Reading the Landscape and a Dish of Weeds

By Theresa Tyers

Landscapes and weeds take centre stage in Honey from a Weed, the work of one of my favourite authors Patience Gray. This is much more than a cookery book as it records the way of life in the landscapes of the Mediterranean during the 1960s and 1970s. It gives details of how those landscapes provided plants for food and medicine that had not changed for centuries–if not millennia!

Carrara, Nikolai Ge. Courtesy of Taganrog Museum of Art. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Carrara, Nikolai Ge. Courtesy of Taganrog Museum of Art. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Gray embarked on a Mediterranean odyssey that took her to Carrara, Catalonia, the Greek island of Naxos and, finally, to southern Italy. She immersed herself in the landscapes she travelled as she moved from place to place noting that at that time that she “was reading the landscape and its flora with as much attention as one gives to an absorbing book”.

Her comments on Edwardian Englishmen laughing at French governesses picking wild chervil, dandelions and sorrel in Spring for salads, and for cutting nettle heads for soup is a fascinating insight into how knowledge such as this passed through generations. The Englishmen who found the governesses’ practice strange and were eating rhubarb, were themselves continuing a long tradition of purging.

Gray also notes that “Everyone in Apollona (on Naxos) but more especially women and children, wandered about in February and March before Spring declared itself, in search of weeds”. While in the Carrara she was shown how to collect a wide range of edible plants from a vineyard. Her guide, a little girl, had an amazing, yet simple weed vocabulary, which was “culled from the vineyard where her father worked”: as she picked her plants and stashed them away to take home she simply said “this is for cooking” or “this is for salad”.

Around seven centuries earlier an Anglo-Norman writer in England was in the process of translating a Latin work, for those who had no Latin, and in doing so he also recorded the virtues of plants to sustain life and heal. In reading his landscape the compiler of this thirteenth-century recipe and remedy collection known as the Physique rimee (MS Cambridge Trinity College O.1.20) notes that herbs and plants grew ‘everywhere’.

Like the small girl in Tuscany, he didn’t differentiate between what was good to eat and what was medicinal: all came under the portmanteau term of ‘erbes’. For him these plants were to be found flourishing throughout the landscape for all to collect and use: women, children and men. “Herbes ont mult tresgrant virtue, De Bois, de pré, et de palu”; they were found in “the woods, the meadows, and in the marshes”. He points out that the seeds, flowers, leaves and roots were all invaluable and even goes as far as to remind his readers, or perhaps listeners, that “you might know of these plants, their leaves, their seeds and their flowers” but not know (my emphasis) of their qualities, their virtues or that they are “a gift which is freely given”.

Encouraging his audience he asks them “Why not benefit from these when it is so expensive to go and buy them? Pointing out also that, should his reader not have need of them, they should share this knowledge with their good friends or, for that matter, anyone else.

The variety of plants and herbs cited throughout the manuscript is vast and the remedies can only be described as eclectic. For giddiness, dizziness, or vertigo he suggests a simple kitchen remedy to wash the sufferer’s head containing rue and common ivy, oil and vinegar mixed together. There are numerous recipes to staunch blood where pretty purple periwinkle, wood betony, or yellow cinquefoil, are cited.

There is also a recipe to increase lactation that calls for fennel and verveine, lettuce (lactuca–wild lettuce), pungent rue (probably goat’s rue) and the pretty flower of white hawthorn: “Si ele use c’est beivre et fait, Mult graunt plenté avra de lait”. (If she takes the drink that is made, she will have great quantities of milk). In Tuscany Gray notes that wild forms of lettuce Eruca were so valued that it was also grown in gardens, along with borage (with its fresh cucumber taste), peppery rocket, and pimpernel.

Miniature of a lactuca, or lettuce plant; miniature of a lupinus, or lupin plant. From Egerton 747, f. 53v.  Image Credit: British Library.
Miniature of a lactuca, or lettuce plant; miniature of a lupinus, or lupin plant. From Egerton 747, f. 53v. Image Credit: British Library.

The advice for using milky-sap producing lettuce for lactation is also found in a number of herbals such as the well known late thirteenth-century manuscript MS British Library, Egerton 747 and copies of the widely disseminated herbal known as Macer floribus. The earliest known verse vernacular copy dates to the second half of the thirteenth-century and is notable for its comment that no physician “should scorn the plants brought by the local ‘wise woman’ in good faith. For her faith and the patient’s hope are powerful factors in the healing process”.(1)

The edible contents of the foragers’ baskets on Naxos and in Tuscany, as noted by Patience Gray as she walked the ancient landscapes, are the same as many of those that appear in the Physique rime: the knowledge of their uses crossing time and geographical boundaries. All that it took was a simple wash under the nearest fountain followed by boiling in water, then the water was drained off and the harvested weeds eaten with olive oil and wine vinegar–a tradition and a dish that defies both time and place.

(1) Tony Hunt, An Old French Herbal (2008), p. 13.

“For English Girls … in the Eastern Empire”: Housekeeping in British India

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen

An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian Empire.
~ Steel and Gardiner

British Bungalow in India During the Raj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
British Bungalow in India During the Raj. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The British Empire at its zenith stretched across more than fourteen million square miles, ruling nearly half a billion people. Social and racial attitudes forged during the long period of colonial and imperial rule still prevail on many levels today. To survive the many unknowns of tropical daily life, British women relied on nineteenth-century household manuals.

Arjun Appadurai, in his much-cited “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India”, commented that “[t]he spread of European ideologies of household management in the colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is an important topic for comparative research.” Books such as these provided more than just recipes; they also outlined cultural beliefs and hinted at the overall agenda of Empire–the so-called civilizing mission, wherein women were expected to create a little England amidst the dust, heat and teeming masses of India.

These prescriptive texts form a sub-set of the larger genre of household manuals, of which Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Managementfondly dubbed Mrs. Beeton–became one of the most popular and long-lived of the nineteenth century. Studying these materials offers culinary historians numerous insights into subliminal communication of “Othering” attitudes by which a relatively small number of British administrators and other personnel ruled the British Empire.

Mrs. Beeton certainly accompanied many women’s voyages out to India, but a whole spate of similar cookbooks, geared specifically toward the Anglo-Indian* housewife, appeared later in the nineteenth century. Women wrote most of these, but some were written by men. For example, Robert Flower Riddell, an Army surgeon at the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court, first published his Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book in 1841. The women had lived through it all, following their husbands from one lonely posting to another, suffering through brutal heat in the tropical sun, challenges of feeding families on slim provender, and dealing with servants.

Flora Annie Steel. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Flora Annie Steel. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best and most thorough of those books was The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, by Flora Annie Steel and Grace Gardiner, dedicated “To THE ENGLISH GIRLS to whom fate may assign the task of being house-mothers in our eastern empire”. The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook followed not only in the footsteps of Mrs. Beeton, but also took heart from a number of other books, such as Riddell’s. Steel and Gardiner’s book underwent at least ten editions between 1888 and 1921 and became the bible of existence for many young English women in India. And elsewhere in the British Empire.

A common theme in these books concerned servants, and more specifically cooks, usually older Muslim men. The creation of social distance made it possible for the household to run as efficiently as the empire, or at least to aspire to do so. Authors accomplished by including derogatory comments, particularly after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Servants were described as dirty, dishonest, and childish. Steel and Gardiner warned young housewives in India to beware of “the dirty habits which are ingrained in the native cook” (13).

Chapter XXI, “Advice to Cook”, spoke directly to the cook (225):

The next point is to keep yourself clean. Cooks must use their hands a great deal. Some things are better done with the hand than with spoon or fork, but not with dirty hands; so keep a piece of soap and a towel handy by the sink for constant use, and don’t use your hands unnecessarily. Don’t, for example, stir eggs into a pudding with your fingers. They do it very badly.

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, and similar household books, promised to turn British women into astute managers who perpetuated the idea of Empire by creating the essence of England in their households… even if those households abutted up to steamy jungles or vast plains on the Indian subcontinent.

As Steel and Gardiner stated (220), these cookbooks assisted them in the

knowledge really required by a mistress which is that of half-practical, half-theoretical and wholly didactic description which will enable her to find reasonable fault with her servants.

In other words, household management books served as reference books. But a close reading suggests that they also served as models for creating the “Other.”

*Anglo-Indian as used here refers to the British housewife, not as the term now denotes people of mixed British and Indian heritage.

All in the mind? Competing models of hysteria in John Ward’s Diaries

By Alanna Skuse

French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

In my previous post, I introduced the diaries of Reverend John Ward, the seventeenth-century vicar of Stratford-on-Avon and sometime medical practitioner. Among Ward’s vast collection of notes on medical and scientific topics were many on sexual behaviour and biology. In this post, I will show how Ward applied his curiosity to the problem of hysteria, aka ‘fits of the mother’ or ‘suffocation of the matrix’.

This topic loomed large in the notebooks, both because Ward sought to better treat the condition in his parishioners, and because he was intellectually interested in the causes of the disease.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was commonly believed that hysteria was caused by the womb ‘wandering’ within the body, impinging on the liver, diaphragm, and other organs. This movement indicated that the womb was quasi-independent of the body; as Jean Riolan put it, ‘a furious Live-wight in a Live-wight’.(1)

Proponents of this theory also believed that the womb could be manipulated back into the proper place using sweet or foul smells. At points, Ward must also have credited this idea, since he recorded (vol. 12, f.107r/v) in the late 1660s that

There is nothing better for a married woman in case of suffocation of the matrix t[ha]n for her husband to anoint the topp of his yard with a litle oil of Cloves-gylliflours and Sweet Almonds together and so ly with her, for this will assuredly bring down the Matrix againe.

Interestingly, however, Ward’s understanding of hysteria and the properties of the womb was not static. Only a few years earlier, he had been impressed by arguments which declared that hysteria arose not from any intrinsic property of the womb but rather from air entering that organ:

I have heard one yt denied utterly yt in hysterical fits ye womb rise at all, only attributed all to wind (vol. 8, f.136r).

In his 1663-5 notebook, he advanced the idea again, this time speculating that wind was one of a number of possible causes of hysteria–which also included ‘ye suffering of ye matrix, either by emptying of a great Burden as after child bearing, or by doing it wrong in wounding itt in bringing forth ye child’ (ibid).

A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

Ward chopped and changed between theories, and his ideas do not show a clear evolution. Interestingly, however, in both the 1664-6 and 1666-9 diaries, Ward wrote with interest about a neurocentric theory of hysteria, which located the cause of the disease in the brain rather than the womb. ‘Dr. Elyot’, wrote Ward, ‘hath this Conception that hysterical fits have their rise from the Brains; and hee illustrates itt thus, pull a Cord, you shall discerne the first straining and breaking at the other end’ (vol. 12, f.95v).

Crucially, this theory implied that hysteria was largely psychological in origin. Indeed, given the right pressures, hysteria could even occur in men (vol. 7, f. 26v):

Some Drs especialy in Oxford now are of opinion that histerical fits are caused by the disposition of the Braine most in Oxford as Mr. Francis said are of this opinion: and that men have the same thing, which some women have, and that Dr Elyot had a patient that had it: and was cured by antihisterical things though hee was a man.

The impact of the neurocentric model on treatments for hysteria is striking. Where the wandering womb was to be lured into place, and the windy womb cured with pills and potions, neurocentric hysteria called for different methods. Ward recalled how one patient patient had her lower legs tied ‘hard with her Garter’ before being made to sneeze (vol. 7, f.47r).

In another case (vol. 9, f. 3v),

Dr Trig cured a woman yt was troubled with hysterical fits thus: hee laid her uppon ye ground with her face downwards yn took up her Coats and gave her 3 or 4 good Claps on ye Arse and thus cured her but I was informed yt hee did this before much Companie wch I scarcly believe.

Did the neurocentric model help women with hysteria, or harm them? On one hand, this approach made hysteria a potentially unisex complaint rather than a symptom of women’s defective bodies. On the other, the treatments inspired by neurocentric theories show a distinct lack of sympathy for, and even humiliation of, the hysteric, who was now treated as psychologically rather than physically ill.

Ward’s diaries provide frustratingly little detail about how Dr. Trig’s patient may have felt about her unorthodox treatment. They do show, however, how an apparently more ‘enlightened’ understanding of hysteria might be made to work against vulnerable patients.

(1) Jean Riolan, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, A sure guide, or, The best and nearest way to physick and chirurgery (1657), p. 85.

Transcribing Early Modern Recipes with the crowd on Shakespeare’s World

By Victoria Van Hyning and Paul Dingman

Shakespeare's World.
Shakespeare’s World. Image courtesy of Paul Dingman.

Since the launch of the Shakespeare’s World crowdsourcing website on December 10, 2015, transcribing receipt book manuscripts has become a highly interesting and fun (some even say “addictive”) project for numerous users, a.k.a. “citizen humanists,” around the world. They come from many walks of life, and many have never studied paleography, but they are keen to contribute and many are gaining new skills, confidence, and knowledge as they make their way through a variety of manuscripts.

Shakespeare’s World started as a collaboration between Zooniverse, an academic crowdsourcing organization based at the University of Oxford, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO), an initiative at the Folger Shakespeare Library which seeks to do for manuscript resources what Early English Books Online (EEBO) has done for printed ones. The goals of Shakespeare’s World are manifold:

  • to generate transcriptions for the Folger’s online EMMO database, which is planned to launch in early 2017
  • to identify new words and word variants from manuscripts, which are currently under-represented in the OED, and add them to the dictionary
  • to serve as an experiment in crowdsourcing for paleography, i.e., letting users transcribe at their own pace — as little as one word or phrase at a time — yet still creating opportunities for thousands of people to try something new and contribute to an important scholarly resource

In November of 2015, the EMMO team examined the current Folger collection and identified 29 digitized manuscripts containing primarily recipes to include in the first batch of images for Shakespeare’s World. Together, these manuscripts amount to approximately 2,200 images and constitute the first of two genres from which users can choose to transcribe when they visit the site (the other starting genre is letters). Additional types of manuscripts will be added in the coming months, and the total volume of material is ~120,000 pages. To date, volunteers have worked on ~2,400 pages.

Some of the receipt books are fairly short, such as V.b.363, a bound manuscript of forty-two pages with entries from multiple hands, and some only have a few pages that have been photographed at this point, such as V.a.425. Others have hundreds of pages in them that have each been digitized, such as V.a.21. All of these receipt books were handwritten in the sixteenth and/or seventeenth centuries. However,  few have received much, if any, scholarly attention until fairly recently, with EMROC and other academics starting to delve into these works.

The citizen humanists on Shakespeare’s World are noting that these receipt books consist of recipes for dishes most of us would recognize today like pudding, cakes, or biscuits, as well as perhaps more unusual concoctions like foole or snail water. Transcribers on the site are also finding that the receipt books include a multitude of home remedies for a variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to seizures to indigestion. By viewing the way recipes for food and medicine are situated next to one another in the receipt books, users are discovering that in early modern times, these concepts were quite literally not far apart.

Example of a manuscript transcription page at Shakespeare's World.
Example of a manuscript transcription page at Shakespeare’s World.  Image courtesy of Paul Dingman.

While the therapeutic efficacy of some of these old remedies may seem doubtful to us in the twenty-first century (or just plain gross), they are nonetheless fascinating, not to mention valuable, as historical sources for understanding this period.

We are very grateful to Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Jen Munroe in the EMROC group for being our guest experts on Shakespeare’s World for the receipt books. They are helping to sustain and stimulate some wonderful conversations on the discussion forum known as Talk, which is a great place for experts and volunteers alike to ask questions, report finds, and swap tips for those of us brave enough to try making some of these early modern recipes in the 21st century!

Victoria Van Hyning is the humanities PI of Zooniverse and an early modernist working on English Catholic women’s autobiography in the period when it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England and parts of the British Isles (c.1535–1790s). She will use the Shakespeare’s World data in her research, in order to look for examples of Catholic women’s writing.

Paul Dingman is the Project Manager for Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He earned a PhD in History with a concentration in medieval/early modern Europe and is especially interested in cultural history and the digital humanities. Before returning to school to pursue his doctorate, Paul worked for several years in the field of information technology.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine