Social Experimenta-skin: What Connects 17th-century Lady Scientists and Today’s Skincare Enthusiasts

In her Atlantic article, Julie Beck calls today’s skincare regimens an “at-home science experiment.” Women and those with an interest in skincare, but largely “thinking women,” (Beck quoting Krithika Varagur), are finding the field of options so daunting that they’re “becom[ing] citizen scientists—educating themselves and each other about what works and experimenting on their own faces.”

On Youtube, reddit, informally circulated google docs, and among friends, people are sharing their experiments on their own faces–what works, what didn’t, what might be toxic, what clears pimples when nothing else will. Many of these skin-experimenters are turning to scientific studies only to realize that there aren’t many available: “Academic studies are often inaccessible to the public. And even though there is some good research on skin care out there, it’s understandably skewed toward prescription drugs and the treatment of medical skin conditions like acne and eczema,” writes Beck. Those studies that do exist often don’t have many subjects, because there isn’t much funding available.

What this means is that a lot of our collective skincare knowledge is anecdotal data, gathered from experiments we run on our own faces and pass around through social networks.

To someone who studies women’s scientific work in the 17th century, this type of knowledge sounds very familiar. I’ve been arguing in my dissertation, and in a recent article for Gastro Obscura, that 17th-century English women were extensively experimenting in their own homes and sharing that knowledge through their social networks. A housewife of any class would likely have spent a fair amount of her time making remedies, trying them out on local and family patients, observing their effects to see whether or not they worked, and adjusting accordingly.

The manuscript recipe collections I study are full of evidence of these home experiments: little notes in the margins that say “I have found good experimentally of this medicine,” as Ann Fanshawe adds to her receipt against miscarrying, or “my mother constantly useth,” which helps authorize Elizabeth Okeover’s salve for old or new sores (Wellcome MS 7113 f. 27r; MS 3712 f. 38v). And we have hundreds of manuscript recipe books, which gives you a sense of how widespread this practice was in early modern English culture.


Ann Fanshawe’s medical experimentation at home; picture from my collection

Over in the Royal Society, male scientists were trying to make natural philosophy a profession. They conducted elaborate experiments for the public and made meticulous records of their observations. 17th-century English women were doing the same work in different spaces, but because the Royal Society was formed precisely to exclude women and amateurs, women’s scientific work went largely unrecognized.

They were so successful that until recently, women weren’t a part of the narrative of the rise of modern science, and certainly not in any volume. Until recently, we haven’t had any sort of data about women’s involvement in 17th-century science.

But I’m arguing differently–I think if we turn to the manuscript recipe collections as record of early scientific practices, we see a totally different picture than what the Royal Society propagated. We see women actively experimenting, recording their experience as anecdotes, sharing it through social networks, and producing experimentally-verified knowledge about the body and medicine.

Sound familiar? Contemporary skincare knowledge operates in very similar ways to 17th-century domestic experimentation, down to the fact that its gendered associations keep it from being recognized by professional scientists.

Except in the case of skincare data, we don’t have to wait 400 years to realize its importance. With a little shift in what we consider “evidence,” we could see these massive, crowd-sourced, socially circulated repositories of knowledge as experimental results. The evidence within them is anecdotal, and with skincare it’s hard to tell if the product, the sun, your diet, or whether Mercury is in retrograde changed your face, but it is nonetheless evidence.

The 17th-century ladies doing science remind us that knowledge can be located in a variety of spaces, not all of them formal. The labors of scientific inquiry can be conducted in the home, and can produce knowledge that circulates through social networks. And experiment doesn’t have to be carried out by just professional scientists–who better to provide knowledge about a substance’s interactions with the body than the owner of the body itself?

If we’re searching for data on skincare and body chemistry, why not start to look in the spaces where skincare enthusiasts gather to share their experimental results? What knowledge could we gain if scientists considered the thousands of anecdotal experiments reported in these circles as important data?

Early modern ladies’ books tell us that there was far more knowledge about the body present in the 17th century than was published by professional scientists and doctors. Perhaps the skincare forums will tell us other stories about the body; will produce knowledge we don’t yet have access to because we’re not looking in the right places.

And there’s one more thing that 17th-century household experiments and contemporary skincare have in common. Snail water is popular again.



Cut-and-Paste Grace

Recently, I wrote a version of Grace Acton’s story for an upcoming Annotations podcast episode (my dream of being an NPR announcer is finally underway!). But I keep thinking about the manuscript, and after a recent conversation with some history of early modern science folk (including one of the scholars involved in uncovering this Galileo forgery and this forged map of America), I’ve got forgery on my mind.

What does it mean for an archive to hold onto a forged manuscript and shelve it alongside other texts? What does that do, if anything, to the status of the rest of the texts in the archive? What’s the value in a forged historical manuscript?

But first, the story, which begins in 1621.

Somewhere in England, a woman named Grace Acton needed to make a feast for a large number of people. So she made a shopping list, including 200 eggs, 11 gallons of wine, half a bushel of flour, and 6 swans. She hired minstrels and servants and had to borrow 2 dozen plates and cups. Sometime in the process of shopping and cooking an entire peacock, she handmade a little leatherbound recipe book to hold the menu and recipes and pasted in her shopping list.


Grace Acton’s manuscript, Wellcome Library MS 1

At least, that’s the story that the manuscript in the Wellcome Library in London wants to tell.

Grace Acton’s leather recipe booklet is a little odd when compared to the rest of the Wellcome’s early modern manuscript collection. It’s small and clearly handmade. It’s only a few pages, although most manuscript recipe books clock in around 100 or 200 pages. It’s specific to a single meal, with a few medical recipes thrown in, when most other manuscripts are filled with a range recipes and remedies, and organized by type rather than meal (so desserts with desserts, meat pies with other meat pies).

When I first read the manuscript last summer, I thought I’d found a new type of receipt book. While most manuscripts are a collection of recipes from throughout a woman’s life, here was an example of recipes compiled for a shorter period of time, for a single event. I thought I’d read have a well-preserved example of what the process of putting an early modern feast together may have entailed.


Except Grace Acton’s manuscript is a fake.

How do we know? For one, the handwriting and spelling are a mash-up of medieval and early modern. The handwriting in the recipes doesn’t match the handwriting of Grace Acton’s name on the flyleaf, which does look authentic.

Many of the recipes in the book are medieval as well. Dishes like “cockatrice,” “boar in egreduce,” and “flampoynts” were definitely archaic by the 1620s, when printed cookbooks full of simpler dishes were becoming available to middle-class households. (For comparison, check out any of Hannah Woolley’s household guides.) In fact, some of Acton’s recipes are almost direct copies from a 1790 printing of a medieval cookery book.

There are a few medical remedies thrown into the book, but ingredients like hedgehog lard and boiled mouse seem far-fetched even for early modern medicine, known to tout the medical benefits of breastmilk, dried mummy, and fermented eel.

The biggest clue, though, is that one of Acton’s recipes to cure a cough calls for glycerin. Which wasn’t discovered until 1779, in Sweden. And the word “glycerin” wasn’t used in English until 1838. So what is going on in this strange book full of medieval recipes and 18th-century chemicals?

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about who may have made it or why. We don’t even really know when it came into the world. The Wellcome Library purchased it in 1931. And the food historian Ivan Day thinks it was constructed sometime in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, from materials pillaged from authentic 17th-century books. He thinks it might have even been made as a prop for an early silent film. It certainly wasn’t made in 1621.

So now, a fake manuscript sits in an archive of recipe books in a history of medicine library. We’re tempted to discount it: since it can’t provide an accurate picture of what people ate, it doesn’t seem to have much use. So what can we learn from Grace Acton’s fake manuscript?

We can learn some things about what people thought medieval and early modern cuisine looked like, or how they wanted to remember it. This fake manuscript gives us a window on early modern cuisine from 200 years later, and it means we can ask questions about why certain dishes or ingredients or stereotypes stuck around. What was it about remedies with hedgehog lard and recipes for full peacocks that caught people’s minds?

We’re experiencing a similar phenomenon again with the artisanal, homemade, heirloom movement going on around us currently. We want to get back to produce and methods of the past even while we know that we may not have access to them—or that they weren’t considered valuable enough in the first place to preserve.

But if we ask questions about what survived and why it survived, we also should be asking questions about what hasn’t survived. If Grace Acton had a real recipe manuscript, that hasn’t survived—it was cut up to make the fake book. How much of her medical, culinary, and social knowledge have we lost?

The problem is, we’ll never know. But Grace’s writing was devalued by an early modern society that largely considered women’s writing ephemeral and intellectually inferior. The well-known poet and likely inventor of science fiction Margaret Cavendish was roundly mocked by her male colleagues for her poetic and scientific aspirations, and her substantial body of work was considered trivial because it originated from a woman. When a Victorian stumbled across the manuscript, similarly harmful ideas about the value of women’s intellectual products made it easy for him or her to consider Acton’s book not worth keeping. Now that we’ve realized the wealth of knowledge contained in manuscript recipe books, we’ve likely lost a lot of them. Whatever Grace Acton knew or created has been cut and pasted out of history, and what we have left is someone’s faked interpretation of what early modern recipe books were like.

In a way, Grace’s manuscript was a good thing to encounter in the early stages of my dissertation. It made me question my own desires for certain narratives; it made me think about the different social mechanisms that go into shaping an archive and determining what gets preserved—and therefore, constructing a particular meaning. Her book got me thinking deeply about the value of women’s intellectual work and the sweeping historical narratives it has the potential to revise. All of these are important, and vital to the process of doing ethical, rigorous research. It still gets me, though, that we’ve lost a woman’s entire lifetime of work because someone wanted to make a fake text–excepting, of course, her signature, added to make the text legitimate.

So to return to my question above, what are the implications of keeping a forged manuscript in an archive? There are the obvious effects on the authenticity of our knowledge–we need to be able to trust that the books we read and the documents from which we produce history are authentic and authoritative. Grace Acton’s manuscript is pretty clearly marked as fake, but if one forgery slipped into the archive and took eight decades for someone to notice, what else might we be missing?

Slightly less existentially, Acton’s fake manuscript can provide data about how the Victorians viewed the early moderns, and we can pay attention to the distortions that happen over 200 years. We see an act of history-creation in her manuscript: a vision not of what the past was like, but what we imagine it to be like.

A lot of what we can learn from this fake manuscript is what we don’t know, or can’t know. We end up learning a lot about ourselves in the process: how we pick and choose history, how knowledge disappears over time, and how troubling ideas about whose work should and shouldn’t be preserved make life and scholarship hard for historians of the future. Thinking about Grace Acton’s manuscript asks us to think about who is allowed to have authority, and what that means for the survival (or mistreatment) of intellectual work. Grace Acton’s manuscript may be a fake, but the questions it asks of us as scholars—and as people living in a culture of fake news—are very real. We’re only as good as our sources. When our sources are fake, doing research becomes much harder, certainly, but we’re also at the mercy of more deliberate distortions of history.


How to Cite a Woman: Resistant Bibliography and Early Modern Archives

When an early modern man and woman co-author a manuscript, who gets credit?

What if database notes and bibliographic software have intrinsic structures that hinder the simple citational acknowledgement of women’s contributions?

Does it matter who gets official credit and unofficial credit?


I’m back to recipes, after completing a chapter on crises of knowledge in poison plays and trials. After reading mountains of trials in which women’s words disappear, are written out of surviving documents, or simply don’t even warrant quotation marks, the politics of citation has been on my mind.

Now that I’m prepping for chapter #2, I encountered a different shade of a related problem: although my own notes to 17th-century recipe manuscripts showed that women co-authored books with their husbands, the original database notes give the husbands authorial credit and efface the women’s contribution.

When I tried to capture this complex relationship in my citation software (Zotero), I found that I couldn’t quite squeeze the story into the preset boxes. When your bibliographic options are author, contributor, editor, or translator, how can you make a citation reflect that while a husband may have begun a book, a wife finished the majority of it? Or that a husband and wife co-authored the book while they co-ran a household?

Take Alice and Arthur Corbett, for example (Wellcome MS 212). In the Wellcome’s database notes, Arthur gets the authorial position, despite a descriptive note that reads “the Compiler’s name is in the lower margin of the first leaf.” The Compiler? That’s Alice.

Now, these notes were likely written in 1908 when the text was purchased (and before women could vote in the UK), but: Arthur gets authorial credit and Alice is the unnamed “Compiler”?

Or the book of Caleb and Jane Lowdham (Wellcome MS 7073). Again, Caleb gets the entire authorial credit, but a descriptive note acknowledges the contributions of “Jane Lowdham, his wife or daughter.” Caleb and Jane shared the book–he wrote primarily medical recipes and copied extracts out of Boyle’s Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy, and Jane contributed cookery recipes.

Within the book itself, interestingly gendered citational practices emerged. Despite sharing the receipt book with his wife, Lowdham cites only men–and fancy experimental science men at that (Robert Boyle, etc). The physical proof that women created and shared medical recipes was in his book and in his community, yet Lowdham only references male authority. His wife, on the other hand, cites both male and female experimental authority liberally–her recipes and remedies are attributed to her family members, “A Worthy Lady,” and copied out of books. So we have a text which preserves women’s contributions to early modern medicine and experimental science while also (partially) embracing citational structures that erase female authority.

John and Joan Gibson (Wellcome MS 311), on the other hand, give a different picture of collaborative authorship. According to the handwriting in the book, John and Joan alternated writing medical receipts for 20 pages or so, and then the book switches to Joan’s handwriting for cookery recipes. Both John and Jane claim authorial credit on the flyleaf, and both add Latin inscriptions below their names, suggesting they were both invested in thinking of themselves as authors.

Much ado about citation? Possibly. Or perhaps this most basic level of recognition and entrance into scholarly study–the citation–has larger political impact. Sara Ahmed has written extensively about the politics of citational practices: how citing only or mostly men reifies existing gender and race hierarchies, how citation can preserve what she calls the “fragility of feminist archives.”

Because citation suggests, or leads to, use. And in the case of manuscript recipe books, that’s starting to happen–work on early modern recipes is exploding in exciting ways, from simply transcribing them (yay EMROC!) to rigorous analysis that treats them as worthy scholarly and literary objects (go read Wendy Wall).

But when database notes inaccurately portray women’s relationship to these texts, that leads to wonky citations. And when our memorial & bibliographic systems don’t accurately represent women, how can we guarantee that our scholarship will? Zotero isn’t actively trying to marginalize women, but when a huge body of texts don’t “fit” in existing citational systems, what does that suggest about that same body’s “fit” into existing academic representation?

So the question I keep asking myself is: How can I tell the stories of these awesome scientific ladies (and their collaborating husbands when necessary) when writing a dissertation? Maybe the answer is to start with the basics: make a space for women’s authorship even at the level of citation. Maybe it’s time for feminist bibliographic software–because there are whole archives out there that don’t fit a traditional model.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Reflections on the Archive

We know the archive has gaps. Over time we’ve lost things or lost track of things, or they’ve caught fire, or connected texts have been separated and sold by the inch to decorate some gentleman’s library (true story).

We also know, as a general principle, that women’s unpublished writing is far less likely to survive than men’s, because it was already considered ephemeral, of less use, etc.

And we know that doing archival work always involves desire–our own, to be sure, but we also have to contend with a whole history of often competing desires. For example: the desire to be represented or leave a legacy that is involved in the creation of texts; the desire to assemble or accumulate that goes into acquisition; the desire to have the archive speak in a certain way; the desire to be useful/to keep funding/to remain relevant–all these bump up against our own desires to find exactly the right book, or all related books, or to find texts that tell the stories we think should be there–and wanting the archive to tell a particular kind of story is also another form of desire.

One text in particular brought the lessons of desire, gaps, and frustration home to me.

It was my last day in the Wellcome. In front of me sat the closely-written manuscript of Elizabeth Godfrey (MS 2535).

Godfrey was an avid annotator, and many receipts were accompanied by many notes in the margin. She also editorialized, drawing hearts next to recipes, and criticizing recipes that didn’t work. Next to “How to Candy Anjellico,” she scribbled, “this is the worst way to do them,” which conjures up a frustrating day of kitchen catastrophes.

These marginalia show Godfrey in a circular process of testing her receipts, tweaking them, and figuring out the best processes and ingredients. Heavily invested in correcting and perfecting, Godfrey also seemed to care about transmitting only verified recipes. Several receipts were also annotated with variations of “this is not to be written,” which raised the question–written where?

Halfway through the book, I found a note next to a recipe for bread pudding, “This I have writ in my green” (45). Two pages later, a version of the same: “This I have writ in my green book.”


MS 2535, 47r

I did a little dance (which thankfully none of the librarians saw)–here was evidence of another unpublished work by Godfrey, one in which she appeared to continue refining and reworking her receipts. Of course I had to find it.

If the Wellcome had one book by Godfrey, perhaps they had others. I name-searched and turned up one possibility, MS 9139…and then time and the archive got in my way.

First, it wasn’t clear that the authors were the same Elizabeth Godfrey. The histories of the women who write these books are rarely easily obtained, and unless they were famous (like Lady Ranelagh, Robert Boyle’s sister) often speculative. Although 9139’s Elizabeth Godfrey was from the same time period as my own, I didn’t have enough information to make that assumption. Even if the cover was green, as the original Godfrey suggested, that still would only be a string of coincidence.

However, it was still worth a shot. I tried to put in an order–and that’s when I found out that the item was still being preserved and wasn’t available through normal request. On top of this, it was my last afternoon in the archive and time was running out. (Cue Mission Impossible theme). I emailed the curatorial staff, hoping I could squeak a request for 9139 in at the end of the day, but sometimes serendipity only goes so far.

I was lucky to have found such an interesting manuscript, but one of the drawbacks of following one’s nose as a research technique is that things don’t always turn up on schedule. I heard from the curator after I’d left the library and headed back to the States, and 9139 was out of my reach–temporarily. (There is the possibility that it will be digitized, or I can request scans.)

Having two books from the same Elizabeth Godfrey would have been amazing–I could already start to see the story about experimentation, verification, testing, and knowledge production over time, and how important it could become to my dissertation. But this is one of the difficulties of working with knowledge that inhabits and arises from the lands between text and memory–you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes you have to make an argument based on one Godfrey manuscript; perhaps that argument might be strengthened in places by the missing Godfrey. For example: it’s a perfect illustration of the problems of trying to retrace physical labor through a textual archive; and it provides an opportunity to consider what has been lost or never recorded to begin with.

Sometimes, what remains is only what you need: one manuscript, rich in annotations, that hints at a world far larger than itself.

Ready for this Jelly

When people ask about the contents of early modern recipe/household books, I find myself turning first to remedies. The contrast between contemporary medicine and the strange herbal potions is striking and shocking and gets people interested quickly. It often allows us to talk about the types of specialized knowledge early modern women would have had–the chemical and medicinal properties of all sorts of plants; the intimate knowledge of disease symptoms and progression that required careful observational skills, and the willingness to experiment with a frankly astounding range of plants, animals, and substances to cure the human body.

It’s easy to assume, then, that early modern cooking was just as unfamiliar and weird as the remedies are. But I’ve found that’s often not the case. The majority of food recipes look a lot like their contemporary equivalents, especially the desserts. Early moderns figured out pretty quickly that sugar was delicious, and quickly found ways to put it in everything from the expected (a million varieties of jam) to the unexpected (meat dishes. Why does your beef need sugar? Unclear.) Preservational methods also look very similar–either put stuff in vinegar in jars, or dump a bunch of sugar into it and make jam.

Like Elizabeth Sloane’s 1711 “To make Jam of Raspberries.”

This recipe came from a collection of primarily sweets and delicacies in the British Library, very neatly lettered and embellished.


BL Add MS 29739

To make Jam of Raspberries

Take the raspberries mash them & strain half; put the Juice to the other half that has the seeds in them; boil it fast for a quarter of an hour; then to a pint of raspberries put three quarters of a pound of Sugar; & boil it till it Jellys; put it into potts or glasses.

3/4 of a pound of sugar is 1.4 cups, or a scant 1 1/2 cups. These proportions are higher in sugar than contemporary jam recipes, which usually follow a 1:1

Contemporary recipe:

2 pints raspberries

scant 1 1/2 cups sugar

(lime zest to infuse sugar optional; you may also add the juice of one lime to cut the sugary taste)

Mash one half of the raspberries in a bowl. In another bowl, mash the other pint. Strain this second pint somehow so you have extra-juicy raspberries. Boil the fruit by itself for 15 minutes, then add the sugar and boil for another 2-5 minutes. According to an English nan on the BBC Food community, you’ll know it’s jellied when you drop a bit on a chilled plate, push your finger through it, and it acts like jelly. [This feedback loop assumes that you’re closely familiar with the properties of homemade jelly, which acts differently than storebought jelly.]

Note: it is incredibly difficult to strain raspberries if you doesn’t have muslin or cheesecloth. My makeshift setup involved a tea strainer and lots of pressing. A great arm workout, but not very efficient.



This is what “boiling fast” looks like.


Once the sugar’s been added it begins to thicken and take on a more jewel-like color.

Finally, put the jelly into “potts or glasses” to cool. Given how much early modern ladies liked to draw owls, I thought little pots covered in owls would be appropriate. This recipe makes about 2 jam jars’ worth.


Good on toast, ice cream, or in a birthday cake you make because you miss London.


Copy and Paste: Bridget Parker’s Poetry


Bridget Parker, Wellcome MS 3768

This little green book was my seventh manuscript of the day. I thought it was pretty standard, unhelpful even, until I found this curious poem:


One of 3 pages

I wasn’t surprised to find a memorial poem in a household book, as I’ve seen others containing similar things: records of births, deaths, marriages; prayers for children and relatives; excerpts from classical authors about friendship or wisdom. Anne Glyd, for example, not only records her children and grandchildren’s births and deaths, but also writes a few pages memorializing her husband when he dies in 1658.

But the catalog notes for this poem caught my eye: they said that this poem was from John Donne’s “Obsequies 0f the Lord Harrington.” So I googled the poem–and it looks nothing like Donne’s poem, except for the following lines which she uses:

O soule, O circle why so quickly bee

Thy ends, thy birth and death clos’d up in thee?

Though virtue flowed to thee by thy first breath

All is at once sunke in the whirle-poole death:

Although Parker puts these lines together, they’re separated by 50 lines in Donne’s much longer poem. Parker additionally ends her poem with Donne’s second-to-to last couplet:

Doe not deare soule this sacrifice refuse:

That in thy grave I doe interre my muse.

Ok, so Parker read some lines she liked and thought they fit her particular situation as well. This makes sense–I know, for example, several friends who want Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” read at their funerals. Sometimes our deepest feelings are best expressed by another’s words.

Given what I know about the early moderns’ comfort with what we would now call plagiarism–but then was considered an active reading & intellectual practice–I wondered if other parts of the poem came from non-Donne sources. (See Adam Smyth’s work for a good example of commonplacing and cutting as reading practices).

Sure enough: parts of Parker’s poem are from George Herbert’s “Grief,” another poem by Donne, “Elegy on the Lady Markham”; the satirist John Cleveland’s “An Elegy upon Dr. Chaderton,” and phrases that sound like famous Shakespeare quotes.

This tells us first that Bridget Parker was reading and engaging with her contemporaries. More intriguingly, it raises questions about authorship. Did Bridget Parker “write” this poem? What is the status of writing that is partially from other sources? What is the role of creativity in such writing–it requires a good ear for iambic pentameter to weave together pieces of multiple poems into something that is not only cogent but melodic.

When Shakespeare adapts entire speeches out of Holinshed’s “Chronicles” or turns Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde into “As You Like It,” we consider him to have invented new work. Does that same metric apply to Bridget Parker?

Furthermore: how should we think about this poem given its location in a household book? Is Bridget Parker a poet, or a woman who just happened to write poetry? What might it take to get her anthologized–and what sort of defense of early modern authorial practices might we have to mount in the footnotes?

What tantalizes me most about finding this poem, however, is that for all the questions it raises about authorship, credibility, gender, and writing, it also stands as evidence that women wrote in many genres and did not see them as separate. It also offers the merest hint that early modern women’s literary production may be much larger than we anticipated–we just haven’t been looking in the right places.