Category Archives: Knowledge Transmission

What’s in a name: Plaster of Paris

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the problems we face as historians studying and reconstructing recipes is that the names describing ingredients, tools, and materials change over time, and that the meaning of terms itself changes over time. This is even the case with relatively recent recipes and materials that are in theory unchanged as I recently discovered. As part of my research for the ARTECHNE project, I recently looked at instructions for making anatomical casts from plaster from 1791.

Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons' Hall Museums, RCSEd.
Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons’ Hall Museums, RCSEd.

The creation of anatomical casts and models using plaster of Paris became increasingly popular towards the end of the eighteenth century, fuelled by the omnipresence of plaster in the visual arts and interior decoration, and the increasing importance of pathology and later physiognomy within the study of medicine. The latter meant that medical men were looking for durable three-dimensional ways to preserve diseased bodies and body parts that could not be preserved otherwise (e.g. in a preparation), either because decay could not be stopped or because the patient was still alive.

Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72
Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of
the Royal Academy, 1771-72. Note the plaster models of antique statues around the room.

In his 1790 book The Anatomical Instructor, physician Thomas Pole (1753-1829) not only gave advice on how to make anatomical preparations and drawing, but also included over fifty pages on how to create, colour, repair and maintain plaster casts and models. Pole started the chapter on modelling with outlining the relevance of the quality of the plaster of Paris, or calcined alabaster, that was to be used. He explained that

Illustration of how to make a cast of a diseased bone from Pole's 1790 'Anatomical Instructor'
Illustration of how to make a mould of a diseased bone from Pole’s 1790 ‘Anatomical Instructor’

“…that of a middling price is used for making of moulds; the finer sort is for casts, to be poured first into the mould, when properly prepared; after it has formed a layer of about half an inch, more or less, according to circumstances, then the coarser sort is to be used to fill up the mould, or to give it sufficient thickness.”[1]

But exactly what were the various qualities of plaster for sale in London in the 1790s made of? The term ‘calcined alabaster’ tells us little, as alabaster was and is a collective noun that designates both various kinds of light-coloured, translucent and soft stone used mainly for carving decorative artefacts (often the minerals gypsum or calcite – the former much softer than the latter), and a specific compact and fine-grained variety of gypsum. In the decades after Pole’s publication, the French chemist Antoine François de Fourcroy (1755 –1809) would distinguish nine kinds of calcareous sulfate, one of which was sulfate of lime or common gypsum. In an 1810 ‘dictionary of the arts’ Fourcroy’s sulfate of lime or common gypsum was described as follows:

“Sulphat of lime, or common gypsum, or plaster-stone. This substance is white, more or less inclining to grey, interspersed with small brilliant crystals, easily cut with a knife. it is found disposed in Paris. We shall hereafter find, that it is not pure selenite, but owes its most valuable property, as plaster, to the admixture of another kind of earth. (…) Calcareous sulphat is likewise found dissolved in waters, as in the well-waters of Paris; it is never pure, but always combined with some other earthy salt, with base lime or magnesia. This salt has no apparent degree of taste. It decrepitates if a sudden heat be applied to it; it is then of an opaque white, in which state it is called fine plaster, or plaster of Paris: by this calcination it loses about twenty in one hundred.”[2]

Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.
Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.

As this fragment suggests, plaster of Paris indeed derives its name from a large and very pure gypsum deposit at the Montmartre and Menilmontant hills in Paris – there were plaster quarries at this site at least as early as the year 500. This led “calcined gypsum” (roasted gypsum or gypsum plaster) to be commonly known as “plaster of Paris”, even after the exhausted quarries were converted into Montmartre cemetery and the Buttes de Chaumot gardens respectively in the mid-nineteenth century. Although not all plaster came from Paris at the time Pole was writing, there is a fair chance that much high-quality plaster was indeed plaster from Paris.

Today, gypsum plaster, or plaster of Paris, no longer comes from Paris, but is still produced by heating powdered gypsum to about 150 °C. When mixed with water, this forms a paste that will harden within minutes, producing an exothermic reaction, which means it warms up. You can easily buy ‘plaster of Paris’ from artist’s supplies shops and online retailers, but none of these mention the exact chemical composition. Yet before I (or anyone else) can try my hand at reconstructing Pole’s instructions I will need to find out whether the best, finest plaster of Paris still contains a percentage of lime or magnesia, what the ‘coarser varieties’ that Pole described contained, and whether these are still available.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718), and was supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant number 203403/Z/16/Z).

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p. 202-3.

[2] Wilkes, John. Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts. Vol. 4. London: J. Adlard, 1810: p. 230.

 

From Dificio di ricette to Bâtiment des recettes: The Afterlife of Italian Secrets in France

By Julia Martins

Title page of the 1574 edition of the Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricett. Image from Archive.org. 

In 1525 a book called Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricette was published in Venice. The book promised to reveal all kinds of secrets to the reader, from cosmetic to medical recipes. This anonymous Italian best seller (which we may call in English ‘Palace of Recipes’) was a collection of 187 short and straightforward recipes, most of them only 5 or 10 lines long. The printer combined utilitarian and pragmatic secrets (including treatment of everyday ailments) with playful elements. Indeed, a taste for the wonderful and a desire to entertain guests were a vital component of this book. After all, the printer included instructions to perform magic tricks such as ‘how to make a candle burn under water’. The work was a commercial success in Italy, and was reprinted 28 times in the forty years after its publication.

The Dificio di ricette also circulated across Europe in many different languages, giving it a truly Pan-European flavour. The work was translated into French in 1539 and in 1545, also translated into Dutch via the French translation. This kind of indirect translation was common in the secrets genre. As William Eamon has shown, Alessio’s Secrets were also translated in English through the French translation. It is notable that in both cases, the French translation served as a cultural and linguistic mediator and it was in France that the Palace of Recipes reigned supreme.

Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560
Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560

Titled the Bâtiment des recettes, the French edition of the work found even greater success than the Italian one. Between its first French publication in 1539 and the final edition in 1830, the book was published 60 times. The main reason for this enduring success is probably the fact that, in 1631, the Bâtiment des recettes was added to the series of books printed in Troyes and commonly known as the ‘Bibliothèque Bleue’, since all the editions had blue covers. This collection of cheaply printed booklets included many books of secrets, and the Bâtiment des recettes continued to be sold in France until well into the 19th century.

What makes the Bâtiment des recettes so interesting is that it is not simply a translation of the Dificio di ricette. Rather it is a collection of different texts, themselves anonymous compilations of recipes. These include a collection of 26 ‘Secrets Specially Proposed for Women’ added by the printer Jean III Du Pré in 1539 and the ‘Pleasant Garden’ (Plaisant jardin) added in 1551. A translation from Italian, the ‘Pleasant Garden’ consisted of 202 varied medical recipes ‘developed by doctors very experts in physic’. Therefore, this 1560 edition contained more than double the number of recipes in the original Italian Palace.

Of the many editions of the Dificio, the 1560 French edition proved particularly popular and was most reprinted. Recently, Geneviève Debloc published an annotated critical edition of the 1560 edition of the Bâtiment des recettes. This is a very useful tool for historians, tracing the several different additions and suppressions in the Bâtiment des recettes throughout its four centuries of history, as well as providing us with tables that offer a systematic account of the ingredients used in the recipes (see my review here).

Thanks to digitisation and new critical editions, a growing number of early modern sources are becoming more easily accessible to scholars. We can compare and contrast complex texts, as in the case of the Dificio. Through a bibliographical approach, we are given the opportunity to read an important primary source in the history of knowledge in a new way – at the crossroads of the history of the book and the history of technologies in tracing the evolution in the composition of the text (including paratextual materials and changes in vocabulary), it is possible to understand how multiple agents were involved in the production of the book, from translators to printers. The Bâtiment des recettes can therefore be understood as both process and final product of these interventions. Through its fragmentary and polymorphic constitution, this re-edited recipe book gives us compelling insight into early modern life in France and Italy and its medical practices.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Julia Martins is a PhD student at the Warburg Institute in London. Her research focuses on recipes about female fertility in Italian books of secrets (as well as their translations) from 1555 to 1700. Her aim is to show how knowledge about “women’s secrets” circulated in early modern print, drawing a comparison between Italian and French books of secrets and English midwifery manuals.

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.

A 17th-Century Italian’s Encounter with Uzbek Plov

By Scott Levi

img_0250
A mountain of pumpkins at the Alayskii Market in Tashkent

The Venetian doctor Niccolao Manucci lived in India for some fifty-five years, nearly his entire adult life. Working in a variety of capacities on behalf of his Mughal hosts, in the middle of the seventeenth century he found himself at the court of emperor Aurangzeb, who in 1658 ascended the throne in place of his father, Shah Jahan.

Twelve years earlier, Shah Jahan had placed Aurangzeb at the head of an army charged with marching across the Hindu Kush and retaking the Mughals’ ancestral homeland in Central Asia. The Mughal occupation of Balkh, near the banks of the Amu Darya, ended in failure and a disastrous retreat. Now, with Aurangzeb on the throne, the Uzbek ruler of Balkh, Subhan Quli Khan, dispatched an embassy to the new emperor in the hope that the two powers could once again enjoy peaceful relations.

India’s hot climate disagreed with the Uzbek nobles, and when one of the ambassadors fell sick Manucci himself was charged with caring for him and seeing to his recovery. This provided Manucci with the opportunity to become personally acquainted with the Central Asian visitors, and, much to his dismay, even share meals with them. His experience is instructive in how Mughal customs had changed over the century and a half since the dynastic founder, Babur (1483–1530), had made his way to India in the wake of the Uzbek invasion of the Timurid capital of Samarqand.*

It was disgusting to see how these Uzbak nobles ate, smearing their hands, lips, and faces with grease while eating, they having neither forks nor spoons…Mahomedans are accustomed after eating to wash their hands with pea-flour to remove grease, and most carefully clean their moustaches. But the Uzbak nobles do not stand on such ceremony. When they have done eating, they lick their fingers, so as not to lose a grain of rice; they rub one hand against the other to warm the fat, and then pass both hands over face, moustaches, and beard. He is most lovely who is the most greasy… The conversation hardly gets beyond talk of fat, with complaints that in the Mogul territory they cannot get anything fat to eat, and that the pulāos are deficient in butter.

Plov is an exceptionally hearty Central Asian variant of what is widely known in Turkish, Persian and Indian cuisine as a pilaf or pulao. In essence, each is a dish of seasoned rice, often cooked in a stock, and generally including a combination of spices, vegetables and proteins designed to make the dish a rich and tasty centerpiece to a meal. Even within their respective regions, each is differentiated in terms of cooking techniques and they exhibit endless local variations in the customary combination of vegetables, nuts, fruits and meats (if any). One may find garlic, onions and carrots alongside raisins and chickpeas, while other variations may favor lentils, peas, almonds, pistachios, barberries and even pomegranate seeds. Instead of lamb, one may also find chicken, beef and even variants calling for fish or horsemeat.

Fat-tailed sheep in Khoqand, Ferghana Valley
Fat-tailed sheep in Khoqand, Ferghana Valley

Dumba is the single ingredient that most distinguishes Central Asian plov. Dumba is the fat tail of the region’s highly valued fat-tailed sheep. Rendering it to provide the grease for cooking adds calories and equips Uzbek plov with a distinctive and deeply satisfying flavor. Historically, Central Asian nomads lived much of their lives out of doors and found animal fat to be an effective salve for protecting one’s skin from the damaging effects of the sun and wind. In traditional Uzbek cooking, the rice in a bowl of plov should appear to glisten. If it fails to do so, adjust the recipe by adding additional lamb fat (or vegetable oil) in the early stages of cooking.

Fresh dumba at the Chorsu Market in Tashkent
Fresh dumba at the Chorsu Market in Tashkent

Manucci was clearly put off by the table manners and comportment of the Uzbek envoys. But his account also illustrates the importance that culture and environment play in how culinary traditions develop and change. The more “refined” Mughlai pulao suited Indian tastes, relying on ghee instead of animal fat and emphasizing the use of spices. But to the Uzbeks this was considerably less satisfying than plov: the quintessential Uzbek dish that incorporated ingredients and cooking techniques perfectly suited to their steppe heritage, and is still loved throughout Central Asia today.

*Niccolao Manucci, Storia do Mogor, or Mogul India, 1653–1708, 4 vols, tr. By W. Irvine, London: John Murray, 1907–8, II, pp. 40–41.

Lamb Plov

½ c. sunflower or corn oil

1½ lb lamb meat, trimmed and cut into ½-inch cubes (reserve fat)

6 carrots cut into matchstick-sized strips

2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 t. paprika

¼ t. ground turmeric

2 t. cumin seeds, toasted and crushed

Salt

Pepper

½ c. water

3 c. rice, rinsed till clear (traditionally made with short grain rice, though basmati works well)

1 whole head of garlic, roasted with outer stem removed

6 c. boiling water

Place a large cast-iron Dutch oven or similar vessel over medium-high heat. Render lamb fat until the liquid coats the pot and begins to smoke. While vegetable oil is healthier, you can achieve a more authentic-tasting result by increasing the amount of fat rendered at this stage. Remove the (now crispy) fat solids and set aside. (Note: in Central Asia, this lamb crackling is called the jizza. It is salted and enjoyed as a delicacy.)

Add oil and return to temperature.

Add cubed meat and brown on all sides, stirring frequently, for 8-10 minutes. When browned, remove meat with slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the sliced onions and cook till browned, about 10 minutes. Return meat to the pot.

Add carrot slices on top of meat and onions. Add paprika, turmeric, cumin, salt and pepper. If so desired, add garlic cloves, chickpeas, barberries, raisins, or other items.

Add ½ c. water and stir well. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer for 2 minutes, adding more water if necessary. Flatten the top of the meat mixture with a spatula.

Pour the rice over the meat mixture and flatten the top of the rice. Slowly add the boiling water, taking care not to let the rice mix with the meat mixture.

Let boil uncovered for 15 minutes. When rice begins to thicken, poke several holes in the plov with the handle of a wood spoon to permit steam from the bottom to rise evenly.

Reduce heat to very low and cover tightly. Let cook for approximately 25 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.

Dish rice onto large platter and spoon the meat and vegetables on top. Garnish with roasted garlic.

Serves 6

___________________________________________________________________________

Scott Levi is Associate Professor of Central Asian history at Ohio State University.  He is author of The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade, 1550–1900 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2002) and Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road (Gurgaon: Penguin, 2015).  He is currently a residential fellow at the Institut d’Études Avancées de Nantes, France, where he aims to complete two new research monographs: The Early Modern Silk Road: Integration and Crisis in Eighteenth-Century Central Asia, and Central Asia in the Global Age: The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, 1709–1876.