Recipes to Entertain in an Exeter Cathedral Library Manuscript

By Catherine Rider

Exeter Cathedral has several medieval medical manuscripts in its library, as well as a large collection of early modern printed medical books.[1] Recently I’ve been looking at the medieval manuscripts as part of a larger project on fertility and reproduction, but they contain material on numerous other topics, including many recipes. In this blog post I’ll be talking about one manuscript and highlighting the variety of recipes it contains and some of the questions it raises about recipes for tricks and illusions in particular.

MS 3521 is a miscellaneous manuscript, mainly dating from the fifteenth century, originally from the church of Ottery St Mary in Devon, UK.[2] It contains a few long works on logic and natural philosophy, but the bulk of the manuscript consists of recipes, in English and Latin. The size and format are fairly similar to this fifteenth-century recipe manuscript from the Wellcome Library in London:

L0049309 Medical Recipe Collection Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Coloured drawings serve as extravagant decoration for the catchwords. Medieval English oak board book binding. 15th century Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Medical Recipe Collection, Wellcome Library, London. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

One of the interesting aspects of the manuscript for me is the variety of the contents. Many of the recipes are medical: there are recipes and charms to treat a flow of blood; to treat pains and  toothache; a charm for childbirth; and a recipe for a male complaint, ‘balloks sore and swollen’. There are also recipes for waters and oils, such as rose oil, and cosmetic recipes, for example to make hair blond. None of these are unusual in recipe collections, and as in many other medieval recipe manuscripts they are interspersed with notes on other medical topics, such as blood-letting and the virtues of herbs. Also connected to health and medicine are several recipes to keep animals healthy.

More surprising, however, is a series of recipes fairly early in the manuscript which are designed to achieve marvellous effects. On pp. 97-8 we find a series of these, in Latin: ‘To make thunder and lightning [literally, ‘flying fire’]’, a recipe which involves saltpetre, sulphur and coal; ‘If you want a flame to spring from a fish’s eyes’, ‘If you want to be invisible’, or ‘To make a candle that no one can extinguish’. These examples look as if they are designed to entertain others with spectacular tricks, but some of the recipes seem more like practical jokes which may not have been enjoyed by the person on the receiving end: ‘If you want a woman to raise her clothes’, or ‘So that a man looks leprous.’ Some of the recipes are attributed to ‘Albertus’: I have not yet had a chance to track this down but would guess that they come from a work such as the Book of Secrets or Marvels of the World attributed to the thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus.

These recipes are not unique and have a place in secrets literature. Other scholars such as Bruno Roy have also noted the ways in which magic tricks – in the modern sense of an illusion designed to entertain – appear in recipe collections.[3] More recently Laura Mitchell has posted on this blog about similar light-hearted recipes in other manuscripts, including another recipe to make a woman lift her skirts  and a recipe for invisibility:  Initiatives like Mitchell’s catalogue of English manuscripts containing magic (introduced on the Recipes blog last year) may also help to identify these recipes. However, my impression is that they remain under-studied compared with medical recipes. How commonly were recipes for entertainment copied? Do they appear in some contexts more than others? Are there any clues as to how they were regarded by copyists or readers? In the Exeter manuscript, for example, they are interspersed with medical recipes without much overt distinction being drawn between recipes for different purposes, but how usual was this? Did readers ever express doubts about some of the more dubious tricks? How do they relate, if at all, to evidence of medieval stage magic, such as descriptions of tricks with cups and balls?

I hope to look at these questions in more detail at some point, but for the moment am simply keeping an eye out for other examples.

[1] On these see Peter Thomas, Medicine and Science in Exeter Cathedral Library (Exeter: Exeter Cathedral, 2003).

[2] For a detailed description of this and the other Exeter MSS see Neil Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969-2002).

[3] B. Roy, ‘The Household Encyclopaedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions’, Journal of Popular Culture, 14 (1980): 60-69.


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