Manuscript Receipt Books

While they aren't the only sources I will cover on this blog, I admit that I find the early manuscript receipt books particularly intriguing. We will be digging into individual entries in future posts, but for now I just want to paint them with broad strokes

In some ways they remind me of the community cookbooks that used to be sold as fundraisers. In other ways they remind me of the medicinal texts handed down in the Irish physician families.

Source: NLM 2932048R
The authorship of these manuscripts is complicated. Sometimes there is no identifying information in the whole book. When we know the author, the receipts that have no identifying information are assumed to be theirs or a member of their household. Some books have entries that span hundreds of years written by several members of the family, such as the Fairfax family book. Sometimes though the script can be misleading because families hired professional scribes to copy and index their books before passing them to the next generation.

Some receipts in the books were accredited to friends. Others were credited to physicians who came into the home, examined a patient, prescribed a certain formula, and left the woman of the home in charge of making it and applying the remedy. This was typical professional healthcare for the time, but even this type of professional care was expensive and only wealthy families could afford it.

 As it was the mistress of the home's responsibility to manage the household frugally and efficiently, she was only likely to pay for the information, once. The physicians’ receipts were copied into these books, usually with a notation of authorship, to be used in the future. The women also shared those receipts amongst their friends. The various attributions illustrate the networks of skillsharing that existed in early modern society. 

Source: Strachey, Elizabeth. “A Book of Receipts of All Sorts.” Somerset, England, 1693. HMD Collection. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The entries have also helped us glean biographical information about the authors. For example we know that Ann Fanshawe traveled with her husband because she collected new receipts from her time in Madrid. Some books have household inventories or other bits of information. Elizabeth Strachey's attributes one of her receipts to her husband's friend, John Locke.

Aside from providing us glimpses of individual women's lives, the receipt books illustrate societal realities. Because sometime remedies are attributed to "country folk" or "the gardener" we  know there was lateral transference of knowledge between the classes. People are sometimes confused by the references to the gardener, but it makes sense. Gardeners who had read books published by authors like Thomas Hill were briefly educated as to the home uses of the plants. Many books that talk about gardening mention the medicinal uses of the plants.[2]  

Being promoted to still maid was a type of upward mobility. The women who worked as still maids were educated  with a unique skill set. It was desirable and they often went on to be promoted to housekeeper or hired by other families. One young woman who was employed as a still maid went on to publish books on household cookery, physick and chirurgery and work in London. She also spent her lifetime advocating for the education of women of all classes. [1] 

Sadly, we can observe the slow devaluation of women’s knowledge as we read through centuries of cookbooks. Slowly the medicinal receipts began to vanish from the pages of cookery books and “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”[3]

When The Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe A.D. 1694 was published in 1925, the publisher was in awe of the “phisical” receipts in the manuscript. Contrasting the book with modern cookbooks almost bereft of medicinal receipts he shared his “profound sense of inferiority to our ancestors” in regard to our capacity to care for our own health.[4] 

 At least during Saintsbury's time most pharmaceutical medicines were still made from plants, so he  had a healthy respect for the Lady Blencowe. By 1998 when David Schoonover was editing Lady Borlase's Receiptes Booke all he had to say in his introduction about her medicinal receiptes is that they were "laughable."

I think that's a good introduction to the topic and in the coming weeks I hope to discuss individual manuscripts and modernize some of the receipts for you. 

1. From 1639 to 1646 Hannah Woolley is presumed to have worked as a still maid for Anne, Lady Maynard.
2. Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. Translated by Mabey, Richard. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1577.
3.Tolkien, J.R.R. You will learn to expect things like this from me. I am a huge nerd.
4. Blencowe, Ann. The Receipt Book of Mrs Ann Blencowe A.D. 1694. Edited by Saintsbury, George. [1972 Reprint]. London: The Adelphi, Guy Chapman, 1925.