A Recipe for Music: Notating Domestic Singing in Seventeenth-Century England

By Sarah Koval

Mary Chantrell and others, recipe book, f.92v, 1690, MS 1548. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mary Chantrell’s book of recipes for food and medicines (1690) is typical of the manuscript recipe genre: a handwritten, bound book full of instructions for making common foods, preserves, and medicinal cures such as “pills to cure a consumption,” (f.63r), “the green oyntment,” (f.30r) and “a purge for sharpe humours” (f.50r). On the last folio, however, we find an unusual entry: written out twice on either side of a recipe “for the chin cough [whooping cough],” is the text to “Madam Roda Cliffords Song,” a metrical verse with four stanzas that lacks any conventional music notation, apparently received from Mary’s personal acquaintance (f.92r92v). What could a single song be doing among such practical household directions? 

Musical entries can be found in several of the hundreds of surviving household recipe books from this period. These musical inscriptions are highly personalized, reflecting the private, domestic context in which they arose and were used. The number of musical entries, their physical placement within the book, and even the presence or absence of a more conventional musical notation—one that indicates at the very least pitch and rhythm—all vary from book to book. At one exciting extreme we find, in the commonplace book of John Ridout ([16–], see the image below), thirty-two pieces for the cittern (a guitar relative), notated with tablature, nestled between hundreds of recipes for food and medicines.(1) However, most of the musical entries in recipe books are not so easily reproduced or heard today due to their lack of notational specificity, forestalling the traditional work of the musicologist. 

John Ridout’s commonplace book, f.79v-80r, [16–], MS Mus 182. Image credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. The top page features a piece called “Orlando,” the bottom a table of note values.


Nevertheless, there is a telling parallel between the sparse notations of these songs and the utility-driven written recipes that dominate these manuals. A recipe, writes historian William Eamon, is “a prescription for taking action,” a notion that could apply equally well to a notated piece of music.(2) Indeed, the songs, hymns, psalms, and other musical items found in recipe books form part of a family’s “memorial archive,” gathered alongside other ritualistic instructions as prescriptions for action in a family’s daily routines.(3)

We might call such ambiguous, text-only notations “purposely incomplete,” following musicologist John Butt.(4) Similar to their tandem recipe notations, song texts were likely compiled to be sung by their collectors, their family members, and close friends. While Madam Clifford’s song may have been used for entertainment, titles like those in Martha Hodges’ recipe book (1675-c.1725) show that many pieces were used for private worship at the hearth or in the prayer closet: “Evening song, Vespers” (f.34r); “A Morning Hymn” (f.43v); and “An Hymn in Sickness” (f.43r). Not meant as casual reading material, recipes and musical texts were most likely taken off-page in the daily care of the bodies and souls of the household.

Music notation, as with any form of writing, is a way of extending memory across time. In the case of such household inscriptions—either for food, medicine, or music—writing served as an aid to practice within the memorial micro-archive of the family unit. This archive is the musical and performance knowledge of a single family, a small social network, or a few generations at most. Recipe books show us that the memorial archive of household knowledge not only included concerns of feeding and healing its members, but of creating musical sounds that served the material and sacred needs of the family. Difficult for those outside of the family unit to access, the memorial archive of domestic musical practices remains enigmatic but full of possibility. 

Recipe books containing music, such as those of English householders Mary Chantrell, John Ridout, and Martha Hodges, stand to reveal much about the role of music making and practices of worship in the sometimes inscrutable space of the seventeenth-century English home. Musical, culinary, and medicinal inscriptions have much in common: they present a sparse textual representation of an experiential and dietetic practice that allows for individual expression within a written family archive. Their textual markings tap into an aural, memory-powered tradition of both sacred and secular singing. The parallel gap between written text and off-page outcome in both recipes and music is just one aspect of these two seemingly disparate practices that reveals their interconnectedness in this period, pointing to larger resonances between music and bodily health that emerge in the study of domestic spaces. 


1. A cittern is a plucked, fretted, wire-string instrument, similar to a mandolin and related to the guitar, that was most popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its tablature is similar to guitar tab today. Horizontal lines with letters between them representing the various strings of the cittern show where on the fretboard each string is to be held down. Music notes above the fret markings indicate the duration of the pitch. 

2. William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 131.

3. “Memorial archive” is a term Anna Maria Busse Berger uses to describe all the resources we draw on to understand and utilize the written word on the page. Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 45.

4. John Butt, Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 106.

‘A Curious Book’: The Many Functions of Martha Hodges’ Manuscript Recipe Book

By Kate Owen

On the inside cover of Martha Hodges’ recipe book (17-th-18th century), written in pencil, is a note that calls the manuscript ‘a curious book’. Although there is no further explanation from the author of this note as to why they deemed the book so curious, it may well have something to do with the manuscript’s varied content and the signs that point to its multiple functions within the home. Palaeographical evidence in Martha Hodges’ recipe book suggests that it acted not only as a place to document recipes and their efficacy, but was actually a site where domestic life took place.

Martha Hodges’ recipe book is a perfect example of how diverse the content of early modern manuscript recipe books can be. As well as recipes, the manuscript contains prayers, excerpts from Erasmus, and the first account of the  Pied Piper of Hamelin printed in English. The prevalence of religious content in manuscript recipe books may suggest that they were resources that encompassed moral and spiritual well-being alongside the physical.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f. 1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

As well as its diverse content, Martha Hodges’ manuscript bears signs of multiple uses. The cluttered nature of fol. 1r. reveals at least two uses of the manuscript recipe book. One function of this page seems to be as a place to remember dead relatives. A note reads:

Our Great Grandmother Hodges her receipt book. She was mother to Mrs. Priaulx who was the Grandmother of Mrs Sarah Tilley by Mr Howes marrying her daughter Mrs Mary Priaulx. Her name is written by herself at the other end. She was sister of Dr. Hodges the writer of a large book of receipts.

The note reveals that manuscript recipe books facilitate a relationship between previous and subsequent manuscript owners. The biographical note acts as a family tree and, although this family tree has a focus on the matrilineal, it carefully associates Martha Hodges with the medical expertise of her brother. This suggests that Martha belonged to a household of medical practitioners, a skilled environment which Martha would have learned from and contributed to. This, and the invitation to view Martha Hodges’ name ‘written by herself’, suggests that the note’s author had a great deal of respect for Martha and that the manuscript may have acted as a site of remembrance.

Martha Hodges Recipe Book, f.1r. (image courtesy of the Wellcome Library).

Other uses of this page, however, were less respectful of the memory of Martha Hodges. Smaller and less coherent notes suggest the recipe book may also have been used as scrap paper or for pen-trialling. Due to the price of paper and the use of home-made inks, early modern writers often would test their writing supplies on ‘the nearest available paper, which in many cases would have been in a book’.[1] The ink scratch marks on the recipe book’s inside cover would support such an interpretation. Jason Scott-Warren offers a ‘less dismissive’ interpretation of such marks, arguing that they relate to literacy and are ‘a piece with the practice of alphabets that frequently crop up on flyleaves and around the edges of texts’[2]  Martha Hodges’ recipe book contains evidence to support this idea. Underneath the biography of Martha Hodges, ‘hie hec hoc – April 1 1769’ is written as well as the words ‘I read’.  Towards the centre of the page, ‘booksse’ is written confidently and underneath it is copied in a shakier hand. The page is also littered with the letter W. This would suggest that the page has been used as a space for learning and practising with writing materials.  Further in the manuscript, on fol. 154r., there is further evidence of recipe books being used as a space to practice literacy. On this page, the name William has been practised, paying particular attention to the minims.[3] Kristina Kowalchuk argues that both the kitchen and the recipe book act as educational spaces for the women who owned recipe book  and their female domestic servants.[4] The real question, for me at least, is whether these marks of literacy are purposeful or idle. Thus, have these recipe books been used as scrap paper to practise a certain word before immediately writing it in a ‘cleaner’ manuscript book or letter, or have they been used simply as a place to pass the time. Alongside the repeated ‘Williams’ are some drawings: a house, an animal, and some box-like shapes. Doodles and drawings are not uncommon within manuscript recipe books. Some relate to the manuscript’s content, such as the drawing of a woman cooking from a 17/18th century manuscript recipe book (Wellcome MS1796), and others, such as the doodles in Martha Hodges’ recipe book and the woodcocks from the Springatt recipe book (MS4683), are seemingly unrelated to the topic of the manuscript or have a context that has been lost over time.

To conclude, Martha Hodges’ recipe book had multiple functions within the domestic sphere. For Martha it was a space to document recipes, for at least one of her descendants it was a place to remember Martha, and for others it has been a place to doodle, scribble, and practice their handwriting. The Martha Hodges’ recipe book offers insight into the multiple ways manuscript recipe books functioned within the early modern home and how these texts have been valued by different users over time.

Kate Owen has recently completed her MA, Early Modern English Literature: Texts and Transmission, at King’s College London. She is interested in the many ways early modern manuscript recipe books functioned inside and outside the home. She has also has an interest in the medical humanities and currently volunteers for St Bartholomew’s Museum and Archive. 

[1] Jason Scott-Warren, ‘Reading Graffiti in the Early Modern Book’, Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 3 (2010): 368.

[2] Jason Scott-Warren: 368.

[3] Vertical strokes made when writing, Minims are the main strokes in letters such as m, I, n.

[4] Kristina Kowalchuk, Preserving on Paper (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 28-34.