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.