Category Archives: Medieval

The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books Part I: Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book

By Sylvie Neven

During the mediaeval and early modern periods, artisanal knowledge was notably transmitted in collections of recipes, of which hundreds of examples exist in addition to the well-known ones–such as the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus (ca. D 1100)[i] or Il libro dell’arte of Cennino Cennini (ca. 1390)[ii]. The so-called Strasbourg Manuscript is a well-known example of this type of artistic literature. This artist’s recipe book, whose content has been dated to the beginning of the early fifteenth century, is believed to be the oldest German-language source for the study of Northern European painting techniques.

The art-technological instructions of the Strasbourg Manuscript cover a wide range of crafts. They are mostly dedicated to painting and illuminating and, in particular, to the preparation of pigments (refining, grinding, suitable mixing, building up of layers of paint, and using gold or its imitation in gilding). Some recipes concern the manufacture of specific binding agents, glues and varnishes to be used on various artistic supports. Others correspond to instructions for auxiliary crafts such as polychromy and mural painting, dyeing of textiles and skins, the preparation and the colouring of the parchment support, or the working of metal.

Unfortunately, the Strasbourg Library Ms. A VI 19, in which these technological instructions were originally preserved, was destroyed during the 1870 fire in the Strasbourg Library. By chance, a few decades before, a copy of the recipe book was made for Sir Charles Eastlake, the first director of the London National Gallery. This was partly published in 1847. The two later main editions of the text are based solely on this transcription[iii].

Since its discovery, the text of the Strasbourg Manuscript has been frequently cited by scholars and has been renowned for being the Nordic counterpart of the famous Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. Numerous studies have referred to its technical content within the context of analytical reconstructions or for the purposes of artistic attributions. However, the previous editions of the recipe book – on which these studies relied – contained many divergences and contradictions. No one has raised the question of the reliability of the nineteenth copy, nor questioned the degree of similarity between this document and the mediaeval recipe book. A few years ago, examination of the modern transcription led me to suspect that its accuracy is questionable; closer reading of the artistic recipes of the Strasbourg Manuscript highlighted anomalies within the text.

To favour the current use of the Strasbourg recipe book and to counteract the lack of the original text, I have proposed a new revised edition and translation, based on the modern copy, the two editions and other historical witnesses of the text[iv].

As with many mediaeval and early modern recipe books, the Strasbourg Manuscript was the result of copying and compiling various sources. Its content appears in other contemporary recipe books and persists in treatises such as the edition of the Valentin Boltz von Ruffach’s Illuminierbuch (1549). The manuscripts related to this tradition mainly originated from the South of Germany and North of France. Within this textual and technical ‘Tradition’, the Strasbourg Manuscript is the oldest surviving example[v].

The new edition of the Strasbourg Manuscript allows an overview of the current structure of this recipe book, which has had several amendments and loss of physical material. It aims to determine the location of corrected or amended errors or lacuna in the nineteenth copy, thus offering an opportunity to reconstruct the text of the lost manuscript. The conclusion? The text of the Strasbourg Manuscript is a result of contributions from textual and oral sources.

The systematic comparison of all the witnesses of this tradition of artists’ recipe books, taking into account the inherent characteristics of these writings (historical, codicological, textual and technological), has also been exploited for diverse purposes–which I will discuss in future posts.

Within the witnesses of this tradition, the Strasbourg recipe book has not been copied word-for-word. It has been subject to additions, elisions and corrections. Studying the textual modifications during its spread and interpretation of its variations or errors across provides a deeper understanding of the historical context for its production. It has also suggested the ways in which these sorts of recipe books were handled by their many scribes and owners.

Finally, comparative analysis of all the witnesses to this textual and technical tradition clearly signals their analogies and divergences, which are meaningful in terms of the original function and use(s) of these texts. This kind of observation, and the conclusions that can be made from them, allow for a better assessment of the relevance of artists’ recipe books within the framework of historical artistic practices.


[i] Dodwell, C.R., Theophilus, De diversis artibus. The various arts. Translated from the Latin with Introduction and notes, London, 1961 ; Hawthorne, J.G. and Smith, C.S., De Diversis Artibus of Theophilus, Chicago, 1963, 1979 (edition and English translation). See also BREPOHL, E., Theophilus Presbyter und das Mittelalterliche Kunsthandwerk, 2 volumes (1. Malerei und Glass ; 2. GoldschmiedeKunst), Cologne-Vienna, 1999 (edition and German traduction).

[ii] Thompson, D. V., Cennino d’Andrea Cennini da Colle di Val d’Elsa. Il Libro dell’arte, New Haven, 1932 ; Brunello, F., Cennino Cennini, il libro dell’arte, commentato e annotato da Franco Brunello, Vicense, 1982 ; Deroche, C., Il libro dell’Arte, traduction critique, commentaires et notes, Paris, 1991.

[iii] Berger, E., Quellen und Technik der Fresko-, Öl- und TemparaMalerei des Mittelalters von der byzantinischen Zeit bis einschliesslich der Erfindung der Ölmalerei durch die Brüder van Eyck, 3 (Beiträge zur Entwickelungs-Geschichte der Maltechnik), Munich, 1897, pp. 154-175 ; Borradaile V. and R., The Strasbourg Manuscript. A Medieval Painter’s Handbook translated from the old german, Londres, 1966.

[iv] Neven, Sylvie, Les recettes artistiques du Manuscrit de Strasbourg et leur tradition dans les réceptaires allemands des XVe et XVIe siècles (Étude historique, édition, traduction et commentaires technologiques), thèse de doctorat en histoire, art et archéologie, Université de Liège, janvier 2011.

[v] A new philological analysis of Eastlake’s transcription has allowed a more precise date to be suggested. Orthographical features and connections with some archival documents from the Strasbourg Chancellery and documents of the painters’ guild regulations allow us to propose a date of ca. 1400.

“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.

[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.

Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections

By Laura Mitchell

Charms can be found in all manner of medieval manuscripts, scrawled in the margins or added (seemingly at random) on blank pages and in the flyleaves. Usually they were simply stuck in some place convenient by someone who thought they would be useful or interesting to have on hand. However, charms also appear in medieval recipe collections, mixed in with recipes for nosebleeds or toothaches or different coloured inks. In these contexts, where does one separate the charm from the recipe?  Should they even be separated?

Let’s back up a minute and think about exactly what I mean by a charm in fifteenth-century England. In medieval Europe, the forms of charms and recipes are generally the same. Both are formulas, whether spoken, written, or chanted. Both have an oral and a written component. And both used words and phrases from the Bible, liturgy, and other religious texts familiar to the average medieval person.[1] For example, the Flum Jordan charm to staunch blood is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Just as the river stopped flowing when Jesus entered the water, so the blood will stop flowing once the charm is recited. Additionally, prayers could take on apotropaic properties – the recitation of Paternosters and Ave Marias for protection or healing was encouraged in orthodox worship and these two prayers frequently appear in charm texts.

For the ordinary lay person there could be much confusion concerning what was a charm (and therefore bad) and what was a prayer (and therefore good). The cause of this confusion can be explained by looking at the proliferation of sacramentals, which were an important part of popular belief in late medieval Christianity. Sacramentals were objects: things like candles, salt, and water, that had been blessed by the parish priest and distributed to all the households. The candles were lit during thunderstorms to drive away the demons thought to be active during storms, while the water was sprinkled on the hearth to drive away evil or sprinkled in the fields to promote fertility. Water and salt could be given to sick animals.

It’s easy to see how this Church-sanctioned practice could lead to similar practices with objects that had not been blessed, but which were thought to have special God-given properties. It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two types of objects, since both could be used and manipulated. Users of charms and folk magic were not concerned with the finer points of theology but with the fact that both sacramental and charms had a power that presumably came from God. There was a very fine line indeed between magic and orthodox religion. Magic in the fifteenth century was firmly established within a Christian framework and fit into people’s belief systems in a natural, rational manner.[2]

Countries and regions might favour one type or one motif over another, though. Wind, for example, was more common in Russia, with charms of ill-purpose said to be “sent on the wind”.[3] Romanian charms, at least in modern times, involve the use of both gestures and formulas. The evil eye, while fairly common in countries like Hungary, is unknown in the medieval English corpus of surviving charms. The one commonality across medieval cultures and countries is the dominance of healing charms, which survive far more than any other charm type.

Unsurprisingly, medical charms are often found in collections of medical recipes. Health and wellbeing was a serious concern in the Middle Ages and, if a cure was questionably orthodox, well, that was alright as long as it worked. In these collections, we find charms for bleeding, toothaches, fevers, blurred vision, insomnia, wounds, childbirth, worms in the ear, and falling sickness (epilepsy)–but not for such things as back pain or swollen feet. Scholars don’t really know why medical charms are restricted to a small number of ailments, but some scholars like Lea Olsan believe it’s because there are no Biblical stories nor religious imagery that can be associated with other ailments.

Charms appear in all diverse medical recipe collections, from the household collection of the Haldenby family in Cambridge (Trinity College MS O.1.57) to the collection of the physician Thomas Fayreford (British Library, Harley MS 2558). This suggests that they were regarded with little or no distinction from the non-magical recipes with which they are grouped. Charms and recipes are presented as equally valid and proper texts to read and/or use, but what distinguished them was merely the source of their curative powers. Medical recipes broadly relied on natural means and associations, whereas charms derived their power from the divine, the supernatural. But even that distinction can be too simplistic! For now, I hope it is clear that the distinction between magic and medicine was more blurred than we often think. Most medieval people considered charms to be no more harmful or unorthodox than any other recipe they might encounter in their daily lives.

[1] Lea Olsan, “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60.

[2] On the rationality of medieval magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” American Historical Review 99:3 (1994): 813-836.

[3] W.F. Ryan, “Eclecticism in the Russian Charm Tradition,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, 117.