Copy and Paste: Bridget Parker’s Poetry

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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:

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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.

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The Digestion Question

One thing I’m keeping an eye out for in my manuscript meanderings is early modern theories of digestion. In my qualifying exam, I was asked, “What was the early modern theory of digestion?” It stumped me, because there doesn’t seem to be just one. There are educated and less educated guesses, but from what I can tell the minutae of the digestive system were just beginning to be explored in the 17th century.

In my reading so far, digestion becomes a concern when it’s not working properly–when it’s too slow or fast, has stopped, or someone can’t digest that should be able to. This doesn’t translate into a concern with maintaining the digestive system–which surprises me, maybe because I live in a probiotic world–or understanding the mechanisms by which digestion works.* Many of the recipe/remedy books have a tacit understanding that the stomach is important and vulnerable–they all have at least one, and usually many, remedies that aim to fix “weakness in the stomach. What’s frustratingly absent is why the stomach grows weak, or what makes it so. Is it because the stomach has to deal with stuff that’s outside our body? But since “weakness” is a condition, what determines a “strong” stomach?

This week I found 3 texts that address the digestion question in different ways, and are helping me draw a picture of early modern digestive theorys.

Henry Power, a doctor and natural philosopher, was involved in debates about the nature of the circulatory system, and the papers I read also show that he was interested in understanding the digestive system as well. In an undated set of pages (BL Sloane MS 1393 ff 28r & 28v), Power writes down his thoughts “Of the Chyles motion & its vessels’.” Chyle (is a word I’m sad we no longer use) is an early modern name for digestive liquid, and Power’s best guess is that “Chyliferous vessels” (another great phrase!) originate in the intestines and connect the stomach and the intestines. The “Chyliferous vessels,” Power thinks, allow food & nutrients to cross into the bloodstream.

Where it gets weird: Power then hesitantly agrees with the opinion that the digestive system (he calls it the “chyliferous branch”–at this point I’m just looking for excuses to write “chyliferous”) is possibly connected to the breasts & womb in women. Therefore, breastmilk and digestive liquid “have very little, if any difference between them” (28v).

This is an interesting connection–breastmilk feeds infants, and it brings the mother’s nutrients full circle to the child. [Another popular early modern theory was that breastmilk transferred not only nutrients and tastes to babies but ideas and personalities as well–so beware!] For non-baby humans, there’s a weird kind of logic to this connection: digested food disperses throughout the body, so why might it not become bodily fluids? Of course, we now know that the transfer isn’t that direct–but I see in Power’s notes the beginnings of an answer to questions of how digested food is spread throughout the body, how nourishment is accomplished, and a consideration of a more philosophical question–when does food in the body stop being food?

Another mouth-stomach connection popped up in Lady Ayscough’s receipt book, in her entry “An outward Medicine for the stomack to helpe Digestion” (p. 212, Wellcome MS 1026). That got me wondering: why an outward medicine for an internal system? I actually see quite a bit of this topical healing in remedy books: ie, for a headache put a plaster on your head, etc. [And who doesn’t know our version of this: “HeadOn! Apply directly to the forehead!”?]

But with the stomach it’s a different case: we can access the stomach, and 80% of these recipes are ingested, even remedies for outward or skin-level problems. So why create a topical recipe to help digestion when you could easily toss one back?

Thomas Lodge suggests an answer in his “The Poore Mans Talent” (BL MS 34212), a collection of remedies and medical instruction dedicated to the poet Anne Dacre, Countess of Arundel. He organizes his remedies by region of the body (remedies for the head, the face, etc), and precedes every section with some information about the function of each body part. His vision of the digestive system is one where the stomach is central:

“The stomacke is the store house of the Boddie to receive all necessary nutrients for all the members, and it is sittuated in the midst of the body to digest the said meate and is often troubled with weaknes and want of digestyon” (15v-16r)

There’s a certain kind of logic here again–if the stomach is in the middle of the body, distributing nutrients to everything else through a network of connections, then it kind of makes sense to use the stomach-body or stomach-skin connections to treat what’s hard to access. This vision of digestion is highly intertwined and enmeshed with all other bodily systems, and blurs the lines between our insides and our outsides. This gets me back to my prior question: when does food in the body become no longer food? Are we eating something applied to our skin if it helps the inside of our body? What, exactly, is eating?

Without fully understanding the intricacies of the digestive system as we know them now, these early modern authors still understood the situatedness of the stomach, and that it was connected to the other systems. The stomach can feel; it has agency of its own, and its condition is in a very delicate balance with the rest of the body’s operations.

*in the recipe/remedy books. I’ve not gotten to the anatomical treatises yet.

Degrees of Usefulness: A 17th Century Defense of the Humanities

In the half-year since I thought up my project, I’ve begun discussing it in academic and public circles.* Something I hear fairly often is a variation of “why on earth does that matter?”

As an academic, it’s great to have my ideas tested. Every time an old historian (no names to protect the guilty) tells me “I really don’t see the use of studying manuscript recipes” I get a chance to explain and justify my project. I relish the practice–it allows me to figure out why I’m doing what I’m doing, and where my project fits in a larger conversation or inquiry.

About a month ago, I wrote about my research trip for a web publication. I received a lot of encouragement and interest–someone asked me how a 17th-century cook would have managed their household finances, which I’m now trying to find out! But that lovely and mutually inspirational moment was overshadowed by a far more negative reader.

The article was about planning a trip to London amidst the financial uncertainty of Brexit, but I mentioned my research topic briefly. A reader picked it out and snarked, “That’s a good thing to study…in your spare time.”

I should note: I’m aware that people who write comments on large websites are largely just looking for handy stones on which to grind their unrelated axes. Nonetheless, this comment demonstrates the general skepticism–and in this case, the disdain–with which manuscript recipes are often viewed.

This is the part that baffles me. Secret diaries, personal thoughts, and journals fascinate us. Our culinary preferences today fetishize “heirloom” recipes, Grandma’s kitchen, and getting back to the way things used to be. So it would be logical that cookbooks from the 1600s, in all their weird glory, would also be of interest–right?

Perhaps that’s a naive angle. Perhaps manuscript recipes aren’t seen as frivolous objects of study because they’re recipes, but because they’re women’s writing. Women and the domestic sphere have long been associated and separated from “valuable” thought, action, labor, etc, and I’m not going to address that history except to say that these ideas are certainly at play in the reception of manuscript recipes. But that’s a discussion for another day.

This morning, I found a 17th-century answer to the question I’m asked today:

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Wellcome Library MS 4051, Anonymous recipe book

It was empowering to read an argument for the importance of learning in a 17th-century woman’s hand. The mindset that causes people to tell us that studying these books is a waste of our time is the same mindset that helped label these works as unimportant, illiterate, and frivolous for so long. It was that same mindset that helped ignore and hide this huge archive of women’s writing, thought, and labor for hundreds of years, and continues to devalue it now within and beyond academic circles.

Everything is useful at some point or another. Our fixation on immediate usefulness is what sets up this hierarchy of importance to begin with. But if we disdain some parts of knowledge because we can’t see how they’re immediately useful, we risk not having them at a moment when they might be useful. By ignoring the texts and voices of those deemed not “useful” (and this has implications far beyond English women’s recipe books, as my postcolonial scholars will tell you), we lose parts of our history. There are degrees of usefulness, to be sure. But even those ancient plague recipes solve contemporary problems–everything has a season and an appropriate moment.

And so to read this beautiful assertion of the value of all knowledge and processes of inquiry in one of the very books that’s been devalued for so long…
…well, it makes me feel triumphant and more committed to this course of study than ever.

*It’s a problem that academics are largely not considered to do their thinking in public, and that grad students are even more invisible as thinkers.

Making a Research Reading List

When heading to London for two weeks of research, I wanted to make sure that I was using my time efficiently. Wading through hundreds of manuscripts without a plan sounds delightful, but with only two weeks of work time, I needed to be strategic about my reading list.

I planned to compile a starter list, but leave open enough time and space in the plan for some archival meandering. If I want to spend longer on a manuscript or need to replace a few unproductive ones with something I find out about while working, I don’t want to be so committed to a checklist that I miss what the archive itself wants to present. But facing such a large archive, where do you begin? Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful (or have learned from more experienced researchers).

  • Look at others’ bibliographies. Working in a small but growing field means that I was able to see what manuscripts other scholars had cited. Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought was particularly helpful (it’s a comprehensive look at manuscript recipes in British and American libraries), as were Sara Pennell’s articles and Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House. And they provided call numbers!
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Deborah Harkness, The Jewel House (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007) 300-301.

  • Email the curators directly. I provided curators at both the Wellcome and British libraries with a brief outline of my project and asked for their advice. The Wellcome curator pointed me to some featured recipe manuscripts, and a curator at the British Library turned up some really interesting stuff that may be useful to other parts of my project (that he didn’t know about–are curators clairvoyant?). For example: a 1652 letter describing an autopsy, a plague cure from the Marshalsea Court records, and a medical handbook by Thomas Lodge (which may turn out to be the same guy who wrote Rosalynde, which Shakespeare used as a source for As You Like It. Further investigation required.)
  • See what the libraries are featuring. The curator at the Wellcome pointed me to their online portal to manuscript recipe books, and browsing the collection highlights led me to a few anonymous manuscripts I hadn’t known about–one including a number of drawings on the flyleaf.
  • Search call numbers around a known MS number. Both the libraries I’m headed to have huge chunks of manuscript recipe acquisitions, catalogued all together. The call numbers I’ve taken from Wall, Pennell, and Harkness’s bibliographies sometimes include strings of numbers: for example, British Library MSS 45196, 45197, and 45199 are on my list, and most of them are from the same family. It will be pretty easy to request 45198, 45200, and the rest of the 45190 series–perhaps they’re related, or perhaps not. Either way, it’s a way to stumble into new manuscripts.
  • Search by year. This is by far the cleverest suggestion from my advisor, and one that I hope will allow me to read a lot of items not on my list. Instead of targeting individual manuscripts, asking for everything from, say, 1654 will probably pull up manuscripts I didn’t know exist. I’m debating whether to pick years tied to big literary events–for example, do recipe collections after Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies look any different?
  • Name searches, chronologies. Robert Boyle (chemist and experimental scientist) and his sister, Lady Ranelagh, wrote quite a bit on household matters. Those manuscripts appear in both the British and the Wellcome Library, and doing a name search allowed me to pair them up. Many of the collections are individual pieces, and tracking women’s names is difficult because they changed so often, but it’s worth a shot (and will usually work better for elite writers). Searching by name also works against the misconception that these women didn’t write much–it might just be that we haven’t looked in the right places!
  • Ask curators for search terms. Nobody knows the quirks of the collections better than the curators, and they’ll know the weird paths to access manuscripts. I’m planning to do a bit of legwork myself before going to the curators, as I want to demonstrate that I know how to search, but want to cover all my bases.
  • Ask for recommendations. My advisor’s interested in the notebooks of Sir Hugh Plat (of science and Delightes for Ladies fame), and suggested I might find interesting tidbits in them as well.
  • Be open to serendipity. Although I know Margaret Cavendish’s household recipe book would be the centerpiece of my dissertation, it doesn’t exist (I live in hope). I’ve constructed my project so that it doesn’t depend on a single text or fixed set of texts, but rather a wide variety of manuscripts and recipe books. This way, I can read with a plan but still be open to the random text or two that the curators suggest or I find through searching. On the other hand, I’m not so committed to my list of manuscripts that I can’t follow my nose if something seems interesting.

Snow in Summer

I was very excited to see that Cooking the Archive made snow cream this week (Mary Hookes, 1680). I’ve previously thought about the similarities between Hannah Woolley’s recipe and Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World, so it was great to see what snow cream actually looks like–and to learn about similar recipes!

I’ll be keeping an eye out for snow cream/ice cream recipes when I’m in London.

Kitchen Fancies on the Road

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I’ve known for quite some time that I wanted to work intensely with early modern manuscript recipes in all their quirky, eel-based, scribbly glory. Since January, I’ve been building a dissertation prospectus that included a chapter on recipes. In the process of studying for my qualifying exam I realized that they were an even bigger part of the project than I’d planned. And just in time to answer my committee’s “where will you begin?” question, I received a fellowship to go study manuscript recipes at the Wellcome & British Libraries in London.

For two weeks this August, I’ll be nosing around the archives, exploring the Wellcome & British Library’s extensive collections and reading as many manuscripts as possible. I’ll be writing about my findings and travels here on the blog, from the strange remedies I come across to the appearances of experimental science to how the RSC stages the poison scenes in Cymbeline. This means the blog is taking a little turn, from cooking recipes and thinking about mediated texts to dealing with them hands-on. (Although I like the idea of cooking something up in my little flat.)