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Unwrapping a new medical receipt book at the Wangensteen Historical Library

By July 6, 2017September 16th, 2023No Comments

by Emily Beck

Receiving a new acquisition is like opening a much-anticipated present.  Earlier this year, the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine purchased a French manuscript recipe book – Recettes et secrets & Recettes de remedes eprouveswritten in the 1770s.

When the manuscript arrived, Curators Lois Hendrickson and Emily Beck invited their colleague, French historian Margaret Carlyle, to come to the Wangensteen and unwrap it.  As they opened the book for the first time, they rediscovered informative content and hidden treasures.

A unique “head-to-toe” design

Written by the Marquis de la Séine, this manuscript is unique because it contains two separate sections of recipes and is a “reversible book.” The book doesn’t have a back cover, it has two front covers! When you’re done reading one part, the next page you’ll see is the upside-down last page of the second section. You have to rotate the book 180 degrees to read the other section. This unique book construction is properly termed tête-bêche from the French meaning “head-to-toe” (1).

Recipes reveal much about 18th century France

Unwrapping a new medical receipt book at Wangensteen.

Unwrapping a new medical receipt book at Wangensteen.

While browsing through the manuscript, Carlyle found recipes for foods and drinks, like how to brine beef and make beer soup, and recipes for medicines, like how to heal burns and how to survive head injuries.

Recipes like these give scholars interesting details about author’s life. For example, the book contains several very early recipes for potatoes, which are interesting considering that Europeans were initially very skeptical of this New World food. Potatoes were not incorporated into the European diet until right around the time period when this manuscript was written. Many of the recipes for medicines are for ailments that one might experience during times of war, evidence of the author’s likely experience with military combat.

Treasures within a treasure

Carlyle also happened upon a mysterious slip of paper tucked into the pages of the book, perhaps it was an earlier reader’s bookmark! Other pieces of paper, including a dictionary of cuisine, were also tucked into the book.

Learn more about the Wangensteen manuscript collection

The Wangensteen’s collection of handwritten recipe books continues to grow and display all of ways that people have made things, from paint and curtains to food and medicines, to make their lives healthy and enjoyable. View a selection of digitized medical receipt books from Wangensteen online, or email with any questions.

Acknowledgements & Thanks

Our thanks to Margaret Carlyle for her expertise! Follow her work on “the history of the human sciences, medical technology, the material culture of science, and gender and women in early modern France.”


  1. Tête-bêche. In Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science.  Retrieved July 6, 2017 from  
Erinn Aspinall

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