Investigating recipes: What makes a good recipe?

On 4 November 2022 we are joining with the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and the Wellcome Collection for a Transcribathon where participants from all over the world can take part in transcribing texts from our archives and enjoy talks and activities about early modern recipes throughout the day. Manuscript MS502, ‘A collection of medical receipts and prescriptions’, from our archives has been chosen as our text for transcription. To accompany the Transcribathon, archive manager, Pamela Forde, is producing a series of blogs focussing on each of the elements which make up a successful recipe.

Example of a medical 'recipe' for treatment of the plague in Lady Sedley's receipt book, 1686 (MS534, p25)
Example of a medical 'recipe' for treatment of the plague in Lady Sedley's receipt book, 1686 (MS534)

What is a recipe?

A ‘recipe’, according to most modern dictionaries is a set of instructions for the preparation of a combination of ingredients. Today a recipe is usually used to refer to a set of instructions for preparing something to eat or drink, from a cake to a cocktail. However, in the 17th century, things were very different.

‘Receipt’ is another word that used to have the same meaning as recipe. In the early modern period both recipe and receipt were used interchangeably for a set of instructions to prepare something. Both are thought to be derived from Latin recipere (‘to receive’).

Receipt gradually evolved to have a financial meaning ‘a written statement saying that money or goods have been received’ from the 17th century onwards. At the same time recipe continued to be used with the traditional meaning. It could equally be a set of instructions for preparing a medicine, a cleaning agent or a face cream.

The 17th and 18th centuries were the period in which recipe books flourished most. Literacy was becoming more widespread. In addition, there was a genuine need to be able to produce many of the necessities and luxuries of life, at home.

The availability of local amenities around where people lived in the 17th century was more restricted than it is today. In fact, prior to the industrial revolution in Western Europe, which began in Britain in the 18th century, most people lived in rural communities. A much smaller percentage of the population lived in large urban centres such as cities.

Authenticity and endorsement

How many of the recipes listed in the domestic recipe or receipt volumes in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians were successful, in that they were frequently used? How many were tried once or twice, or perhaps never used?

It is difficult to answer that question now from the historical evidence, in many cases. However, we can extrapolate from today’s culinary recipe use and how we ourselves judge recipes. Whatever the purpose of the finished product there are common elements to any successful recipe. They combine to ensure that while some recipes barely make it off the page, others thrive and evolve. This was likely as true in the 17th century as it is today.

These elements can be described as:

  • Authenticity and endorsement
  • Availability of ingredients
  • Accessible methods
  • Amount of equipment required
  • Reliable and repeatable results

Today, cooking shows and celebrity chefs are commonplace. Home cooks regularly use recipes attributed to famous cooks, people whom they trust to create recipes which work well or deliver certain types of results. A simple cake recipe might be used from a known chef whose reputation is for every day cooking. While for a celebration, a complicated recipe from a chef who is known for producing foods with a luxury feel may be used.

The 17th century was different from today in terms of how information was discovered and shared. There were few schools or places of formal education. Literacy was not a common skill. There was no internet or television, so the methods by which recipe authors were known about and their formulas shared, were different.

There were published or handwritten books (for those who could read), personal experience, word of mouth, as well as local apothecaries and healers (usually trained via apprenticeship of some sort). For the well off, there was access to the local formally educated doctor. Together, all of these aspects formed a network of knowledge by which individual recipes were attributed, endorsed and shared.

However, the concept of a trusted author or endorsement was much the same then as now. Many recipe books contain citations such as 'Dr Xs recipes for…', 'Lady Bs recipe for……..' The names used would have been expected to be familiar to the person reading/using the recipe. They would be assumed to be a trusted authority. The people cited as authorities were almost always doctors or titled people.

A recipe for treatment of 'stones' endorsed by Sir Theodore de Mayerne, both a doctor and a titled person in manuscript MS502
A recipe for treatment of 'stones' endorsed by Sir Theodore de Mayerne, both a doctor and a titled person, in manuscript MS502 


It is easy to understand why citing a doctor as the source of recipe would ensure that it would be trusted and used. Doctors at that time were formally trained in the theory of medicine, heavily focussed on classical Greek sources. Formal doctor’s degrees would not have included anything more practical than watching anatomy dissections. Although practising medicine on their patients could have led to them developing evidence-based skills and knowledge, the prevailing medical theories of the time led to practices which at best would have had little effect on many diseases.

Citing a titled person as the source or trusted endorser of a recipe makes less sense to a modern reader. But at that time, these were the people who were more likely to have some form of education. They would have access to the resources needed to make remedies, in terms of equipment, finances and time.

Transcribathon 2022

Manuscript MS502, ‘A collection of medical receipts and prescriptions’ is from the archive collections of the Royal College of Physicians. This handwritten volume has been chosen as one of the items included in the EMROC 2022 November Transcribathon. This takes place on 4 November 2022. See here for more details and how to get involved.

A complete digital copy of this manuscript is available, in an online collection of RCP medical recipe books, in the Internet archive, here.

To accompany the Transcribathon, we are producing a series of blogs about manuscript 502, focussing on each of the elements which make up a successful recipe.

The second blog in the series on availability of ingredients, ‘Investigating recipes: Can I find this in ingredient in my local supermarket?’ will be published soon.

For more information on this, and the other fascinating items which make up the archives of the Royal College of Physicians, see here.


Pamela Forde, archives manager

Pamela Forde ,
Archive manager

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