Perpetual Prognostications: Medieval ‘Recipes for Living’

By Melissa Reynolds

The year is 1459, and you are a relatively prosperous landowner in Oxfordshire. Now that spring is in the air, you must go and visit your merchant friend in London, but you find yourself uneasy about the journey. With the poor condition of recently thawed roads, the trip could take as much as two days. Of course, if you had access to GPS or GoogleMaps, you would simply chart your course beforehand and find stopping points along the way. But you don’t have either digital tool. What you have, instead, is a prognostication.

Maybe you own a manuscript similar to Wellcome Library MS 411, a book of medical treatises by well-respected medieval authorities like Arnold of Villanova and Constantine the African, which also happens to contain a series of prognostications on its opening pages. One of these prognostications instructs the reader on how to know the “good dayes” of the year from the “evyl dayes.” It promises to specify which days are good to begin “viagis [voyages] both by water & by lond [land].” You scan the entries and discover that the “second day is profitable” to “travayle by shippe, to do viage [voyage] & to purchase hous & land & to clothe man & woman in new clothes.” You console yourself that all will be well if you leave on the second of April.

Prognostication of "lucky and unlucky days" in Middle English
The opening of the treatise on “lucky and unlucky days” in London, Wellcome Library MS 411, f. 4r.

The prognostications found in Wellcome MS 411 were widely popular in later medieval England, and they are most often found in manuscripts otherwise filled with medical content like recipes and instructional treatises. Some, like this one, established which days were good for which activities—activities like bloodletting, traveling, getting married, and buying or selling property. Others extrapolated predictions from the cycle of the calendar year or the weather. One popular series predicted the weather and harvest yields for the coming year according to whether one heard thunder in a given month. Another series predicted the weather, crop yields, wars, and diseases for the coming year according to the day of the week on which Christmas Day or New Year’s Day fell.

Most often, these prognostications circulated in Middle English or Latin prose or verse, but intriguingly, at least a dozen different medieval English manuscripts contain versions of these prognostications rendered in pictures and icons. The version of the prognostication from New Year’s Day pictured below appears on the front flyleaf of a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Similar pictorial versions of the prognostication on “lucky and unlucky days,” the prognostication from thunder, and the same prognostication from New Year’s Day, can all be found in a late fourteenth-century manuscript at the Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D. 939.

Pictorial prognostication according to the dominical letter from Houghton Library MS Richardson 35
Annual pictorial prognostication according to New Year’s Day (dominical letter) from Harvard, Houghton Library MS Richardson 35, f. 1v.

What should we make of a manuscript like Wellcome MS 411 or Rawlinson D.939 with multiple versions of prognostications copied one right after another? Surely a reader would find inconsistencies or outright contradictions across these multiple sets of predictions? How might a reader determine which prediction to turn to and which set of advice to follow?

To understand how prognostications functioned for medieval readers, I like to think of them as “recipes for living.” Like traditional recipes, they encouraged their readers to move through a set of instructions, drawing from their own observations and experiences to then proceed with a set of actions. Now, it is true that prognostications don’t follow exactly the same format as a traditional recipe, which typically instructs the reader to take some set of ingredients and then do some set of processes that will transform the ingredients into a wholly new substance that is greater than its individual parts. Nor, of course, do prognostications produce a physical product like an ointment or a curative drink.

The comparison makes a lot more sense, however, if we think about prognostications sitting right alongside recipes in medieval manuscripts. Just as compilers chose to record version after version of competing—and sometimes contradictory—prognostications in their manuscripts, so too did they often choose to copy version after version of different recipes to cure the same ailment. All this repetition suggests that medieval people wanted a range of options for managing their health and well-being. They made interpretive decisions about which versions of recipes or prognostications to follow based on prior experience or observation. Prognostications, like recipes, promised a set of predictable results.

Perhaps because of the uncertainty and chaos in the world at the moment, I find myself returning to the perpetual prognostications of the medieval era with a new appreciation. Whereas before I wondered at how obviously intelligent and capable medical practitioners took comfort in a set of verses that offered an impossibly repetitive set of predictions—could medieval readers really have believed the second day of the month to be propitious every month?—I now recognize medieval readers’ desire to impose order on the world through simple “recipes for living.” Though none of us can tell the future, maybe now we understand a little more intuitively how it feels to want to try.

A Recipe for Reproductive Healthcare

Melissa Reynolds

Last month I wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post’s Made by History section addressing the crisis in maternal mortality in the United States. Drawing from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance reproductive recipes, I argued that pre-modern gynecological practice frequently emphasized the mother’s health over that of her fetus, in part because pre-moderns recognized that pregnancy and childbirth could be quite dangerous, and in part because fetal development was little understood and medical intervention in-utero was impossible. This attention to maternal health, I contend, is missing within the American culture of pregnancy, too often focused on the well-being of a fetus instead of its mother.

Figures illustrating malpresentations of a fetus, 17th century. The Wellcome Collection.

The kernel of the OpEd emerged when I began tracking occurrences of reproductive recipes in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English recipe books. As I encountered numerous recipes to aid conception, to bring about menstruation, to halt menstruation, to aid in childbirth, as well as numerous versions of recipes to deliver a deceased fetus, I found myself surprised by their straightforward, immensely practical tone. I think I expected something more ideological, more representative of misogynistc medical theories on reproduction that insisted on the toxicity of women’s bodies, expressed suspicion about women’s “secret” power of generation, or worried over the undue (and dangerous) influence women had on fetal development. These anti-woman sentiments were common to pre-modern medicine, yet in large part I found little evidence of these attitudes in late medieval recipe books.

Instead, in at least forty different manuscripts, I found recipes that offered women some control over their reproductive health, addressing the same range of concerns voiced by women today. For example, British Library MS Additional 34210, an early fifteenth-century medical manuscript, contains recipes for “Medicine to delivere a woman of a dede child” (f. 19r), for “Helpyng to conceive a chylde,” (f. 45r), “For to make a woman dolyver the hedde of a childe” (f. 45v), “For to sese a womanys flowris” (f. 47r), and one “For a woman that has lost her flowres”:

For a woman that has lost hur flowres when þay be destryed. This medicine faylis neuer but looke that sche be not with chylde. Take rote of gladon and sethe hit in vinegre or in wyne when hit is well sodyn set hit in to þe grounde and let hir stryd on so that þer may noone eyre a way but evyn up in to hur privite. (BL MS Additional 34210, f. 47r)

For a woman that has lost her flowers [menstrual flow] when it is destroyed. This medicine never fails but be sure that she is not with child. Take root of gladdon [acorus calamus, or sweet flag] and seeth it in vinegar or wine; when it is well sodden set it in the ground and let her sit on it so that no air escapes but goes only up in to her privates.

Like most vernacular recipes, these have their roots in much older medical traditions. For example, while at first I was surprised to see that recipes to “deliver a woman of a dead child” often outnumber other childbirth-related recipes in late medieval miscellanies, the prevalence of these directives makes sense given their prominence in ancient and earlier medieval gynecological writings. From RP Editor Laurence Totelin’s Hippocratic Recipes and Ann Ellis Hanson’s translations of the Hippocratic “Diseases of Women I ,” I learned that recipes to expel a dead fetus were not uncommon within ancient Greek medicine. From Monica Green’s translation of the Trotulagynecological writings in Latin from twelfth-century Salerno, Italy, I found recipes instructing women to drink rue and mugwort steeped in wine if they need to deliver a dead fetus—the same ingredients listed in two different English recipes for stillbirth from BL Additional 34210.

Artist unknown. The birth of a baby. 18th century. The Wellcome Collection.

These recurrences within reproductive recipes—many of which span centuries—indicate that while learned medical theory may have emphasized female weakness or toxicity, often the everyday practice of reproductive healthcare was responsive to women’s needs. Those needs remained much the same from ancient Greece to medieval England, and so, too, did elements of many of these recipes.

At the same time, ancient Greece, medieval Italy, and early modern England were still intensely misogynistic societies. The reproductive recipes common to late medieval English recipe books, no matter how attentive to women’s needs, are not evidence for some bygone era of egalitarian healthcare. Far from it. Even so, the prevalence of practical and relatively woman-centered reproductive recipes in late medieval miscellanies shows that even within a culture that was steeped in misogynistic medical theory, when push came to shove (or perhaps simply when it came time to push), pre-modern people needed remedies that set aside ideology and instead attempted to address women’s needs. If there is a lesson to be taken from pre-modern reproductive recipes, perhaps it is just that.

But does it work? Playful magic and the question of a recipe’s purpose

By Melissa Reynolds

An early sixteenth-century recipe for “good gome” in Wellcome Library MS 406, f. 23r. Digitized images of the manuscript available at https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18935709.

One of the many pleasures of studying late medieval English “how-to” manuscripts is the wide and often surprising array of knowledge to be found within them. Most contain a good bit of medical information, such as herbal recipes and instructions for bloodletting, and many also contain useful household information, like directives for animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, sewing, ink-making, and so on. Also common to these collections are charms for curing fevers, staunching blood, and protecting women in childbirth. Some medieval English collections of recipes also contain magic of a lighter sort, like directions to “make a woman lift her skirts” or “to make thunder and lightning,” discussed in earlier posts by Laura Mitchell and Catherine Rider.

One such example of a light—and somewhat lascivious—recipe is found on folio 20 of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1389, a late fifteenth-century recipe collection compiled by William Aderston, probably a surgeon working in London.[1]

To make men & women to take off their clothes

Take grain with evil thistles [thystylls] which grow above the ditch & make from that a powder & put it in someone’s lap & immediately he or she will take off his or her clothes.[2]

Image credit: British Library, from Prudence Guilllaume de Roujoux, Histoire d’Angleterre (Paris, 1844), text added by Melissa Reynolds.

Certainly, as Mitchell has suggested, recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are inherently playful. Yet I am also inclined to agree with Rider who points out that there is little evidence that medieval compilers drew a sharp distinction between lighthearted recipes and straightforwardly practical ones. In the case of Ashmole 1389, the recipe to make men and women shed their clothes appears within a short section of non-medical recipes in an otherwise overwhelmingly medical collection. Most other non-medical entries in the manuscript are clearly useful, like a recipe to make glue or instructions for fishing and engraving on metal.

So why was this recipe included in an otherwise useful collection, and what can its inclusion teach us about late medieval culture?

Historians can read 500 year-old recipes for medicine, agriculture, textile production, or cooking and understand why such knowledge was selected for “how-to” manuscript collections, even though the materials and techniques described are unfamiliar to us now. We can understand why so many collections feature useful, natural magic, as there was little distinction between magical and non-magical cures in medieval culture. In these cases, our understanding of the medieval recipe book rests on the basic premise that people wanted acces to useful (and useable) knowledge.

But recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are perhaps more illuminating precisely because they don’t fit this mold. They challenge our presumptions about the purpose and function of a recipe. This recipe isn’t obviously practical, nor is it even apparent that it could be, or ever was, attempted by its compiler.

Though lighthearted magic like that in Ashmole 1389 is not nearly as common as healing magic, its presence in medieval collections should encourage us to reflect on what we expect from a recipe, and how those expectations color our historical interpretation. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if our focus on finding out how pre-modern recipes “work” always reflects the focus of pre-modern compilers and readers? Attempts at recipe reproduction can yield unmatched insights into pre-modern worldviews, materials, and techniques; hands-on and collaborative research into recipes should by all means continue! But while we’re building furnaces, making chacolet, and casting flowers, let us also remember that a pre-modern recipe might have had any number of meanings or uses for the pre-modern reader, some of which we may not yet fully understand.


[1]Aderston left his signature at the bottom of a recipe on folio 14v (“per me W. Aderston”) and a record at the National Archives of the UK contains reference to a “William Aderston, of London, surgeon” as plaintiff in a trespassing case against the sheriffs of London sometime between 1483–1515.

[2]Ad faciendum homines & mulieres deponere pannos suos / Accipe grana malignos cardenibus ^thys tylls^ qui crescunt super fossat & fac inde pulvere & ponite in gremio alicuius & statim exuet pannos. The Latin gremio could be “lap, bosom” or “womb; female genital parts.” You can see how a different translation would change the sense of the recipe entirely.