Practical Interpretation of Recipes 1300-1750

By Christina Stapley B.Sc. Phyt. Hons

1.Authenticity of Recipe. Author's Photo
Authenticity of recipe. Author’s Photo

Authenticity of Recipe. Author’s

This guide is based on over twenty years of experience in the field of researching lost knowledge which has the potential to enrich modern herbal practice. It looks at sources of recipes, resources and aids to understanding them with criteria to consider when selecting a suitable recipe to repeat. Finally there are cautions on authenticity. This form of interpretation is necessary to assess the practicality of frequent use and likely effectiveness of historical medicinal recipes. It is particularly useful with examination of household collections and leechbooks.


Some sources

Sources of recipes for investigation can be found in the collections of the British Library, the Wellcome Library and other University and specialist libraries. Manuscripts from some of these collections are available digitised and on line or the catalogue may be available for you to order specific documents so that they are ready for your arrival.

Your local County Record Office or Museum may be storing documents which contain recipes. There are also published sources, some of which are listed below.

Wellcome Library Archives and MSS collection covers from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. Type in ‘domestic medicine’ and ‘receipt books’ and century for a list of books available to order in the Rare MSS room. Add the century. For more detailed subject searching, you can run keyword or subject searches in the Archives and Manuscripts on–line catalogue,, from which material can be ordered for consultation in the Rare Materials Room. Hard copy catalogues can be requested via:

Anne Blencowe's Receipt Book. Author's Photo
Anne Blencowe’s Receipt Book. Author’s Photo

Certain documents from the early period have been published, such as the ‘common-place book’, recorded and edited by Henslow. It is best to begin by studying a work such as this which offers guidance on the language used with an understanding of the phonology and subsequent effects on spelling. There is also the benefit of some interpretation for plant names and other ingredients. For instance in a recipe from ‘Manuscript A’ in Henslow page 163 the fat used is specified as ‘old smere of a borwz,’ a footnote advises this should read ‘berwz’ which means a barrow pig. This term refers to a male pig which has been castrated before maturity. I found the same stipulation of the fat from a barrow pig was still being used in Anne Blencowe’s recipes in 1694 and gave an explanation in my own footnote.

As becomes clear from reading the above work, dialects have effects on spellings and use of specific words within the text. Some terms are still familiar in certain areas of the country, the word ‘nesch’ in instructions was immediately obvious to me as meaning ‘soft’ but might not be as clear to someone else. Reading through the Upsala translations of the Middle English Documents, Macer Floridus de Viribus Herbarum and Agnus Castus (see the Latin references below) with their explanatory notes gives considerable insight and good practice for interpreting other documents over several centuries.


Broader time-span

Looking at a wider period (than the one in which you may be particularly interested) enables a better understanding of how certain practices originate. Following a broader time-span facilitates tracing similar recipes, sometimes delving further and further back to their origins and noting developments and additions. Often cross-referencing recipes will reveal identifications of obscure ingredients or fill crucial gaps in instructions. One of these may concern which part of the plant you should use. This is not always as obvious as may appear.  Other recipes may be more helpful, especially if they use a similar combination of herbs.


Plant Identification

When editing Anne Blencowe’s Receipt Book many recipes were unsuitable for practical research due to reasons of availability or safety of ingredients and so I have explained the nature of unfamiliar substances, their origins and current belief in efficacy at the time. Identification of a herb itself without a Latin name to guide you makes nomenclature a minefield.  Some herbs such as Apium graveolens have several names – it may appear as Ache, Merch, Smallage or wild celery.  This happens also within recipes of the same period. A few herbs change their name completely at various points in history. Sempervivum tectorum has been named Sinfulle, Jupiter’s Beard, Sengreen and houseleek. Cross-referencing between recipes and glossaries can give confirmation that you have the correct interpretation. A number of glossaries and plant lists such as the Dictionarius of John de Garlande are available. Some guidance can be downloaded or read online.


Deciphering Terms

If unfamiliar words are conveying the methodology it will be essential to decipher them. Where Latin terms are used, the Medieval word-lists and the Record Interpreter can be invaluable. (See Aids to Interpretation below). Knowledge of terms and signs used in prescriptions will also be of use and I have included sources in the reference. Dosage and weights and measures are another area for careful interpretation. These may appear to be very simple in early recipes until you come to apply them. There is the eternal question of how much is a pinch? Or how much a handful? A handful may be written ɱ. Or j or đi. Half a handful is ɱ.di. or m̅.h.


Unfamiliar Measures

Suitable measures. Author's Photo (1)
Suitable measures. Author’s Photo

In medieval recipes a spoonful can be read as a dessertspoon size, a potel or pottle equalled 2 quarts, (4 pints). Even then it has to be remembered that a pint was formerly 16 fluid ounces, not 20 fluid ounces as it is today. If you are converting to metric this complicates matters further. It is a good plan to use old measuring glasses, jugs and scales.

With nuts sometimes a walnut or half the size of a walnut is given. Where the recipe does not specify which nut, it should be read as the size of a hazelnut. The size of an egg is most likely to be a hen’s egg in which case a medium sized egg may be correct. The size of a bean may also be specified and can be taken as a broad or butter bean.

In some recipes the weight of coinage is used and we find a ‘farthingweight’ and a varying number of ‘pennyweights’. A pennyweight or 20 wheat corns in the medieval period were equal to a scruple, and so three pennyweights were regarded as a drachm. There are eight drachms to an ounce. 16 ounces to a pound. It should be remembered that apothecarys’ weights were used prior to 1864. Unfortunately where weights are given which relate to a penny loaf at the time this rules out that recipe. Remember brandy had higher alcohol content in earlier centuries. This may affect keeping properties in certain recipes.

For Apothecaries’ Weights, consult:

or for weights and liquid measures from The Dispensatory of U.S.A. 13th edition.


Criteria for selecting useful recipes

Once familiar with reading and understanding recipes there are some necessary criteria for a truly useful choice to be made.  The ingredients must be accessible, they should also be safe to use. A polypharmacy challenge may be fun and interesting, but may not reveal much as far as probable efficacy is concerned. In order to be able to judge a recipe there should be only a reasonable number of ingredients. Is the method complete and in the right order? If there is a charm or a prayer involved, before you dismiss it ask yourself whether it is being used as a timing mechanism for stirring or heating the ingredients. If it is, then use it.

Finally a literal following of the recipe is necessary to achieve a meaningful outcome. Authenticity needs to be applied not only to ingredients but the material of containers and utensils you use.  In addition especially any specific form of heat applied, will affect the outcome. Occasionally this involves sheer genius such as blowing an egg and filling the empty shell with the mixture which is then sealed and placed beneath a broody chicken to maintain a steady temperature over a long period. Usually it will involve using a fire.

Workshop Plimoth Plantation Museum. Author's Photo
Workshop Plimoth Plantation Museum. Author’s Photo

Managing a fire is a necessary skill. No flames are required only a thick bed of established hot glowing embers and ashes for steady heat. Charcoal is good. A recipe made in a water bath on a modern stove simply does not give the same result as the otherwise identical one made using heat from a fire. Likewise if you make a recipe in laboratory clean conditions you are not replicating a medieval recipe and no real conclusion can be drawn from the result. Once made your recipe, if it is to be kept, will maintain viability for a different length of time according to the container you use. If it is supposed to be in a wooden box, do not put it in a glass jar. It will not keep as well.


Examples of Published Sources of Recipes

Dawson W. ed. (1934). A Leechbook of the XVth Century. London.Macmillan & Co.

Dawson. T. ed. (1996).The Good Housewife’s Jewel. [orig. 1596 – 1597.] East Sussex. Southover Press.

Fetiplace. E . (1994).The Complete Receipt Book. [1604] Stuart Press. These small volumes are more pamphlets than books. Elinor Fetiplace’s cookery has been published separately.

Henslow G. ed. (1972). Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century. New York. Burt Franklin.

Lewer H.W. ed. (1908).  A Book of Simples. [orig. believed 1700-1750]. London. Sampson Low, Marston &  Co. Ltd.

Plat H. (1955). Delightes for Ladies 1609. London. Crosby Lockwood & Son Ltd.

Several Hands. (1746). A Collection of Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery. London.

Smith E. (1739). The Compleat Housewife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. {9th edition}  London. Pemberton. Wordsworth Reference Series have published the 1758 edition with contents re-arranged in sections of cookery and physic in (2006). The Household Companion Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Editions Limited.

Stapley C. ed. (2004) The Receipt Book of Lady Anne Blencowe [orig. 1694].]Hampshire.  Heartsease Books. The footnotes on unusual herbs and other substances from medicinal earths to red lead and coral make the physic recipes a useful reference.


Aids to Interpretation and Latin queries

Baxter J.H., & Johnson C., ( 1934). Medieval Latin Word – List. Oxford University Press. Later reprints available – 1962.

Bennett. R. R.  (1906). Latin for Students of Pharmacy and Medicine. This book is available to download or read on line from for pharmaceutical students

Brodin G.ed. ( 1950). Agnus Castus Cambridge Mass. Harvard University Press. A Middle English herbal reconstructed from various manuscripts edited with an introduction, notes and glossary. The English Institute in the University of Upsala.

Cooper J.W & McLaren A.C. (1950?). Latin for Pharmaceutical Students. London. Pitman.

Earle J., M.A. (1880). English Plant Names [10th-15th Century]. Oxford. Clarendon Press.  This contains plant names in a collection of vocabulary lists giving translations between Greek and Latin, Latin and Anglo-Saxon, and Latin to Middle English with some French. Very useful indeed.

Frisk G. ed. (1949). A Middle English Translation of Macer Floridus de Viribus Herbarum. Cambridge Mass. Harvard University Press. Original written between A.D 849 and 1112. Numerous copies survived. Edited with an introduction, notes and glossary. The English Institute in the University of Upsala.

Martin C.T. B.A., F.S.A., (1892). The Record Interpreter; A Collection of Abbreviations, Latin Words & Names used in English Historical MSS and Records. London. Reeves and Turner. More recent copies can be found online for instance a second edition published by Clearfield. Charles Trice Martin was assistant record keeper for the public record office in London. This book has been described as of vital importance for anyone reviewing 17th – 19th century documents.

Rubin B.B. (1981). John of Garland. Lawrence Kan Coronado Press. This contains the dictionarius of John de Garlande and the author’s commentary. Or Open library is an initiative of the Internet Library.For The dictionarius of John de Garlande see

Stracke R.J. ed.(1974). The Laud Herbal Glossary. Amsterdam. Rodopi.

Turner W. (1965) Libellus de Re Herbaria. 1538. London. Ray Society Facsimiles.