Customizing How-To in Early Modern England

The early modern household was a bustling site for a range of medical activities from self-diagnosis and medication to nursing and caring for the sick to drug production. To further their knowledge about medicine and the body, householders accessed a wide variety of sources. Many turned to their family and friends for health-related advice, consulted medical practitioners of various sorts, and avidly read the abundance of printed medical books offered by contemporary book producers. By the mid-seventeenth century, the bookshops near St. Paul’s in London were stocking an astonishing array of English medical books. Readers could pick and choose from an assortment of herbals, pharmacopoeias, general medical guides, surgical handbooks, midwifery manuals, regimens, medical recipe books, and more.[1] These texts were eagerly consulted by householders, who utilized the knowledge contained therein not only for their home-based medical activities but also as a way to inform their decisions as actors in medical encounters with practitioners of all sorts.


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Learning by the book was a central part of everyday medical activities in early modern England. Yet, what does it mean for householders to “learn by the book” in this context? After all, learning more often than not involves conversation, such as continual engagement between student and teacher and repeated readjustments to cater to the interests, skills, and abilities of both parties. Can we track similar conversations and processes of personalization and customization in historical practices of “learning by the book”?

Rebecca Tallamy’s “Book of Stilling and Reciepts ” (1735–38), written in the margins and blank spaces of a copy of John French, Art of Distillation (London: R. Cotes for T. Williams, 1651), with leaves added later by others. Source: Western MS 4759, title page, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

To answer this question, my project shines light on one particular copy of John French’s popular how-to manual The Art of Distillation (1651). The work is French’s translation and interpretation the German apothecary and alchemist Johan Rudolph Glauber’s works, particularly the Furni novi philosophici, a series of five German tracts published in Amsterdam in the 1640s, outlining Glauber’s invention of a new type of distilling furnace.[2] The detailed how-to is accompanied by hundreds of recipes such as the instructions to make water out of rotten apples which was “very good in the inflammations of the eyes”.[3] In other words, the book is an odd beast—a hybrid of two epistemic genres—the manual and the recipe book.[4] In the 1730s, a copy of French’s book fell into the hands of the William, Patience, and Rebecca Tallamy, possibly one of the families with this name living in Bidford, Devon, around this time.

First page of Rebecca Tallemy’s “Book of Stilling and Reciepts,” showing her signature, the title of her notebook, and the year. Source: Western MS 4759, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Besides signing their names in the book, the Tallamys also wrote a cornucopia of annotations and notes, including information on the medicinal virtues of herbs and hundreds of additional recipes. Running out of space in the margins, they bound another 140 blank leaves to the book, allowing them to further expand their collection of medical and culinary know-how. Many of the additional entries contained information collated from friends and other printed books, including works by well-known medical authors such as Nicholas Culpeper and William Salmon.[5] Entries such a gout remedy attributed to Joseph Banks taken from the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1802 indicate that the book continued to be used into the nineteenth century and suggests the object was valued as a repository of medical knowledge by the Tallamys for generations.

My interest in studying this particular object comes as part of a larger study on “knowledge itineraries”—connected points of epistemic change brought about by reading and writing practices.[6] In this post, I focus on how a family of readers engaged with The Art of Distillation, how they “learned by the book,” as it were. In the full version of the paper, I also explore French’s translation and compilation practices, locating these within contemporary political contexts. My goal is to analyse the customization and the resulting epistemic changes of this how-to manual by book producers and users alike.

Page 8 from Rebecca Tallemy’s “Book of Stilling and Reciepts.” Source: Western MS 4759, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Let us zoom in on a particular page to take a closer look how the Tallamys were reading and using French’s how-to manual. This page comes from a section providing detailed instructions on how to prepare the necessary equipment for distillation. The woodcut shows an artisan in the process of nipping or sealing up a glass vessel. The instructions tell you that you need to first heat the long neck of the vessel with a pan of coals, then cut off the excess glass with shears. Finally, in the step shown in the woodcut, the reader should pinch the neck closed with tongs. This might not seem like something one would want to try at home but, as the annotations of the Tallamy’s make clear, information like this greatly interested householders. After all, we might recall that Rebecca called this her book of “Stilling & Reciepts [Recipes].”

In the margins and blank spaces of the pages, the Tallamys added information on two medical ingredients: camphire (or in modern English camphor) and Styrax calamitis (storax, a kind of resin) to French’s instructions for preparing distillation equipment. They took the information for both from Nicholas Culpeper’s popular translation of the official pharmacopoeia issued by the London College of Physicians.[7] A comparison of the two texts demonstrates how the Tallamys did not simply copy from Culpeper but rather selected information pertinent to their own medical practices and needs, amending and augmenting the entries as they saw fit. For example, whereas Culpeper argued that camphor eases headaches coming from heat, the Tallamys felt it aided headaches stemming from cold. They also provided extra information on how to apply the medicine: “with oyle anoynt the temples easeth the head ake,” useful information if you intended to actually use the drug. A look at the other entry on this page—for styrax calamitis—shows the same attention to practicalities. Here the only addition made to Culpeper’s text was the advice to “take ten grains made up in a pill.”

Other similar entries were added by hand throughout the Tallamys’ copy of The Art of Distillation. For example, the page below shows a glass and its stopper with the Tallamys’ reading notes (or excerpt) on two other medical resins—Bdellium and Oblibanum.

Page 6 from Rebecca Tallemy’s “Book of Stilling and Reciepts.” Source: Western MS 4759, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Here, we see the readers combining their own hands-on knowledge with information provided by Culpeper’s printed text. While the Tallamys were again concerned with application methods, they also provided additional, more specific uses for Bdellium. Culpeper recommended the use of resin to soften and heat hard swellings, ruptures, pains in the sides, and hardness of sinews. The Tallamys, on the other hand, advised that it will relieve “kernels in the neck and throat,” kings evil, coughs, windiness of the spleen, and burst ruptures. Fascinatingly, the Tallamy’s also crossed out French’s advice to use a quicksilver-filled “Crooked Pipe” to ensure that no gasses escaped. In this instance, their desire to preserve or record information about materia medica seems to supersede their need to retain information about distillation glasswork.

In both instances, the Tallamys used their practice of wider reading to extend the scope of the medical knowledge offered by French. But their annotations also manifested practical knowledge gained in the stillroom and bedroom. With their copious notes, the Tallamys recast their copy of The Art of Distillation, extending French’s distillation guide to encompass information on the medicinal virtues of herbs and everyday recipes and cures. In doing so, they created a customized, personalized compendium of medical know-how that prepared the family for all sorts of health situations, translating information originally intended for an artisanal workshop for use in an eighteenth-century home.

Just as in-person learning is responsive to the needs and interests of the student, the Tallmays’ annotations show that learning by the book was also a dynamic activity. It was an active practice that necessitated continual assessments and readjustments. In the case of the Tallamys, it involved setting different books in dialog with each other and maintaining reading and writing practices alongside those of making and doing. Of course, readers and students do not remain in those particular roles for long. We can imagine that William, Patience, or Rebecca Tallamy also imparting their gathered knowledge to other household members, in effect taking this now book-based knowledge into conversations and hands-on demonstrations in the stillroom and kitchen.

Elaine Leong is MPG Minerva Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.


  1. Mary Fissell, “Popular Medical Writing,” in The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture: Volume One: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660, ed. Joad Raymond (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 417–30; Mary Fissell, “The Marketplace of Print,” in The Medical Marketplace and Its Colonies c. 1450–c. 1850, ed. Mark Jenner and Patrick Wallis (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 108–32; Paul Slack, “Mirrors of Health and Treasures of Poor Men: The Uses of the Vernacular Medical Literature of Tudor England,” in Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Chlares Webster (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 237–73; Elizabeth Lane Furdell, Publishing and Medicine in Early Modern England (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002).  ↩
  2. On French and Glauber in 1650s England, see Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626–1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975); John T. Young, Faith, Medical Alchemy, and Natural Philosophy: Johann Moriaen, Reformed Intelligencer and the Hartlib Circle (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998). On Glauber, see Pamela Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).  ↩
  3. John French, The Art of Distillation (London, 1651), 24.  ↩
  4. On epistemic genres, and recipes in particular, see Gianna Pomata, “Observation Rising: Birth of an Epistemic Genre, 1500–1650,” in Histories of Scientific Observation, ed. Daston, Lorraine and Lunbeck, Elizabeth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 45–80; Gianna Pomata, “The Recipe and the Case. Epistemic Genres and the Dynamics of Cognitive Practices,” in Wissenschaftsgeschichte und Geschichte des Wissens im Dialog—Connecting Science and Knowledge, (Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2013), 131–54.  ↩
  5. For more information on how householders collected medical information and utilized their reading practices to build recipe collections, see, for example, Sara Pennell, “Perfecting Practice? Women, Manuscript Recipes and Knowledge in Early Modern England,” in Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing. Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium, ed. Jonathan Gibson and Victoria E. (Victoria Elizabeth) Burke (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 237–58; Elaine Leong, “Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household,” Centaurus 55, no. 2 (2013): 81–103; Elaine Leong, “‘Herbals She Peruseth’: Reading Medicine in Early Modern England,” Renaissance Studies 28, no. 4 (2014): 556–78.  ↩
  6. In this, I join and build on a longstanding and flourishing field of scholarship. Foundational works in the history of reading and the history knowledge include: Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past & Present 129, no. 1 (1990): 30–78; Robert Darnton, “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Australian Journal of French Studies 51, no. 2–3 (2014): 152–77; Ann Blair, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Lorraine Daston, “Taking Note(S),” Isis 95, no. 3 (2004): 443–48; Anke te Heesen, “The Notebook: A Paper-Technology,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 582–89.  ↩
  7. Nicholas Culpeper, A Physicall Directory, or, A Translation of the London Dispensatory (London, 1649).  ↩

Suggested citation: Elaine Leong, “Customizing How-To in Early Modern England,” History of Knowledge, May 13, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/13/customizing-how-to-in-early-modern-england/.