exploring recipe books from the seventeenth-century

Recommencing research

My summer scholarship has begun again- another 6 weeks of exciting, daunting, probably on occasions frustrating research at the University of Leeds!

This summer I am continuing my work on ‘Safeguarding Pregnancy in the Seventeenth Century’ with the aim of writing a long essay and hoping to get it published (fingers crossed please).

I’ve only just started and I’ve already been on a residential where I learnt key research techniques- having a blog being one of them- and caught up with the other scholars’ research so far. I also have a reading list longer than me which I need to get back to now.

I will keep you updated as frequently and as regularly as possible with my research experiences and findings.

wish me luck…


more about me

As part of my scholarship I’ve written a profile for the University of Leeds’ website so if you want to know a bit more about the scheme as a whole, the process of research and *cough cough well… me, then feel free to check it out.


website live :)

The webpages I was working on over the summer are now live!!! http://www.leeds.ac.uk/yawya/history/Mood%20food%2017%20century/index.html

You privileged bloggers have already had the information here but please take a look if you have a spare moment- I’m oddly proud of how professional they look (many thanks to my computer-genius colleague). Also feel free to check out the rest of the project website.

Bit of publicity :)

Spreading the research love at Leeds University Special Collections  http://blog.library.leeds.ac.uk/blog/special-collections/post/107 Books in special collections

until next time…

My research has finished for this summer. 6 weeks are over, pity I only thought about a blog 2 weeks ago! I won’t be regularly posting anymore until next summer when I have another 6 weeks. I’m sure there will be some updates but I can’t guarantee how many or when. Thank you to everyone who has looked at this blog, I hope to build on it a lot more next year.

Research has been good. It has been stressful on occasions, frustrating but challenging (in the good way) and really satisfying when I’ve been able to see a tangible output for all my hours of reading in the depths of the library. I’ve had great supervisors. so bring on next year!!

Lady Elizabeth Grey Countess of Kent (1582-1651)

Frontispiece to Grey's manual with her portrait

Frontispiece to Grey’s manual with her portrait

Many of the remedies I use in my research are from Elizabeth Grey’s ‘A choice manual in physick and chyrurgery(surgery)’. Elizabeth Grey (1582-1651) collected medicinal remedies which were published posthumously in this book. It was common for noble women of the time to take an active interest in illness and remedies and to use their knowledge to give medical aid to the poor. This was seen as part of their duty. Her husband died in 1639, she was childless, she knew Anne of Denmark (Charles 1’s mum). In my future research I want to find out more about the woman behind the recipes so I got quite excited to find this portrait below from the tate.

Lady Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent

Lady Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent circa 1619 by Paul Van Somer

“The present painting is known to have belonged to Charles I (1600-49) the son of James and Anne, as it appears in the inventory of his collection made in about 1639. Lady Grey had been a favoured attendant of Anne of Denmark and had walked in her funeral procession as a ‘Countess Assistante’. The fact that she is attired in black, including wearing black jewellery in the form of expensive egg-shaped jet beads, suggests that this portrait may relate to the mourning period after the Queen’s death. Under her heart, she wears a jewel – possibly a closed portrait-miniature case – with the crowned monogram ‘AR’ – standing for the Latin ‘Anna Regina’ (meaning ‘Anne the Queen’)[…] Her extremely low decolletage is a fashion paralleled in other Jacobean female portraits, including those of Queen Anne herself. Such exposure, even for ladies of mature years, was evidently considered entirely acceptable, although presumably confined to an elite court circle only.” Karen Hearn  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/van-somer-lady-elizabeth-grey-countess-of-kent-t00398/text-summary


‘To cause a woman to have her sickness’

I said that not all the recipes were as innocent as they initially seem. Here is a prime example.

A recipe from Elizabeth Grey’s book to cause a woman to ‘have her sickness’ (to bring on her period):

‘Take Ergimonie, Motherwort, Avens and Parsley, shred them all with Oatmeal, make Pottage of them with Pork, let her eat the Pottage but not the Pork’.

Now why would a woman want to purposefully induce that monthly annoyance? An unwanted pregnancy perhaps? There were no pregnancy tests in the early modern period. Although an early modern woman knew the signs of pregnancy- missing periods, weight gain, morning sickness etc., she did not know for certain she was pregnant until the quickening- when you first feel the baby kick- and even this could easily be mistaken. It is not that surprising that many women, especially first time mothers, claimed to have been surprised to find themselves giving birth.

Abortion became illegal in 1624 under the infanticide statute, but an induced miscarriage was only called an abortion if it occurred after the quickening. Therefore any woman, suspecting an unwanted pregnancy could prepare and take this remedy in the hope of an early abortion. The result would not even be recognised as a miscarriage if taken early enough in the pregnancy. Rather it was seen as a restoration of the menses, a good thing as, if a woman did not have her monthly bleed it was thought that the excess blood would congregate around her brain.

Many of these remedy manuals were pocket-size and so could, if necessary, be easily hidden. Convenient when delicacy was needed in such a situation.

Safeguarding Pregnancy project

So, my work on “mood food” is basically complete, and my other line of research which I now want to focus on is about gender and the recipe books. As this is my current line of research it will be a lot less polished than the entries on melancholy which was more of a retrospective blog really. These entries will be more of a work-in-progress type thing; they’ll include summaries and comments on related articles that I’m reading and how I think they could be useful in my research, there will also be recipes that I’ve found (some analysed properly as historical sources) and more posts on the research process, gathering ideas etc.

I initially became interested in looking at gender and the cookery collection because many of the texts are instruction manuals aimed at women, telling them how to be a perfect woman (well housewife actually but hey, we’re in the seventeenth-century, what’s the difference?), were written by men. The other aspect of gender which interested me was how these books, acting as manuals of womanhood, would probably have been passed down from mother to daughter adding to a female-life-cycle-type-theme.

Gender being far too large a topic, especially when I only have 12 weeks research time, I started narrowing it down by looking at recipes specifically for female problems. There are loads, unsurprisingly chiefly concerned with motherhood.  Recipes:

  • for plasters for sore breasts,
  •  ‘for the mother’ (the womb was then referred to as the mother),
  • to procure conception,
  • ‘for a woman that hath her flowers (oh the euphemisms!) too much’/ ‘to stay the flowers’/’to cause a woman to have her sickness’,
  • ‘for greensickness’ (anaemia),
  • to prevent miscarrying,
  • to cause easy labour,
  • ‘for the dead child inside the womans body’,
  • ‘to deliver a child in danger’,
  • ‘to cure them that have pain after child-bearing’,
  • ‘to increase a womans milk ‘ the list goes on.

Many of these are not quite as innocent as they seem as I will reveal soon…

St John’s Wort

The most popular herbal remedy for depression today has got to be St John’s Wort. This little yellow flower is available to us over the counter in the form of tablets, teas and extracts. Its efficacy has caused much controversy: some studies arguing it is the same, if not  better than prozac, others finding it does no more than a placebo. Either way, our use of it against depression is comparatively recent in the plant’s history.

Although St John’s Wort features prominently in the recipe books and herbals of the seventeenth-century, there is no evidence that it was advised for melancholia or that people in the early modern period used it as such. There are many recipes for making St John’s Wort oil in seventeenth-century recipe books but not for the treatment of melancholy. Instead they are labelled as ‘for the joints’ or ‘for all sorts of ills’.

Borage: a popular remedy against melancholy

Borage is an herb which grows to 60-100cm, is hairy on the stems and leaves, and has five (usually blue) petals.

Herbs were much more important to people in the seventeenth-century than they are to the majority of us today. In the early modern period herbs were used for their medicinal qualities, any seasoning they gave to food was an added bonus. They provided a form of medicine which could be grown, gathered and prepared at home, without the expense of calling a physician. As a result many books were published on the qualities of different herbs, what they looked like, where to find them etc.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) was an herbalist who believed in widening the knowledge of herbs’ uses. He wrote The English Physician in 1652 which contains 396 medicines made from English herbs. Edmund Gayton (1608-1666) who studied medicine at Oxford published The Art of Longevity in 1659. His book informs the reader about the humoral qualities of foods and herbs; it is written in heroic couplets as Gayton was also a poetry fan. Burton also recommended the use of herbs in The Anatomy of Melancholy.

All of these writers particularly recommended Borage. Burton argued that Borage was the best cure for melancholy ‘whether in substance, juice, roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, decoctions, distilled waters, extracts, oyles &c.’ It could be used ‘in Broth, in Wine, in Conserves, Syrops, &c.’ Burton also tells us that Borage was ‘against this malady (melancholy) most frequently prescribed’. Culpeper wrote that ‘the leaves are good to expel pensiveness and melancholy.’ and Gayton wrote:

                             ‘Have you no courage?

At any time revive your soul with Borage…

Sirrup of Borage will make sad men glad

And the same sirrup doth restore the mad.’

It seems that the physicians’ advice was put into practice as Borage appears as an ingredient in many of the recipes against melancholy of the time including this one from Lady Elizabeth Grey’s A Choice Manual in Physick and Chyrurgery

An excellent syrup against Melancholy.

Take four quarts of the juice of Pearmains, and twice as much of the juice of Bugloss and Borage, if they be gotten, a drachm (one eighths of an ounce) of the best English Saffron, bruise it, and put it into the juice, then take two drachms of Kermes (a red dye) small beaten to powder, mix it also with the juice; so being mixt, put them into an earthen vessel, covered or stopt forty eight hours, then strain it and allow a pound of sugar to every quart of juice, and so boil it to the ordinary eight of a syrrup, after it is boiled, take one drachm of the spices of Dramber, and two dracms of the spices of Diamargariton frigidum (powder of pearl), and so sew the same slenderly in a linnen bag, that you may put the same easily into the bottle of syrrup, and so let it hang with a thred out at the mouth of the bottle, the spices must be put into the surrup in the bag: so soon as the syrrup is off the fire, whilst it is hot, then afterwards put it into the bottle, and there let it hang: put but a spoonful or two of Honey amongst it, whilst it is boiling, and it will make the scum rise, and the syrrup very clear. You must add to it the quantity of a quarter of a pint of juice of Balm.

Interestingly Borage is still found on herbal sites today as a remedy against depression and PMS: http://www.herbal-supplement-resource.com/borage-herb.html

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