Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.


[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.


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