What is a recipe?

By Sally Osborn

Among the recipes for cakes and fritters, wines and pies, Lady Frances Hotham’s recipe book contains an entry that begins:

For little children’s lambswool shoes – Cast 17 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at both ends every other row, till you have 23 stitches. Knit 1 row plain. Add a stitch at the end only, every other row till you have 28 stitches.1

Or consider this, from a book of ‘Medical receits for the human and animal species’, probably belonging to a Thomas Chambre:

Paper lamp – Cut a piece of paper into a circular form about the size of a crown piece; twist a wick in the center, & plate it in the manner of a smoak jack. Put this to float in a saucer of oil & water in a large bason, & it will burn all night.2

Can those be described as recipes? Certainly examples such as this are a world away from Jerry Stannard’s model of a recipe as a formula with four essential parts: purpose, ingredients, procedure/equipment, and application/administration.3 Or compare Anne Stobart’s recent suggestion that private and emotional frustration in medical matters can be revealed by the ‘not-recipes’ in recipe books.

While Stannard’s model does not fit the knitting pattern and lamp-making instructions, Stobart’s ‘not-recipes’ do not explain the wide array of non-medical instructional information either. Recipes, as it turns out, are difficult to define. Take, for example, these two from Cornwall, which could loosely be described as veterinary and household respectively:

To prevent lambs from being killed by foxes &c – Take of brimstone gun powder and train oil make an ointment rub behind the ears and tail.4

Fulminating powder – Niter 3 parts salt of tartar 2 parts and sulphur one part mix them togeather by powdring them one dram of this powder will make a report like a musquet.5

Compilers of other collections record information on topics as diverse as ‘How to make a pond by puddling’ and ’To know if a woman be with child’, as well as beauty preparations and gardening tips.6

The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
The recipe as aide-mémoire. MS 1322. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some entries in recipe collections are rather more like aides-mémoire, such as ‘Balsam of Chilie to be had in Black Fryers near the Kings Printing house. Dr Salmons Prescriptions over the Door’ or a ‘shorter receipt for the tooth ach’ – ‘If it be decayed, draw it out’.7 Then there is the fascinating (and sometimes self-evident) list of ‘Things bad for the sight’:

To study after meat, and wines, onions, leeks, lettice going after meat, winds, hot air, and cold air, drunkeness, and gluttony, much milk or cheese, looking on red or white things if bright, mustard, much sleep after meat, too much walking after meat, too much letting of blood, collworts, fire dust, much weeping, and over much watching.8

Part of 'A receipt for a person to make her husband love her'. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.
Part of ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’. MS 1320. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

As well as the word ‘recipe/receipt’ being extended in application to a variety of topics, it was played with as a form, as discussed in this post by Anke Timmermann. Poetic recipes can be found in England too, such as the eighteen rhyming lines of ‘A poetical receipt to make a sack posset’.9

Recipes were also employed as metaphors, as in ‘A receipt for a person to make her husband love her’, part of which is reproduced here and which is considerably less sardonic than this ‘never failing receit to cure love’:

Take two ounces of the spirits of reason; three ounces of the powder of experience; five drams of juice of discretion; three ounces of the powder of good advice, and two spoonfulls of the cooling water of consideration; make it into pills and drink a little content after them: one dose cures the head of maggots and whimsies; then take another dose, and drink a little content and you will be restored to your right senses.10

We can compare this to the modern usage of phrases like ‘recipe for success’ or ‘recipe for disaster’.

By closely examining the contents of early modern recipe books, it becomes clear that it is not so straightforward after all to determine just what a recipe is. Recipes as a genre are malleable and adaptable–and these collections were working documents that acted as repositories for useful knowledge in a significant range of areas.


1. U/DDHO/19/3, Hull History Centre, 1816.
2. MS 7492, Wellcome Collection, late 18th century.
3. Jerry Stannard, “Rezeptliteratur as Fachliteratur”, in W. Eamon, Studies on Medieval ‘Fachliteratur’ (Brussels: OMIREL, 1982).
4. CA/B50/3, Cornwall Record Office, 1777.
5. Pocket book of John Belling, clockmaker of Bodmin, X949/1, Cornwall Record Office, 1737-51.
6. Commonplace book of John Sargent, Wilberforce 291, West Sussex Record Office, 1775; DD\X\FW, Somerset Archive, c.1751.
7. MS 1322, Wellcome Collection, 1660-1750; MS 1795, Wellcome Collection, 17-18th centuries.
8. Medical recipe book, Pares of Leicester and Hopwell Hall, D5336/2/26/9, Derbyshire Record Office, 18th century.
9. ’A collection of the best receits’, Katharine Palmer, MS 7976, Wellcome Collection, 1700–39.
10. MS 5509, Royal College of Physicians, 18th century.

The Working of Herbs, Part 2: Take One Herbal Recipe

By Anne Stobart

In the first post of this series, I flagged up some problems in finding out how herbs might work in a medicinal recipe. The question of medicinal herbs and their historical efficacy is a rather difficult area.[1] Through study of one recipe, I hope to provide pointers to useful sources, to indicate their relevance and to suggest caution where appropriate. Any recipe would work, but the one I have chosen is of particular interest because it has cropped up several times in my study of the late seventeenth-century recipe collections of a Devon household.

A water for After throwes

The receit of the water for affter Throwes.
The receit of the water for affter Throwes.

Take two hanfull of Isope [hyssop] two of peneroyall and two hanfull of Groundsell one handfull of wild mints two hanfulls of balme: These hearbs Cleane pickt and Sume fare water put upun all these hearbs togeather wash them Claine [‘and lay them in’ crossed out] then lay them in a pott or Earthen vessell: Shred these hearbs and put them in a quart of Spring water and let them lye in the water for a day and a night: then still the hearbes and water togather in a rose still then let the Glass bottle stand in the Sume Sinnce two Months Close Stopped from andy Ayre it Makes the water mush better. [2]

We will have to assume for this discussion that these plants are correctly identified as hyssop, pennyroyal, groundsel, wild mint and balm–although plant identification is another uncertain factor in considering recipes! Ideally we need to know:

  • the seventeenth-century indications for these plants.
  • the key constituents.
  • the likely physiological actions of these constituents.
  • the potential combinations of herbs in a preparation.
  • the dosage and its likely effects in the body.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

My first step is to explore Internet sources using hyssop as an example.The Internet brings a wealth of information, but finding out about a particular medicinal herb can be frustrating. This problem is worse if you seek a ‘historical’ source. Many sites readily repeat information about ‘traditional’ uses without reference to sources. For example, numerous sites claim that hyssop has been used for millennia and dates back to the Bible. If you search for ‘herbal medicine hyssop’ in Google, you are likely to draw up Wikipedia, Mrs Grieve’s herbal, commercial websites offering herbal medicines and medical databases.

Relatively few of these sites give accurate historical background. However, a reasonable starting point is Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, which still provides more detail than most sources on medicinal constituents, actions, uses and preparations.[3] First published in 1931, the book is good value as a secondhand hard copy purchase and provides succinct information on many plants. Grieve draws on a variety of classical to early modern sources for constituents, medicinal actions and uses. But… A Modern Herbal needs considerable updating.

A more recent publication from Tobyn et al. follows selected herbs in texts from Dioscorides onwards, including hyssop, and provides details of therapeutic use with constituents and clinical research evidence.[4] Although limited to 27 plants, this text has a useful overview of relevant authors from classical to modern times.

Internet searching can be confusing if you are looking for reliable sources on historical use of plants and their consituents and medicinal actions. In my next two posts, I will outline some qualities and indications of the herbs in this recipe and the benefits of locating a good quality herb monograph.

Notes

[1] For example: John K. Crellin, ‘Revisiting Eve’s Herbs: Reflections on Therapeutic Outcomes’, In Herbs and Healers from the Ancient Mediterranean through the Medieval West: Essays in Honour of John M Riddle, edited by Anne Van Arsdall and Timothy Graham (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012, pp.307-27).

[2] ‘The Right Honorable The Lady Receipt Booke Anno Dom 1690’, p.82, Ugbrooke House, Chudleigh, Devon. My thanks to Lord and Lady Clifford for permission to access their private archive.

[3] Maud Grieve, A Modern Herbal: The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folklore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs and Trees with All Their Modern Scientific Uses. First 1931 ed. (London: Penguin, 1980).

[4] Graeme Tobyn, Alison Denham, and Margaret Whitelegg, The Western Herbal Tradition: 2000 Years of Medicinal Plant Knowledge (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/ Elsevier, 2010).

Job opportunity: funded PhD studentship at the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is advertising three funded PhD studentships as part of a new project on the Boughton House estate and the Montagu family called ‘The English Versailles: Refashioning the Eighteenth-Century Landed Estate’. The lucky candidates get to work with Professor Roey Sweet, Professor Pete King or Dr Elizabeth Hurren. Dr Hurren, in particular, is for someone to study ‘Household Cures and Female Charity: The Welfare and Well-being of the Estate’. The student will examine, amongst other things, the financial accounts, personal papers and recipe books of the Montgue family in order to further understand healthcare in the 18th century country house.

More details can be found here.

The Working of Herbs, Part 1: Did Herbal Recipe Ingredients Really Work?

By Anne Stobart

As a clinical herbal practitioner with a research background in the history of medicine, I am sometimes asked the question: ‘Did the herbs work?’. In this post, the first of a series (The Working of Herbs), I consider how we might examine whether medicinal plants in recipes might have worked.

The question may seem simple, but it is a tough one to answer. It provokes even more questions, including:

  1. What are the herb constituents (phytochemistry and pharmacognosy)?
  2. What research has been done on the effects of medicinal plants (herbal pharmacology)?
  3. Should we be thinking about efficacy (historiography and medical history)?
  4. Do we know the parts of herbs, the preparation and dosage of the recipe (pharmacy)?

[Pharmacy: Illustration of pharmaceutical chest] Carl Linnaeus, Materia medica, Liber I. De plantis (Holmiae - Laurentii Salvii, 1749, title page & frontis). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
[Pharmacy: Illustration of pharmaceutical chest] Carl Linnaeus, Materia medica, Liber I. De plantis (Holmiae – Laurentii Salvii, 1749, title page & frontis). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
It is unsurprisng that historians often avoid raising the question in the first place. But I believe that we need to clarify the potential effects of medicinal recipes, and I have been thinking about how to establish a rational protocol for answering this question in relation to a medicinal recipe. I hope that other readers will chip in with their thoughts and useful advice!

Figure 2. [Plants of medicinal value to particular human body parts], Michael Bernhard Valentini, Medicina nov-antiqua (Francofurti ad Moenum: Joan, Maximiliani à Sande, 1713,  fol. 286). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Figure 2. [Plants of medicinal value to particular human body parts], Michael Bernhard Valentini, Medicina nov-antiqua (Francofurti ad Moenum: Joan, Maximiliani à Sande, 1713, fol. 286). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Presentism

A discussion of how herbal ingredients of recipes might have worked raises at least three problems of historiographical concern.

First, we need to be aware of ‘presentism’. Current knowledge about plant constituents and medicinal effects can easily influence our view of what people knew/did in the past. Second, implicit assumptions that the use of medicinal herbs was connected to therapeutic efficacy should be questioned since there might have been other reasons for their use. (Figure 2 shows the links between plants and body parts, some of which were probably based on shape). Third, some authors suffer from what I call ‘plantaholicism’–overly sympathetic and exclusively plant-focused view of the past. This may provide a narrow viewpoint, particularly when we consider that many other items were used in the materia medica including animal and mineral ingredients.

I fully understand that I may be guilty at times of demonstrating all of the above problems, and part of my rationale for drafting these posts is to help to clarify how to manage these issues.

Finding out more

This post flags up some problems in trying to assess efficacy. Although my examples in this series will be drawn from early modern sources, I hope that some points made will be relevant to other periods.[1] In further posts in this series I aim to provide some pointers for historians and others looking at recipes who wish to seek out reliable sources and information about herbal constituents and their actions.

Coming up in future posts…

  • how to locate reliable information about herbs
  • why the herbal monograph can be a useful tool
  • how to consider the effects of combining herbs in a recipe

 

[1] See for example, classical pharmacology in Laurence M. V. Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece (Boston: Brill, 2009).

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine