The Baker Project

This Project is completed.


The 1675 Baker manuscript (Va619) was partially transcribed by Dr. Rebecca Laroche’s online English 3900 course during the spring semester of 2016 at the University of Colorado—Colorado Springs.  In Fall 2016, undergraduates at University of Texas–Arlington working with Dr. Amy TIgner and at the University of Essex working with Dr. Lisa Smith have taken up the baton. (The University of Essex team from 2016-7 also put together a contextual website for Margaret Baker’s book here.) This manuscript has also been partially transcribed by users on the crowdsourcing research website, Zooniverse, under the Shakespeare’s World project. The other two manuscripts within the Baker project (British Library MSs Sloane 2485 and 2486) have not yet been transcribed to our knowledge.

Biographical and Contextual Information

Little is known of Margaret Baker outside of her recipe books. However, she does refer to many cousins throughout her books, providing us with some clues to her family history. One such cousin is Lettice Corbett (d. 1669), the daughter-in-law of “the good Lady Anne Corbett” to whom Baker also attributes several recipes.[1] A further reference to an “uncle Baker” in Lettice’s will may indicate that Margaret Baker and Lettice Corbett were first cousins.[2] Other cousins mentioned within Baker’s books include Cathran Andrew (MS Sloane 2485), Elizabeth Bury (Va619), Fanne Morris (MS Sloane 2485), and Richard Redman (Va619), among many others for whom Baker gives only one name. There are hints of a connection with non-English contributors, as well, such as Janne Tanner (Va619, fos. 100v, 106r) and Hanna Consele (Va619, fols. 123v, 125r). With further research, it may be possible to positively identify Baker using the many names she recorded in her recipe books–although it is difficult when so many of them have common names and are non-aristocratic.

The Baker Project consists of three recipe books, two of which are owned by the British Library (MS Sloane 2485 and 2486) and one of which is owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library (Va619). Both of the British Library’s books have been positively dated using years inscribed within the manuscripts themselves. MS Sloane 2486 has been dated to 1670 and MS Sloane 2485 has recently been dated to 1672.[3] Although the Folger Library’s collection does not contain a date within the manuscript itself, it has been tentatively dated to 1675 due to the presence of several recipes within this manuscript that resemble those found in Hannah Woolley’s 1675 book, The accomplisht ladys delight in preserving, physick and cookery.[4] All three books contain culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic recipes collected in no particular order; though the 1670 book does have an index of its medicinal recipes appending the main text and alphabetized by ailment.

The Baker manuscripts are notable for their use of a character that has come to be known as the “y with umlauts.”

One of many examples of the umlaut-y, Folger Manuscript V.a.619
One of many examples of the umlaut-y, Folger Manuscript V.a.619

Baker does not use this character consistently: the umlauts appears over every “y” in the 1670 book, it does not appear at all in the 1672 book, and it appears randomly (though frequently) in the 1675 book. It is not yet clear why Baker uses this character, though one user on Zooniverse has suggested that it might be Dutch in origin.[5] If the character is indeed an indicator of Dutch influence, then it is possible that Baker might have picked it up while traveling in continental Europe.

Baker’s continental influences are more readily apparent in the 1675 book. This book contains several recipes attributed to Matthew Lucatalla, whom Baker describes as an Italian physician (fols. 1v, 2v, 76r, 115v). Further research is needed to determine his identity, but two of the recipes are for the popular Lucatella’s Balsam. The first of these is intriguingly described as ‘A most pretious balme made only by Mathew Lucatella an etallian newly arived & never sould heare before’ (fol. 1v.) Was this one of the first version of the balm in England? Possibly: the first recipe is somewhat different to the second, while the second is very similar to the popularised form.

However, there are three other physicians within the same book who can be identified with relative certainty. A recipe for “the confect: of coriander seede” on fols.  15v-16r mentions “dorncrellius his dispensawrie.” Dorncrellius has been identified by one Zooniverse user as Tobias Dornkrell ab Eberhertz (1598-1658), a famous German physician who wrote many Latin medical books.[6] The original Latin version of “confect: of coriander seede” appears in his Dispensatorium novum continens descriptiones et usum praecipuorum medicamentorum.[7]  Her use of the author’s Latin name, as well as reference to a Latin work rather than a translated one, indicates that she may have been able to read Latin.

The presence of non-English medical practitioners and contributors (not to mention the umlaut-y) within Baker’s books suggests that she was significantly influenced by her continental contemporaries. We can speculate that she may have traveled in continental Europe, or had close connections with immigrant communities, perhaps in London.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the 1675 book contains several sections that seem to suggest that Baker was keen to learn more about early scientific pursuits. She copied large sections out of printed books. For example, one section entitled “of mille foile or yarrowe and his greate uertue” details experiments on goats with mille foile to determine the herb’s effectiveness in the treatment of ulcers (fol. 18v).

Evidence of Margaret Baker's own participation in early scientific work. Folger V.a.619, fol. 18v
Evidence of Margaret Baker’s own participation in early scientific work. Folger V.a.619, fol. 18v

She also describes in relatively graphic detail witnessing “aboue an hundred” dissections (fol. 19r).

Testimony of the hundred dissections Baker had witnessed. Folger MS V.a.619, fol. 19r
Testimony of the hundred dissections Baker had witnessed. Folger MS V.a.619, fol. 19r

As Baker wrote in the first person and did not list a source, at first glance, it seems as though she was the one who might be experimenting. But it was the last description that rang alarm bells, as it would have been unusual for a lay person–particularly a woman to take part in dissections! A quick search of Early English Books Online for some of the more eye-catching sentences reveals that Baker’s source for the millefoil section was another Italian physician: Leonard Phioravant, in his An Exact Collection of the Choicest and most Rare Experiments and Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery (1659).[8] Although Baker was not undertaking experiments on goats nor witnessing dissections, she was certainly interested enough in experimental and observational approaches to practising medicine that she recorded Phiroavant’s account for quick consultation in the future.

Baker referenced another fascinating entry, which reflects on mental illness, demoniacs, and God (fols. 22r-23r), as being taken from the Breviary of Health, a book by Andrew Boorde that first appeared around 1547 and was regularly reprinted. This was not a straightforward copying exercise, however, as we can trace the sources of the excerpt to at least three chapters from the first and second volumes of the work.[9] The inclusion of several print sources suggests Baker’s wide-ranging reading interests, while her method of excerpting from Boorde points to the way in which she was assimilating what she read.

Finally, the book is appended by a treatise on alchemy as one of the four pillars of medicine (fol. 133v), which we have so far been unable to trace. Baker refers to the alchemist in this treatise using the pronoun “she” rather than the universal “he,” which breaks with the conventions of her time and possibly indicates that she saw herself as an alchemist. These sections suggest not only the breadth of her reading, but that Baker was interested in scientific experimentation and alchemical studies, both of which were unconventional practices for a woman of the seventeenth century. Hopefully with further research we will discover more about Margaret Baker, whom her recipe books reveal to be a highly unusual and well-learned woman.

Contributors to the Biographical and Contextual Information

Monterey Hall, AB-BA, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Summer 2016.

Lisa Smith, University of Essex, Spring 2017


  • For more information on Zooniverse’s Shakespeare’s World project, click here. Follow the links found on the top banner to view discussion forums (“Talk”) or to view relevant blogposts (“Blog”).
  • To view Margaret Baker’s biography on the Perdita woman database, click here.
  • To view images of Va619 from the Folger Shakespeare Library, click here.
  • To view images of MS Sloane 2485 and 2486, contact your university’s library to see if your institution is subscribed to the Defining Gender database.

In case the links don’t work, here they are in order of appearance:


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[1] According to biographical information found on Perdita woman database.

[2] Ibid.

[3] According to catalog information found on Defining Gender database.

[4] According to information found on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s HAMNET catalog.

[5] See this discussion thread on Shakespeare’s World.

[6] See this discussion post on Shakespeare’s World. Credit also goes to Virgilia (surname) of Dr. Rebecca Laroche’s ENGL 3900 course.

[7] See this discussion post on Shakespeare’s World.

[8] Leonard Phioravant, An Exact Collection of the Choicest and most Rare Experiments and Secrets in Physick and Chyrurgery (London, 1659), pp. 148-149.

[9] Andrew Boorde, The Breviary of Health (London, 1587), chapters 11 and 43 in volume 2. Baker also refers to a chapter that appears in volume 1.