Category Archives: Medieval

Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.


[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.

History Carnival 117 — A Twelfth Night Edition

Twelfth Night, when the world turns topsy-turvy until midnight and the wassail is drunk to ensure a good apple harvest… A fitting day for the first History Carnival of 2013! This month, The Recipes Project has the privilege of rounding up the past month’s history blogging.

As you might expect in a Twelfth Night edition, there are several Christmas-themed posts to be found. In the winter, a blogger’s interests might turn to thoughts of dark poetry. Over at The View East, Kelly Hignett offers us “A Communist Christmas Carol”, in which Romanian children (c. 1980) request that Father Christmas bring some simple food items (and toilet paper). Lindsey Fitzharris (The Chirurugeon’s Apprentice) takes “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” as her inspiration for a reminder of our mortality, “The Dead Man’s Poem“, wishing us to “thank God you are safe and secure in your life”.

Other bloggers considered another potentially heavy side of Christmas: food! Many of you may have already been back to the gym and turned to salad-eating, but Twelfth Night is a time of cake and pie, so let us remember once more the feasts of yore. Tiffany Stoziciki gives us a taste of American Christmas dinners at the History Reporter (“Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960“), starting with the pared down offerings of the Civil War tables to the best meal of the year on Cold War tables (with some very American bubbly)…  At The Board of Longitude Project, Alexi Baker looks at what Board of Longitude members, whether on shore or at sea, got up to during the Christmas season in “Longitude and a Christmas lark“– and yes, this is a reference to roasted lark! For the lighter side of Christmas, see Caroline Rance’s hilarious “‘Set the Spirit Alight’: Victorian festive science” (The Quack Doctor): from fiery masks to breathing flames, it sounds like Victorian Christmases were rather fun–if dangerous.

In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, you might check out the future of technology and entertainment at “Fun Places on the Internet (in 1995)” by Matt Novak (Paleofuture). The post is interesting in two ways: bringing back memories of one’s early online forays (ahhh–recalling the sound of a connecting modem still brings a thrill to my heart!) and considering the classification of “fun”…

What are the dark days of winter without a bit of inversion and oddity? Romeo Vitelli at Providentia examines the fascinating case of Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental breakdown in a four-part series, “Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial“. In a post on “Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Beckett and Edward the Confessor“, Steffan (My Albion) considers the seemingly contradictory ideas of what made a good medieval saint (peaceful virtue or violent martyrdom). Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon reviews Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in early Modern London, recounting several tantalizing stories of disorderly early modern women.

The ultimate inversion and oddity, perhaps, is that of tales of cannibalism. Ben Breen has written two intriguing (and beautifully illustrated) posts on medicinal cannibalism and other repulsive remedies in early modern Europe:  “Early Modern Drugs and Medicinal Cannibalism” at Res Obscura and “‘Ravens-scull & a Handfull of Fennel’: Early Modern Drugs” at The Appendix. (These last two posts, if read after Twelfth Night, may also aid in any weight-loss plans!)

December has also been a good month for pondering methodological questions. At The History Tavern and Prospero, the bloggers consider the usefulness concepts such as terrorism (“Boston Tea Party… Was It An Act of Terrorism?“) and genocide (“The Irish Famine: Opening Old Wounds“) in studying specific historical questions.

Trevor Owens and T. Mills Kelly, in turn, are concerned by the research and teaching challenges posed by rapid technological change. Owens–and the lively comments section–suggest ways that archivists might make their collections more searchable in a Google-dominated environment: “Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices“. Kelly has a multi-part series in which he rethinks the entire history curriculum, specifically the imperative of integrating technology into teaching research skills: “The History Curriculum in 2023“.

The complicated relationships among history, narrative, author and audience were discused by Lucinda Matthew-Jones, Christopher Dummit and Christopher Jones. Matthew-Jones’ post “Doctor Who-ing the Victorians” (Journal of Victorian Culture Online) is a thoughtful response to a recent U.K. report on teaching history in British Schools. The use of history in Doctor Who, she argues, assumes a more sophisticated level of historical knowledge than the government report does! Dummit at Everyday History wonders if a historical novelist can be classed as a great historian  “Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?” In “Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance“, Jones of The Junto discusses the problems and possibilities of blurring subject and author when writing narrative history. Rethinking our methodological practices and assumptions?  Contemplating non-linear Doctor Who history? Considering how best to tell stories? Fine questions to consider on Twelfth Night.

The world, obviously, didn’t end on December 21. For those who were disappointed, Sir Isaac Newton also had a few thoughts on the apocalypse, which he anticipated happening in 2034 or, perhaps, 2060: “Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse (1733)” (The Public Domain Review).

In any case, it seems likely that we’ll all be here next month, so please come by next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by our own Sally Osborn at her blog Travels and travails in 18th-Century England. Happy Wassailing to you, tonight!

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.