In this two-part post, I will explore several aspects of recipes, cooks, and kitchens as they appear in a twelfth-century herbal. This work gives us rare and valuable evidence for cooking in Anglo-Norman England.
Devotees of medieval cooking have a variety of surviving cookbooks to use. Among the best known are the Forme of Cury and Liber cure cocorum from England, Le Ménagier de Paris and Le Viandier de Taillevent from France, or several versions of the Liber de coquina in Italy. Many of these can be found online, with discussions and modernized recipes, here. Yet all of these cookbooks were produced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and primarily for elite audiences, so they do not reflect cooking in most of the Middle Ages, or for most people.
It is rare indeed to find any culinary recipes before about the year 1300, outside of those in surviving copies of the late Roman cookbook Apicius. Why? To put it simply, manuscript books on parchment were expensive to produce, literacy rates were low, and scribes and authors generally did not consider cooking to be a specialized form of knowledge that needed writing down.
However, some recipes do survive from the High Middle Ages (eleventh through thirteenth centuries), although usually not in formal cookbooks. Rather, they are found in medical contexts, as part of herbals and pharmaceutical manuals, where the authors occasionally indicate which herbs are good in food and not just as medicines.
One such instance is found in the herbal Anglicanus Ortus (“The English Garden”), written by Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon in England, around the year 1135. His herbal is arranged in six books, which contain a total of 160 different herbs and spices, all described in Latin verse (usually with one poem for each herb). Didactic poetry was a popular method for teaching complex material in the twelfth century. For the most part, Henry describes only the medicinal uses of each herb, but he sometimes mentions when an herb, vegetable, or spice can be used in the kitchen—an obvious point to us, but not necessarily obvious in a medicinal herbal.
Henry differs dramatically from other herbal authors of this era (like Macer Floridus or Constantinus Africanus) by introducing fictional characters, who variously encourage him, taunt him, or challenge his knowledge of medicine. These include Apollo, as the god of medicine, a naked old man from the Far East, and a drunken cook (I’ll address him in my next post). Henry modeled this cook on the ancient Roman poet Martial, a personal favorite of his, who bore the nickname Cocus, “the cook”.
Henry’s recipes and descriptions of cooks and kitchens appear particularly in his two poems on parsley, the only plant he treats twice in the herbal, indicating the importance of this common plant to both medieval medicine and cooking. In the first poem on parsley, Henry is the narrator, speaking as an authority on herbal medicine, and he specifically says he will not address cooks, by which he means their culinary recipes. But after he dedicates thirteen lines to a standard list of parsley’s medicinal aspects, Apollo suddenly interrupts him:
I would, of course, have passed over the cooks, but Apollo cries out: ‘Thalia, fetch the cooks and order the doctors to depart!’
Nor did the cook [Martial] who wrote in epigrams spurn the cooks,
and perhaps as long as I follow him, I’ll earn the name of poet. (I.21, 14-17)
It is apt that Apollo invokes Thalia here, for she was the Greek Muse of comedy and bucolic poetry, both genres on view in the Anglicanus Ortus. So, at Apollo’s command and in the spirit of imitating Martial “the Cook”, Henry supplies two recipes for sauces featuring parsley:
This [parsley] is the best herb for mutton, the best for pork.
If you ask the method, I will tell you. I’ll indicate for you
the first meats in the first place, the second in the second.
Take Pennyroyal, Cress, and Parsley;
yet if that herb which the crowd is apt to call ius danna
should be present, use it and not the Cress.
Add Cost to these and mix in a bit of Pepper;
you can now mix these with the mutton drippings.
There will be no other flavor better suited to mutton,
or so they relate who are devoted to these arts.
Take Basil and Savory and Parsley
and Cress, unless ius danna is near to you.
Mix together Pepper and Cumin with these juices.
In such a way, if you are eating cold pork,
no other flavor would be made more pleasing than this.
Both recipes in this one poem are similar to many surviving later medieval recipes for sauce verte or juvert, except in those cases the sauces are thickened with bread or ground nuts, in a wine or vinegar base. Here, the herbs are simply mixed with the hot fat from the mutton, and the sauce is used more like a chimichurri.
The first recipe, employing five herbs, is complex enough that Henry attributes it to experts in cooking, those “who are devoted to these arts”. The first three ingredients (pennyroyal, cress, and parsley) are common to northern Europe and easy to identify in the Latin manuscripts. Cumin, while native to the Mediterranean can grow in southern England today, and could well have done in Henry’s day. I have not been able to identify ius danna, which if it means anything in Latin, could be a corruption of “damned juice” or “juice of the lady”. Whatever it is, Henry considered it a useful and possibly spicy herb that could be used to replace cress. The addition of pennyroyal is disturbing, since it often appears in ancient and medieval texts as an emmenagogue or abortifacient. Pennyroyal is said to have a pleasant, minty taste and does appear in early culinary recipes, but obviously, do not try this at home!
The appearance of cost and pepper suggests that these recipes are intended for a wealthier household. “Cost” is probably the Indian costus root (Saussurea costus), and in its own poem Henry calls it a “famous spice”. As a high-ranking clergyman in the English diocese of Lincoln, Henry probably could afford some exotic spices, and if these recipes are any indication, enjoyed them in his meals.
In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the character of the cook, who gives us a glimpse of medieval attitudes about common vegetables and professional cooks.
Winston Black is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles and chapters on high medieval medicine and pharmacy, scholastic theology, and the intersections between medieval science and religion. His first book, Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century, was published jointly in 2012 by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Library. He is currently preparing a reader in ancient and medieval medicine for Broadview Press, and a new, critical edition of the herbal of Macer Floridus.
Follow him on Twitter @WinstonEBlack