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The Collation

One page, four inscriptions, three households

I began transcribing Folger manuscript V.a.681 because I recognized from the dealer’s description the name of a family, the Shirleys, and its house, Staunton Harold; I had previously found another book owned by another female member of that house in my work on women’s ownership of herbals.1 At first glance, this relatively new acquisition into the Folger’s receipt book collection promises a door into that noble house of the late seventeenth century. Upon closer examination, however, it actually provides openings into three separate households.

Often we can make assumptions about recipe collections as “family archives,” as Elaine Leong has recently discussed;2 but V.a.681 more reflects the movement of women between families and the relocations of persons and texts occasioned by both death and marriage, in effect asking us to look at the side branches of any given family tree. Namely, the book in question requires a different engagement with the “annals of the Shirley family,” Stemmata Shirleiana, compiled in the mid nineteenth-century, a new reading that foregrounds the women of that line rather than recording them simply as “having issue” (Shirley, 128) by a given patriarch.3

It also has required working with Folger cataloging staff to correct assumptions made in the dealer’s description about women’s immobility in the period.4 The resulting discoveries have been often exciting, sometimes heartbreaking, and all have further convinced me that research in recipe collections provides an opportunity for writing alternative feminist histories.

A tête-bêche or do-si-do (the name has been open to dispute) is a text that starts twice—the second as it is flipped and opened upside down and from the back;V.a.681 is such a text, but only has inscriptions on one of its two front pages.5 The first leaf has four different names, in two or three hands,6 from top to bottom:

E Cotes her Booke

E Ferrers
her Book

Anne Shirley

Dorothy Shirley her Book

In identifying these individuals, a scholar, by course, starts with the dealership notes, which in this case locates the book in the hands of the last of these, Dorothy Shirley (1683–1721), sixth child, fourth daughter, of Robert Shirley, Lord Ferrers (1650–1717), and Elizabeth Shirley (née Washington, d. 1693) of Staunton Harold. Identifying Dorothy, however, does not account for the rest of the inscription. Yes, E. Cotes, likely being added later refers to Dorothy’s daughter Elizabeth (her mother and eldest sister were both also named Elizabeth). “E. Ferrers,” however, does not refer to Dorothy’s mother, even though her father’s title “Ferrers” could lead one to believe so, nor does Anne signify one of the many other children born to Robert and Elizabeth (Dorothy’s second eldest sister being Anna Elianor, not Anne). Rather, Anne Shirley is the married name of Anne Ferrers (c.1675–97), heir of Tamworth Castle, married to Dorothy’s eldest brother Robert Shirley (1673–1698).7 “E. Ferrers” then presumably is Anne Ferrers’ mother, Elizabeth Ferrers (neé Pigott).8

Family tree created by Erin Blake

Dorothy’s acquiring the book in 1693/94 at the age of ten, as according to the inscription, therefore, is not a remarkable sign of her precocity as the dealer’s note implies, but rather coincides with the death of her mother Elizabeth Washington Shirley on October 2. The fact that Dorothy is the sixth of twelve children does not, again as the dealer (inappropriately) quips, lead to her mother’s dying “from exhaustion” but indirectly this circumstance was a contributing factor; in actuality there were seventeen births (five not living into adulthood), and Elizabeth died of complications due to childbirth, her youngest son, Laurence, being born on September 26, 1693. It is thus possible that the gift to Dorothy was precipitated by the death of her mother, given by the sister-in-law who shared in her grief.

It is significant that the gift comes from the eldest woman left in the household after the death of Elizabeth. While Anne Shirley’s birthdate does not seem to have made it into the record, her age can be extrapolated from her death record, and her marriage to Robert is firmly placed in September 1688, when she was thirteen. She thus would have been married for five years at the death of her mother-in-law. At the same unhappy occasion, Dorothy’s three living older sisters, Elizabeth (1678–1740), Anna Elianor (1679–1754), and Katherine (1680/1–1736) would have been only fifteen, thirteen, and twelve years of age, respectively, not in any position to be presenting such a book to their younger sister. Two other sisters born in 1674 and 1676 did not live beyond toddlerhood. These deaths, the relative youth of her “older” sisters, and the fact that Robert Lord Ferrers, Dorothy’s father, did not remarry until 1699—and then he married a young woman only two years older than Dorothy—meant that Anne Shirley, eighteen at the time of the Shirley matriarch’s death, became the mother figure for the young Dorothy (not to mention Dorothy’s six younger siblings).

With Dorothy’s sister-in-law thus having stepped in to help raise her, the book itself seems to have had a function within her tutelage. In it we see a young girl practicing her penmanship as she also acquires the knowledge within its pages.9 While on the first leaf it is difficult to determine what may be practicing and what may be practiced versions of the same handwriting, there are two clear hands at the beginning of the recipes, which would seem to point to what Leong has called a “starter collection,” begun by either Anne or her mother and handed over to the young Dorothy.10 After several leaves, the less assured hand takes over the manuscript and continues flipped and from the back, though there the hand is more assured. Also notable is the section titled “the Better Draught” with the insertion, “hear begins / thee good Recepts the other of / Most of them not good: for any thing” (fol. 40, from the back). That most of the following are medicinal (thus “good” in a healthful sense) where those that preceded largely culinary may not be a coincidence given family’s regular experiences with untimely deaths.

“The Better Draught”—a new beginning in the manuscript

Notably, Anne Shirley, Dorothy’s maternal figure throughout her teens, died in 1697 from the small pox, the year before her husband Robert, the first hope for the continuance of the family line, died from the same disease. While the book does not overtly reveal this fact, another inserted date can help us orient its contents around this and other significant incidents in Dorothy’s timeline. For example, at the 51st folio from the back, at the end of a long recipe called “The Flower of All Ointments,” Dorothy has inserted “1699,” the only date attributed to any recipe.

“The Flower of All Ointments,” 1699

What this date is doing there is difficult to determine, though it does coincide with a significant year in her young life, her father’s remarriage to Selina Finch (1681–1762), daughter of a merchant, and, again, only two years older than Dorothy. A year later, Dorothy, at age 17, would marry John Cotes, Esq. (d. 1721) “of Cotes in Staffordshire, and Woodcote in Shropshire, by whom she had issue nine sons and four daughters,” (Shirley, 153) and perhaps 1699 may also mark the year of her betrothal.

How we may read the volume through this life story remains an open question, but a few pages before the “Flower of Ointments” entry include two extensive recipes “The Lady Allin’s Water” (fol. 47v–48r, from the back) and “The Lady Huettes Water” (fol. 48r–48v), the former specifically used “aganst the small poxe” and the latter “in all pestylentyall diseaseses [sic].”

The end of “The Lady Allin’s Water” and the beginning of “The Lady Huettes Water,” fol. 48r, from the back

The likelihood that these may have been added between 1697 and 1699 is indeed high. The fact that she writes “approved by me Lady Shirley” a page earlier (fol. 47r) at the end of a recipe for “A very good Black Plaster” seems also to signal her new claim of the title after Anne’s death, whereas other trials by “my Lady Shirley” may indicate a deference to her sister-in-law while she was living (fol. 23r, from the back) or dead (fol. 54r, from the back), or, in the case of the later instance (only three pages after the 1699 date), her newly-acquired stepmother.

Approved by Lady Shirley. Folio 47r

Her signature at the end of “Treacle Water” as “DoCotes” on the sixty-seventh leaf from the back tells us also that this page and those following are likely written sometime after or just at 1700, her lone signature marking a significant moment in its compilation. Dorothy’s thirteen children thereafter may contribute both to dwindling additions in her hand, but also may inflect numerous entries referring to child bed with added import.

My experience of transcribing the entire book thus has been one of watching a young girl grow into a woman, but the realization of the surrounding context has also given those contents and that life added weight. The book’s existence before Dorothy in the starter book that comes from her sister-in-law’s mother is transformed as Dorothy adds her medicinal content, and this content continues as her daughter adds to the book after her mother’s death in 1721 from materials that were printed as late as 1740.  The book is not so much an archive of one family but rather an artifact of changing relations and locations, changes occasioned by marriages, births, diseases, and deaths, even as the book reflects these critical events in an early modern life.

  1. Rebecca Laroche, Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550–1650 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 89–90.
  2. Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2018), 124­–46.
  3. Evelyn Philip Shirley, Stemmata Shirleiana, 1873, 186–200 (Online). Print text (Westminster, 1841), pages 125–59. Notably, the online edition made available above has skipped the page that contains the information “Of the seven daughters of the first Lord Ferrers by his first wife, two died in their infancies. The five that survived their father were . . . ” (Stemmata (1841), 152).
  4. I am thankful for a conversation with long-term fellow Patricia Akhimie about women’s movement between households being a lacuna in discussions of women’s travel that in part inspired the insights here. My sincere thanks to Erin Blake for her help in sorting through this lineage and in her construction of the family tree graphic.
  5. Though this side is less developed in its recipes, for the purposes of analysis, this will be called “the front.” As I have been working with the text before cataloging has been able to add page numbers, the numbers given are by my own counting in my transcription and begin once from the front and again from the back and may not be completely accurate.
  6. It is difficult to determine whether or not the second and third names are written by a more accomplished Dorothy or Anne, whose hand is the model for Dorothy’s. Further research will look for examples of Anne Shirley’s writing.
  7. It is important to note that Anne’s place in the book makes a concrete connection to Ferrers Family papers held at the Folger.
  8. I thank Erin Blake for finding E. Ferrers for me, in John Burke, Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland, 1836, vol. 3, 129.
  9. For a discussion of the use of recipe books in women’s education, see Wendy Wall, Recipes for Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
  10. Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge, 21–23.


What a great post–thank you! Fascinating.

Kendra Leonard — April 23, 2019


Thank you, Kendra. I’m so in love with this book . . .

Rebecca Laroche — April 23, 2019


So that’s what you’ve been doing. What fantastic research! Congratulations

Henry Lambert — April 24, 2019


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