Reading How-To Workshop

Simone Zweifel, Tillmann Taape

“Reading How-To. The Uses and Users of Artisanal Recipes” took place at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin on 19 and 20 September 2014. Organised by, Sven Dupré, Elaine Leong and Doris Oltrogge, the workshop investigated artists’ and artisans’ uses of “how-to” writing. Broadly defined, this included any text which tells its reader how to do something – from medical recipes to treatises on art.

As Sven Dupré emphasised in his introduction, artisanal knowledge was often passed on through oral traditions, and learnt by doing. In the workshop, recipes and other how-to texts were rarely the predominant source of knowledge, and certainly never the only one. Rather, they are in dialogue with physically performed practices. This raises the kinds of questions the conference sought to address. Why did people write down recipes? Who wrote them down and who read them? And, finally, is there a clear category of “how-to”, and what kinds of writing does it encompass?

Pamela Smith opened the workshop by presenting a broad variety of “how-to” books and their readers. Although artisans might seem like an obvious audience, it turns out that they owned more devotional books than “how-to” texts. The latter were, however, very popular with elite readers such as monks scholars and estate owners. Artisanal and elite readers read “how-to” in different ways – to brush up their technical vocabulary and hone their ability to judge works of art, for spiritual reflection, or simply to improve their reading skills..


One of the books Pamela Smith referred to: Leonard Digges, A booke named Tectonicon, […]. Leonard Digges. London, F. Kyngston, 1605. Online on:

One of the books Pamela Smith referred to: Leonard Digges, A booke named Tectonicon. London, F. Kyngston, 1605.

Thinking about the authors of books as readers, Montserrat Cabré showed that compilers of medieval recipe collections were aware that their authority as writers was bound up with their competence as readers of how-to texts. To be taken seriously as authors and compilers, they needed to present themselves as good readers.

The act of reading was clearly an important issue in the early modern period, but how can we reconstruct it? Fortunately, readers sometimes left clues in the form of annotations. In her extensive research on artists’ recipes, Sylvie Neven identified three categories of readers’ annotations. While some functioned as reading-aids, others represent readers’ and users’ personal responses to the text, and some had no apparent relation to the text at all. Annotation, then, does not necessarily mean active engagement with how-to. Deborah Krohn illustrated this in her study of annotated copies of a popular Italian cooking manual. She suggested, however, that it is possible to distinguish more active readers because the pay more attention to the specific technical details of recipes.


L0023705 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. A kitchen. From: Bartolomeo Scappi. Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi. Tramezzino, Venice 1570, Table 2. © Wellcome Images

A kitchen. From: Bartolomeo Scappi, Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi. Tramezzino, Venice 1570, Table 2. © Wellcome Images

Several of the papers enriched our picture of early modern reading and annotation practices by focusing on one particular reader. Peter Jones illustrated how Walter Hamond, a member of the Barber-Surgeons’ Company in the seventeenth century, went about reading a fifteenth-century manuscript on surgery by John (of) Arderne (1307-c. 1378). Hamond’s numerous notes reveal how he modified instruments and recipes according to his own practical experience, but also his dismay upon realising that his medieval colleague was rather better paid for the same surgical operation.

Ardernes pictures were often copied in later editions. This image of the use of crutches is from a 15th-century manuscript.  From: Power, D’Arcy (Ed.), De Arte Phisicali et de Chirurgia. London 1922, plate XI. (c) Wellcome Images

Ardernes pictures were often copied in later editions. This image of the use of crutches is from a 15th-century manuscript. From: Power, D’Arcy (Ed.), De Arte Phisicali et de Chirurgia. London 1922, plate XI. (c) Wellcome Images

Rudolf Gamper‘s paper on Sebastian Schobinger’s handbook of alchemy described an even more involved reader. This manuscript, written between 1602 and 1610, is organised around a core text, Isaac Hollandus’ Opus saturni, which describes the process of turning lead into gold. Schobinger’s comments and elaborations are meticulously keyed to the numbered paragraphs of the Opus saturni. They draw on other manuscript or printed texts, but also on knowledge obtained from local experts and on Schobinger’s own experience, thus representing a kind of practical exegesis.

In contrast, Hanna Murphy showed that readers of how-to were not always predominantly interested in its practical content. The notebooks of Georg Palma (1543-1591), city physician of Nuremberg, show that he was more interested in the origin of the recipes than in the technical details of artisanal processes. Palma’s reading of “how-to” books thus document not so much his medical practice as the way he read his way through his medical library.

In addition to individual practitioners and scholars, reading how-to could be a collective phenomenon. In the sixteenth century, medical recipes were all the rage at the court of the Electors Palatine, as is testified by the large collection of recipe books which Karin Zimmermann introduced. Sheila Barker discussed another lively environment in which recipes played an important part, namely the Medici pharmacy in grand ducal Florence. Analysing the trajectories of artisanal recipes, she showed that they could function as a social currency among courtiers, be obtained by subterfuge, or rise from humble artisanal beginnings into the Medici’s recipe collection.


The recipe book of duchess Dorothea Susanne von Sachsen-Weimar from the collection of the electors Palatine, 1573. Heidelberg University Library,

The recipe book of duchess Dorothea Susanne von Sachsen-Weimar from the collection of the electors Palatine, 1573. Heidelberg University Library,

Several of the papers further problematised the issue of what counts as a how-to text. Barbara Tramelli showed that the treatise De colore by sixteenth-century Italian painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo discusses ingredients for pigments and production techniques, but not in enough detail to allow readers to actually make their own. Steven Johnston explained that instructions for making things could be embedded in objects as well as texts. As an example, he presented a “two-foot-rule” which was not only a physical yardstick, but also embodied a set of rules for the construction of ships. Finally, Daniel Jütte introduced us to early modern cryptography manuals as yet another kind of how-to books.

These diverse case studies brought a good insight into the variety of so called how-to books. But what exactly do we mean by this term? And is a recipe book still how-to, even if its main interest is not in describing procedures, as seems to have been the case with some of the presented books? These questions made for a rich concluding roundtable discussion. Alternative terms were suggested, such as “rules” or “pragmatic literature”, and ways of defining how-to subjected to scrutiny. It became clear that more research will be necessary to establish whether people read how-to books differently from other books, and whether the process of reading thus defines how-to as a category.

Mrs. Corlyon’s Pimple Cream: A Toxic Topical

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Reading an early recipe book can be an emotional roller coaster. There’s disgust (“’Snail water’? With real snails? Eww”), delight (“’A pudding of pippins’? That’s like something out of The Hobbit!”), and dismay (“NO! Do not drink the cordial of horse dung! Don’t do it!”).

Most of these emotions arise from the awareness of historical difference, the sensation of reaching across time through these documents and sensing the foreignness of the past.

More often, however, are the prosaic moments, when you think, “Oh, well of course they had to worry about THAT, too.” Headaches. Cooking up extra fruit from the harvest. Toothaches.

And pimples. Ah yes, they also had to deal with pimples.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

Salve for pimples on the face. Ms, 14th century, Vienna. Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Corlyon’s A Booke of Diverse Medicines, we find a “A medicine to cure a face that is Redd, and full of Pimples.” It seems unique to me in that similar recipes address redness of the face (perhaps rosacea) or claim to cure pimples or boils, but they are not often treated together. The reason might be the different humoral imbalances thought to cause each: a red face would arise from an excess of blood, while the pus from a pimple or boil would develop from too much phlegm.

Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, however, attempts to treat both at the same time. For curing the redness in the face, she advises, “Take two penny worthe of quicksilver [mercury], putt it in a little glasse add thereto so much fasting Spitle as will serve to kill it, then shake them well together, and the quicksilver when it is killed will looke like duste.”

The concept of “killing” the quicksilver and turning it to dust confused (and intrigued) me. I wonder if perhaps the potassium present in saliva reacts with the mercury to form a precipitate? It might look similar to the reaction in this video “How to Make the Pharoah’s Serpent” around 4:55.

Obviously, the chemicals used in that experiment are purer, but perhaps something similar might have happened in this recipe? (At any rate, and completely off topic, do keep watching the video to see what happens when mercury thiocyanate is ignited—it is one of the coolest and most disturbing things I have ever seen!)

The quicksilver dust is then to be ground with bay oil and made into an ointment used morning and evening for two weeks. The quicksilver, with its cold and dry properties, would balance out the heat and moistness of the excess blood in the skin.

"Cures for red face and pimples." A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon. MS.213 Wellcome Library, London.

“Cures for red face and pimples.” A book of diverse medicines, Mrs. Corlyon.  MS 213. Wellcome Library, London.

The recipe then tells us that for a week before using the ointment, the person being treated should have been drinking a special brew: 10 gallons of beer to which is added half a pound of madder (a plant often used in dying cloth red, but also valued as a medicinal with hot and dry properties). This was to be drunk in the morning and evening and “at divers times.” The addition of the madder would balance the phlegmatic humor in the body that was causing the pus to form pimples.

Mrs. Corlyon also advises the person being treated “keep close in [their] chamber” as their skin will actually look worse during the treatment, “untill such tyme as the humor be killed that is betwixt the fleshe and the skinn.”

At first glance, this recipe seems ridiculous. Who would smear mercury on their face and stay drunk and locked in their chamber for two weeks in order to get better skin? But then, don’t we still do this with chemical peels and other kinds of non-surgical cosmetic treatments? At least in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe, the patient has sufficient beer to drink to lessen the pain.


How to Translate a Recipe

By Sietske Fransen

Have you ever tried to use a recipe in another language, for example from a foreign language cookbook or the internet? If so, then you probably have struggled with identifying some of the ingredients. Personally, I seem to have an eternal problem with cumin, in other languages, that is. As it is ‘komijn’ in Dutch, and ‘cumin’ in English, it always traps me that the German ‘Kümmel’ is not the thing I am looking for. Even more confusingly, Kümmel seeds looks very similar to cumin seeds, and you find ‘Kümmel’ in German supermarkets as easy as cumin/komijn in English and Dutch ones. But ‘Kümmel’ is in English ‘caraway’ and in Dutch ‘karwij’, whereas the German word for ‘cumin’ is ‘Kreuzkümmel’. And although I knew it was one of those false friends, I did accidentally buy ‘Kümmel’ instead of ‘Kreuzkümmel’ a few weeks ago…






This is just an example to show that there can be problems with finding the right translation for an ingredient when read in a foreign language. On top of the problem of identification, one might also encounter problems with finding the actual ingredients in a foreign supermarket once you have found the right translation of the word (in my case, it is actually quite hard to find cumin seeds in German supermarkets whereas Kümmel seeds are everywhere). Next to ingredients, there are also many different ways in which quantities are notated in different countries (see for example also Kayla Perkin’s post earlier this month). Fortunately, we can nowadays find lots of conversion tables online.

The problems with translating were not very different in early modern Europe. Recipes for cooking and the making of drugs were circulating widely among physicians, alchemists, families, cooks, and so on. However, the author and reader were not always speaking the same language(s), and translations were therefore needed. How did these people deal with the difficulty of translating recipes?

Many recipes were written in Latin, which circumvented the problem of translation up to a certain level as it was a language widely understood by the community of scholars of the time. However, there was also a long tradition of recipes written in vernacular languages, for example Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti (Venice 1555). Recipes were therefore often translated, from Latin into the vernacular and vice versa, and between vernaculars, as we will see in the examples below. One of the difficulties was the translation of ingredients. In my recent research on translations of seventeenth-century medical recipes, I have observed that one of the solutions applied by translators to prevent ambiguity, was to use Latin for the ingredients, even if the rest of the text was in another language.

As an example I shall show a recipe handed down in the medical works of Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), a Flemish physician, who wrote in both Dutch and Latin. Due to Van Helmont’s self-translation between Latin and his mother tongue, and the fact that his texts were translated into German, English, and French within forty years of his death, his works provide current scholars with very valuable material for studying the process and function of early modern translation.

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Van Helmont published on the plague in both Dutch and Latin. An Latin as ‘Tumulus pestis’, which was published as a part of his Opuscula medica inaudita (Cologne 1644), and in Dutch as the second part his Dutch book Dageraed (published posthumously in Amsterdam 1659). Van Helmont described not only his own methods to prevent falling ill from the plague, but he also includes several old recipes which might help as a treatment once someone is infected. Although Van Helmont was very skeptical about the effectiveness of any treatment of the plague, he nevertheless prescribed several sweat potions as potential treatment.

In his Dutch text Dageraed Van Helmont included several full recipes for sweat potions. These potions were supposed to be very effective for driving out fevers. Even though the entire book was written in German, Van Helmont lists the ingredients in Latin with some additional information in Dutch, as can be seen in the picture below.

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

The Dutch additions are explanations of the Latin terms, but it is clear that without understanding, or knowing, the Latin names of plants one could not find the ingredients. In contrast to the language used for the ingredients, the performative part of the recipe is entirely in Dutch. This contrast marks an interesting division between the linguistically restrictive section of the list of ingredients, and the part where we can find the description of the process or preparation, which often shows a broad variety of vernacular vocabulary. In my opinion this reflects the use of recipes in a practical environment. An environment in which I would expect vernacular languages to be dominant over Latin when practitioners were speaking about the process that is occurring (boiling, distilling, heating, etc.) and the tools they needed (the vessels, pots, instruments, etc.). Therefore, this recipe and the other recipes in Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague, which follow the same pattern int the use of Latin and Dutch, have prompted me to question the status of Latin in these recipes. It seems that the way Latin is used for the naming of ingredients has not much to do with a foreign language anymore, rather it is an incorporation of widely understood terminology into a vernacular language.

In my next blog post in December we shall discover how the two German translators of these recipes dealt with the translation of Dutch and Latin into German.

The Acceptance of Charms in the Fifteenth Century

By Laura Mitchell

L0060591 Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262

Wellcome Library, London. Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262, early fifteenth century. Includes the Longinus miles charm.

For a while now I’ve been very interested in medieval people’s relationships with magic texts. What drew them to copy down their particular texts? Did they delight in the absurdities of directions to become invisible or to remove women’s clothing or did they truly believe it would work? Was it something ordinary or something to be ashamed of and obscured (as in the fifteenth-century book I discussed previously)? For this post I want to consider one point that I have often wondered about; namely, when were charms used? Were they the first line of defense or a last resort or somewhere in between? Naturally, for the majority of people and cases we will never know. However, I have come across an interesting pair of recipes that shed some light on the place of charms within medical practice.

The recipes in question are a charm to staunch blood and a non-magical recipe to do the same that is to be used only if the charm has failed.

I first ran across this pair of recipes in HM 1336 (folio 30r), a fifteenth-century medical book at the Huntington Library. In this copy the charm is missing and all that has been copied is the non-magical recipe with its injunction to be used only if a charm has failed. I don’t believe this omission is due to a reluctance to include charms since there are charms and natural magic texts elsewhere in the manuscript. More likely there was a corruption in the line of transmission somewhere.

I have since found this charm-recipe combination in two other Huntington manuscripts, also from the fifteenth century: HM 58 (folios 75v-67r) and HM 64 (folio 23r). In these cases the charm and recipe have survived together:

Here is for staunching blood

The soldier Longinus pierced the side of our + Lord Jesus Christ + with a lance and the blood poured out continuously and by means of the water of our redemption I adjure you, blood, through Christ + through his side + through his blood + stay + stay + Christ + and John went into the river Jordan and he struck the water and it stopped. Thus make the blood of this body in the name of Christ + and Saint John the Baptist Amen. Our Father Ave Maria.

To staunch blood when the vein is cut and will not be readily staunched with the aforesaid words.

Take a piece of salt beef, lean and none of the fat, as it may stop the wound and lay it into the embers in the fire and let it roast until it be thoroughly hot and all hot put it onto the wound and bind it fast and it will staunch at once and never stream on [I] guarantee.1

This pairing of a charm and non-magical recipe highlights just how casually the categories of magic and medicine could overlap. For some people, anyway, charms were not only just as valid as non-magical recipes, but they could also be more potentially more effective than non-magical medical recipes.

1.Here is for to staunch blode
Longinus miles latus + dominum nostrum Jhesu christi + lancea perforauit et continuo exiuit sanguis et aqua in redempcionem nostram + Adiuro te sanguis per ipsum + christum per latus eius + per sanguines eius + Sta + sta + christus et Johannes astenderunt in flumen Jordanis, aqua obstiuit et steta Sic faciat sanguis istius corporis .N. In christi nomine et + Sancti Johannis baptiste + Amen pater noster Aue maria.
For to staunch blode when the veyne is corven and wille nott gladli be staunched with the wordis afore rehersed
Take a peice of salt Beff lene and none of the fatt as itt maie stapp the wond and leie itt ynto the emeres in the fyre and lete itt rosti till it be throgh hote and all hote putt it to the wonde and bynd itt fast and itt staunche anon and neuer streme on wrantize
Text is taken from HM 58. Transcription and translation are my own. The differences between the various texts are quite minor.