By Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche
In an earlier post (18/10/2012), blog readers were introduced to a recipe book found at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The volume’s ownership inscription reads, “Anne Layfielde / her booke of /Physicke & / Surgery / 1640,” and the entries within it appear in a wide array of hands and link recipes with the names of well over fifty contributors. Rebecca Laroche noted that the name “Elizabeth Downing” appears in conjunction with many of the collection’s recipes. I had worked with the same manuscript, MS 10a214, during my visit to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 2010, and Rebecca and I soon began discussing the challenges of situating this particular volume in time and place. We realized that this forum offers an ideal venue for discussing those challenges, and we are embarking on a series of posting about our work with the manuscript.
A logical place to start seemed to be with the woman who claims ownership, Anne Layfielde. Who might she be? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography lists several Layfieldes living in the mid-seventeenth century, but all of them are male; no entries mention wives or daughters named Anne. Working on the theory that Anne’s book might be part of a larger web of domestic texts, we conducted a full text search in the Wellcome Library’s online catalog, which indexes the names mentioned in many of its recipe books.
The search reveals four hits on the name “Layfield,” all appearing in M.S. 8575. That volume’s opening pages feature the inscription “Mr Richard Holland his booke 1648,” providing a likely historical overlap with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia volume, dated 1640. The Holland book attributes three recipes to a Mrs. Layfield – one for a “Brimstone Drink for Shortness of Breath,” another for “a very good poltice for a sore breast or any swelling,” and another for a “Seesing Powder” meant to relieve lightheadedness.
But it is the fourth return in the “Layfield” search that offers the most tempting – perhaps dangerously tempting – possibilities. The recipe for “a sore breast which was feard might turn to a cancer” reflects a different tone from the other three Layfield recipes, perhaps because it comes from a “Mr Layfield,” not the earlier-named Mrs. The questions this invites are far reaching: are the manuscript’s Mr and Mrs Layfield husband and wife? It is easy to assume they are at least members of the same family, if not of the same household. Did Mrs. Layfield suffer from breast cancer, a condition whose treatment Mr. Layfield might have overseen, or at least witnessed? The unusual opening line – “The surgeon saide the chief cure was in a good Diet” – introduces the entry as more of an anecdote than a recipe, one where medical authority comes from an unnamed professional. And, just as importantly, the manuscript offers no clue as to who this Mr. Layfield might be, or where or when he lived. It only seduces us into envisioning a potentially tragic story involving his household’s medical woes.
The possibility of such a family narrative makes the reference enticing, though its dramatic allure may be misleading. But, as our ongoing work with the manuscript will show, these searches can unearth intriguing stories, even if they are unrelated to the projects that helped bring them to the surface.
This is the first in a series of monthly posts on this topic.