Early Modern recipe books for when you’re not ill

If you’ve been following these blog posts, you may have realised a few things; I am terrible at looking after myself and I love organisation. Unfortunately, I have not been ill in a while and my leg pain has been fixed (not sure if I should call this unfortunate though and it was actually a lower back problem, the leg was fine all along) so this post isn’t going to be quite so medical but instead we’re going to look at the layout of recipe books.

Contents page of recipe book Va.429, f. v verso/vi recto(Folger Shakespeare Library)

                Now, some writers were absolute darlings and gave a little collection of contents pages at the front of their book, organised alphabetically with the page numbers listed for each recipe beside it. While similar recipes can be seen in close proximity to each other, this is not a constant in all books. However, the time taken to go through and create such a detailed contents page shows a desire for organisation after the fact of writing, perhaps in order to make the book easier to use in the future despite the layout of some recipes. In my previous post, I explained Leong’s argument that some recipe books were compiled in order to be used for reference,¹ so the immediate availability of the knowledge it contained was something of a necessity. Contents pages like this would have made life easier for a wife and mother, be she new to the role or experienced, or in fact any family member.

                I’ll admit, the example above could be better; her lines could be more parallel and she has three sections for ‘P’ but we shan’t hold those things against her. In fact, closer inspection tells us that we shouldn’t hold it against her at all. If you were to zoom in on the above picture you would see two different handwritings: the first, larger and prettier style being that which divided up the pages, wrote in the letters and added the initial recipes, the second clearly having stuck to the original owner’s organisation and added around it. Only once they ran out of room in the original ‘P’ section (you can see they tried to fit in as much as possible at the bottom) did they add the one above it, keeping the alphabetical order intact and once they had run out of space in that, added the third section under ‘N’, perhaps learning from their previous mistake and leaving themselves as much space as possible for future additions.

‘Anna Maria Wentworth/Her Book 1725’ Va.429, f. i verso/ii recto (Folger Shakespeare Library)

A bit of sly letter comparison to the name written in the front of the book tells us that the original writer was Anna Maria Wentworth in 1725 as the ‘M’ matches.

The second writer is unknown although it is clear they sought to maintain the well-organised, easy-to-use nature of the book.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it really is truly astonishing how much can be learnt from just a few pages.

(This new recipe book is one used in a student project about alcohol, it’s called Old Timey Winey and by all means check it out!)

                Anyway back to the recipe book we’ve been so dedicated to previously, loyalty is everything after all! This book does not have a contents page of any sort, although there is evidence that the first page has been ripped out so whatever was on that was lost. Her first section focuses on ‘Waters’ although they’re not actually waters but rather very strong alcoholic drinks that have been distilled to increase their strength for medicinal use (the ‘water’ comes from the phrase ‘water of life’, NOT a reference to actual water).² Alongside these recipes she also writes of the virtues of these beverages so perhaps this recipe book was less of a collection gone through and organised after writing and more of a well-thought-out study of medicines compiled with the appropriate accompanying information for later use. At the end of this first section, before the second for syrups begins, she has left a few pages blank. How many blank pages, I cannot say but as the original writer’s handwriting ends on page ten and the next page is fifteen (the pages inbetween being missing, perhaps removed simply because they were blank), we can assume that she left five.

Recipes from book V.b.400, p.10 (Folger Shakespeare Library)

A different handwriting is also evident in the recipe at the bottom of the last remaining page of the section. The fact that this second writer made the decision to write this recipe at the very bottom of the page rather than on the next page, at the end of the book or even anywhere that there might have been more space shows how important the organisation of these books was for their use and to the people that used them.

                The fact that this book is organised in that way, with recipes grouped so specifically and leaving so much space for later additions implies that the original writer was not only writing this compilation for her own benefit but with the intent of handing it down so it could be used by other people. This is not so surprising as these books are known to have been passed down through generations: it’s one of the reasons they have survived so long.³ Evidence of this exists beyond finding more than one name on the inside cover or more than one type of handwriting; this shows that the intent was present from the start of its creation, not as an afterthought when they came to have kids.

                Now, as I have now come to the end of my focus on this topic, I should warn against something disingenuous that I’ve done. In each of these posts I have assumed that the writer is a woman; now with the book first mentioned in this post, the name is given but with the book that I have given most attention to, there is no name. While the principle users of these books were women, this does not mean that it was only women that used and wrote in them; they were sometimes the creation of a whole family,⁴ not just the wife and mother.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little mini-series of blogs, thanks for reading!

¹Leong, E., ‘ ‘Herbals she persueth’: reading medicine in early modern England’, in Renaissance Studies, 28, 4 (2014), pp.556-78.

²Sournia, J., A History of Alcoholism (Oxford, 1990), pp.15,17.

³Leong, E., ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55, 2 (2013), pp.81-103.

⁴Ibid.


5 thoughts on “Early Modern recipe books for when you’re not ill

  1. I really enjoyed how this post was written and the attention to detail it presents. Were all early modern recipe books written with so much care and time put into them or is this an exception?

  2. I like how you acknowledged that you automatically assumed the writer was a women, I’ve done that a few times myself whilst doing this kind of work so its perfectly understandable. Do you think that there could be anyway to tell if the writer was a man or a woman based on the content of whats being written, and what that might say for gender roles at the time?

    1. There might be something in the handwriting which would tell us whether the writer was a man or a woman, the only other way I know of would be by matching the handwriting to any names written in the front. As for gender roles, I think it says a lot about how personal inclination can overrule social expectation, or perhaps it instead shows how important the books were thought to be in that they were passed down regardless of the recipient’s gender and their perceived roles.

  3. Your writing style is so enjoyable, this was a joy to read! I liked how you mentioned that not only women wrote in these recipe books, as this just shows that the stereotypes about household roles are not necessarily correct. Did you have any other assumptions of early modern recipe books which turned out to be untrue?

    1. My assumptions were mostly about the medicine recipes themselves; I was a little sceptical of what I might find but having read so many of them, there is actually quite a bit of logic behind what went in them. Granted, it’s flawed logic but it’s still based on medical knowledge of the time so is seemingly well supported. It’s not the “drill a hole in your head” type of thing that I was expecting.

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