Category Archives: History of Medicine

Combatting Coughs in Eighteenth-Century England.

In the year of 2020, having a cough has become a thing of pure fear amongst the general public. With the outbreak of COVID-19 sweeping across the world, affecting day to day life, a common symptom of this deadly pandemic is a dry cough. As of writing this blog post, there has not been a cure of this disease and all of the world superpowers are currently racing to find a remedy to combat Coronavirus. With all of this misery and worry in our society today, it is easy to forget how fortunate we are to live in the 21st century. We live in a world with better healthcare than ever before. As a Historian, I tend to ponder about life in the 18th century and how they would have coped with issues that we all face today. With the context of COVID-19 taken into account, my mind tends to go straight back to the recipes that they would use in order to combat coughs and temperatures. 

What is interesting to add, that much like our current situation, having a cough within this period was not just considered to be a symptom

A garden snail, Sourced by Martyn Cox

of a less serious ailment. With some recipes linking a cough to lung failure [1]. The ingredients of a recipe for cough would vary, with some in cases including 2 quarts of House Snails[2]. The use of house snails during this period would be for the creation of distilled water which came from ‘one of the cleanest feeders in the world. Once again, the use of snails is still used in today’s market, being used in moisturizers [3]. 

Some recipes such as Lady Ellis’ cough remedy advises the person to take the medicine with a licorice stick [4]. The trend of key ingredients being used in modern recipes and early modern alike is clear with this common ingredient. Products like Covonia that aid a cough use liquid licorice extract to soothe and stifle a cough. Although a harsh taste, the licorice would be used for chest coughs and asthma, much alike

A diagram of a licorice plant
Diagram of Licorice plant, sourced by KARAKALPAKSTAN BLOG 

today [5]. Lady Ellis’ recipe also includes “one ounce half of the syrrup of Maiden haire”. This is a liquid form that is derived from the Maidenhair plant. This syrup went completed was used as a refreshing summer drink after being mixed with fruit juices [6]. What is interesting is that Lady Ellis’ cough syrup follows a trend during this period of the use of Maiden Hair syrup. The reason for this is this ingredient was the primary herb in the popular cough syrup “Capillaire” which remained in rotation into the nineteenth century[7].

These cough medicines wouldn’t have been given out to each person, there were many variations and benefactors that one must have considered before making or purchasing medicine. A prime example of this is the fact that children and adults would often have differing medicines due to the popular belief that they differed in humoural make-up and strength [8]. Evidence of this in cough medicines can be shown in Sally Osborn’s blog post, where it displays a cough medicine that is made up of Cinnamon, Syrup of Violets and Poppy water [9]. Osborn

18th-century painting of child being seen by a doctor, sourced by Britannica

notes in her blog that Syrup of violet has a laxative effect on the bearer [10]. This could be evidence of a doctor or apothecary altering the reaction to the syrup in order to preserve the children’s health. Doctors would also offer a sweeter alternative of cough medicine to the children in order to ensure that they will take it as children were thought to dislike bitter tastes in this period [11]. Therefore in the example that Osborn has offered us, the fact cinnamon is in the recipe shows that although the medicine has the same purpose as the likes of Lady Ellis’ cough medicine, it has been manipulated to be more accessible for a younger customer.

But one question still runs through my mind when looking at cough medicine during this period, did it actually work? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that cough medicine worked for the users in this period. Firstly we only need to look at the example we have reviewed in the blog to see that some ingredients have remained the same, and the medicines are relative of these recipes, with licorice being an ingredient that remains consistent in cough prevention. Nowadays, if you have a cough, your first port of call would be to go to the shops and self medicate, recipes for cough medicine shows us evidence that this was the case in eighteenth-century life as well. The only difference between the present day and eighteenth-century attitudes towards self-medicating is that medicine is affordable and more accessible nowadays, wheres if you were poor in the eighteenth century, then you would go without[12]. 

In summary, combatting coughs within this period was somewhat simple, and has proven to be a largely unaltered process. Although the methods and affordability have changed, the ingredients and the consideration of children nowadays are somewhat similar to our predecessors. Would eighteenth-century society be able to handle the ongoing threat of Coronavirus? That is something that is best left unanswered, all this historian can observe is that although Coronavirus is serious and threatening, awareness and public discussion have increased during this time, and I am certain that this would have been the case of our ancestors many years ago.


  • Newton, H, ‘Children’s physic: medical perceptions and treatment of sick children in early modern england, c.1580-1720’, Social History of Medicine, 23, 3 (2010)
  • Medindia Content Team, Medicinal Uses of Liquorice (Licorice) / Yashtimadhu, Medindia, <>, [accessed 12:03, 26/03/2020]
  • Osborn, Sally, Cough Cough, 18th Century Recipes, <>, [accessed 11:53, 26/03/2020]
  • Osborn, Sally, Health in the 18th Century, Eighteenth Century Recipes, <>, [accessed 13:01, 27/03/2020]
  • Paneck, Dr, 18th Century Medical Treatments: The Cough of the Lungs, Living History W, <>, [accessed, 10:42, 26/03/2020]
  • Smith, Lisa, Suffering from Colds in the Eighteenth Century, Sloane Letters Project <> [accessed 10:38, 26/03/2020]
  • Unknown, Maidenhair Fern, Natural Medicinal, <>, [accessed 12:21, 26/03/2020]
  • Unknown, ‘Used With Constant Success’: Animal Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Remedies, and their Success in the Beauty Industry, <>, [accessed 11:20, 26/03/2020]


  • 1. Lisa Smith, Suffering from Colds in the Eighteenth Century, Sloane Letters Project <> [accessed 10:38, 26/03/2020]
  • 2. Dr. Paneck, 18th Century Medical Treatments: The Cough of the Lungs, Living History W, <>, [accessed, 10:42, 26/03/2020]
  • 3. Unknown, ‘Used With Constant Success’: Animal Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Remedies, and their Success in the Beauty Industry, <>, [accessed 11:20, 26/03/2020]
  • 4. Sally Osborn, Cough Cough, 18th Century Recipes, <>, [accessed 11:53, 26/03/2020]
  • 5. Medindia Content Team, Medicinal Uses of Liquorice (Licorice) / Yashtimadhu, Medindia, <>, [accessed 12:03, 26/03/2020]
  • 6. Unknown, Maidenhair Fern, Natural Medicinal, <>, [accessed 12:21, 26/03/2020]
  • 7. Ibid., <>
  • 8. Newton, H, ‘Children’s physic: medical perceptions and treatment of sick children in early modern england, c.1580-1720’, Social History of Medicine, 23, 3 (2010), p.466
  • 9. Osborn, Cough Cough, <>
  • 10.Ibid., <>
  • 11. Newton, H, ‘Children’s physic: medical perceptions and treatment of sick children in early modern england, c.1580-1720’, Social History of Medicine, 23, 3 (2010), p.468
  • 12. Sally Osborn, Health in the 18th Century, Eighteenth Century Recipes, <>, [accessed 13:01, 27/03/2020]

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.


Another Trip into Early Modern Medicine

Now, I didn’t literally trip over but I did hurt my leg. Perhaps I’m not very good at taking care of myself. Anyway, it turns out that tendon knots don’t go away if you ignore them. In fact they kind of get worse. Whoops!

                How does my injured leg and apparent incapacity to go to the doctors have anything to do with an early modern recipe book? I hear you ask. Well, from the amount of medicines contained in these recipe books and as there was little distinction between professional practice and lay treatments,¹ I think it’s reasonable to assume that the families this type of book belonged to didn’t have regular access to a doctor therefore making these books a necessary alternative. Now don’t get me wrong, I have access to a doctor, just not the inclination to go, so it got me wondering how a person without access to a doctor would deal with my injury and there it is… the recipe book.

                To find anything relating to leg, or more accurately knee, pain, I had to flip through a great deal of this woman’s recipe book (V.b.400 of the Transcribathon project) and, while I mentioned my suspicion of her organisational skills in my last post, this gave me a new appreciation for how well she categorises her recipes. She deals so comprehensively with each element of a possible ailment before moving onto the next, showing how well acquainted she was with potential health problems and if not well-read in them then certainly well connected to be able to build such a collection. Such extensive medical reading by women is demonstrated by Elaine Leong in her examination of two other women’s medical recipes. In this study she reveals just how dedicated these women were to reading about medicine and how they would then apply their own thinking and organisational needs to what they had read. One of these she describes as being written with the purpose of being a standalone book because the author did not have regular access to this medical knowledge, therefore necessitating her own usable collection.² This book has a similar feel to it.

                Anyway, before I go onto dealing with leg pain I ought to give you a bit of a set up about humoural theory, how treatments were intended to restore balance and maybe something a little peculiar.

                When a person is sick nowadays it usually is quite helpful for them to rest and sleeping is particularly good as it allows your body to devote the entirety of its energy to fighting off whatever infection is causing it. However, the Galenic theory of medicine, which survived for quite a long time (with blood-letting still being practiced much later than I would care to admit), prescribes a theory of opposites that was intended to restore a person’s humours, or fluids that controlled everything about a person, and so if a person is feverish and tired, you cool them down (helpful) and you make them do exercise (not so helpful).

Recipe from p.133 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

In the section spanning from pages 133-6, she deals mostly with how to combat a fever BUT intermixed with these medicines are also those to help a person sleep. The inclusion of recipes to induce sleep amongst those for fever suggests that she had linked the two in treatment, going against this theory of opposites. Without further research into how prevalent it was to recommend sleep when someone was ill, I can’t say if this is peculiar or not; I can say however that I found it interesting to see that this woman had made this link between two different factors, fever and fatigue, so clearly that she combined recipes that are completely unrelated in a way that goes against a prevailing medical theory. This combination is particularly significant, as we will now see, because she adheres to humoural theory in her other recipes.

                So, finally I came to something relating to my injury in 2 pages from 148-9. The recipes over these pages often refer to either an ache (spelt acke), pain, or more specifically a rheumatic (spelt rhumatick) pain which could be taken to imply more of an inflammation of a joint, muscle or tendon rather than just pain.

                Page 148 begins with an overarching recipe of how to ‘Draw the Rumatick oyle of Rosses’. Now, in beginning the section with this recipe without stating specifically where to use it, it’s clear that this oil is essential in treating any of the following aches and pains, hence why it is given prominence as it needs to be done before anything else.

Recipe from p.148 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

If we were to consult Nicholas Culpeper, a doctor and author of Herbals, then we can see the reason why. In his descriptions of the value of roses, he recommends the use of rose oil against aches, or more specifically, ‘against heat and inflammation’ as the rose oil will cool and heal it.³ (Do you see the humoural theory of opposites that I mentioned before? Treat a hot inflammation with a cool oil in order to restore balance.) The author of this recipe book echoes this theory in her method for making her oil of roses, insisting that it should be kept somewhere cool, seeing that the pot that contains the mixture is placed in the cellar or buried somewhere cool. The significance of this theory is visible again when it is on a ‘knee very hott’ (inflamed) that the restorative ointment is applied.

                The similarities between the two texts in their reference to using opposing temperatures to cure an inflammation, especially as both are writing specifically about roses, is clear evidence that these recipe books were based on medical theory and well-researched so that they can be used in the absence of a learned medical professional. The deviation above is perhaps an example of her relying on her own observation instead and supporting the idea that as well as relying on professional medicine, some lay people managed to create treatments that were better.⁴

I might stick to using Voltarol and muscle exercises though; I think my landlord may take issue with me burying a pot of pressed roses in the garden for 3 months.

Voltarol – my preferred joint pain relief
(picture taken by me)


¹Nagy, D., Popular Medicine in Seventeenth Century England (Ohio, 1988), p.43.

²Leong, E., ‘ ‘Herbals she persueth’: reading medicine in early modern England’, in Renaissance Studies, 28, 4 (2014), pp.556-78.

³Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London, 1653), p.301

⁴Nagy, Popular Medicine in Seventeenth Century England, p.48.

Alcohol: Luxury or necessity?

Alcohol  has been a staple in our everyday lives throughout history all the way to present day, with  a healthy average of one drink per person per day, even with half the world’s population being non alcohol consumers. In fact the oldest firm evidence found of alcohol brewing was in 7000BC Jiahu China. Here evidence was found of famers fermenting rice, grapes, hawthorn berries and honey in clay jars. However, evidence has shown that alcoholic beverages have been invented independently on different continents at different times. Of course consumption habits are influenced by cultural and religious norms meaning, its highest consumption was in European countries. Here patterns in drinking behaviour were largely universal, this meant that sharing a drink was seen as a sign of social solidarity and heavy drinking was only acceptable for men not women.

Alcohol has had many different uses throughout time which was influenced by European expansion, social developments and scientific discoveries. 

Alcohol as medication

The active ingredient common in all alcoholic drinks is ‘yeast’. This is a single celled organism which eats sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and ethanol, this is the process of fermentation. The ethanol which is produced is toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. This provides an antimicrobial effect benefit for the drinker, meaning that alcohol can fight bacteria inside the body and encourage the health of the immune system.

Alcohol as a dietary staple

The consumption of beer provided calories as well as essential vitamins to many diets which were often poor and lacked nutrition. B vitamins such as folic acid, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin were all present in ancient brews, which helped aid healthy development. Before the sanitation of the modern world, beer was also a more sterile way of hydration than water. Here getting drunk was just a bonus of a ‘healthy’ life. Alcohol could also be contained in wood or clay containers without spoiling so it was good for transportation and may have been the only source of hydration on ships and other lengthy travels.

Alcohol as a status symbol

Wine was primarily drunk by the elites, this is because ingredients to make wine were not easily accessible eg grapes so wine was usually imported which increased its costs. Alcohol such as beer and mead would most often be drunk by the peasantry as this was much cheaper to make, with easily accessible ingredients and it would often be home brewed.

Alcohol as social glue

Alcohol was seen as a necessary component of a marital bond which could arouse affections, symbolize their union and consummate their marriage. Alcohol was also a part of business and social relation building

Alcohol for men and women

Unlike men, women’s alcohol consumption was less readily acceptable and only in moderation. Alcohol could heat a woman’s passions and lead to inappropriate masculine behaviour. If members of the opposite sex were not married and shared a drink, this could be a symbol of inappropriate sexual play and could be labelled as disorderly behaviour. Women with drinking problems could expect no support from the state, while men were expected to drink in order to conduct business effectively and to uphold their masculine reputation.

Alcohol as the inciter of violence

Drinking becomes a problem if it threatens the stability of the household or if it has the potential to burden the rest of the community. This meant that as long as the individual households were up and running and the head of the household was able to work, then there was no need for the authorities to get involved in these affairs. However, if the household members failed to live up to the demands of their estate and lacked order and discipline, then neighbours and authorities had the right to interfere and restore domestic harmony.

Alcohol was a by product of civilisation due to amounts of excess grain, need for caloric intake and the human desire for mind altering substances. Alcohol distillation began in Europe in 12th century Italy in the school of Salerno which was a medieval medical school, the most important of its kind. Alcohol distillation was used for medical uses such as aiding digestion and to stimulate conviviality. Alcohol distillation is the boiling and vaporisation in order to achieve a higher concentration of alcoholic content. English parliament promoted the production of gin in order to use the surplus of grains and raise taxes. This lead to the flooding of markets with cheap spirits and by 1733 the London area alone was producing 11 million gallons of gin a year. This number however saw a decline by the end of the century due to a growing stigmatisation towards drunkenness.

As we can see here, alcohol has been a steady part of our history, which can explain our attraction to it till this day. However, it has had many different uses throughout time and only in most recent years has it been enjoyed for its intoxicating effects.


B. Ann Tlusty, Drinking, family relations and authority in early modern Germany, journal of family History article, Jul 2014

Andrew Curry, National Geographic (magazine), Our 9,000 year love affair with booze, Feb 2017, accessed 18/03/2020

Alcohol problems and solutions, Alcohol in the 18th century: European expansion, accessed 19/03/2020

Treating a cough … Early Modern style!

Recently I came down with a cough. I know, that sounds so interesting, but I left it untreated, hoping it would go away only now it has shifted onto my chest and is causing my sides to ache from all the coughing so perhaps that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to look at some early modern remedies for coughs because who needs modern medicine? Intrigue has to come from somewhere, right? So why not from my own ailments? Let’s look at Receipt Book V.b.400, together.

Looking first at some remedies for a sore throat, the ingredient allum was often repeated.

Recipe from p.111 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

A quick search on the Oxford English Dictionary website told me that allum was an old term for salt. This was reassuring at least. Even now, if you’ve got a throat infection, gargling with warm saltwater still comes highly recommended by the nhs as salt can help fight bacteria and reduce swelling while the warm fluid helps to loosen the mucus. It’s unlikely though that this specific connection between salt and bacteria, was made by early modern recipe writers. Instead recipes were often the result of trial and error, evident in the continued testing and alteration of recipes by younger generations, some are even crossed out entirely if it’s found that they don’t work.¹ If something worked, it was repeated. The use of salt, or rather “allum”, clearly worked with sore throats.

Side note – the prevalence of this ingredient in old recipes could be seen as the basis for the label of ‘gargling saltwater’ as an “old wives tale” in that it literally was just that.

With this discovery in mind and a mental note to double check ingredient names, I continued to look through the book.

The next 3 pages, pp.112-14 are left blank, potentially intended for later additions relating to the mouth and throat issues on the preceding pages. These empty pages tell us something though as they show a desire for organisation. Medicines were not simply written in as and when the author came across them, they were organised in relation to what they treated. Such an organised recipe book would be much easier to use if a family member fell sick as they could flip to the right section and choose from the most appropriate recipes without having to leaf through pages and pages to find something. From these blank pages alone, we can already see a great deal of forethought. Who knew 3 blank pages could say so much?

The next 9 pages are more relevant, pp.115-23, as these include recipes that I could choose from to treat my cough. From the number of recipes available, we can see that a cough was clearly a common ailment leading to the collation of various recipes with the hope that one might just work for the type of cough that was being suffered with. The different variations in coughs also lead to there being many different medicines to treat them all. This variation is visible in the titles of the recipes.

p.116 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

From a focus on stopping phlegm, to a cough felt in the lungs as opposed to the throat to even more specifically phlegm in the lungs when there is pain felt in the sides, there’s one for when it’s accompanied by wheezing, or shortness of breath (I’ll admit I didn’t realise there was a difference) and even a dry cough.

p.118 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

A couple of these titles (above and below) have something else worthy of note in them. Notice the inclusion of the word “wonderfully” in the top one, or “excellent” in the bottom one. These recipes were considered as certain to work then, likely to have been tested by either the author or someone she knew before being given this credit in the title.

p.120 of Receipt Book V.b.400 (EMROC)

A similar implication can be see in the use of the word “approved” in the title on p.120. Approval suggests testing by someone other than herself; it may not say who but they were clearly enough in her esteem to be believed on the efficiency of this medicine before she wrote the recipe down.

I’ll end the suspense and choose a medicine for my cough.

I considered looking at a recipe focused around phlegm as it seemed most appropriate to my current condition but perhaps this is too much information about my cough so instead I settled on one entitled “For the Cough of the Lungs” on p.119. However I also found a recipe 2 pages later entitled “Against the Cough of the Lungs” on p.121. A quick comparison of the two reveals the use of very similar ingredients. Both use rasins, annyseed, sugar and maidenhair (which according to Culpeper, is a plant similar to a fern – ALWAYS double check ingredients because this one confused me – he says that it is good for coughs but should always be used alongside other ingredients as its effects are ‘weak’),² boiled in running water. This mixture is then strained and two spoonfulls are taken in the mornings. The only differences I could find was that the first on p.119 included liquorice whereas the second on p.121 used figs. A couple of questions spring to mind. Why include 2 recipes that are so similar? Did she perhaps forget that she had already written the first? Did she find that figs were a better substitute for liquorice but not enough to discount the first recipe? I turned back to Culpeper, he was so helpful on the topic of maidenhair after all. Liquorice is once again suggested for use when suffering with a cough, but he recommends the use of liquorice, maidenhair and figs together in a drink rather than separately.³ Therefore these recipes may have been put together based on pre-existing knowledge of the benefits of what we might considered were the active ingredients. Perhaps her own testing was what led to their separation between two recipes. It should be noted that the second recipe is more detailed, including a suggestion to clean the raisins, strain the medicine through a linen cloth, and that the user “shall find present remedy probatum oft”. These added details imply she had more faith in second one than in the first as it comes across as more tested.

Either way, I’m not a massive fan of liquorice or figs so I might just stick to my honey and lemon drink.


¹Leong, E., ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55, 2 (2013), p. 91.

²Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London, 1653) p.221

³Ibid, p.216

Retrospective diagnosis: the borderline of science and the humanities

In the present day, diagnoses for aches, pains, conditions and illnesses are part of our individual medical history. Symptoms are understood, in the majority of cases, as signs that lead to answers. However, can we apply our understandings of medicine today on the perceived symptoms experienced by those in the past?

Retrospective diagnosis is a highly debatable topic which questions ethics, religion, scientific methodology and the responsibilities of historians. This post will focus on arguments surrounding the validity of a diagnosis for historical figures and consider whether a diagnosis matters in the pursuit of history. This is important to the project as King George III has retrospectively diagnosed based on evidence from his household such as doctor’s notes, diary entries, letters and even newspaper articles where suggestions for improving the King’s diet were made.

Problems with retrospective diagnosis

One of the issues identified with retrospective diagnosis is the absence of a practitioner-patient relationship which allows for the first-hand observation and interpretation of symptoms. Reports of a patient come from sources such as letters, diaries or records whose authors may fail to recognise symptoms that would aid in contemporary diagnosis. Symptoms that are recognised may also be described using different terminology that could vary in meaning. Diseases, viruses in particular, change over time so their symptoms may not remain consistent.

‘Historians have no qualms about revealing any reality, good or bad or ugly, of a historical figure’

Osamu Muramoto

Verifying a diagnosis of a historical figure is problematic as most diseases do not affect the bones. In cases where tissue is available, as with Chopin whose heart was preserved, there are other obstructions to scientific method, with arguments surrounding the preservation of peace for the deceased and respect for the people affected by the historical figure in question. Muramoto highlights that some diagnoses may be damaging or redeeming to a historical figure’s reputation. This may have a negative effect on their followers or attempt to excuse or explain away their actions.


In the present day, the degree of certainty of a medical diagnosis where practitioner-patient relationship is established is not 100%. Research on the retrospective diagnosis of a historical figures is made public allowing for peer review to aid in the verification and validity of the findings.

A diagnosis can highlight the influence and impact that the disease may have had on their work or behaviours and offer new explanations. As well as adding to the historiography of an individual historical figure, it can provide a history of the disease or condition itself and can be used to create an idea of what the disease was like to live with in their period.

‘The Madness of King George’

The treatment of King George III’s illness will be discussed in a following blog of this project. Retrospective diagnosis for King George III has been based off records that were produced by his physicians. While the physicians of King George III had a practitioner-patient relationship, Joanna Edge has argued that symptoms have been chosen selectively by contemporary practitioners to suit a diagnosis.

King George III and others act as ‘windows of opportunity’ to learn more about social perceptions and medical practices of the past, so are contemporary diagnoses damaging to the interpretation of sources?

Or, by using retrospective diagnosis as a competitive theory, is it possible to use sources in innovative ways that create a broader historiography which can be verified through peer review?

Where do you stand on retrospective diagnosis? Is it a help or a hindrance? Please share your thoughts below!

Further reading:

Edge, Joanne, ‘Diagnosing the past’, Wellcome Collection (2018),, Wellcome Collection,

Karenberg, A., ‘Retrospective Diagnosis: Use and Abuse in Medical Historiography’, Prague Medical Report, 110:2 (2009), pp. 140-145.

Muramoto, Osamu, ‘Retrospective diagnosis of a famous historical figure’, Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine, 9:10 (2014).

Pruszewicz, Marek, ‘The mystery of Chopin’s death’, BBC News (22 December 2014),, BBC,

Baker’s many Agues

By Abbie Burnett

As a class we have been drawing to the end of our recipe books project. Our website exhibition on Margaret Baker’s seventeenth century manuscript has launched, and I am certainly proud of how far we have come and how much we have learnt about the digital world of early modern recipes.

Baker’s manuscript has offered us many topics to research and explore, and it was after a last leaf through of its pages on the Folger website that I realised a recipe title reoccurred numerous times: “For An Ague”.  I personally have transcribed pages in which an ague recipe is featured, however I did not realise then that variants of this recipe were not just included once or twice, but eleven times throughout the manuscript. 

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker folio 38r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

So, what is an ague? It is not a word in which I was familiar with, at first I thought it may have been a miss spelling of the word ache, but this seemed unlikely as Baker includes recipes for aches within her book and so she is obviously aware of its spelling. So I searched for the term ague in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to discover that an ague was a form of feverish sickness, most likely to be malaria. According to this article, the term ague remained in common usage in England until the nineteenth century. My curiosity about these recipes was truly ignited; Malaria- in England?!

This then begs the question, why would Margaret Baker, who we know to have lived in the midlands of the UK, require so many recipes to treat Malaria? Today malaria is common in warmer environments close to the Earth’s equator. The Centres of the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  sites locations for highest transmission of the disease in Africa south of the Sahara and in parts of Oceania. You wouldn’t contract it in England- one benefit o
f living on such a rainy island.

This map shows an approximation of the parts of the world where malaria transmission occurs in the 21st-century.

For Baker living in seventeenth-century England, this does not seem to be the case. The inclusion of eleven recipes to treat an ague suggest that the disease was frequently affecting her or someone within her social circle. Baker even includes a recipe to treat a pregnant woman with an ague.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 81r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

Looking into the history of this disease I discovered an article on the British Medical Journal website titled Malaria in the UK: past, present, and futureFrom it I learnt that the disease was once indigenous to the UK, (and may once again be due to global warming but that’s an issue for another blog post…). It was only in the late nineteenth century, when the use of antimalarial drugs and improvements in the standard of living, that transmission of Malaria declined and eventually disappeared in England. Other evidence of agues prior to the nineteenth century can by found by looking to the famous William Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 and included agues in 8 of his plays! In the Tempest, one character diagnoses another with an ague and attempts to treat him with alcohol:

“. . . (he) hath got, as I take it, an ague . . . he’s in his fit now and does not talk after the wisest. He shall taste of my bottle: if he have never drunk wine afore it will go near to remove his fit . . . Open your mouth: this will shake your shaking . . . if all the wine in my bottle will recover him, I will help his ague.”[1]

Alcohol and opiates were commonly used to suppress the shaking fevers of malaria. Interestingly, the recipes that Baker includes to treat an ague differ quite a lot. Some recipes include alcohol as their main ingredient, like this one on (f.66v) made of simply the ‘white of 2 new leade eggs… and putt to it a spounefull of aqua vite’ to be mixed well and drunk before the ‘fite douth come’. While others include more varied ingredients such as this one on (f.75r) with a mix of herbs, plants and medicinal waters, and then created by a more complicated methodology- distilling.  However there are some common ingredients in baker’s ague recipes. These include; liquor/ ‘aquavitie’, ‘reddest sage’, ‘eall’, and ‘ealder buds’.  A couple of Baker’s recipes are specifically for ‘quarten’ agues, the OED defines this as a fever  that reoccurs every fourth day. This was surely a very unpleasant form of Malaria, which Baker would have been keen to heal.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 105v, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

The fact that Baker had eleven recipes to deal with the problem of agues suggests that not one individual recipe was particularly effective in curing malaria. It is possible that once the patient stopped taking their medicine their symptoms returned. Alternatively, Baker’s family may have been especially susceptible to agues or many different strains of the disease may have plagued them. This would have been common knowledge to Baker’s friends and neighbours, and may explain why a recipe was contributed by John Reedman “for an ague all though thay have had it longe”.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 126r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

The inclusion of ague recipes in Baker’s manuscript have helped reveal another aspect of the seventeenth-century world in which she existed. I am glad to have had that last leaf through of its pages. I’m sure whoever next takes up the task of continuing our work on Baker will continue to expose parts of her world this way. They will discover as I have, that her recipe book is much more revealing than it at first appears.  

[1]Paul Reiter, ‘From Shakespeare to Defoe: Malaria in England in the Little Ice Age’ Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal 6 (2006). 

The Digital Recipe Project – A Finale!

When i decided to choose The Digital Recipe Project back in the summer when i was deciding what third year modules to take on for this year, I did not think that I was going to grow such a bond with Margaret Baker, a seventeenth-century English housewife. Initially, I was very excited to be working with an entire recipe book written by a woman over 300 years ago and to have the chance to transcribe it into a digital format, like a professional historian! However, as the module progressed, Baker’s life and the society of which she lived in was becoming even more intriguing to me and I couldn’t help but want to find out more!

Initially, the idea of this module having such a vast digital component was exciting to me, being a 21st century young adult, the internet is at the centre of everything, and I thought I would have easily got the grasp of blog-writing and website-making. However, the reality was not as straight-forward, and trying to write an informal blog post after two and a half years of formal historical essay-writing, was a lot more difficult than I initially thought. Despite this, (and despite the 9am starts) this module was a lot more intimate than any of my other third year modules – with such a small class, it was nice to get to know Lisa a lot better than we usually would with any other seminar leader, and it made us all feel a lot more relaxed in conversation and debate within our seminar. Not only this, but every seminar really was a conjoined effort, and each week was a different topic and theme to investigate.

It is amazing how much you take for granted being brought up in the 21st century, where medicines and treatments are constantly developed, and recipes are shared by foodies more and more on social media such as on Instagram and Facebook. Sometimes the recipe book is disregarded, and the recipe for any dish can be with you in 10 seconds with the help of Google. It was not this easy in seventeenth-century England, these recipes for both food and medicine were circulated around the country normally through word of mouth, or through migration. It is interesting now, especially, how disregarded medicinal recipes have become, and that is something that I myself was guilty of, in our first seminar: ‘What is a recipe?’. Maybe I was ignorant in just thinking that a recipe book was just that.. a book for food recipes. However, recipes had a much broader meaning, nowadays you would immediately link a ‘recipe’ with food, however, I do not think the seventeenth-century English believed in such structural organisation and conformity. A recipe book did not mean simply food, like a prayer book did not necessarily mean it only included prayers (which i mention in my last blog).

Sitting opposite my own bookcase which is full almost solely of recipe books, from Nigella, to Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein to Delia Smith, there is not really any other recipe book other than for anything other than just food dishes. From witnessing the use of alchemy widely in Margaret Bakers seventeenth-century recipe book, I was beyond excited when I found a book on my shelf with ‘Alchemy’ written in big writing on the spine of the book.. however, looking more closely ‘Alchemy in a Glass, The essential guide to Handcrafted Cocktails’ was not what I had expected to come across. Its interesting however, this book is actually giving you instructions of how to make cocktails, so its as much a ‘guide’ as it is a recipe book! Wow, this module really has got me thinking more about the definition of a ‘recipe book’!

Yet, this even got me thinking further, how such meanings and emphasis become placed differently throughout the years, although we speak the same language, we don’t necessarily speak the same meaning – and this is something I especially had to take into consideration when I first begun transcribing Baker’s book.

To close this final blog post, which is more of a reflection, or a transcription of my own train of thought, I wanted to mention a book that my grandmother recently let me borrow named ‘Natural Wonderfoods’. Although it is not a recipe book, it lists nearly every fruit, vegetable and meat product, and explains on a double page spread the importance of these different types of within healing, immune-boosting and for fitness-enhancing.

The introduction of the book itself, gives acknowledgements to our ancestors, and it is amazing that I open the book onto the introduction page (that i never look at) to such mention of the fact that knowledge of these healing foods were known centuries ago (Maybe its Baker herself that made me open it, saying: ‘See! I was right about all these healing foods in my recipe book!).

Looking at ‘A medycine for the eies’ (14.v. 15.r.) sage leaves, fennel leaves, honey and egg were used. Looking in this glorious book, all the completely natural foods are written: sage, fennel and eggs (which can be used as face masks to help dry skin!) I will leave you all with the pages and explanations of both sage and fennel to show you just how knowledgeable and clever these seventeenth-century women were! Thank you Margaret Baker et al!






By Florence Hearn.


Bartimeus, Paula, Haigh, Charlotte, Merson, Sarah, Owen, Sarah, Wright, Janet, Natural Wonderfoods, (London 2011)

Margaret Baker’s recipe books give us so much more information than recipes

By Tracey Cornish

Little is known about Margaret Baker, however just because not much is known of the author does not mean we cannot learn a significant amount.  Three recipes books that she had written have survived today, two are owned by the British Library and one is owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.  They are dated approximately 1670, 1672 and 1675.  The recipe books contained medicinal, culinary and household recipes and it is through these recipes that we can find out how people lived and survived in the seventeenth century.

Baker’s books contain recipes from other people for example she mentions ‘My Lady Corbett, my Cousen Staffords, Mrs Davies and Mrs Weeks.   We could assume that these people were known to Baker and she has been given these recipes by them.  Both men and women could gain medical information through their contacts although they may not have always given information about their own health or concerns.  Therefore just because Mrs Denis tells Margaret Baker about a remedy ‘To comfort ye brayne and takes away aney payne of the head’ (37r) it did not necessarily mean that Mrs Denis had used the remedy herself.  She also appears to recite Hannah Woolley’s recipes from her ‘The accomplisht ladys delight in preserving, physic and cookery.’   Large sections of printed books are copied by Baker many are from doctors.  Many of the doctors quoted in her books were non English medical practitioners and this suggests that she was influenced by her continental contemporaries. However medical instruction at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were so far behind that in continental universities that a large percentage of Englishmen who wished to become doctors went abroad for their education.[1]

Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplisht Ladys delight

So what can we learn from Margaret Baker’s recipes?  The books contain a range of preparations for ointments, powders, salves and cordials for a variety of medical complaints.  From these remedies we can see what diseases were prevalent at the time. For example ‘A preservation against the plague’ (24r).  We would not find a remedy for the plague in medical books today and so was therefore a worry in the 1670s.   There is also a remedy for ‘A canker for a women’s breste.’  (68v).  This is very interesting as it reveals that even in the 1670s cancer was a known illness and could actually be diagnosed although one has to assume that due to the lack of medical knowledge in the seventeenth century it was only when a lump was present that cancer was diagnosed.  Other illnesses mentioned are measles and shingles (26r).  There is also a remedy for ‘the stone in the blader and kidnes’ (17v) which is another example of medical knowledge inside the body.

The body was believed to be made up of four humours – Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile and it was an excess of one of the humours that caused illness.  Health was managed on a day to day basis.  Recipe books like Margaret Baker’s reveal the extent of self-help used by families and explores their favourite remedies and analyses differences in approached to medical matters.  Women as carers and household practitioners could assume significant roles in place of a sick person, for example the husband,  and some women would have made key decisions about information and treatment of the sick.[2]

Women and medicine

The recipes for foods reveals the diet of the seventeenth century person although one should remember that Margaret Baker was more than likely middle class and so was writing for middle class society.  She includes recipes for cakes, biscuits and meat.  Her recipes reveal that food was eaten according to the season. We can also learn what types of food the seventeenth century person ate.  As mentioned in my previous blog,  Baker’s use of animals in recipes no part of an animal ever went to waste with most parts being used as food.

Baker’s recipes also reveal beauty regimes in the seventeenth century.  Her recipes include a pomatum to style hair   Karen writes a more detailed account of the seventeenth century beauty regime according to Margaret Baker in her essay  on our website UoE Baker Project.

Recipe books like Margaret Baker’s are an invaluable insight into the world of seventeenth century society and how they coped with illness, disease and how they ate among other things.  When I first began this module I was apprehensive that recipe books would be limited.  How wrong was I!  I could never have imagined the knowledge one can retrieve from a seventeenth century recipe book.


[1] Anne Stobart, Household medicine in Seventeenth Century England, p.29.

[2] Ibid  p.29.

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

The Science and Secrets of Cooking

By Abbie Burnett

In his book Cooking in Europe 1250-1650, Ken Albala includes a guide explaining ‘how to cook from old recipes’. To those unfamiliar with early modern recipes the inclusion of this guide may seem unusual and even unnecessary as recipes today are explicit in detailing how a recipe should be recreated, therefore a guide to aid them is redundant. However, what is apparent to those who have familiarised themselves with early modern recipes is that there is a large amount of assumed knowledge between their lines. 

Albala argues that “modern recipes are written scientifically, even though for the most part cooking is not a science.”[1] While cooking may not be a science, the scientific nature of recipes today can be easily recognised by their list of precise ingredients, exact measurements which are standardised internationally, and their explicit instructions, cooking times and temperatures. A modern recipe can be reproduced by almost anyone who follows its strict instructions, with no previous knowledge or skills necessary. (A blessing to inexperienced chefs of the twenty first century!) In addition, it is likely that due to the clear cut  and explicit nature of modern recipes they will be easily replicated to the same standard in 200 years time as they are today, providing cooking appliances do not drastically change.

In contrast, recipe books from the early modern period are much more difficult to follow. Recipes from this period did not have explicit instructions or standardised measurements, they were characterised by vague instructions and ambiguous guidance which was open to much interpretation by the reader. There was also a high level of implied knowledge in recipe books from this period, to which a contemporary reader would have been expected to have been aware of in order to follow a recipe successfully. Within Margaret Baker’s recipe book the assumed knowledge behind the measurements for ingredients has been highlighted well in Karen’s blog post ‘Methods of measurement and delight.’

A recipe for a powder of tertian feauer in Margaret Bakers Recipe Book, V.a.619 “as much as will lye on a six pence”

But why are modern recipes so explicit while early modern recipes left much to interpretation? It may be because recipes today are globally exchanged, they have the potential to reach thousands of readers and be recreated in many kitchens around the world. For this reason recipes are required to be specific and universal; to allow for anyone to easily cook from them despite cultural or geographical differences. However, in the early modern period recipes were expected to reach a much smaller audience.  Evidence of sociability of recipes can be seen in Margaret Bakers recipe book, she mentions contributors such as Mris FamesSir Walter Rallyes and Mris Denis, among others.  Specific recipes may have been expected to be shared among families or neighbours, but recipes traditionally travelled through lines of inheritance.

Only rarely would a recipe reach fame nationally or internationally if it was especially successful, such as Dr Lucatella’s balame. Margaret Baker claims that she was the first to record Luatella’s recipe, it then appears in many other recipe books from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, as well as being sold seperately. Here it is found as ‘Lucatelles balsam’ in 1669 in a memorandum book contributed to by unknown authors, and as late as 1820 the balme is recorded in John Knowlson’s book The Complete Farrier; Or Horse- doctor; Being the Art of Farriery Made Plain and Easy… With…a Catalogue of Drugs

Mathew Lucatalla’s Balme in Margaret Baker’s recipe book V.a.619

Today, some recipes would be impossible to recreate exactly or simply fail without the level of literal detail that modern recipes include. For example Bearnaise sauce, included in this article as number 3 of the 10 toughest dishes in the world to recreate, is evidence of how precisely a recipe must be followed. A particular temperature must be maintained during the cooking and specialist equipment is required for a Bearnaise sauce to be correctly reproduced; “This sauce is made in a bain-marie (a glass bowl over a pan of boiling water), but if it gets too hot, the eggs will scramble and there is no turning back.” It may be that early modern people used simpler dishes as Bearnaise sauce was not said to be created until the early nineteenth century, however it is more likely that during the early modern period this information was conveyed in other ways than direct instructions within a recipe book. In the early modern period in which Baker wrote, recipes and the methods to recreate them took on secret like qualities. They were passed on verbally, taught by elder family members to their young, from chefs to servants, from neighbours to friends, rather than being shared openly to everyone and anyone.

Implied knowledge in early modern recipes displays the limited reach of recipe books in the early modern period, authors expected their readers to be aware of unsaid rules or at least be close enough to ask them personally if they required more information. While the secret like quality of early modern recipes romanticises early modern cooking, the consequences of the existence of assumed knowledge in recipe books is that we may never be truly able to reconstruct recipes from this period. As Florence’s blog post displays, reconstruction of early modern recipes includes a lot of guess work. Information which was implicit to contemporary readers has not been passed on which has turned recipes from the early modern period into a  truly secret code to be deciphered by historians. As mentioned earlier, Albala takes an optimistic approach to this problem by arguing that “despite changes in ingredients and procedures, what tasted good hundreds of years ago still tastes good today,”[2] and therefore by trial and error we can gradually work to reconstruct near authentic replicas of dishes from early modern recipes. However, I fear that the silences in early modern recipes in which assumed knowledge was meant to fill may remain silent, and true recreations of recipes from this period may therefore be impossible.

[1]  Ken Albala Cooking in Europe 1250- 1650 (Westport, 2006), p. 27.

[2] Ken Albala Cooking in Europe 1250- 1650 (Westport, 2006), p. 28.

The Creation of the Kitchen

By Tracey Cornish

The reading for this week’s seminar was a topic that I had not thought much about before.  Just as I had never really thought about recipes and their meaning in the early modern period before I began studying this module.  The topic in question is kitchens.  I suppose I had thought that kitchens had always existed in the way in which we think of kitchens now.  When you visit castles or stately homes there is always a kitchen where the hustle and bustle of daily life took place.  The kitchen in Hampton Court is indeed huge.  It was built in 1530 and was designed to feed at least 600 members of the court, entitled to eat at the palace, twice a day.

The kitchens had master cooks each with a team working for them.  Annually the Tudor Court cooked 1240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar.  That is without mentioning the chickens, peacocks, pheasant and vegetables which were also on the menu.[1]

Hampton Court Kitchen plan

Interestingly, Hampton Court Palace also has a chocolate kitchen.  The royal chocolate making kitchen which once catered for three Kings: William III, George I and George II is the only surviving royal chocolate kitchen in the country. Recent research has uncovered the precise location of the royal chocolate kitchen in the Baroque Palace’s Fountain Court. Having been used as a storeroom for many years, it is remarkably well preserved with many of the original fittings, including the stove, equipment and furniture still intact.[2]


Chocolate Kitchen in Hampton Court Palace

The only original 17th century kitchen to be preserved is at Ham House. In the basement  there are several small rooms comprising of the kitchen, the scullery, the servants hall, a laundry, several pantries, a wet larder, a still house, a wash house and a dairy room. All these rooms would have had servants working in them and would have made the workings of the kitchen easier as it would have provided room to prepare and cook food.[3]

Original 17th Century kitchen

Of course, this is an example of a palace so what about everyday houses?  Peasants in the middle ages lived in one room which served as a room for cooking, general living and eating.  It consisted of a hearth stone, a fire with a pot of the top.  Sara Pennell suggests in The Birth of the English Kitchen 1600-1850 that kitchens in the early 1600’s were ‘unfixed and at times contested’[4] and that it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that kitchens were ‘distinctive yet integrated spaces in the majority of households.’[5] Food could be prepared in any room with a table and could be cooked in any room with a fire.  However it was the need to provide space for the works of the kitchen and other ‘food’ rooms such as pantries, larders and sculleries which reallocated eating to its own distinctive space.[6] Pennell argues that histories of the domestic interior and its evolving design neglected the kitchen and yet arguably the kitchen is and was an important room in a household. [7]

Margaret Baker never mentions in her recipes as to where the production of the recipes should take place, one just imagines that she is in her kitchen trying out the recipes (the ones which she did try) and writing them down.  Of course, the fact that her kitchen would have been nothing like our kitchens today should also be taken into account if a reproduction of one of her recipes takes place.  As Florence mentions in her  blog,  Replicate, Authenticate and Reconstruct Baker uses ‘learned knowledge’ in her recipe book.  There would have been no modern oven to set to a certain temperature as they would have used a fire.

17th Century Kitchen

Evolution of the kitchen was linked to the invention of the cooking range or stove and the supply of running water.  The living room began to serve as an area for social functions and became a showcase for the owners to show off their wealth.  In the upper classes cooking and the kitchen were the domain of servants and the kitchen was therefore set away from the living rooms.

The kitchens of elite households were not originally in the basement.  In fact basement level kitchens were almost unheard of in England before 1666.  Yet by 1750 kitchens were found in the basement.  One could argue this was to keep the kitchen staff out of sight of the main household and to ensure that the kitchen smells did not overwhelm the main living accommodation.

A 17th Century Distiller

So what about the medical and scientific recipes?  Many kitchens or basements formed laboratories for people to experiment and write down their medical recipes.  It was popular for higher class women to have stills and alembics in their kitchens for making essences. .  Even the lower classes would gather herbs together and make remedies in their kitchens.

Experiments took place in many places such as coffee houses, laboratories and universities but the private residence was a popular place to experiment.  Many renowned scientists used their kitchens as a ‘laboratory’ including Frederick Clod who was a physician and a ‘mystical chemist’ who used his father in law’s kitchen to experiment. [8]

It could be argued that the design of kitchens have come full circle with many people preferring to have open plan living areas which include the kitchen with people enjoying socialising whilst cooking and enjoying all those cooking smells.


[1] accessed 20th March 2017.

[2] accessed 20th March 2017.

[3] accessed 20th March 2017.

[4] Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850, (London, 2016) p.37.

[5] Ibid p.37.

[6] Ibid p.39.

[7] Ibid p.38.

[8] accessed 21st March 2017.


Hampton Court Kitchen plan – accessed 20th March 2017.

Chocolate Kitchen in Hampton Court Palace – accessed 21st March 2017.

Original 17th Century kitchen – accessed 20th March 2017.

17th Century Kitchen – accessed 20th March 2017.

A 17th Century Distiller – accessed 21st March 2017.