SUGAR VERSUS HONEY IN BYZANTINE RECIPES

By Petros Bouras-Vallianatos

The Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul), then a mainly Greek-speaking region, constituted a natural crossroads between East and West for more than a millennium (AD 324–1453). Its history is an indispensable part of the medieval period in both Europe and the Middle East. In the field of medicine, for example, we can attest to widespread interactions with the Islamic tradition.

The most dynamic part of Byzantine therapeutics was pharmacology. We are privileged to have several surviving pharmacological manuals, especially dating from the later period, i.e. from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, which provide us with a unique testimony to Byzantine composite drugs. Here I have selected the example of sugar-based potions, as it offers an excellent case-study that helps us to better understand the way Byzantine recipes were developed through a process of both practical experimentation and influence from outside.

Before the introduction of sugar, people relied on honey to make medical potions sweet. Greek and early Byzantine medical authors referred to honey-based drugs such as oinomeli (a mixture of honey with wine), hydromeli (a mixture of honey with water) or oxymeli (a mixture of honey with vinegar). For example, Paul of Aegina (fl. first half of the seventh century) recommends the following recipe for those suffering from calculi:

One ounce[1] each of saxifrage, betony, dog’s-tooth grass, maidenhair fern, spikenard, carpesium, hazelwort, and eryngo; one half ounce each of Macedonian parsley and seed of rue; two ounces each of green fennel, iris, baked squill, and periwinkle; three ounces of bark of the root of capper; two ounces of water-parsnip; and two sextarii[2] each of water, vinegar, and honey.[3]

Meanwhile, the cultivation of sugarcane gradually spread throughout the Islamic East from the seventh/eighth century onwards. Sugar was used as a simple drug, for stomach ailments and the relief of pain in, for example, the chest and kidneys. However, it also became popular as an excipient in liquid pharmaceutical dosage forms, used as a sweetener and preservative, initially supplementing and gradually replacing the use of honey for pharmacological purposes in the Islamic world. Sugar is of higher purity than honey, thus a smaller quantity has a stronger preservative action; it is also less susceptible to changes of temperature and ensures greater homogeneity into the final product. Among the most commonly used potions in Islamic medicine are the so-called julep (julāb) and syrup (sharāb), both of which consisted of sugar and one or more kinds of fruit juices or extracts of flowers.

Figure 1. Medieval, cone-shaped earthenware devices for the refining of sugar from Cyprus. Courtesy of Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation.
Figure 1. Medieval, cone-shaped earthenware devices for the refining of sugar from Cyprus. Courtesy of Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation.

By the eleventh century sugarcane cultivation was thriving in Syria and Palestine, eventually reaching the large Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Sicily. Western merchants, such as the Genoese and the Venetians, played an important role in the distribution of this commodity throughout the Mediterranean, including Byzantium. For example, sugar is mentioned among the main supplies for the newly established Byzantine hospital (xenon) of the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople in the early twelfth century, but it was not until the late thirteenth century that sugar became widely available in the Byzantine world.

At the same time, we can observe the transfer of medical knowledge to Byzantium through translations of Arabic and Persian works into Greek. The earliest text of this kind, which preserves a large number of references relating to the various kinds of sugar-based potions, is the Greek translation of Ibn-Jazzār’s (fl. tenth century) Ephodia tou Apodēmountos (Zād al-musāfir wa qūṭ al-ḥāḍir/Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary), which must have been translated in the late eleventh/early twelfth century by scholars working in Southern Italy. By the early fourteenth century recipes for sugar-based potions had become very common in Byzantine manuals. The Constantinopolitan medical author and practising physician John Zacharias Aktouarios (ca. 1275–ca. 1330) provides an extensive list consisting of about thirty recipes, and he often explicitly acknowledges that he was introducing a new recipe. For example, he gives the following recipe for a julep for heart palpitations:

One hexagion[4] of the three sandalwoods; three hexagia of violet; two hexagia of basil seed; two hexagia of rose; five hexagia each of bugloss and ox-eye flowers; two hexagia of aloeswood; one hexagion of ambergris; two hexagia of saffron; three hexagia each of dried flower-buds from the clove-tree and nutmeg; one hexagion each of cinnamon, anise, caraway, and fennel seed; five grains of musk; one hexagion of poppy seed; three ounces of the juice of sweet apples; one ounce of rosewater; five ounces of distilled endive water; one ounce each of the roots of fennel, wild celery, and chicory; three hexagia each of marjoram, chamomile, and wormwood; and three ounces of sugar.[5]

Figure 2. A julep recipe added in the lower margin of a fifteenth-century medical manuscript, MS.MSL.52, f. 143v. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
Figure 2. A julep recipe added in the lower margin of a fifteenth-century medical manuscript, MS.MSL.52, f. 143v. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

In this recipe, in addition to sugar, we can also see ingredients from Asia and the Far East, such as musk, amber, and sandalwood, which became common in European pharmacology, especially during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries after the Mongols’ conquests in Eurasia that led to the Pax Mongolica and the resulting improvements in trading conditions. To sum up, the fact that Byzantine physicians were aware of the usefulness and effectiveness of these sugar-based potions and made extensive use of them is at odds with the established view that Byzantine society was not very open to outside influence. Nowadays sugar is omnipresent and often replaced by sugar substitutes for the sake of diabetics and the diet-conscious; but once it was a novelty and highly desirable!

[1] One ounce is equal to 27.288 g.

[2] One sextarius is equal to 54.58 g.

[3] Ed. J. L. Heiberg. Paulus Aegineta, vol. 2 (Leipzig-Berlin: Teubner, 1924), 309, 1-6.

[4] One hexagion is equal to 5.166 g.

[5] Vindobonensis med. gr. 17 (first half 15th c.), f. 118r, lines 4-11.

*****

Petros Bouras-Vallianatos studied pharmacy, ancient and Byzantine history, before completing his PhD on the late Byzantine medical author John Zacharias Aktouarios; a revised version of his doctoral thesis is to be published soon. He is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities in the Department of History at King’s College London, where he is working on a three-year project entitled ‘Experiment and Exchange: Byzantine Pharmacology between East and West (ca. 1150-ca.1450)’. He has published several articles on Byzantine and early Renaissance medicine and pharmacology, the reception of the classical medical tradition in the Middle Ages, and palaeography, including the first descriptive catalogue of the Greek manuscripts at the Wellcome Library in London. He is also co-editing the Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Galen.

Tales from the Archives: THEATRICAL COSMETICS: MAKING FACE, MAKING “RACE”

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month I’d like to share a 2014 post by Jessica Clark.  It offers a rich, revealing look into the ways that race and gender were performed, made, mocked, and manipulated in 19th and 20th c. British-American white theatre.  It’s a timely and important piece.  We hope that you enjoy this latest installment from our Recipes Project Archives, and if you have any posts that you’d like for us to revisit, please send in your nominations
AH (editor)

*****

By Jessica Clark

Dan Leno as “Sister Anne” in a 1901 Drury Lane production of Bluebeard. Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Leno as “Sister Anne” in a 1901 Drury Lane production of Bluebeard. Wikimedia Commons.

In the world of British theatre, nothing marks the holiday season like the annual pantomime. A traditional panto features all the requisite elements of family entertainment: a wicked villain, slapstick that delights both young and old, and, perhaps most importantly, the archetypal Dame, a male actor in female costume. While all panto characters wear some form of makeup, the pantomime Dame’s overdrawn brows, gaudy eye shadow, and exaggerated lips are especially emblematic of this particular theatrical form. Despite evoking feminine beauty traits, the Dame is embellished to the point of farce.[i]

Theatrical makeup like that of the Dame has a long history in the Anglo world, dating back to Elizabethan productions on the south shore of the Thames.[ii] By the late nineteenth century, actors created their stage looks using greasepaint, a major development in modern theatrical makeup. Greasepaint was a German innovation created and refined by two different theatre men. Endeavoring to conceal the seam of his wig in the 1860s, Carl Baudin of the Leipziger Stadt Theatre first mixed a concoction of yellow ochre, zinc white, vermillion, and lard.[iii] By 1873, Ludwig Leichner, a Berlin chemist who moonlighted as an opera singer, marketed a stick greasepaint that would become ubiquitous in the theatre world.[iv]

But what did theatrical performers use before the invention and marketing of commercial greasepaint? Actors relied on a range of time-honored techniques to provide coverage and illumination in the glare of nineteenth-century footlights. At times, common cosmetics were used to fashion looks for the stage: vermillion for rouging the cheeks, Indian ink for contouring the eyes or eyebrows, and violet powder for refining the complexion. But it was also possible to alter recipes for run-of-the-mill paints to make them suitable for the theatre. For example, “Rouge de Theatre” was created from “Rouge Vegetal” – a natural concoction of safflowers and carbonate of soda – by adding mucilage of gum tragacanth, which hardened the rouge into a dry, vivid powder.[v]

Advertisement in Frank Castles’ _Drawing Room Monologues_(1887) 50. Image courtesy of Google Books.
Advertisement in Frank Castles’ _Drawing Room Monologues_(1887) 50. Image courtesy of Google Books.

In other cases, actors relied on ingredients better suited to the chemist’s laboratory than a dressing room. No actor’s makeup kit was without powders like dry whiting (finely powdered chalk), burnt umber (calcified brown earth used as a pigment), and fuller’s earth (a hydrous silicate of alumina).[vi] Actors mixed such powders with grease or lard to create vibrant unguents, which they applied to the face. By the mid-nineteenth century, enterprising businessmen sold these powders as part of elaborate “Make-Up Boxes,” but individual ingredients were as readily available at the local druggist.

Frontispiece of S.J. Adair Fitzgerald’s _How to “Make-Up”_ (1901). Image courtesy of Archive.org
Frontispiece of S.J. Adair Fitzgerald’s _How to “Make-Up”_ (1901). Image courtesy of Archive.org

Yet, theatrical powders and paints were not merely used to brighten the cheeks and highlight the lips. English theatrical guides of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries highlight other, problematic cosmetic practices that were, until quite recently, common in the Anglo theatre tradition. White actors dominated the profession and relied on makeup to “transform” into characters of different ethnicities. Theatrical guides from the period foreground this history, offering detailed instructions on “making up” the Othered face. Guides included step-by-step processes for creating “the distinctive colorings of the English, Italians, Japanese, Indians, or Africans,” simultaneously eliding race, nationality, and ethnicity.[vii]

Cosmetic recipes and techniques were key to fashioning these stereotyped “national” looks. To create “Indian” characters, for example, actors mixed lard with a pigment known as “Mongolian” to produce a light brown color for the face and hands (“Mulattoes may be treated in the same matter,” suggested one American author[viii]). To portray black characters, actors used lumps of burnt cork “as large as a hazel nut,” which were reduced with water and applied to the face with both hands.[ix] By the early twentieth century, the racial underpinnings of theatrical makeup was codified in commercial greasepaint sticks; the lightest shade was known as “No. 1: Very pale flesh color,” while Nos. 18 through 20 were characterized as “East Indian, Hindoos, Filipino, Malays, etc.,” “Japanese,” and “Negroes,” respectively.[x]

Dan Leno as “Widow Twankey,” in an 1896 Drury Lane production of Aladdin. Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Leno as “Widow Twankey,” in an 1896 Drury Lane production of Aladdin. Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately, theatre functioned as a site of fantasy in the modern Anglo world, whisking audiences away from the drudgery of daily life. Theatrical makeup was central to the construction of this fantasy, and actors became masters at creating illusion via powder and paint. At times, such illusions had the potential to challenge dominant social and gender norms, as in the case of the late-Victorian Dame with her penciled brows. However, as the creation of “national” looks suggests, theatrical makeup also functioned to reify essentialized notions of race and nationality circulating in the Anglo imperial world.[xi]

[i] For recent work on the Victorian Dame, see Jim Davis, “’Slap On! Slap Ever!’: Victorian pantomime, gender variance, and cross-dressing,” New Theatre Quarterly 30.3 (August 2014): 218-230.

[ii] Annette Drew-Bear, Painted Faces on the Renaissance Stage: the moral significance of face-painting conventions (London: Assoicated University Presses, 1994).

[iii] Maurice Hageman, Hageman’s Make-up Book: grease-paints, their origin, use and application, a useful and up-to-date hand book on practical make-up, especially prepared for amateurs and professionals (Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Co, 1898) 11 and Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “stagecraft”, accessed 02 November 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/562420/stagecraft>.

[iv] Geoffrey Jones, Beauty Imagined: a history of the global beauty industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)For an excellent survey of the history of greasepaint, and cosmetics more generally, see James Bennett, “Greasepaint,” Cosmetics and Skin <http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/bcb/greasepaint.php>.

[v] Richard S. Cristiani, Perfumery and Kindred Arts: a comprehensive treatise on perfumery (Philadelphia: H.C. Baird, 1877) 152.

[vi] Definitions of these powders courtesy of The Oxford English Dictionary.

[vii] Cavendish Morton, The Art of Theatrical Make-Up (London: 1909) 16.

[viii] DeWitt’s How to Manage Amateur Theatricals (New York: DeWitt, 1880) 46.

[ix] James Young, Making Up (London: M. Witmark & Sons, 1905) 85.

[x] Young 12.

[xi] On the acts themselves, see Jacqueline S. Bratton et al, Acts of Supremacy: the British Empire and the stage, 1790-1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), especially chapter 5; Martin Clayton and Bennett Zon, eds., Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s-1940s (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007); and Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage: representation of slavery and the black character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). On music hall, see Penny Summerfield, “Patriotism and Empire: music-hall entertainment 1870-1914,” Imperialism and Popular Culture, ed. John M. Mackenzie (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) 17-48.

*****
Jessica Clark (B.A., Trent; M.A., York; M.A., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins) teaches British history at Brock University. Her interests include British cultural and social history, urban space and the lived environment, empire, and women, gender, and sexuality. Her research explores intersections of gender, class, and ethnicity in the modern British world via the history of beauty and appearance.

Clark’s work appears in the Women’s History Review and the forthcoming Gender and Material Culture in Britain after 1600 (Palgrave 2015). She is currently revising a manuscript on the role of Victorian entrepreneurs in developing England’s early beauty industry. She is also working on a new project, “Imperial Beauty,” which investigates transnational commodity and cultural flows linking London-based beauty brokers and imperial markets in British India, the West Indies, and Australia.

Engaging MLIS Students with Recipe Transcription: Mariabella Charles’s Book of Cookery Recipes and Medical Cures (ca. 1678)

Philip S. Palmer, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA)

While planning a microgrant project when I was a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) fellow from 2014-16, my colleagues and I were interested combining TEI, special collections, and graduate student pedagogy. I had recently learned about the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and their efforts to transcribe culinary and medicinal recipes in libraries around the world. Knowing that MLIS students do not always receive hands-on experience with rare books and manuscripts, I chose a transcription project for library students. The task? Complete a TEI-encoded transcription of an entire early modern recipe manuscript and make it available to a wider audience online.

I recruited a UCLA MLIS student, Christine Curley, to work on the project. While she had no previous experience with recipe manuscripts or paleography, she proved to be apt for the work, picking up paleographical nuance quickly and doing a remarkable job of capturing the vagaries of early modern orthography. She also took a course on TEI so she could encode her transcription with confidence. Since opportunities to gain such skills in graduate school are typically reserved for Ph.D. students in humanities fields, I thought it was important to expose an MLIS student to the kinds of methods (paleography, textual editing, digital humanities) that scholars use to interpret texts and make them accessible to other researchers, especially since librarians are increasingly collaborating with faculty and students on projects.

The manuscript itself, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678], was primarily compiled by a woman named Mariabella Charles, though there appear to hands other than hers in the text. The book is divided fairly evenly between culinary and medicinal recipes, with a few that, for lack of a better term, we called “hunting recipes.” These include directions “to drive Rats from a house,” “to destroy moles,” and “to take deare,” the last of which is as brief as it must have been effective: “Take Opium and put it in Apples and set them on Sticks.”

Before Christine encoded the manuscript, I created a slightly customized version of the typical TEI schema using the web tool Roma; the schema incorporated tags the EMROC group was already using in their transcriptions (<ingredient>, <ailment>, <administrationMethod>, and <productionMethod>). We also added <utensil> and color-coded each tag in our basic HTML output of the TEI edition. All of these custom tags can be easily transformed into normal TEI using a simple XSLT script. This manuscript was also part of the Clark’s CLIR Digitizing Hidden Collections project to digitize over 300 early modern bound manuscripts. Mariabella Charles’s manuscript is now freely available on Calisphere, in addition to 166 other MSS. We plan to add Christine’s transcription of the manuscript into page-level metadata on Calisphere in the next couple of months.

Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
One interesting aspect of the Charles manuscript lies in its description of the various female knowledge networks through which recipes passed. There are recipe texts attributed to a “Mrs hanway,” “mrs dabe,” “mrs Jean,” “Mrs Harding,” and others. Several physical addresses added to the manuscript’s endleaves provide even more information on female knowledge networks: examples include “Att Mrs Paige in warwick street ouer Against Sr Henry goodrick golden square.” When transcribing and encoding these addresses both Christine and I wondered if this type of evidence might be marshaled in early modern recipe projects. If such addresses are fairly common in recipe manuscripts, could we catalog and map them onto a cartographical representation of London? Would such a visualization of recipe manuscript data reveal anything about early modern foodways and the geography of ingredient collection/preparation? With more and more recipe manuscripts being transcribed today, such questions and methodologies are becoming increasingly feasible for early modernists to answer and implement.

Making librarians partners in these endeavors, and training them appropriately, is crucial. Besides the skills Christine gained transcribing and encoding, she really enjoyed the learning opportunity of working on the edition. In her words,

It was so nice to be able to get to know the authors of the manuscript by deciphering the handwriting of their recipes. The recipes show a high degree of self-sufficiency; most of the ingredients could be hunted and gathered from nature … Something I also noticed from a more technical standpoint was that that the neater, more careful handwriting was actually more difficult to discern, and the handwriting that was more like quick script was actually much closer to modern messy handwriting … This gives me hope that maybe in the far future, if my letters and journals survive the centuries, perhaps my descendants may actually be able to decipher my own sloppy handwriting and make sense of it.

As Christine also notes, “there are many culinary recipes which actually seem quite delicious, such as mutton with lemon, butter, capers, nutmeg, and white wine. There is a recipe for ‘the best cake that ever was eaten,’ which really does sound very good.” Librarians at the Clark are hoping to collaborate with Christine on a future public event involving early modern culinary culture—hopefully with samples of this “best cake” on offer.

“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009

Philip S. Palmer, Ph.D. is Head of Research Services at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA). His work centers on digital approaches to early modern material texts, Renaissance travel writing, and Thomas Coryate. His publications include articles in Renaissance Studies, Huntington Library Quarterly, and The Library, as well as an edition of the booklist of Sir Thomas Roe for Private Libraries in Renaissance England. He is currently Principal Investigator on grants from CLIR and NEH to digitize early modern manuscript material in the Clark’s collections.

Tales from the Archives: Of Dirty Books and Bread

As our loyal readers know, yesterday we celebrated our fifth birthday! We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. What a wealth of knowledge on recipes from our wonderful contributors. However, with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew in a ‘Tales from the Archives’ series.

This month, we’re getting a bonus Tales from the Archives. Here in the U.K., The Great British Bake Off airs on Tuesday nights and, this season, contestant Kate Lyon regularly uses historical recipes. Tonight, bread is on the menu!  This post, by Anke Timmermann, is one of my favourite bread-related posts. Let’s just say that Wonder Bread takes on a whole new meaning!

We’d also like to congratulate Anke on her new business. She left academia a couple years ago to move into the antiquarian book business and recently opened her own in London: A T Scriptorium.
Editor Lisa Smith


By Anke Timmermann

There are certain things that even the most innocent manuscript scholar cannot avoid, among them dirty books. This post will discuss the traces that careless readers have left on manuscript pages since they were first filled with writing: smudges and splodges created through physical contact between books and readers. Blemishes and damaged manuscripts have occurred to me recently in different guises as I was tracing alchemy across Cambridge manuscript collections. The following three observations may amuse and inspire the current audience – not least because they connect codices with bread, cheese and other foodstuffs.

Bad And Good Dirt

Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons)
Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons) 

Richard de Bury, cleric, bibliophile of the early fourteenth century and author of a book-lover’s guide to books, wrote passionately about the correct handling of codices. Books were meant to be seen but not touched. In the appropriately entitled Philobiblon, de Bury exemplifies readers’ common if damaging behaviour in the figure of ‘some headstrong youth’:

He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.

Many modern users of libraries observing fellow-readers will find this scenario familiar.

But in recent years scholarship has made visible previously hidden signs of historical book usage. An excellent article of 2010 demonstrates the use of a densitometer, ‘a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface’, e.g. for revealing traces of medieval readers’ kisses of saints’ images.[1] One can only imagine, and deduce from obvious stains, what a similar analysis of recipe books would uncover.

Medieval Bread and Books

Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.
Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.

Dirt on book pages did not need to wait for modern technology to be noted. Late medieval book owners remarked upon and tried to find solutions for the appearance of unwanted substances on their manuscript pages. Recently discovered examples include paw prints and bodily fluids left by cats in manuscripts, but after the fact, at a stage when these manuscripts were beyond hope of cleaning.[2]

I was, therefore, delighted to find the following instruction for cleaning books in a manuscript at Cambridge University Library (CUL MS Ee.1.13, f. 141r).

ffor to make clene thy boke yf yt be defouled or squaged[3]

Take a schevyr of old broun bred of þe crummys and rub thy boke þerwith sore vp and downe and yt shal clense yt

Formally a recipe text, this advice relies on just a single ‘ingredient’: bread. And while bread features widely in culinary and religious texts, in the proverbial diet of prisons (bread and water) and the pairing of ‘bread and salt’, this early mention of bread in cleaning instructions deserves more consideration. It bridges the recipe genre, bread as a culinary product of the kitchens and its alienated, secondary use that relies on its texture and other material qualities. Moreover, this text draws silent parallels with contemporary instructions for the cleaning of pots and pans, tools and instruments. I wonder whether the abovementioned technology might discover trails of bread across manuscript pages?

Modern Books and Wonder Bread

An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum
An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum

Bread as a cleaning device for books continues until today, and may be familiar to some readers of this blog, especially those dealing with books or paintings in a professional or otherwise intense capacity. The American loaf known by the modest name of Wonder Bread is said to have particularly good cleansing power. Pertinently, the V&A, however, includes this practice in its category ‘What not to do…’:

Don’t use old fashioned cleaning remedies

Bread is a traditional dry cleaning material used to remove dirt from paper. If you rub a piece of fresh white bread between your fingers, you will see that it is quite effective in picking up dirt. The slight stickiness of bread is the reason why it works and also why it can be a problem. It can leave a sticky residue behind that will attract more dirt. Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth and encourage pest attack.[4]

This piece of advice forms the antidote to the abovementioned instruction for cleaning books: conflicting advice across the centuries.

Undecided on the issue I will, however, continue to make sure my hands are clean as I continue through manuscripts with recipes, especially the alchemical ones. You never know what may have left that stain in the margin.

I would like to extend my thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for the kind permission to use an image from their collections in this blog post.

The Tenement Museum’s blog post on the history of bread (whence the second image above originates) is not directly connected to this particular post’s themes but an interesting read for different reasons: Judy Levin, ‘From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread’ (19 Jan 2012).


[1] Kathryn M. Rudy, ‘Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer’, Journal of Historians of Netherlendish Art 2:1-2 (2010).

[2] See this guest post by Thijs Porck at medievalfragments: ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’.

[3] ‘squagen (v.) [Origin unknown; ?= squachen v.] To make a stain, smudge; also, dirty (sth.), smudge, stain.’ MED.

[4] V&A, ‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’ (accessed 25/11/2013).

 

Author Bio

Anke Timmermann is an antiquarian book specialist and historian of science, with a scholarly focus on the history of alchemy and medicine. She recently set up as an independent bookseller as A T Scriptorium in London, and is an Associate Member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association as well as a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. Anke previously worked at one of the oldest antiquarian booksellers in London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, following her Munby Fellowship in Bibliography at Cambridge of 2013-2014 and a career as a historian of alchemy.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine