Take a Peek: 17th Century Cookbooks

By Holly Tucker

I mentioned last week that the Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine is one of the wonders of the world for people working in the history of medicine. I have been there several times and have felt like a child in candy store. My last trip was about a year ago. It was generously funded by a Library travel fellowship. I rented a studio flat about five minutes away from the library, which is in central London not from King's Cross station. I spent my days carefully turning the pages of 400 year old dissection manuals, and my evenings reading up on what I needed to prepare for the next day's research foray. The trip was blissful.

I recall vividly my first trip to the collections several years ago. I was finishing up a book on women's medical knowledge in the seventeenth century. I stumbled across the Library's extraordinary collection of early cookbooks and household manuels.

The large bound volumes had clearly been passed on through generations. The hand written recipes and notes were in the hand of different women at different moments. These were not recipes on how to make cakes. No, the recipes included procedures for distilling herbs, curing common ailments, and even tips on how to stay beautiful.

I gasped aloud when I turned the page of one such cookbook--I think it was the one by a French family dated 1699--and discovered several meticulously pressed leaves. Imagine this: those leaves had been in the book for nearly 3oo years. This is why I do what I do for a living. This is why I delight in being a researcher.

The Wellcome has made many of its cookbooks now accessible online. In fact, they're looking for beta testers. If you want to have a look yourself, just head over to the Library's outstanding blog for more information.

And let me know if you're hooked too. I'll bet you will be!

Image Wellcome Library.

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