Tag Archives: Bodleian Library

First Monday Library Chat: Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford

Welcome to the August 2015 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month, Sarah Wheale, Head of Rare Books at the Bodleian Library, guides us through the rich recipe-related holdings at the Bodleian and updates us on the exciting changes happening in Oxford.

While all our readers are familiar with the Bodleian and its treasures, many might be surprised at your very rich holdings of manuscript and printed recipe books. Could you tell us a little more and perhaps share one or two gems with our readers? ­­

Recipes occur in many of our collections, whether early or modern, manuscript or printed. They range from our earliest English cookbook from 1381, to Mrs Beeton’s The book of household management (published in parts between 1859 and 1861). The Library holds the papers of Martin Lister who published an edition of the Roman cookbook De arte coquinaria (1705), and wrote about the food habits of the Parisians in his late 17th-century journals. We hold a manuscript containing the recipes used by Ralph Ayres when the cook at New College in the early part of the 18th-century, and the Friedmann-Braun archive contains a handwritten recipe book given by Gertrude to her new daughter-in-law as a wedding present in 1927. There are all sorts of unusual cookbooks from the 19th– and 20th-centuries in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera which are often aimed at encouraging the use of new gadgets and foodstuffs. As a library of legal deposit we have thousands of British cookery books dating from 1824 onwards, and we are actively collecting pre-1850 cookery and home economics books – and have just purchased a copy of The lady’s assistant in the oeconomy of the table (1759) with a recipe for gingerbread written in at the back.

The majority of our early modern recipes are not culinary at all but for a myriad of other things, including medicines, salves, remedies, cosmetics, magic potions, chemicals, inks, dyes, explosives, inextinguishable fire, and even cleaning products. Often they are described quite briefly in our various online catalogues with tantalizing entries such as “some French recipes for preserving vines against murrain’” (MS Bodley 733).

For historians of science, it is almost impossible to talk about the Bodleian Library without thinking about the Ashmole collection. Could you give us an idea of the scope of the recipe texts within the Ashmole collection?

Elias Ashmole collected books and manuscripts related to many subjects, but particularly chemistry, astrology, astronomy, and kindred topics. The collection contains a few culinary recipes, including a 15th century English manuscript of sauce recipes, but the greater number are medical, magical and alchemical. His manuscripts are full of recipes for elixirs, compounds and tinctures, with the most interesting in the casebooks of Simon Forman and Dr Richard Napier. There are some 80,000 consultations recorded between 1596 and 1634, including many recipes, allowing us to judge their efficacy in some cases.

A digital copy of Willam Black’s A descriptive, analytical, and critical catalogue of the manuscripts bequeathed unto the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole is available via our online catalogue, SOLO.

MSS Ashmole 234, 226, 195, 219, 236, 411
MSS Ashmole 234, 226, 195, 219, 236, 411

I had the pleasure of working in the new Weston Library and was in awe of the new building. It’s been an exciting few years for the Bodleian. Could you tell us a little about the changes and what this means for readers who want to consult manuscripts and other early material?

For our readers it means that operations for special collections are now much more centralized with most of our staff, collections, services and library users all in one place. The landmark exterior of the New Library remains but what were once staff offices, a handful of specialist reading rooms and 11 floors of stack has been entirely transformed.

There is a dedicated special collections library with three reading rooms. There are teaching and seminar spaces, a cafe, the Visiting Scholars Centre and the Centre for Digital Scholarship all onsite. The new state-of-the-art stack houses many of our collections and the gallery and open-stack areas have increased space for reference materials. There are also new spaces for visitors on the ground floor – two exhibition galleries, a café and a shop all set around the wonderfully light and airy Blackwell Hall.

John Cairns, Oxford photographer, Oxford University, www.johncairns.co.uk
John Cairns, Oxford photographer, Oxford University, www.johncairns.co.uk

What tips can you offer to help users find recipes via your catalogue or finding aids?

Our printed holdings from all periods are searchable via SOLO.  Not only can you search the Bodleian’s collections but also those of most of the college, departmental and faculty libraries of the University too.  As you might expect with such large holdings the work to add and upgrade our records is an ongoing process so do see our webpage for detailed tips and guidance, particularly if you are working on pre-1920 printed collections as entries in the catalogue can be quite brief.

Manuscripts are catalogued separately and there are a variety of published catalogues and online databases to help researchers navigate the collections. Again there is extensive help online.

The best tip I can give is to encourage everyone to email us and tell us a bit about what you are looking for.

For those of us living afar, could you tell us a little more about how we might be able to consult your holdings via digitization schemes or virtual exhibitions?

We have been digitizing special collections since the 1990s and there are several ways to gain access to our holdings remotely. Digital. Bodleian is the main gateway, and there are thousands of individual images available via Luna We also have some of our exhibitions available online, including our current show, Marks of Genius. SOLO also holds full digital copies of many 19th century printed items created as part of the Google Books projects.

 Finally, can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

One of my favourite items in the Library is a recipe for a plague cure. It was published by Roger Dixon, an apothecary at the Sign of the Holy Lamb and Ink-bottle in Water Lane, London, during the devastating outbreak in 1665. This small handbill, entitled A directory for the poor, against the plague and infectious diseases gives Dixon’s own recipe for a cordial made from sage, rue, angelica, Virginia Snakeroot and saffron which would “by sweat throw out the malignity of the distemper”.   He adds a further recipe for an ‘outward application’ against the plague, and another for a drink against ‘all malignant feavers’.

John Johnson Collection Patent Medicines 2 (53)
John Johnson Collection Patent Medicines 2 (53)



The Medieval Invisible Man

By Laura Mitchell

As I promised in my last post, today I want to touch on a magical recipe with ties to some interesting sources. One of the manuscripts I focused on for my dissertation research is Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435. This is an anonymous manuscript from the fifteenth century that contains mostly academic medical texts and is a large collection of over 180 magical and non-magical recipes in English and Latin in no discernible order. Understandably, in a collection that large the kinds of recipes vary considerably: there are recipes for cooking, metallurgy, divinatory experiments, texts of the virtues… and four experiments for invisibility (pages 7, 12, and 25).

The desire to become invisible seems to be a common theme for the pre-modern magician. Experiments promising this outcome survive in similar recipe collections in London, Wellcome Historical Medical Library MS 517 (a fifteenth-century Dutch collection); Kassel, Murhardsche und Landesbibliothek Codex Medicus 4˚10; the Greek Magical Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt; Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, Clm 849, the German necromantic handbook edited by Richard Kieckhefer in Forbidden Rites; and it is frequently seen in later medieval ritual magic.1 And of course this desire has extended to the modern day with Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility!

Of the four recipes for invisibility in Ashmole 1435 one in particular caught my eye. This is the third one in the manuscript and it is the most complex, bearing a strong resemblance to a necromantic operation for invisibility in Clm 849 and a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri. The Ashmole recipe runs as follows:

Si vis esse inuisibile: accipe vnum canem mortuum et sepilles eum et plantes super eum fabus et vnam in ore tuo et sine dubio eris inuisibile

(If you wish to be invisible: take a dead dog and bury it and plant a bean plant over it and place one in your mouth and without a doubt you will be invisible.)

V0043440 Bean plant (Phaseolus species): flowering and fruiting stem
Bean plant (Phaseolus species): flowering and fruiting stem with three beans. Coloured pen and ink drawing by F. V. Ghini, c.1700. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
The Clm 849 operation for invisibility instructs the operator kill a black cat that was born in March.  He cuts out the cat’s eyes and places heliotrope seeds in its eyes and mouth; then he buries the cat while reciting conjurations. Once the plant has sprouted, the practitioner takes each sprouted bean, putting them in his mouth one by one while gazing into a mirror until he turns invisible.2 The similarities are quite remarkable and I would argue that there has been some appropriation of the necromantic ritual here.

The biggest distinction between the two is the lack of conjurations in the Ashmole operation and the distinction between killing a cat and finding a conveniently dead dog. Both of these operations in turn share a resemblance to a short spell from the Greek Magical Papyri from the third or fourth century, in a book titled The Diadem of Moses. In this operation the magician places the dog’s head plant under the tongue while lying down and recites certain magical words.3

It’s hard to say what exactly is going on here. How related are these three rituals? It’s clear that there is some sort of connection between the rituals in Clm 849 and Ashmole 1435, albeit indirectly, but what of their relationship to the spell from The Diadem of Moses? Was there a corruption of the text from the dog’s head plant to the dog/cat of the later operations? Did the Diadem of Moses ritual find itself translated and transported over the centuries across Europe, ending up in one instance in the necromantic manual of an anonymous German scribe, and in another instance in the equally anonymous book of an English scribe? If so (and I don’t see why not), this is an example of a magical recipe surviving and being passed on for over 1200 years.

1. Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

2. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, 60-61; 240.

3. Richard L. Phillips, In Pursuit of Invisibility: Ritual Texts from Late Roman Egypt (Durham, North Carolina: American Society of Papyrologists, 2009), 110-111.

Gunpowder, treason, and plot? Not quite.

In keeping with the theme of my previous post, I wanted to look at another of the numerous trick recipes I’ve come across. The topic I’ve chosen for this post is rather less rude than the last one, however.

In late medieval books of secrets and recipe collections we can find a lot of recipes using dangerous substances like gunpowder (and its component parts) and mercury. The gunpowder recipes in particular are used for spectacular theatrical effects like propelling a dragon across a tether and making it breathe fire.[1] However, these ingredients often appears in recipes of a less spectacular nature – to play good-natured tricks on people or in children’s toys.[2] In many of these recipes the gunpowder and mercury are used to make a household object move about as if under its own strength.

Making a loaf of bread jump about is a common goal. I have come across numerous examples that all employ similar means. This example comes from Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1436, page 26:

In order to make a loaf run round about the house, take one hot loaf and put a little mercury on a penny and stamp the end with a little wax and put it in the loaf and it shall be done, it is proven.[3]

There’s a similar principle at play with this recipe from London, British Library Sloane MS 121, folio 91r to make a ring jump about:

To make a ring dance and run throughout the whole house by itself. Make a hollowed out oval ring out of whatever metal you like and fill it with saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, and quicksilver and then solder it well and firmly so that nothing can come out. And after a while when it is placed in the fire and it is warmed enough it will dance through the house.[4]

With the exception of the example with the ring, these recipes seem to focus on food. Joke recipes like this using food and chemical reactions were one of two kinds of joke cooking recipes (the other kind being parody recipes that created humour by using absurd or disgusting ingredients). They were entertaining while at the same time giving the performer the appearance of having magic powers, but without the threat of performing real magic. This final example comes from San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 1336, folio 5r:

In order to make a stew slip out of the pot. Take vitriol and saltpetre and Spanish soap and grind it all into a powder and throw it in the pot and all the stew in the pot shall run out, [I] guarantee.[5]

Unfortunately, we don’t know how these kinds of tricks went over in the medieval household. We can certainly imagine people’s delight, especially children’s, at seeing an innocuous loaf of bread suddenly start jumping around under its own steam. Gunpowder, quicksilver, and its various ingredients became popular in medieval recipe collections because they could turn ordinary household items like rings, bread, or even stew into fantastic and quasi-magical objects.

[1] Philip Butterworth discusses this use of gunpowder in early modern stage productions and includes a number of recipes similar to what can be found in the medieval sources. Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 1998).

[2] For example, one of the earliest mentions of gunpowder in medieval Europe is believed to come from Roger Bacon describing its use in Chinese firecrackers. There are similar recipes in the c. 1300 Liber ignium of Marcus Grecus. See Pierre Berthelot‟s edition of the Liber ignium in La chimie au moyen âge, vol. I (Paris 1893; repr., Osnabrück: Otto Zeller and Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1967), 100-135; on Bacon see Joseph Needham, Gwei-Djen Lu, and Ling Wang. Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 5, Part 7. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 48–50.

[3] “for to make a lowfe to renne roun a bowte þe house take one hote lofe and put a lytyl quicsyluer on a penne et stape (sic) þe hende with a lytyl wax and put hyt in þe lofe and yt schal be doun ut probatum”

[4] “Ad faciendum Anulum saltare et currere per totam domum per se ipsum. Fac anulum de quocumque metallo quod tibi placuerit et quod sit ouum  modo concauus et imple illum de salpeter sulphure viuo et viuo argento et deinde soldatur (sic) bene et firmiter ita quod nichil queat exire. Et postmodum cum ponatur prope ignem et parum calefacietur saltabit per domum”

[5] “For to make potage slippinn out of þe potte. Take arnement and salt peter and spaynis sope and grynd it alle in poudire and caste it in þe potte and alle þe potage in þe potte xalt rene out a warentise.”
A variation of this recipe can be found in the Liber cure cocorum, a mid-fifteenth century cookery book in verse. The book begins with three trick recipes: two recipes to make cooked food appear raw and to make it appear full of worms and the recipe to make food leap out of the pot. The Liber cure recipe is designed as a trick to play on the cook: “Yf þe coke be croked or soward mane / Take sope, cast in hys potage; / Þenne wylle þe pot begyn to rage / And welle on alle, and lepe in / þat licoure is made, noþer thykke ne thynne.” [If the cook is a crooked or froward man, / Take soap, cast [it] in his potage, / Then will the pot begin to rage / And well above all, and leap in. / That liquid is made, neither thick nor thin.] Text and translation from Melitta Weiss Adamson,  “The Games Cooks Play: Non-sense Recipes and Practical Jokes in Medieval Literature,” in Food in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1995), 184.  The De mirabilius mundi contains a version to make “a chicken or other thing leap in the dish” using a combination of quicksilver and zinc carbonate. Best and Brightman, Book of Secrets, 98 and Adamson, “The Games Cooks Play,” 177-178, 183-185.

“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.

[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.