.

Credit: Katherine Hysmith.

“#FreeFireCider: Folk Herbalists, Feminist Hashtags, and the Instagram Modernity” from Katherine Cheyenne Hysmith. Twitter: @kchysmith, Instagram: @kchysmith and blog post here. Herbalists regard Fire Cider as a community-owned recipe but it has built up a commercial niche. Katherine will be exploring the historic “recipe” and how this community of shared knowledge deals with modern legal issues with a focus on the Instagram accounts of women folk entrepreneurs, how they use the hashtag #freefirecider in the hopes of winning back their recipe, and, in turn, help form a folk narrative within the Instagram modernity.

“Teaching Recipes: Recipes as Sources for Women’s Lives” from Rachel Snell.  Rachel blogs about her module here and shares the website of students’ work from “Food, Femininity, and Feminism in American Culture from Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart”, which looks at the ways in which  the production and consumption of food fundamentally shaped concepts of femininity and feminism in American culture.

“‘Unboxing’ a new acquistion” from Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. We’ll be witness to the ‘unboxing’ of a new French receipt book manuscript! Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/umnbiomedlib, Twitter: @umnbiomedlib, and Instagram: @umnlib.

From the Potato Experiment.

The “Spuddenly Farming: A reconstruction of Rev. Mr. Cochran’s Potato experiment, 1791” from Siobhan Carlson is back again with updates on the experiment! Siobhan will be on Instagram  @SpuddenlyFarming and Twitter @Spuddenly_Farm

“Henri’s Kitchen”, the final installment in which Harry Hayfield looks at Boeuf Bourginon through the eyes of his seventeenth-century musketeer, Henri.

“Recipes in the Early Royal Society Archives” from Sietske Fransen, who has been exploring the visual practice of the early Royal Society will be on twitter as @sietske_fransen and @MVCRASSH and her blog post on her archives tweets here.

Still ongoing we’ve got ‘Cooking With Anger’  where you can join the comments and create your own improvised recipe from a basket of ingredients. If you joined in Day 8’s discussions about fictional foods, you might enjoy taking a crack at ‘Cooking With Anger’.

In any case, make sure to check out Tallulah’s intriguing blog post about ‘Stories and memories: Day 8 of the Recipes Project’ where she explores all of the brilliant things which happened on Monday– including that extended discussion of fictional meals! She also discusses the focus on reconstructions, discussions of the ‘art’ of a good recipe and the connections between recipes and family history, and the many forms of recipes that appear in our daily lives.

It looks like there’s going to be a lot of themes today for our last big event day with focus on gender, community, improvisational cooking, digital recipes, and pedagogy cropping up already. We’ll have to see if we get reconstruction popping up again today…

We’ll see you again on the 10th with a final recording at the Wellcome Library.