The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Tracing the transmission of medical recipes

A guest post by Elisabeth Chaghafi

A lot of early modern recipe books are eclectic compilations that reflect the interests or needs of the people who compiled them. Often they do not even separate between cookery and medical recipes but include a mixture of both. Two examples of such eclectic recipe books in the Folger’s collection are V.a.140 and X.d.469.

V.a.140 was compiled in about 1600. It contains about seventy medical recipes (including over a dozen against the plague), as well as some remedies to treat an ill horse, various recipes to make ink of different colors, copies of two longer medical treatises, two letters, and a few assorted non-medical recipes: to keep roses fresh, to make a dog bark at you, to make chickens lay eggs during the winter, among others. X.d.469 is dated ca. 1625 and is mostly medical remedies, written in haphazard order, followed seamlessly by a shorter section of recipes for marzipan, comfits, pastes, preserves, candied flowers, and other sweetmeats.

What the two manuscripts have in common—beyond a marked interest in remedies against widespread early modern ailments, such as kidney stones, eye diseases, and, of course, the plague—is a shared source: the Book of sovereign medicines against the most common and known diseases, attributed to John Feckenham (circa 1510-1584), the last abbot of Westminster. Several copies of this manuscript survive, including Folger MS V.b.129. It was probably originally compiled for the use of English Benedictine monks and nuns.

V.b.129 fol. 7r. Image from Luna.

The fact that the majority of remedies collected in Feckenham’s book are relatively simple and use many herbs native to England, rather than expensive or exotic ingredients, may explain some of its popularity. The Book of sovereign medicines is comprehensive. It is organised alphabetically and contains blank pages for adding more recipes, as well as an index (although the scribe who wrote the Folger’s copy had run out of steam by that point, because he forgot to fill in the page numbers). In other words, unlike V.a.140 or X.d.469, which group some recipes together but follow no particular organising principle, the Book of sovereign medicines can be used as a work of reference—or as a handy source for new recipe compilations. This includes other manuscripts, but also printed books, such as T. C.’s An hospitall for the diseased (1578), a short printed non-alphabetical recipe collection which contains some of the recipes found in the Book of sovereign medicines. Printed recipe collections like this played an important role in the transmission of medical recipes, both in the distribution of recipes from manuscript sources (many of them state on the title page that the recipes they contain were only “gathered” by the author) and as a source for future manuscript compilations.

I stumbled across the overlaps between these three Folger manuscripts purely by accident: I first transcribed a few pages from V.a.140 containing plague remedies about three years ago, as part of my work for Shakespeare’s World, EMMO’s sister project. A couple of years later, I transcribed X.d.469 using Dromio, the Folger’s transcription software (which, unlike Shakespeare’s World, allows you to transcribe whole manuscripts in consecutive page order), before moving on to V.b.129, the Book of sovereign medicines. Just a few pages into V.b.129, I was struck by a strong sense of déja vu: the recipe listing three methods for making “good vynagre in brief tyme” sounded very familiar. Perhaps surprisingly, it was not the methods for making vinegar that I recognised but the actual wording of the recipes. All three were among the recipes found in X.d.469, and they were even in the same order, although there were a couple of minor variations: in Feckenham’s book, the first vinegar recipe requires “ij gallons of faire springe water to be seethed to the half, plus iiij gallons of the “lagges” of any kind of wine,” whereas X.d.469 adds “iiij gallones of the “Leeze” of any kinde of wine to three gallones of fayre springwater” (the second and third recipe matched word for word, though). Over the course of the next weeks, I began to notice more and more textual similarities to X.d.469 that seemed to support my hypothesis that there must be a connection between the two manuscripts. When I reached P for plague, there was another moment of surprise when I recognised plague remedies from V.a.140.

What can those three manuscripts from the Folger’s collection tell us about the transmission of medical recipes during the late 16th and early 17th century? For one thing, the connections between them suggest that the people who compiled early modern recipe books were selective about the kind of recipes they copied and chose according to their particular interests or needs. The writer of V.a.140 was clearly very worried about the plague and thus had a marked interest in collecting treatments for it. He copied a letter from William Pitt to his father in which he discussed the subject, as well as eleven plague remedies that appear in near-identical wording in the Book of sovereign medicines.1

Recipes for the plague in both V.b.129 and V.a.140. Images from Luna. Click through to view larger.

X.d.469, on the other hand, contains nearly eighty remedies (out of about 200) that are also found in Feckenham’s book, including several cures for headaches, to aid sleep, and remedies to cure or break “the stone”.2 As you can see from this table, many of the headings used for the remedies are worded identically, or at least very similarly. This applies not just to very generic headings, like the ubiquitous “for the stone”, but also more specific or more descriptive headings, such as “ffor to stay the Canker in a mans bodie and saue the man”, “A noble Entreat whi​ch​ is Called Gratia Dei, whi​ch​ is to be made about St Iohns day the Baptist” (which in X.d.469 has turned into the less Catholic-sounding “midsomer daye”), or the three recipes for treating burns received by firing a gun.

Recipes for treating gunpowder burns in both V.b.129 and X.d.469. Images from Luna. Click through to view larger.

Interestingly, while V.b.129 devotes more than two pages to various methods for curing toothache—evidently a source of much early modern pain—X.d.469 does not contain a single toothache remedy, which suggests that either the compiler’s interest in sugary confections was purely academic, or he had uncommonly healthy teeth in spite of it. The manuscript does contain a recipe “To haue white teeth” that has honey as one of its main ingredients, however, so someone clearly had a sweet tooth in more than one sense.

Of course this does not mean that we should imagine the compilers of X.d.469 and V.a.140 copying recipes from a borrowed copy of Feckenham’s book that looked like the one at the Folger Library. While X.d.469 contains ten pages (10-19) that almost exclusively consist of recipes that can also be found in the Book of sovereign medicines, they are arranged in non-alphabetical order. Had the compiler been copying from a book like V.b.129, he would almost certainly have grouped all of the recipes to treat “the stone” or a cough together, rather than scattering them across three or four pages in between remedies against various other ailments.

Similarly, while nearly all of V.a.140’s plague remedies can also be found in V.b.129, they also occur in a completely different order. More likely, then, the compilers of X.d.469 and V.a.140 did not have access to a full copy but were themselves copying from a compilation or compilations based on Feckenham’s book. In the case of V.a.140, this may have been An hospitall for the diseased, which contains all of the plague remedies of V.a.140 30r-v arranged in the same order.3

Nevertheless, the fact that there are at least six surviving copies of the Book of sovereign medicines (meaning it was widely-known), in addition to the similarities in wording makes it likely that it is the original source of the remedies in both cases. Which in turn raises the question of how many more early modern recipe books may contain medical recipes that are directly or indirectly derived from the Book of sovereign medicines. Hopefully, the work of the Folger’s Before Farm to Table project in making transcriptions of the Folger’s more than one hundred recipe books available online, will enable the discovery of further evidence of scribal networks and manuscript transmission of medicinal receipts.

Elisabeth Chaghafi is based at Tübingen University. Her research mainly involves Edmund Spenser or book history (or both), but she also likes palaeography and moonlights as a researcher and moderator on Shakespeare’s World.

  1. X.d.469 also contains a number of “preservatyves agaynst the plauge”, but none of them match the ones in V.a.140 or V.b.129.
  2. In fact, the compiler of X.d.469 seems to have been so severely troubled by headaches and sleeplessness that he sometimes copied out the same remedy multiple times.
  3. An hospitall for the diseased was a successful book that was reprinted multiple times. The ESTC lists twelve editions, ranging from the first edition, of which only the Folger copy survives, to an edition printed in 1638. The plague remedies occur on the very first pages of the book.

One Comment


  • What a great and interesting post!
    I would like to see a collection of anti MRSA soup recipes which allowed the populations of seaside towns to live when attacked by MRSA. Some of these go back 1000 years I think in England. What a great book idea to publish.


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