Playing with Language in Medieval Satirical Recipes

By Chelsea Silva


The anonymous Scots poem “Lord Fergus’s Gaist” instructs its reader in summoning a spirit. It calls for a range of ingredients, some of which are unusual but obtainable, such as horse teeth, the tails of toads, and bundles of withered grass—just the kind of vaguely spooky materials we might expect to use in a conjuration. The coherence of the recipe’s instructions stops there, however; the summoner must sit within a circle and sprinkle holy water “w[ith] pater noster patter patter,” an action that transforms the Pater Noster, or Lord’s Prayer, into a collection of well-worn syllables spoken rapidly and insincerely, or perhaps into the sound of the small footsteps of the poem’s titular “littel gaist.”[1]

I’m interested in moments like this, where the expected text, form, or action of a recipe breaks down into nonsense. Many joke recipes take aim at the objectives of their “serious” counterparts. Robert Henryson’s “Sum Practysis of Medecyne,” for example, survives in the Bannatyne manuscript with “Lord Fergus’s Gaist,” and uses disgusting or ill-advised ingredients to satirize medical pretensions to knowledge—something about which Julie Orlemanski has written extensively.[2] Another example is provided by a verse recipe written into a copy of Caxton’s 1481 Mirrour of the World, which claims to restore a woman’s virginity using a variety of impossible or immaterial ingredients, such as seven miles of moonlight caught up in a bladder or the creak of a cart-wheel.[3] 

Poems like “Sum Practysis” and the recipe for revirgination rely on the kinds of internal logic that structure recipes, even as they subvert readers’ expectations of that logic. The kind of nonsense that occurs in “Lord Fergus’s Gaist,” however, is especially fascinating to me because it points playfully and specifically to the constructed—and therefore deconstructable—nature of language itself. The dismantling of a Latin prayer to its composite sounds underscores meaning as made of sound, the raw material of language, able to be recombined and remixed into a new product like any other ingredient. 

Fig. 1 – London, BL MS Sloane 4, fol. 105r. Photo by Chelsea Silva, reproduced with permission of the British Library.

BL MS Sloane 4 (figure 1), a household miscellany produced in England between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, provides an especially intriguing example of the recipe’s capacity for semantic breakdown and reconstruction. The wide-ranging manuscript includes instructions in English, French, Dutch, and Latin for products ranging from perfumes and sauces to remedies and angling bait, as well as a number of more fantastical ones, including recipes for turning ale to wine and making water burn like oil. I’ve been fascinated by one seemingly unrelated scribble ever since I came across it a few years ago. On one folio at the very end of the book, opposite a page strewn with overlapping pen trials and signatures, are the following lines: 

Is thy pott enty cole lent I: Gote eate yvy:

            mare eate ootys Is thy Cocke lyke owrs

            [Is thy pot empty? Coal lent I. Goat[s] eat ivy;

Mare[s] eat oats. Is thy cock like ours?]

Underneath, a different hand has scrawled a partial echo: Is thy potte empti; below that, the words fracture further, into “colle” and “ll.”[4]

The modern English translation above shows the lines to be almost semantically meaningless. It is the sound of the Middle English words that presumably interested their writer; spoken quickly, they sound similar to Latin (“is thy pott enty” a soundalike for “isti potenti,” maybe?) or French (“cocke lyke owrs” perhaps providing “coq” and “liqueurs”). 

These lines represents the earliest known attestation of the nonsense phrase that became one of the most recognizable refrains from 1940s music. The song “Mairzy Doats,” perhaps best known in its performance by the Andrews Sisters, transfigures familiar words (“mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy / a kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?”) into non-lexical vocables, syllable units without semantic meaning (“mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey / a kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?”). Sometime between the production of Sloane 4 and the nineteenth century, part of the passage was apparently incorporated into a different pseudo-Latin verse: 

In fir tar is,

In oak none is,

In mud ells are,

In clay none are.

Goat eat ivy;

Mare eat oats.[5]

From there, presumably, it found its way into the popular music of the 1940s and 50s, having lost the Latin-esque sounds of phrases like “in fir tar is” (“infirtaris,” meaningless, but Latin-sounding) but retaining the English lines. The result was something so defamiliarized and uncanny that the song eventually became the soundtrack for cinematic depictions of abnormal, uncomfortable behavior—Leland Palmer (played by Ray Wise) bursts into a jazzy and unsettling rendition of “Mairzy Doats” in Twin Peaks (1990), for example, and Radio Days (1987) uses the Merry Macs performance of the song as the backing track for an absurdist scene in which Mr. Zipsky, played by Joel Eidelsberg, runs up and down the street brandishing a cleaver at passersby. 

This may seem like a digression from the satirical recipes about which I’ve been writing and thinking. But the presence of “mares eat oats” in Sloane 4—a recipe collection that evinces the transformative, productive potential of breaking down and recombining familiar elements—demonstrates the particular resonance between practical recipes and language, both of which enabled their users to transform everyday material into something new.


[1] The poem survives in Bannatyne MS (Edinburgh, NLS Advocates MS 1.1.6), fols. 114r-115r, and is published in Early Popular Poetry of Scotland and the Northern Border, vol. 1, ed. David Laing (London: Reeves and Turner, 1895), pp. 284-288.

[2] See Orlemanski’s Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Medicine, and Causation in the Literature of Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[3] The recipe is reproduced in Reliquiae antiquae: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, ed. Thomas Wright and James Orchard Halliwell (London: J. R. Smith, 1845), pp. 250-251.

[4] Fol. 105r, transcription mine; the same lines (without the later echo) are also reproduced in Reliquiae antiquae, p. 324. 

[5] This likelihood is discussed briefly in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, ed. Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: OsUP, 1951), pp. 222-23.



Cite this blog post
RA Kashanipour (2023, March 9). Playing with Language in Medieval Satirical Recipes. The Recipes Project. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/tdda

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