Category Archives: Family and Household

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.


Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Notes from a Newly Discovered English Recipe Book

By Francesca Vanke

Sir Robert Paston (1631-1683) of Oxnead Hall in Norfolk was known in his own time for his loyal support of Charles II, his magnificent house and kunstkammer collection, his political activities, and for his chymical and alchemical pursuits. His family died out in the early eighteenth century with the premature deaths of his grandsons, and today the Pastons are remembered mostly for the famous letters of an earlier generation. However, some seventeenth century items survive: inventories, documents, artefacts and an enigmatic painting The Paston Treasure in Norwich Castle Museum, which depicts some of Robert’s and his father’s collection. (Figure 1). This is the subject of a current research project between Norwich Castle Museum and the Yale Center for British Art, culminating in a joint exhibition in 2018.

The Paston Treasure, anonymous, Dutch School, c1665, oil on canvas, Norfolk Museums Service
The Paston Treasure, anonymous, Dutch School, c1665, oil on canvas, Norfolk Museums Service

Recently further evidence of Robert Paston’s activities was discovered: his manuscript notebook, probably dating from late 1650s-1670s. This comprises some 250 culinary, medical, alchemical, cosmetic and artistic recipes, fascinating both for their variety, and for their varied cited sources. An FRS elected 1661, Paston’s associates included many of the noted scientists and intellectuals of his day, although his most frequent known correspondent and co-experimenter was Thomas Henshaw (1618-1700) with whom he worked for more than twenty years on the ‘red elixir’, a version of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Many of the medical recipes in Paston’s book were not uncommon and may be found in similar form in contemporary English publications such as An English Huswife or The Queen’s Closet Open’d. Others, such as his cure for The Falling Sickness (Figure 2) appear more unusual.

Robert Paston, Earl of Yarmouth, Recipe Book Containing Medical, Chemical and Household Recipes and Formulas. James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Robert Paston, Earl of Yarmouth, Recipe Book Containing Medical, Chemical and Household Recipes and Formulas. James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Remedies for falling sickness appear regularly in English recipe books. The most frequently cited ingredient in these is peony, a plant with ancient precedents for its curative properties. One of Paston’s recipes also cites peony tincture, but the other involves a distillation of chopped magpies ‘intrails, feathers and all’, an ingredient which does not seem to have a ready precedent in English recipe books.

To use live birds in recipes was not unknown. As Michelle DiMeo has commented previously on this blog  ‘oil of swallows’ as an unguent for joint pains appears in several sources in this period. However, research so far has uncovered the use of magpies or, seemingly interchangeably, swallows, for epilepsy, referred to as Aqua picarum epileptica and Aqua Epilepticae Hirundinum, in only two sources apart from Paston’s book.

There appears no obvious rationale for this use of black and white birds, although the similarities in colouring between swallows and magpies do raise the question whether the use of magpies, traditionally considered as magical birds in many cultures, may have arisen initially as a more readily available alternative to swallows, the elusive and migratory habits of the latter perhaps proving somewhat inconvenient. It may have been believed that the colouring was of more significance than the species, and that any black and white bird would be efficacious.

The use of birds to treat epilepsy seems unrelated to their use for aching joints, and the appearance of this recipe in an English book is intriguing. Both the sources uncovered so far are of French origin. The first is Pharmacopœia Galeno-chymica Catholica published in 1656 by Johan Daniel Horst (1616-1685) which, his sub-title states, is post Renodaeus et Quercetanus, namely, after Jean de Renou (1568 – 1620 ) and Joseph du Chesne (c.1544-1609). In 1676, Thomas Sherley’s Medicinal Councels or Advices, a translation from Theodore de Mayerne’s (1573 – 1655) French original, lists a similar recipe, the source of which he cites as Guillaume Rondelet(1507 – 1566) (pg 140).

Robert Paston’s scientific associates included many with European connections such as Samuel Hartlib (ca. 1600 – 1662), Frederick Clodius (1625 – 1661) and Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665), whose close links with French alchemists during his long stays in Paris have recently been explored by Lawrence Principe, in “Sir Kenelm Digby and His Alchemical Circle in 1650s Paris: Newly Discovered Manuscripts.Ambix 60 (2013): 3-24. Paston, who was involved in alchemical pursuits from a young age, also met Theodore de Mayerne, and owned a manuscript, Sloane MS 2222, which once belonged to the famous physician, although the extent and nature of their association is not known.

Jean de Renou, Joseph du Chesne and Guillaume Rondelet were closely connected with Mayerne. As Principe has pointed out, (op cit) Digby associated with du Chesne when in Paris. Robert Paston’s citing of this unusual epilepsy recipe therefore maybe further evidence of his continental contacts and influences, either via Digby, or Mayerne himself.

Research into Robert Paston as an alchemist and chymist is new, but on-going, and his connections with Mayerne and others are only beginning to be considered. This falling sickness recipe suggests that further research in this direction would be fruitful. Promising new material is emerging, and the Norwich/Yale research partnership has provided an unprecedented opportunity for an in-depth focus on this little-known English alchemist. Even preliminary research into Paston and his work has positioned him squarely within the fascinating and important group of scientists operating during this most influential mid seventeenth century period.


Francesca Vanke FSA is Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Art at Norwich Castle. She gained her BA in classics from Oxford, and an MA in art conservation and PhD in history from Camberwell College of Art. Her academic speciality is collecting history, but she researches a wide range of related subjects. Her studies have recently included seventeenth century material culture, alchemy and recipes for the research and exhibition project she is working on, together with the Yale Center for British Art and a group of other curators and scholars.

Tracing Recipes to Kill Vermin

By Lisa Smith

Innocent Sport? T.L. Busby, 1826. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Innocent Sport? T.L. Busby, 1826. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Among the papers of the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall (Warwickshire), I found a pile of loose eighteenth-century recipes. The recipes are practical in nature: remedies for minor ailments, plasters and such for home renovation, medicines for animals, and poisons for killing vermin. It was the poisons that captured my imagination, as such recipes have not appeared in the early modern recipe books that I’ve examined—despite the troubles that would have been caused by vermin on a daily basis. A comparison of the Newdigate recipes with published early modern ones reveals an interesting process of knowledge transmission.

In mid-eighteenth century hand, the Newdigate papers includes the following recipes on one page (Warwickshire CRO CR 136B/2504B):

Poison for Mice or Rats. Roots of white Hellebore & staves are powdered & mixed with wheat Flour. Mr Pennant

D. for Moles. The Roots of Palma Christi & white Hellebore made into a paste & laid in their holes. Mr Pennant

Similar recipes to these appear in a horrible little book, The Vermin-Killer, which was published in seventeen different versions between 1680 and 1790. A how-to manual on the best ways of ridding the household of any type of vermin from adders to weasels, this book includes instructions on trapping (and torturing) animals, as well as several recipes for poison.

In 1680, The Vermin-Killer recommended laying a paste of hellebore leaves, wheat flour, and honey into the holes, ‘where the Rats and Mice come, and when they have eat of it, its Present Death. Approved Paxamus [1st century Greek author of a cookbook]’ (1). A combination of white hellebore, wheat flower, egg white, milk, and wine was also used to get rid of moles: ‘lay little cakes of it in the mouth of the holes, and the Moulds will greedily eat of it, and it certainly kills them, approved Pliny [1st century Roman natural philosopher]’ (10).

By 1710, the book was now rather more grandly titled, The Compleat English and French Vermin-Killer: being a Companion for All Families. The recipes had also changed slightly. To kill rats and mice, the recipe included wheat or barley-flour mixed with honey, metheglin (mead), and bitter almonds, though ‘I think if you mix a little of Helibore Leaves, powder’d with it, its better’ (5). The section on moles was greatly expanded. It included a version of the 1680 recipe in which moles could be destroyed with nut-size ‘pellets’ of the following ingredients strewn about their holes: white or black hellebore, wheat-flour, egg white, milk, and sweet wine or metheglin. The moles would eat the pellets ‘with Pleasure, and it kills them. Approv’d’ (9). But it added one more similar to the Newdigate recipe: pellets made of white hellebore, Palmus Christi root, barley meal, egg white, and wine or mead or milk. This was also ‘Approv’d’ (14).

Credit: Michael David Hill, 2005, Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Michael David Hill, 2005, Wikimedia Commons.

The Vermin-Killer: being a compleat and necessary family-book (1765), drastically changed its layout. Whereas previous editions had started with rats and mice, the mid-eighteenth-century priority (if placement in the book is anything to go by) was bedbugs and lice. The recipes had also been updated. The one to kill rats and mice was nearly the same, but added at the end: ‘Hemlock seed thrown into their holes, kills them’ (10). As to the moles, both recipes remained the same as the 1710 edition, although the ‘approv’d’ tag was dropped for both; indeed, similar tags had been removed from other recipes throughout the book (13, 16).

In 1790, the book was reduced to an eight-page pamphlet: The Vermin-Killer, being a very necessary Family Book. But two recipes were retained. The latest version for killing rats and mice dropped the hemlock and listed fewer ingredients: hellebore leaves, wheat flour and honey (1). Only the first recipe to kill moles remained, but was closer to the 1680 version, specifying once more white hellebore, calling them ‘little cakes’ rather than ‘pellets’, and describing the moles as ‘greedily’ eating them (4).

Although the Newdigate papers listed Mr. Pennant as the source for both recipes, it’s clear that the two recipes came from a long tradition, dating in print to at least 1680 and, in manuscript, to the first century. These recipes, however, were clearly in wider circulation than even The Vermin-Killer editions would suggest. For example, I came across the same recipes in The Sportsman’s Dictionary (1778)  and the American Stockport Advertiser: Notes and Queries vol. 4 (1884). The Naturalist’s Pocket Magazine (1799) refers to the naturalist Thomas Pennant’s recommendation of Palmus Christi oil and hellebore to kill moles (27). Although this is likely the same Pennant referred to by the Newdigates, it is probable that The Vermin-Killer was his source, given his dates (1726-1798). I have so far been unable to trace the book in which Pennant discussed killing moles.

The Newdigates’ ingredient lists and directions are much briefer, suggesting implied—and possibly practiced—knowledge. Obviously a powder of wheat and hellebore would be less tempting than if it was mixed with something sweet, which would also ensure that the poison stuck to the rodent. (This is the logic specified in other similar recipes in The Vermin-Killer.) As to the recipe to destroy moles, the reference to ‘made into a paste’ suggests an implied knowledge of how to make a paste in the first place.

The ingredients remained, more or less, the same over the centuries, suggesting that the recipes were considered useful enough to remain in circulation. However, two issues were new in the eighteenth century. The first is the way in which printed recipes moved away from traditional statements of efficacy. The classical authorities were first dropped (1710), and then the ‘approv’d’ by mid-century. A new form of authority had emerged—that of the learned man of science, Thomas Pennant, who was attributed as the source for a recipe much older than him! One did not have to create knowledge to be credited; one need only be a contemporary authority who deemed the recipe useful.

Credit: .
Credit: .

The second relates to the perception of moles and their behaviour. Mary Fissell has written about the early modern personification of vermin, which emphasised their thieving and greedy behaviour that was a threat to social order. In the Newdigate recipes, there are no references to greedy moles tempted by fanciful little cakes. This is also a description that fades out over the eighteenth century, although it returned in the 1790 version, which is curious. Was the later re-emergence of the description tied more to the growing romantic view of nature than the earlier threat to survival? Or to a growing social concern with the frivolity and parasitic behaviour of the blind, governing elite who also ate little cakes?

The relationship between recipes in print and manuscript is not always so clear-cut, but comparison can be fruitful in uncovering details about the transmission of knowledge: shifting cultural interpretations, changing ideas about efficacy and authority, and usage.


An invitation to EMROC’s Thankful Thanskgiving

For this Thanksgiving, why not try cooking from a seventeenth-century recipe?

EMROC is hosting a transcribe, cook, and post of FB party as its “Thankful Thanksgiving,” and is inviting you to join them.

EMROC would like you to transcribe a recipe from the mid-17th-century cookbook, “Mrs Fanshawes Booke of Physickes, Salues, Waters, Cordialls, Preserues and Cookery”(MS7113), which is housed at the Wellcome Library and available digitally.

If you are interested in participating, visit the EMROC blog!