Making Senses: Artisanal Practice and Sensory Perception in an Early Modern French Manuscript

By Tillmann Taape

Ms Fr. 640 was written in French by an unknown craftsperson in Toulouse, likely between 1580 and 1600. [1] It is an intriguing and eclectic source, with entries ranging from medical recipes to metalwork and pigment-making, and it forms the core of the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, introduced previously on the Recipes Blog in a post by our Director, Pamela Smith.

With its numerous instructions for making things, our manuscript provides a rich case study for the way artisans worked with and thought about materials. As previous posts in this series on Recipes and the Senses have shown, physicians, alchemists, apothecaries, and other craftsmen recognised in their bodies and its senses an important set of tools for understanding and manipulating the material world, and historians pay increasing attention to these embodied and sensory ways of knowing. In this post, I will share a few examples of the rich language of the senses in Ms. Fr. 640. As one might expect from a manuscript including painting and sculpture, the eye often takes precedence over the other senses. However, a discussion of the visual in the manuscript would by itself be far beyond the scope of a single post – we spent much of this year just trying to figure out how the author-practitioner conceptualises different pigments and shades of blue. The aim here, therefore, is to focus on the oft-neglected non-visual senses and what they can teach us about our author-practitioner’s concept of the material world, his ‘material imaginary’.

Smell

A strong smell was often a sign that things had gone wrong – the papier-mâché had turned rotten while being left to soak, or a kitchen pot had been made with too much latten (a copper alloy), which ‘stinks and smells bad’ (fol. 36v). However, smells could also help identify the materials needed for a recipe. The ingredient list for a metal alloy, for example, includes the intriguingly specific ‘congealed mercury with the smell of tin’ (fol. 92v). Musing on one of his favourite topics, the properties of fine sand used for metal casting, the author-practitioner notes that

white sand smells like sulphur when heated, and I believe it would melt. And as the substance has been cast in it, it acquires in the mold a lustre as if it were leaded or vitrified. I believe that glassmakers could use it (fol. 99r).

In addition to his observation of a vitreous glaze on the cast object, it is the sulphurous smell which suggests to the author-practitioner that this particular kind of sand is prone to melt and could even be used for making glass. Throughout the manuscript, sulphur does indeed appear as a material which can easily be melted and used to cast small objects, and even appears to function as a sort of material metaphor for transformation and experimentation.

Listen

The sense of hearing becomes itself the subject of a short entry. Under the heading ‘hearing from afar’, the author-practitioner records one of the tidbits of advice and tricks for daily life which are scattered here and there throughout the manuscript: ‘Make a small hole in the ground, put your ear against it during the night or during a quiet time, and you will easily hear muffled sounds’ (fol. 125r). In addition to facilitating amateur espionage, specific noises could serve as helpful indicators in the workshop. Before casting metal into a mould made from cuttlefish bone, the author-practitioner writes, one has to make sure that it is completely dry: ‘you will know that they are dry enough when, after having held them near the fire a little, their inside and the impression scream & crackle when you hold them up to your ear’ (fol. 145r). If one was prepared to listen carefully, the materials themselves could tell when they were ready to be worked upon.

Cuttlefish bone used for casting metal objects. © The Making and Knowing Project

Taste

The sense of taste could also help to assess and adjust one’s materials. To make ‘essence of sal ammoniac’, for example, ‘the size of two chestnuts of pulverized sal ammoniac suffices in a pot of water, and to the tongue you find the water moderately salty, for too much is not good’ (fol. 111v). The concentration of the sal ammoniac solution was clearly of some importance here, and like in most early modern recipes, the given measurements – size of a chestnut, a pot of water – might not yield very consistent results, so a qualitative sensory indication – ‘moderately salty’ – is added as a further point of reference. As well as checking one’s own procedures, taste could of course be used to assess the quality of merchandise. The city of Toulouse, where our manuscript was compiled, gained much of its considerable wealth from the trade in woad, a blue dyestuff whose French name, pastel, is a likely origin of the term ‘pastel’ colours in English and other European languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author-practitioner mentions this sought-after material and tells us how to tell the good from the bad. This involves several steps, including inspection and a dyeing test, but the first step is a taste test: ‘The goodness of the woad is known when, put in the mouth, it gives a taste as of vinegar’ (fol. 39r).

Touch

Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who clearly worked with his hands a lot, the sense of touch plays a particularly important and intriguing part in the author-practitioner’s practice and writing. Returning to his favourite topic – the different kinds of sand or plaster used for casting moulds – he describes how the addition of a substance called alum de plume (literally ‘feather alum’ – it probably refers to a group of minerals known as feldspars in English) helps the mould hold together because it forms fibrous structures (hence probably the reference to feathers). Its production requires a complex process of heating and grinding up in a mortar. In the margin next to the recipe, the author-practitioner notes that one should grind the alum slowly and in small portions, and finally ‘render it very fine & soft to the touch’ (fol. 108v). The manuscript is full of these kinds of haptic properties to indicate the appropriate consistency or particle size of materials. Another ‘sand’ for casting, for example, is made with ‘the bone of oxen feet, very burned & pulverized & ground on porphyry, until it is not felt between your fingers’ (fol. 84v). Intriguingly, here the reader is told to stop grinding not when they can feel a particular sensation, but when they can no longer feel the material at all with their fingers.

As it turns out, this criterion of eluding the sense of touch was an important technical concept for early modern artisans. Our former Making and Knowing postdoc Jenny Boulboullé and former students, Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, have shown that the term impalpable, that is to say ‘un-feelable’ or ‘impalpable’, is central to the way the author practitioner experiences and thinks about different kinds of materials used for casting moulds.[2] Furthermore, they found that he is not the only one: the use of the term ‘impalpable’ is used in published works on metallurgy, such well-known book Pirotechnia by the sixteenth-century Italian founder and metallurgist Vanoccio Biringuccio, and the Secreti, a famous book of secrets attributed to Alessio Piemontese. In his emphasis on the haptic sensation of a material being impalpable, then, the author-practitioner speaks to a sensory terminology apparently widely shared by expert makers.

‘Knead as if you wanted to make bread’: making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab. © The Making and Knowing Project

Describing specific sensory experiences can be difficult, and it makes sense to refer to well-known parallels from daily life – a smell like sulphur, a taste like vinegar, and so on. When it comes to the sense of touch, too, the author-practitioner relates processes described in his recipes to everyday practices. As our former student Emma Le Pouésard has shown, the practices surrounding making bread were a particularly fruitful source of these kinds of comparisons.[3] To unmould a cast object, one should ‘strongly separate the moulds as if you wanted to tear bread apart’ (fol. 114v). In an age before thermostats, this could even provide a way of gauging consistent temperatures. For one’s domestic taxidermy needs, the author-practitioner writes, one could dry animals ‘in an oven as warm as when bread has been taken out’ (fol. 129v). In a recipe for making stucco, bread making is used as a referent for working up the right kind of consistency: the recipe tells us to ‘knead as if you wanted to make bread’, until the stucco paste is ‘firm as bread dough that is ready for the oven’ (fol. 29r).

When we tried making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab in the Fall semester, this proved to be very useful guidance. While we were not experienced bakers in the way that many early modern householders probably were, we could draw on our experience from one of our ‘skillbuilding’ exercises a few weeks earlier, when we made bread to use as a mould for wax casting, replicating one of the most intriguing processes in the manuscript. When it came to making stucco and mixing the right amounts of tragacanth gum and rye flour or champagne chalk, the author-practitioner’s instructions about kneading to a consistency like bread dough were very useful, especially in the absence of any other indication of measurements. By adding flour until we achieved a dough-like mass which would ‘stretch enough without breaking’ (fol. 29r), we eventually produced stucco which displayed fine detail and could be detached from the mould without too much trouble.

Even this brief tour of Ms. Fr. 640 shows that much is to be gained by paying attention to the non-visual senses in recipes and practical instructions. In the absence of precise standardised measurements and procedures, sensory descriptions were paramount to articulating a material’s properties, whether it was of good quality, or how much longer it needed to dry, boil, soak, or be crushed in a mortar.

 

[1] High-res digital images of BNF Ms. Fr. 640 are available through Gallica. The Making and Knowing Project is preparing a Digital Critical Edition of the Manuscript. In the meantime, readers may wish to refer to our Minimal Edition prototype (with translation still in progress).

[2] Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, ‘Casting in a Box Mold’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.

[3] Emma Le Pouésard, ‘Pain, Ostie, Rostie: Bread in Early Modern Europe’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.


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