All posts by laurencetotelin

I am a lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University (United Kingdom). My research focuses on the history of Greek and Roman pharmacology and botany, with a special emphasis on gender. I have my personal blog, Concocting History, where I discuss more recipes and at times experiment with ancient concoctions: www.ancientrecipes.wordpress.com

Counting on the body: Reflections on Numeracy in Indian dyeing practices

By Annapurna Mamidipudi

‘I don’t know how to read, but I can count’ said Salim, ‘I was not much for school, my father put me on an old tractor when I was 12, and told me to go around in circles, till I had learned to drive’. Salim was a 20 something driver, the same age as me, when I met him in 1990. I –along with a few other socially minded engineers – was trying to decipher the recipes from a century old colonial account of dyeing using natural materials, and he was hired to drive me around the weaver villages we were visiting in rural Andhra Pradesh in South India.  The idea was to use these recipes to bring natural dyeing practices lost over the last century back into the practice of craftspeople, in order to enter newly emerging green markets and support their livelihoods.

‘Keep the temperature around 70 degrees’ specifies the recipe. Yes, I could measure the temperature and tell when it was 70 degrees; but how to maintain a constant one? Salim smoked incessantly, yet he could blow on an open wood fire under the dyebath to keep it at a steady 70 degrees for as long as it took to extract the colour –whether yellow, brown or red. I measured and jotted down notes from his experiments, attempting to standardise a recipe that would provide fast colour across the different dyehouses, in the different villages where craftspeople were being trained to re learn natural dyeing practices. But this was an important first lesson about the material life of numbers in dyeing –they came attached with fires, smoke, dye baths, and always required a willing body to maintain them.

Indigo dyed yarn production in a weaver co-operative dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

So my first recipe:

Material needed:

For one kg. of yarn, take  15%  in weight in dyematerial Katha [Acasia Katechu]

Copper Sulphate: Take 10 % of weight of dye material

First measure out the quantity of dye material…….

‘Weavers don’t read, why would you want to write down a recipe in English?’ Salim interrupts, with some curiosity. The recipe is a formula, I explain, and it has to hold fast wherever we use it, and whoever uses it. It can be in any language, its the numbers and reproducibility that make it technical. ‘My car is technical, but I don’t need a manual’ he jokes, even as he measures out quantities out aloud for me to write into the journal we keep of all the dye experiments. After using the recipe on the field in a series of training workshops for weavers, he makes an observation. ‘Change the recipe standard to 4.5 kg, not one kg, if you want a stardardised recipe’. I reply patiently, if they learn to calculate quantities using the standard of 1 kg, they can multiply it by 4.5 or any number they chose, that’s the whole point of a recipe. ‘But they only use the 4.5 kg standard, or multiples of it, so if you write those down in the recipe, they don’t need to learn how to calculate percentages’. He is right, I realise, all across the world of Indian cotton handloom weaving, the general measure that applies across all dyehouses, is the weight of one box of cotton yarn, the ‘peti’, standardised across all thicknesses or counts of yarn. I change the recipe; we now formulate all recipes with 4.5 kg as the base. I need a calculator to figure out how much copper sulphate we need for the recipe for Katha, each time, meanwhile, Salim is measuring it out by hand. ‘Sometimes the quality is not so good, you have to add a bit more’. The weavers agree, accuracy is about the outcome of colour, not so much the weight of material as input.

Sample of jottings from a dyehouse in Peddapuram in Andhra Pradesh © Moody Chetanand

Almost ten years later, Salim is a master dyer, and well on his way to acquiring the skill of dyeing Indigo, one of the most difficult colours to master. He is successful in the market, and has trained more than a hundred artisan groups, forming a large network of dyers. I continue to be the documenter of recipes, now trying to author a small booklet of recipes in the four South Indian vernacular languages, for craftspeople learning natural dye colours. ‘You tell colour by smell, put away the notebook’, he says. Yet, in Salim’s pocket is a strip of paper that can measure the pH value of a solution; ‘Checking the Indigo vat with a pH paper helps me to get a general idea of how alkaline the vat is, before I start using my nose,’ he says. He is meticulous in checking the vats every morning and evening. ‘Yellappa is a master, [the 80 year old Indigo dyer who taught Salim] he doesn’t need the paper’, he says, a little enviously, ‘he can count on his nose to tell him when the vat is ready’. We decide to leave out the recipe for Indigo from the booklet, learning to tell colour and alkalinity by smell has to be learned from the master, not with recipes.

Salim setting up the Indigo vats in his dyehouse © Moody Chetanand

Ten years on, it is 2012, and I am theorising innovation in craft practices, as part of my PhD study –analysing the practices of dyers as socio-technical expertise. I am assailed by the smell of fermenting Indigo, as I enter the well functioning Indigo dyehouse for an interview with Salim the master dyer. Salim is a tad more portly, and is surrounded by a bevy of young men and women dyeing Indigo. ‘Come to learn Indigo dyeing?’ he asks with a smile. I take out my laptop, ‘put your hand in’ he says instead, ‘and turn the yarn 50 times’. I wet the hank of cotton yarn, and sit down amongst the other dyers. Unpractised as I am, I lose count after 37, but Salim tells me when I can stop, he can see when the colour is right.  Do you keep count? I ask the girl sitting next to me, curiously. ‘I used to’ she says, ‘now my body knows how long it takes, so the numbers disappear from my mind’.

Indigo dyeing: Dyehouse of Salim © Moody Chetanand

I reflect later, on how to write the recipe for Salim’s Indigo, and who to write it for. The underlying chemical principles of the traditional fermentation Indigo vat have been written up extensively by scholars and scientists. The aim of my own analysis was to establish that Salim like many other master dyers before and after him has indeed mastered the principles of Indigo dyeing. How does one establish that, without explicating his knowledge in scientific terms? Yet, even if I were to explicate such a recipe, Salim himself would not use it. Rather, he engages his material knowledge of Indigo as he problem solves, or sets up a new vat, or uses new materials to bring forth a resplendent blue time after time.

Where then does the knowledge of the underlying principle reside in his practice? I do not yet have an answer. All I can speculate is that the knowledge of the principles governing Indigo are known by Salim much like the numbers themselves are known in the dyeing: when dyers learn to count on their bodies, the numbers on the piece of paper disappear. Much like a weft thread woven through the warp, sometimes visible on the surface of the fabric, and at other times stabilised below the threads, Salim’s knowledge too is always present, sometimes visible and enumerable, and at other times invisible and embodied.


Annapurna Mamidipudi was trained as an engineer in electronics and communications, in Manipal, in South India. She had set up and worked for over 15 years in an NGO that supported vulnerable craft livelihoods where before completing her doctoral thesis titled “Towards a theory of innovation for handloom weaving in India” in the University of Maastricht in 2016. She is currently a visiting post doctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is a member of the NGO Timbaktu Collective’s executive committee, which works in the drought prone district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh to support women farmers and trustee of the Handloom Futures Trust, in Hyderabad.

Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500 – c. 2000: conference report

By Rachel Rich

Katrina Mosley and Eleanor Barnett, who run the Cambridge Body and Food Histories Group, hosted a conference on ‘Food and Embodied Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World, c. 1500 – c. 2000’ on June 29th, 2018. These kinds of conferences, where everyone is in the same room so that conversations can build and grow as we move through the sessions, are my favourite, and this was no exception.

The day was organized around big ideas—Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Religion—an acknowledgement, in large part, of Barnett and Mosley’s own research interests—but food history being what it is, in each panel issues came up with spoke directly to the themes in other panels. For instance, I was excited when both speakers on the ethnicity panel spoke about how white women in American were assumed by food marketers to see cooking as drudgery, since in my own paper, which contrasted Georgiana Hill’s publications with those of Mrs Beeton, I was exploring the idea that some Victorian housewives in England may have enjoyed food and eating, in spite of their cookbooks telling them food preparation was a chore to be endured for the benefit of others.

Interdisciplinarity was high on the agenda here, with speakers coming from history, sociology, literature, and anthropology, as well as one contribution on a forthcoming exhibition at the V&A, by May Rosenthal Sloan, whose talk allowed us to think about the important ways in which artists understanding of the place of food products in our history have played on, and helped to shape, our attitudes towards race, class, and gender.

Andrew Warnes’s talk on supermarkets and race in mid-twentieth century America started with an image by US photographer Thomas O’Halloran, whose series ‘Shopping in Supermarkets’ from 1957 captured some of the hidden labour carried out by suburban housewives pushing shopping trolleys along laden aisles of pre-packaged food. Warnes argued that this image, which captured a housewife stooping to pick a box of cereal off a shelf, ably illustrated the concept of prosumption. Aunt Jemima’s face beaming from rows of packages on the same shelf could remind us of how spokeservants were useful for constructing ‘leisured’ white housewives and subservient of black ‘servants’.

In the gender panel, this elision of women with food was pursued by Julie Parsons, who has collected narratives from women and men about their food memories. Parsons chose ‘epicurean’ as the word to characterize men’s relationship to food, contrasting this to the way women positioned themselves as the providers of food for others. Though she and I had not planned it, this male/female divide unified our panel, as I was discussing the way that Georgiana Hill (on whom I have posted before) disguised her gender in her first publication by using the pseudonym ‘Old Epicure’, a masculine sounding epithet to her Victorian readers.

Images of Judensau like this were part of German anti-semitic pig imagery discussed in Christopher Krissane’s paper. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wittenberg_Judensau_Grafik.jpg)

These kinds of stereotypes were also part of the way the speakers on the Religion panel organized their analysis. For Beat Kümin, for example, there was the idea of holding your drink as a necessary signifier of masculine honour in early modern communities, or the image of genteel women sipping tea to denote civilization, which Kümin contrasted with clear evidence of continued widespread excess. Pigs featured in all three of the Religion talks; as a particularly vile way for Christians to stereotype of Jews in Early Modern Europe, according to Christopher Kissane, as Martin Luther’s animal of choice to illustrate the dangers of excess according to Kümin, and as a taboo shared by Chinese Muslims and fellow practitioners of their religion in all sorts of different cultural contexts.

The final panel of the day considered food and class inequalities. Here, again, the speakers were quick to point out that class is not studied in isolation, but together with other markers, such as gender and ethnicity. So in Ben Highmore’s talk on Terence Conran and the important ways that the Habitat chain captured the appetite for Medditeranean diet in 1964, Highmore also talked about Len Deighton, and the new masculinity that allowed him to build to branch out from spy thrillers to writing books of ‘manly’ recipes. The day ended with Alan Ward talking about his research on dining out habits in England. A new survey, replicating the original findings of his 1995 survey of eating habits in England, published as Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption and Pleasure is looking at how things changed—or more interestingly did not change—in the intervening two decades. There are so many questions raised by the study that shows how people think about their relationship with food, and like Parsons earlier in the day, Ward shared some of his evidence of the way people speak about food and reveal some of the important ways in which they link their identities not only to what they eat, but to where they eat it, how much it costs, and what they feel this shows about their own position in relation to concepts such as adventurousness or caution.

The title of Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook illustrated some of Ben Highmore’s points about the ways in which new ideas about class and gender were coming together to created a new lifestyle in the mid 1960s. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Len_Deighton%27s_Action_Cook_Book#/media/File:Len_Deighton%27s_Action_Cook_Book.jpg)

Returning the wandering womb with “fetid and rank smells”

By Dr. Amy Kenny

When prescribing curatives for a wandering womb, early modern medical practitioners regularly propose pungent materials to return the womb to its rightful place in the abdomen.  Medical manuals from the period are rife with tales of the womb becoming dislodged and wandering throughout the body.  Monthly shedding and regular intercourse were often recommended for women to release gratuitous female seed and prevent humoral clogging.  Without shedding this excess, the womb could travel throughout the body, sometimes as far north as the throat, or as far south as the knees.  If its “ligaments are loose, and it falls down by its own weight,” English physician Nicholas Culpeper warned, or it could wander north, producing a choking sensation and syncope, aptly labeled suffocation of the mother.[1]  Once the womb was out of place, reeking elements were often recommended by medical practitioners to coax the womb back to its proper location in the body.

Renowned French surgeon Ambroise Paré suggests physicians apply “fetid and rank smells” to the nostrils, such as the “snuff of a tallow candle when it is blown out, with the fume of bird’s feathers, especially partridges or woodcocks, of man’ hair, or goat’s hair, of old leather, of horse-hoofs, and such like things burned, whose noisome or offensive savor the womb avoiding, doth return unto its own place or seat again.”[2]  The Compleat Midwives Practice proposes “fomentations are also very necessary, made with the decorations of broom, wild cucumbers, flowers of chamomile, melilla, with origin, cumin, fennel, [and] anise-seed.”[3]  A Rich Closet of Physical Secrets swears by “a bath made of mugwort, flea-bane, juniper, camphire, and wormwood, boiled in water,”[4] and physician James Rüff advises “castoreum, galbanum dissolved in vinegar, of each half an ounce; brimstone one ounce” to apply to the nose and the woman’s genitals.[5]  This is merely a sampling of the recipes prescribed for the wandering womb, but offers a microcosm for popular treatments as most call for aromatic materials amongst the ingredients.

Fig. 1. Treatment of prolapse of uterus, 1559. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Specifically, herbal remedies were often administered via a pessary, or suppository, at the neck of the vagina to fumigate any menstrual or humoral excess, causing the womb to shift locations.  Paré recommends a pessary full of “sweet and aromatic fumigations” using cinnamon, aloes, labdanum, benzoin, thyme, pepper, cloves, lavender, calamint, mugwort, penny-royal, nutmeg, musk, and amber.[6]  This image from 1559 (fig. 1) shows a practitioner placing a pomegranate shaped pessary on a woman with a prolapsed uterus.  An apple-shaped pessary can also be seen amongst French surgeon Jacques Guillemeau’s medical tools (fig. 2). Pessaries were often shaped like pears, apples, or pomegranates and could be administered by a medical practitioner or the woman herself.  Herbal remedies such as those placed in pessaries were thought to offer a purgative heat to release excess phlegmatic humors, returning the womb to its original place by humoral fumigation.

An Apple-shaped pessary with central canal, from Jacques Guillemeau, Le chirurgie Françoise, 1594. Credit: Wellcome Collection

Why use smelly materials to cajole the womb back to its original location within the body?  Why not entice it by other means?  The womb, early modern medicine tells us, “will in a manner descend or arise unto any sweet smell and from any thing that is noisome.”[7]  Able to detect smells and determine their quality, the womb garnered a sympathy with the nose unlike that of other organs.  It adopted the nose’s olfactory role in discerning scents as curatives or miasmas.  The porous humoral body was susceptible to shifts in the Galenic non-naturals—air, sleep, diet, exercise, the passions, and excretion—and the womb was considered one of the body’s orifices through which it interacted with the larger world.  Odorous plants could purge disproportionate humors in the womb, allowing it to return to its rightful place because of its sympathy with the nose.  According to early modern medicine, the womb could smell the scents administered externally because of its porous nature and olfactory ability.


Amy Kenny is a Visiting Assistant Professor at University California, Riverside. She is currently working on a book on wombs, entitled, Humoral Wombs on the Shakespearean Stage, under contract with Palgrave Literature, Science, and Medicine series.


[1]Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives (London: Peter Cole, 1662), 50.

[2]Paré, Ambroise. The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. T. H. Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 574.

[3]R. C., I. D., M. S., T. B., The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged (Angel in Cornhill: Nathaniel Brookes, 1659), 216.

[4]Anonymous, A Rich Closet of Physical Secrets (Gartrude Dawson: London, 1653), 24.

[5]Rüff, Jacob. The Expert Midwife, or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man (London: E. Griffin for S. Burton, 1637), 67.

[6]Paré, Ambrose. The Works of that Famous Chirurgeon Ambrose Parey, trans. T. H. Johnson (London: Mary Clark, 1678), 574.

[7]Crook, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia, A Description of the Body of Man (Barbican: W. Jaggard, 1616), 223

“Lunch Shaming” and Lessons from History

By Nadja Durbach

Early last year the news media reported on a surge in what has been called “lunch shaming”: practices that deliberately and publicly humiliate children whose parents have not settled their school lunch accounts. When this story broke I was in the midst of writing about school meals in Britain during the 1920s and 30s for a book that I am working on about government food programs in the United Kingdom from the 1830s through the 1960s. The practices of lunch shaming in the United States in the past few years have included: dumping students’ lunches in the trash and refusing to feed them, substituting less nutritious cheese sandwiches for hot meals, stamping the children’s arms with phrases such as “I Need Lunch Money,” compelling children to wear wrist bands marking them as debtors, and having these children clean the cafeteria tables in front of their peers. None of these strategies were deployed in Britain in the interwar period, but the idea that school meals could be a source of humiliation was alive and well. In fact it is hard to ignore that understanding the history of school meals, which were provided in many countries starting in the twentieth century, is essential to formulating a workable and non-stigmatizing program in today’s schools.

In 1906, the United Kingdom introduced a school meals program to address the fact that children from poor families often came to school hungry and thus could not take full advantage of the public education system. Participating school districts used local tax dollars and grants from the Board of Education to feed children gratis at school if their family’s income fell below a locally-determined poverty line. Lunchroom facilities were rarely available within schools before the second half of the twentieth century. This meant that the children receiving free school meals were often marched into the middle of town to a “Feeding Centre.” They were thus conspicuous recipients of the state’s largesse. These Feeding Centres were sometimes established in buildings associated with charity, such as a Salvation Army hall, or with the shame of poverty, such as an old workhouse. Throughout the Depression years then, school meals were inherently stigmatizing. Even families that were eligible sometimes rejected them, mothers often starving themselves in order to feed their children without relying on government food.

Those who accepted the meals were rarely treated to anything that could have materially effected the chronic malnourishment that intensified during the Depression. School meals were primarily intended to fill bellies and were not particularly nourishing. This was despite the explosion of nutritional knowledge newly available in the interwar period. A school meal generally consisted of mounds of mashed potatoes, minced meats or stews, reconstituted dried or overcooked fresh vegetables, and stodgy desserts. Fresh fruits and raw vegetables were rare except in communities that in the late 1930s experimented with cold meals: nutritional sandwiches accompanied by milk, salad, and fruit. These were healthy, cheaper, well-liked by the children, and could be eaten with their hands. The hot dinners, however, required utensils but students were rarely provided with more than a single spoon. Forks were scarce and knives unheard of as the supervisors feared that the children of the poor were unruly “wild animals.” These “low grade children,” it was argued, could not be trusted and “these implements might be dangerous in [their] hands.”

Supervisors feared that a child might “stick a fork into his next door neighbour out of mischief or in a quarrel.”

Up through the 1930s then, the children of the chronically unemployed desperately needed these school meals. But accepting them came at a price, as they were humiliating for the children and their parents. It was not until the outbreak of the Second World War that the nature of school meals changed significantly. In 1943, the British government announced that its objective was to make school meals available to at least 75% of schoolchildren. To achieve this, the 1944 Education Act turned the voluntary provision of meals into a compulsory service and began to take their nutritional components more seriously. While minimal fees would be charged to parents who could afford to pay, all children were to be fed together and no distinction made between those receiving free meals and those who were self-funded. These changes reflected a wartime ideology that constructed children as citizens and positioned the state as responsible for their wellbeing.

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 that forbids the practices used to humiliate children with outstanding school lunch debts was introduced in Congress last May. One can only hope that Congress learns from the past because the history of the school lunch program in Britain provides important insight into how we treat students in lunchrooms across the United States today. Why would we choose to shame children when providing them with a nutritious lunch in ways that do not stigmatize or humiliate them could in fact teach all of our young people that they too are citizens whom we respect and cherish?


Nadja Durbach was born in the United Kingdom. She grew up in Canada and attended the University of British Columbia, earning a BA (Hons.) in 1993. In 2000 she completed her PhD at the Johns Hopkins University and joined the faculty of the University of Utah’s History Department where she is currently a Professor. She is the author of Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 and Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. She is currently working on a book entitled, Many Mouths: State Feeding in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State.