Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes (Part II)

By Amanda E. Herbert

This page from Anne Brumwich’s recipe book shows contributions by different authors, with different styles of handwriting. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

In this blog post and in my previous post, I’m presenting material from my forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).  The material in this post comes from Chapter Three, “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”

In my last post, I discussed how early modern advice books encouraged women to work together in kitchens.  But did women follow these directions in their own homes?  Kitchen accidents and mistakes of course caused tempers to fray.  When Elizabeth Freke discovered that her servant had damaged a pot, she was so angry about it that she recorded it in her kitchen inventory, saying that the pot had been “brok out by Amey”!  But you can also find proof of women’s attempts to foster positive relationships with each other.

One of the best sources for understanding “real” early modern women’s work in kitchens is through their manuscript – handwritten – recipe books.  Recipe books were living manuscripts, typically added to and amended by many people. Women collected recipes from their female and male friends and noted donors’ names next to borrowed recipes in their books. Jane Baber’s manuscript recipe collection of 1625 included eight attributions from other women, among them a recipe “for the woorms” she had received from her “sister Earnly.” Women probably did exchange these recipes in person, but manuscript evidence shows that they also received them in correspondence from their female friends and relatives.  In the later seventeenth century, Anne Lany scrawled a recipe “for Guidiness of the head” on the back of her letter to her friend Anne De Gray. Sometimes women valued the recipes that they received from friends over those offered by male physicians: Beatrix Clerke wrote in 1665 that she hoped to procure a recipe from her friend Lucy Hastings, stating that she “doth believe that your Honor’s study and practice in phisicke is above our docters.”

Even the recipes themselves show how women helped one another in the kitchen. Female authors wrote recipes from a communal perspective. Mary Bent’s recipe book featured instructions on how “to pickle cowcombers the best way,” and the author noted that “you may put a little pepper in if you please but we do not.” The use of the plural “we” here suggested that, for the recipe’s author, pickling cucumbers was a communal rather than a solitary activity.

Women thus counted on one another for help in the kitchen, but they also used their recipes to advance female independence. Women’s recipes allowed them to share knowledge about acquiring materials and ingredients, navigating through urban spaces, and negotiating with shopkeepers. Many recipes encouraged women to purchase supplies in London, which had large numbers of apothecary shops. “M.B.’s” recipe of 1640 “to whiten the Teeth” called for “the stones of crabbs,” and readers were told that “you may buy [them] at the Redd Crosse in Cheap side a drugist.” An anonymous mid-seventeenth-century woman’s book recorded that “Vatican Pills” could be purchased from “the Apothecary . . . in the old Bayly in London.” Anne Brumwich’s book contained a recipe for a lotion that was said to prevent hair loss, and the ingredients for this lotion had to be purchased at “a Chymist a dutchmans in high holborn neare Grayes Inn field.” And Mary Chantrell’s book had a recipe for “an Excellent Coole pummatum [pomatum] for the face,” with ingredients that could be purchased “in See Lane in Holbourn.” From Gray’s Inn to Cheapside and from the Old Bailey to Holborn, early modern women used the information they gleaned from the recipe books of friends and relatives to traverse urban space. This knowledge was surely both useful and empowering. By furnishing women with information about reliable dealers, fair prices, and shop locations, handwritten recipe books allowed female recipe authors and their readers to share vital knowledge with one another and assert their independence in London’s streets and alleys.

Manuscripts cited in this blog post:
1. Elizabeth Freke, “Kitchen Inventory,” October 18, 1711, Freke Papers, MS 45718, British Library.
2. Jane Baber, Recipe Book, 1625, MS 108, f. 18, 22, Wellcome Library.
3. Anne Lany, Letter to Anne De Gray, c. 1670, Correspondence of the Family of Gawdy, ADD 36989, F540, British Library.
4. Beatrix Clerke, Letter to Lucy Hastings, Countess Huntingdon, 1665, Hastings Collection, Box 25 HA 1466, Huntington Library.
5. Mary Bent, Recipe Book, 1664, MS 1127, f. 2, Wellcome Library.
6. Anonymous Woman [Possibly Mrs. M. Baesh], Recipe Book, 1640, MS 8086, f. 14, 19, 35B, 54, 81, 94–94B, and 102, Wellcome Library.
7. Anonymous, [possibly “EG”], Recipe Book, 17th c., MS 7391, Wellcome Library.
8. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160, f. 94, Wellcome Library.
9. Mary Chantrell and Others, Recipe Book, 1690, MS 1548, f. 84, Wellcome Library.

Following a Recipe through Different Manuscripts

By Catherine Rider

Recently I’ve been looking through medieval recipe collections for remedies and tests relating to infertility, the subject of my new research project.  At first I was looking for any remedies, from the fairly mundane (mares’ milk) to the ones that look more exotic, at least to modern eyes (numerous animal testicles and a few charms) but recently I’ve taken a more targeted approach, comparing the different manuscripts of a single recipe collection to see if the infertility recipes change as the collections were copied.  I’m hoping that these changes will tell me something about the priorities of the various different copyists and owners of the manuscripts, and so shed light on how infertility remedies may have been used in practice – or at least, how the scribes who were paid to copy collections of recipes thought they might be used.  Monica Green has taken a similar approach to manuscripts of gynaecological texts in her book Making Women’s Medicine Masculine.[1]

I started this when I noticed that a few collections included recipes which assumed the man would take a role in seeking or administering a cure for infertility.  For example one recipe to aid conception in the Liber de Diversis Medicinis (Book of Diverse Medicines), an English recipe collection published by Margaret Ogden from a fifteenth-century manuscript, opens with the heading ‘If a man will that a woman conceive a child soon.’[2]  This interested me because it’s often assumed that in the Middle Ages infertility was seen as a female condition and women therefore bore much of the responsibility for seeking treatment, and yet here we have the suggestion that a man might take the initiative in seeking a remedy.  I wondered how typical it was.  One way to find out was to look at the other manuscripts and see if they kept the same heading, or substituted a different one.

The Liber de Diversis Medicinis was a good collection to start with because it was quite widely copied: the volume of the Manual of the Writings in Middle English dedicated to scientific and medical texts listed sixteen manuscripts, and several were in London or Cambridge and so fairly easily accessible for me.  I spent some time in the British Library and a couple of Cambridge college libraries, checking their copies against Ogden’s edition; I still need to get to Oxford, Durham and Manchester for the rest.  Many of them look a bit like this – a 15th-century recipe book in the Wellcome Library:

L0000832 Receipts for cataract and teeth whitening
15h-century leechbook. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of difference between manuscripts.  Scholars have often noted that medieval recipe collections display significant variations between manuscripts and in the case of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis the differences were very large. One fifteenth-century manuscript in the British Library (Egerton MS 833) omitted a large section of the collection, including the infertility recipes – although this may have been because pages had been lost from the manuscript, or from the exemplar copied by the scribe, rather than because the scribe had decided not to copy them.  Another British Library manuscript (Royal MS 17.A.VIII) included only a few remedies for each ailment, rather than the much greater number of possibilities recorded in the manuscript used by Ogden.  Moreover, the infertility remedies it gave were very different, as were the headings used to introduce them.  Gone was the recipe for a man who wanted a woman to conceive soon, and instead there was a heading which encompassed both sexes: ‘To do a man gete child and a woman bere child.’[3]

Another manuscript again (British Library MS Sloane 962) included a recipe for conception in Latin alongside the English ones.  Switching between languages is not unusual in medieval recipe manuscripts but it still tells us something about the scribe and the person who owned it – both had at least a basic knowledge of Latin, the language of university medicine, which suggests this manuscript is more likely to have been aimed at a male medical practitioner than an interested amateur.

So far, though, I haven’t found another manuscript which includes Ogden’s heading, aimed at a man who wants a woman to conceive, so perhaps the idea that a man might take the initiative was unusual after all.

I’m still thinking about what all this means and how significant these variations are.  In some cases variations may be the result of missing pages in a manuscript, or simple miscopying.  Even when they are not, it is difficult to tell how far scribes were consciously making these changes in order to adapt the text to the needs of a new reader – one who could read Latin, for example, or one who imagined that men would come seeking help to make their wives conceive.  However, in most cases these manuscripts do show us scribes who did not copy blindly, but rather were familiar enough with recipes to change things in ways that made sense to them.   By tracking these variations I’m hoping to uncover as many medieval attitudes to infertility and its treatment as possible.

[1] Monica Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] The Liber de Diversis Medicinis in the Thornton Manuscript (MS Lincoln Cathedral A.5.2)¸ ed. Margaret Sinclair Ogden, Early English Texts Society original series 207 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 56.

[3] London, British Library MS Royal 17.A.VIII, f. 63v.

Words of the Wise: Colonial Maya Medicine

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. Over the next few posts, I will highlight overlooked medical manuscripts and touch on some curious and confusing remedies from colonial Yucatán.

During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

And healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua.  The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua.  This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress.  The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.

Dyeing Wool in Seventeenth-Century Germany

by Karin Leonhard (Research Scholar, MPIWG) and David Brafman (Curator for Rare Books, Getty Research Institute)

1The Getty Research Institute harbors an artisan’s recipe book for dyeing wool, ca. 1680, with supplementary papers that date from 1653-1762. The book contains 135 leaves, it is illustrated, and it is written in German. What is particularly interesting is its internal structure: this book is arranged alphabetically by the names of colors, and it contains the original samples of dyed wool. “Each section is ornamented by large calligraphic initials and there are other watercolor devices and drawings throughout. The first part of the volume contains recipes for making grey, blue, yellow, orange, red, purple, brown and black, with dyed samples of raw wool affixed by means of red sealing wax. The second and third part of the volume contains recipes for dyeing felt and woven wool cloth, with samples. The manual was probably used in a shop producing and selling heavy woolen cloth for cloaks and overcoats.”[1] Also contained in the volume is a recipe for black ink which will not fade, 1682, and instructions on how to play the lute, with musical scores included (there is a musical scholar interested in exactly this question: when and where are musical scores integrated in recipe books? Please do let us know about other examples). Miscellaneous papers include an example of calligraphy, two bills for herbs used in dyeing, 1677, 1679, and genealogical papers and correspondence of the Brinck and Zillessen families of Gladbach, 1762, who were still in the textile dyeing business in 1908. The torn front page conveys the fragments of the compiler’s name (“Abraham Dederix”) and the date (“Anno 1653”).


From the start of the book, a black raven features in an elaborate, though amateurish illustration. This motif accompanies the reader throughout the book, at some point turning into an allegory of “autumn” (“Der Herbst”) itself, close to an instruction on “How to dye ash color” possibly indicating an alchemical interpretation of color generation and chromatic change that ranges between black and white (fig. 2). This drawing is accompanied by a depiction of two pilgrims wandering through a bleak landscape and an inscription linking to the expectation of death and the day of the last judgment (“Jüngste Tag”). The book itself is compiled “Zur Ehren deßen, der da is […], und der dasein wird das alffa und omega, der anfang und das Ende. Hosianna in excelsis“ („In honour of who is […] the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Hosianna in excelsis”) (fig. 3).


An alphabetical register, cut into the pages, structures the entries throughout, so that several pages remain blank, while others convey not only detailed instructions on how to achieve specific colors in wool dyeing but also contain original samples – many of them have kept their original freshness, as can be seen in the example of “How to achieve orange color” (“Vor Oranien zu farben”, fig. 4).


Most interesting are entries that demonstrate the change of color hue and saturation w6hen textiles are dyed for one, two, three or four hours respectively (fig. 5). Additional papers supply a list of herbs and plants used as colorants, with their names listed both in German and in Latin. A crucial next step in studying the manuscript would be to organize art technological tests of the samples and then compare the results to the information about the ingredients and chemical instructions provided by the recipes themselves.



All images in this post are taken from Getty Research Institute Library Manuscript 910012 ‘Artisan’s recipe book for dyeing wool, ca. 1680, and other papers, 1653-1762’ and are reproduced with kind permission from the Institute.

[1] See the entry in the library’s catalogue.