Cookbooks have been aids in the kitchen for generations. The Elizabeth Capell manuscript cookbook, owned by the John J. Burns Library, is of unknown authorship, and ongoing research has not yet determined its origins. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating window into a world long gone. The book served as a place for women to write down their recipes, or “receipts,” for food, folk remedies, and other household tips and tricks. This practice may have evolved from the Renaissance practice of keeping a “commonplace book,” which was a journal where scholars recorded excerpts from books, their thoughts, and reading notes. Literate women then adopted this practice and adapted it to their own needs and duties.
This particular manuscript may have begun as a commonplace book—the upside-down writing in the back of the book is a word-for-word copy of “the Story of Bembo, a Primitive Christian,” which was published in Oxford in 1689 by a minister named Richard Allestree. The rest of the manuscript contains 223 receipts for culinary delights such as “pickelled Turkey” and “a heartichoak [artichoke] pye,” as well as remedies “to take away Freckells” and “to Chore [Cure] ye Passion of the heart.”
The recipes in the Capell manuscript are typical of English cooking of the seventeenth century. The seventeenth century was a time of transition in the English culinary tradition, as cooks moved away from heavy medieval foods to lighter dishes with different combinations of flavor. The boiled pudding, which appears six times in the manuscript, was an emerging dish that quickly became popular. Other typically English dishes in the Capell manuscript include scotch collops (a dish of fried tenderized veal), gingerbread, syllabub (a drink like punch), mutton, and marzipan molded into different shapes (even bacon!). Dishes like marzipan and syllabub required large amounts of sugar, spices, and almonds, all of which were expensive ingredients in the seventeenth century. The appearance of these expensive ingredients indicates that this book belonged to a member of the English gentry.
Beyond its role as a kitchen reference, this manuscript helps to illuminate some of the functions of women’s literacy in the seventeenth century. The women who worked on this manuscript are notable because they could read and write, at a time when few women below the nobility could sign their names. There are thirty-three different scripts that appear in the manuscript, indicating that there was more than one contributor to the cookbook. This sort of cookbook also served as a way for women to pass the skills of literacy from generation to generation. The Capell manuscript contains a very interesting example of this: four receipts, numbered 167-170, have large, childish handwriting in their titles, while the body of the recipe is written in the hand of an educated adult. One can imagine a little girl practicing her writing in her mother’s recipe book, learning how to write with clear and efficient handwriting.
The authors of this cookbook compiled receipts from a variety of sources that may have included friends, family, and neighbors, as well as published cookery and medicinal works. For instance, six recipes are attributed to “Mrs. Ruttinson.” We do not know exactly who she is, but she was clearly trusted by the woman who wrote down her recipes. The variety of sources also helps to demonstrate the communal qualities of the cookbook manuscript. Beyond its function as a kitchen reference, the cookbook also functioned as a method of transmitting information from woman to woman.
To say that a woman’s role was limited to the domestic sphere is to underestimate the width and breadth of domesticity. Women’s diverse responsibilities, including running kitchens, maintaining household accounts, and educating children, are captured in this seventeenth-century manuscript. The handwritten cookbook was much more than simply an aid in the kitchen: it was a repository of a communal knowledge, and a way to transmit that knowledge to future generations. The Elizabeth Capell recipe, MS.2002.012, is digitized and available online as part of the Boston College Digital Collections at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/MS2002_012.
- Marie Pellissier, BC Class of 2015 and Fall 2012 Making History Public Student
The images and content in this blog post are drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World 1400 – 1800.” This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries. From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.