Written by Mikayla Boynton
When looking through multiple recipe books from the 17th and 18th centuries, one will often find similar, if not copied entries across several manuscripts. One very interesting entry is found in Margaret Baker’s 1675 manuscript titled “The goulden water other wise called; the water of life” (fol. 78r).
This recipe calls for walnuts to be collected in the beginning of June, mid-Summer, and 14 days after mid-summer. After each collection of walnuts, one must “breake them in a morter; [and] still them in a stillitory of lead” (fol. 78r), keeping each distillate separately from the others after they are prepared.
Once each of the waters is stilled separately, the final step is to combine a pint of each previously stilled water together in a “stillit tory of glasse & soe keepe it” (fol. 78v). After the recipe itself, Baker immediately explains that this water can “helpe all feuers & palsies” when one drop is added to water, cure the eyes of “all the diseases & paine” when one drop is added to each, and can even “causeth a woman to conceive childe if shee take a spoonefull in wine once a daie” (fol. 78v); furthermore, she mentions that the water can help one sleep when rubbed on one’s temples, and will cure all infirmities in the body if consumed with wine.
This recipe is found in at least four additional manuscripts from the 17th century – anonymous manuscripts MS8086 and MS1325 and MS7391 credited to Venetia Digby and MS3712 credited to Elizabeth Okeover – and each includes the same specific instructions seen in Baker. All four manuscripts differ from Baker’s version of this recipe in small and various ways, but each share one common difference. The first variable difference appears in two of the four manuscripts: MS7391 and MS3712, or Digby and Okeover’s manuscripts. While Baker only includes that her recipe is also called “the water of life,” these titles further explain that “it is called the water of life for its vertues” (Digby 128).
These two manuscripts, as well as MS8086, present the second variable difference, as they list the cures this water possesses under a separate heading titled “The Vertues” (Digby 129),
whereas Baker lists them directly after the recipe without this heading. However, all of these recipes differ from Baker’s in that they give it the title, “walnut water” instead of “goulden water.”
Calling this a recipe for “walnut water” makes logical sense given the ingredients, as does including that it is also known as the “water of life,” given the multitude of uses it possesses to prolong one’s life. When one takes into account references to the “water of life” in the Bible, Baker’s decision to change the title of this recipe to “goulden water” begins to make sense as well. In the book of John from the 1699 translation of the Geneva Bible, Jesus asks a woman pulling from a well if she will allow him a drink, and after she refuses, he replies, “If thou knewest that gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee water of life” (4:10). In this verse, the “water of life” refers to the eternal love of God, and Jesus further explains that drinking this water will result in “everlasting life” (John 4:14). Subtitling this recipe the “water of life” refers to more than just its healing abilities when considered in this context, and Baker’s main title, “goulden water,” brings to mind the golden virtues of God. On the other hand, the meat of a walnut is slightly golden in color, so this change in title could also refer to the color of the water after the walnuts are distilled.
When paired with the title “walnut water,” it may not be immediately clear why the recipe is also called the “water of life,” requiring further explanation that it is “for its vertues,” then, requiring a subheading under which the author lists “The Vertues” this water possesses. The title “walnut water” immediately tells the reader the main ingredient of the recipe, but requires additional explanation to reveal the allusion in the subtitle. Thus, Baker’s decision to change the title of this recipe to “goulden water” allows her to omit the additional explanation of the subtitle, and the subheading to create a more accessible, recognizable allusion. Used in this context, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “goulden” as, “Resembling gold in value; most excellent, important, or precious,” illustrating the immense value Baker sees in this recipe. This definition also lends to the idea that the color of this water may resemble gold, while the many cures it provides resemble gold in their excellence. By changing the main title of this recipe, Baker both strengthens the Biblical allusion in the subtitle, and emphasizes the medicinal value of her recipe.
Anonymous. “A booke of usefull receipts for cookery, etc.” Wellcome Library, MS1325 fols.183-185.
Anonymous, “Receipt book, early 17th century.” Wellcome Library, MS8086 fol.112.
Baker, Margaret. “Receipt Book of Margaret Baker, ca. 1675?” Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.619. fols. 78r–78v.
Digby, Venetia. “English Recipe Book, 17th century.” Wellcome Library, MS7391. fols. 128– 129.
“golden,” adj.4. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 24 April 2017.
Okeover, Elizabeth. “Okeover, Elizabeth (& Others).” Wellcome Library, MS3712. fol.102.
Mikayla Boynton is a student at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she conducted this research as an assignment in the course “Digital Research Methods with Historical Recipes,” taught by Rebecca Laroche.