Category Archives: Medieval

Tales from the Archives: Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 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.

Over the next few weeks, The Recipes Project will feature a selection of case studies from the current issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine on “‘Testing Drugs and Trying Cures”. This special issue grew out of a 2014 workshop held at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. We were very lucky to have two then graduate students Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape, join us for and grateful that they took the time to pen the post below. It seems fitting to begin this month on testing drugs and trying cures with a revisit to their post. Elaine (editor).

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By Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape

What did it mean to test a drug or try a cure in the early modern world? This was the central question for a group of scholars who gathered for a workshop at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  Since recipes emerged as one of the key themes throughout the workshop, and because the conference’s location in Berlin made it difficult for scholars outside of Europe to attend, we thought we might share a brief summary of the “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures” papers, in the hopes that we could bring the workshop’s key ideas and discussions to a larger audience.  What emerged from an exhilarating two days of discussion and debate was the conclusion that historians of science and medicine should not privilege experiment and experimentation as fixed categories, but should understand the multiple ways in which physicians, apothecaries, artisans, institutions, and individuals in the early modern world tested, tried, investigated, experienced, modified, observed, and measured medicinal remedies and materiae medicae.

As written forms of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice, recipes played an important part in the testing of drugs and cures, and our discussion raised larger questions surrounding the nature and purpose of an early modern recipe.

705px-ScuolaMedicaMiniatura
A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McVaugh’s paper opened the discussion by exploring how medieval physicians went about testing drugs. Learned doctors in the Middle Ages might appear helplessly hidebound, and inclined to follow ancient authorities over experimentation. In contrast, McVaugh showed how a group of Montpellier physicians in the fourteenth century established something of an experimental program. Medieval physicians, however, were not testing to find a cure, but to determine the quality, strength, and effectiveness of a drug as it pertained to a particular person’s complexion. McVaugh underscored an important difference in the purpose of medieval drug testing. Physicians tested not for universal effectiveness, but to determine the quality of a drug – was it hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Duclos-title-page
Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675). From http://cures.hypotheses.org/the-workshop/programme-2/bycroft-michael

Although it became clear in our roundtable discussion that we should be wary of labeling such practices as obvious precursors to the experimental philosophies of the Scientific Revolution, many of the papers showed that the importance of specific tests resonated throughout the early modern period. Evan Ragland’s paper, for example, traced the use of the phrase periculum facere (‘to make a trial’) in physicians’ writings on medicine, anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Michael Bycroft showed that French physicians and chemical experts of the Académie des Sciences became increasingly interested in the exact composition of mineral waters. Contrived tests such as color indicators or the analysis of residues after evaporation increasingly became the touchstone of proper inquiry.

McVaugh, Ragland, and Bycroft’s papers all underscored the need to understand the specific nature and purpose of testing in each historical context. Continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, Francesco Paulo de Ceglia’s paper showed just how different the purpose of testing could be in the context of seventeenth century blood miracles in the Kingdom of Naples. Catholics tested the liquefaction of the blood of their patron saint to explore the limits of nature. By discovering nature’s limits, you could then determine what was truly miraculous. Protestants, on the other hand, tested various materials and recipes to recreate the liquefaction of blood to cast doubt on the alleged miracle.

san-gennaro
Reliquary containing a glass ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood. From La Repubblica.

In the context of testing, drugs and cures are often under scrutiny in the form of recipes detailing their production and administration. While recipes emerged from many of the papers as very important forms of knowledge, it proved virtually impossible to define exactly what a recipe was. Recipes can be very short or very detailed, ranging from a mere list of ingredients to careful step-by-step instructions. If there is one thing recipes have in common, it is the need for testing, trying, modifying and adapting to different conditions. While constructing an all-encompassing definition of a recipe proved futile, all agreed that it was fruitful to understand recipes as an important genre in early modern science and medicine.

apotheke_enhausen_l
From http://www.gn.geschichte.uni-muenchen.de/aktuelles/archiv_2011/archiv_2013/science_and_medicine/index.html

For her investigation on the testing practices of Venetian apothecaries, Valentina Pugliano emphasized the difference between experiment and experience. Venetian apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs (in a traditional sense) than they were with the experience or truthfulness of their ingredients. Testing by inspection, smell and taste was also important in this pharmaceutical context, to ensure that the ingredients were what the merchant had promised them to be, and not a cheap substitute with inferior properties. For Pugliano’s apothecaries, the important issue that required testing was the authenticity of the ingredients rather than the efficacy of the finished product; after all, most preparations had proved their worth since antiquity. Like McVaugh, Pugliano questioned traditional “Baconian” understandings of what it meant to experiment and test and argued for more nuanced notions of testing and trying, which included observing, measuring, evaluating, and experiencing.

Image_Samir
Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann’s Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). From http://cures.hypotheses.org/the-workshop/programme-2/boumediene-samir

With early modern Europeans’ increasing forays into the New World, however, more and more materiae medicae were found which were absent from ancient medical writings. Pliny and Dioscorides were silent on such substances as guaiacum wood, Peruvian bark or New World balsam, so their medicinal properties had to be newly investigated. Antonio Barrera-Osorio and Samir Boumediene’s papers added America, or the New World, into the discussion. Both emphasized the role of new drugs and materia medica in the rise of European experimental practices. New drugs and new medicinal recipes required new ways of testing.

Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s paper argued for an empirical culture in the Spanish empire, which was well suited to respond to these challenges. He showed how his protagonists gathered information about New World remedies from natives or travellers and experimented with ways of preparing them. Some of these drugs and recipes were deemed so important for the economy and health of the empire that the Spanish crown ordered tests in hospitals all over Castile. Samir Boumediene’s paper elaborated on the issue of making workable recipes for newly discovered drugs. Once more, taste and smell were important assays, but drugs such as guaiacum and Peruvian bark were also tested on a larger scale. Dispensing them to the poor inmates of charitable hospitals (as happened in France and Germany) helped to determine their effect, and to establish recipes, which indicated how to adjust the treatment in individual cases.

books
Andreas Cleyer, Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (Frankfurt, 1682). From http://cures.hypotheses.org/the-workshop/programme-2/hanson-marta-and-pomata-gianna

Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson’s paper showed how recipes also functioned as vehicles of knowledge between different cultures. Recipes, as either formula or prescription, were both found in European and Chinese medical cultures. According to Pomata and Hanson, it was the familiar genre of the recipe that facilitated the transmission of Chinese pharmacology to Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Carla Nappi argued that the Manchu medicinal recipes of the Qing court were spaces of encounter and medical translation in the early modern world. Pomata, Hanson, and Nappi demonstrated how the recipe served as the common ground between European and Chinese medicine and made the translation of Chinese pulse medicine and the transmission of Chinese materia medica possible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although recipes are difficult to characterize as a genre, it is clear that they are fascinating objects of historical study. More often than not, they are fluid rather than fixed forms of knowledge, requiring adaptation at every turn. They bring together ingredients, practices and often practitioners from all over the world, and themselves have a tendency to aggregate into larger collections. As written manifestations of gestures and processes, they play an important part in testing, assessing and modifying drugs and cures.

Strawberries: Delicious and Devotional

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While looking through the Newberry Library’s extraordinary collection of medieval books of hours, I was surprised to see how frequently strawberries dotted the marginal illuminations. The berries usually appear alongside colorful flowers; while obviously decorative, I began to wonder why this food was so prolific in imagery, yet relatively more obscure in contemporary recipes.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 27r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Books of hours are books for Christians that provide prayers and devotions, particularly the Hours of the Virgin. The Hours of the Virgin are an abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these books were enormously popular. Scribes created copies for readers of varying socioeconomic levels, and the most expensive books of hours were lavishly illuminated. Containing colorful images and frequent goldleaf, these manuscripts allow us to see the beautiful, opulent life of the wealthiest nobles and royals in the late Middle Ages. The images can be a feast of information for scholars, incorporating medieval clothing, table settings, and room décor with familiar Biblical imagery. Although I set out trying to locate images of food and dining in books of hours, strawberries kept attracting my attention. Whether French or Flemish, fourteenth- or fifteenth-century, and moderately or lavishly decorated, it seemed as though strawberries were everywhere.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 104r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Strawberries were undoubtedly consumed in medieval Europe. Fruit sellers sold the berries on the street, having advertised them with musical cries. The Parisian street cries for fresh strawberries lived on in an anonymous thirteenth-century (c. 1280) French motet; you can listen for “frese nouvele” sung in conjunction with other sounds of Parisian life. Strawberries appear in household records of the aristocracy and royalty. England’s King Henry VII not only received these fruits as gifts in 1506, but his gardener at Greenwich cultivated them. Entries in the records of Anne Stafford, dowager Duchess of Buckingham, reveal her purchase of the berries throughout the summer of 1465.[1] The fruit also occasionally appears in contemporary menus; the French Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (1555) lists strawberries in a course served alongside items like almonds, a Flemish cake, and white jelly.[2]

Despite these references to strawberries in a variety of texts, the fruit appears infrequently in medieval recipes. French recipes, to my knowledge, exclude this ingredient. Only a few medieval English recipes include strawberries. Some include little instruction, such as:

“Freseyes. Streberyen igrounden wyþ milke of alemauns, flour of rys oþur amydon, gret vlehs, poudre of kanele & sucre ; þe colur red, & streberien istreyed abouen.”[3]

Other recipes include more informative details:

“Strawberye.—Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of ȝere in gode red wyne ; þan strayne þorwe a cloþe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun oþer with þe flower of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do þer-in Roysons of coraunce, Safroun, Pepir, Sugre grete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale ; poynte it with Vynegre, &a lytil whyte grece put þer-to ; colure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with þe graynys of Pome-garnad, & serue it forth.[4]

Still other recipes, such as one for darioles, a type of custard-filled pie or tart, invite the cook to include strawberries alongside dates and other spices, only “if it be in time of yere.”[5] While strawberries were obviously a known, accessible, and popular summer berry, they appeared relatively infrequently in contemporary recipes.

The Christ Child holds a basket filled with strawberries.
Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 50.5 fol. 135r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Why, then, do these berries appear so frequently in the religious imagery of books of hours given their proportionately few occurrences in recipes? I conjecture two main reasons. First, the number of recipes including strawberries is likely quite low because the fruit was probably most often served fresh and whole, rather than in prepared dishes, as mentioned above in the course of a French meal. After all, how many strawberries do you manage to carry into your kitchen after a harvest in your strawberry patch or a U-Pick farm? Freshly picked strawberries are quite easy to consume in embarrassingly large quantities, no cooking required!

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 47 fol. 87v
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Second, strawberries were rife with symbolism in medieval Christian iconography. Depending upon the context, as well as the viewer/reader’s subjectivity, the red berries could represent drops Christ’s blood, while its trifoliate leaves were suggestive of the Holy Trinity.[6] Or when paired with flowers, as strawberries typically are in horae marginalia, they represented righteousness. The fruit was also associated with the Virgin Mary.[7] I have selected a variety of personal images from my research in the Newberry Library’s books of hours, each illustrating at least one of these interpretations of strawberry iconography.

Strawberries were likely depicted in these devotional margins because they were so popular. The little fruit did not require the preparations which burdened other victuals. A noble reader, especially, would instantly recognize the berry not only as a delicious fruit so easily eaten out-of-hand, but also one symbolizing Christ’s suffering, the Holy Trinity, and the dedicatee of Books of Hours, the Virgin Mary. What a great amount of work for such a tiny fruit.

NOTES

[1] Christopher Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 109.

[2] Ken Albala, and Timothy Tomasik, eds., The Most Excellent Book of Cookery: An Edition and Translation of the Sixteenth-Century Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (Prospect Books, 2014), 241.

[3] Constance Hieatt, and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury) (Early English Text Society, 1985), 46.

[4] Thomas Austin, ed., Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Early English Text Society, 1888), 29.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[5] Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 24; and Celia Fisher, “Flowers and Plants, the Living Iconography,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography, ed. Colum Hourihane (Routledge, 2016), 460–1.

[6] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood, 2004), 22.

What is a Recipe? Week 3

Welcome, welcome, welcome. Please pull up your chair and make yourself comfortable. We have a wonderful week ahead, with something going on every day.

We’ve had some great conversations already.  On Day 1, we wondered what is a recipe, considered their sensory and experiential nature, and appreciated their wildness.  On Day 2, stories emerged as the theme du jour: from favourite recipes and family history, to big stories, to reading and literacy…

Snowdrift Secrets, early 20th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And this week, we dare you to take a crack at writing your own recipe story, with the ‘Cooking with Anger’ Netprov event on all month. Emotions as story ingredients, anyone? Perhaps in the ‘Henri’s Kitchen’ series, which is back on Tuesday with time-travelling cookery and a lively master-servant relationship in the kitchen. And in a podcast that considers cosmetic recipes in Ovid’s poetry (Thursday), Marguerite Johnson further blurs the boundaries between literature and recipes.

Experiments are another theme. Siobhan Clarke’s 1791 potato growing experiment continues both days on Twitter and Instagram and Sietske Fransen tweets on Tuesday about her trawl through the Royal Society archives. Also on Twitter (Tuesday), Emily Thompson takes a look at some seventeenth-century instructions for growing saffron.

Edison phonograph with a carbon microphone, 1878. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Taking a turn away from written stories and recipes, we’ll also be considering the oral functions of recipes. Peter Jones (on this blog, Tuesday) examines the oral and written transmission of medieval recipes used by medieval friars interested in alchemy. Véronique Ginouvès of the MMSH will consider (in an English and French blog post on Thursday) the uses of collected oral recipes within the context of a sound archive.

There are many other recipe treats on — such as Louise Cilliers’ blog post (here) on ancient recipes for breast engorgement, Simon Walker’s YouTube video and Twitter chat on a First World War recipe from the trenches, and my own reflections (Twitter and blog post) on teaching early modern recipes.

Once again, we have several institutions joining us to tweet, insta, facebook, and blog about their collections: Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives (Monday); Folger Shakespeare Library (Tuesday); Wangensteen Historical Library (Wednesday); and Provincial Archives of Alberta and Royal College of Physicians, London (Friday).

It’s going to be a recipe-packed week for us, and we look forward to more recipe chat with you.


PROJECT DETAILS

‘Cooking with Anger Netprov’, Mark Marino and Rob Wit

This week-long event is modelled on TV cooking competitions. Cooking with Anger is a netprov where storyteller chefs improvise a tale and a recipe from a given basket of ingredients. Many have written about cooking with love; now it’s time for all the other emotions.

  1. Get a basket from the Protag-o-Matic ingredients machine. Copy and paste your basket at the top of your tale.
  2. Create a small dish of a stirring story — 300 words or less — using ALL the ingredients from your basket. Use people places and things as narrative; use food items for a recipe folded into the fiction. Season the tale with the emotional spice packet.
  3. We encourage you also to post a video in which you either tell the story, tell about the story, or tell how you made the story.

    Eyes expressing extreme emotion, from coldness to rage, c. 1794. After: Johann Caspar Lavater and Thomas Holloway.
    Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Website:          Cooking with Anger
Twitter:            @markcmarino and @Netprov_RobWit

Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives

Will be sharing recipe-related material from their collections on Twitter.
Twitter:                 @CUSpecialColls

“Spuddenly Farming: A reconstruction of Rev. Mr. Cochran’s Potato experiment, 1791”, Siobhan Carlson

Following the American Revolution, the British crown gave Loyalists land to farm throughout the Canadian Maritimes. This migration gave rise to the emergence of an English print culture in the region that included agricultural recipes. Amongst these entries, on the 24th of March, 1792, the Royal Gazette and Miscellany of the Island of Saint John, printed the experiment entitled, “To determine whether it is best to plant large or small Cuttings of Potatoes; in a Letter from the Rev. Mr. Cochran to the Secretary of the Agricultural Society for the County of Hants, dated Winsor, Feb. 1791.” The experiment outlines the best methods to grow Prince Edward Island’s famous export – the potato. The goal of this project is to reconstruct the experiment, to think about/consider the experience of Maritime Settlers.
Instagram:            @SpuddenlyFarming
Twitter:                 @Spuddenly_Farm

“Recipes in the Early Royal Society Archives”, Sietske Fransen

The seventeenth-century fellows of the Royal Society were interested in every part of the natural world. They collected and reproduced a large variety of recipes, from the making of pigments to finding the recipe for the best French bread, to a recipe for universal medicine. During my research days in June, investigating the visual practice of the early Royal Society (www.mv.crassh.cam.ac.uk), I will tweet the various recipes I encounter in the archive of the Royal Society. At the end of those weeks the found recipes will feature in a blogpost on recipes in the early Royal Society.
Twitter:             @sietske_fransen and @MVCRASSH
Blog:                    www.mvcrassh.cam.ac.uk and recipes.hypotheses.org

“A Relation of the Culture, or Planting and Ordering of Saffron (1678)”, Emily Thompson

She will look at a recipe by Charles Howard as a recipe (an atypical one to be sure, but a sound set of step-by-step directions for attaining a particular outcome i.e., the production of saffron). She argues that Howard’s recipe may be identified by its purpose, ingredients, procedure, equipment and administration. The recipe can be contrasted with later treatises and gardening manuals that build on his work and flesh it out into something beyond his dispassionate and precise step-by-step approach.
Twitter:                 @joiedelivre

Folger Shakespeare Library

Will be sharing its extensive recipes-related holdings via social media.
Twitter:                 @FolgerResearch

“Henri’s Kitchen”, Harry Hayfield

Harry Hayfield, a resident of Ceredigion in Wales, has long had an interest in the stories of the Musketeers which are set in early 17th century France, this led in turn to an interest in the Stuart period of history and joining a living history group. However, as a registered carer for his grandparents he is unable to get to many of the events and yet wanted to do something to help. One day he was watching “The Little Paris Kitchen” broadcast on the BBC and thought “These are recipes designed by the French, therefore could they be converted in the 17th century versions of themselves?”. Doing some research he found that they could, and therefore will contribute four of the recipes as shown in the programme as if cooked by Henri de Ceredigion (Harry’s Stuart persona) a cadet member of the Musketeers, with able assistance from Planchet, his manservant cum stable lad.

Collection of iatrochemical and chemical recipes
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

“Distilling and Deflowering”, Peter Jones

He will discuss alchemical recipes associated with English mendicants, collected in the Tabula medicine text of 1416-25. The word ‘deflowering’ is a term that describes the way that they culled recipes from various sources—written and word-of-mouth—before recording it in the book. His blog post will appear at The Recipes Project.

“Historical Chocolate Tasting Events”, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and  Medicine at the University of Minnesota

Animated gif of chocolate bar with link to the full article in newsletter and additional link to historical choc tasting events at GYST Fermentation Bar, a collaborative effort with the Wangensteen Library. Also links to their digitized collection of recipe books.
Facebook:            https://www.facebook.com/umnbiomedlib
Twitter:                 @umnbiomedlib
Instagram:           @umnlib

“Recipes from the Sound Archive”, MMSH

The MMSH sound archive blog has a monthly feature on old recipes collected through interviews. In English and French, Véronique Ginouvès discusses what is a recipe when it comes to the sound archives.
Twitter:                 @Bagolina and @phonothequemmsh

“Theodorus Priscianus and Women’s Ailments”, Louise Cilliers

In a post for The Recipes Project, she considers the recipes of a 4th century physician from Constantinople: what did he use to treat women’s ailments?

Lady looking into mirror, 18th century.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

“Recipes for Beauty in Ovid”, Marguerite Johnson

Recipes for beauty were commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean and among the most comprehensive sources for cosmeceutical blends was Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae – 100 lines of which remain extant. When Marguerite Johnson translated the lines for her recent book, Ovid on Cosmetics (Bloomsbury 2016), she approached the task by taking the embedded lists of creams and treatments as recipes, and discussed the ingredients of each one and the methods of preparation. In this podcast, Marguerite will discuss the five recipes in the Medicamina with a focus on the ingredients – from honey to the mysterious alcyonea – and their properties for beautifying and preserving the skin.
Twitter:                 @MMJ722

“Introducing the Margaret Baker Project”, Lisa Smith

Over the year, my students on The Digital Recipe Book Project module read about early modern recipes and their wider social and cultural framework. We worked alongside other classrooms in the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective who were also working on Baker’s book. Along the way, they learned how to read old handwriting, transcribed several pages of a seventeenth-century manuscript recipe book by Margaret Baker, and built a website about Margaret Baker’s recipes. In this presentation, I’ll discuss the challenges of teaching recipes and working with Margaret Baker, as well as share the students’ insights from the year.
Blog:             drbp.hypotheses.org
Project site:     UofE Baker Project
Twitter:          @historybeagle

Ship’s biscuit, England, 1875
Credit: Science Museum, London.

‘Hard Tack Lemon Pudding’, Simon Walker 

He presents the YouTube cooking series Feedingunderfire wherein he cooks trench food recipes and tests them on guests. This episode focuses on an ‘apparently’ yummy dish.
YouTube:       Feeding Under Fire
Facebook:     Feeding Under Fire
Twitter:       @Dark_Nocterna

Provincial Archives of Alberta, Canada

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, the PAA will be highlighting some its holdings on food history over the month with Facebook posts and on Twitter.
Facebook:      Provincial Archives of Alberta
Twitter:                 @ProvArchivesAB

Royal College of Physicians, London

We’re interested in approaching the theme of ‘What is a recipe’ by considering one of the RCP’s most important publications, the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1st edition 1618). Depending on how you define it, the Pharmacopoeia probably isn’t a collection of recipes, though it is a collection of instructions for making medical prescriptions. It was translated into Nicholas Culpeper, with explanatory text added, in 1649, and Culpeper’s version may have more claim to recipe-ness. We also have manuscript recipe books in our collection that include similar prescriptions or recipes, so we’d like to explore the issue by bringing these three sources together, and by illustrating a couple of the recipes with examples from our collection of English apothecary jars, and specimens from our medicinal garden.
Blog:                     https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/
Twitter:                 @RCPMuseum

Seasonality and the (Re)creation of Early Modern Color Worlds

By Jenny Boulboullé

Color played an important role in the early modern world across a number of areas from arts and crafts to Christian religion to politics to natural history and philosophy. In recent years, scholars have begun to explore how early modern men and women engaged, produced and conceptualized colors within and across color worlds.[1] Just as in early modern culinary and medical recipes, seasonality is a recurrent theme in artisanal recipes. The art of preservation was highly valued for its powers to make flavors and healing properties of foodstuffs, plants and herbs endure well beyond their seasonal availability. In my contribution to the seasonality series I focus on recipes that celebrate the art of color preservation and on the mindful attention to seasons called for in color making recipes. I am particularly interested in the challenges that recipes for making natural dyes and pigments from seasonal products posed to modern historians trying to reconstruct them.

Today the symbolic significance of colors in early modern Europe is perhaps most readily associated with the compellingly colorful medieval and renaissance art works that have survived in sacred spaces and museums.

Figure 1, Caption: Giotto (1266-1337), The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, Italy. ca. 1305. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But in the pre-modern period a deep concern with colors was not limited to the arts: colors were associated with the four humors and close attentiveness to colors was of vital importance to practices of healing in the Hippocritean and Galenic medical tradition.[2] The perception and display of colors was also highly charged with political meanings: colors were a form of symbolic communication and played an important role in consolidating and displaying religious and secular power relations. European courts and courtly events were important sites of “chromatic politics” as contemporary witness accounts and meticulous historical reconstructions of ephemeral, yet splendid and compellingly colorful festive events have shown.[3]

Figure 2, Caption: Peter Paul Rubens, Design for state decorations for the triumphal entry of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand into Antwerp, on April 17, 1635, Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Image from Pubhist.com

The historical reconstruction of a sixteenth-century dress, originally created for the Augsburg Imperial Diet from 1530, is a particularly compelling example of the politicized use of brightly colored dress made from dyed textiles.[4] The owner of this dress and his contemporaries might have regarded its colors “as related to intrinsic qualities and powers”. Deep scarlet reds were regarded at that time “as carriers of life and heat, while a strong yellow was linked to gold as metal, which had given its powers by the influence of the sun”. Ulinka Rublack notes the challenges encountered during the reconstruction process. The yellow color obtained in their first dying trials “was just not quite vibrant enough” which was detrimental “as faded hues of yellow could have negative associations of weakness and coldness”.[5]

Other sixteenth century recipes for ‘yellows’ from organic sources, demonstrate that making natural dyes of this color depended on local seasonal knowledge. As Marieke Hendriksen has discussed, here in Utrecht, we are building a new database of artisanal recipes. A quick search in the Artechne Database yields several fifteenth- and sixteenth century German recipes for green and yellow colors that call for buckthorn berries (some with precise indication for picking times, like this one for “Green color” from 1543). Here an Italian one from the anonymous Padua Manuscript (ca. end 16th/17th century), translated and published in English:

To make giallo santo

Take the berries of buckthorn towards the end of the month of August, boil them with pure water, until the water is loaded and thick with color; add a little burnt roche alum and then strain it. You may boil the strained liquor to make the color deeper, mixing with it some very pure gilder’s gesso; then make the color into pellets, and dry them in the shade.[6]

In color recipes such as this one, seasonality and intimate knowledge of seasonal products sensitivities to additives play a key role. Berries had to be picked at specific times of the year to attain the right hues, and while the juice of ripe buckthorn, available in most of Europe, gives a greenish color, also known as sap green, one needs to get hold of unripe berries, fresh or dried, in particular a species imported from the Middle East, also known as “Persian berries”, to attain the deep golden yellow hue that the reconstruction team had envisioned for this dazzling sixteenth-century dress.[7] Only by patiently repeating the dye processes using the right berries picked at the right moment, can the desired vibrant hue of rich quality be achieved – both in the early modern period and during 21th century reconstruction.[8]

Thus, the commission of brightly dyed dresses for display at important events must have been a time-consuming affair that required planning long ahead of the political event and entailed a collaborative process of sourcing and experimenting that depended not only on seasonal knowledge and availability, but was also prone to risks of seasonal change. As Rublack’s work shows, reconstruction research makes us of acutely aware of the complexities and risks posed to those who aspired a part in the “chromatic politics” of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century. Moreover, as I will show in my next post, color recipe reconstructions allow us to experience the efforts and knowledge that went into the creation of early modern color worlds, which have become unfamiliar to our modern period eye.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Tarwin Baker, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa, and Karin Leonhard, eds., Early Modern Color Worlds (Brill, 2016).

[2] Baker, Dupré, Kusukawa, and Leonhard 2016, 4.

[3] Ulinka Rublack, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye.” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 6–34. doi:10.1086/688198.

[4] Rublack 2016.

[5] Rublack 2016, 23, 24.

[6] Maria Philadelphia Merrifield, Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting, in Oil, Miniature, Mosaic, and on Glass; Of Gilding, Dying, and the Preparation of Colours and Artificial Gems (John Murray 1849), 708.

[7] Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, eds. Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700 (Archetype Publications, 2010) Glossary, 447.

[8] Rublack 2016, 25.