All posts by Amanda Herbert

Charmed: into the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Kristof Smeyers

Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the "Spellbound" exhibition.  Photo by permission of the author.
Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the “Spellbound” exhibition. Photo by permission of the author.

Entering the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, you are confronted with a ladder leaning against a wall like a menacing question mark. There is no avoiding this ladder. Do you walk under it or do you go round? Even before you are inside the Ashmolean’s exhibition space, ‘Spellbound’ asks big questions about magic, ritual, and witchcraft. The ladder is a clever prelude: it shows how magical thinking is not part of a past inhabited by our ‘superstitious’ predecessors, but smugly points out that we live in a magical world today (and will still do so tomorrow). The ladder sets the tone: visitors are encouraged to engage with their own magical thinking. By the time you have made your decision, you know not to approach the magical objects in the exhibition as unenlightened remnants of delusions and misconceptions. They are, instead, intrinsic parts of people’s ‘inner lives’—not incidentally, research from the Leverhulme Trust-funded project Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900 lies at the foundation of the exhibition.

‘Spellbound’ stretches out across three thematic exhibition spaces divided between learned magic, witchcraft, and folk magic, though they are best experienced in dialogue with each other: retracing one’s steps between rooms can help make sense of some of the more enigmatic objects, and help one draw emotional or sensory connections of one’s own. Together, the spaces immerse the visitor in more than eight centuries of magical thinking and feeling, simultaneously encouraging us to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings. The thematic set up invites us to draw connections across ages and cultures without, importantly, trying to convince us of a ‘universalist’ interpretation of magic.

Its innovative approach—across themes and ages—raises questions of its own. How do you create an exhibition that aims to capture interiority and emotions, in particular when those emotions and their related practices are related to subjects as wilfully elusive as the magical and supernatural? The invisible is a tricky thing to display in a glass case of a museum. Thankfully for the curators (and for us), magic has been captured in a wide variety of writings and objects—sometimes literally—for example, the small flask which famously contains a witch came with a warning from the woman who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in the early twentieth century: ‘…if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.’ In fact, several objects in ‘Spellbound’ hail from the cabinets of Pitt Rivers and are re-imagined in what at first glance seems like a more sterile and modern museum environment. The supernatural and the magical, so this exhibition convincingly shows in the form of hundreds of things, were profoundly material categories.

A second question that arises when looking at the many, very different objects is: How do you recreate a museum context in which a worn shoe or a feather can be ‘seen’ and ‘experienced’ by visitors as magical and emotional, ideally without having to read essay-length labels that explain its significance for the person who made it, kept it, or used it? Labels are used sparingly, and to effect. The meaning and emotional significance attributed to everyday objects instead becomes apparent when you take the time to look. Objects of magic show signs of emotional practices throughout the ages: pages of grimoires were read until they fell apart, things were carved, bound, charmed, pierced, tied, burnt, scratched, bottled.  

In other instances, the fact that they were kept is revealing in itself: the worn leather of a shoe found concealed under floorboards by homeowners, for example, attests to a patina of emotional and magical meaning that remains vivid despite—or because—of its mystifying character. The accompanying catalogue poignantly quotes Sara Ahmed’s The cultural politics of emotions on how emotions ‘stick’ to objects, whether we recognise them as magically material like the steel of a horse shoe and the obsidian of John Dee’s black mirror—or not. It is to the curators’ credit that visitors are compelled to figure out precisely how a shoe or corset were magical. That materiality becomes particularly powerful when the exhibition lets different kinds of objects communicate with one another, as in the case of the Boy with Coral painting and the piece of red coral depicting St Michael defeating the devil. Several modern art installations beautifully enrich the visitor’s sense of wonder as they wander between objects.

St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.
St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.

‘Spellbound’ makes clear how structures of magical thinking remain vibrant and flexible; they are not, nor were they ever paradigmatic, rigid belief systems. Rather, they constitute of pragmatic, idiosyncratic amalgams of beliefs, practices, and objects that made sense to individuals and shaped communities. They are profoundly human. This popular and charming exhibition will do much to rid us of the persistent dismissal of magical thinking as ‘superstition’ and to begin to take people’s experiences—past and present—seriously. Touch wood.

Kristof Smeyers (Twitter: @kristof_smeyers) works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. His research attempts to untangle the grey areas between science and religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by focusing on supernatural religious phenomena in Britain and Ireland. 

Happy 2019 From the Recipes Project

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "New Years greetings." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-47b5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New Years greetings.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-47b5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Dear readers, supporters, and contributors:

Thank you for all of your interest, your engagement, and your brilliant ideas over the past year. We had a busy but very fulfilling 2018 at the Recipes Project. In addition to a wealth of posts from contributors around the world, we featured pieces on new collections of recipe-related materials in our First Monday Library Chats; cross-posts with blogs like Res Obscura, History of Knowledge and Cooking the Archives; conference round-ups, author interviews, and book and exhibition reviews. We hosted several special series: on the senses, on hot and cold, and on teaching. Perhaps most exciting of all, we welcomed a new editor — Dr. Jess Clark — and then decided to expand the Recipes Project even further by opening a call for three additional editors as well as a larger social media team. We’ll be introducing our new editors and social media colleagues to all of you in the new year, and we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting new perspectives, topics, and activities they bring to our Recipes Project community.

We wish you all a very happy new year!
Jessica Clark
Amanda Herbert
Elaine Leong
Lisa Smith
Laurence Totelin

Mistranslating Macaroni and Cheese

Amanda E. Herbert

Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Macaroni and cheese. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mac and cheese is a well-loved, popular, time-tested dish, one that’s woven into the histories and cultures and memories of people around the world.  In America it’s an essential soul food dish.  In Canada, Kraft Dinner – mac and cheese with pieces of hot dogs and a squirt of ketchup – is a comfort food staple.  Western Europeans claim macaroni and cheese too, tracing its origins to the Swiss Alps, where Älplermagronen was made by French-speaking Swiss people, who believed it was the ideal snack for shepherds.

Macaroni and cheese appears in Anglo-American cookbooks as early as the fourteenth century – its antecedents include a sort of lasagna-like food called “Macrows” in the 1390 Forme of Cury – and by the long eighteenth century, the cheesy noodles were an established dish, garnering frequent mentions in both print and manuscript.  Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell chose an eighteenth-century “Maccarony Cheese” for their very first post on Cooking in the Archive, and it was a hit, helping to launch their incredibly successful blog and garnering a host of re-posts, comments, and suggestions.  In most Anglo-American recipes for mac and cheese, eighteenth-century authors called for the noodles to be boiled until tender and then mixed with ingredients like butter, eggs, and cheese.  The noodles were then either baked or put under a salamander – which in the period was a piece of iron that was heated and passed over a dish – that was supposed to give it a nice brown crust.  It’s a wonderful dish to suggest to folks who like to re-create early modern recipes, because most early examples of macaroni and cheese contain familiar, easy-to-obtain ingredients and clear, straightforward instructions.

But there are always exceptions to the rule.  Recently I found a recipe for macaroni and cheese in an eighteenth-century letter, and the account was confusing, if not downright disgusting.  Philip Thicknesse (1719-1792), an eighteenth-century artist, traveler, and writer, included a recipe for mac and cheese in a letter written to a man named John Cook.  Thicknesse spent a lot of time in France and took pride in his knowledge of French cuisine.  He wrote to his friend Cook on January 14, 1770 that he had recently “recv’d a very small present from France,” which included foods such as “Olives, a few Anchovies, [and] a pint of Vinegar.”  But the crowning glory of this gourmet stash was “some Maccerone.”  Thicknesse shared a portion of his dried French noodles with John Cook, bragging that macaroni and cheese was “no bad dish” and including instructions for preparing the food.  And this is where things seemed to go wrong.

Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
A pleasant and confident Thicknesse.  Nathaniel Hone, Philip Thicknesse, enamel on copper, 1757, NPG 4192. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Thicknesse told Cook to take the packet of noodles and “boil it in water til it is quite tender, on[e] hour and a half at least, then the remaining water is poured off, and some butter and scraped cheese is put to it til both are well melted & dis[s]olved.” [My emphasis.] When I read this in the Huntington’s reading room I had to rub my eyes and take another look.  Boiling modern-day macaroni noodles for an hour and a half (at least!) would render them into an unappetizing slush, so far beyond al dente that they’d surely constitute a crime against pasta.  Was Thickness a bad cook?  Why was his advice so terrible?  At first I thought that this was a classic example of mistranslation in the period: the introduction of new foods into Western European diets via the so-called “Consumer Revolution” wasn’t a straightforward or guaranteed process, and British experiments with foods sourced from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean worlds could go wrong as frequently as they went right.  Thicknesse didn’t understand how pasta was supposed to be cooked, and as a result he offered bad culinary advice to his friend.

Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Another contemporary depiction of Thicknesse, perhaps grumpy about overcooked pasta. James Gillray, “Philip Thicknesse,” etching published by James Ridgway (1790), NPG D12410. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

But the more I thought about Thicknesse and his overcooked macaroni, the more I began to wonder if there wasn’t an entirely different process of mistranslation at work: one that was my own, rather than my historical subject’s.  What did Thicknesse’s pasta look like?  How long would it have taken to cook?  It turns out that, in the long eighteenth century, Western European people ate two very different kinds of pasta: soft noodles, made out of a paste of water and dough that was boiled quickly and lightly (akin to “fresh” pasta today) and hard noodles, where the dough was extruded through a machine before being dried (a bit like the crunchy, shelf-stable pastas you can find at modern grocery stores).  Soft noodles, like the “Macrows” featured in the Forme of Cury, called for cooks to roll out “a thynne foyle of dowh and kerve it on peces, and cast them on boillying water & see[th] it wele.”   Quick-cooking and easy to make, soft noodles were popular in a lot of eighteenth-century dishes.

The pasta Thicknesse was describing, however, would surely have been dried, as it had been transported to Britain from France.  Early modern dried pasta was durable and was considered easy to transport, even under very difficult conditions.  And it was massive: the earliest surviving example of an eighteenth-century pasta extruder made bigoli (a huge type of spaghetti) which was just over a foot long and 3 inches wide.  Even one of these enormous, snake-like pieces of pasta could have constituted a meal.  Hugh Plat (c.1552-1608), an English inventor and writer, created a different kind of pasta machine in the late sixteenth century, which produced oval-shaped, wafer-like pieces of pasta.  Plat included a diagram of this pasta machine in his Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594); while it’s notoriously difficult to get a sense of scale in early modern schemas such as these, comparing the size of the hand-crank on the right side of the machine with the pieces of pasta coming off of the wheel suggests that each wafer would have been three or four inches across – much larger than a modern orecchiette or conchiglie.

Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75. Image courtesy of the author and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Pasta Machine in Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 75.

Everything I learned about eighteenth-century dried pasta suggested that it would have taken ages to cook until tender.  And although the resulting pasta might well have differed from the way that I expect modern pasta to look and taste, Thicknesse’s estimate of an hour and a half in cooking time perhaps wasn’t so far off after all, and the confusion was on my part rather than his.  Historical food recipes are fun and engaging, offering us almost instantaneous senses of familiarity and closeness with the past: food is a great universal.  But as we analyze old recipes and work to understand them, we have to fight our assumptions and presuppositions – perhaps especially about ingredients which are the most familiar to us – in order to make sure that we’re translating accurately.

Primary Sources:

The Forme of Cury, c. 1390. This book exists in manuscript in many different copies. I’ve consulted the first print version, compiled in 1780 and reproduced via Project Gutenberg.  Accessed April 23, 2018.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8102/pg8102-images.html

Hugh Plat, The Jewell House of Art and Nature: Conteining Divers Rare and Profitable Inventions… (London, 1594) STC19991, c.2, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Philip Thicknesse Letters, c. 1770-c. 1785, MSS TH 1, Huntington Library.

Secondary Sources:

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davison ed. (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 580-584.

Sidney Lee, “Plat [Platt], Sir Hugh (bap. 1552, d. 1608), writer on agriculture and inventor,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Accessed April 23, 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22357.

Malcolm Thick, “Sir Hugh Plat’s Promotion of Pasta as a Victual for Seamen,” Petits Propos Culinaires Vol. 40 (1992).

Following Valerian: New Name, Old Idea

Katherine Foxhall

In late August, 1781, Sir Charles Blagden, physician, Francophile, army surgeon and Fellow (later to be Secretary) of the Royal Society of London received a letter from his friend, Thomas Curtis. Curtis was concerned about the health of his son, who for more than a decade had suffered a ‘very peculiar kind of head ach’ with ‘a dizziness, or partial vision’, and which recently seemed to coincide with the fortnightly full or changed moon. Curtis had sought the opinions of plenty of doctors, but their prescriptions had failed. Blagden responded swiftly. He proposed that the young man was suffering from what the French called migraine. Blagden was not convinced that the moon’s phases were causing Curtis’ illness, but if the young man’s disease returned on 12 September 1781 (the date of the next full moon), Blagden instructed that the young Mr Curtis should have twelve ounces of blood taken a week later, and then to trial valerian ‘in considerable doses’, increasing the dose until his stomach could bear no more.

'Valerian'. Credit: Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rw9eqv2m.
‘Valerian’. Credit: Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/rw9eqv2m.

Having long been known as an anticonvulsant, by the middle of the eighteenth century the herb Valerian had become something of a fashionable prescription for treating migraine. The distinguished physician Richard Mead, author of the famous Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies (1748) recommended frequent use of valerian root for periodic diseases of the head ‘pulverized before it shoot out its stalk’.[1] This seems to have prompted the Scottish physician John Fordyce to try it for his own hemicrania. Finding it of very great benefit, he recommended taking drachm doses of valerian three or four times a day in his essay De Hemicrania (1765). Erasmus Darwin included both bleeding and valerian in Zoonomia as treatments for the symptoms of hemicrania, and physicians throughout the nineteenth century would continue to recommend the herb. Such influential texts explain why Blagden turned to valerian for his young patient’s periodic ailment, but it struck me that this had not been one of the herbs that I had come across during the many months I had spent researching the Wellcome Library’s collection of recipe books for seventeenth century migraine remedies, though Nicholas Culpeper talked of valerian’s warming properties, and recommended the root for headache, diseases of the eyes, wounds splinters and thorns. I forgot about Curtis, and moved on. Then, by accident, I discovered that the valerian family also contains a plant called spikenard, and the penny dropped. Like valerian root, spikenard has an earthy musky odour, and a similar effect on the body – having sedative and relaxing properties. Suddenly, valerian didn’t appear to be an eighteenth-century story, but an episode in a longer history, which I’ve written about here before.

But the story goes back even further. The dispensatory of the Nestorian physician and pharmacologist Sābūr ibn Sahl, from southwestern Iran, is one of the earliest pharmacopeia written in Arabic. Dating from the ninth century CE, it provides important evidence of medieval Eastern Arabic medical practice. In Chapter Four of the dispensatory instructions set out the preparation of nard oil, an expensive essential oil with sedative properties used to treat hemicrania, among other things. This was an expensive recipe requiring a large investment to collect over twenty herbal ingredients (including cyprus, laurel, elecampane, citronella, myrtle leaves, wild caraway, forget-me-not, sweet marjoram, stalkless roses, fresh myrtle-water, myrrh and grape ivy), and prepare them with different liquids in three stages taking several days. The third stage took Indian spikenard (the ingredient that gave ‘nard oil’ its name), pounded together with cloves, storax, nutmeg, added to fresh water, balm oil and the strained oil from the previous two stages. Then the whole concoction should be boiled until the water had disappeared, before being bottled, stored and used as required.

Remedies for 'Mygreyn' in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b19295467#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=192&z=0.0194%2C0.2362%2C0.8409%2C0.673.
Remedies for ‘Mygreyn’ in a Fifteenth century leechbook. Credit: Wellcome Collection MS.MSL.136: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b19295467#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=192&z=0.0194%2C0.2362%2C0.8409%2C0.673.

Several centuries later, we find a mid fifteenth-century English ‘leechbook’ contained a recipe for migraine attributed to ‘Galen the good philosopher’ that required several of these same ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a pennyweight of ‘spiknard’, anise, elecampane, liquorice, and sugar. By the sixteenth century, spikenard was appearing in print. In 1526, the anonymously published A New Book of Medecynes gave a recipe for migraine, postume and dropsy requiring ‘iiii peny weyght of the rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, ground together and boiled in good vinegar. The compilers of recipe books (including this blog’s favourite Mrs Corlyon) adapted these remedies to local conditions, substituting herbs of similarly warm, dry and aromatic qualities (such as sage and rosemary) that they could more easily obtain or grow. Following translations is notoriously hard, as Sietske Fransen’s post shows, but spikenard and valerian have weaved their way through more than a thousand years of migraine history. Does it work? Perhaps. It certainly has sedative properties, so today it’s more commonly used for insomnia.

[1] Richard Mead, A Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced trans. Richard Stack (London: J. Brindley, 1748), 84-6

*****
Katherine Foxhall is Lecturer in Modern History at University of Leicester. Her new book, a history of migraine, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.