What was it like to sit at the table in a Tudor household? Or at a great feast? To toil in the garden? Or to be ill?
Receipt Books from the Folger Shakespeare Library is an illuminating insight into the daily lives of everyday people from 1575 to the late eighteenth century, with advice on cookery, common ailments, cleaning, accounting and much more, but what was a receipt book?
The Receipt Book
Today’s cookery books, household and self-help manuals are colourful, stylish publications; often full of the most fashionable menus, advice on staying fit or hints on creating that showroom-home look. But during the early modern period things were less colourful, but just as helpful.
Many women owned, or wrote, receipt books - or recipe books (from the Latin recipere: to receive or take) – which were passed down through the maternal line over generations, preserving family traditions and passing on common wisdom. These women were more than just cooks and cleaners, as they were responsible also for the household budget, the fecundity of the land and the well-being of the family. A receipt book would advise them on all manner of household tasks and was also a place to document their own recipes, tinctures and treatments.
Most receipt books were full of food recipes; from possets to calves head pie, Spanish perfume cakes and venison pasties, these receipt books contain the most fascinating concoctions to tempt the family:
“To Pott all manner of Wilde Fowle –
Take wilde goose or ducks and bone them and season it very high with peper cloves mace and nutmeg and salt putt some butter in the bottom of the pan put it in the fowle take the largest geese first then take the least and put it in the belly of that putt youre duckes with theire necks downwards round the geese if you please you may season a breast of porke and put on the top of the goose put in other or beefe dubblin and some breade mace and cover it with coursedon and bake it with houysould bread when it is baked pour out all the liquor and gravy cleaned from it fill it up with fresh butter and keepe in youre seller and for your other foule season them all only you must not bone them”
With goose, duck, pork and bread terrine (as it would now be called) on the menu, it is possible that over-indulgence was as common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it is in the twenty-first. Elizabeth Fowler’s book of 1684 provides a suitable remedy to ‘cause sleepe in feavours and many other distempers’ containing eggs, nutmeg and fat which was applied to ‘the forehead and the temples’ for up to six hours.
In a period before the National Health Service, when doctors were afforded by only the richest in society, many receipt books listed remedies which could be gathered from the garden for common ailments of the times, such as consumption (tuberculosis) and smallpox:
‘'An ointment to the take the spots out of the face after the small Poxe
Take an ounce of deeres suet cut it small and put it into a pipkin with ½ an ounce of camphire; melt them together and take of sulphur vivum 2 peny worth, beat it very small and sift it, and put it in when the other is almost cold’.
Family History, Poetry and Music
Many of the receipt books were carefully indexed, with pages numbered for ease of use, knowing that generations of women would refer to the book.
There are musical scores and poetry, such as the ten-verse dedication on the ‘death of that incomparable Lady the Honble Lady Oxenden’ by Mrs Randolph and, in one instance, an index of family members, such as John and Jane Blome who outlived all five of their sons, which, before the invention of the Internet and Genealogy as a pastime, is clear how such family details would be of interest:
‘John Blome borne (?) in the County of Kent 1628. He died (1684?) of a feavouor being 56 years of age
Jane Blome wife of the said John Blome was borne the 18th day of February 1635. She died the 6th day of March 1696 of a palsey being 61 years of age.
William Blome was borne on Tuesday the 15th day of Sept Anno 1663. He died the 10th day of December 1688 of a consumption being of the age of 25 yeas.
John Blome was borne on Wednesday the 20th day of September Anno 1665. He died the 3rd day of August 1695 of a feavour being of the age 30 years.
Charles Blome was borne on Saterday the 19th day of December 1668. He died the 19th day of February 1695 of the Gout or Rhymatism aged 27th years.
Frances Blome was borne on the 31st day of December Anno 1669. He died the 27th day of August 1696 of a Consumption aged 27 years.
Richard Blome was borne the 30th day of May Anno 1671. He died the 18th day of July 1688 of a feavour being of the age of 17 years’.
A Recipe for Success?
These receipt books were very much the Mrs Beaton’s Household Management of their times, and more. They provided advice on cookery, medicines, the control of vermin, the cultivation of fruit and vegetables as well as conception and childbirth, cleaning of clothes, perfumes and cosmetics.
These days we rely on celebrity chefs, interior designers, gardeners and health gurus to give us cooking inspiration and answers to our well being dilemmas, but in the not so distant past, women could rely on the wisdom of their mothers and grandmothers.
Folger Receipt Books, c1575-1800 from the Folger Shakespeare Library is a fascinating window into the lives of the ordinary family, their tastes, illnesses and households.
Folger Receipt Books, c1575-1800 from the Folger Shakespeare Library is available in the Summer of 2006
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