The Baker Project

University of Essex

What Is The Baker Project?

The modern historian has grown more interested in the common people than the great figures of history, which had been the focus of historians of the past. But in lieu of the chronicles that dictate stories of great events and figures heroic, villainous, or anywhere in-between, the historian must search deeper to unlock an accurate image of the past. Here the historian finds documents that do not form a narrative, but still tell a story. The Recipe Book of Margaret Baker, completed in 1675, is one such document. At the University of Essex, The Baker Project was created to transcribe and analyse this text, with the goal of using the recipes within to create a connection with the seventeenth century author, and the era within which she compiled her work. Although the narrative does not exist directly in the text, it can be inferred through precisely what Baker’s recipes were, as the contents can tell the historian some of the challenges the early modern household faced, as well as identifying some of their cultural habits.

When our group was tasked with this project, it was necessary to revert to the very fundamentals of document analysis. This meant that we, as historians, must take Baker’s recipe book and ask the questions ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how?’


Unfortunately, it is difficult to answer very much about who Margaret Baker was, as very little is known of her, outside of the recipe book.


The recipe book is as the title states. However, it is not the recipe book that the modern reader would expect. Inside we found not only recipes for food preparation, but also medicinal; recipes to construct beautifying products, those that dealt with animals – both living and dead – and even touched on the religious and mystical aspects of early modern culture.


Although, as stated above, Baker ‘completed’ the recipe book in 1675, this does not mean that it was produced solely in this year. It is more likely that the book was composed over many years, as Baker gathered her recipes in her spare time, and collected them from others over a period much greater than a year.


To answer ‘where?’ is more difficult to a minor degree. Our understanding was that Baker was based somewhere in the Midlands in England, approaching the border to Wales – perhaps Shropshire.

A Map of Modern Shropshire


In terms of answering why Baker deemed it a worthy pursuit to create a recipe book is not certain. After all, Baker does not provide a preface with which the reader can identify her motivations. Leong has suggested that the ‘family was central to the creation and transmission of household practical knowledge’.[1] This would suggest that the recipe book was created for familial use. However, there were examples of those in the early modern period that sought to publish their medicinal knowledge, and Henry Baker’s Some Observations Concerning the Virtue of the Jelly of Black Currants, in Curing Inflammations in the Throat [2] is one such example.

From Henry Baker, ‘Some Observations Concerning the Virtue of the Jelly of Black Currants, in Curing Inflammations in the Throat’, in Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 41 (London, 1739-1741) p. 655

From Margaret Baker, Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (1675), front endleaf 3r

One might also question whether Baker sought to later publish her work, and although this is an interesting suggestion, it carries little weight, as it was rarely the intention to publish manuscripts of this kind.[3] Baker produces no title page, except from signing her name inside the cover.[4]


The composition of the book in manuscript form suggests a far more practical motivation. It is clear that Baker had used her recipe book as a working book, as the handwriting is suggestive of Baker at times taking care to write neatly, and at others crafting words in a style that seemed greatly more rushed and messy.[5] Although Margaret Baker’s handwriting and language is fairly clear, seventeenth century writing styles still differ largely from today. Spelling was not standardised and Baker’s manuscript includes strange characters such as her y with umlauts. More can be read about this character in Baker’s manuscripts on the EMROC website here.

From Margaret Baker, Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (1675), folio 3r

An example of the amlaut-y, Baker Manuscript V.a.619.

An indicator of recipe testing, from Margaret Baker, Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (1675), folio 95v

Further evidence that Baker was using her recipe book in a practical manner is in the markings next to certain recipes if they had been tested and found successful, often marked with an 'X'. in the margins or just beneath the recipe. In an age before consumers could purchase the cookbooks of celebrity chefs, the common housewife was forced to rely on her own, and shared, experiences of recipe construction, in order to maintain a healthy and happy home – at least to a greater degree than would otherwise be the case. The manuscript was to be shared with those in close proximity to Baker, and perhaps to be passed on to a daughter or even a daughter-in-law at a later date, although Leong also makes the point that men were sometimes the inheritors of recipe books[6].


Another reason behind collecting as many recipes as Baker has was likely to ensure that a solution to a variety of ailments could be found, which may otherwise have caused great harm, and possibly even have proven fatal.[7] Even if treated, there was a chance that a poorly crafted or incorrect cure for the ailment would cause even more harm. Often a trip to the doctor was impossible, and this may have been due to practical reasons or financial, due to the costs of a doctor’s aid. Baker provides an example of an actor knowledgeable enough to provide an alternate solution, both for her and for those she chooses to share her extensive knowledge with. It was often deemed that a doctor’s aid was unnecessary, as people felt their own, handcrafted cures were suitable. There was no guarantee of a doctor of sufficient quality to provide a cure, and often the patient wanted to avoid the potentially painful and invasive methods of physicians[8], and medicinal recipes provided a solution to this, and allowed the household to take care of its own health, rather than relying on external aid.


However, one of the first things we would notice in Baker’s work was that it was certainly not a solitary effort. As noted previously, it was often the case that a family recipe book would be shared with close friends and neighbours. Often it is found that there are contributors from outside the household, and this is evidence that the construction of recipe books were far more communal than the modern reader might expect. There is a collection of contributors from sources that were seemingly trusted to a significant extent, though the nature of these sources varies through Baker’s work. We would find a range from the Ladies and doctors, all the way to her familial connections – a subject that will be looked at more closely in this project. Unfortunately, there is very little information that we can provide on Baker’s sources, as our attempts to identify and examine even those we would expect to be most likely to have left a mark in the registers of history were difficult, if not impossible, to locate, due to a lack of information records such as a census during this period. Finding sufficient information on any of these actors that related to Baker or recipes in general was an action of even greater difficulty. Regardless, the inclusion of multiple credited contributors is useful to The Baker Project, as it begins to provide an answer for how exactly Baker was able to compile such a lengthy list of recipes.

'For the shingels', from Margaret Baker, Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (1675), folio 26r


What is of greater significance to the research group, as a unit, was what it meant for Baker to have included her sources as part of her recipe book. Was she looking for greater credibility in using the name of the local elites? There is certainly some basis to this argument if we are to follow the idea that Baker intended to distribute the book more widely than her direct locality. However, it is more likely that the names were included as a sign of efficacy, as a statement that these recipes had been tried by the names credited, before being passed on to Baker. The names of important people certainly add a stamp of credibility to her work, although we should not assume that an elite is able to provide a higher quality recipe than that of a knowledgeable laywoman. However, if we assume that the recipe book was simply intended to be used amongst Baker’s family and friends, we would probably be forced to concede that the names assigned to individual recipes were likely more a sign of giving credit where credit was due, as Baker likely requested and collected recipes, as part of an exchange. The Baker Project must not be looked upon as an analysis of a single woman’s work. Although she may not have discovered or created all of the recipes herself, she collects them and conducts them into a single piece, which illustrates the extent of a woman’s connections in this period, and the presence of knowledge sharing.


A key mistake to make in examining Baker’s recipe book is defining the term ‘ recipe’ only in the modern sense of food preparation. It is clear from the manuscript that Baker’s Recipe book contains a wide variety of instructions and aid in the crafting of all manner of things that a household might require. People today generally use ‘recipe’ in terms of food preparation, and rarely in a different context. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘recipe’ can be defined as either ‘a set of instructions for preparing a dish’ – the common usage – or ‘something likely to lead to a particular outcome’. But the second definition may be open to interpretation, as a recipe could by defined simply as a step-by-step guide to a certain stated final product. We must remember that the language of 1675 used by the British people is not a mirror of the language that is used today – we must provide room for alternative interpretation. To Baker it seems that a recipe is anything that she could provide instructions for, and virtually all of the content of Baker’s Recipe Book fits the mold – a clear set of instructions that lead to the desired end product.

'by mris (Mrs.) Anne Corbett', from Margaret Baker, Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (1675), folio 93r

Through Margaret Baker’s Recipe Book, The Baker Project has opened a door to greater understanding of British society in the early modern period. Through her manuscript, we can understand what people ate, what sicknesses were common, and how they were treated; how religion and the supernatural were blurred in everyday belief; how animals were used and treated, and how they were perceived in society; and even what products were be crafted and used for beauty purposes. While the Baker Project provides only a single case study, it is useful for thinking about social history and domestic life in the early modern period, particularly in the household. The Baker Project has created this webpage to express the significance of analysing recipe books, and in doing so we have provided a greater understanding of early modern life.

Alex Boon

[1] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Wiley Online Library (2013)

[2] Henry Baker, ‘Some Observations Concerning the Virtue of the Jelly of Black Currants, in Curing Inflammations in the Throat’, in Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 41 (London, 1739-1741) p. 655

[3] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family’

[4] Margaret Baker, Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (1675), front endleaf 3r

[5] Ibid, folio 3r

[6] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family’

[7] Seth Stein LeJacq, ‘The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England’, in Social History of Medicine, Vol. 26, Issue 3 (2013)

[8] ibid.


Primary Sources:

Baker, Henry. 'Some Observations Concerning the Virtue of the Jelly of Black Currants, in Curing Inflammations in the Throat’. Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 41. London. 1739-1741

Baker, Margaret. Receipt Book of Margaret Baker, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C

Secondary Sources:

LeJacq, Seth Stein. ‘The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England’. Social History of Medicine, Vol. 26, Issue 3. 2013 - - Accessed 9/5/17

Leong, Elaine. ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’. Wiley Online Library. 2013 - - Accessed 9/5/17