Tag Archives: alphabet

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.