Tag Archives: British Library

First Monday Library Chat: British Library

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! We’ve been talking to libraries in the USA and Canada, but today we jump across the pond to the British Library in London, England. The British Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, with around 14 million books and a grand total of over 150 million items, print and digital.

Today I’m chatting with Dr. Arnold Hunt, Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, about some of the manuscript recipe books in their collection.

The British Library has an impressive assortment of bound manuscript recipe books, and some loose recipe collections. Can you give us an idea of the scope of the library’s holdings?

Our subject-index of manuscripts lists over 300 items under the heading ‘Recipes’ or ‘Receipts’, ranging in date from medieval to nineteenth century, but chiefly from the early modern period.Some could be categorized as ‘cookery’ or ‘medicine’, but others are just listed in our catalogue as ‘miscellaneous receipts’ with no clear indication of their contents, so there’s still a lot of work to be done in describing and cataloguing them all properly.This is definitely one of the more neglected areas of our manuscript collections – partly, I suspect, because until recently these manuscripts would have been regarded as women’s work and therefore not very important.

I have a particular love for Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of manuscripts, which includes several early modern medical and scientific recipe books. Can you tell us a bit more about why the Sloane collection is important, and when and how the British Library acquired these works?

Sloane specialized in medicine and botany, though he collected very widely in other areas as well.For the first half of the eighteenth century, right up to his death in 1753, he was the pre-eminent English collector in these fields, so he had the pick of everything that came onto the market.One reason why his collections are important, though, is that he wasn’t fussy about what he acquired – he just collected everything he could lay his hands on – so his library is full of manuscript recipe books, including a lot of those ‘miscellaneous receipts’ that I mentioned just now, that a more fastidious collector might have discarded.After his death his collections were bought by Parliament and became the foundation of the newly-formed British Museum, later sub-divided to create the National History Museum and the British Library.

The Sloane collection includes some manuscript recipe books by both well-known and lesser-known figures. Why do you think Sloane was interested in collecting these? How do they fit into his book collection as a whole, or what can they tell us about Sloane?

Sloane’s motives for collecting aren’t always clear.But as a good Baconian, he wanted to get rid of the medieval tradition of ‘books of secrets’ and bring science and medicine into the realm of public knowledge.By acquiring these recipe books, he was bringing their contents into the public domain where they could be empirically tested by enlightened physicians like himself.The good recipes could be adopted, the bad ones could be discredited, and medical knowledge would thus be advanced.In other words, he seems to have looked on these manuscripts as potentially valuable resources for his own clinical practice.

I’ve noticed that many of the British Library’s recipe books, in the Sloane collection and in others, have been rebound. The new bindings are far less fragile and easier to use, but without the original bindings we lose some clues to the original composition process and use. Can you talk a bit more about conservation decisions? How do modern conservation practices differ from older ones?

Many of Sloane’s manuscripts were rebound in the nineteenth century.This was done for what at the time seemed to be perfectly good reasons, but it had some unfortunate results.I particularly regret the loss of some of Sloane’s notes on the flyleaves of his manuscripts, as well as notes by previous owners which might have told us something about their earlier provenance.Conservation nowadays is carried out with a lighter touch, and when manuscripts are rebound we generally preserve the covers of the old binding.  Our Collection Care blog explains the reasoning behind some of our conservation decisions.

Can you describe a couple of interesting recipe-related manuscripts in the Sloane collection that could inform us a bit about the scope of Sloane’s collecting practices?

Sloane MS 703 is a volume of household receipts, very neatly copied in a late seventeenth-century hand, which Sloane’s librarian Humfrey Wanley described as ‘A great Collection of Receits in Cookery, Physick, and other matters Relating to Women’.

Sloane MS 703, f. 43. Credit: British Library, London.
‘To make Oring Marmelett’. British Library, Sloane MS 703, f. 43v.

Sloane MS 1000 is a more miscellaneous collection, copied in a variety of different hands, often on small scraps of paper, which Sloane listed in his catalogue as ‘Processes and receits’ collected by ‘Mr Bonivert’ (i.e. Gideon Bonivert, one of Sloane’s correspondents).

Sloane MS 1000, f. 195. Credit: British Library, London.
‘A water for the head’. British Library, Sloane MS 1000, f. 195r.

What these two manuscripts show is that there’s very little distinction, in the early modern period, between receipts collected for domestic and household use and those collected for professional or medical use.Bonivert’s collection includes examples of both, and Sloane himself collected right across the spectrum.

Do these recipe books factor into any institutional digitization priority lists that might eventually provide free access?

For many of Sloane’s manuscripts we’re still reliant on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century catalogue descriptions, so at the moment I feel the priority is to get the collection properly catalogued to modern standards.Ideally this would include digitization as well, but the scale of Sloane’s collection makes this a dauntingly large task.However, we’ve been working with the British Museum and the Natural History Museum on a project called Sloane’s Treasures, which has the ultimate aim of bringing together all Sloane’s collections – books and manuscripts, prints and drawings, artifacts and specimens – into a single database where they can be studied as a unified whole.

Can anyone visit the collections in the Manuscript Reading Room?

Most of our manuscripts are available for consultation by anyone with a BL reader’s pass, though for some manuscripts we ask readers to supply a letter of introduction from an academic colleague or tutor.  If you’re planning a visit to the BL, and you already know what you want to see, you can order items in advance.  If you have a question about a particular manuscript in our collection, you can contact us at mss@bl.uk.

If you would like to suggest a library for the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.

A cordial for those on a budget

By Jennifer Munroe

When we read recipe books, we are accustomed to seeing lists of ingredients (and accessories) that might lead us to infer a difference in how much they cost to make. One recipe from the Sloane collection in the British Library helpfully makes these differences explicit for the reader: “The Great Palsy Water” or, a “Lavendar Cordial” from “My Lady Rennelaghs Choice Receipts: as also Some of Capt Willis who valued them above gold” (Sloane 1367, ff. 7v-9):

The great palsy water, wch also is of exceeding vertue in all soundings, weaknesse of the [drawn pic of a heart] & decaying of the spirits & ye best remedy in all apoplexy, palsy, epilepsie both to help in the fitt & to prevente it, also in all pains of the joints coming of cold, in all bruises outwardly bathed or diped clothes in it & laid to it, It strigthneth and comforst all animals vital & natural spirits [cleareth] ye external senses, strengthneth the memory, restores lost appetite, all weaknesse of the stomake both taken inwardly and bathed outwardly. It taks away gidenesse of the head & helps lost memory, brings a pleasant breath, it helps ye lost speech & all cold dispositions of the liver & a beginning dropsie, it helps all cold diseases of the mother (f.7v).

The list of ingredients includes such common plants as lavender, cowslips, betany, and borage; but it also includes items that would be more difficult to obtain and expensive, such as cinnamon and orange flowers. One of the most striking features of this recipe is the number of ingredients—over nineteen total—and the rather complex process of combining, steeping, distilling, pressing, and straining that is involved.

But under the same recipe heading for the palsy we also find an alternative version, “An other water of the same of lesse price”. This second, cheaper version has approximately half the ingredients, most of which could be grown or easily obtained by the user: lavender, rosemary, sage, or marjoram. The process of preparing said water/cordial is also more simple, substituting, for example, a “gallon glass” for the proper limbeck. Although the ingredients must be distilled and takes six weeks preparation time for each version, the second involves fewer steps and omits the more specific imperative found repeatedly in the other version: to keep it “very close stoped & clad with a bladder & see nothing may breath out.”

So what might we make of these differences? Why would someone, when it was not the common practice, offer alternative recipes for the same ailment with clear delineation by cost? And why include the two different versions of the same recipe under the same heading, when it was common to see multiple recipes for the same ailment listed under separate headings anyway, as was the case in this book as well?

This two-tiered (according to cost) recipe has me wondering who the book’s compiler imagined as his audience. The book seems to have been compiled by Captain [Thomas?] Willis, a Civil War soldier and esteemed physician, but the recipes here are attributed to the well-known sister to Robert Boyle, Katherine Jones (Lady Ranelagh). In addition to the attribution of these remedies to such a respected source, there are other hints that Willis was interested in it serving as a comprehensive and authoritative source for remedies. For instance, the book incorporates scientific symbols for measurements.

Willis’ differently-priced versions suggests how the book was imagined as both authoritative and inclusive. It allowed for a professional (or pseudo-professional) readership and users who might be interested in recipes as a form of “experiment”, while inviting a more common practitioner to share the discursive and practical space on the page and in a kitchen-laboratory.

I don’t know the answers. But what I do know is that seeing such differentiation in this book has made me ask new questions about other ones and to look for further evidence of class distinctions within recipes—whether in the accessibility and costs expressed in lists of ingredients, or the availability of materials that are required for the processes they describe.

At the same time, it makes me think that we should be asking ourselves whether these recipes can tell us something about the daily experience of early modern people, with moments of inclusion less bound by class than we might otherwise believe. It seems that a person using this recipe, even with its declared different versions, finds it as part of a larger manuscript that did not to hierarchize based on cost, education, and access to professional circles. After all, why would someone who might need a lower cost water for the palsy consult a book in which we find evidence of an interest in more professional “scientific” approaches to remedies if that person did not have some interest in and feel qualified to use the other recipes as well?

So, this blog post really offers less in the way of answers and proposes questions that I hope we can address collectively. And somehow that seems to suit the spirit of such a book!

Exploring CPP 10a214: Sweet Bags and Dames

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

In my last entry (06/08/2013), I related the short tale of my British Library disappointment. On the upside, in not finding conclusive evidence toward the identity of the compiler of the marvelous manuscript at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I only had to read a letter and determine the difference of hands, which was but a matter of minutes.I was left to pursue another link to the Layfield manuscript, one that was, perhaps more fruitful, if only slightly more conclusive.

At page 55 of the Downing half of the manuscript appears the following recipe:

To dry roses to put in sweete baggs

Take the best damask rose leaues
sifted clean and lett them lye ii houres
after a broade upon a table then take
orace, storax and Beniamin beaten
to powder, of each a like quantity then
take a wide mouthed glasse & therein cast
a layer of roses & a layer of powder
crush them down hard and sett them in
the hott sunne till they be dry & crisp, so
take them out & put them in your bagge
probatum per Dnam Yeluerton

The British Library contains an extensive manuscript of more than 1300 recipes (yes, I did count) owned by one Margaret Yelverton (BL Add MS 28237). On its 186th leaf, the manuscript records various recipes for sweet bags, pomanders, and the like.  None of the recipes for sweet bags is exactly as recorded in the Layfield manuscript. One, however, “To make sweete baggs for Linnin” (fol. 186r) has several of the same ingredients and seems to be a more developed version of the Philadelphia one, but adding a few more perfumes and using an alembic to dry out the flowers rather than relying on the sun.

What does this convergence tells us?

  • Elizabeth Downing’s position as a medical practitioner/recipe collector (12/03/2013) was paralleled by that of her contemporary Margaret Yelverton, as well as by that of their contemporary, the Countess of Exeter (09/04/2013).
  • The purpose of the sweet bags, though not described in the Philadelphia manuscript, was to perfume linens.
  • The recipe from the Layfield manuscript is for a more refined sweet bag, as another in the Yelverton manuscript “To make sweet baggs with little cost” (fol. 186r) does not have the more expensive storax and benjamin, but rather the more common cloves and cinnamon.

In turn, however, the Philadelphia manuscript tells us little about of “Dnam Yelverton,” as it is not clear if “Dame” in the manuscript refers to an actual lady or to a housewife. Four other attributions hold the title, three other times thus spelled.  We cannot even be sure if the Yelverton recipe came directly from the source or through a third party (though third parties are noted elsewhere in the manuscript). What the manuscript does reveal is an extensive early seventeenth-century network of women of varying status and capabilities.

Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.

[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.