Recipes in the archives of the early Royal Society

[This blog post is a slightly adapted version of a blog posted at the Recipe Project]

By Sietske Fransen

‘What is a recipe?’ was the simple opening question asked by the organizers of the virtual conversation hosted by the Recipe Project. This month-long online discussion has made me look for different things in the archives of the Royal Society.

During my weekly visits to the Royal Society Archives in London I am usually searching for anything visual from the period 1660-1710. Once found, the particular page of archival material with something visual on it is added to the Making Visible database.  However, while my colleagues and I are looking for images, we also come across many other interesting documents that are currently part of the early archives. Like recipes!

Those of you who have followed the twitter storm during the #recipesconf might have seen that I have tweeted about recipes in the last few weeks. Recipes for the making of pigments and varnish; food recipes (for bread, butter, and bacon); and medical recipes. The discussions on twitter made me come up with several questions. And even though there are too many questions to answer in one blog post, I will try and discuss them briefly, and hope to continue this wonderful conversation with so many colleagues around the globe.

A receipt to cure mad dogs and men. Cl.P/14i/33. Image @ Royal Society

First of all, why did all these recipes make their way into the archives of the Royal Society? When I started working on the Royal Society materials two years ago, I did not expect to find so many recipes for making food and drinks, nor was I expecting the Fellows’ interest in the making of pigments and varnishes. However, it turns out that the Fellows of the Royal Society were very interested in the history of trades, which made them collect recipes from artisans, including many recipes and treatises on things related the making of images, book printing, and engraving techniques.[1] The food recipes might need to be seen from the perspective of making products in the house, with which men and women can show off their skills to their friends. During my tweeting storm I showed a set of recipes brought to the Royal Society by John Evelyn about how to make the best French bread. But also bacon, butter, cheese, and cider recipes are part of the collections in the archives.


In the case of the bread recipe we have the name of John Evelyn stuck to it. And it is indeed interesting to know who provided the Fellows of the Royal Society with the information now in the archives. Who were the sources for the recipes? Were they named? Relatively often we find a name on the recipe. Many of the recipes related to the art of picture making have male names on the recipes, such as Jonathan Goddard in the recipes for colours. Amongst the recipes I found several that had a female name on them, such as the butter recipe from Mrs Elizabeth Papworth, and the recipe for a remedy for scurvy by Mrs Bancroft. Is this surprising? Not at all, as regular readers of the Recipe blog know very well, recipes were very often collected by women in early modern English households. However, from the perspective of the early history of the Royal Society, it is definitely interesting how recipes from women are still part of the archives. Much more research needs to be done on the women around the Royal Society.

A receipt to cure mad dogs and men. RBO/7/8. Image @ Royal Society

There was an interesting discussion about whether or not the description of a tool needed for the performance of the recipe (such as an oven for bread baking) should be treated as a recipe? Or is it even an ingredient? The description of the oven in John Evelyn’s bread recipe almost looked like a recipe inside a recipe, as it was so clearly describing the various things needed to make the oven and made sure it would actually work correctly. And a good working oven was a prerequisite for making the best bread in itself. Also here I am looking forward to a continuing discussion about tools in recipes!

Finally, I would like to quickly answer a question Elaine Leong raised about the many underlinings and crossing-out in a recipe for curing rabies. As I suspected the crossings were done in the original document that was brought in to the Royal Society. The recipe was thought important enough to make it into the Royal Society’s Register Book, where we find it again in volume 7. All the crossed out sections that you can see in the image to the above, are omitted from the neat version of the recipe in the Register book. Also the information about the effective curing of the His Majesties’ dogs is left out. But instead we do find a short Note Bene, explaining that the plant named in the recipe as “Starr of the Earth”, has several Latin and vernacular namens “known among Botanists”, which will make it easier to find this ingredient.


Thanks to the organisers of the #recipesconf for giving me a great excuse to look at some recipes in the Royal Society Archives and for all the stimulating conversations online!

[1] See for the history of trades and especially the Royal Society’s interest in the making of images Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligene (Chicago, 2013), esp. chapter 1.

Micrography in Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection

by Frances Hughes


Fig 1: Micrographic text reproduced to form a diagrammatic projection of the Globe, c.1702. Pasted into Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection, Volume III, p.326. Size of vellum: 55x45mm. Image Credit: By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Towards the end of his life, Samuel Pepys began collecting samples of medieval manuscripts, calligraphy copy-books, and other miscellaneous textual fragments, which were then pasted into three albums to form his calligraphy collection [Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge, 2981-3]. Within Pepys’ social and intellectual context there was a deep and multifaceted interest in the visual and material history of script. This blog post will briefly explore one manifestation of Pepys and his contemporaries’ interest in letter-forms: micrography. 

Volume III of Pepys’ collection features two pages dedicated to the art of ‘micrography’ or miniature writing. The content of some of these tiny sentences are invisible to the naked eye and instead appear as faint lines, made legible only when viewed through a microscope. Each of the samples are accompanied by labels, which explain their textual content in normal handwriting. The art of writing in miniature held a mythologised status as the ultimate demonstration of a writing master’s dexterity and was associated with extreme powers of vision. This tradition was rooted in the classical account of a parchment copy of The Iliad in miniature, which was so small that it could fit inside a nutshell. Part of the appeal of this legend was the fact that The Iliad was known for its epic length. Rather than The Iliad, sixteenth and seventeenth-century micrographic performances usually consisted of authoritative biblical and liturgical passages (The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments) rendered within the circumference of a particular coin. By using such familiar texts and the standardised diameters of coins, writing masters could more tangibly convey the magnitude – or, more appropriately, minuteness – of their achievement. Early users of the microscope devised various means for measuring the magnified features of natural specimens accurately, such as using grains of sand or the diameter of human hairs to understand the relative scale of magnification. Authoritative blocks of text and individual letters arguably provided similarly familiar notational markers through which comparative looking could be conducted down a microscope.

Micrographic texts provided legible artefacts through which the growing gentlemanly fashion for microscopic observation could be practiced. Pepys’ collection indicates that writing masters responded to new technologies of magnification by producing witty calligrams that were only visible using a microscope. The micrographic sample pictured above appears to the naked eye as a diagrammatic drawing of the globe upon the meridian, featuring navigational lines and markers such as the equator and the poles. The miniature text forming these lines is an English translation of Herman Hugo’s description of God’s creation of the world. The poem describes God copying his creation “o’er again in Miniature” to create Adam, “with all the Art of Heav’n design’d,/ The mortal Image of th’Immortal Mind.” Adam’s mind is described as a miniature microcosmic version of the entire world, a bridge between the creator and creation. The human artifice required to create this feat of micrography can therefore be seen, in turn, to mimic God’s creative act. Moreover, the relationship between mankind’s capacity for deciphering God’s creation and the process of reading miniature lettering recalls the famous reference to Adam in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, where he describes the patterns of nature under the microscope as a form of divine language: “[W]ho knows, but the Creator may, in those characters, have written and engraven many of his most mysterious designs and counsels, and given man a capacity, which, assisted with diligence and industry, may be able to read and understand them.”

We know that Pepys read Robert Hooke’s Micrographia avidly and purchased his own microscope. Intellectually inclined gentlemen like Pepys could utilise their new optical aids by training them on the products of human artifice, practising their observational skills on texts that were more immediately ‘legible’ than biological specimens. These tiny samples evidence the diffusion of broader intellectual concerns on topics such as microscopy, natural philosophy and theology within the scribal arts, centred on interactions between intellectually-engaged clients such as Pepys and the writing masters that they patronised.

A Demonstration by Scribe Paul Antonio

On the 16 of November 2016, the Genius Before Romanticism project, and our own Making Visible team joined forces in organising a day-long workshop around “Scribal Ingenuity“. Since the art of writing was such an important part of early modern culture, and it involves skill, and expertise, our workshop was divided between a theoretical and a practical part. The morning consisted of papers about early modern scribes and their ingenious and beautiful ways of writing, as well as the way in which writing was used to organise knowledge, and to engage with information. In the afternoon we visited the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, looking especially at Pepys’s collections of samples of hand-writings and pen-drawings. And in between papers and library visit we had the pleasure of welcoming professional scribe Paul Antonio, who gave a demonstration of the art of scribal practices. You can watch the full demonstration on our event page, and below I will highlight several moments from the study session.

Let’s start with learning how to cut a quill. Always thought that part of scribal practice was straightforward…? 

Paul showed us how logical early modern letter forms are. Once you understand the maths, you might be able to try it yourself. To make it easier for his audience to see what he is doing, Paul showed us the formation of letters on a big piece of paper attached to the wall. And to demonstrate the effect of a pointed flexible nib, the nib commonly found on quills and modern-day fountain pens, Paul used a device invented by Bill Hildebrandt, which imitates this pointed flexible nib. 

In preparation to of the study session, Paul was asked by the organisers how a book like Richard Gething’s Calligraphotechnica (London 1619)  was produced. Richard Gething (1585?–1652?) was a writing-master from Herefordshire, who lived in London most of his adult live. His Calligraphotechnia, a copybook with examples of handwritings and letter flourishes, was first published in 1616 as A Coppie Book of the Usuall Hands Written.  The first thing we have to realise with looking at the published versions of this writing manuals, is that they were printed from engravings, and therefore the handwriting had been cut into copperplates. In the case of Gething, we do not know who was the engraver, who had prepared the publication by transmitting a written manuscript onto copper plates. You can leave through the full book here. In the full version of the video you can hear how Paul explains the clear remnant of the use of a quill in the printed version (see the video at 1:06:48).

Subsequently Paul demonstrated how a letterform could have been made by Richard Gething taking the following image as his model.

A sample page from Richard Gething, Galligraphotechnia (London 1642).

Paul Antonio will be travelling to Texas, USA in May, to give several workshops and demonstrations. If you happen to be in that part of the world, don’t hesitate to sign up for some of his workshops here

And again, for the full recording of the 80 minute demonstration, see our event page, or click here

A Visit to the Making & Knowing Lab

By Sietske Fransen & Katie Reinhart

As the start of the respective second and third years of our research projects, the Making Visible post-docs and the Genius before Romanticism team visited the Making and Knowing project last week at Columbia University in New York. The Making and Knowing project, led by Professor Pamela Smith, has the aim to reconstruct the sixteenth-century artisanal workshop as to understand more about the practice of making and knowing in the early modern period.

Oyster ash and cuttlefish bone are just a few of the things one will find in the Making & Knowing lab
Oyster ash and cuttlefish bone are just a few of the things one will find in the Making & Knowing lab

Based around an anonymous manuscript (BNF Ms. Fr. 640) the project transcribes and translates the manuscript and then reproduces the recipes and experiments as described by the author-compiler. The final outcome of the project will be a fully annotated and translated online edition of the manuscript. To do all this, the project’s director, the project manager, and three post-docs work closely together with a large group of experts (from the digital humanities to expert makers), while the reproducing of recipes mainly happens in a learning environment. The latter means that the research group offers graduate courses to students at Columbia University in which the students work with the manuscript, and re-create the described recipes.

A drawer of imitation coral
A drawer full of imitation coral

Since the theme of our current (second) year of the project is ‘expertise’, especially how expertise could be gained by the fellows of the Royal Society, and how expertise would help and influence their visual practices, a visit to the laboratory of the Making and Knowing project has been very insightful.

Every semester, the Making and Knowing project runs a graduate seminar where students from different fields can learn about early modern artisanal practices through hands-on participation in the lab. But, like any craft process it is hard to fully grasp without doing it yourself, so we donned our lab coats and joined the class for a day. The day we were observers, the subject under investigation was making and casting from bread moulds.

Scientific laboratory or modern day cabinet of curiosities?
Scientific laboratory or modern day cabinet of curiosities?

The day began with a seminar-style discussion of assigned readings; then the students discussed the various trials and tribulations of their attempts to bake bread from early modern recipes, which they completed ahead of time at home. Students followed various recipes, but unlike modern instructions, most did not include specific amounts, times, or temperatures leaving students to follow their best judgement (or guess) on how to proceed. A few students experienced with bread baking followed their instincts, but the rest had to wrestle with recipes that assumed a high degree of tacit knowledge. After baking, the students made moulds from the bread by impressing small objects (a key, a toy, a magnet) into the warm bread. As the bread dried out, they formed the the hardened mold which will later be filled.

Bread moulds ready for casting


After lunch we headed to the lab, where, after safety instructions and donning the appropriate gear, we were ready to get casting. The Making and Knowing lab uses the early modern materials described in BNF Ms Fr. 640 (bread, beeswax, cuttlefish bone), but modern equipment (hot plates for heating; fume hoods for safety). Over the next few hours, students slowly melted down the beeswax and sulfur (in the fume hood), and created a steady surface by cutting a flat surface into their bread or securing them with clamps or sand.

Melting the beeswax
Melting the beeswax

Once ready, they poured the molten sulfur or beeswax into their moulds. The pouring needed to happen quickly enough that the substance did not begin to harden, but slow enough that it did not splash out (as happened to Katie).

Katie tries her hand at pouring sulfur into a mould
Katie tries her hand at pouring sulfur into a mould

After filling, the moulds were left to set and harden. After fully setting, the bread was removed to reveal the finished cast object. The finished objects revealed that, as promised in the manuscript, bread was a surprisingly good medium to take an impression. In our excitement, we realised that we failed to take a picture of a final object from the bread moulding experiment, but the entire process was probably more interesting and important than the final product!


The second day of our visit to the Making and Knowing team consisted of an afternoon seminar in which all present participants of the three projects, presented on their work and experiences as researchers on these collaborative and interdisciplinary projects. The discussion was wide ranging, but over the course of the afternoon several themes and key questions arose. We talked about the knowledge that could be gained only be doing – knowledge of materials and processes that the Making and Knowing team learned over the course of their recreations.

However, how do we, as historians, study and communicate our ideas about what Pamela Smith calls ‘experiential knowledge’, if words are insufficient to explain or encompass this type of knowledge? It was interesting to hear from one of the new Making and Knowing postdocs, Tianna Uchacz, that she also found gaps or tacit knowledge in the descriptions of recipes by students. She experienced this by following their essays on the making of bread to bake her own bread for the bread moulding experiment. Would there be other ways to communicate and report our experiences? Not just verbally, but also through videos, drawings, and informal forms of writing? It is clear that these new forms of historical investigation might also call for new or alternative ways of communication.

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A busy day in the Making & Knowing lab

One of the other major points discussed was the importance of failure. The importance of failure to learn and understand a process but also the reporting about failure to be able to understand and keep open the possibility of re-tracing one’s steps. Unfortunately many mistakes and failures are not written down and are therefore forgotten as essential steps in the process of knowledge creation.

Another part of the discussion centred on the value, and problems, with historical recreation. The Making and Knowing lab has gone to impressive lengths to obtain early modern materials, but they use modern heating, lighting, and laboratory equipment. Thus, how faithful can we consider the outcomes of their experiments to what might have happened in the past? This discussion resonated with us in relation to the slow start of our own intaglio project. We are using early modern engraving tools, but we are undertaking the project and learning to engrave in a very modern context. If we can’t devote the time and resources to truly becoming early modern engravers (which we can’t, we’re already historians) then is the whole endeavour pointless or can learning this skill, even in a modern way, still inform how we look on and understand the printed images we study?

Our visit to the Making and Knowing lab allowed us to reflect on and discuss these issues, and we thank Pamela Smith and all of her team for the invitation and for allowing us to join the lab for a day!

Ready for some history