By Lisa Hopkins
For our third heritage Open Days / Edible England blog, Lisa Hopkins, Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, has written about two 17th century recipe books. Throughout September, you can see a facsimile of these books in our Heritage At Home exhibition in Sheffield Central Library.
A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) and Natura Exenterata (1655) are both collections of recipes and remedies with a special connection to Sheffield. A Choice Manual proudly announced that it was the household book of Elizabeth Talbot Grey, countess of Kent. For Natura Exenterata no author is named, but there is a portrait of Alethea Talbot Howard, countess of Arundel, opposite the title page, and it appears under her name in the Arundel Castle library. There is also a small piece of internal evidence for her authorship, for one of the recipes, for ‘a Water called Maids-milk’, observes that ‘This Water is good to make the skin nesh’, a word I had never heard until we moved to Sheffield in 1990. There were not many female aristocratic authors who were equally at home transcribing Latin and calling things nesh, but Elizabeth and Alethea were two of the three daughters of Mary Cavendish Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury, whose mother was Bess of Hardwick. They grew up in Sheffield, and since they had no brothers their father’s vast possessions in the city passed to Alethea’s husband, Thomas Howard, whose family name and titles of earl of Arundel and Surrey (and later Duke of Norfolk) are all remembered in the names of streets and squares.
The sisters’ two books were among the earliest household manuals published, though they had been written even earlier, around three decades before. The reader of A choice manual is assured that ‘it may be justly deemed as a rich magazene of experience’; ‘magazine’ has a different tonality in the seventeenth century – the sisters’ cousin Jane Cavendish called her great-grandmother Bess of Hardwick ‘the very magazine of rich’, and Jane’s stepmother Margaret Cavendish called her own brain ‘a Magazine’ – but Lady Kent’s book does indeed have something of the feel of a modern lifestyle magazine, offering us privileged glimpses into her lovely kitchen and enviable life. Some of the ingredients are decidedly exotic, including ‘English Tobacco’ , spermaceti, and ‘Tutty of Alexandria’ (zinc oxide). ‘A Medicine for the falling Sickness’ requires a pennyweight of gold, six pennyweights each of pearl, amber and coral, eight grains of a bezoar, half an ounce of peony seeds, ‘some pouder of dead mans scull that hath been an Anatomie’ (if the intended recipient is female; if he is male it needs to be a woman’s skull), and endive water. The first of two ‘Receipts for Bruises, approved by the Lady of Arundell’ requires pulverised jet, and ‘An approved Medicine for the Plague, called the Philosophers Egge’ starts innocuously enough with ‘Take a new laid Egg’ but then demands ‘five or six simples of Unicorns horn’, though it does concede that hartshorn will do as a substitute. In this surely lay the appeal of the book at the time of its publication. Even if you had been able to obtain a substance that you called unicorn horn before the Civil War broke out, you would not have been able to do so once it had started – the royalist garrison at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall was reported to be eating horseflesh – or, if you were royalist, after it had finished, since so many of the king’s supporters were living in poverty and exile. Elizabeth’s book peddles a fantasy, offering poignant reminders of a time when people had leisure and energy to trouble themselves about trivia such as cutting Florentines in the shape of virginal keys and never using anything but silver dishes to dry peaches on.
It would certainly have been safer to use the books as aids to nostalgia rather than practical cooking manuals. In Lady Kent’s book, the preface ‘To the reader’ warns that
if any, or perchance many unlook’d for mistaks, for want of a due application, bids thee entertain contrary thoughts, the effect not answering thy curious expectation, upon a more serious reflex, know, that nothing is absolutely perfect, and withall, that the richest and most soveraign Antidote may be often missapplied.
The cautionary note is justified, because some of the recipes are frankly terrifying. A recipe ‘For hot Eyes and red’ begins uncompromisingly ‘Take slugs’ and ‘A Receipt for the Plurisie’ advises ‘Take three round Balls of Horse-dung, boil them in a pint of white Wine till half be consumed, then strain it out, and sweeten it with a little Sugar’ (sugar is a major ingredient in both sisters’ books: a recipe for boiling a duck enjoins the cook to add ‘as much Sugar as will lye upon it’). In Alethea’s book, the advice ‘For a Strein’ orders starkly ‘Take Pisse’, and ‘For the Jaundice’, ‘Take in the morning fasting if it be a man, lice out of a females head, and drink them with white Wine and Sugar, and a little Nutmeg. And take in the evening pouder of wormes as much as will lye upon a groat’. A recipe for ‘A Vomit to cleanse the stomach’ begins ‘Take three roots of yellow Daffadillies’, which could lead to serious poisoning. Some of the remedies in particular show that even an aristocratic lifestyle was not always glamorous: for cataracts, ‘Take two or three Lice out of ones head’, and the instructions for making ‘a slipcoat Cheese’ include ‘if you find any Mouse turd wipe it off’. There is also a recipe for ‘Pills for the Gonorraeha’ and one for viper wine contributed by family friend Sir Kenelm Digby, who had made it for his wife to cure her headaches (she died, though possibly of a brain haemorrhage rather than of the wine). The two sisters’ books, then, allow us to glimpse a number of things about their world: the interconnectedness of aristocratic families and the value they placed on hospitality and domestic ceremony, but also the shock of the Civil War and the pains and perplexities to which even the most privileged households might be subject, along with a belief that appropriate recipes and remedies could alleviate those.