Monthly Archives: February 2017

Fertility and the Future Generation

Previously, I had generally understood the basics behind the ideology behind humorism. I thought it was only used as a way to identify the composition of the human body, which consisted of four bodily fluids; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. However, after reading  Aristotle’s Master-piece Completed, in Two Parts and ‘Medicine, Marriage and Human Degeneration in the French Enlightenment’ by Michael Winston, my simplistic understanding of the system changed. Once I found out about the ideologies that had emerged based on this, it gave me a new insight into the mentality and desires of the early modern family. For instance, during the early modern and Enlightenment period, these humors were considered to affect fertility and thereby the degradation of future generations

.                          aristotle

I came across in my reading that many things were considered in the early modern day to affect a woman’s fertility. One them was the lifestyle of the higher class. It was notable that the rural or laboring, poor did not encounter the same issues with their fecundity as the middling or elite class. I guess when you consider the idea that rural class needed children to help work, whereas the elite class didn’t and there was less pressure to produce a sizable family, it is logical.

However, I found it oddly interesting that although sex was considered a ‘cold’ act, and only men had the ‘juice’, if a female wanted to encourage her fecundity, it was ideal that her body should be hot during love-making. Many methods and sexual practices were suggested such as eating spicy foods and taking hot baths. For instance, Aristotle suggests that couples who desire to have children should drink some wine moderately, to’set the mood’ lift their spirits. This was important

“… for if their spirits flag on either part, they will fall short of what Nature requires; and the woman either miss of conception, or else the Children prove weak in their bodies, or defective in their understandings.” p.93

Moreover, Aristotle’s advice indicates that getting pregnant wasn’t the major issue but the precautions that had to be taken to avoid a miscarriage and have healthy children with a higher mortality rate was.

“…for anything of sadness, trouble and sorrow, are enemies to the Delights of Venus; and if at such times of coition there should be conception, it would have a malevolent effect upon the children.” p.92

Although I could understand to some extent why they would have thought this could work and be effective, I can’t help but find it amusing. Considering the 16th century up until the 18th century was characterised by stagnant population growth and reduced fertility [1] it is understandable how finding remedies for this problem were desired by many in early modern society. In the wider context, the growth in self help literature and even home-made recipes of a similar nature made it easier to provide this.

The pressure on people in the early modern Europe to be married and fufill the true ideal goal of marriage, which was the production of healthy children, was immense. Children were considered to be the foundation of a loving family. Texts such as Venette’s Tableau de l’amour conjugal, suggests that marriage and family is the basis of social order.

“marriage is life’s most pleasant bond, the support of society” [2]

Notably, the idea that family is central to a functional society still exists today. The only slight difference is in the early modern era they believed the health of a child was due to the temperaments and body temperature of the parents, whereas in today’s society, many cases have argued that genetics or the upbringing of an individual is what can predetermine their behaviour and actions. After reading various articles, I found that though a lot of beliefs of earlier societies appear foreign at face value, the more you find out, the more you can see how the values and beliefs we have in today’s society had emerged and developed up until now.


[1] Evans, J. ‘‘Gentle Purges corrected with hot Spices, whether they work or not, do vehemently provoke Venery’: Menstrual Provocation and Procreation in Early Modern England’, Social History of Medicine 25, 1 (2012) p.5

[2] quoted in Michael Winston, Medicine, Marriage, and Human Degeneration in the French Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2005) p.268


Replicate, Authenticate, and Reconstruct

The idea of replicating and reproducing a 300-year-old recipe is one that intrigued me whilst I was transcribing Baker’s books. Could I, a 21-year-old History student, be able to replicate a recipe as accurately to the one Baker would have? Does the 300 year gap really make that much of a difference when your reproducing quite a (what I thought was simple) recipe? Or is it challenging to precisely reconstruct an old recipe, and produce an exact, authentic piece of food without corrupting it with 21st century behaviours? The answer of that is of the latter; of course I wasn’t going to be able to make an authentic cake, the sugar I used was out of a packet, as was the flour and the cream, and the egg wasn’t freshly laid. Could we really communicate effortlessly with early modern cookery, and imitate an exact recipe to produce an exactly similar outcome, unchanged despite the 300 years between us?

The recipe ‘for suger cakes’, which I would be reconstructing.

I faced a number of problems before I started making my suger cakes, Baker weighed her food in pounds, and I had a scale that weighed in grams – (luckily a quick click on Google allowed me to figure out the grams easily). On top of this I had to guess the temperature to put my oven on, and I had to guess how long to have my bake in the oven for – this was tricky in itself. I sat next to my oven for over 20 minutes peering through the window until my sugar cakes looked baked. 17th century housewives did not have electric ovens where you simply turn the dial to the temperature you want – you had to be alert and patient. That was an initial trouble I faced, “what temperature do I set the oven to?, were these cakes meant to be hard and crispy? Or soft and spongy?” These recipes lacked in these descriptions because they themselves knew exactly what a ‘suger cake’ should look, feel, and taste like; if only I knew the same 300 years later. Ovens, hearths, open fires or spits would have been in an early modern household and who knows whether the same sugar cakes produced then, would be the same as my sugar cakes I produce now. 17th century techniques may have baked these foods entirely different to how my 21st century oven would have – suddenly I realised that reconstruction of this recipe wasn’t as easy as it initially seemed.


Dough-like consistency of the ‘suger cake’ mixture

Like a lab experiment, everything had to be controlled, these factors hindered me from making an truthful replica of the cake which Baker would have made. This made me question the finishing product, was this even what Baker took out of the oven, or was it something that looked entirely different? I soon came to realise that even the early modern use of names and labels were just another obstacle preventing me from an accurate outcome. From reading the recipe ‘for suger cakes’, I assumed I was baking something similar to a fairy cake. Yet after mixing all the ingredients together, and finding myself kneading the mixture more than beating it, thinking it felt more like cookie dough, I started to become confused. However, I wanted to carry on with the ‘cake’ I was making – so I placed them in the cake cases, into the oven and took to the Internet for some assurance. “The earliest English cakes were virtually bread, their main distinguishing characteristics being their shape –round and flat-”¹ was something which caught my eye, I wasn’t meant to be making cakes as we know it today, but round and flat sugar cakes!

Miscommunication – Before understanding the definition of a ‘cake’ could also be flat and round.

The definition of a cake is: “a flat, thin, mass of bread, especially unlevened bread”² and the definition of a cookie: “a small cake made from stiff, sweet dough rolled and sliced or dropped by spoonfuls on a large, flat pan and baked”³. The glue-like, thick consistency of the dough made sense, I was essentially making a cookie, not a cake. After taking my first batch of ‘cakes’ out of the oven (which looked like mini scones), I put in another batch, this time aiming for a cookie-looking outcome.
Its interesting how such a little word can lead to such a huge miscommunication – Initially I was making something which was not a suger cake, but instead more like a sweet, small, scone.


I understood how beautifully stripped Early Modern cooking was, it was about wholesome ingredients, and the care and time which was put into it. However, after trying to make a recipe as close to that of 300 years ago, and reading a chapter on authenticity (link), It is impossible for me, a modern day 21 year old, to replicate the recipe with such precision. Looking at this as a History student, someone who has to use entirely correct facts, knowledge and historiography in order to create a valid argument or essay; One cannot help but understand, in my own academic OCD, that there is no way a 21st century reconstruction will ever validate and authenticate a dish cooked 300 years prior. The lack of similarity in atmosphere, utensils, ingredients, communications, recipes and even interpretation, highlights the limitations of reconstruction. 21st century customs seems to be an obstacle of the wholesomeness art of early modern baking, and as a result restricts the question of authenticity.

The final product! ‘Suger Cakes’.

Florence Hearn


[1] John Ayto, The Diner’s Dictionary: World Origins of Food and Drink, (2012). p.57.



Methods of Measurement and Delight.

As a student of Early Modern Recipes the process of discovering Margaret Baker and her contemporaries has been an unexpected delight on so many levels. Should we ladies ever meet , I’m sure we would connect; if not in the detail of our lives, then at least in the shared experience of being wives, mothers and caregivers. Early modern cruelty to animals, where ‘whelps are drowned’ and chickens plucked alive (Tracey’s post) would, of course repulse my  twenty first century sensibilities, but then the speed at which we live today, our secular lifestyles and modern individualism would perhaps appear quite alien to her.

Frontispiece The queen-like closet Hannah Woolley, 1670
The queen-like closet Hannah Woolley, 1670

Baker’s world was one of extended social networks emanating, not from a mobile phone, but from her home and family.  Cooperation and collaboration by women within the domestic sphere strengthened familial bonds as well as alliences between mitresses and servants and made for the smooth running of a household. Collaboration and connection are also inherent within recipes, the following remark in the recipe book of Philip Stanhope, ‘my daughter-in-law taught it me/ Mrs Phillips taught it her’, an example of the  transmission of knowledge, and sociability.

Yet recipes themselves remain inanimate if not accompanied by instructions for their use.  Returning to the concept of meeting Baker I suspect this would be something we would have talked about. Possibly, we would also have reflected upon the importance of  both measurement and precision in the preparation and execution of our recipes.

Today, ‘precision’ is something we take for granted, regulated by micro measurements, global positioning instruments, and digital apparatus. Unfortunately, it is not something we automatically attribute to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a domestic context. Instead, we see an England as yet untouched by the Industrial Revolution and so still tied into agrarian rhythms.

Harvest, Pieter Bruegel.
Harvest, Pieter Bruegel.

This became evident when Baker herself recommended a tonic  to be taken in Spring and the ‘fall’, and, although I knew otherwise, the phrasing of her instruction led me to reimagine her as a colonial American. I double-checked. Biographical information on ‘EMROC – The Baker Project’ confirmed her as English, and the Oxford Dictionary Online explained that ‘fall’ derived from the old English, ‘at leafs fall’, a centuries old phrase denoting the third quarter of the year. Latterly it was simply referred to as ‘fall’ and so in common usage , was then taken to the new world by puritan migrants. In England, as urban societies grew and ties with the countryside diminished the less rustic sounding  ‘autumn’ was adopted to describe the season.

Precision, we must accept was no less accurate in the past if we do not judge the concept by modern standards. Then, accuracy, at least enough for people to rely upon, was achieved by constancy: by using the same instruments, weights and measurement whatever they were.

Seventeenth-Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard: Library of Essential Works by Elizabeth Spiller (Editor)
The Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard: by Elizabeth Spiller .

Today recipes will sometimes make use of phrases such as a ‘cup’ of rice but usually it is 30 grammes of this or 450 grammes of that. Very precise. By contrast early modern  methods of quantifying  items appear strange to us, almost  haphazard? Consequently, we can easily dismiss women like Baker, Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard as having inadequate tools with which to standardise amounts. Not so. In the absence of digital scales their constants were ‘handfuls’, ‘pennies’, ‘pecks’, and nuts.

 Nutmeg. http://wellcomeimages.o

Take, for example Grey’s, ointment to break a sore. She takes a handful of gentian, stamps it, straines it and puts it to half a pint of may butter, and as much virgin wax as a walnut’. 1 Nutmegs as a unit of measurement also feature regularly in her recipes, e.g, ‘Take the quantitie of one nutmeg out of your tin pot’, alternatively, ‘take the bigness of a nutmeg. 2 In one script she uses a combination of measuring methods all at once,

‘A handful of red sage, a quantitie of rustie bacon as big as a walnut, bay salt 2 ounces, sowr leaven as much as an egg…’3 

Amazingly, coins frequently appear,  both as a unit of weight and of measurement, a pennyworth of saffron suggesting a particular and standardised  quantitie. 5 Interestingly women also used ‘a penny weight, the latter being easily multiplied to achieve the desired outcome. For example, ‘the weight of five pence’, 6  ‘the weight of two shillings,’ 7 or ‘a  4 penny weight of spikenard.’  A pennyworth may also have been a liquid measurement as per this instruction for a plaister for ‘the collick’, in so much as it may refer to a small round amount of oil only as big as a penny.


Returning to the possibility of ever meeting up with either, Howard, Grey or Baker, amidst the myriad of topics we would explore and engage in, I would of course, have to share with them my utter delight in their early modern methods of measurement.



Spiller, Elizabeth, (ed) Seventeenth-Century English Recipe Books: Cooking, Physic and Chirurgery in the Works of Elizabeth Talbot Grey and Aletheia Talbot Howard: Library of Essential Works. Routledge. 2008

[1] pg 81

[2] pg 151

[3] pg 34

[4] pg 209.

[5] pg 31

[6] pg 122

[7] pg 362

[8] pg 173

Aristotle’s Master-Piece Completed, in Two Parts – The Unexpected.

When we think of recipes, we think of the cookbook that we have shoved in a cupboard, ready to use if the occasion ever should call for it – though for many it never does. However, when the historian wants to examine society, the recipe book remains that useful tool which wasn’t expected. That is what we have found, and we have learned that we can tell much from the archaic spellings and even more from the sentences that those spellings form. I admit, when I began the Digital Recipe Project, I was never under any sort of illusion that I would be coming into contact with a how-to guide on making dinner. Instead, I knew there would be some strange ingredients, and medicines for diseases that have long since been forgotten, and cures for which so ludicrous it can barely be believed. You’ve heard the phrase ‘a recipe for disaster’? Well, how else do you describe the fact that the methods for encouraging pregnancy were virtually the same as those to prevent it. I could not help but feel some modicum of respect for the women who were able to master the difference, as my twenty-first century mind surely could not.  


I was even prepared to face some equally silly sounding alchemical procedures. Models to make gold from lead, or love potions. Pseudo-science to fit into a book where asking God for assistance was sometimes as important as the right medicine. A recipe, by definition, is a set of instructions in order to create something. I was expecting anything that could come into that category.


Or so I thought. Despite my readiness for the weird and wonderful, what even my prepared mind was surprised to see was the presence of a guide to create a happy relationship, out of nothing. I have to admit, when I saw the name ‘Aristotle’, I cracked a smile. I’m fairly certain the philosopher who had died almost two thousand years prior had nothing to do with this, but I like the idea that part of his great philosophical thoughts involved such a topic. Regardless, it is an interesting read, if only because of its amusing relevance to the modern reader. Also, there’s something reassuring in knowing that people were as terrible at romance in 1697 as they are now.  



Onto the text itself, of the short extract I have read, which focuses on how to… get the mood right, for a night between husband and wife. In case anyone was uncertain, the author makes it clear that ‘without copulation, there can be no generation.’ I would hope that the reader was aware of this, I’m not sure why the author has bothered to write this, unless he’s simply posturing in preparation of his recipe of love.


I have to admit that I wasn’t certain on first reading what was meant by the term ‘restoratives’, aside from the obvious. But I could guess well enough to suit my purpose, so I forged on. It makes sense, if you want to increase your chances of pregnancy, have a healthy body. It’s not like that isn’t deemed true today, with the various vitamin tablets intended purely for those attempting to conceive – though I expect the restoratives of the seventeenth century were of a more natural composition, and was probably nothing more than a good quality meal.




So, step one, get your body healthy. Simple, makes sense, easy to remember, a good rule in general. Step two, have a glass of wine, (or two, or three – depends how ‘unequal’ the ‘match’ is, I suppose) and relax, be happy. The author warns against sadness and sorrow, stating that it can prevent conception, and even if it does not, can have a poor effect on the coming child. The scientific mind is sceptical of this, because there’s obviously no way anybody could have measured this. Thus we are given a display on the importance of superstition in early modern culture – oft the resort to find reason where science has yet to provide an answer.


The author goes on to warn against excess, though, so maybe that third glass of wine would have been too many, I thought. Again, common sense seems to be the theme of the text. Too much food or drink, and you’ll become ‘dull and languid’ – anybody who likes a roast dinner can get on board with that. But what the author goes on to explain next is somewhat unusual to our thoughts, explaining that good blood creates good spirits, and allows a man to perform his ‘dictates of nature’. What comes after the act is a man must stay with his wife, so that she stays warm – here we see the importance of the humoral explanation of medicine.




Finally, the woman should be left to rest, ensuring that she keeps happy thoughts, and refrains from any coughing or sneezing or turning or generally moving at all. That seems like a test, considering how bad a mood a person can get in if they are uncomfortable in bed.


So, it seems like recipes really do cover all bases. Even the historian can be surprised, when it comes to this subject. All in all, though, how different is the early modern method of setting the mood between disparate couples to the methods which modern couples use when struggling to keep the fire of passion alive. I would imagine it’s not that different, and this marks another case of the seemingly alien early modern world being far more familiar than we could have thought.