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Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.

Recipes for Magic

By Frank Klassen

My house was remarkably crowded and had a bit of a holiday feel about it. It was mid-winter and twenty or so students from the University of Saskatchewan had taken up my invitation to try out a procedure and a device described in pre-modern magic manuscripts: molybdomancy and the Holy Almandal.

Chicago, Newberry Library, MS 5017, fol. 16v. Thanks to the Newberry Library for permission to use this image.

Reading a recipe or set of instructions is not the same thing as physically putting it all together and then trying it out. Anyone who loves to cook or sew or knit or build with wood knows this. But academics tend to shy away from doing this kind of thing, particularly historians of magic who generally don’t want to give the impression that they are in the business for practical reasons. Mercifully, the exercise was well worth my time and energy.

The description of molybdomancy in Thomas Aquinas and the seventeenth-century manuscript where I first encountered the technique disclose nothing about what it is like to actually do it. For a start, melting lead (or in our case lead-free solder) and pouring it into water or snow to divine the future was a huge amount of fun. For those familiar with the modern German New Year’s tradition of Bleigiessen this will not be a surprise, and the fun is certainly one of the reasons it continues to be employed today.

I was also surprised to find that we felt an instant sense of connection with the strange little lump of metal we extracted from the water after some hissing and sometimes a loud snap. One felt disappointed if it was boring and jealous of others whose lumps seemed more interesting. Those who got “a good one” often felt like they needed to keep it.

We also found by trying out some lead later in the evening that the different melting points of different metals produce slightly different results. The lead had a higher temperature an more thermal mass and tended to fracture less often.

What was most interesting to me as a historian of magic was discovering how crucial it was to have some kind of interpretive key (or expert interpreter). The lumps were evocative and often beautiful but generally very ambiguous if you were trying to discern a message in them. We used a modern list, which connected a wide variety of shapes with particular outcomes. Even then it took some work to decide if a lump was, say, a sword, flower, or shovel.

In light of this, the simplicity of the seventeenth-century text I knew made a good deal of sense. It says only that you will know you are bewitched if you find a face in the metal. We certainly got some faces so we may have some ill-intentioned witches in Saskatoon.

The centrepiece of the evening was the Holy Almandal, which is a curious intellectual artefact. It derives from a Sanskrit original and has significant similarities to modern Buddhist yantras (sometimes also used for magic), suggesting common ancestry. The Sanskrit word “mandala” was preserved in the name when it was translated into Arabic probably in ninth-century Baghdad. The Latin version translated in the twelfth century in turn preserved the Arabic article “al”.

Whatever the earlier texts might have been used for, the Latin version seeks to communicate and develop a close relationship with an angel. The Almandal itself, a magic tablet 4 inches square with holes in each corner, made from wax, and engraved with a quartile figure including angelic and divine names. The version we used required this square tablet to be supported by the rims of four candle stands. The candles were then lit and incense placed under the table. Earlier versions supported the table by putting tapering candles through the holes.

Again, the results were not only fun but also useful and practical. We had 3D printed the Almandal and the candle stands without thinking that the substance we used (PLA) melts at 180 C. The hot censor containing incense atop burning charcoal underneath it threatened to melt it. This led us to wonder if the older version in which the wax tablet was supported only by candles was simply too susceptible to melting or damage by dripping candles. The later version, which we used, protected the candles from the heat of the censor by having them on stands and the tablet from the candle drips by having a stand catch them.

More crucially, we got a strong sense of how evocative this little bit of skrying technology really was. The candles produced a strong updraft, drawing the smoke from the incense through the holes and around the sides of the table into the space between them and above the table where the angel was supposed to appear. This, together with flickering light, made for a pretty powerful effect. It was easy to see how one might see angels in such a device.

So what prompted all this activity?

These and other items built from ancient and medieval magic manuals form part of an exhibit assembled by David Porreca (University of Waterloo), Tracene Harvey (University of Saskatchewan), and me called “Materials and Imagination in Ancient and Modern Magic” It is currently running at the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Saskatchewan. Subsequent exhibitions will take place at the University of Waterloo and the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University (May 2017).


Frank Klaassen is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan and author of the Transformations of Magic (Penn State University Press) and Making Magic in Elizabethan England (forthcoming with Penn State University Press).

The Order of Things (2)

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen.

Over a year ago, Sietske and I started our ongoing series on a Dutch recipe collection BPL 3603, kept in the Leiden UL. We have already learned much about the manuscript and its compiler from examining a number of entries. But, as Sietske showed in her most recent post, there is more to discover by turning our attentions to the organization of the manuscript as a whole.

We recognized a certain order to how the recipes were entered into the 70-folio volume. Especially the fact that a first set of pages (p. 1-76) is alphabetized and a second set (p. 77-122) isn´t, appears significant. Still, some anomalies remained a bit of a mystery to us. A closer look at the alphabetical organisation of the first part was a big eye opener.

We can be sure that, as Sietske has suggested, the recipes in the volume were transcribed from a collection of recipes kept in a notebook or on loose slips of papers, which then formed the basis for further collecting.[1] The recipes were initially ordered alphabetically, mostly according to the affliction they were supposed to cure.

The manuscript allocates only one page to the letter "E", marked on the top right corner.
The compiler allocated only one page to the letter “E”, marked on the top right corner.

To fit his recipes into the manuscript, the compiler took into account how much room he needed for each letter. The number of pages assigned varied from one half-filled page for afflictions starting with “E” (p. 11), to the seven full pages for the letter “O” (p. 32-38).

Crucially, he marked only the recto pages with a letter in alphabetical order and initially left the verso pages blank. In this way, the verso pages remained open for additions and their letter grouping could be assigned later, creating a flexible information organisation system. Additional recipes transcribed on the verso pages tended to start with or contain the letter on surrounding recto pages.

A variety of tobacco illustrated in Johannes Neander´s Tabacologia (Leiden 1622).

The letter T shows how this system worked. Two and a half recto pages were filled with cures for toothaches and loose teeth (p. 55, 57 and 59), leaving space on the last recto page for additional recipes. Two of their verso pages are assigned to cures for consumption and split nipples on the one hand and a discussion of the virtues of tobacco on the other (p. 58). Importantly, the one page in the manuscript that remains completely blank is a verso page (p. 60).

Many recipes were later added onto the initially blank pages. This arrangement meant that on the verso pages of part one, we find materials that the compiler came across after he designed the manuscript with the alphabetical organisation.

As Elaine Leong has pointed out here, arranging recipes within a basic, alphabetical organisation is not as straightforward as it might seem. Clearly, this was the experience of the compiler of BPL 3603.

Practicalities such as running out of space on a page, forced him to reconsider how he categorized recipes. For example, due to space constraints, he entered recipes for the same affliction under as many as three different letters. When the page on dysentery (Rode Loop p. 47) under R was full, the collector grouped further recipes under L with recipes for lame Limbs instead (p. 28) and also under the much broader defined “afflictions of the belly” in the B section, particularly with recipes against diarrhea and stomachache.

His efforts to organize his recipes provides a perspective on how decisions about appropriate treatment could be informed by the organization of medical knowledge on paper.

Seventeenth-century physicians tended to organise their knowledge around illnesses rather than recipes, in order to choose a treatment. Various complaints, loose teeth and joint pain for example, could be subsumed under one disease, scurvy, and treated with the same remedies. On the other hand, dysentery (Rode-loop) distinguished itself from diarrhea (Buick-loop) by the presence or absence of blood in the stool, and each required different treatments.

This manuscript reveals the different organizational options that this compiler´s focus on recipes presented him with. He considered the area or part of the body where an illness occurred, its different common names, the letter that a recipe contained or started with, its main ingredient or manner of preparation.

An unexpected result of choosing where to put a new recipe on paper, the compiler of our manuscript also created new relations between illnesses and treatments. Why not try a recipe for dysentery in case of diarrhea or stomachache? The creative arrangement of recipes by the compiler might have led to more such epistemic effects than we initially realized.

[1] The recipe collection of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), a prominent diplomate and poet, remains in the form of such untranscribed and unorganized notes and slips of paper, in the Dutch Royal Library: Mss. KB: KA 47.

Tales from the archives: Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen

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.

This month, perhaps prompted my own reflections on how time flies, I want to share a post by Rachel Rich. In this piece from June 2013, Rich discusses the notion of time in Victorian cookbooks and argues that these texts are a window into how historical actors understood the passage of time. Skipping through time, Rachel recently gave a paper at the University of Essex. One of our editors, Lisa Smith, live tweeted the talk, go here for a storified version of the tweets.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

Kitchen form the 1907 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book, with clock clearly on display

By Rachel Rich

After years of working on eating habits, I recently tried to turn away, and think about new questions and problems. But the world of the cook book, and its close relation the domestic advice manual, keeps pulling me back. I am no longer trying to find out about the ideal dinner party of the middle-class Victorian housewife; now I am thinking about time, and about how people experienced its passage in an environment which many historians assert was dominated by the ticking clock, and the feeling that time was a precious resource, not to be squandered. In her London memoirs, Molly Hughes recalled the family clock and her mother’s habit of keeping it set ten minutes fast “‘to be on the safe side’, as mother said. She also confided to me once that it caused visitors to go a little earlier than they otherwise might…for she had observed that they never trusted their own watches.” (1)

Readers of this blog are sure to be as aware as I am of the difficulty of linking words on the page with food in people’s mouths. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because the textual recipe is about something else, it is the fantasy of food, and of the way of living which could be enjoyed by people who might regularly eat such foods. And the cookery books of the nineteenth-century are so different from the cookery-as-lifestyle advice we get now from Jamie Oliver and the like. Instead of drawing readers into their warm embrace, they start off with admonishments: Almost every book I look at has an introduction in which the author sets out to remind her readers of all the perils and pitfalls facing modern woman. The dining room was the heart of the home, and a woman who couldn’t entice her husband to spend time there faced abandonment, as he would head for his club or, worse, the anonymity of the restaurant.

The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success. And to ensure the success of the family, just as in following a cooking recipe, timing was everything. So Mrs. Beeton, queen of the Victorian cookery writers, covered all the timing bases. Recipes: for Soup a la Julienne, she indicated: ‘Time: 1-1/2 hours,’ or for Stewed Fillet of Veal, ‘A fillet of veal weighing 6 lbs., 3 hours’ very gentle stewing.’ (2) For all the other hours of the day: rise early, instruct your servants, groom yourself, educate your children, socialise, read, practice music, go to bed, but punctuate the whole with meals every four hours, a necessary requirement of a healthy body. And the days were not the whole story. Recipes didn’t just come with information about how long it would take to cook them, but also with an indication of when, in the bigger timetable of the year, they should be cooked, which in the case of stewed veal was ‘from March to October’. Henry Southgate, in his wonderfully titled Things a Lady would like to know (1881) expressed his disapproval about the lack of attention to seasons in menu choices: ‘summer dinners are, for the most part, as heavy and hot as those in winter, and the consequence is they are frequently very oppressive.’ (3)

For Molly Hughes’s mother, for Mrs Beeton, Henry Southgate and all the other cookery writers in the nineteenth-century, timing was the key to good food, well-planned meals and to a life well lived. With their increasing emphasis on timing and timekeeping, nineteenth-century cookbooks may not tell us everything there is to know about what people ate, but they can tell us an awful lot about what writers and their readers understood about the passage of time.

(1) M. V. Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61.
(2) I. Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London: S. O. Beeton, pp. 69-70; 414.
(3) H. Southgate, Things a Lady would like to know, Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo & Co., 1880, p. 377