All posts by laurencetotelin

I am a lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University (United Kingdom). My research focuses on the history of Greek and Roman pharmacology and botany, with a special emphasis on gender. I have my personal blog, Concocting History, where I discuss more recipes and at times experiment with ancient concoctions:

Henri’s kitchen: 3. Croque Madame

Harry Hayfield, a resident of Ceredigion in Wales, has long had an interest in the stories of the Musketeers which are set in early 17th century France, this led in turn to an interest in the Stuart period of history and joining a living history group. However, as a registered carer for his grandparents, he is unable to get to many of the events and yet wanted to do something to help. One day he was watching “The Little Paris Kitchen” broadcast on the BBC and thought “These are recipes designed by the French, therefore could they be converted in the 17th century versions of themselves?”. Doing some research he found that they could. Harry will therefore contribute four of the recipes as shown in the programme as if cooked by Henri de Ceredigion (Harry’s Stuart persona) a cadet member of the Musketeers, with able assistance from Planchet, his manservant cum stable lad.

Whenever I invite people to have a meal with me, they are always very surprised by how little I actually have. I explain this by saying that both Planchet and myself are very careful about what we eat for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t want to be as big and rotund as Athos and secondly, I have always had a very small appetite and therefore all my meals are very small. That does not mean that they are boring, as demonstrated when Planchet introduced me to what he called Croque Monsieurs, which were absolutely delicious, but so filling I could only manage one of them. So I wondered if I could make a version just a little smaller, and that’s when I came up with the idea of Croque Madames (after all, most ladies are smaller than me) with a few English connections.

The first thing that you need is to make a sauce, which is the simplest thing in the world to do. Take a knob of butter and melt it in a pan, then take roughly the same amount of flour, give it a good mix then pour a good quarter pint (English I should point out) of milk slowly into the mixture whilst still mixing. Then, depending on your opinion on the subject, add some mustard and then start to make your croques. These are so simple even Porthos could make them (but don’t tell him that I said he was simple). First you take a loaf of bread and slice it into as many slices are you want croques, ignoring the comments from a certain manservant about how dull and uninspiring that sounds, then cut off the crusts. Then flaten them with a roll until they are as half as thick as they were to begin with and then brush them with butter on both sides. This is the get the crunch. As Planchet has often told me “Monsieur, no crunch, no croque”, and who I am to argue with him!
A nice piece of ham for my croque madame. Credit: Wellcome Images.
Place the buttered slices into a cup, adding some ham, a small egg and the sauce last of all before dusting them with a liberal amount of cheese of your own choice and brushing the exposed pieces of bread with some more butter before placing into the oven. Now, depending on how runny you like your egg, you leave them in for about fifteen minutes for a soft egg (as Planchet prefers) or twenty minutes for a set egg (as I prefer). Once you take them out of the oven, don’t worry if the edges of the bread look a little burnt as this adds to the crunch. Then simply serve and enjoy your meal as myself and Planchet will in about thirty minutes, as writing about these has made me rather peckish. Planchet, have you got any sliced bread not doing anything? I would like a Madame.


Theodorus Priscianus’ recipes for breast engorgement

By Louise Cilliers

We know very little about Theodorus Priscianus, only that he was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4th century CE), and was thus also a native of North Africa. We can also deduce that he was a professional doctor. The work for which Theodorus is known, is the Euporiston (a book of easily obtainable remedies), which consists of four books of medical recipes, of which the fourth, the Gynaecia, contains treatments for women’s diseases. Due to its practical applicability, the Gynaecia was very popular in the later Middle Ages; it was excerpted on numerous occasions.

A carving showing a Roman midwife, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The Gynaecia is dedicated to a midwife, a certain Victoria. In his preface, Theodorus states that he wants to “support her with his knowledge”, and he requests her to “faithfully, diligently and carefully… carry into effect the remedies for female ailments” as set out in his treatise. This knowledge was then to be disseminated among midwives and other women to help them in treating ailing women.

Theodorus’ Gynaecia comprises recipes for ten female ailments which he discusses. They are: engorgement of the breasts after parturition, swelling or contraction of the uterus, the mole, atresia, sterility, abortion, haemorrhage of the uterus, injuries to the uterus, the flux, and gonorrhoea. I will focus on engorgement of the breasts after parturition.

This is a very common problem that women experience after having given birth, and various procedures, such as poultices laid on the breasts, were followed in ancient times. Medicaments, made from vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen, were also given. Theodorus clearly has empathy with women whose breasts are taut, swollen or painful after birth. In not too serious cases, he recommends that a soft sponge soaked in a mild astringent, such as vinegar, be applied to the breast, and held in place by a light bandage. Alternatively soothing poultices, for instance, bread soaked in water-mead and oil or fresh pork fat can be laid on the breasts.

If the problem of engorgement has been resolved but the mother still wants to feed the baby, the breasts should be smeared with rush, egg and saffron, or crushed raisins mixed with the flour of beans, or pounded sesame seed mixed with vinegar and honey, or a mixture of pounded leaves of ivy and figs, or (even more directly from the kitchen) fresh pounded cheese with vinegar-honey – if these substances be made into a poultice, they would apparently have increased the fecundity of the milk.

If the patient cannot bear the weight of the poultice, the breasts must be steamed, and an even softer sponge soaked in an extract of marsh mallow, linseed and fenugreek plants be applied.

Purslane, one of the plants used in ancient breast poultices. Credit: Wellcome Library,

But if milk production should be stopped completely, alum or the seed of fleawort or coriander of purslane must be added to the aforementioned poultice, or the powder of a pounded millstone mixed with a wax salve should be applied. But if the breast has produced pus, it must be opened with appropriate aid, so that with one voiding they can be healed completely.

Throughout Theodorus warns that medicaments should be mild, and that all poultices should be applied with moderation, with consideration for the tender breasts.

Further reading:
You can find the text of Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston (in Latin) here.

Henri’s kitchen: 2. Chouquettes

Harry Hayfield, a resident of Ceredigion in Wales, has long had an interest in the stories of the Musketeers which are set in early 17th century France, this led in turn to an interest in the Stuart period of history and joining a living history group. However, as a registered carer for his grandparents, he is unable to get to many of the events and yet wanted to do something to help. One day he was watching “The Little Paris Kitchen” broadcast on the BBC and thought “These are recipes designed by the French, therefore could they be converted in the 17th century versions of themselves?”. Doing some research he found that they could. Harry will therefore contribute four of the recipes as shown in the programme as if cooked by Henri de Ceredigion (Harry’s Stuart persona) a cadet member of the Musketeers, with able assistance from Planchet, his manservant cum stable lad.

There is nothing nicer after a hard day’s training as a cadet to get back to my digs, command “Planchet, chouquettes please!” and know that about half an hour later you can be doing a very good impression of Athos at a grand dinner relaxing and enjoying life. I’ll admit that when Planchet first introduced them to me, I wasn’t entirely sure about them, but once I tasted one I couldn’t have enough. And what are these little wonders, you may be asking? Basically little pastries that, ooooh, you cannot describe without having experienced them first. So, if you fancy making some, here’s how you do it. First you take a quarter of a cup of water (and before you hold your hands up in horror, don’t worry, this is freshly collected rainwater, I know to avoid the stuff in the streets), the same amount of milk, a little salt and a little sugar, some butter, roughly the length of your index finger, chopped into small pieces. Put it all in the pot. Then add a third of a small packet of flour and mix. Now, when I first made this, at this stage it just looked, well, wrong is the only word I used. It was lumpy and reminded me of very badly made porridge. But Planchet was on hand to help and spent the next several minutes mixing it so hard that by the time it had turned into a solid mass, he was breathing hard. When it reaches that point, place it in a bowl and then move on to the next ingredient.

Chouquettes. Credit: Aerith, Wikipedia

That ingredient is eggs; however, do not do what I did the first time I made this on my own, because if you add the eggs now, they will scramble, and although I like scrambled eggs of a morning, that’s not what I was wanting to make, so here’s a little tip from Planchet. Give the mass a stir until the pastry is cool enough so that it is still warm but nothing like as hot as when it came out of the pot. Add the eggs and keep on stirring as you do so and don’t worry if it looks like it has all gone wrong, you are on precisely the right path, as you want to end up with something that looks like mud in terms of its consistency. Then you put that into a special bag for piping, available from any half decent chef ,or in my case, my manservant, and then it comes to piping it. Now, there’s a special technique for this. In order to pipe properly make the shape of a letter L with your thumb and finger next to it; then turn the shape around, place your thumb part of the shape to the left of the bag and then wrap the other finger around and you are ready to go. Hold the bag upright and count to three whilst squeezing at the top and, if you will pardon the term, voila, chouquettes! Then, if you can get any, dust with icing sugar and decorate with either small pieces of chocolate or if you like, small pieces of cheese, although technically that will turn them into gorcherge, but that is purely personal preference.

Now comes the tricky part of the whole exercise: baking them. Ideally they need to be baked until the smell of baking fills the kitchen and here is where the problems can start. We first made this on a very hot day and so had all the windows and doors open, just as we finished making them the local priest walked in, quite unexpectedly and asked if we would be willing to donate anything to help raise funds. All we had were these chouquettes so we asked if that would be all right. He popped one into his mouth and collapsed with desire before placing the rest into a bag, blessing us and walked back the way he had come. So we had to make another set; however that version caught the attention of Athos and I regret to say that his reputation precedes him. He managed to devour four sets of them before he had his fill. If that wasn’t bad enough, just as we thought we would have some to ourselves, lots of children starting rapping at our door asking for some. So a word of advice: never bake these on the hottest day of the year or if you have to then, do it during the coolest part of the day. If you do manage to get them out of the oven before anyone realises that you have, make sure they are nice and golden brown and devour before anyone gets the chance to pinch them.

Distilling and Deflowering

A friar in an apothecary
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By Peter Murray Jones

Between 1416 and 1425, English friars put together a Latin medical handbook. This handbook, called the Tabula Medicine (‘Table of Medicine’), mostly consisted of remedies, arranged alphabetically by name of ailment, instead of the head to toe order of the standard medical Practica. The friars seem to have assembled the text by accumulating remedies in a sort of medieval Wikipedia. Some copies preserve the ‘open’ format by leaving room for additional remedies under each heading.[1]

Many remedies are medicinal recipes culled from books. Most often they cite the works of Avicenna, Galen and native authorities, Gilbertus Anglicus, Bernard de Gordon, John of Gaddesden, and John Arderne. But a lot of other remedies are attributed to English friars who flourished c.1370-1420.[2] The friars mentioned were identified as authorities (expressed as “per fratrem Peter Russell”, for example) for recipes of all kinds. But they had a particular fondness for distillations. Under the heading “Gutta arthetica” (Gout of the joints), we find:

King’s MS 16, fol.1. The opening of the Tabula medicine

“According to brother William Holme, for cold gout take the dregs of a pottle (two quarts) of beer; boil down a pennyweight of boar’s flesh for a day, stirring it with a ladle; and take a handful each of chamomile, pellitory, cowslip, lavender, honeysuckle, and marjoram. Cut up the cooked meat and the herbs into tiny pieces and distill together with the dregs in an alembic. The water collected in a glass can be kept and used as wanted.  Apply it warm, and it is called flesh-water.”

Holme, like Hieronymus Brunschwig, held that distillation ensured your remedy did not go off.

More ambitious distillations aimed at producing the heavenly quintessence, or at the very least aqua ardens (burning water). The friars must have had a copy of John of Rupescissa, Liber de consideratione quintae essentie to hand, for they quote from it accurately under headings for “Cor” (Heart), “Demon,” “Facies” (Face), “Frenesis” (Frenzy), “Melancholia,” “Spasmum” [Convulsion] and “Venenum” (Poison). They never identify him by name, although Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar, writing from prison in France c.1350. Under the heading “Facies”, they tell us that wild strawberries are a hundred times more powerful against outbreaks of pustules on the face if administered as a quintessence. Rupescissa uses exactly the same words at two points in his text. We are not told in the ‘Table of Medicine’ how to extract a water from wild strawberries and combine it with quintessence, although Rupescissa does give a recipe.

The only heading in the ‘Table of Medicine’ that names a remedy instead of an ailment is “Balsamum” (Balsam). Native balsam was extraordinarily rare and expensive in late medieval Europe, in all its three forms, and friar William Holme is credited with two different recipes for making an ‘Artificial Balsam.’ One simply requires powdered exotic spices to be put successively into hot but not boiling oil. The second requires small quantities of natural balsam, as well as twenty-five other ingredients. They are mixed and pulped in a mortar before distillation. This distillate comes in three degrees of strength, and is said to be just as effective as the native kinds in treating a long list of ailments. Holme is the only one of the friars mentioned in the ‘Table of Medicine’ who can now be identified as author of a surviving text, De simplicibus medicinis (‘On medicinal simples’) of 1415. This was “deflowered” as the bibliographer John Bale later put it, by Holme “from twelve doctors of medicine”. The ‘Table of Medicine’ itself went in for “deflowering”, though it also credited experienced friar practitioners.

King’s MS 16, fol. 144. Wistanton’s recipe for distilling blood and Forman’s hand in the margin.

Friar Robert Wistanton gives a recipe to make use of distilled human blood in surgery. The blood is kept for forty days in a glass vessel under dung, then cooked in a copper pot for a day, cooled, then skimmed. Afterwards it is distilled with a filter, mixed with aqua ardens, then distilled again with an alembic, and that distillate is the best of all waters. It will consolidate a wounded limb within three days and heal the sick. What remains in the bottom of the vessel should be kept, cooled and dried, and the resultant powder is best for fractured bones. Friars were not supposed to dabble in alchemy and surgery, but that does not seem to have stopped Wistanton and his brothers.

King’s MS 16, fol. 8b. Insert in Forman’s hand on Catalepsis.

In 1574 Simon Forman, astrologer and alchemist, purchased a manuscript of the ‘Table of Medicine’ in Oxford. He added recipes drawn from his own experience, or from Andrew Boorde’s Breviary of Healthe (1557), in the margin opposite the entries for particular illnesses. He also interleaved the manuscript to add remedies for illnesses not covered in the ‘Table of Medicine’. In this enhanced form the text continued in use into the seventeenth century.[3]

[1] Peter Murray Jones, “The ‘Tabula medicine’: an Evolving Encyclopedia,” English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, vol. 14, Regional Manuscripts 1200-1700, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (2008), 60-85.

[2] Peter Murray Jones, “Mediating Collective Experience: the Tabula Medicine (1416–1425) as a Handbook for Medical Practice,” in Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval & Early Modern Europe, ed. Florence Eliza Glaze and Brian K. Nance (Florence: SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011), 279-307.

[3] Cambridge, King’s College MS 16. See Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London. Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist and Physician (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

Peter Murray Jones: I am Fellow Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge and a historian of medieval medicine. I have a particular interest in relations between knowledge and practice as expressed through recipes. My current project is on the contribution of friars to practical medicine and science in late medieval England.