The Dawson Project


The late-seventeenth-century cookbook of Jane Dawson (Folger V.b.14), the focus for the 2018 transcribathon, is both culinary and medical in nature and reveals much through its contents while retaining many mysteries.  With few references to aristocrats or the gentry, Dawson herself seems to be of middle status, and most of the individuals who are named will take more research to locate in time and place. The nature of the book, in its two-part structure – 69 pages of mostly culinary and preserve recipes and 29 pages of pharmaceutical receipts (starting from the back) – can open another window into seventeenth century recipe exchange and practice.

The manuscript has been dated through one entry that appears about halfway through the manuscript, “The Queen’s Silybub 1693,” conceivably a recipe circulating attributed to Queen Mary II.  While this is the only date mentioned and may have been collected after the queen’s reign, much in the manuscript suggests seventeenth-century construction, including another recipe “Prince Ruperts oyntment” (17, from the back), presumably a reference of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Mary II’s godfather, who died in 1682 (DNB).  Another reference to the peerage is to one “Sir Charles Onsly,” a seemingly contemporary reference as the recipe claims that he “was cured of the gout 7 years by drinking of this” (4, from the back). [NB: We have yet to locate Sir Onsly in the historical record, but anyone who is able to do so will happily be made a contributing author to this entry.] There are also references to a Lady Dalton and a Lady Dorchester, among others.

As alluded to above, the manuscript follows the recipe book convention of separating out the culinary and preserve recipes from the medical content through a do-si-do structure in which the book begins with the culinary on one side, and then is flipped to be read from the back for the medical content. The culinary pages (3-26, 31-77 -due to mis-numbering) seem to be the beginning of the manuscript simply because that half begins with Jane Dawson’s signature and an alphabetical listing of the book’s contents.  However, around page 72, Jane Dawson writes her name again, and for five pages or so, the recipes begin to include pharmaceuticals. It may be at this point that Dawson decided to adopt the do-si-do convention.

Ultimately, as with so many of these collections, we are left with the question of “Who is Jane Dawson?” While her name appears twice at critical junctures in the manuscript, not all of the recipes are written in her hand (but many are). There are biographical hints throughout the text. For example, we learn that on page 23 (from the back) that she took had “A Syrop for a Consumption that​ Cured me”. She further describes that she had suffered from it and shortness of breath since childhood, but regular use of the syrup ensured that she “lived to​ 60 years of age & had many Children​.” In another recipe (page 22 from the back), she describes her son’s treatment for King’s Evil. The recipe came from Mr Copley, whose niece had used it. Dawson used it to cure her son when he was seven years old.

Through the work of transcription, we can begin to know her as we continue to ask questions. Does her collection contain references to print sources? If so what were they? In terms of the attributions, her network seems wide and varied, including both men and women, with more names mentioned in the pharmaceutical recipes, which suggests a deference to certain kinds of authority in the text.  One attribution, naming a  Mrs. Warton (pages 4–5, from the back) will hold particular interest to those interested in women’s gynecological health in the period; her voice can be heard recounting certain caregiving incidents, as with a recipe that “saved a woman’s life” that was “giuen ouer for dead” (5, from the back). Moments like this one bring to life a varied and colorful seventeenth-century context.

Contributors to the Contextual Information:
Rebecca Laroche, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Lisa Smith, University of Essex.


Dawson, Jane.  Cookbook.  Folger Manuscript V.b.14.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online (accessed August 21, 2018).

For more discussion of the culinary content see the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey,