In what will come as no shock, I love old books—the smell, the feel, the craftsmanship of the binding, everything. During my master’s, I took a module called “Shakespeare’s Sister: Archival Research and the Politics of the Canon.” Guess what I did? I learned about the “process of recovering lost early modern women’s writing” (taken from the syllabus) and the practice of editing such texts. My semester project consisted of finding a text in either the National Library of Scotland or the National Archives (of Scotland, obviously) and creating my own scholarly edition of it. That means I had a lot of choices to make: Which text? How much of it? Literal transcription or adopt it? How do I view the text? What’s my point for choosing it? And above all else, justifying every decision I made. I couldn’t have been happier.
I was in a module with other master’s students from varying fields, including creative writing, American literature, and Book History and Material Culture. I almost applied for the latter, actually. As it happened, the girl from Book History and Material Culture picked the same text as me. You’re all dying to know what the text was, aren’t you? Well it was a recipe book by Anna Balfour from the 17th century. A recipe, in this case, is for home remedies for afflictions such as, “for ane Continuall head-aik” and “for to tak out ye high collour out of wans face.” My personal favorite, though, was “for ane stinking breath” because bad breath was just as much a societal faux pas then as it is now. While I viewed the recipe book as a glimpse into medicine at the time, the other student looked at it as a means of passing down knowledge from one woman to the next. Toward the end of the book, the handwriting changed, presumably to that of the new owner, the daughter.
It was a fascinating glimpse into early modern women’s writing, and not just those that were published but the unknowns, the ones history and the “literary canon” did not see fit to remember. So why don’t we remember now? I choose to remember them, to continue to study the past because looking only to the future doesn’t give us anything to build on. A house needs a solid foundation, so do people. That’s my two cents worth!
To share my passion, I shall show you a couple of her recipes and some comments I had on the title of her book:
As a wife and mother, Anna Balfour was responsible for “running” the everyday activities of the house, including nursing the ill. With this responsibility, it is no surprise that she took it upon herself to gather the most helpful remedies for illnesses and injuries that might have occurred in her family. These receipts must have been important to her; otherwise, she would not have taken the trouble of copying them into a manuscript and creating a “table of contents” with the words “The Book of Receipts Phisicall” at the top. Interestingly, she does not call it “A Book of Receipts Phisicall” but rather “The Book of Receipts Phisicall.” The use of the word “the” as opposed to “a” might indicate that she wrote other books, perhaps one solely for culinary recipes, although that is purely speculative since other such books have not been located.
For ane stinking breath.[i]
Tak a verie good quantitie of rosemarie
leaues, and floures, and boyle them in whyte
wyne with a litle Cinamon[ii] and benjamen
beaten togidder in pouder and put yr in
and let ye patient wash his mouth verie
often yr with and this will presentlie helpe
him. probatum est
For ane hott thing or St antones fyre.[iii]
Tak ane pottill of smithes water,[iv] ane
handfull of sadge, tuo handfull of
elder trie leaues, or of the grein barck
of ye elder trie, and tuo pennieworth
of alme, tak thes and seith them
altogidder from ane pottill to ane
pynt then tak it & putt it into ane
earthen pott & lett ye patient anoynt
his face yr with, when he goeth to bed
and ye nixt morning he shall find great
ease yr by, but lett him use it for ye space
of fyue or sex dayis, and this will
helpe him by God’s grace.
[i] Folio 9
[ii] A line above a word usually denotes a missing letter; in this case, an “n.”
[iii] Folio 3; modern name is erysipelas, caused by a bacterial infection in the skin, resulting in fever and inflammation (RLAMT)
[iv] The exact definition was not found, but it is possibly the liquid after soaking metal in water.
And there you have it. A small portion of little known history. Should you want more information or a translation of the recipes into modern day English, let me know!