How To Cook and Cure: Early Modern <em>Recetas</em>

How To Cook and Cure: Early Modern Recetas

Recipes can quickly transport us to particular times and places. A glance at this vintage Jell-O recipe calls to mind the model 1960s US housewife and the gendered obligations of food and preparation.

Women’s relationship to recipes are taken up in a less widely-known context in British artist George Cruikshank’s nineteenth-century etching with watercolors. Titled, “A haggard old woman carelessly mixing a recipe for corns on the fire in her sordid bedroom,” the etching offers a caricatured yet politically relevant view of women and illness particular to his time and location. Cruikshank critiques women’s popular fashion (high heels) as responsible for their ailments while also disparaging women’s ability to self-treat. Cruikshank presents a “haggard old woman,” precariously holding a recipe, in this case not for food but rather as cure.

A colorful room that, as well as being cluttered with potions, room contains an assortment of squabbling pets; on the wall is a painting depicting the attempted seduction of Susanna by the elders, and in the center is a woman frowning at a recipe while stirring an overflowing pot over the fire behind her.
A caricature from 1835 titled, “A haggard old woman carelessly mixing a recipe for corns on the fire in her sordid bedroom,” by Frederick Marryat (etching by George Cruikshank). (Wellcome Collection | CC BY)

In this depiction, she is clearly unequipped to implement treatment (“carelessly mixing”). The chaos of his female-run space for medicine-making only justifies the superiority of the imagined efficient, male-run laboratory. The etching is punctuated with the presence of assorted animals (three dogs, two cats, and a parrot), hazardously organized medical ingredients, an open fire, and a looming and highly stylized portrait of Susanna and the elders, underscoring the already patent messaging around the vulnerability and vanity of women.1 The etching reflects longstanding historical anxieties around women’s relationships to medicine.2

In an undergraduate course at Bowdoin College about health and healing in early modern Iberia and its global kingdoms, my students and I dedicated a unit of our semester to studying recipes like the one Cruikshank lambasts above. Varied in form, from single folio manuscripts to lengthy collections authored across multiple generations, early modern recipe collections serve as repositories of both culinary and curative information, primarily made and used by women. Edith Snook has described early modern recipes as “the most culturally pervasive form of women’s writing engaged in Atlantic knowledge exchange.”3

These collections unveil the circulation of and access to ingredients and the gendered domestic models of household medicine within the early modern Iberian-Atlantic context. Wendy Wall has described the recipe as a literary form that reveals the intersection between “techne (labor)” and “praxis (experience).”4 As opposed to academic medical texts that emerged from within more formalized educational institutions, domestic recipe books offer day-to-day insight into the household models of health and healing frequently administered by women. These collections also offer evidence of systems of experimentation via diverse preparation and methods of trial and error.

Throughout the semester, I guided students through readings and discussion considering questions such as access to ingredients, location of preparations, intended makers, and recipients.5 We considered how plants and animals from Spain were introduced into the Americas, while New World plants such as sassafras, and tobacco, alongside foods including chocolate and tomatoes, became part of European diets and medical treatments. We studied how bezoar stones from Andean camelids were harvested and circulated to produce drug antidotes across Europe.6 There was a lot of speculation about rose and violet waters and their potential to cure broken hearts. We even engaged in a bit of tasting: lentils and stews, even rabbit empanadas.

My students perused the college’s 1662 copy of a palm-sized edition of a popular English recipe book, The Queens Closet Opened: Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrurgery, Preserving and Candying. Students commented on the materiality of the book, the contents of the recipes, and its connections with contemporary cabinets of curiosity. We also explored the gendering of medical practices and domestic responsibilities.7 Finally, we noticed several ingredients sourced from the Americas, including guaiacum and sarsaparilla. Like contemporary Spanish recipe books from the period, the collection included both culinary and medical recipes, challenging our contemporary notion of the recipe book as exclusive to food preparation.

An open book, with old, yellowed pages. On the left page is an illustration of a neutral-faced woman in formal clothes from the 1600s. On the right page is the book title: The Queen's Closet Opened, Incomparable secrets in phisick, [surgery], preserving, and candying, etc, which were presented unto the queen by the most experienced persons of the times, many whereof were had in esteem, when the pleased to desend to private recreations.
The frontispiece illustration of “The Queen’s Closet Opened” (1662) shows an engraved portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria. (Courtesy of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.)
I also assigned my class selections from the Granville manuscript in order to think about recipe circulation in the Iberian context, demonstrating ties between England and Spain, the global circulation of ingredients (including cacao from the Americas), and variety of preparations.8 Three generations of English women — Mary Granville, her mother Mary, and her daughter Anne D’Ewes — authored the Granville recipe collection between 1640-1750. The manuscript is compelling for the range of recipes it includes: savory stews, baked goods, preserves, candies, beauty treatments, cures for ailments.

It is also fascinating for its conversation across generations, the lively editing within the manuscript indicative of refining and testing over time. Although the family resided in England, Mary Granville was the daughter of Sir Martin Westcomb, former English Consul in Cádiz. Many of the recipes make reference to Cádiz, and several are written in Spanish. The international content of this collection is worth emphasizing. Even more compelling, however, is the way the volume evidences multinational and cross-cultural conversations among women around recipes as a form of knowledge.

An old page of a manuscript with a handwritten recipe in Spanish.
Receta para Agua de Ambar [Recipe for Amber Water], from the Granville Manuscript. (Folder 106r, Folger Shakespeare Library)
A second anonymous collection of recipes, the Manual de mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçeutas muy buenas [The manual for women in which is contained many, very good and diverse recipes], authored sometime between 1475-1525, is one of few Spanish recipe books, sometimes called receipt books, from this period.9 It contains 145 recipes and is organized into medical remedies, fragrances, cosmetics, hair treatments, and recipes for food.

The actual layout of the book, however, frequently blends and confuses categories, placing, for example, a recipe for candying or preservation alongside medicinal ointments or tonics. Although the presumed audiences of these early modern recipe collections were women — as managers of caregiving within their home — the explicit naming of both “women” and “manual” in the title is provocative for its segregation of knowledge and implications for the genre and form. The Manual operates as a comprehensive though somewhat unwieldy handbook with its divergent collection of recipes for the treatment of common physical ailments, the preparation of savory and sweet foods, as well as a large number of cosmetic treatments.

Similarly, the collection provides information about expectations placed on Spanish women concerning their own responsibilities to self and others, considering the circulation and use of recipe collections within households as models of practical and social education. The quantity of highly gendered recipes for beauty treatments provide insight into the sensory experience of beauty for women: appearance, scent, taste, smell.

Another multilingual curiosity arises in the form of Sarah Hughes’s 1637 recipe book Libro de Recetas de Portugal para hacer peuetes y pastillas y adreçar guantes perfumados [Book of Recipes from Portugal to make tablets and pills, and addressing perfumed gloves].10 The book’s first section contains about 40 folios of Spanish recipes, including medicinal remedies like the one for a pill designed to cure “reumas y dolor de cabeza” [rheumatism and headache], assorted dental treatments (pastes and washes), as well as a long list of recipes for perfumed gloves.11 Like the Manual de mugeres, the collection’s variety of recipes illuminates relationships between identity, beauty, and desire. For example, Hughes advises her readers that a particular recipe for perfume is identical to the one used by “la infanta,” presumably María Anna of Spain, daughter of King Philip III and Margaret of Austria.12

These various Spanish and English collections provide specific evidence of cross-cultural circulation of knowledge pertinent to health and well-being. The organization of these multilingual collections are varied: side-by-side translations, bilingual editions (one copy following another), and hybrid forms (multiple languages used within a single recipe or imperfect translations). As stand alone volumes or in conversation with one another, the multilingualism of these collections raise challenging questions concerning audience and readership, cultural knowledge, dissemination, and appropriation. Through the study of recipes, we can also recover new narratives about the lives of early modern women, who were authoritative though frequently contested administrators of domestic life. Women made and used recipes to attend to themselves and their families, for a wide range of purposes: treating ailments, self-fashioning, preparing meals, and complying to gendered aesthetic and social norms.

Further Reading

Cabré, Montserrat. “Women or Healers?: Household Practices and the Categories of Health Care in Late Medieval Iberia.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 82 no. 1 (2008): 18-51.

Nadeau, Carolyn. Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Pérez Samper, María de los Ángeles. “Los recetarios de mujeres y para mujeres. Sobre la conversación y transmisión de los saberes domésticos en la época moderna.” Cuadernos de historia moderna 19 (1997): 121-54.

Soloman, Michael. Fictions of Well Being: Sickly Reading and Vernacular. Medical Writing in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.


  1. This frequently depicted story from the book of Daniel describes the ordeal of a young woman, Susana, who is falsely accused of infidelity by voyeuristic elders whose advances she has rebuffed. Return to text.
  2. For an introduction to this topic, see Monica H. Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Return to text.
  3. Edith Snook, “English Women’s Writing and Indigenous Medical Knowledge,” in A History of Early Modern Women’s Literature, ed. Patricia Phillipy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 383. Return to text.
  4. Wendy Wall, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 228. Return to text.
  5. Selections from Nicolás Monardes’s Primera y segunda y tercera partes de la historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en medicina (1565) provided us much needed contemporary context, with catalogues of ingredients and descriptions of preparations. Return to text.
  6. Marcia Stephenson, “From Marvelous Antidote to the Poison of Idolatry: The Transatlantic Role of Andean Bezoar Stones During the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries,” Hispanic American Historical Review 90, no. 1 (2010): 3–39. Return to text.
  7. For a compelling introduction to this recipe book, see Laura Lunder Knoppers, “Opening the Queen’s Closet: Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth Cromwell, and the Politics of Cookery,” Renaissance Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2007): 464-99. Return to text.
  8. I learned about this manuscript thanks to advice from colleagues in the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, a resource for anyone interested in the topic of recipes during this period. Return to text.
  9. Alicia Martinez Crespo, Manual de mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçetas muy buenas (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad, 1995). Return to text.
  10. Wellcome library MS 363, Sarah Hughes, Libro de Recetas de Portugal para hacer peuetes y pastillas y adreçar guantes perfumados [Book of Recipes from Portugal to make tablets and pills, and addressing perfumed gloves] 1637. I am grateful to Madeline Bassnet for pointing me to this volume. Return to text.
  11. Folio, 9 recto. Return to text.
  12. Foilo, 11 recto. Return to text.

Featured image caption: An illustrated recipe for “Under the Sea Salad,” on page 55 of “Joys of Jell-O: Gelatin Dessert.” (Courtesy Wellcome Collection)

Margaret E. Boyle is Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Bowdoin College. Her research focuses on the literary and cultural history of early modern Spanish women. She is the author of Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence and Punishment in Early Modern Spain (University of Toronto Press, 2014). She is currently co-editing a volume with Sarah E. Owens, tentatively titled, Health and Healing in the Early Modern Iberian World: A Gendered Perspective.