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. 


Notes

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.