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.


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.

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:


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!

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.