A Glimpse Into Early Modern Life

Feb 23, 2021

In the first pages of the manuscript, multiple people sign their names. The first is Mary Baumfylde, claiming ownership of it.
Credit Folger V.a. 456

A 17th-Century book known as the Baumfylde Manuscript has captured the attention of researchers looking to learn more about early modern life.

University of Wyoming Honors College Dean Peter Parolin contributed an essay to the Early Modern Studies Journal discussing the manuscript and what it can tell us about its authors.

The biggest thing that interested him was the collaborative nature of the manuscript.

"There's a very fascinating, cryptic little phrase in one of the early pages in this book, and it says 'many hands hands.' That's all it says. There's no context for it. But 'many hands hands' is almost a perfect description for the creative principles that underlie these manuscripts because there's a lot of different hands," said Parolin. "We don't know who's the dominant, we don't necessarily know how they relate to each other. But there's many different literal, physical hands of people that hold the book, and then if hand is also taken to mean handwriting, there's many different kinds of handwriting in the book, as well. So you just see networks of ownership and relationships and different kinds of people contributing recipes and wisdom and poems or whatever to the manuscript."

As Parolin alluded to, this book doesn't have a singular focus. The pages hold entries on a variety of topics including culinary recipes, medicinal recipes, poems, and aphorisms. According to Parolin, the vaguely scatterbrained contents are actually connected by an important thread.

"They aren't separate realms, the realm of the early modern kitchen was the place where you cooked your chicken dinner, and it was also the place when somebody was bleeding or when somebody had an internal ailment, that was the place where the remedy was put together," said Parolin. "You didn't pull somebody to the local doctor's office or hospital, you did it at home, if you at all could, supported by the expertise that lay beneath your roof."

Entries started in 1626 by a woman named Mary Baumfylde. Additions were made by various members of the household through 1758, and the book was handed down from generation to generation. According to Parolin, books like this were not uncommon at the time. Many surviving manuscripts from the same time period are from upper class families, many of which had a steward who would standardize the book, though that's not the case with the Baumfylde Manuscript.

In Parolin's opinion, these books likely weren't an attempt to leave a stamp on history. Instead, they served as a collective repository for the household's knowledge and allowed that knowledge to be passed down, like an early database.

"And it is a way, especially for the women who had the kitchen as this central realm, it's a way of writing themselves into being of saying, 'I matter. I have something to offer. I have information that my family will like and that some future reader who may not even be born yet will benefit from.'" said Parolin. "I don't want to overstate that. I don't think these writers thought of themselves as great literary producers, but I do think when you write down instructions for somebody to follow in the kitchen, you are asserting yourself a little bit."

The manuscript's contents puts today's priorities under a microscope.

"So much of the time, we think about what's valuable in our lives is that which we do in our careers, that which we do in the public world, that which we do outside of the boundary of our houses," said Parolin, "But what we do inside our houses matters too and to know that these recipes have survived for so many years, carrying the love and the expertise and the wisdom, and the personalities of these long-dead people, it's meaningful to me to know that there are parts of our lives that carry on, and that can give richness to future generations."

It also makes one wonder what our own Baumfylde Manuscript will be.

"What is it that you would hope your grandchildren might hold in their hands, or see on their computer screens 50, 60 years from now? Or their grandchildren 150 years from now?" asked Parolin. "And when you think about it that way, maybe that will be an inspiration to put your own Baumfylde Manuscript together, whatever it might look like."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.