Creatively Interpreting the Ménagier de Paris

By Tovah Bender

When I was handed an upper-level undergraduate course called Medieval Culture at Florida International University, I decided to push the concept of “culture.” I wanted to showcase all of medieval culture, high and low, ideals and practice. I wanted students to appreciate the richness of the cultures and to experience the period—both major events and daily life—through the eyes of those who lived in the period. I also wanted to make the society tangible to modern students, to whom the premodern past is often a very foreign place.

 

Andres Del Haya cooks chicken according to a medieval recipe.  Photo courtesy of Andres Del Haya.
Andres Del Haya cooks chicken according to a medieval recipe. Photo courtesy of Andres Del Haya.

This resulted in a course devoted entirely to the study of medieval primary sources in all their variety. When I teach the class, I emphasize sources that can be experienced through the senses; polyphonic music, recordings of texts in the original, and images of cathedral windows, in addition to imagining the smoke that filled a peasant’s hut, the cool quiet of a church interior, or the stench of a siege camp. All of these things help students to experience the time as their historical subjects would have done. This sensory experience also helps students bridge this divide with the past and see history through the eyes of their subjects. Taste is certainly a part of this.

One of the final texts that we read in this course is the Ménagier de Paris, a Parisian guide to housekeeping from the early 1390s, ostensibly written by a wealthy bourgeois husband for his much younger wife but likely intended for a larger audience.[1]  The first section of the book consists of advice on the comportment of the wife, including widely told parables such as the stories of Suzanne, Lucretia, and Griselda. The second section is a how-to guide on running one’s urban bourgeois home, including—in the Greco and Rose edition I used in class—nearly 20 pages of menus and 75 pages of recipes.

Yannine Gonzalez's interpretation of "Emplumeus (Baked Apples)" from the Menagier de Paris.  Photo courtesy of Yannine Gonzalez.
Yannine Gonzalez’s interpretation of “Emplumeus (Baked Apples)” from the Menagier de Paris. Photo courtesy of Yannine Gonzalez.

Students are fascinated by this text. The ingredients and the combinations of ingredients are all different from what they have experienced. They are also frustrated by what is left unstated. How long does one cook a swan? What is verjuice? Class discussion can wander from ideas about the ways that different foods function in conspicuous consumption, to food preservation, to local and international trade, and to the division of labor. All of this discussion ties together some of the major themes of the semester, and—really—of any history class. But the recipes also make the Middle Ages incredibly tangible as students think of the tastes of the ingredients and the physical challenges of creating some of these recipes.

I know that the Ménagier de Paris makes a big impression because two weeks later students are asked to submit a final project creatively reinterpreting one medieval source or source-type that they have encountered during the semester, and many students choose to work on the Ménagier. The assignment asks that they interpret the material of any source in a different genre or tell a modern story according to the rules of a medieval sourcetype. The projects are always fantastic and creative, and they always involve a lot of cooking.

Thomas Cartaya's Marinated Chicken.  Photo courtesy of Thomas Cartaya.
Thomas Cartaya’s Marinated Chicken. Photo courtesy of Thomas Cartaya.

These cooking projects vary greatly but all involve a good deal of thought in comparing medieval and modern tastes and cooking experiences. A student prepared Hippocras, and described it as what would happen “if a pumpkin latte and wine had a baby.” Another made a pottage, the cooking of which—the student admitted—was greatly aided by the well-stocked local grocery store. A different student described the local grocery store as a limiting factor; falcon and wood pigeon were nowhere to be found. The students all eagerly sampled medieval pottage, which the chef brought to class, while the graduate students to whom I gave a medieval sampler platter were a little less convinced by the merits of medieval cooking, despite enthusiastically polishing it off.

Yanist Ontivero's interpretation of poached pears from the Menagier de Paris.  Photo courtesy of Yanist Ontivero.
Yanist Ontivero’s interpretation of poached pears from the Menagier de Paris. Photo courtesy of Yanist Ontivero.

For many of the students, I believe the appeal of such a project was the chance to experience through their senses what they could only imagine when reading. Even as they might have been familiar with many of the ingredients, the combinations are sufficiently unfamiliar to most modern palates that it is difficult to imagine the outcomes of the recipes. As one student noted in his project report

“any contemporaneous reproduction of medieval art and writing, as a rule, would be but a facsimile of the original […] By exploring the realm of cooking and recipes, however, one may truly strive towards an accurate and tangible glimpse of at least one facet of medieval life.”

Even if modern interpretations are no more “accurate” than readings or musical interpretations, there is something decidedly tangible and truly enjoyable about them to students of the Middle Ages.

[1] The book is available in two inexpensive English editions, The Goodman of Paris by Eileen Power and The Good Wife’s Guide by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose.

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Tovah Bender is a permanent instructor of Medieval and Early Modern European History at Florida International University.

Teaching Recipes as Literary Practice and the Practice of Transcription

By Amy L. Tigner

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a founding member of Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC)—an international group whose main objective is to transcribe early modern receipt book manuscripts and upload them onto an open, searchable database—I, along with my EMROC compatriots, wanted to create a labor force to increase the number of transcriptions available to the public.  As many of us teach at universities, we thought it would be a great idea to conceive of classes in which a portion of the workload would contribute to this digital humanities project.  I have to be honest, that at first, I thought of my students as a kind of slave labor, but Rebecca Laroche (see previous blog post in this series) quickly reminded me of the value for students of what we were trying to accomplish as scholars ourselves.  After all, we are in the process of building a new source of knowledge and making viewable to the masses what had previously been seen only by the lucky few. Also, such a process would in fact teach the students valuable skills that they could use if they continued in the profession, or, if not, they could parlay into other pursuits outside academia.  From a traditional point of view, students would need to learn paleography, a necessary skill for any archival work. As more and more libraries are digitizing their manuscripts, there will be quite a lot of this kind of scholarly work for years to come.  Additionally, students would learn how to code their transcriptions into XML in order to upload their work to the database, Textual Communities, which is hosted by the University of Saskatchewan; this skill is clearly transferrable to the outside world.

The first class I taught that incorporated this project was a senior seminar for English majors at the University of Texas, Arlington, in spring of 2013.  The course was entitled “Recipes for Literature/Literature of Recipes.” I have a previous post that details the course, and students in the class also posted blogs about their discoveries in transcribing Wellcome MS108, a receipt book written by Jane Barber.  As this course was really successful (students generally loved working on the project), I thought I would take it to the next level and have graduate students contribute.  So the following year, I taught a class entitled “Food, Women, and Manuscript Culture.”  The course was designed to change students’ conception of the “literary” by broadening the meaning to include household writing, and in particular recipes. The graduate students (like the undergrads) first had to learn how to decipher seventeenth-century handwriting, so I (like Rebecca Laroche) had students use the Cambridge online paleography course, a site that has progressively difficult handwriting examples from the period.

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

I found in both classes group work was key, as students get easily frustrated with the kind of work, especially as most were inexperienced with difficult and archaic handwriting. As some students naturally have a greater aptitude for transcription than others, they were to become teachers—good practice for many whose future plans include teaching. When it came to coding, which was a completely new world for me, students had to use problem-solving skills or often relied upon other students to help them. This collaborative atmosphere in the class created a greater sense of intellectual community—and fun.  Another interesting thing happened, however, in the work of transcription and later of coding: students had to slow their reading down, often to the level of deciphering individual letters, in order to read the text.  Thus transcribing and coding turned into close reading, causing students to dig deeper to find meaning.  We often ask students to read a text slowly and carefully, but more and more students are losing the patience to read in this manner. Our experience with the Internet, and with media more generally, trains us to read quickly and to skim the surface but rarely to be contemplative. This digital humanities project brings together traditional scholarly pursuits with twenty-first century technology to contribute to a growing a body of knowledge about the past.

Transcribing in Baby Steps

By Jennifer Munroe

Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540.  Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A woman, all layers lowered, (after restoration) Engraving Published: circa 1540 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

When I decided to have students work on transcribing a manuscript recipe book, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. After all, I have been transcribing manuscripts for over ten years, and at this point I am finally getting fairly good at it. I had to some extent forgotten the pleasure and pain associated with my first try at the difficulties of reading secretary hand. But including manuscript documents in our collective research and teaching gives us a way to uncover voices previously silenced, experiences and perspectives hitherto only marginalized, which allows us new ways to think about questions of feminism and ecofeminism alike related to the women’s relationship in particular with the nonhuman world.

By exploring alternative perspectives on this relationship, students learn more than just how early modern Englishwomen engaged with plants and animals in symbolic as well as very practical ways (though that would be reason enough). What I aim to facilitate is their understanding of the reciprocity that is inherent to living on this planet for women (and, of course, men) then and now. The climate change crisis that we face today is only the latest symptom of what many have argued is a larger problem that begins with our neglecting our fundamental connection to the nonhuman things that surround us, are within and comprise us (if we recall Michael Pollan’s New York Times piece on the microbiome).  The work I was asking students to do was, therefore, aimed at facilitating greater sensitivity to such relational thinking, and it materialized in the intellectual understanding they gained as much as the collaborative relationships they developed with each other.

Last fall, I taught a graduate seminar that looked at the human/nonhuman relationship in early modern English texts. The course considered a range of texts from the most canonical, literary (Shakespeare, Milton, Cavendish) to print and manuscript recipes. The transcription took place during a four-week unit embedded within the course. Students worked first with a partner and then by themselves to transcribe two total manuscript pages of recipes. Students in the course had no experience with transcription, which was actually a positive thing as far as I was concerned because it allowed them to see this material with fresh eyes. I used the Cambridge site as a primer for students and spent one week of our unit working through the basics of paleography. It was a crash course, really. Even with such minimal preparation, and some work on their own with exercises on the Cambridge site, students were ready to start their transcriptions during the following class.

By Week 2, students were still apprehensive about working with manuscripts, but they partnered with another student to transcribe one page (usually two or three recipes) from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript recipe book, available digitally through the Wellcome Library.  The time spent during class working through the transcription helped me realize several pedagogical goals: first, our classroom became a laboratory of active learning, as students struggled with the details on the page; second, that learning was collectively achieved by way of their discussing with each other how they might interprets letters and words that at first glance may as well have been a completely foreign language. By the third and fourth weeks, students transitioned to working on a page of their own, but the classroom became no less a collaborative space. In fact, at this point students had achieved a high enough level of comfort with their discomfort with the text that room began to sound a bit like an auction house; students called across the room to one another to ask for help with a particular word or, as happened especially during week four, to explicate with wonder, excitement, and sometimes revulsion (puppy water anyone?), the details of a particular recipe they finished.

Why do this work, though? If measured by the total number of pages students transcribed by the end of the unit (only approximately 10 or 15), one might wonder if the product warrants the number of weeks dedicated to the exercise. But that’s really not the point as far as I’m concerned. Most immediately, having transcribed these recipes offers students access to a different perspective about the relationship between humans and nonhumans, at the very least because the print texts we have from this period are almost exclusively by men. But doing this work also connects students to something bigger than they are: the imperfections of paper and ink that made someone from the past seem more human; the nonhuman ingredients used by an early modern woman for sustenance and health that reflected her interdependence with the earth and its resources; the relationships students forged with each other through trial and error that allowed them to make these discoveries. While I won’t claim that all of the students in the class decided that further transcription is in their future, I feel confident that they were changed by the experience. Their understanding of relationships of various kinds expanded. They came to see in a different way the historical particulars of how women used plants and animals even as they became participants in a dialogue that is greater than themselves. And that’s reason enough for me.

Pen, Ink, and Pedagogy

By Amanda E. Herbert

Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University.  Photo by the author.
Pen and Ink Lab in HIST 488 at Christopher Newport University. Photo by the author.

I teach an undergraduate seminar on gender in early modern Britain, and throughout the semester, students learn about the ways that people in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries worked to differentiate women from men.  We talk about early modern ideas on the human body: Galen’s four humors, the two-seed versus the one-seed model of conception, and “reversible” reproductive systems.  We also talk about the ways that early modern people mapped gender onto the workings of the human brain, ascribing mental acuity to men, and emotional intensity to women.  All of these lessons help to show students that gender is a social construct, and that it is historically variable.  But the exercise that truly brings these concepts home is one on education.  After providing an overview of the topics that were taught to early modern children, I divide the classroom:  half learn to write like girls, and half learn to write like boys.

I tell the students that they are going to learn about early modern education and material culture by writing with quill and ink.  The students think that they are being given identical materials for this “hands-on” exercise.  I distribute goose quills and powdered ink packets (both of which are available for sale via the Colonial Williamsburg website), and I pass out model alphabets from the seventeenth century, so that the students can form their letters in the style used by early modern people.  But what they don’t realize is that they have received separate models: one alphabet comes from a guidebook for young boys, and another alphabet comes from a guidebook for young girls.

With their alphabets in hand, the students are then set a task: they are asked to copy a recipe for early modern ink.  This receipt, which I transcribed from a commonplace book held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is entitled “To make Inke Verie Good.”  It was created by Anne (Granville) Dewes in the seventeenth century:

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beere vinegre, a pound of galls bruised halfe a pound of coperis [protosulphates of copper, iron, and zinc], and 4 ounces of gum bruised; first mix your water and vinegre together, and putt itt into an earthen Jug, (then put in the galls) stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme as you use it straine itt. &c.

As the students mix their ink, shape their quills, and start copying their recipes in “early modern style” handwriting, we talk about the ingredients contained in the recipe, as well as their cost and accessibility to people of both high and low status.  We talk about the time and labor that must have been involved in the production of ink.  We discuss the ways that ink was used in the home, and the gallons of ink that must have been consumed by early modern print shops.  We consider who made ink (both women and men) and who used ink (both women and men).  Ink was a ubiquitous part of life for early modern Britons, as essential to communication as are our own smartphones and tablets today.

About fifteen minutes before class ends, I ask the students to compare their transcriptions, and they are always surprised at the differences: half the class has written in one style, and half in another.  That’s because in early modern Britain, girls were encouraged to learn “Italic hand,” a style of writing with clearly defined, beautifully sculpted, decorative letters.  But boys were taught “Secretary hand,” a flowing, connected style intended for those who, it was implied, wrote with urgency, volume, and haste.  Realizing the ramifications of this – that although women and men used the same tools and the same recipes to communicate, early modern men’s words were seen as authoritative, while early modern women’s were viewed as window-dressing – brings our lesson on gender and education to a powerful close.

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Interested in early modern ink, or early modern education and handwriting?  The Folger Shakespeare Library has some excellent resources:

[1] Anne (Granville) Dewes, Cookery and Medicinal Recipes, ca. 1640-1750, V.a.430 f. 42, Folger Shakespeare Library.  You can access Dewes’ ink recipe via the Folger’s Digital Image Collection: http://luna.folger.edu

[2] Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts for the Folger, has written a great piece on education and early modern handwriting for the Folger’s Collation blog: http://collation.folger.edu/2013/05/learning-to-write-the-alphabet