The Circulation of Knowledge and Recipes

In class we discussed the circulation of knowledge and whether the way in which people, in early modern England, exchanged recipes should be considered a patronage or currency. We tried to understand how and why knowledge and recipes, particularly medicinal ones, was being circulated. Medicine and cures were becoming very important and were a popular field of study for people such as Jesuits in Spanish America during this time. The main questions that I pondered over were: how did knowledge and recipes circulate between different people and groups? Was it used commercially or socially? How was its reliability ensured?

There was a brief debate as to whether the system of exchanging knowledge should be considered patronage or a currency. As Alex noted, if one was to go to a doctor with a medical problem, they would pay for the doctor to inform them of the ‘recipe’ on how to get better and get the prescribed medicine. Leong and Patrell agreed that there was a medical marketplace. However, it began filled with ‘smart consumers’ who became informed on which remedies they could make themselves rather than racking up a pricey bill and being exploited by doctors. Therefore it could also depend on the spheres in which information and recipes are being shared. There is an obvious commercial value, but there is also a social aspect in people offering advice to one another, in other words, patronage. Its certainly another valid way of describing how people traded and exchanged knowledge and recipes of domestic medicine socially and used them as gifts or advice for relatives and social acquaintances.

Leong and Pennell agree that most recipes collected were traded between friends or family on social visits. For instance,

“[a] total of 12 recipes, from a number of occasions were collected at [Archdale] Palmer’s own residence in Wanlip. Some of the donors were labelled as ‘cousins’, while William D’Anvers of Swithland, the father of Palmer’s daughter-in-law, is typical of the extended family who exchanged recipes with him during social visits.”[1]

It was also not unusual for recipes that were exchanged to be presented as part of a dowry or wedding gift in Italy. [2] This made me realise that recipes were considered very valuable and important which is why recipes were also inherited by family members.

Additionally, Leong and Pennell observed that one third of the 6554 recipes they analysed came with the name of the donor or ‘author’.[3] This reminded me of the whole idea that in society, the esteemed reputations of things such as movies gain more attention and popularity through word of mouth. Clearly, factors such as who someone was able to treat would be influential in this process. For instance, Sir Theodore de Vaux, a fellow of the Royal Society, was physician to King Charles II and the dowager Queen Katherine. By important figures such as them communicating with important and influential people in parliament and aristocratic circles , his effective recipes would have spread amongst them and add to the reliability of his medicinal recipes. However, we agreed that this would only go so far as it would’ve been local and not an effective way to circulate knowledge on a mass scale compared to writing letters and keeping collections. In addition,

“[r]ealising the value of that information – that is, converting it into medical knowledge – was not simply about knowing how to construct and operate a still, but about knowing what and who was trustworthy in provision of the raw data of recipes.”[4]

Physicians such as Sir Théodore Turquet de Mayern successfully championed the effort to produce the first official pharmacopoeia and was one of many who were considered trustworthy. The fact that cures and different recipes were tried and approved by other respected fellows of the Royal Society ensured that they were more reliable. For instance, ‘philosophical transactions’ were made between physicians and fellows of the Royal Society. In ‘An Account of the Diseases of Doggs, and Several Receipts for the Cure of their Madness’, Theodore de Mayern, T. and Theodore de Vaux offer four different approved cures for the bite of a Mad Dog. Clearly, knowledge was circulated in a support system amongst professionals.


Mayern, T. and T. de Vaux, ‘An Account of the Diseases of Doggs, and Several Receipts for the Cure of their Madness…’ Phil.Trans. 16 (1686) pp.408-409

Personally, I think the circulation of medicinal knowledge was and is more like a currency that is part of a wider support system. As people in early modern society believed cures and recipes for various purposes was special and worthy enough to be exchanged as gifts or should be inherited shows us how valuable it was to them. It also shows how people supported each other as it added to each other’s care and health. Therefore, early modern medicinal knowledge and recipes were used socially more than commercially.


Leong, E. and S. Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace”’, pp. 133-152 in M. S. R. Jenner and P. Wallis, eds. Medicine and the Market in England and Its Colonies, c. 1450-1850 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[1] E. Leong,  and S. Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace” (Basingstoke, 2007) p.139

[2] Ibid p.141

[3] Ibid p.138

[4] Ibid p.149

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