“Antedatings” for the Oxford English Dictionary are always exciting, showing that a word or meaning has been around for longer than previously thought. Sometimes, though, they just take your breath away. For instance, the OED’s editors recently prepared a new version of WHITE and its various compounds and derivatives. This involved, among other things, carefully combing through all of OED’s existing quotation files, and numerous online databases of historical linguistic evidence. In this process the earliest example we found of white lie (“A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told in order to avoid hurting another person’s feelings”) was from 1741. Imagine, then, our surprise and delight (and yes, it is delight, rather than lexicographical sour grapes!) when keen-eyed Shakespeare’s World participant mutabilitie found this in a letter from 1567:
Lines 8/9 give us “Albeit I do assure you he is vnsusspected of / any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye)”, pushing “white lie” back nearly two centuries earlier than we previously suspected.
An obvious question is why we haven’t added this to the OED the day that @mutabilitie spotted it. In this instance, we’ll need to do a bit more work on this manuscript letter, to be sure of how we want to cite it, and especially date it, in the OED – and we very much hope that the experts at the Folger will be able to cast an eye over that as well.
In other cases, the work involved for the OED will be more extensive, and take longer. The task of revising an OED entry is complex, and typically involves a number of different specialists – for instance, researchers checking numerous data collections for examples of the word (especially ones that are earlier or later, or point to different meanings or constructions); expert definers, assessing how the meaning is described; specialists compiling data on the typical spellings a word has shown through its history; etymologists, tracing how the word has been formed, where it has come from, and how it has been influenced by other languages; bibliographers, scrutinizing how examples are cited and dated and ensuring that the cited text is accurate – and this is before we take account of areas that typically impinge less on the Shakespeare’s World data, such as pronunciations, or definitions of scientific vocabulary. Coordinating all of this work involves an intricate sequence of inter-connected tasks, and inevitably takes time – particularly when your wordlist runs to over a quarter of a million words. That’s why some of the Shakespeare’s World material that will ultimately have a big impact on OED entries will get an enthusiastic “thank you” from OED editors but may not show up in the published dictionary text until it can be incorporated as part of a full revision of the dictionary entry where it belongs. This is probably going to prove the case with the discoveries about taffety tarts and farts of Portugal in two earlier posts: the entries for both taffeta and fart are due for full revision for the OED at some point in the not too far distant future, which will enable us to take full account of how this new information helps transform our understanding of the history of these words.
by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
A number of postings on Talk have highlighted exciting finds for the Oxford English Dictionary coming out of the work of Shakespeare’s World participants. Look for blog posts here in the coming weeks on some of these discoveries and how they are informing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
We are thrilled to have this information for the OED, and intend to make full use of it in revising the dictionary (for more information about the OED and its revision programme see the earlier posting on taffety tarts).
However, we’ve been only too aware that not all participants have access to the online OED (although many people already do, typically through libraries or academic institutions).
We are therefore delighted to announce that, as of now, OUP will be happy to give free access to the OED for any Shakespeare’s World participants who have made more than 500 transcriptions (of up to a line each) in the past year. If you fall in that category and would like access to the OED to help you transcribe and explore these fascinating documents, then please contact us with the subject line ‘Shakespeare’s World OED access’.
by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary
When was the last time you signed yourself someone’s “very loving friend” at the end of a letter or told them you were theirs to be commanded (or, even more ominously, “used”)? Thought so. Perhaps the oddest thing about early modern letters are the sign-offs, because they sound alien to modern ears and often don’t quite tally with our notions of politeness, formality or friendship.
Take, for example the phrase “your very loving friend”. In the unlikely event that you were actually to consider using it to end one of your emails, it would probably be an email to someone with whom you have a close personal relationship – and even then it might seem too touchy-feely for comfort. In early modern letters, however, the phrase gets used everywhere, even in contexts where the writer and the recipient of the letter aren’t exactly friends and the contents of the letter suggest that there wasn’t much love lost between them at the time of writing:
This is a copy of an uncharacteristically angry letter from the Earl of Shrewsbury to his deputy lieutenants Sir Walter Aston and Richard Bagot, in which he claims they “never did any thing at my commandment, which might breed content” (i.e. they’re bloody useless at their jobs) and threatens to report them to the Privy Council for their poor performance of their duties. And yet the letter is signed “your Loving friend G Shrewsbury” and addressed to “my Loving ffrendes”. So clearly friendship in the early modern sense doesn’t mean quite what you might think. The same goes for this letter from the Earl of Essex to Richard Bagot (signed “your very louing frend R Essex” in the Earl’s own hand):
The nature of Essex’ loving friendship with Richard Bagot becomes clear halfway through the letter, however, when he writes “I muste entreate you, as my very good frende, and one in whome I presume to haue some intereste, that you will giue your vttermoste aide vnto the Sheriff […] for the removinge of Robbinson and his associates” (which may be roughly paraphrased as “you owe me, Bagot, so do as you’re told”). So if “your very loving friend” doesn’t have to imply love or friendship between the letter-writer and the recipient, what does it actually mean? Perhaps the best way to think about it is as a relatively neutral, multi-purpose sign-off – a sort of early modern version of “best wishes” and “yours sincerely” rolled into one. It’s also a sign-off that’s normally reserved for letters addressed to people who are the writer’s social equals or inferiors. That’s why in their grovelling reply to Shrewsbury’s letter (L.a.74), Walter Aston and Richard Bagot don’t sign themselves his loving friends but “your Lordships most humble at comandment” – a phrase that sounds obsequious to modern ears but is in fact just the polite acknowledgement of and submission to Shrewsbury’s authority required to pacify him and make him change his mind about that report to the Privy Council. For an example of a truly obsequious early modern sign-off, compare another letter from the Earl of Essex, addressed to the queen (X.c.11), which he concludes “… and with all humble, and reverent thoughtes that may be, rest ever to be commaunded to dye at your feete”. That’s a bit much even by early modern standards.
By the Shakespeare’s World team
Cross-posted on The Recipes Project with some slight differences.
One year ago the Early Modern Manuscripts Online project at the Folger Shakespeare Library partnered with Zooniverse to officially launch Shakespeare’s World, in association with the Oxford English Dictionary. What better way to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, than to invite people into our manuscript collection so that we could learn together about the everyday experiences and scribblings of his contemporaries? For 12 months we have been puzzling through thousands of pages from recipe books and correspondence (in 2017, further images and genres will be added).
On our first day we put out a world-wide welcome all call to join us in transcribing “handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and help us understand his life and times. Along the way you’ll find words that have yet to be recorded in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary.”
We were thrilled by the response! Transcribers in Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, UK and USA, as well as elsewhere, promptly jumped on board. At one point, within hours of launching, 300 users were simultaneously transcribing. From that day forward the Shakespeare’s World community was formed.
The handwritten words in Shakespeare’s World manuscripts are far more intimate than what you might read on a printed page. Their immediacy – a letter or recipe written in haste, a letter accompanied by a couple of old ling, a cheese or fresh nectarines, a pewter box of mithridatum and angelica roots sent in the time of plague – is compelling. We hope transcribing on Shakespeare’s World transports our volunteers from the modern day and drops them directly into the midst of the early modern world, with all the noise and smells (good or bad) that this entailed. Through the recipes and letters we encounter busy lives communicating, cooking, negotiating, quarrelling, cajoling, healing, burning, itching, vomiting, scolding, bleeding and more.
The website itself follows an inductive learning sequence. It has a brief tutorial with sample alphabets to help users identify early modern letters. Users have the option to skip an image if the writing or subject matter is not to their taste. Shortcut buttons make it easy to expand abbreviations (wch / which; wth / with; yr / your).
Here is a snapshot of what you would have encountered, should you have decided to transcribe a letter at 4.05pm EST, December 8, 2016!
Here is whistle stop tour of our very full year, season by season!
Shakespeare’s World has a ‘Talk’ platform which hosts interaction between transcribers and the research team, supporting wide-ranging discussions about paleography and specific manuscripts on a daily basis. When users log their transcriptions, they can comment on the image by adding #hashtags. Winter is a time of baking and nesting so it came as no surprise to see that our first #recipes2try were comfort foods such as marmalade, damson plum tart and caraway buns.
Throughout the year Shakespeare’s World transcribers have kept their eyes peeled for potential new early modern words or meanings to add to the OED. They ping these to #PhilipDurkin on Talk using #OED. Winter was probably our busiest time for #OED finds, with a flurry of words highlighted. You can read all about the first forays into word questing on Philip’s February blog post here including the Talk musings over what exactly are “Portugall farts“? (answer: a kind of macaroon).
Spring saw a turn to matters of husbandry with animal care figuring largely. Transcribers discussed and observed many tips on keeping one’s horses, sheep, hens and hogs healthy. How to color paper and how to lure an earwig out of your ear with a slice of warm apple, were other charming finds.
As well as #OED, another popular tag among our transcribers is #paper. Shakespeare’s World transcribers have been tagging paper and its use as a tool (such as to apply a salve to a wound, or in baking) after learning that Elaine Leong was researching the use of paper in medical and culinary recipes.
One of the liveliest discussions on Talk took place in summer, over a recipe in Margaret Baker’s receipt book for convulsion fits in children, which required a mountain elf’s foot. To read more on paper and the mystery ingredient ‘elf’s foot’, or anything else, please check out our Shakespeare’s World blogs by some great guest authors!
Also catching volunteers’ eyes were birch twigs used as whisks, pomegranate pill (the rind) used to make ink, and powders for childbirth. Timely for summer was a sunburn remedy from the diaries of John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1662 to 1681. He recommends a concoction of honey, nettle seed and daffodil roots.
Moving into September, we were delighted that our number of registered users continued to grow. As the days grew shorter and the leaves changed color, the Shakespeare’s World community rounded up our favorite booze recipes, and the Folger received some excellent volunteer amendments to our catalogue records.
So far over 2,500 people have registered to take part in Shakespeare’s World (we have many more unregistered contributors as well). Together, we have transcribed 91,000 lines on over 3,000 pages. Shakespeare’s World’s #OED work also continues apace. The findings of our volunteers are particularly valuable because although OED lexicographers have considerable access to early modern printed material, they don’t have the same access to manuscript sources. We look forward to these word findings being incorporated into the OED in due course.
Please join us at shakespearesworld.org, if you haven’t already done so! Not only will you love the conversations on Talk, but you will also be helping to transform thousands of digital images of early modern manuscripts into a readable and searchable corpus on EMMO.folger.edu (coming soon in beta). We can tell you from experience that transcribing on Shakespeare’s World is strangely and satisfyingly addictive, like peeking into someone’s mail and Moleskins from four centuries ago. Surprises and discoveries are to be found on every page!
A huge thank you to all of our resident ‘experts’ & to you our community of valued volunteers, citizen humanists, transcribers, volunpeers…whichever term you prefer. Some familiar names on Talk are the brilliant moderators @mutabilitie & @jules – & of course our fantastic volunpeers @parsan, @Greensleeves, @IntelVoid, @Christoferos, @kodemonkey, @Cuboctahedron, @cdorsett, @Tudorcook, @Traceydix, @kerebeth, @Dizzy78, @mmmvv1, @fromere @ebaldwin @Blaudud -but this list is nowhere near comprehensive.
Whether you chime in on Talk, or transcribe anonymously, we couldn’t do it without you. All of us at the Shakespeare’s World team look forward to greeting you back here next year!
Follow us on twitter @ShaxWorld
Citizen-humanist (& one of our fabulous volunteers) @Greensleeves made a delicious sounding cherry brandy earlier this year using a recipe from Shakespeare’s World. It involved steeping cherries in brandy for months, with sugar, cinnamon & cloves. If you fancy trying out some of our ‘drinks’ recipes too, here are a selection taken from the project thus far. The main ingredients are also noted below. Most list water as an ingredient, though it is referred to differently as cold water, fair water, spring water or raw water. Another theme they have in common is time (you will need the patience of 6 or 7 days, 3 weeks…etc!). A huge thank you to all of our citizen-humanists who tagged &/or transcribed these recipes.
To make Wine of graps:-
Ingredients: clusters of grapes, including the rotten ones!
Ingredients: 1 cockerel, 2 quarts of the best sack, 8 gallons strong ale, 4lb raisins, 1/4lb dates, a large nutmeg, cloves, mace & sugar.
Ingredients: 8 lemons, 2lb sugar & spring water.
To make Goosberry Wine
Ingredients: 12lb green gooseberries, gallon raw water & sugar.
To make a pleasant Bitter
Ingredients: 1 quart brandy, the peel of a dozen oranges, 1 ounce gentian, a little saffron & cochineal.
to make mead. Sister Alsop
Ingredients: 1 gallon honey, 6 gallons cold water & a crust of brown bread.
A Summer Water
To make a Water to Drink in Sommer
Ingredients: strawberries, cinnamon, fair water & cloves.
Elderberry Ale & Rhubarb Ale
And finally here are the two most popular ales over on @shaxworld…
By Sarah Powell
Sarah Powell is the EMMO Paleographer at the Folger Shakespeare Library: on Shakespeare’s World Talk as @S_Powell
Our kitchens are filled with paper. We make our morning coffees by dripping water through a paper cone filled with freshly ground coffee grinds. We wrap our sandwiches for lunch in wax paper and line our cake tins with baking paper. Dry kitchen paper is often used to dry food before deep drying and damp kitchen paper is often used to preserve freshly cut herbs in the fridge. Many different kinds of paper thus aid us in performing a variety of quotidian tasks in our homes. Paper, in fact, might be the unsung hero in modern kitchens. Recently, as part of a new research project (more on that here), I began to wonder whether paper also performed similar roles in kitchens of the past.
Early modern recipe collections record detailed instructions to produce foodstuffs and medicines and are revealing of the way householders carried out a range of daily tasks in early modern homes. In fact, they are ideal sources to explore paper-use in pre-modern kitchens. However, the sheer number of recipes in the hundreds of surviving recipe books, each containing scores of individual recipes, makes the search for paper-use a little overwhelming and, at times, challenging for a single researcher. In short, I desperately needed the help of the Shaxworld community!
Luckily for me, over the last few months, the kind and wonderful members of Shaxworld have been tagging instances of paper-use in recipes with the label #paper. So far, around 20 recipes in 10 different recipe collections have been identified.  A glance through these reveals that, like today, paper served a multitude of uses in the home and was a used as a tool in both food and medicine production. Two common usages emerge from our sample: paper was used to line cake/biscuit tins and to apply ointments and salves. A few months ago, I took a look at paper used as plasters for The Recipes Project blog and so today I’d like to further explore uses of paper in early modern baking practices.
Within our sample, seven recipes use paper as a kind of liner. The recipe book for Margaret Baker, for example, has a recipe to make Jumballs (a kind of fine sweet cake or biscuit). The recipe advises users to warm and ‘creame’ together flour, sugar, egg whites and rosewater and ‘mould’ the resulting light paste in caraway or coriander seeds. These are then shaped into knots and baked on ‘flowered papers or tinn plates’ (Folger MS V.a.619, fol. 95r). Another recipe to make ‘Speciall Cake bread’ in the cookery book of a ‘L. Cromwell’ advises the baker to ‘take a browne paper & dry it very well & strowe it with flower & lay it under the cake’ (Folger MS V.a.8, p. 127). In the early modern period, the brown paper was often used as a wrapping paper of sorts by grocers etc. The request here to ensure that the paper is dry suggests that ordinarily the brown paper might be damp or wet in some way – perhaps this is a case where the brown paper was first rinsed and then reused? Aside from the cheaper brown paper, more expensive white paper was also used to line cake tins. Examples include the recipe ‘To make very fine cakes’ in an anonymous recipe collection (Folger MS V.a.19, p. 132) and a recipe to make marchpane (Folger MS V.a.364, the recipe book associated with Nicholas Webster, fol. 12v-13r) which both suggest the maker to bake on sheets of white paper.
In addition to lining cake tins and biscuit sheets, paper was also used to shape baked goods. A recipe for almond lozenges tells the maker to ‘fashon’ as they like upon plates or paper moulds (Folger MS v.a. 8, p. 133). Another recipe for cheesecakes recommends the baker to ‘pin papers about them to prevent their falls’ during the baking process (Folger MS V.a.8, p. 147).
Finally, paper, it seems, also helped bakers ascertain the heat levels of their ovens. One particularly interesting recipe for biscuits requires a particularly hot oven. The recipe instructs the baker to that the ‘oven must be soe hot as to turne a peece of white paper browne’ (Folger MS V.a.8, p. 110).
It seems that paper was a crucial tool for early modern bakers and was used in the production of a range of different baked goods. This discovery confirms recent suggestions that paper was not as scare, rare, and expensive in the early modern period as was previously thought. In fact, paper was used in a range of everyday tasks suggesting that it was readily available and probably fairly economical. Significantly, our recipe writers were, at times, quite specific about the kind of paper used. Our current sample is probably a little too small for us to tease out whether this was due to personal preference or whether particular baked goods (likely the more precious ones) required special lining papers. Moreover, the final example where white paper was as an indicator of heat demonstrates the ingenuity of householders in taking and re-purposing everyday objects.
The focus on paper-used in recipes has brought up a number of fascinating points and enabled us to delve deeply into everyday activities of early modern householders. I’m still at the beginning of my research and so if you spot paper in a recipe, please mark it with #paper and add it to our sample. I’m so grateful to everyone for your help with my project! A final word – every Tuesday in August, The Recipes Project blog will publishing posts on recipes and paper. So, if this topic tickles your fancy, do click, click, click over there and have a read.
 The collections are Folger Shakespeare Library MSS V.a.8, V.a.19, V.a.21, V.a.140, V.a.215, V.a.364, V.a.388, V.a.456, V.a.490, and V.a.619.
By Elaine Leong @elaineleong
It’s not every day that you come across a recipe that calls for elf hoof. Not even when you regularly work with old manuscript recipe books. Nope. Not even when looking at an eighteenth-century grimoire, in which the most unusual ingredient is the white coating (thrush? milk?) scraped from a newborn’s tongue.
When I spotted @MyraMo and @mutabilitie discussing Margaret Baker’s remedy ‘For Convolchen fetts in yong Children’, I was initially drawn in by @MyraMo’s question about mouse heads and afterbirths. (Who wouldn’t be?) But the recipe became even more intriguing when @mutabilitie commented:
I reckon the ten-clawed hoof of a mountain elf mentioned at the beginning would have prevented anyone from actually trying out this recipe – probably just as well!
Afterbirth? Uncommon, but not unexpected. After all, I’d come across dried mummy, menstrual blood, spit, feces, and urine before. Mouse head? That, as it turns out, was merely a misreading of ‘dead man’s head’. While shocking to modern sensibilities, skull was an ingredient common enough to be listed in official pharmacopoeia. Elf hoof!? That was entirely unexpected—and certainly not a misreading:
Take the houf of an Elfe it is best that lives in the mountaine & hath tenn clawes upon one foote one of those clawes must be rasped and made into very fine pouder.
I didn’t initially dismiss the possibility of Margaret Baker truly meaning elf hoof. I’ve previously looked at the classification of hobgoblins and their ilk, but had not encountered any descriptions of the medicinal uses of supernatural creatures’ body parts. Elves, like any other supernatural being, could help or hinder humans. Given that early modern medicine regularly included human body parts, which were seen as particularly efficacious, surely supernatural body parts would be even better.
That said, ‘elf hoof’ was more likely to refer to some herb. The OED didn’t turn up anything obvious except for elf dock and elfwort, alternative names for elecampane. Culpeper’s The English Physician (1652) notes that this herb grows in shady places and, governed by the sun, is hot and dry in the third degree. It even looks like the sun and its root is like a hoof with claws. One species, orestion, grows specifically in the mountains, according to Robert Hooper (1817). As a stimulant and tonic, it is useful in treating old coughs, shortness of breath, windy stomachs, stopped menses and urine, gout, sciatica, and stitches in the side caused by the spleen. ‘Elf-shot’, a term dating back to the Anglo-Saxons, was still in early modern use to describe certain physical and mental disorders. For example, sharp and shooting pains, such as stitches, gout or sciatica, might be elf-shot.
Pretty convincing. The mandrake, however, is another contender. In The Compleat Herbal of Physical Plants (1707), John Pechey noted that it grows in woods and shady places and is a good narcotic. Culpeper, in the Pharmacopia Londinensis (1718), advised against the use of mandrake roots because of the dangers posed by it being cold in the fourth degree. It could, however, be useful for ‘such as have a frenzy’ (269). The mandrake, thought to be luminous, was governed by the moon and, as such, could be used to treat ailments such as epilepsy, an ailment associated with the full moon. Folklorists Thomas Dyer and Richard Folklard describe the mandrake’s various magical uses, ranging from love charms to treasure finders. Resembling the human form, mandrake roots were sometimes sold as little mannikins and (in early modern France) they were sometimes seen as a species of elf. Those who possessed mandrakes often cared rather elaborately for it, providing it with food and drink, much in the same way that one might try to keep other supernatural creatures within the household happy.
But which fits better with the remedy as a whole? In addition to elf hoof, skull and afterbirth, the ingredients were leaf gold, peony, cowslip, mithridate, nutmeg and amber. The remedy suggests that the convulsions were epileptic; it was to be administered at the change of the moon and several of the ingredients were intended to counteract the effects of the moon. For example, gold, amber and peony were all ruled by the sun. Other ingredients were intended as protective, such as the mithridate (a cure-all), the man’s skull (like cures like, in that epilepsy was also a disease of the head), and the afterbirth (acting symbolically). The ingredients in general had sedative and anti-spasmodic properties.
Elecampane fits the description of elf hoof in that there is a specific type grows in the mountains, it treats ‘elf-shot’ (of which epilepsy might be one type), and it is associated with the sun like most of the other ingredients. Mandrake, in contrast, stands out as being a cold ingredient. It fits in other ways, however: it had narcotic properties and was associated both with diseases of the moon and elves.
The recipe blurs the magical and medical in intriguing ways with several of its ingredients and timing of administration. It also suggests the complicated pathways of transmission over time. Elf hoof may very well have been a local term, or one that simply made it into Margaret Baker’s collection when she heard it from someone else and it took her fancy. The remedy also hints at the continued existence of much older ideas: sun and moon, elf-shot, and mannikins. In the end, for the modern reader, Margaret Baker’s description is both incredibly specific and frustratingly vague. The elf hoof that she describes in great detail no longer corresponds to our modern terms, leaving a recipe that seems more mysterious than it probably was at the time.
What do you think it was: elecampane, mandrake… or elf?
I recently participated in a panel at the Manuscript Cookbooks Conference at Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, along with my Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) colleagues Hillary Nunn and Jennifer Munroe. Each of us spoke about how we engaged various audiences in the activity of transcription, and how the process of transcription is an important form of close reading that can transform our understanding of a text.
This is particularly true of recipes. Being a close reader of historical recipes means learning how to recognize and interpret common knowledge (of course an early modern person would know the length of a “nail”) and gaps (of course an early modern person would know to add elderberries to elderberry wine).
Jennifer Munroe talked about her experiences with undergraduates in the classroom and the kitchen, trying to interpret a recipe with no previous experience or exposure to early modern ingredients or practices, relying on their critical and creative thinking skills as they did, for example, in working with a recipe for “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb, or any other soore Eye” from the receipt book of Mrs. Corlyon (Folger MS v.a.388).
Implicit in this recipe is the specific “three leaued grasse” it features, and the recipe calls for the concoction to cook over a “soft fier” and add only enough honey for it to be “yellow,” but what shade of yellow is unclear. Students learn not only to fill in the gaps, to look for the absences as well as the details recipes in this and other books provide, but they also come to appreciate how users of these books possessed a working knowledge about plants and processes that we have largely lost today.
Hillary Nunn showed the new understandings we can extract from the most basic kitchen processes when we search transcriptions of recipe books. Her work demonstrated how easy it is to overlook the importance of seemingly common recipe ingredients. Water, she pointed out, was not just something that recipe writers could assume users got from the tap. Instead, recipe books require a wide range of different types of water, and often called for waters that has already been processed.
I spoke about you, our wonderful Shakespeare’s World contributors, and the fascinating discussions on Talk, and the “relatability factor” that is much higher for recipe books than other types of early modern manuscripts. We all prepare meals and take care of ourselves, after all, so of course we are fascinated by how earlier generations managed to do these same tasks–the similarities and differences are equally striking.
We were reminded by various participants at the conference that reading a recipe is very different from trying to make it. And, we reminded them that our goal was to transcribe the recipes precisely so that these early modern texts can be studied by scholars as well as followed by cooks (and the two are not mutually exclusive!)
At the conference we saw Irish, German, Swiss, American, and English manuscripts ranging in date from the seventeenth century to the 1960s. One of the recurring themes was how complicated it is to represent the multiple layers of production and creation, and to fully understand the two-way flow between handwritten and printed recipes. Another theme had to do with regionality, and whether or not names of recipes with geographic locations accurately represent where the recipes were “born.” Attempts to categorize recipe books can be tricky as well, but some of the suggestions included: planned vs. unplanned recipe books; recipe books acting as memory prompts for an individual vs. recipe books that are stand-alone, for anyone to use; and heirloom recipe books not meant for cooking vs. practical recipe books passed down through the generations. One of the most salient points for those of us interested in early modern recipe books was how they can be a source not just for recipes, but also for women’s history, biography, and autobiography.
The schedule of presentations for the entire conference is here.
by Heather Wolfe,
with contributions from Hillary Nunn and Jennifer Munroe
Histories of sustainability have typically situated the origins of our current environmental crises at the advent of industrialism, as if locating a moment in time when things were otherwise might help to remediate our current ecological crises derived from human-induced forms of destruction: air pollution, deforestation, and others. All of these histories, that is, and for obvious and very good reasons, take as their concern large-scale practices especially rooted in moments of rupture when human practices overreach.
I propose here that we might more usefully approach sustainability, however, by taking a step back, moving from the global to the local, as they say, to focus instead on smaller-scale practices, or “micro-practices” that inform what Rosi Braidotti describes as “sustainable becoming,” or “the ethical state of becoming [that] practices a humble kind of hope, rooted in the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life” (Transpositions. Maiden: Polity, 2006: 137).
Early modern receipt books express and enact the very principles of sustainability that our histories attempt to recuperate, the “micro-practices” of the everyday; their details recount an embeddedness of human and nonhuman things, the sort of mutual dependence that sustainability initiatives today aim to recuperate and reproduce. The creation and efficacy of the recipes we find in these books depend not on discrete human/nonhuman entities but instead on the intimate “micro-practices” that constitute human/nonhuman collaborations, as we see in a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book, “A very good medicen for eyes that be trobled wth a pinne and web be or with any other dymnes” (12r):
Take the oyle of a new layd egge or two, beate and clappe it well till it come to afrothe, then let it stande for a little while, and let the oyle rune into a saucer, and put the juce of daysies, with the blossomes, leaves and rootes, beinge stamped and strained into the oyle of the egges, put alittle clarified honey to it and mixt all thes together well, and let the patient take every eveninge and morninge into his eye that is greaved adroppe put in with a fether, let this be used so longe as he hathe payne.
The person preparing the remedy uses a “new layd egge or two,” which means that the cure depends on the immediacy of time, participation (at least tacit) by the chickens who produce said egg/s, human movement across ground, into henhouse to gather it. And how “new” is a “new layd egg”? Is it still warm? Can it be several hours or even days old? To know what constitutes “new layd” to prepare the medicine requires the housewife (in all likelihood) to have such intimate knowledge of egg and chicken—touching the warmth of the egg newly delivered, observing the point at which eggs go bad and are no longer fresh enough for the cure; the egg “beate[n]” and “clappe[d]” incorporate egg matter, mixing bowl, and human energy to create the new substance the resulting “frothe.” And to “put the juce of daysies, with the blossomes, leaves and rootes, beinge stamped and strained into the oyle of the egges” not only synthesizes said egg-bowl-human mingling with plant matter, but it depends on the recent human harvest of daisies, which requires human form to cross household threshold into adjoining environs (immediate or further afield) to pick fresh daisies so that they might still have juice to be strained. And again, as human feet traverse the dirt- or gravel-covered pathways outside, sights and sounds of nonhuman activity penetrate human bodily boundaries—a wooden stamper encircled by human hands “stampe[s] and straine[s]” the various parts of the daisies, daisy juice (roots, leaves, and all) mingles with frothy oil of egg mixture.
This recipe illustrates how humans and nonhumans are bound to one another in yet other ways too. The clarified honey added to the plant-egg froth recalls multiple forms of the interdependency of bee and human labor: bees gather pollen, some wild-growing and some perhaps human-cultivated, which combines with the enzymes in their saliva to activate the substance we know as honey; the honey, probably extracted from a hive (or skep, perhaps itself made of plant material) built by humans, becomes the golden, sticky substance by way of its production and storage in combs; it is then harvested and “clarified,” which would have involved separating the liquid honey from the wax and residual pollen. And after mixing yet again, the resulting concoction is “put in” the patient’s “greaved” eyes (morning and evening) “with a feather,” such that human and nonhuman animals and plants intra-act to perform the cure.
Rather than focusing on geologic indicators of fissure between humans and nonhumans or destructive large-scale practices that seem to precipitate them, we might turn our attention to alternative narratives, alternative subjects. A focus on the “micro-practices” in receipt books illustrate intimate human-nonhuman relationships in the past that challenge dominant histories of sustainability; after all, household cookery and medicine was, even if driven by necessity more than a romantic sensibility, sustainable all along.