All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

Antimony and Ambergris: ‘New’ Ingredients in the Antidotarium magnum

By Kathleen Walker-Meikle

Ground-up burnt elephant bones (spodium), musk, sumac, white sandalwood, ginger, mace, musk, cinnamon, roses, camphor, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg, galia muscata (a mix of musk and ambergris, a secretion from sperm whales)…

This is just part of the list of ingredients required by an electuary recipe to bring comfort to the melancholic, the timid, those suffering from stomach or intestinal complaints, or affected by windiness.

Apothecary shop,  British Library Ms Sloane 1977 f. 49v. From an early 14th century manuscript of the Circa instans (and other works), France (Amiens). Image Credit: The British Library.
Apothecary shop,
British Library Ms Sloane 1977 f. 49v. From an early 14th century manuscript of the Circa instans (and other works), France (Amiens). Image Credit: The British Library.

The recipe that follows it, another electuary thanks to the alphabetically-minded compiler, was destined for those weak in the stomach and generally feeble. It also presents an eclectic list of ingredients not seen in previous antidotaries such as zedoary, musk, and camphor, which would be all mixed together with sugar and ‘candi’ (a preparation made from sugar).

In the same text, an antidote for those suffering from mania, timidity, lunacy, and epilepsy asks for the brain of an onager (the Asiatic wild ass), along with bitumen of Judea, myrrh, musk, and dragon’s blood (a plant resin), along with a mole’s heart and a horse’s spleen.

All these recipes come from a very long, very novel and very influential pharmaceutical compendium: the Antidotarium magnum (the Great Antidotary). The text, compiled in Southern Italy in the late eleventh-century, details around 1300 recipes. There are recipes from ancient and Byzantine anthologies, along with a substantial number of recipes that calls for ingredients from the Arabic tradition, for the first time in a Latin medical text.

The novel ingredients are copious: myrobalans from India, ambergris from the shores of the Indian Ocean, sumac from the Middle East, sesame from the Middle East and India, turmeric from India, antimony from Asia, tamarisk from the Middle East, among many others. Another notable feature is the appearance of sugar and assorted sugar syrups and confections (julep, candi, confit, etc.) which were just starting to appear in Latin recipe collections at this time.

As a general rule, the recipes featuring ‘new’ ingredients are long and complicated. The compound’s name and its efficacy against a variety of ailments is listed. A long list of ingredients follows, along with details on preparation and administration. For example, a recipe for the ‘Great Diarodon’, declared as good for a hot stomach, liver, spleen, lung, and the entire body, along with weak hearts, strangury, and complaints caused by excessive heat, asks for roses, white and red sandalwood, tragacanth, spodium, two different types of balsam, crocuses, liquorice juice, citrus seeds, mastic, aloe, fennel, basil seeds, rhubarb, camphor, cardamom, and more, all bound together with ‘enough’ rose syrup, to be given morning and night to the patient.

In contrast, the ‘earlier’ recipes are usually shorter in comparison. They can often be found under the general title of ‘Medicamentum’ and their structure is simpler. For example: ‘Medicine against alopecia. Fry a live tortoise on a pan. Place ashes in a new pot with three parts of alum, deer marrow and boil with wine. Rub on alopecia.”
The Antidotarium magnum, a indispensable text in major twelfth century European libraries, was by the early thirteenth century superseded by an abbreviated version of the text: the twelfth-century Antidotarium Nicholai, which derives the major part of its recipes from the Antidotatium magnum.

A folio from a 12th century manuscript of the Antidotarium magnum. Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. Image Credit:  Wellcome Library, London.
A folio from a 12th century manuscript of the Antidotarium magnum. Wellcome Library, Ms MSL 138 f. 22v. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The shorter text would end up being one of most influential pharmaceutical texts in Western medicine, with some recipes still in use up to the nineteenth century. Thus the Antidotarium had a lasting legacy, and introduced soon-to-be staple ingredients to pharmacy. Our current list of manuscripts numbers just over thirty copies, nearly all from the twelfth century–although this number will undoubtedly increase as more manuscripts are identified.

Professor Monica Green and I are creating a digital edition of the Antidotarium magnum. Digital images of the folios of manuscripts are uploaded into T-Pen, an online transcription tool. They can then be transcribed digitally, folio-by-folio, with space for notes and the ability to tag words or phrases of interest (for example, place names, cited authors). The entire transcription of each manuscript can then by exported in xml to Tradamus, a digital edition web application. Both tools, which are free to use, have been developed by Saint Louis University’s Center for Digital Humanities.

As the Antidotarium magnum is an unstable text, due to additions and abbreviations, it is an ideal candidate for a digital-only edition. Not only will this allow hypertext additions of variant readings and easily-searchable content, but it will enable future contributions from other scholars as more sources and parallels to the text are identified.

The (Near) Magic of Digital Access to Manuscript Cookbooks

By Stephen Schmidt

MCS LOGO 2C FNLA conference panel on American cheese-making has just wrapped up, and someone in the audience stands and asks a question: “Can anyone tell me when in the nineteenth-century American recipes for chowder began to call for milk?” The question is not a total non sequitur because milk figured in the panel discussion (of course) and one of the panelists happens to be a writer of American cookbooks. Still, there is no reason to suppose that any of the panelists would have an answer to this question, and apparently none do. After a brief interval of blank staring and paper shuffling, one of the panelists suggests, “Perhaps you should look in nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks.”

I have been witness to many exchanges like this over the past twenty-five years. Among culinary historians, cookbook authors, and food writers, manuscript cookbooks are widely viewed as holy-grail-level documents, bearing vital information that can be found nowhere else, including in printed cookbooks. And on some topics, including chowder, manuscript cookbooks are indeed illuminating.

But, in truth, few people actually use these documents, even those who, like our hypothetical panelist, send others in pursuit of them. Researchers often do not live near a library that has manuscript cookbooks. Or their library may have a trove of these documents but may not have catalogued them. Or their library may have cataloged its manuscript cookbooks so perfunctorily or erroneously—after all, library cataloguers are not culinary historians, so these documents are opaque to them—that a researcher must wade through stacks of irrelevant material before hitting pay dirt. In the end, most researchers don’t bother.

Page from “Gemel Book of Recipes : manuscript, circa 1660-1700,” New York Academy of Medicine. Curse on bottom of page: Jean Gembel [Gemel] her book / I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her.
Page from “Gemel Book of Recipes : manuscript, circa 1660-1700,” New York Academy of Medicine. Curse on bottom of page: Jean Gembel [Gemel] her book / I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her.
One historic site curator told me that, in her ten years on the job, not a single person had even inquired about the site’s collection of ten manuscript cookbooks, much less asked to see one of them. Hers was the usual Catch-22. On the one hand, the WorldCat record of the site’s manuscripts was incomplete and vague, almost indecipherable: it would entice no one. On the other, why should the curator expend precious time and effort fixing the record when no one seems to be interested in the books?

The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey was created to facilitate access to manuscript cookbooks and thereby increase their use. Its core feature is a database that—someday—will contain all (okay, most) of the pre-1865 English language manuscript cookbooks held by U. S. libraries, historical sites and societies, and other public institutions. Users can search the database either by holding institution or by the time of composition and the place of origin of manuscripts. (Many English-language manuscripts in U. S. repositories are English, not American.)

When users click on a manuscript that, to judge from its title, seems to be in their field of interest, they are brought to a page that provides a summary of the manuscript and a link to the library online catalog record (assuming there is one). With any luck, the manuscript will be viewable online—if it is, this is indicated on the search page—and the library record will provide a link to a digital version.

Obviously, this initiative is only possible digitally, but digital can’t do everything. If our database is to work optimally, the titles we assign to manuscripts must be descriptive and our summaries of manuscripts must be not only descriptive, but also accurate and–ideally–a pleasure to read.

However, we can only read those manuscripts that either are held in New York City (where we are based) or are viewable online—and obviously, due to time and budget constraints, we can only read a very few of these. For the most part, we must cobble our titles and summaries from library catalog records. And so we run again into the wall that digital was supposed to breach: the library records are sketchy or nonexistent.

A particular bugaboo is proving to be the many cookbooks buried in family papers, which, if they appear in library records at all (and many do not), are typically listed simply as “cookbook” or “receipt book,” with no author, no date, and certainly no summary given. Sometimes we can query the library for help. But sometimes, unfortunately, querying is not realistic, as in the case of a collection that I recently encountered, which comprised an astonishing 19,200 items in forty-nine boxes. The record listed “recipe books” among these items, but I doubt that anyone will ever see them, since the record did not include a finding aid.

In the end, I do not doubt the value of our project. For one thing, I am learning that we can solve many thorny cataloguing problems simply by becoming more nimble quick-readers of manuscripts and more skilled cataloguers. (Big surprise—there is a learning curve!) Still, I have adjusted expectations. Digital capability is heady. It allows us to count zillions of things, see similarities among these things, find relatedness between all these things; it allows us to create nifty categories and tidily organize these zillions of things in them. But digital cannot generate the things themselves, at least not all of them. This is so obvious a truism that we don’t even say it. And yet, amid our excitement, we sometimes forget.

An intriguing invitation

This in from the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, happily coinciding with The Recipes Project‘s Digital Humanities month…

winche sample pageA seventeenth-century recipe book. Twelve hours. 208 pages. And transcribers from around the world.

Our goal? Using the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online transcription platform, we’ll collaboratively produce a searchable transcription of Rebeckah Winche’s recipe book in twelve hours.

On 7 October, please join the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC) for our first annual Transcribathon. We will have transcription groups working at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Essex, the University of Akron, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Texas Arlington, with other individuals joining in virtually throughout the day.

Along the way, participants will virtually meet scholars from around the world, have the opportunity to participate in a series of transcription sprints, and emerge from the day with a line for their CV—all from their own home, classroom, or office! NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY – we’ll walk you through the coding and offer pointers on the handwriting.

Even if you don’t want to transcribe, you can still join the fun in other ways.

For more information see here. To join us, email Lisa Smith (