Tag Archives: Folger Shakespeare Library

Nature’s Coin: Beauty and Alchemy in Margaret Baker’s Book

This two-part post is by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history. Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls (in history). Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was complete for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.


By Karen Bowman

A delicate powder for the face, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.169, f. 97.

In the late seventeenth-century, recipe book compiler Margaret Baker listed twenty-eight recipes for beauty, amidst medicines for dropsy and distemper and recipes for custards and the stewing of racks of mutton. Baker’s recipes for beauty ranged from face powder and whitened hands to face waters and hair growth treatments (ff. 51, 109).  Baker had the chemical knowledge to beautify. Not only do the beauty treatments suggest her agency, status, and knowledge, but hint at strong connections between beauty and alchemy.

It was The Lady Croon’s recipe for pomatum (f. 106) that first caught my attention, pointing to chemical transformation in the social sense. While Lady Croon appears to be the author of the pomatum recipe, the contributor’s name “Mistress Anne Corbett” appears in the margin. If Mistress Corbett had passed on the recipe directly from Lady Croon, it seems likely that both had the means to make the pomatum and shared in an aristocratic social network (or aspired to one). Lady Croon’s pomatum was more than a means of creating a beautifying substance; the transference of knowledge was a gift that affirmed friendship bonds, social standing, and aspirations.

Pomatum was a greasy, waxy, or water-based substance used to style hair before applying powder. Given that powdered hair was a sign of class identity, the recipe suggests that Baker may had occasions to attend polite gatherings. Dressing one’s hair and caring for one’s skin required ‘self knowledge and inward identity and knowledge beyond one’s self reflecting an understanding of the body, its cultural and social meanings’ (Snook, 7). In a patriarchal society, in the absence of of wider legal and political representation, the ability to transform oneself was powerful information.

One’s face and body was the blank canvas for identity and social standing. For famed beauty Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (b. 1623), fair white skin was even political. She insisted that her mother was ‘a woman with perfect skin and politics’; skin thus represented social order and familial harmony–and, in her case, the Royalist cause. Other women, too, recognized beauty as nature’s coin and a way of forging identity within their own domestic structures and hierarchies.

Unknown, Lady at her Toilet, c. 1650-60. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the real achievement for women was not the face and body they showed the world. It was the the female knowledge of how to manipulate nature through chemistry and alchemy in order to transform basic materials into healing and beautifying physic.

There were relatively few make-up items in Baker’s book, as we today would understand them. Many were even gender neutral. Her products include items to ‘take away heat and pimples in the face’, ‘to make a clense from spotts’, ‘waters for the face’, ‘to take away freckles’, ‘to stop hair falling and grow thicke’, ‘to take away chapped hands’, and to keep the face smooth’ (ff.14, 44, 51, 83, 109, 49, 92). In addition there are instructions for making ‘a butter to curl the hair’, ‘to make hands soft and white’, ‘make a perfume’ and to perfume gloves’. (ff. 94, 85, 31, 98).

What many of the recipes have in common is that they were designed to transform the skin rather than cover it. Even hand ointments had a higher purpose, not just removing blemishes; keeping hands soft avoided drying and cracking, and becoming susceptible to disease. Protecting and preserving the skin was central to beauty.

Oyle of talcum, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.619, f. 21.

Many of the recipes required extensive time, skill, and effort to prepare. Baker included a powder recipe is for ‘oyle of talcume’ (f. 21), which was labourious to make. At one point in the process it needed to be let down by a rope

into a well some yard & a halfe or two yardes from the water nere to the well soe it touch it not’ & soe let it hang .20. or. 25. daies then if you find that it begine to cast out some oyle take it out of the well & set it in some moyst place, in some corner of your seller to defend it from the ayre: wind or other harmes & soe leaue it soe longe untill all the liccor become out of it.

The result was powder that could be mixed with water to wash the hands and body, making ‘them very white, soft and free from freckles or spottes – good for ladies’.

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger,. c. 1610-1690. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sometimes, the connections between alchemy (or chemical medicine) and beauty were literal. Baker used mercury in both her medicinal recipes and beautifying physic. This was not just an ingredient. Its knowledgeable deployment put Baker within the (assumed) masculine spheres of medicine, surgery and alchemy. Throughout her book, there are clues that Baker read widely on medicine and alchemy.

But the connections between alchemical transformation and bodily protection are clearest in beauty recipes. For example, in relation to one particular beautifying physic (f.12v.) it appears that Baker is attempting the impossible. An anomaly arises in the title ‘the taking away ‘quicksilver from mercurie’–the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that mercury and quicksilver are in fact the same. However, it seems that Baker may have been aware of cutting-edge experiments. Natural philosopher Robert Boyle, Baker’s contemporary, explained that through a system of depuration or continuous distillation and reduction, common quicksilver will run from the purified form of mercury left behind, which is then suitable for more sophisticated use (Boyle 645). In Baker’s case she is able to produce a ‘perfect water to keep the face cleare from spots or wrinkles.’

Baker’s recipes reveal her intellect and interaction with ideas of the day, as well as point to the uses of beauty treatments: transforming one’s body chemically and alchemically.  Bodily transformations included protecting and beautifying the skin, or even enabling social elevation.  Beauty and alchemy sat close together in Baker’s book.

 

Mistranslating Macaroni and Cheese

Amanda E. Herbert

Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mac and cheese is a well-loved, popular, time-tested dish, one that’s woven into the histories and cultures and memories of people around the world.  In America it’s an essential soul food dish.  In Canada, Kraft Dinner – mac and cheese with pieces of hot dogs and a squirt of ketchup – is a comfort food staple.  Western Europeans claim macaroni and cheese too, tracing its origins to the Swiss Alps, where Älplermagronen was made by French-speaking Swiss people, who believed it was the ideal snack for shepherds.

Macaroni and cheese appears in Anglo-American cookbooks as early as the fourteenth century – its antecedents include a sort of lasagna-like food called “Macrows” in the 1390 Forme of Cury – and by the long eighteenth century, the cheesy noodles were an established dish, garnering frequent mentions in both print and manuscript.  Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell chose an eighteenth-century “Maccarony Cheese” for their very first post on Cooking in the Archive, and it was a hit, helping to launch their incredibly successful blog and garnering a host of re-posts, comments, and suggestions.  In most Anglo-American recipes for mac and cheese, eighteenth-century authors called for the noodles to be boiled until tender and then mixed with ingredients like butter, eggs, and cheese.  The noodles were then either baked or put under a salamander – which in the period was a piece of iron that was heated and passed over a dish – that was supposed to give it a nice brown crust.  It’s a wonderful dish to suggest to folks who like to re-create early modern recipes, because most early examples of macaroni and cheese contain familiar, easy-to-obtain ingredients and clear, straightforward instructions.

But there are always exceptions to the rule.  Recently I found a recipe for macaroni and cheese in an eighteenth-century letter, and the account was confusing, if not downright disgusting.  Philip Thicknesse (1719-1792), an eighteenth-century artist, traveler, and writer, included a recipe for mac and cheese in a letter written to a man named John Cook.  Thicknesse spent a lot of time in France and took pride in his knowledge of French cuisine.  He wrote to his friend Cook on January 14, 1770 that he had recently “recv’d a very small present from France,” which included foods such as “Olives, a few Anchovies, [and] a pint of Vinegar.”  But the crowning glory of this gourmet stash was “some Maccerone.”  Thicknesse shared a portion of his dried French noodles with John Cook, bragging that macaroni and cheese was “no bad dish” and including instructions for preparing the food.  And this is where things seemed to go wrong.

Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
A pleasant and confident Thicknesse.  Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Thicknesse told Cook to take the packet of noodles and “boil it in water til it is quite tender, on[e] hour and a half at least, then the remaining water is poured off, and some butter and scraped cheese is put to it til both are well melted & dis[s]olved.” [My emphasis.] When I read this in the Huntington’s reading room I had to rub my eyes and take another look.  Boiling modern-day macaroni noodles for an hour and a half (at least!) would render them into an unappetizing slush, so far beyond al dente that they’d surely constitute a crime against pasta.  Was Thickness a bad cook?  Why was his advice so terrible?  At first I thought that this was a classic example of mistranslation in the period: the introduction of new foods into Western European diets via the so-called “Consumer Revolution” wasn’t a straightforward or guaranteed process, and British experiments with foods sourced from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean worlds could go wrong as frequently as they went right.  Thicknesse didn’t understand how pasta was supposed to be cooked, and as a result he offered bad culinary advice to his friend.

Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

But the more I thought about Thicknesse and his overcooked macaroni, the more I began to wonder if there wasn’t an entirely different process of mistranslation at work: one that was my own, rather than my historical subject’s.  What did Thicknesse’s pasta look like?  How long would it have taken to cook?  It turns out that, in the long eighteenth century, Western European people ate two very different kinds of pasta: soft noodles, made out of a paste of water and dough that was boiled quickly and lightly (akin to “fresh” pasta today) and hard noodles, where the dough was extruded through a machine before being dried (a bit like the crunchy, shelf-stable pastas you can find at modern grocery stores).  Soft noodles, like the “Macrows” featured in the Forme of Cury, called for cooks to roll out “a thynne foyle of dowh and kerve it on peces, and cast them on boillying water & see[th] it wele.”   Quick-cooking and easy to make, soft noodles were popular in a lot of eighteenth-century dishes.

The pasta Thicknesse was describing, however, would surely have been dried, as it had been transported to Britain from France.  Early modern dried pasta was durable and was considered easy to transport, even under very difficult conditions.  And it was massive: the earliest surviving example of an eighteenth-century pasta extruder made bigoli (a huge type of spaghetti) which was just over a foot long and 3 inches wide.  Even one of these enormous, snake-like pieces of pasta could have constituted a meal.  Hugh Plat (c.1552-1608), an English inventor and writer, created a different kind of pasta machine in the late sixteenth century, which produced oval-shaped, wafer-like pieces of pasta.  Plat included a diagram of this pasta machine in his Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594); while it’s notoriously difficult to get a sense of scale in early modern schemas such as these, comparing the size of the hand-crank on the right side of the machine with the pieces of pasta coming off of the wheel suggests that each wafer would have been three or four inches across – much larger than a modern orecchiette or conchiglie.

Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75. Image courtesy of the author and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75.

Everything I learned about eighteenth-century dried pasta suggested that it would have taken ages to cook until tender.  And although the resulting pasta might well have differed from the way that I expect modern pasta to look and taste, Thicknesse’s estimate of an hour and a half in cooking time perhaps wasn’t so far off after all, and the confusion was on my part rather than his.  Historical food recipes are fun and engaging, offering us almost instantaneous senses of familiarity and closeness with the past: food is a great universal.  But as we analyze old recipes and work to understand them, we have to fight our assumptions and presuppositions – perhaps especially about ingredients which are the most familiar to us – in order to make sure that we’re translating accurately.

Primary Sources:

The Forme of Cury, c. 1390. This book exists in manuscript in many different copies. I’ve consulted the first print version, compiled in 1780 and reproduced via Project Gutenberg.  Accessed April 23, 2018.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8102/pg8102-images.html

Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Philip Thicknesse Letters, c. 1770-c. 1785, MSS TH 1, Huntington Library.

Secondary Sources:

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davison ed. (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 580-584.

Sidney Lee, “Plat [Platt], Sir Hugh (bap. 1552, d. 1608), writer on agriculture and inventor,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed April 23, 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22357.

Malcolm Thick, “Sir Hugh Plat’s Promotion of Pasta as a Victual for Seamen,” Petits Propos Culinaires Vol. 40 (1992).

Thinking About 17th c. Potatoes (And Eating Them)

Amanda E. Herbert

[A version of this post appeared on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog, a current, sometimes playful, and always lively resource on a wide range of Shakespeare topics. Shakespeare & Beyond is created for the great variety of Shakespeare enthusiasts—young and old, from across the US and around the world.  You can see the original post here, and read more about our “recreation” of the recipe in a related post, here.]

Potatoes are an iconic food in the United States  They’re a staple of most American diets, and at holiday meals they often appear twice – white potatoes mashed with butter, and sweet potatoes layered into casseroles with gooey marshmallows melted on top (a dish invented by the Cracker Jack Company in 1917) – on tables around the country.  But potatoes have a complex and sometimes troubled American history, one that started outside of today’s United States.

Culinary historians and archaeobotanists now think that potatoes originated in Peru, and they were eaten by women and men living in South and Central America long before western Europeans arrived in these areas in the fifteenth century.  Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are frequently conflated or confused with yams (genus Dioscorea), and this slippage began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Sweet potatoes are of American origin, but their first major migration was westward, across the Pacific: in the 13th c. CE, they were taken to Easter Island and Hawaii, and later to New Zealand.  At the end of the fifteenth century, they traveled eastward across the Atlantic, when they were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus around 1493.  Yams, another edible root crop, are native to many different places around the world: Africa (Dioscorea cayenensis), Southeast Asia (Dioscorea alata, batatus, bulbifera, esculenta, japonica, and opposita) and even South America (Dioscorea trifida).  Potatoes and yams have a high yield, thrive in any kind of soil, are drought-resistant, and grow in many different climatic zones.  Their taste is not dissimilar and neither is their method of cultivation (although yams extend much deeper underground and it takes more work to dig them up).  And in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people of African, American, Asian, and European origin were all growing, selling, and eating these plants, and they didn’t always do a good job of distinguishing between them.

By 1500, the sweet potato (and/or yams) had become an established crop in western Europe.  They were a staple of European sailors’ diets.  And they were fed – often with great violence, and by force – to enslaved women and men, on the African continent, during the middle passage, and after arrival in the Caribbean and the Americas.  “Common,” or white potatoes, took a bit longer to catch on; they arrived in Europe as a cultivable vegetable between 1550-1570.  Metropolitan Britain was one of the last European countries to take to the potato; the first mention of potatoes (sweet, “common,” or otherwise) in a printed British book was in 1596, when famed herbalist and botanist John Gerard included it in his Catalogue.  This was apparently so well-received that a year later, Gerard devoted an entire chapter of his famous 1597 Herbal to this new and unfamiliar plant.

"Of Potatoes of Virginia," in John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
“Of Potatoes of Virginia,” in John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more British subjects – enslaved and free, and on both sides of the Atlantic – began to grow, harvest, cook, and eat potatoes (as well as, and alongside, yams).  In the early modern period, news of the potato spread through contact with print as well as people.  Women and men learned about potatoes through experimentation, books, and word-of-mouth.  They exchanged potato recipes with friends.  They shared potato cuttings with their neighbors.  They read about potatoes and tried their hands at preparing them.  And some were forced to learn about and eat potatoes out of necessity, because they had – or were given – nothing else.

A team of Folger researchers recently uncovered a very early European potato recipe in our archives.  The Folger Library in Washington, DC is proud home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States.  And in one of these recipe books, a manuscript collection kept by the Grenville family from c. 1640-1750, is a recipe entitled “to make a potato puding.”  The recipe called for some ingredients that would have been familiar to any early modern British person, like butter and eggs.  But it also included ingredients that might have seemed luxurious and even exotic: sweet wine imported from Spain, cinnamon (which was sourced from India and Sri Lanka in the early modern period), and three pounds of potatoes.  This recipe reveals one family’s attempt to bring a new and unfamiliar food to their table, but it also teaches us about wealth and social status in seventeenth-century Britain.  The Grenville’s potato pudding was a fancy dish, saved for special occasions, and something that most early modern families would not have been able to afford.

Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, (ca. 1640-ca. 1750), V.a.430, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, (ca. 1640-ca. 1750), V.a.430, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

We learned a lot about early modern markets, economies, foodways, and methods of cultivation as we studied the Grenville recipe for potato pudding, but we also wanted to try it for ourselves.  So we invited Dr. Amanda Moniz, a former professional chef, veteran Recipes Project contributor, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy, to visit the Folger in order to help us re-create the Grenville’s potato pudding in our test-kitchen.

We faced three major challenges in making this dish in a form that early modern people would have recognized.  First, the recipe calls for sack, a type of sweet fortified wine originally produced in Spain and the Canary Islands.  Sack fell out of use in the nineteenth century, and isn’t available in most American markets.  The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern sherry, and especially a dark sherry like Oloroso, which is what we used in our adaptation.  The second challenge is that the pudding calls for a lot of eggs: eight of them, both whites and yolks.  Early modern eggs were smaller, less uniform, and had different moisture levels than our modern American ones.  In order to reach the right consistency, we cut the number of eggs in our potato pudding down to five, and we adjusted our cooking time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes so that the pudding would set properly.  And last, the recipe doesn’t specify what types of potatoes the Grenvilles used in their pudding.  But since sweet potatoes were the first kind of potato to be widely adopted in early modern Europe – and since we thought that those flavors would be more familiar to most modern Americans today – that’s what we chose.

When it was finished, the potato pudding was delicious, earning high marks from all of the members of our Folger tasting team.  Creamy and rich, delicately scented with sweet wine and cinnamon, this early modern sweet potato pudding was both unusual and familiar, imparting a sense of the past without compromising the sensibilities of a present-day palate.  We don’t know how often the Grenvilles made this potato pudding, but I’m going to be making it again very soon.

Sweet potato pudding. Image courtesy of the author.
Sweet potato pudding. Image courtesy of the author.

The Grenville Family’s Sweet Potato Pudding (adaptation)
Ingredients:

3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
¾ lb. butter, softened
½ c. sherry (we recommend a dark sherry like Oloroso)
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
5 whole eggs, lightly beaten

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 350F.  Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil.  Add potato pieces and cook until tender.  Drain.  In a large bowl, mash the potatoes with the butter until uniform and combined.  Fold in the sherry, cinnamon, and eggs.  Bake in a buttered casserole dish for 45 minutes, or until the pudding has pulled away from the sides of the dish and the middle jiggles slightly when shaken gently.  The pudding will continue to set as it cools.

Sources & References:
Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006); Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd., 1993); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972); Redcliffe N. Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949).

Interested in learning more about early modern potatoes?  Check out this Recipes Project post by Rebecca Earle from 2014, and learn more about her ongoing research project “The Early Modern Potato: A Global History.”

Recipes and the “Weird”: A Halloween Rumination

By Jennifer Munroe

Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).
Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).

We might recall Shakespeare’s “Weird Sisters,” the seemingly-sinister witches from Macbeth. Their “Double, double toil and trouble” resonates in our memories as it does in their incantation before Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble: / Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble” (4.1.20-21). As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, it seems to me useful to revisit their charms; or, as it were, how we might use our sense of Macbeth’s witches to rethink some of the more unsavory of ingredients in early modern recipes, and how we might use these recipes to rethink our assumptions about the witches.

The Weird Sisters’ “hell-broth” includes such mammalian and amphibious creature parts as “eye of newt,” “Gall of goat,” “Adder’s fork,” “Wool of bat,” and “tongue of dog.” Macbeth is appalled at the concoction they brew, and, as it seems, so are audiences (especially modern).  The witches, so often portrayed today as elusive, macabre, dangerous, even grotesque, have been written into our modern imagination as integral to the darkness engulfing Dunsinane.

But what if their witchy-work is not-so-sinister after all? What if they simply get a bad rap? After all, it is Macbeth who does the killing in the play; they merely prognosticate his actions.

I turn to the manuscript recipe book of Rebeckah Winche, a contemporary source, though not of the kind we typically turn to when we ask about early modern witchcraft. For that, we more often go to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or the like. However, such animal ingredients were not uncommon in early modern recipes; and in those books, they certainly do not denote the dark arts. In Winche’s book, we find a series of recipes for “The King’s Evil,” Scrofula (or, tuberculosis), one that helps to identify the disease, and two to cure it:

winchef-63

A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings
evill

Take a grownd worme & lay itt alive to the place greved &
take a green docke leafe or 2 andlay them upon the worme
& bine them to the place at night when the patient goes to
bed & if it be the kings evill itt will turne to dust or poud
=er by the morning otherwise it will remayn dead in his owne
former forme as it was a live

A perfect remydy to cure the desease called the kings evill
Take an ounce of pure yellow bees wax or something more
& an ounce uenice turpentine a good quantity of sheepes
suet clarified. boyle them alltogether & when thay are well
boyled put therein 2 good handfulls of the purest barly flower
clear without weedes then temper this flower with the other
things. then put therein 3 spoonfulls of the urin of a man
childe he being not above 3 years olde then boyle it agane
put itt in some earthen or gally pot & stop itt close, keepe it
for your use: when you use it spread it on a peece of fine
linin or on lether and lay it on the sore plaster waise &
by gods helpe it will cure the patient

A nother for the same deseas
Take a live toade & cut of one of her hinder legs
sewe it up in a pece of silke & hange it presently about the
neck of the party greeved. observe if it be a boy or man that
is greeved then a girl or woman must kill the toade but if
a girle or woman be ill then a man must kill it
this hath cured many however if doth sertanly help the other
remydy or any other you shall apply to the sore (if any) to
worke the better efect & sooner cure.

To diagnose “The King’s Evil,” one is instructed to lay a live worm to the aggrieved area, to fix to the unfortunate worm to  “green docke leafe” and wait to see whether the worm desiccates or remains plump (but still deceased) to determine whether the patient is indeed infected.

And to cure “The King’s Evil,” should the patient (and the worm) be so unfortunate, the practitioner summons not the powers of the otherworld, but the urine of a man-child… or the pieces of a toad, who is taken alive and dismembered, removing one of her “hinder legs,” which is then sewn into a silk parcel and hung from the patient’s neck. If a male patient, a woman kills the toad; if a female patient, then a man.

Certainly, this diagnosis and cure might strike some as hocus-pocus, drawing on superstition more than sound medical training and having no more validity than, say, snake oil or verging on something much darker. However, early modern medicine is flush with examples of such diagnoses and cures, and its practitioners appeared quite ready to employ them.

While early modern men and women used these cures as healers and patients, this sort of household medicine was also (and increasingly) understood as inferior relative the professional medicine of scientists and doctors, as practice not to be trusted—or, as we see so often in depiction of witches, as that which ought make us suspicious of its source and its agents.

So what is it about domestic medicine and cookery that has lent itself to this sort of denigration, or the fear associated with witchcraft that enables its marginalization? After all, early modern domestic medicine is not unlike modern herbal medicine, both of which have been relegated to inferior practice, nudged out by codified and “professional” modes of healing that tend to privilege machinery over touching, pharmaceuticals over tinctures and teas.

By juxtaposing Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters” with the recipes from the Winche book, both of which contain what are often associated with “witchy” ingredients, we focus less on the contents of the concoctions. Instead, we are forced to see the ways in which both highlight ways of knowing that are not easily quantified; this is not the ostensible “objective” knowledge of (early modern) science, but something more murky.

This does not mean they are at best silly frivolities and at worst sinister machinations. For Macbeth’s witches are guilty of nothing more than “knowing” (or foreknowing, since they merely predict his actions); they no more dictate Macbeth’s murderous ambitions than he can direct their appearances and disappearances. Early modern recipe practitioners who administer the earthy worm, who collect and pour the spoons full of man-child urine and dismember the toad and make a modern reader say, “Ew,” arguably did no less to diagnose and cure tuberculosis than the scientists of the day.

And as these amateur practitioners worked their medicine, they were necessarily called upon to observe their patients (and their ingredients) in ways that professional doctors and scientists were beginning to move away from: their tactile contact with worm, toad, urine, human skin, and the intensive observation within natural surroundings (rather than a lab) meant that they had to look, listen, and touch differently. Rather than in the laboratory, such amateur practitioners adapted their cures on site, modified their medicine according to individual need (see the many recipes “for another”) rather than generic conditions.

And so, I wonder if on this All Hallow’s season we might take the opportunity to revisit what seems “weird” about the sisters, and how the ingredients and practices of so many early modern men and women, might help us revisit the seemingly strange aspects of medicine in the period and its relation to its ostensible opposite, science. For in these recipes, the strange, the “weird,” may indeed be the very thing that we have made alien—the intimate connections between person and patient, between animal or plant and human, between self and Other–rather than what has in fact been alien all along.