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.

IMG_4379

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.

IMG_4380

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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Copy and Paste: Bridget Parker’s Poetry

IMG_4565

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:

IMG_4567

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.

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:

FullSizeRender

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.