Students cook up website about rare 17th century recipe book

  • Date

    Mon 22 May 17

A 17th century book, packed with food recipes, magic spells and instructions for curing ailments in both humans and animals, is helping history students at the University of Essex learn more about life over 300 years ago.

But they have been left horrified by some of the practices they uncovered as they transcribed the incredibly rare book by Margaret Baker, and created a website dedicated to it.

Dr Lisa Smith, lecturer in digital history, explained: “It was the use of animals in recipes that troubled the students most. They were thought to have particular medicinal properties and were used extensively, but often in quite brutal ways. For example, a ‘precious medicine for aches’ involves drowning a puppy, cooking it and then using its insides as an ointment – it was thought the youthfulness and juiciness of the puppy could counteract the aches. It was really bloody, but not unusual for the period. Although it is alien to us, there is a rationale behind everything they did, and we can learn so much if only we can crack the code and get into the mind-set of the time.”

Student detective work deciphers recipes

The hand-written manuscript is thought to have been created in England in the 1600s – the original is held in a library in America, so students accessed an on-line version for their research. The language and spellings used in the 276-page book were very different to today, so students had to use detective work to decipher the meaning behind much of what was written. The ingredients lists often left them baffled, with references to using elves’ hooves, dead man’s skull and dragon water.

The students have created a website based on their research, looking at different aspects of the book, with sections on animals, food, medicine, the supernatural, religion and beauty.

Thankfully it has not all been gory – some of the food recipes have even turned out to be quite tasty – including wafer cakes, which use lashings of ‘sack’ (or medium dry sherry which is the closest we have today), rosewater, butter and cream.

Discovering an alternative history

“Old recipes can tell us a lot about the past, such as how medicines were prepared, when certain foods became popular and why ingredients might be considered magical. We can also learn about social history. We don’t know much about Margaret Baker, but it was clear she was very well read and probably understood Latin, which was not very common for women at the time. She had very good social networks and travelled widely to enable her to gather so many and varied recipes,” added Dr Smith.

When the book was written literacy levels were low and recipes were usually passed among family and friends by word of mouth. Disease was rife, but a visit to the doctor would have been expensive, so many turned to home remedies instead.

“Reading the book, I was struck by how women can be underestimated. Preparations they were using in the home were the same as those used by the medical professionals. They had the same level of sophistication,” said Sarah Osho, one of eight students who worked on the project.