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.
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.