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.

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