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Roman remedy books?

By Helen King

If you know anything about food history, you’ll know about the ancient Roman writer, Apicius. His recipe book was reprinted in 2006 and is even available in an English translation; and you can get a pdf of the full text of 64 of the recipes at

Elaine Leong’s recent post,, reminded me about another sort of Roman book: the remedy books. Of course, as anyone on this blog knows, there is not much of a line between recipe and remedy…  Alun Withey’s post, about ‘what is a recipe collection?’ then made me think about this some more. So, here are some thoughts concerning collections in the ancient world.

Traditional Roman medicine is still something of a mystery. It seems to have been overshadowed by the medicine of the Greeks – despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC. In this case, and in contrast to modern colonial history, it was the medicine of the conquered people that won the battle of the body; as the Roman poet Horace wrote, in many cultural fields Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, ‘Captured Greece took captive her savage conqueror’.

So what was Roman medicine like before Greek medicine took over? We know that in around 160 BC, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor, 234-149 BC), wrote a book for the farmer and head of the household to use, called De agri cultura (On agriculture,  literally On the cultivation of the fields). The text survives. It includes recipes – for pudding, for porridge, for purges. In his Life of Cato, the Greek historian Plutarch later referred to a book written by Cato that does not survive: a recipe collection. Plutarch writes, ‘[Cato] himself had compiled a notebook (hypomnema) of recipes and used them for the diet or treatment of any members of his household who fell ill’. So, other than what we have in De agri cultura, what was in this book and how did it come into being? Perhaps, like early modern remedy collections, it was a ‘commonplace book’ of remedies Cato had picked up based on books he had read, or suggestions made by friends and family. Plutarch also tells us that Cato ‘never made his patients fast, but allowed them to eat herbs and morsels of duck, pigeon, or hare’ (Life of Cato 23). Sounds good so far!

We have a second source for this recipe/remedy collection. Here, in the Roman writer Pliny, it is called a commentarius, a word meaning treatise, notebook or memo. We find that it was kept by the head of household: Cato used it to treat ‘his son, servants, and household’. While Plutarch says Cato ‘himself’ compiled it, Pliny simply says that Cato ‘had’ such a book. Cato was rapidly anti-Greek. He warned against the dangers of Greek doctors, although in fact he uses enough Greek technical terms to make it clear that he had read Greek medicine for himself. So were some of the remedies in his collection taken from Greek books? And did other Roman heads of household own, or compile, collections like this one? And how did they organise them?

For that last question, we have one tantalising hint. The reason why Pliny tells us about the collection is that he says it is the origin of the recipes he gives in his Natural History. That collection of knowledge is organised in a very complicated way – it is nothing like a modern encyclopedia with an A-Z structure. Pliny implies that he has taken apart Cato’s notebook and put the recipes wherever they best fit for his purposes. So does that mean that they were arranged in some sort of structure by Cato? Cato would most likely have been writing on papyrus scrolls, so he may have just written down recipes as he acquired them, or he may have had a reorganised copy made. Perhaps, picking up an idea Elaine Leong explored, he wrote an index? The ancient world raises so many questions – and has so few answers!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University; her interests range from ancient to early modern, and focus on gynaecology and obstetrics

On Pliny: Aude Doody, ‘Pliny’s Natural History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009):

Cato the Elder:

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.

What is a ‘remedy collection’?: Recording Medical Information in the Seventeenth Century

What exactly is a ‘recipe collection’? The most obvious answer is something like the example shown below, a formal ‘receptaria’ book of medical receipts and remedies. In the early modern period, and across Europe, these types of collections were fairly common, and especially in wealthier households. These were often carefully constructed documents, containing indices and sometimes containing groups of remedies according to various types of remedy, or parts of the body. In many ways these were the high-end of domestic medicine.

But were such formal collections necessarily representative? In other words, did everyone (or at least everyone capable of writing remedies down) collect their medical information this way? No. As a great deal of recent work by historians is revealing, the committal of recipes to paper was often a much more haphazard, and far less regimented, process.
For a start, paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period. It could often be bought easily enough; apothecaries often sold reams or ells of paper, as did other retailers from merchants to haberdashers. But it was nonetheless quite costly. Unlike today, where scribble pads and notebooks can be bought for pennies, the buying of paper, or a bound book of notepaper, would have been something out of the ordinary, especially for those on low incomes.

Firstly, the recording of remedies was an expedient and often pragmatic process. Remedies usually spread firstly by word of mouth, with people passing on their favourite receipts to friends, neighbours and acquaintances. As Adam Fox’s work on early modern oral culture has shown (Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000)) people had a strong ability to commit information to memory, and this made sense at a time when the majority of the population couldn’t read or write. Nevertheless, for those wishing to record the remedy accurately for future use, there was a need to do so quickly, and often using whatever was to hand.

As such, many ‘remedy collections’ are little more than assemblages of roughly scribbled notes, sometimes on torn bits of paper, sometimes on the back of unrelated documents, and sometimes even including a variety of other information on the same page. In fact, the very survival of many remedies is probably attributable to the fact that they have been incorporated into other, non-medical, documents.

Nevertheless, the recording of remedies in certain types of document was often a more deliberate decision. In Wales, for example, there were several instances of medical remedies being written on notepaper purloined from a church. In one sense this was pragmatic and reflected the simple availability (and probably abundance) of paper, given the needs of the church to keep records. But some were written inside church documents. In parish registers, for example, it was not uncommon to find receipts. A common example was that of a ‘receipt for the biteinge of a mad dogge”, often originally attributed to the register of Cathorp Church in Lincolnshire, but which seemed to move around the country. An example of the remedy, occurring in the Monmouthshire church of Llantillio Pertholey, can be seen here:

In another sense, though, putting remedies in amongst religious verses, as often occurred in commonplace books and notebooks, was a way of allying the remedy to the power of religion. If it was next to God’s word on paper, perhaps it would have more power?
Above all, for the remedy to be of any use, it had to be easy to find when needed. Some, for example, kept remedies within the pages of their business ledgers. Here, the regimented layout perhaps suited ease of future reference. But perhaps most common was to keep remedies within the pages of personal sources. Many diarists noted down examples of favoured remedies, especially when they had suffered from an ailment and attributed their recovery to the taking of a particular remedy.

Commonplace books, notebooks and copy books were also common places for the jotting down of useful information, and could be easily referred to if needed. It was not uncommon to put remedies within pages of miscellany, including accounts, quotes, poetry and family records, locating it firmly within the context of ‘useful’ information. Many literate families also kept letters. Health was a regular topic of conversation amongst letter writers, and it was common to fire off a few missives seeking potential remedies from within one’s social network. When a reply duly came, here was a ready-made receipt that could be kept without needing to write it down again. Prescriptions and directions from practitioners might be especially prized as they represented a virtual consultation, specially tailored to the recipient’s humoral constitution.

One often-overlooked method, however, were medical almanacs. It’s worth looking at a typical example of how these sources could be used. Cardiff Public Library MS 1.475 is a small memoranda book dating to around 1708, and seemingly originating from London, with the names John and Elizabeth Price prominent. A little list of family notes inside the front cover reveal a touching and tragic tale.

February 10th 1708/9
Married then to the pretty, the charming Mrs Elizabeth Price by the Rev’d Dr Typing of Camberwell.

My daughter Anne was born the 17 of April 1712 about twenty min(utes) after eight in the morning and baptised the 1. of May
She was a very beautifull, lovely child but God was pleased to take it May 3. 1712

Much of the document, however, is actually drawn on the reverse side of copies of almanacks. These were part-astrological, part-magical and part-news documents which contained everything from prognostications and predictions to religious dates, weather information and medicine. The first almanac in this document is ‘Merlinus Liberatus, being an alamanack for the year of our Blessed Saviour’s Incarnation, 1708…by John Partridge, student in Physick and Astrology at the Blue Ball in Salisbury Street in the Strand, London”. Partridge was clearly an entrepreneur; the very next page of his almanck is dedicated to ‘Partridges Purging Pills, useful in all cases where purging is required”!

A second almanac pasted into the book is “The Country Physician; or a choice collection of physic fitted for vulgar use: Containing 1) a collection of choice medicaments of all kinds, Galenical and Chymical, excerpted out of the most approved authors 2) Historical observations of famous cures collected out of the works of several modern Physicians 3) A Cabinet of specific, select and practical chymical preparations in two parts, made use of by the Author, by W. Salmon M.D”

This sort of document was a cheap means of buying a ready-made remedy collection, complete with the latest thinking and couched in terms of the layman. There were many self-help volumes of family physick available, but these cheaper almanac and chapbook style documents were easier to read and easier to keep. It is also clear that the spaces on the back of pages were useful places to note down other remedies as they accrued.

For example, the Prices noted down a number of receipts on the back pages, including a receipt “To prevent a return of the ague”, another for the “dead palsy”, including mistletoe, oak and saffron, and another for “flushings in the face”. Here, then, the printed and the written remedy intertwined to become a completely distinct and individual family collection. In many ways this was as formal a collection as a ‘receptaria’, and probably included many of the same sorts of remedies, but in a different form.

The recording of remedies, and the idea of a ‘remedy collection’, therefore, shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a single, formalised and regimented document. These were organic documents, sometimes constructed carefully, but often just growing as collections of rough notes. Remedies might be deliberately placed within documents, or they might be the result of a roughly-scribbled note. Equally, people might keep ready printed or written remedies, and simply add their own notes as required. In this sense, there is no single ‘remedy collection’ document; instead, there are a myriad different ways in which people collected remedies.

Apologies for cross-posting. This post appeared on my own blog: (22 August 2012).

Finding Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I am a big fan of Epicurious and especially their ever-useful iPhone app. I have spent many happy hours browsing whilst waiting for various trains, buses and planes. As those of you familiar with these sorts of recipe sites know, the Epicurious site and app have a ‘favorites’ feature where you can your selected recipe in a virtual recipe box with the click of a button.

Recently, I have started to commute to work on the train and have accumulated a large number of ‘favourites’.  One thing I did not realize while happily click-click-clicking away, is that while the site/app allows flexible searching (ingredient, cuisine, meal, season, occasion and more), you can only organize your virtual recipe box alphabetically or by date of entry.  As you can imagine, this causes all sorts of frustration to the working-mother looking for a recipe on the fly in the supermarket at 6 p.m. That got me thinking: perhaps this is the reason that we find so many different methods of information management (as Ann Blair calls it) in our early modern recipe books.[1]  Easy information retrieval and instant access to practical knowledge would have driven early modern recipe compilers to adopt and adapt available paper technologies.[2]

Paper technologies were employed to manage recipes in a variety of ways.  While some compilers were content to mix together different kinds of practical knowledge–so recipes to make cakes could be next to cough remedies–others were keen to create distinct repositories for medical, culinary and preserving know-how. Some compilers such as Lady Johanna St. John (1631-1705) of Battersea Park, London and Lydiard Park, Swindon, simply used separate notebooks for medical and culinary information.[3] But St. John was not the only one who invested in multiple notebooks. For example, Lady Francis Catchmay instructed her eldest son William to ensure that other members of the Catchmay family have access to her multiple books of recipes.[4]  Mother and daughter, Margaret Boscawen and Bridget Boscawen Fortescue also used several different notebooks to organize and sort their medical and natural knowledge. [5]

Of course, as we all know, paper was not cheap in the early modern period and so not all recipe compilers had the luxury of owning multiple books.  Other compilers took to what Jonathan Gibson terms the ‘reverse casting-off of blanks’.[6]  That is, the manuscript creator first enters recipes in the front of a bound notebook, turns the book upside down and then enters other recipes in what was the ‘back’ of the volume. Interestingly, as Gibson tells us, this was a strategy widely adopted by manuscript creators to organize all sorts of miscellaneous information from literary material to household accounts.  Within the realm of household recipe books, one particularly pretty example of this practice is Lady Ayscough’s book, one of the first manuscripts collected by Henry Wellcome.[7]

These strategies allowed users to compartmentalize different kinds of knowledge.  If we return to my pre-dinner panics in the local supermarket, it is interesting to ask how early modern compilers ensured speedy information retrieval.  After all, many recipe compilers tended to write down their recipes as the information presented itself, i.e. organization by date-of-entry.  In these cases, the ever-handy table of contents or an alphabetically organized index does the job. As those familiar with early modern household books well know, many of these information retrieval strategies are written in a different hand to the main body of the text, suggesting that they were added to the volumes part-way through the compilation process. Perhaps, like me, our early modern compilers also got frustrated with a chronological listing of recipes.

Of course, these adopted information retrieval strategies also need not be permanent.  After all, there is nothing to stop you from rewriting your table of contents.  Scattered throughout the recipe archive are families who made multiple attempts to create useful finding aids.  The Arcana Fairfaxiana, for example, preserves two versions of Henry Fairfax’s meticulous table of contents.[8]  Not satisfied with his first attempt, Henry happily crossed it out and started again.  As I fiddle with my phone and toggle through all the myriad of recipes on my Epicurious app just to locate the right ‘thing’ for dinner tonight, I wish that rewriting the search function for my Epicurious app could be just as easy as rewriting the table of contents á la Henry Fairfax.

Finally, the archive also presents us with more elaborate uses of paper technologies.  For example, some compilers such as Philip Stanhope, the first Earl of Chesterfield and the Lady Johanna St. John, sectionalized their notebooks into alphabetical units.  Recipes are then entered into the relevant sections as they arrive in the hands of the compilers. While this method sounds meticulous and organized, as I’ll explore in another post, alphabetization brings with it a whole load of other issues…

[1] Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)

[2] Anke te Heessen, ‘The Notebook: A Paper-Technology’, in Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. B. Latour and P. Weibel (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press), 582-589.

[3] St. John mentions the two separate recipe books in her will of 1704 (PRO PROB 11/480/426).  Her medically orientated ‘great receipt book’ is now in the Wellcome Library (MS 4338).

[4] Like St. John, only one of Catchmay’s multiple books have survived and it is in the Wellcome Library (MS 184a). A tantalizing note on the front flyleaf of the manuscript refers to ‘This Booke with the others of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye’ alluding to Catchmay’s other receipt books.

 [5] Anne Stobart, ‘The Making of Domestic Medicine: Gender, Self-Help and Therapeutic Determination in Household Healthcare in South-West England in the Late Seventeenth Century’ (Middlesex University, Unpublished PhD thesis, 2008), 43.

[6] Jonathan Gibson, ‘Casting off Blanks: Hidden Structures in Early Modern Paper Books’ in James Daybell and Peter Hinds (eds.), Material Readings of Early Modern Culture. Texts and Social Practices 1580-1730 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 208-228 (209).

[7] Frances Larson, An Infinity of Things. How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 37. The manuscript is now Wellcome Library MS 1026.

[8] George Weddell (ed.), Arcana Fairfaxiana Manuscripta. A Manuscript Volume of Apothecaries’ Lore and Housewifery nearly Three Centuries Old, Used and Partly Written by the Fairfax Family (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Mawson, Swan and Morgan 1890).