Category Archives: Early Modern

Soul Food: Paracelsian Spiritual Mummy and the Virtues of Ingredients

by Jennifer Park

What is it in food that nourishes us? In a curious Paracelsian treatise, Medicina Diastatica, translated into English from the Latin by Ferdinando Parkhurst and published in 1653, it is written that that which is proper for food must be “alible and vitall, because our life and spirit cannot be otherwise sustained, then by the Analogicall and vitall spirit of another” (6). This vital spirit is one that Paracelsus aligns with what he calls spiritual mumie, which can be “taken from a living body” and “separated and prepared accordingly” (8-9).

To explain how the power of this transferable—and ingestible spiritual mummy works, and where to locate it in matter and vitality, Paracelsus compares its virtues to male seed. In the same way that the “seed of man” is “neither part of the man, nor any substantiall of the parts of the same body, but only a power or certain form descending into the Testicles,” and furthermore “augmented by the mechanick and subordinate spirits, and…endued with a multiplying faculty of it self in the place and time appointed by the Liturgie and rule of Nature,” so too spiritual mumie “cannot be part of…the body it selfe; but must of necessity be a kinde of…addition or trajection,” which “dissipates its self, not only amongst the utmost parts of the body, but even into the best disposed matter” (11). In other words, Paracelsus’s spiritual mummy takes on the characteristics of the soul.

It is thus that the soul, or spiritual mummy, “dissipates” itself in matter to be ingested: it “disposeth it self into the alimentall accession of new matter” (12). For Paracelsus, then, spiritual mumie is the key to why various ingredients and simples embody the virtues that they do, and why they might be used in specific types of recipes and remedies, or avoided in other ingestibles for humans. The text mentions that there is a “proper aliment or food ordained for every kinde of Creature” (13). As such, certain animals are able to find nourishment from plants known to be poisonous to humans. For example, a certain kind of fly is able to “feed on the leaves of Napell, by some called Wolfebane,” the starling finds nourishing “Hemlock, which is poysonous to man,” and the quail can feed on “the hearb Hellebore that is noxious to men” (13).

In terms of such “proper aliment,” it is indeed the “Mumie” of the creature which “requireth the proper Mumie of another for the conservation of it self,” in the same way that it was thought that the consumption of bones was needed for bone growth, and the same with flesh for flesh (13). Having made this point, Paracelsus provides a number of recipes or remedies that are in dialogue with analogies in nature that demonstrate the ways in which such spiritual mumie is transferred. The acquiring of mummy is thus essential to curing “Phthysick (or Consumption of the Lungs),” which requires “eating the Lungs of a Fox” for its cure (13-14). So, too, the author reports a remedy from Galen preserving the individual from epilepsy, or the falling sickness, requiring that the “Masculine Paeony” be “hung about one after the manner of an Amulet (or Charm) being gathered in a Balsamick or proper time” (14). These recipes or remedies enable the author to make an argument about how the virtues of spiritual mummy, or the soul, works: it is the “aforementioned faculties or…powers” that “lay hidden in and with the Nerves and strength of its operation,” found in “the Mumie of the Paeony, Rose, or of any other thing” (15).

Martin Schongauer (German, about 1450/1453 – 1491), Studies of Peonies, German, about 1472 – 1473, Gouache and waterolor, 25.7 x 33 cm (10 1/8 x 13 in.), 92.GC.80. Image Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Using these examples, the author seems to attribute to Mumie what others have called sympathies, and provides answers to such mysteries as love potions work to “allure the affections and minds towards this or that party,” as well as provides the explanation for why an ancient fable that recounts how “Tigres and other wilde Beasts have been made tame by being nourished with humane milk,” may not have been simply a fable (15). It is, the author affirms, “Mumie” which is “the cause, foundation, architect, and medium of these things” (15). And thus is mummy Paracelsus’s explanation for the virtues of different natural simples that make them useful in various recipes. Though materia medica and drugs lost their medicinal virtues over time, as Tillmann Taape has examined, Paracelsus’s emphasis is on how despite being “pluckt up and dryed, or in any wise dead,” herbs and plants and other simples are able to retain the virtues of the spiritual mummy that was “first infused into them” (16). Just as we can ingest in “every root of Poeony” what Paracelsus calls an “Antepilepticall faculty” (16) that preserves the consumer from the falling sickness, so too we, and our own spiritual mummy, can continue to be nourished by other herbs and ingredients “till their Mumie is wholly extinguished” (17).

Tales from the Archives — Recipes Against the Supernatural

In September 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have over 600 posts in our archives and over 150 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Today is Halloween. HALLOWEEN! Many of us recipe people who work on the premodern period have a fondness for Halloween, with its connections to charms, alchemy, cauldrons bubbling, and all. Yes, yes, I know… it’s really a love/hate relationship, as we often have to explain to people that supernatural beliefs were rationale and that most recipes weren’t about magic anyhow. But… HALLOWEEN!

To that end, I’ve pulled out only one of our many posts on the magical world. Catherine Rider offers here some thoughts on what charms might tell us about the connection between the supernatural and illness. There is even a protective charm for those ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’…

You never know what might be useful on this day of lowered boundaries between natural and supernatural worlds!


By Catherine Rider

I’ve been thinking recently about a kind of recipe I’ve been collecting for some time, with an eye to using them in a future project: recipes that protect against evil spirits and other supernatural entities. These take the form of charms, made up of spoken and written words, rather than more conventional mixtures of plants or animal parts.  As Laura Mitchell has noted before on this blog, many medieval recipe collections (such as the one in the Wellcome Library pictured below) include charms alongside other remedies.

L0013901 Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century
Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century. Wellcome Library MS 406. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Research by Lea Olsan, Eamon Duffy and other scholars has shown that although some medieval physicians and churchmen were uncomfortable with charms, most writers accepted them as legitimate cures for certain kinds of illness, including bleeding, toothache and epilepsy. They were also often regarded as a mainstream part of religious devotion.[1] Charms to ward off demons are not very common – nowhere near as common as charms against toothache or bleeding – but I’ve found several examples in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century recipe manuscripts.

The version given, in Latin, in a fourteenth-century recipe manuscript published by Fritz Heinrich begins ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen,’ and goes on to list a series of saints and other objects of devotion commonly appealed to in late medieval prayers: Virgin Mary, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Cross and the Passion, and the Five Wounds of Christ. This prayer is to be written down and God is implored to protect the person who wears these words when they are ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’, ‘from every malign demon and every malign spirit and the instigations of the devil.’[2]

This charm, and others like it, are raising quite a few questions for me:

  • Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
    Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

    They’re not that common.  Does that mean that demonic assault was not regarded as a common condition?  We do find accounts of ‘possessed’ people in the miracle collections kept by saints’ shrines, so clearly the idea of demonic attack was not unknown.  However, these cases may have been notable because they were unusual, not necessarily because they were common.

  • What symptoms or conditions were attached to this charm?  The reference to sleeping and ‘especially dreaming’ suggests bad or troubling dreams, rather than an illness. Another possibility is the medical condition which medieval physicians called ‘incubus’, in which a person feels a presence pushing down on them in their sleep.[3]  It is usually equated by historians with the condition now called sleep paralysis.  Educated medieval physicians generally argued that this condition had physical rather than supernatural causes, but they also noted that ‘some people’ believed demons were behind it.
  • There are also questions about continuity and change over the longer term.  Do we get more of these charms from the sixteenth century onwards, when we see rising concerns about witchcraft and more intellectuals taking an interest in demons and demonic illnesses? We know that magical illnesses continued to be a concern and Jennifer Evans discussed some early modern remedies for them in 2012 in a column for the Societas Magica newsletter.  Also, what happens to this kind of medieval charm after the Reformation?  Did it appear too Catholic with its saints and Latin?  Were there Protestant equivalents?  Or did it continue to be copied despite its old-fashioned elements?
  • Was this charm used? And, if so, how? It would need someone who could write it down, and ideally someone who was familiar with Latin. By the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that could include some medical practitioners and educated laypeople, but clergy also owned manuscripts of medical recipes and might be best placed to use this kind of charm.

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but in the long term I’d like to build the charms in to a larger project on supernatural illnesses in medieval medicine and I’m hoping that small pieces of evidence like these might eventually start to offer a bigger picture.


[1] See for example Lea Olsan, ‘Charms and Prayers in Medieval Medical Theory and Practice’, Social History of Medicine 16 (2003), pp. 343-66 (on medical writers); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, CT, 1992), ch. 8 (on charms and religion).

[2] Fritz Heinrich (ed.) Ein Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch (Halle, 1896), p. 166.

[3] Maaike van der Lugt, “The Incubus in Scholastic Debate: Medicine, Theology and Popular Belief,” in Religion and Medicine in the Middle Ages, ed. Peter Biller and Joseph Ziegler (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 175-200.

Recipe transcribathon time!

We are delighted to announce the third annual recipe transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective.

Recipe containing elf hoof from Margaret Baker’s manuscript. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.619.

Fancy taking a dip into some seventeenth-century recipes? Learning a bit about reading old handwriting? And participating in a wider project with lots of other recipe enthusiasts?

Then the EMROC Transcribathon just might be for you!

The goal in previous years has been to take one book and finish a triple-keyed transcription of it over twelve hours. In 2016, 128 people from around the world finished Lady Castleton’s book, and in 2015, we had ninety-three transcribers complete Rebeckah Winche’s book.

This year, EMROC is trying something a little different. Rather than focus on one book, there will be a BANQUET OF BOOKS. As Amy Tigner of EMROC explains,

Our goal is to have 10 completed texts this year, that is 10 triple-transcribed and vetted early modern recipe books that can be downloaded in a searchable pdf. We currently have a number of texts that are either partially transcribed or fully transcribed but not completely vetted. So, in working to complete these texts we will be offering a banquet of possibilities for those interested in learning more about early modern recipes and paleography.

Page from Cromwell’s book, with code. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.8.

The three books on offer are: Margaret Baker, Susannah Packe, and Letitia Cromwell. I have a soft spot for Baker, having worked on her book with my Digital Recipe Books Project module last year. (The class blogged about it here  and developed a contextual online exhibition about the book here.) The Baker manuscript has many intriguing elements, such as excerpts from published medical and alchemical treatises and a recipe that calls for elf hoof! But the other books have their delights, as well. Cromwell has a recipe for the proverbial humble pie and a page written in code, while Packe has a great sections with candy, fruit wines, and beer.

For those who like things a little easier, I recommend Baker (almost entirely one hand, fairly clear, throughout) or Packe (one easy and neatly spaced hand, and one slightly harder, messier hand). Cromwell, with its mix of hands will appeal more to those with experience.

Example from Packe’s book. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, Va215.

EMROC also has helpful guides to doing transcription and how to use the online transcription tool, Dromio. You can also send in your questions to other transcribers on Twitter or by commenting on the EMROC blog posts (https://emroc.hypotheses.org) that day. If you have never used Dromio before, please feel free to take a peek behind the scenes, try it out, and send in your questions. (Instructions here for getting involved and accessing Dromio.)

Interested? Then please mark your calendars for NOVEMBER 7. I’ll be kicking things off in the U.K. from 12:30-4:30 p.m. GMT, both virtually and from the University of Essex Colchester campus. And several American groups will be joining in from 9:00 a.m. EST.

If you’re joining virtually, please keep checking the EMROC blog, Facebook page, Twitter account (@EMRecipesOnline) and Twitter hashtag (#EMROCtranscribes) for updates, or to join in the conversation. We hope that you will let us know about your experience and tell us any interesting find or puzzling conundrum you discover!

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 1

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

La Varenne’s Ham Omelette

(Recipe #76)

Simply take a dozen eggs, and break them, saving only half the egg whites. Beat them together. Take your ham, and prepare as necessary (chop / dice / etc). Mix it with your eggs. Then, take some lard, melt it, and throw it in your eggs, making sure not to overcook the mixture. Serve.

The omelette lulls the novice cook into complacency. While it only requires a few ingredients, it demands skill, confidence, and timing to pull off with panache. One eggshell in the mix, an overly heated pan, or the unsuccessful flip, and the entire effort falls flat. Cooked to perfection, it represents the quintessence of modern French cuisine. It draws together fresh ingredients, developed for flavor. Simplicity and balance marry creamy texture and delicate, fluffy eggs.

Ever curious archivists, we wondered where the omelette made an early impression. We’ll be honest; we were a little hungry that brainstorming day. While this seemingly humble dish has become a brunch and Tuesday evening staple in our repertoires, the hunt was on to find its initial publication in a historic cookbook. A bit of determined searching later, we found a likely early contender.

Le cuisinier françois… Paris: Chez Pierre David, 1652.

In his 1651 cookbook Le Cuisinier François  (hereafter LCF), François Pierre de la Varenne helped transition France away from an Italian-style of cooking requiring expensive imported spices into its modern form. La Varenne was not solely responsible for altering the state of cooking, but he was the first to put these innovations in writing.

LCF contains over eight-hundred recipes divided by courses, soups and broths, starters, second courses, and small dishes. The first recipe describes “La manière de faire le Böuillon pour la nourriture de tous les pots, soit de potage, entrée, ou entre-mets [the manner of making bouillons for stews, soups, main courses, and small dishes]…” Beginning with the basics—seasoning broth—La Varenne built upon foundations to introduce dishes like bisques and pottages.

Instructing cooks to prepare locally-sourced ingredients in a recognizably “French-style” reinforced a sense of transferable cultural heritage connected to food. While the English and Italian cookbooks of its time offered primarily recipes more akin to potions or subsistence-level fare, this book emphasized the development of flavors in seasonal, taste-based dishes. Instead of tending toward preserves and the extension of foodstuff, La Varenne introduced foundational flavoring methods still in use today. La Varenne printed the earliest instructions for the roux, the béchamel sauce, and notably, the omelette.

LCF presupposed readers understood proportions, could adapt ingredients when necessary, and could interpret directions like “heat” or “boil” to suit their “kitchen” environments. By prioritizing the combination of  ingredients for flavor and texture, alongside instructions for presenting the dish in an appealing fashion, La Varenne established a new format for cookbooks. His legacy thus relies both on its place in the history of cooking in France and its status as printed object.

La Varenne, a commoner, started cooking as an apprentice in a local kitchen, participating in the guild system as a cook and eventually rising to the rank of kitchen clerk for Louis Chalon du Blé, Marquis d’Uxelles (1619-1658). As kitchen clerk for the Marquis’s household, La Varenne was responsible for all food service. His rise to this status was exceptional, as the role of kitchen clerk was traditionally reserved for nobility.

His humble roots and unprecedented success perhaps inspired him to share his passion with the general public, who he addressed so fondly throughout his career. In LCF he includes a letter which reads:

Dear Reader, in recompense all that I would ask of you is that my book be for you as pleasurable as it is useful.

By encouraging utility and enjoyment, La Varenne made cooking more than just a necessity, but a skill that could be elevated to an experience in even a modest household.

Cooking in medieval and early modern France had been largely a profession that relied upon oral transmission of secret knowledge through the guild system. Membership within the trade guild established apprenticeships and monitored job opportunities for individual cooks who worked in the large houses of the French aristocracy.

For two centuries prior to La Varenne’s text, perhaps in part due to the control enforced by the guild system, French cuisine languished, with no new cookbooks coming to market. Both English and Italian cookbooks dominated. In placing acquired knowledge in a sustainable, replicable form in the printed book, LCF circumvented time-honored traditions of gaining information. By presenting professional secrets to an open marketplace, this text suggested cooking was within reach for whomever had the means to purchase the book.

This quite naturally spurred controversy within the cooking community and sparked conversations about how much information should be shared. Despite the controversy—or perhaps because of the controversy—given England’s own rocky political situation in the 1650s, LCF was the first known cookbook translated from French in English in 1653. It remained a bestseller in both forms into the eighteenth century. Within the first 75 years, LCF had gone into 30 editions (Scully 11). Its ground-breaking translation, titled The Frenchy Cook, went into 61 editions before 1754.

While moveable type dated back to Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1440s, the seventeenth century encouraged the spread of print culture as general costs went down. Texts like LCF could be more easily exchanged, copied, and even translated for travel across the channel, especially as cities such as Paris and Amsterdam served as printing hubs.

Polly Russell, curator at the British Library,  explains that La Varenne’s cookbook was marketed to ‘every private family, even to the husband-man or labouring-man, wheresoever the English tongue is, or may be used.’ And the cookbook remained an international bestseller until the French Revolution!

To be continued…

From an English translation of La Varenne: The French Cook (London, 1653), p. 95.

Sources

John Crerar Collection of Rare Books in the History of Science and Medicine

La Varenne, François Pierre de, Le Cuisinier François (1651).

La Varenne, François Pierre de, and Scully, Terence. La Varenne’s Cookery : the French Cook ; the French Pastry Chef ; the French Confectioner. Blackawton, Totnes, U.K., Prospect Books, 2006.


About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.