Horse sense

Manuscript recipes are not always for food or medicine – they may be for household necessities such as ink, paint or polish, for cosmetics such as face wash, moisturiser or tooth powder, or for instructions in other areas of life, such as gardening and even knitting.

One anonymous compiler of an extensive and closely written book of recipes[1] includes a section on ‘Curiosities’. Among these are the following recommendations for managing your horses. First, if you want to make out you’re a horse whisperer, try this:

To make a horse follow his master find him out & challenge him amongst never so many people

Take a pound of oat meal to which put a quarter of a pound of honey and half a pound of liquorice, make a little cake thereof & put it in to your bosom next to your naked skin, then run & labour yourself till you sweat & so rub all your sweat upon your cake, then keep the horse fasting a day & a night & give it him to eat, which done turn him loose & he shall not only follow you, but also hunt & seek you out when he has lost you.

That may be bad enough, but the coda is even worse:

And when he comes to you spit in his mouth & anoint his tongue with your spittle & thus doing he will never forsake you.

The other two apply if you don’t like the horse’s colour (or maybe you’re trying to trick a prospective buyer?):

How to dapple a horse

Take in the spring the large buds of young oak trees,[2] mix them among the horse’s provender & give it him 3 or 4 times to eat & he will be dappled, and continue so for a whole year. The buds of young elm trees will have the same effect.


To spot a white horse with black spots

Take litharge[3] 3 oz. Quick lime 6 oz. Beat them fine & mix them together. Put the mixture into a pan & pour a sharp lee[4] over it, then boil it & you will have a fat substance swim at top with which anoint the horse in such places as you design to have black & it will turn of that colour immediately.

Should you be unhappy with your own appearance, the author has some advice about this latter recipe:

It has the same effect in changing hair that is red into black colour with only this difference viz you are to take an equal quantity of lime & litharge & instead of boiling it with lee, boil it only with fresh water. What swims at top is fit for use & will answer your expectation. What hairs you anoint with it in the evening will be black next morning.

The inclusion of the caustic quicklime means you might not want to try that at home!


[1] MS 7893, Wellcome Library.

[2] Oak galls were used in ink and oak bark in dyes, so the tree evidently has some colouring properties.

[3] Lead monoxide, used as a red pigment.

[4] Sediment after fermentation of wine or beer.


Works like a charm

Enlightenment medical thinking reflected the belief that illness and death could be avoided through the development of knowledge and human ability, and a vast variety of remedies existed for ailments both large and small. Nevertheless, in diaries and other writings – as well as the occasional recipe, for instance a remedy ‘To heal an old cough’, which ‘will help you by Gods Grace’,[1] or one for gout ‘which I have taken and by Gods blessing found great good by it’[2] – a belief in divine assistance can still be ascertained. Folk practices did not entirely disappear either, with the use of charms as remedies persisting into the nineteenth century; Alun Withey notes that ‘healing charms… dovetailed easily with humoural notions of illness as a foreign matter which needed to be driven out’.[3]

The commonplace book of William Grasing, a yeoman from Minsterworth,[4] includes a theologically mixed charm ‘For the ague’:












Gloria Excelsis Deo

If you suffered a burn or scald, you could repeat this one (although I’m not quite sure where that episode is in the Bible):

Mary mild as burned her child and on a spark of fire out fier in frost in the name of the father son and holy gost, amen amen amen

To stop bleeding, repeat this charm five times:

I believe Jesus Christ to be the son of god, he was born of the virgin Mary and was baptised of John the Baptist in the River Jordon the water was wide and red he commanded and it stod so stand the blod in the name of the Father Son and Holy Gost three persons in Trinity & one God Good Lord do this in Charity for thy servant Amen.

For ‘the prick of a thorn’, he recommends this analogous entreaty:

In Bethlehem our Christ was born thay crowned his head with Nails and Thorns Let no flesh corropt in here I tuch and the Lord heal, pray God prosper my handy works Amen Amen Amen

And finally, a rather strange couplet, ‘a night spel to catch theeves’, which ‘will drive away aney eevil sperit that hants aney house or any other pleas to prevent aney garden or orcherd fram being robed or a house hee canot go[,] before sunrising having in every fower corners of the hous garden or orcherd this sentiments having of thee’:

All sperits prays God allso Moses Profets

Entertayn God and gosin the garden

Doesn’t quite have the ring of Expelliarmus, does it?

[1] D5336/2/26/9, Pares of Leicester and Hopwell Hall, c.1739, Derbyshire Record Office.

[2] D3155/WH 2702, Isaac Borrow, Derbyshire Record Office, letter from Mary Gregg dated 7 June 1743.

[3] Withey, Alun (2011) Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales, 1600–1750, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[4] P218/MI/1, accounts of William Grasing of Minsterworth (d. 1798), yeoman, 1770–96, Gloucester Archives. This charm is claimed to be Hebrew in origin and, without the final line, is included in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as one way ‘the deceived’ attempted to ward off plague.


In the letters of Sir William Robinson (1655–1736), 1st Baronet of Newby [1], is the following set of riddles. I found it difficult to work out which person’s names they’re referring to, but all becomes (a bit) clearer when you look at the answers he provides – I’ve given these in the footnotes, if you want to try and solve them first.

The letter which sometimes for no letter gos

And what’s a great deal in any man’s nose

With the name of York Medows and what quenches our thirst

Is the name of a Lady deny it who durst

That in virtue & goodness may be reckonnd the first [2]


What the gardiner doth when he planteth his trees

And what we must do to be cloathed in frize

Is the name of a man who is chearfull & free

And whose age I account to be fivety & three [3]


The first letter we learn, and the least bird that flys

With a part of the wood that in Beaconsfield lies

Is the name of a man who with indolent air

Makes love without meaning and sight for the fair [4]


The letter next G and the Welsh-man’s distemper

Is the name of a lady who’s ne’re out of temper

And who dances with such an air, motion & grace

That you don’t see a bit of her name in her pace [5]


What’s found in a bush & what hunters pursue

With the place where at present you’ve nothing to do

Is the name of a man who is both blind & old

Yet wishes for waters to keep him from cold [6]

I’m fascinated by the ‘Welsh-man’s distemper’ in the fourth one. The association between the itch (scabies or other skin infestations) and the people of Wales was apparently widespread – according to Steven Connor’s The Book of Skin, Wales was even known as ‘Itchland’!

If you can shed any more light on these, do let me know.

1. WYL150/6002, West Yorkshire Archives.

2. Lady H-inch-ing-brook – probably Elizabeth Wilmot (1674–1757), daughter of 2nd Earl of Rochester and wife of Edward Montagu, 3rd Earl of Sandwich, Viscount Hinchingbrooke until his accession to the earldom.

3. Mr Dig-buy.

4. A-wren-dell – Arundel, probably Thomas Howard (1683–1732), 8th Duke of Norfolk and 7th Earl of Arundel. In 1709 he married Maria Shireburn, from a well-known Catholic family in Lancashire, who brought him a fortune of £30,000. I’m not sure why the insult, but it may have been because of his supposed involvement in a Jacobite plot.

5. Miss H-itch.

6. Hare-court – probably Simon Harcourt (1661–1727), Lord Chancellor to Queen Anne. He left court on the accession of George I in 1714, so he had ‘nothing to do’ there. Also alleged to be a Jacobite, which may account for the tone.

Almost there

Well, it was a long journey – five years, five months, to be exact – but I got there in the end. My thesis was submitted at the end of June: ‘The role of domestic knowledge in an era of professionalisation: Eighteenth-century manuscript medical recipe collections’.

While I wait for my viva, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in a sneak peek at the contents. I studied over 240 recipe collections from all over England, containing over 19,000 medical recipes, so of course, much of the thesis is about the recipes themselves – what form they take, what conditions they aim to treat, whether they differ regionally or over time. I offer detailed studies of recipes for coughs and colds, gout, rabies, diet drinks and Daffy’s Elixir, examining the variety of recipes, their ingredients and how they differ or are duplicated in different collections. I also consider differences by gender and by age.

But there is more to recipes than their content alone, so I take a look at the recipe books as material objects, the paraphernalia needed to create them, how they were structured, ways of finding the information easily and what else they contained. I consider the women and men who compiled the collections and contributed the recipes, and describe how recipe exchange functioned as social currency in different kinds of network. Finally, I identify reasons why the practice of collecting recipes continued through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, despite the presence of growing numbers of professional practitioners, off-the-shelf alternatives and printed sources of information.

Want to know more than that? You’ll just have to keep your fingers crossed that I acquit myself well in my viva…

The Vegetarian Society, Victorian style

Apologies for the lack of posts on this blog recently – I’m writing up my PhD thesis, and in the last three months have not only completed (most of) three chapters, but also two articles, one published and one forthcoming, and a one-hour public lecture. Doesn’t leave much time for anything else!

This post is a little later than my normal timeframe, but hopefully of interest nonetheless. Inside a late 18th/early 19th century recipe book in the Herefordshire Record Office (G2/1030) I found a leaflet advertising the Vegetarian Society, which was founded in 1847. It carries the following rather earnest declaration:

The objects of the Society are, to induce habits of abstinence from the Flesh of Animals as Food, by the dissemination of information upon the subject, by means of tracts, essays, and lectures, proving the many advantages of a physical, intellectual, and moral character, resulting from Vegetarian habits of Diet; and thus, to secure, through the association, example, and efforts of its members, the adoption of a principle which will tend essentially to true civilisation, to universal brotherhood, and to the increase of human happiness generally.

No ambition there, then! Unfortunately the recipes themselves are rather stodgy – no low carb here – and miles away from the varied and enticing vegetarian food we are used to today. Take a look and see if you fancy any of them:

1. Bread-crumb omelet.—One pint of bread-crumbs, a large handful of chopped parsley, with a large slice of onion minced fine, and a teaspoonful of dried marjoram. Beat up two eggs, add a teaspoonful of milk, some nutmeg, pepper, and salt, and a piece of butter the size of an egg. Mix altogether, and bake in a slow oven till of a light brown colour. Turn out of dish and send to table immediately.

2. Yorkshire pudding.—Flavour your batter with pot marjoram, lemon thyme, and sweet balm powdered, a little chopped parsley, and an onion minced fine. Bake in moderate oven; serve hot with gravy.

3. Macaroni pudding.—Two ounces of macaroni; boil till tender, drain the water from it, and add half-a-pint of new milk, and half-an-ounce of parsley chopped fine. A teaspoonful of lemon thyme powdered, some lemon peel, pepper, salt, and dash of nutmeg. Put it in a well buttered dish, and bake twenty minutes. If wanted richer, beat up an egg in the milk.

4. Buttered onions.—Take enough (rather small) onions to make a dish; let them all be of like size; peel them and throw them into a stew-pan of boiling water with some salt. Boil for five minutes; drain them, put them into a saucepan with a good thick piece of butter, a sprinkling of nutmeg, pepper, and salt; toss them about over a clear fire until they begin to brown; add a tablespoonful of mushroom ketchup, and a dessert-spoonful of sage, and marjoram and parsley. Do them gently for a quarter of an hour, and serve upon toast moistened in lemon-juice.

5. Mushroom pudding.—One pint of mushrooms, half a pound of bread crumbs, and two ounces of butter. Put the butter in the bread crumbs, adding pepper and salt, and as much water as will moisten the bread; add the mushrooms cut in pieces; line a basin with paste, put in the mixture, cover with paste, tie a cloth over, and boil an hour and a-half. It is equally good baked.

6. Buttered eggs, or rumbled eggs.—Break three eggs into a small stew pan, put a table-spoonful of milk and an ounce of fresh butter, add a salt-spoonful of salt and a little pepper. Set the stew pan over a moderate fire, and stir the eggs with a spoon, being careful to keep every particle in motion until it is set. Have ready a crisp piece of toast, pour the eggs upon it, and serve immediately. [This mode of dressing eggs secures that the white and the yolk shall be perfectly mixed. The white, which is so very nutritious, is insipid and unpalatable when the egg is simply boiled, fried, or poached.]

7. Potted lentils or haricots.—Stew a teacupful of lentils in water with a morsel of butter, and some mushroom powder. Beat up to a smooth paste. When cold, add an equal quantity of fine brown bread crumbs, with seasoning of salt, mace and cayenne, and the size of a walnut of old cheese. Beat all together with two ounces of butter. Press firmly into pots. (Haricot beans may be used instead of lentils.} If it is to be kept long, hot butter must be poured on the top.

8. Baked potatoes with sage and onion.—Peel as many potatoes as you require; put them in a pie dish, and a good sized onion, with half a teaspoonful of dried sage, two ounces of butter, and enough water to cover the bottom of the dish. Season with salt and pepper.

9. Barley soup.—Soak four table-spoonful of Scotch barley in cold water for an hour. Put it in stewpan with about a pint of cold water. Set it on a moderate fire; let it stew gently, and add three good-sized onions, two small turnips, a carrot, and head of celery. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When quite soft, add a table-spoonful of mushroom ketchup.

10. Groat pudding.—Pick and wash a half-pint of groats, and put them in a dish with a pint of water, a large onion chopped small, a little sage or marjoram, a good lump of butter, pepper and salt. The groats may be steeped thus for some hours before baking. Apples may be added, or substituted, for the onions and herbs. If substituted, use sugar instead of the seasoning. Bake in a moderate oven till the groats are tender.

11. Savoury pie.—Pare several potatoes and two or three onions. Slice them, if large. Place these in a buttered pie-dish, in layers, with a little well steeped tapioca, pepper, salt, and powdered sage upon each, also mushroom powder, or fresh mushrooms if liked. Slices of cold bread omelet, or a few Brussells sprouts, may be inserted. Cover with a plain crust; one made of ordinary bread dough, with a very little butter, is preferable to anything heavy. Keep the bottom of the pie supplied with hot water while baking, or it will be without gravy.

12. Vegetarian gravy.—This may be flavoured either with mushroom powder or browned onion, and coloured with a little chicory, the basis being made as plain melted butter, with less flour or thickening, and seasoned with pepper, salt, and mace, if approved.

There are some interesting seasonings there – the herby Yorkshire pudding looks worth trying, and trendy chefs have rediscovered mushroom powder – but the potato pie with tapioca, bread pudding and a bread dough crust? You’d put on half a stone just looking at it.

Nothing new under the sun

We all know it’s fashionable for chefs to take inspiration from old recipes, but I’m sure we don’t always appreciate quite how much of what is currently in vogue has been done before. Here’s a selection of recipes from one late 18th-century manuscript collection (MS 4992, Wellcome Collection) to illustrate the point.

First, those fancy powders that get scattered around the plate? Put to a different use here, but the product is the same:

Mushroom powder which you may use ½ a spoonful at a time to fish or any other sauce

Take the mushrooms & wash them well with salt & water rubbing them with a piece of flannel put them into a sauce pan & drain them out of their liquor season them with pepper & salt add 2 or 3 spoonsfull of vinegar a nutmeg sliced, some mace & cloves 2 or 3 bay leaves a top of rosemary a slice of onion a piece of butter as big as a walnut let them stew till the liquor is dryed up then put them on a tin plate in an oven after the bread.

Typical of contemporary recipes, what this one doesn’t tell you is that presumably the mushrooms will then be desiccated enough to be easily rubbed into powder, probably with the fingers.

Secondly, how about some fancy presentation (probably with some height here too):

To make a dish of birds nests

Make a good forced meat stiff, which must be formed in the shape of little birds nests, do them over with yolks of eggs lay the warm vermicelli upon them like straws, bake them in a slow oven, take care they are not discoloured, beat some yolks of eggs and boil them loosely, you may then form them, by lying them in small pieces of muslin, the size of birds eggs, and scalding them again put a ragout of sweet breads or any thing you like in the dish.

Turning to desserts, here’s an exotically flavoured cheesecake (not sure how it would taste though):

Potatoe cheese-cakes

To a ¼ lb potatoes boiled skined & beaten in a mortar add a ¼ lb of sugar & a ¼ of butter 2 eggs leaving out the whites of one the juice of a lemon & the peel of ½ a one grated sweet meats & currants if you like it, then add a glass of mountain or any sweet wine bake them with a puff paste round the tins.

Want to pair that with some jelly strips in different colours? Here’s how – first the jelly itself, then the colourings:

Orange Jelly

Over night boil 2 oz Isinglass in a pint of spring water till it comes to a ½ pint, also over night put ½ a lb single refined sugar into 3 pints water let it boil fast till half is consumed take the juice of 3 china & 1 seville orange & 1 large lemon pare them thin & put the peels into the juice let it stand covered close till next morning – then strain it off & put the isinglass into some hot water then melt the jelly, mix & stir all well together & put it into your moulds, let them stand till cold, then turn them out & lay thin shreds of the peels over it. N.B. After the isinglass is boil’d strain it thro’ a bit of muslin the jelly shod be stiff enough to cut with a knife & eat with a fork.

Ribbon Jelly

Red, with cochineal – Green, spinach – Yellow, safron – Blue, syrup of violets – White, with thick cream

And finally, that old favourite spun sugar for the ultimate decoration (watchers of today’s cookery programmes will be far more familiar with the type of method here than this rather convoluted description can convey):

To spin a gold web for covering a custard

Beat 4 ounces of treble refined sugar in a marble mortar, & sift it through a hair seive, then put it in a silver or brass ladle (silver makes the colour better) set it over a chafing dish of charcoal that is burnt clear, and set it on a table, and turn a tin cover or china bowl upside down on the same table, and when your sugar is melted it will be of a gold colour then take your ladle off the fire and begin to spin it, take a knife & begin to spin by taking up as much of the syrrup as the point of it will hold, and a fine thread will come from the point which you must draw as quick as possible backwards & forwards, and also round the mould as long as it will spin from the knife be very carefull not to drop the syrup on the web, if you do it will spoil it, then dip your knife into the syrup again and take up more, and so keep spinning ‘till your sugar is done, or your web is thick enough, be sure you do not let the knife touch the lump on the plate that is not melted, it will make it brittle & not spin at all. If your sugar is spent before your web is gone put fresh sugar on a clean plate & do not spin from the same plate again, if you do not want the web to cover the custard immediately set the web on a deep pewter plate or dish & cover it with a tin cover & lay a cloth over it, to prevent the air from getting to it, & set it before the fire; it requires to be left warm or it will fall abroad.


Catching up with catchup

Masterchef’s foray into cockle ketchup reminded me of a number of recipes for varieties of this condiment in manuscript recipe books. I haven’t actually seen one using cockles, but I can offer this one with oysters (although rather extravagant at today’s prices):

Take one hundred of oysters the largest you can get, with all their liquor, ½ pd of anchovies, three pints of white wine, 1 lemon sliced, with half the peel, let this boil half an hour, & then strain it thro’ muslin, add of cloves & mace ¼ of an ounce of each & one sliced nutmeg, boil it ¼ of an hour & then add two ounces of shallots, when cold bottle it, with the spice & shallots. (F76/A/33, Dunne family of Gatley Park, Herefordshire Record Office, 18th century)

Or you might want to try walnuts – only half a hundred this time:

Take walnuts when fit for pickling, beat them to a pulp & squeeze the juice. Let it stand to settle one day, then pour off the clear & to every pint of juice put a pound of anchovies, & an ounce of sharlots. Sett it over the fire till all the anchovies are dissolved, then strain it off & to a quart put a quarter of an ounce of mace ditto of cloves, ditto of Jamaica pepper; & half a pint of white wine vinegar. Boil all these together a quarter of an hour, & when cold bottle it, putting the spice into your bottles as equal as you can. A very small quantity will do in any hash. For fish sauce it must be quite clear; it will keep good two years.

N.B. Half an hundred of walnuts will make a quart of juice if properly beaten & prest. (D1928/Z2, Gloucestershire Archives, 18th century)

The first known printed recipe was in Eliza Smith’s Compleat Housewife, first published in 1727:


There are more mushrooms in this variety from the Heppington Receipts (MS 7999, © Wellcome Collection, 18th-19th century):


And finally, tomato ketchup – or rather, tomata catchup. Also known as love apples, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous so weren’t used in cooking until the 19th century, but this has since become the best-known flavour of ketchup, courtesy of HJ Heinz (whose recipe is, of course, a trade secret):

Take the tomatas when quite ripe, mash them with salt & let them stand two days, strain & press them hard thro’ a cloth. Set them on the fire & take the scum off as it rises. Then add some cloves, mace, nutmeg, ginger & whole peppers with 3 or 4 cloves of garlic. Boil 20 minutes – let it stand till cold then bottle it. (D3549/37/1/5 Gloucestershire Archives, Sebright/Fenwick family, early 19th century)

That one looks pretty straightforward, so I may just have to try it!