Tag Archives: writing

Writing Early Modern Medicine for Medical Readers

Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177
Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177

By Alisha Rankin

Years ago, in a recipe collection belonging to Countess Elisabeth of the Palatinate (1552-90), I found a fascinating entry: a copy of an official document that described trials of a poison antidote on dogs, which I described in a post on this blog. My interest in that document has expanded into an entire book project on poison trials. Because these trials feel vaguely like an antecedent to modern clinical trials (with many twists and turns along the way), I’ve found that this project has provided an exciting opportunity to introduce early modern medicine to a medical audience. Last month Justin Rivest and I had the privilege of publishing a short piece, “Medicine, Monopoly, and the Pre-Modern State: Early Clinical Trials,” in the New England Journal of Medicine. Just a few days later, I published a blog post titled “Poison Trials on Condemned Criminals under Pope Clement VII: A Medical and Moral Testimonial” for the Sperimento blog, run by the Medici Archive Project. The juxtaposition of these two pieces, of similar length and on similar topics but in two very different venues, led me to reflect on writing history for non-experts, and on how different it is to write for doctors than for historians. Because the Recipes Project blog intends to reach a wide audience, I thought it might be interesting to jot down some thoughts on the experience here.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.
Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

Writing the Sperimento piece felt very familiar. The blog is intended to introduce a specific document in early modern Italian science and/or medicine, so I picked a Latin pamphlet published in 1524 on the authority of Pope Clement VII. The pamphlet described three poison trials conducted on condemned criminals and was intended to show the wondrous workings of an antidote oil created by a surgeon named Gregorio Caravita. I reflected on the religious and moral undertones of the document, and I included several footnotes with the original Latin. It was a pretty typical blog piece – fun to work on and quite helpful to write, as it forced me to sit down and meticulously make my way through the pamphlet. (I had hoped to find a recipe for the oil at the end of the pamphlet, but sadly the recipe remained Caravita’s secret – although Jo Wheeler included a later Medici version in his book.)

The NEJM piece, on the other hand, was far harder. We had to plan the article out very carefully. The word limit was officially 1,200 (although they happily ended up being a little flexible!), and it needed a lot of framing on each end. Justin is an expert in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and I was highlighting work from sixteenth-century Germany. That left each of us just a couple of short paragraphs to present our case from our own research and to tie everything together. This is apparently the first time the NEJM has published a piece on early modern medicine, so we tried our best to make it fit into categories that medical readers would find familiar. That meant keeping modern medicine as the standard against which we compared our historical case. It also – helpfully – forced Justin and me to come up with a coherent narrative over a long period of time.

The hardest part – for me at least – was the footnotes. The journal allowed only five references, which was very hard for two historians with two completely different sets of research that drew on archives as well as printed sources. Justin and I worked and worked to get it down to the requisite number and felt pretty good about the result. Then the peer reviews came back – and the editor clarified that five references meant individual references, not footnotes. Because some of our footnotes contained multiple sources, we had to cut out an additional six references. Uff. We simply had to give up on documenting everything, and I learned how uncomfortable that made me. Would historians think that the article was shoddily researched? Maybe, but I kept reminding myself that historians were not the main audience, an important distinction when I had to choose between my archive and an important English-language journal article. Were I writing for historians, I almost certainly would have picked the archive, to show all the great (hard!) research I’d done. In this case, I went with the article, on the theory that an interested reader could follow up with it more easily.

The fun part of writing for the NEJM was thinking about how to make early modern medicine seem something other than “wrong.” We went for the basic takeaway point that trials (even in a very, very early form) have been used to assess drugs for a really long time. I also did a short podcast with the journal, to expand on certain points. I didn’t have the questions in advance, and I couldn’t help but cringe a bit when the interviewer straightforwardly referred to our historical actors as “scientists” and “researchers,” but in some ways that was validating, as it suggested he was treating our subject with respect.

A truly interesting coda was what happened afterwards. Both the NEJM article and the Sperimento post made the rounds on social media. Interestingly, the latter appears to have been of more interest to early modernists, at least judging by the re-tweets I saw on my Twitter feed (perhaps those footnotes mattered after all!). The NEJM piece, in contrast, really did reach physicians. While we did not receive any major press attention, Tweets came literally from all over the world. Looking at this metrics map of where the article was read was really fascinating:

NEJM page views

I hadn’t quite thought about how far-reaching a top medical journal is – that short essay may well be the most widely read thing I ever write. Most gratifyingly, I received a lovely e-mail from a former student – now a doctor – who was delighted to see his old professor pop up in an unexpected place. But overall, the consensus from Twitter appeared to be “Wow! I had no idea that people were testing drugs that early!” In some ways, that is exactly why we do public history – to make people look at the past a little bit differently and, hopefully, to put modern trends in context. Being forced out of your comfort zone (footnotes!) also makes you think carefully about what message you really want to share. And of course readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that recipes can lead you to all sorts of unexpected places!

Exploring CPP 10a214: Overlapping Territories

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

In her most recent entry in this series, Hillary Nunn showed through genealogical and geographical research how the Downings and the Layfields had people and places in common.  This month’s entry raises a related aspect of the manuscript construction as a whole and with it the question of whether or not the two compilers knew each other.  At two places in the manuscript, the two compilers, Calybute Downing, the hand seen here,


and E. Layfield, hand here,

 Probatum Anne Layfield

overlap. This overlap begins on page 74, where the Layfield hand first appears in the manuscript (with pointedly a gout recipe) and which is shared with a Downing recipe for a the scurvy.  The pages then alternate between the Downing hand (pages 75 and 77) and the Layfield hand (76 and 78).  The Layfield hand then takes over what had been the Downing portion with 10 pages that include the recipes from Anne Layfield herself. Now there is a lot of room for speculation in our interpretation of this meeting of the hands in the compilation, but it does suggest that some kind of exchange occurred.

As has been mentioned before in this series, the manuscript as a whole exists in do-si-do format, and the reversed document starting from the opposite side (pages 241 – 207) is dominated by the Layfield hand.  But the page before that section (243) holds a recipe for the ague in the Downing hand reversed from the rest of the recipes in the section. The Downing hand appears again (229–27), in the same direction with the other Layfield recipes; this mini-series includes another recipe for the scurvy.

Now whether this overlap indicates anything more than shared scribes is again difficult to determine, but another intersection, the appearance of two attributions, Master Foule and Master Danell, in both in the Downing hand  and the Layfield hand suggests that two compilers occupied the same ground, either literally or socially, at some point in the construction of the manuscript.  In fact the names of Foule and Dauell (sic) first appear in the Downing hand at 74 and 75, respectively, during the transition into the Layfield section.[1]  Foule contributes three more recipes to the Downing collection and one to the Layfield section, while Mr. Danell or Danill is given credit for several recipes between pages 213 and 208. The identities of these two gentlemen may remain another of the College of Physicians’ many mysteries, but the further we articulate the overlapping terrain between the two dominant portions of this manuscript, the more cohesive the story it tells becomes.

[1] The spelling of Danell as Dauell follows the recurrent interchange between u-s and n-s in the Downing hand.

How to Translate a Recipe

By Sietske Fransen

Have you ever tried to use a recipe in another language, for example from a foreign language cookbook or the internet? If so, then you probably have struggled with identifying some of the ingredients. Personally, I seem to have an eternal problem with cumin, in other languages, that is. As it is ‘komijn’ in Dutch, and ‘cumin’ in English, it always traps me that the German ‘Kümmel’ is not the thing I am looking for. Even more confusingly, Kümmel seeds looks very similar to cumin seeds, and you find ‘Kümmel’ in German supermarkets as easy as cumin/komijn in English and Dutch ones. But ‘Kümmel’ is in English ‘caraway’ and in Dutch ‘karwij’, whereas the German word for ‘cumin’ is ‘Kreuzkümmel’. And although I knew it was one of those false friends, I did accidentally buy ‘Kümmel’ instead of ‘Kreuzkümmel’ a few weeks ago…




This is just an example to show that there can be problems with finding the right translation for an ingredient when read in a foreign language. On top of the problem of identification, one might also encounter problems with finding the actual ingredients in a foreign supermarket once you have found the right translation of the word (in my case, it is actually quite hard to find cumin seeds in German supermarkets whereas Kümmel seeds are everywhere). Next to ingredients, there are also many different ways in which quantities are notated in different countries (see for example also Kayla Perkin’s post earlier this month). Fortunately, we can nowadays find lots of conversion tables online.

The problems with translating were not very different in early modern Europe. Recipes for cooking and the making of drugs were circulating widely among physicians, alchemists, families, cooks, and so on. However, the author and reader were not always speaking the same language(s), and translations were therefore needed. How did these people deal with the difficulty of translating recipes?

Many recipes were written in Latin, which circumvented the problem of translation up to a certain level as it was a language widely understood by the community of scholars of the time. However, there was also a long tradition of recipes written in vernacular languages, for example Alessio Piemontese’s Secreti (Venice 1555). Recipes were therefore often translated, from Latin into the vernacular and vice versa, and between vernaculars, as we will see in the examples below. One of the difficulties was the translation of ingredients. In my recent research on translations of seventeenth-century medical recipes, I have observed that one of the solutions applied by translators to prevent ambiguity, was to use Latin for the ingredients, even if the rest of the text was in another language.

As an example I shall show a recipe handed down in the medical works of Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644), a Flemish physician, who wrote in both Dutch and Latin. Due to Van Helmont’s self-translation between Latin and his mother tongue, and the fact that his texts were translated into German, English, and French within forty years of his death, his works provide current scholars with very valuable material for studying the process and function of early modern translation.

Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683
Portrait of Jan Baptista Van Helmont; frontispiece in J. B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683

Van Helmont published on the plague in both Dutch and Latin. An Latin as ‘Tumulus pestis’, which was published as a part of his Opuscula medica inaudita (Cologne 1644), and in Dutch as the second part his Dutch book Dageraed (published posthumously in Amsterdam 1659). Van Helmont described not only his own methods to prevent falling ill from the plague, but he also includes several old recipes which might help as a treatment once someone is infected. Although Van Helmont was very skeptical about the effectiveness of any treatment of the plague, he nevertheless prescribed several sweat potions as potential treatment.

In his Dutch text Dageraed Van Helmont included several full recipes for sweat potions. These potions were supposed to be very effective for driving out fevers. Even though the entire book was written in Dutch, Van Helmont lists the ingredients in Latin with some additional information in Dutch, as can be seen in the picture below.

J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384
J. B. van Helmont, Dageraed, Rotterdam 1659, p. 384

The Dutch additions are explanations of the Latin terms, but it is clear that without understanding, or knowing, the Latin names of plants one could not find the ingredients. In contrast to the language used for the ingredients, the performative part of the recipe is entirely in Dutch. This contrast marks an interesting division between the linguistically restrictive section of the list of ingredients, and the part where we can find the description of the process or preparation, which often shows a broad variety of vernacular vocabulary. In my opinion this reflects the use of recipes in a practical environment. An environment in which I would expect vernacular languages to be dominant over Latin when practitioners were speaking about the process that is occurring (boiling, distilling, heating, etc.) and the tools they needed (the vessels, pots, instruments, etc.). Therefore, this recipe and the other recipes in Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague, which follow the same pattern int the use of Latin and Dutch, have prompted me to question the status of Latin in these recipes. It seems that the way Latin is used for the naming of ingredients has not much to do with a foreign language anymore, rather it is an incorporation of widely understood terminology into a vernacular language.

In my next blog post in December we shall discover how the two German translators of these recipes dealt with the translation of Dutch and Latin into German.

Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes (Part II)

By Amanda E. Herbert

This page from Anne Brumwich’s recipe book shows contributions by different authors, with different styles of handwriting. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

In this blog post and in my previous post, I’m presenting material from my forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).  The material in this post comes from Chapter Three, “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”

In my last post, I discussed how early modern advice books encouraged women to work together in kitchens.  But did women follow these directions in their own homes?  Kitchen accidents and mistakes of course caused tempers to fray.  When Elizabeth Freke discovered that her servant had damaged a pot, she was so angry about it that she recorded it in her kitchen inventory, saying that the pot had been “brok out by Amey”!  But you can also find proof of women’s attempts to foster positive relationships with each other.

One of the best sources for understanding “real” early modern women’s work in kitchens is through their manuscript – handwritten – recipe books.  Recipe books were living manuscripts, typically added to and amended by many people. Women collected recipes from their female and male friends and noted donors’ names next to borrowed recipes in their books. Jane Baber’s manuscript recipe collection of 1625 included eight attributions from other women, among them a recipe “for the woorms” she had received from her “sister Earnly.” Women probably did exchange these recipes in person, but manuscript evidence shows that they also received them in correspondence from their female friends and relatives.  In the later seventeenth century, Anne Lany scrawled a recipe “for Guidiness of the head” on the back of her letter to her friend Anne De Gray. Sometimes women valued the recipes that they received from friends over those offered by male physicians: Beatrix Clerke wrote in 1665 that she hoped to procure a recipe from her friend Lucy Hastings, stating that she “doth believe that your Honor’s study and practice in phisicke is above our docters.”

Even the recipes themselves show how women helped one another in the kitchen. Female authors wrote recipes from a communal perspective. Mary Bent’s recipe book featured instructions on how “to pickle cowcombers the best way,” and the author noted that “you may put a little pepper in if you please but we do not.” The use of the plural “we” here suggested that, for the recipe’s author, pickling cucumbers was a communal rather than a solitary activity.

Women thus counted on one another for help in the kitchen, but they also used their recipes to advance female independence. Women’s recipes allowed them to share knowledge about acquiring materials and ingredients, navigating through urban spaces, and negotiating with shopkeepers. Many recipes encouraged women to purchase supplies in London, which had large numbers of apothecary shops. “M.B.’s” recipe of 1640 “to whiten the Teeth” called for “the stones of crabbs,” and readers were told that “you may buy [them] at the Redd Crosse in Cheap side a drugist.” An anonymous mid-seventeenth-century woman’s book recorded that “Vatican Pills” could be purchased from “the Apothecary . . . in the old Bayly in London.” Anne Brumwich’s book contained a recipe for a lotion that was said to prevent hair loss, and the ingredients for this lotion had to be purchased at “a Chymist a dutchmans in high holborn neare Grayes Inn field.” And Mary Chantrell’s book had a recipe for “an Excellent Coole pummatum [pomatum] for the face,” with ingredients that could be purchased “in See Lane in Holbourn.” From Gray’s Inn to Cheapside and from the Old Bailey to Holborn, early modern women used the information they gleaned from the recipe books of friends and relatives to traverse urban space. This knowledge was surely both useful and empowering. By furnishing women with information about reliable dealers, fair prices, and shop locations, handwritten recipe books allowed female recipe authors and their readers to share vital knowledge with one another and assert their independence in London’s streets and alleys.

Manuscripts cited in this blog post:
1. Elizabeth Freke, “Kitchen Inventory,” October 18, 1711, Freke Papers, MS 45718, British Library.
2. Jane Baber, Recipe Book, 1625, MS 108, f. 18, 22, Wellcome Library.
3. Anne Lany, Letter to Anne De Gray, c. 1670, Correspondence of the Family of Gawdy, ADD 36989, F540, British Library.
4. Beatrix Clerke, Letter to Lucy Hastings, Countess Huntingdon, 1665, Hastings Collection, Box 25 HA 1466, Huntington Library.
5. Mary Bent, Recipe Book, 1664, MS 1127, f. 2, Wellcome Library.
6. Anonymous Woman [Possibly Mrs. M. Baesh], Recipe Book, 1640, MS 8086, f. 14, 19, 35B, 54, 81, 94–94B, and 102, Wellcome Library.
7. Anonymous, [possibly “EG”], Recipe Book, 17th c., MS 7391, Wellcome Library.
8. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160, f. 94, Wellcome Library.
9. Mary Chantrell and Others, Recipe Book, 1690, MS 1548, f. 84, Wellcome Library.