English Department | University of Texas | Arlington

Reviving Drowned Flies and Burnt Plants in the Early Modern Household Abstract

In the mid-seventeenth century, Sir Peter Temple of Stantonbury prepared a fair-copy recipe book, now British Library Stowe MS 1077, containing a pair of recipes based on an alchemical text, pseudo-Paracelsus’s De Natura Rerum. Temple created two recipes by reusing and repurposing pieces from his source text: “Iron-Barrs Cutt Asunder,” which discusses smearing iron with mercury, and “Dround Flyes Reuiued,” which purports to bring drowned flies back from the dead. Temple also added commentary, going so far as to note that the recipe to revive drowned flies was “inconsiderable.” But why would Temple codify alchemical knowledge into a recipe if he believed it was “inconsiderable”? Why would he want to resuscitate flies in the first place? These questions in themselves illuminate how Temple’s recipe challenges preconceived notions that imagine the purview of early modern domestic recipe books and their compilers as focusing only on usefulness and practicality. I argue its inclusion in Temple’s recipe book invites us to think of the seventeenth-century recipe book and household as places for curiosity, amusement, wonder, and inquiry about the natural world. Subsequently, I explore the multivalence of Temple’s “Drowned Flies Revived” recipe against the backdrop of three different kinds of recreations. First, I consider the importance of recreating as testing within seventeenth-century recipe culture and Temple’s recipe books, wherein firsthand experience dictated a recipe’s value. Second, I contextualize the recipe within the “Experiments” section of Temple’s manuscript, considering how recipes for recreation, including jokes and tricks, both entertained and inquired. Finally, I place Temple’s recipe in conversation with Hester Pulter’s poem “View but this Tulip” and the contemporaneous alchemical practice of palingenesis, which attempted to reconstitute plants and animals from ashes. Both Temple’s and Pulter’s texts offer domestic experiments that sought to recreate life in order to investigate alchemical and religious questions. Read together, Temple and Pulter invite us to look beyond the typical disciplines and demarcations of knowledge-making, and instead explore how alchemical knowledge could move in domestic spaces across genres, registers, and texts.