Category Archives: Montserrat Cabré

Follow the Recipe! Un/Authorizing Muslim Women’s Cosmetic Expertise in the Medieval and Early Modern West

By Montserrat Cabré

“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”[1]

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.[2] This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.[3]

Untitled 2
Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.

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Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]
The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.[4]

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.


[1]  Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women’s medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.
[2]  Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.
[3]  Montserrat Cabré, “Beautiful bodies”, in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.
[4]  Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.

 

Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

Beauty Recipes: A December Series

By Jessica P. Clark

"Productos de Belleza Luxor," 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
“Productos de Belleza Luxor,” 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

When the editors of The Recipes Project invited me to compile a series on beauty and cosmetics, we thought it a timely topic for the holiday season. As twenty-first-century consumers, we associate the holidays with the careful selection and purchase of gifts. These are often of the luxury variety, including wares that beautify recipients: scents, cosmetics, grooming products and tools. While we typically purchase these goods, historical gift-givers relied on recipes to concoct homemade offerings. Foodstuffs and preserves, healing remedies, and potpourris helped forge social bonds and convey good tidings.

But research shows us that beautifying goods were not always associated with luxury. Up until the twentieth century, beauty recipes served a variety of functions: as medicines, to conceal age, to disguise debility. The research featured in December’s special series on beauty is no exception. Rather than highlight the relationship between beauty and luxury, our contributors foreground quotidian uses of beautifying goods as medicinal aides, dangerous but necessary appearance enhancers, or professional tools of the workplace (in this case, the theatre).

This means, of course, that we have expanded beyond holiday-appropriate themes of luxury and exchange. Instead, contributors Montserrat Cabré, Kirsten James, and Sean Trainor introduce us to the multiple meanings and uses of beauty recipes — even those with potentially deleterious effects. They also remind us of the close historical linkages between cosmetics and other beautifying goods in western beauty cultures, as perfumes and hair tonics were produced alongside powders and paints. Ultimately, a focus on function over luxury highlights changing uses of beauty recipes from the twelfth century, not to mention western attitudes about self-fashioning more generally.

We hope you’ll join us this holiday season as we explore the “serious” side of goods now associated with luxury and self-indulgence. And we look forward to hearing from readers working on historical beauty recipes across geographic locales and historical moments, so please get in touch via Twitter or in the Comments section!

The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence

By Katherine Allen

In this post I would like to link several themes that have been explored on this blog recently: recipe exchanges, letters, and the role of emotions. Historians are frequently asked how compilers got their recipes (something that Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche raised in their post on the Countess of Exeter). In other words, we are continually searching for evidence from recipe books that suggests a wider network of information exchange.

In the case of eighteenth-century recipe books, attributions and marginalia can indicate an exchange, though these are often ambiguous. Occasionally longer anecdotes are included, revealing the circumstances of a specific recipe’s inclusion. Rarer still, letters associated with a recipe book can provide significant insight into the compiler’s health history, or domestic duties, as discussed by Elaine Leong in her recent post on Johanna St. John. Some sets of letters that are not associated with a recipe book can still tell us much about the creation and use of recipe books, as well as domestic medical care’s social milieu.

One collection of mid-eighteenth century letters that I am using in my doctoral research belonged to the Cox family, landed gentry based in Herefordshire. The majority of the letters are addressed to the elderly family benefactress, Mrs. Elizabeth Witherstone. Montserrat Cabré recently proposed that exchanging and preserving recipes can be emotionally charged. In the typical recipe collection, emotions and hidden lives are not always transparent, but they do emerge in letters that discuss recipe exchange.

Letters were crucial for keeping up-to-date on the extended family’s wellbeing and life events, and the Cox family kept each other informed about health matters in very intimate detail. Concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s poor health, cousin Alicia Cox wrote ‘let me beg you to take care of your health, kitchen physick as Broaths, and Jellys, are the best medicines at your time of life’.[1] Mrs. Witherstone also occasionally exchanged letters containing recipes. An acquaintance, S. Phillips, thanked Mrs. Witherstone for sending a receipt of ‘Turner’s Cerate’ for her mother’s leg. In exchange, she included a recipe for the Chin Cough, which she had used for her children and was ‘of great service to them’. This remedy was an ointment of spirit of hartshorne and powdered amber, which was to be rubbed on the children’s palms, soles of their feet, and pits of their stomachs for several days, morning and night.[2]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756
Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756

In a follow-up letter, Mrs. Phillips again thanked Mrs. Witherstone for the Cerate recipe, proclaiming that her mother thought ‘it has been of great use to her for thank god she has now little or no pain. She did not put it on just on the place of the wound’.[3]

Mrs. Witherstone’s family also sent her remedies to preserve her health in old age. Upon receiving an account of Mrs. Witherstone’s illness, Alicia Bund [Cox] concluded that the woman’s blood was poor and her frame ‘languid’; restorative medicines would be beneficial. She wrote: ‘I beg you would make trial of, its recommendation is the nurrishment it affords at the same time it never loads the stomach’. Alicia’s recipe for a restorative broth was as follows:

You must get a tin can to hold about a pint & quarter with a cover to it, for it is to be  done by a slow infusion the least boiling spoils it but I will set it down as particularly as I can. Take half a pound of lean Beef cut into small pieces and pick of[f] every bit of skin and fat and put a pint of boiling water to it and let it gently stew it is reduced to a strong broath. Put in 3 or 4 pepper corns but no salt till you drink it and eat with it a bit of  toasted bread and would advice (if it agrees) to make it your Breakfast and supper.[4]

Another relative, Elizabeth Saunders, was also concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s health and recommended an eye drop remedy that she described as ‘trifling but I have known it of use’. Confident of the remedy’s efficacy she concluded ‘I hope your next Letter will bring better News of your Eyes as you have no pain in them I flatter myself the complaint may get of the sooner.’[5]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Exchanging remedies was evidently an important part of the Cox family’s lives and these letters exemplify how the responsibility of family health care extended beyond each household to include the advice and remedies of concerned relatives and friends.

Letters are valuable resources for revealing the exchange process of a recipe’s history and the close relationship that recipe books had with the letter-writing tradition. Within these letters, expressions of authority, sympathy, hope, and desperation bring out the emotionally charged nature of recipes. Letters can provide recipe historians with a more complete picture of approaches to health care among England’s upper sorts, and they are important supporting documents for understanding the place of recipe books in a wider information exchange.


[1] Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone July 5 [no year]’.

[2] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756’.

[3] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone May 25, 1756’.

[4] Ibid., ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone Jan 11, [no year]’.

[5] Ibid., ‘Eliz Saunders to Mrs Witherstone March 27 [no year]’.

A ‘Not-Recipe’: An Expression of Frustration in Medical Matters

By Anne Stobart

When is a recipe not a recipe? In my experience in research in the history of medicine, a recipe is part of a readily recognizable genre – each one includes elements such as a set of ingredients, instructions, indications and other information which can be collected, shaped and re-issued with, or without, a known author. Probably there are better definitions. But what about medicinal recipes which have not quite made it in terms of recognizable status for use or to show to others? Occasionally, along comes a recipe that started life as a recipe but is no longer a recipe: perhaps we can call it a ‘not-recipe’. One such example can be found in the Fortescue papers at Devon Record Office in south-western England. This item flags up the frustrations felt by one particular individual in her search for therapeutic effectiveness. It reflects another side of the ’emotional life’ of recipes noted in recent posts by Montserrat Cabré and Elaine Leong.

Fig. 1. 'Scrofula' Bramwell, Byrom Atlas of Clinical Medicine v. II, pl. XXXII, p. 5 Edinburgh, Constable, 1893. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Fig. 1. ‘Scrofula’, Byron Bramwell, Atlas of Clinical Medicine v. II, pl. XXXII (Edinburgh, Constable, 1893), 5. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Within the Devon archive there are many medicinal recipes collected by the Boscawen family, particularly Margaret Boscawen (d. 1688) in Cornwall and subsequently her daughter, Bridget Fortescue (1666–1708) in Devon. Both women were married to members of parliament and some correspondence survives to give a picture of family medical matters. Margaret was reputedly ‘much imployed about the sick’ but averse to doctors (1). Bridget suffered lifelong from a condition generally known as the King’s Evil (probably scrofula, a tubercular disease) which caused enlarged and suppurating sores in the neck and head area (Figure 1). While Bridget was still young, Margaret began to collect advice and recipes for the King’s Evil (2).

The recipe for ‘The glister’, apparently in Bridget’s hand, starts off like many other recipes with a list of ingredients but then it rapidly alters in tone, expressing an anguished difference of opinion with her physician(s). The recipe is scrawled on a loose scrap of paper and is undated, it was probably written later in life (see Figures 2a and 2b below). Here is the full text–any errors, my own transcription:

The glister

Figure 2a 'The Glister' Devon Record Office, 200 recipes - mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1688-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8. Courtesy of the Countess of Arran (Fortescue Papers).
Fig. 2a ‘The Glister’, Devon Record Office, 200 recipes – mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1688-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8. Courtesy of the Countess of Arran (Fortescue Papers).

Take of mallowes, pellitory of the wall, violet and mercury leaues of each one handfull of possett drinke one quart boyle these, strain it, Take some what lesse than a pint of it, adde to it, two ounces of browne sugar and two ounces of syrup of violetes and so mert? it warme [‘this is the for Glister for’crossed out] this Glister as it is heare set downe the things that I appoint my selfe but onely the manner and time and measures for my owne good tho the Docters heare thinke it best for mee to beleeue them against my owne sence and fealeing there sight and smell there reason for the know that I complaine of onely of there preprosporous order of things and concluding of my disses ancures according to there own concaites and prescriptions [‘by so’crossed out] unto wch I shuld never yeald, to they granted the thing In generall and to denye the thing In euery perticular that I have any powre to command: for that wch I haue a sence and fealeing and understanding doth mee Good or hurt and yet I must not say so nor desire to haue it don but Answeard onely my delayings and put offs with childish foolish Answears nay wch is worse Answears wch carry in them nothing but falsehoods wch was so very displeasing to God (3).

Much could be said about this not-recipe, which is a vivid demonstration of an individual in conflict with the ‘preposterous’ medical advice about her treatment as she complained about her lack of ‘powre to command’ in medical matters. A recipe that might have revealed a potential for therapeutic determination has become an expression of powerlessness. A key aspect of this not-recipe is that it could never have been included in a collated family recipe book.

Fig. 2b, 'The Glister'
Fig. 2b, ‘The Glister’.

Although the not-recipe started out as a recipe within the accepted genre, it does something other than provide a respectable, therapeutic claim which can be safely aired in public. Rather, this not-recipe revealed private and emotional frustration in medical matters. Perhaps there are more not-recipes: they need attention in our studies of recipe collections, as they help to illuminate beliefs and practice alongside the more visible inclusions in recipe collections.

 

(1) Devon Record Office, Fortescue 1262M/ FC/1, 54 Boscawen family letters, 1664–1701, ‘Sister Clinton’ to Lady Margaret Boscawen, 28 April 1683.

(2) Stobart, Anne. “‘Lett Her Refrain from All Hott Spices’: Medicinal Recipes and Advice in the Treatment of the King’s Evil in Seventeenth-Century South-West England.” In Reading and Writing Recipes, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming, 2013.)

(3) Devon Record Office, 200 recipes – mainly concerned with ague, plague, rickets, gout and worms. Boscawen, 1668-1687, Fortescue 1262M/FC/8, ‘The glister’.