All posts by Emily Beck

I am a PhD candidate in the Program for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. My dissertation project examines medical recipe books in Italy in the long-sixteenth century. You can send me a note at

Teaching Recipes in the Wangensteen Library

By Emily Beck

Over the course of my graduate career at the University of Minnesota, I’ve become interested in the ways that libraries function as spaces for both academic and public teaching. I began using recipe books with undergraduate classes in the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine simply because I find them interesting. It has become evident, however, that they are powerful teaching tools for both students and the public: recipe books resonate with viewers because they are personal and relatable.

Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637
Medical Receipt Book, Mary Pewe, Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, WZ250 M489 1637

I have used the Wangensteen’s recipe book collection for teaching undergraduate History of Medicine courses. The students in these classes are typically pre-health sciences majors and are implicitly interested in healthcare, but have not often considered the history of their chosen careers. Viewing a medical recipe book gives them opportunities to get closer to historical specifics, considering individuals rather than professions. For example, using an English manuscript from 1637 that is easy to read and quite large, I encourage students to reflect on the variety of illnesses and methods of treatment in the volume. By thinking about individual medical practice and health experience, students are able to more clearly grasp how humoral theory was applied on a day-to-day basis.

The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of MInnesota
The Wangensteen at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Image courtesy of Bonnie Gidzak

In addition to academic teaching and research, the Wangensteen creates exhibits with collection materials to teach the public about various aspects of the history of medicine. As I began developing the Wangensteen’s next exhibit, Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation (September 2015-May 2016), it was clear that recipe books were an obvious choice for the display cases. They show how historical individuals frequently made fermented and distilled products, like beer and wine, and used them as medicines. In April 2015, we were invited to participate in an event on fermentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota to give a preview of the exhibit. We were the only historically focused exhibitor at this event with several thousand attendees, so standing out was imperative. We brought facsimile copies of several recipe books as well as postcards with a historical brewing recipe. The recipes captivated the attendees because they could compare them to their own home-brewing and fermenting experiences. Using recipes with this audience was an easy way to initiate discussion about the complex origins of some of the fermented products that they enjoy at home.

When the exhibit opens in September, we will use manuscript recipe books to teach our audience how closely aligned health and alcohol were in earlier time periods. These will also demonstrate how individuals were expected to undertake their production at home. We are in conversation with a local restaurant about making some of the fermented vegetables and drinks out of these manuscripts. I hope to have a tasting event where we can invite the public and the university community to try these foods while thinking about the historical rationale for making fermented products. We’re looking forward to a year of public programming around recipes as well as continuing to teach courses using recipe books.

Monastic Domestic Medicine in Italy

By Emily Hagens

When I encountered three manuscript recipe books by an early seventeenth-century monk in the Wellcome Library last fall, I was excited to investigate what differences I might see between the traditionally categorized domestic medicine (women and men in households) and other types of domestic practice in early modern Italy. [1] The monk, Bernardino da Riminio, wrote his name in a short note at the front of each book, but we do not have any biographical information about him. Luckily, the first recipe book contains a two-page note that he left to his monastic brothers. It is unclear whether this type of letter was typically included in such recipe books, whether compiled by monks or not, but it does help provide some insight both to how Bernardino wanted to present himself to his community and to how we as scholars of recipe books might consider expanding what we categorize as domestic medicine. [2]

My general interest in recipe books stems from wanting to understand how non-professional medical practitioners (ie: not physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, itinerant practitioners, etc) used medical knowledge as a tool for navigating social structures. Examining rhetorical strategies in these volumes has been a fruitful way for peering into the social positions that recipe book compilers constructed for themselves. Bernardino’s note, which appears after several pages of recipes and a table of contents, is rich with language that he used to present himself as a particular kind of person and practitioner.

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Bernardino begins the letter, “Do not settle dear brothers for the things of our ancestors without greatest diligent effort of seeing and not [simply] rewriting…” After a while he continues, “Now, with attention to the prayers of my dear disciples and brothers, I wrote most faithfully these following little things that I practiced and experimented for many years for the benefit of my sick brothers, and others, and for the good of the district.” In both statements, Bernardino aligns himself with those who had for centuries emphasized the great value of empiricism in medical pursuits. Bernardino showed his reader how effective he and his medical recipes were by attesting to his attention to the creation, testing, and regular use of his own advice, thus imbuing the text with his own authority.

Bernardino also emphasizes the importance of making his advice, and the resulting medicines, available to more people. For example, he says, “you have, my dear brothers, this little book [which] is not [only] beneficial for the poor but also for the rich, I am most grateful now because I have said this to be a great treasure and knowing many [needy people] in the district [will use it]….” Later, he also says, “In case there are those who still do not have the Latin language I have very gladly faithfully translated these few labors so they might be able to know and understand the secrets of nature, those which the ancients left are for our use and we should use them to good end, not let them remain so.” Presenting the book as a guide for particular individuals who would be able to treat those around them, these notations might be read as indicators of Bernardino’s ideal of domestic medical practice. Though it was non-familial and not based in a home, it was care that was motivated by the ideal of offering assistance to those for whom one was responsible without requesting payment.

Bernardino’s letter is a window into how he viewed his responsibilities and expectations as a member of a community, but there are still many more questions to ask of his manuscripts. Bernardino saw himself as an authority who could provide specific medical advice and general medical education to his readers. In reading the letter, with the structure of the recipes and the didactic material found sprinkled throughout the first volume also in mind, it is clear that a kind of monastic domestic medicine was taking place. Domestic medicine has been understood to be a medical practice undertaken in a household, often by and for members of a particular family and those for whom they were responsible. When considering Bernardino and other monastic healers in early modern Italy, it may prove useful for historians to reconsider the domestic and re-think the category as simply a type of practice outside of a fee structure whose motivation was social responsibility.

[1] Sharon T. Strocchia has demonstrated that monastic involvement in medicine was not uncommon in early modern Italy, “The nun apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: marketing medicines in the convent,” Renaissance Studies 25 (2011): 627-647.

[2] London, Wellcome Library, Rimino, Bernardino Da [Archive Material] MSS.689-691, Vol 1, 37v-r.