Manuscript Receipt Books

While they aren’t the only sources, I pull from in my 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.

A few of the oldest handwritten manuscripts discovered so far include Collection of very special and unique confections and medicines of Madame la Duchesse d’Arscot (1533), Receipt Book of Lady Katherine Grey UPenn Ms. Codex 823 (1567) and A Booke of diuers Medecines, Broothes, Salues, Waters,Syroppes and Oyntementes by a Mrs. Corlyon (1606). A receipt book believed to belong to Venetia Stanley Digby (b1600 – d1633) contains many of the medicinal receipts that later were published in a book authored by her husband.

In some ways the manuscripts 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. I think it’s fair to say they are indicative of a time when a great deal of medicinal preparation took place in the kitchen, and they illustrate the fact that the line between what was medicine and what was food was once not distinct.

Determining the authorship of these manuscripts is sometimes 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. There are also cases where a male scribe been given undue credit as is the case of Lady Borlase’s book which is credited to her scribe Robert Godfrey in the Szathmary collection.

To be fair, I must point out that some men also enjoyed collecting receipts and had their own books. I think it’s worth pointing out though those men usually left the domestic management of their homes to their wives or a housekeeper. One wonders if they had the insight women did as to the efficacy of their cures?

The author of Le Managier de Paris begins that manuscript by telling his new wife that he only prepared his instructions for her because she was worried about her inexperience (she was 15) at managing a household. I have linked to a free translation of this manuscript, but it only transcribes the receipts. I recommend picking up Tania Bayard’s translation titled Medieval Home Companion to get an idea of the duties of the mistress of the home going into the early modern era.

People gathered receipts from a variety of sources. Some receipts came from acquaintances and others came from popular household manuals. Some receipts in the books were accredited to physicians.

Medical practices were less patented then. A physician might examine a patient, reccomend a certain formula, and leave it with the person in the home in charge of seeing that it was made, or purchased from an apothecary, and administered appropriately.  Other times physicians and their patients sent letters back and forth in which the doctor would recommend a formula. This was typical professional healthcare at the time, but this type of care was expensive and only wealthy families could afford it.

Doctor Butler’s Preservative from the Plague
Source: Strachey, Elizabeth. “A Book of Receipts of All Sorts.” Somerset, England, 1693. HMD Collection. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

People shared those receipts amongst their friends both in person and via correspondence. They were also shared with the servants who worked in their gardens and still rooms and so passed into the working classes. Working as a still room maid for one of these women, was an opportunity for education and upward mobility. For example, the London chiurgion Hannah Woolley was believed to have started her training working as a still maid for Ann, Lady Maynard. Woolley went on to author several books and became an advocate for the education of young women, insisting that women of all classes should be taught to read.[1]

Besides illustrating the skill-sharing networks that existed in early modern society. The attributions have helped us glean biographical information about the authors. For example, we know that Ann Fanshawe travelled with her husband because she collected new receipts from her time in Cork and Madrid. Some books have household inventories or other bits of information. Elizabeth Strachey’s receipt book attributes one of her receipts to her husband’s friend, John Locke. It’s a fascinating glimpse of another time.

Sadly, as professional restrictions began to create a different type of healthcare system, we can observe the devaluation of this knowledge. Slowly through the centuries the medicinal receipts vanished from the pages of cookery books.

When The Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe A.D. 1694 was published in 1925, the publisher, George Saintsbury 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.[2] During Saintsbury’s time most pharmaceutical medicines were still made from plants, so he at least had a healthy respect for the Lady Blencowe’s receipts.

By 1998 when David Schoonover was editing Lady Borlase’s Receiptes Booke all he had to say in his introduction about her medicinal recommendations is that they were “laughable” but I’ve already let you know what I think of his commentary. Having grown up on home folkways and raised four children on them, I am less contemptuous than Mr. Schoonover.  My two younger children (18, 15) have never needed to go to a physician for anything other than their routine yearly physicals and vaccinations.

There are many ways that I could choose to relay the contents of these manuscripts to you.  I could duplicate the actual words as they are written which is called diplomatic transcription. Most of you would not be able to use that. I could also use what is called semi-diplomatic transcription in which I expand some abbreviated terms without editing for understanding. 

That’s still not really going to accomplish what I want to do with this blog, so most of the time I will show you a semi-diplomatic transcription and then edit it for clarity and to modernize it a bit when appropriate. If it’s something I have done myself, I will expand on that.  Afterall, unlike people transcribing purely for academic pursuits, I expect that many of you will try this at home.


[2] Kamm, Josephine. Hope Deferred: Girls’ Education in English History. Methuen, 1965.
[2] Blencowe, Ann. The Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe A.D. 1694. Edited by Saintsbury, George. [1972 Reprint]. London: The Adelphi, Guy Chapman, 1925.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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