From the Archive: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

As we prepare to enthusiastically welcome a new year (and say good riddance to 2020), I would love to revisit a wonderful recipe for celebratory cakes. In this piece that originally published in 2014, Molly Taylor-Poleskey notes that honey cakes commemorated the ending of the plague and the arrival of a new era. Let us all toast spiced cakes and lebkuchen to bring in the new year! –R.A. Kashanipour

by M. Taylor-Poleskey

Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I)
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

Canine Cures or Puppy Love

By Mark Bruck

Cute, cuddly puppies.

Throughout much of early modern Europe, oils and fats derived from animals were highly valued commodities, particularly as elements to everyday medicines and remedies. Puppy oil, in particular, was considered better than most other animal fats and remained in use until the middle of the 20th century.  In fact, in my pharmacy, I have a jar of puppy oil (now completely rancid fat) that dates from the beginning of the last century. Nevertheless, the puppy oil and dog fat were highly cherished for their medical properties in premodern European folk medicine.   

Known by various terms, including oleum catellorum, axungia canis and pinguedo canis, the fat of animals were used to heal a variety of ailments and afflictions in early modern Europe. For instance, frog and human fat comprised the basis of the healing oil known as oleum florum Slotani. Similarly, the oil called emplastrum diabotanum was composed of fifty-five ingredients, including animal oils, pitch and wax, camphor, and minerals. An anonymous eighteenth century commentator in the Journal der Pharmacie is said to have described the concoction as the most miserable mixture.  Nevertheless, early modern formal physicians and folk healers alike regularly used the fats and oils of animals as medical remedies.  The remedy known as unguentum nervinum Schmidii was composed of a variety of animal fats, including those from canines, equines and humans, was used to treat localized nerve and joint pains. Puppy oil and the fat of canines figured prominently as topical remedies for muscle and joint pains, such as podagra (the gout). Taken internally, canine fat figured frequently in both folk and formal treatments for lung afflictions such as tuberculosis.

In sixteenth century France, the barber surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) embraced the use of dog fat as a remedy for dressings and wounds, particularly those caused by arquebuses. Claiming a secret source, Paré advised that the rendering of fat be produced by processing the animals with oleum liliorum (oil of lilies), earthworms, turpentine of Venice, and French brandy. He advised that live dogs were to be boiled in the oil  until the flesh loosened from the bones and then submerged in earthworms. After rendering, the remaining animal fat was to be mixed strained with white wine before being mixed with turpentine and brandy. Similarly, in seventeenth century France, the chemist Nicholas Lémery (1645-1715) noted the usefulness of the huile de petit chiens (oil of puppies) as a topical treatment for ailments of the nervous system, such as sciatica and paralysis, and in dissolving catarrhs and congestion (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Nicholas Lemery, Pharmacopée universelle (1697).

As noted in my previous posting (see “Canine Cures”),  the work of the eighteenth century healer Sébastien-François de Blanchart contains a wide variety of remedies that incorporate the use of materials derived from animals, including dogs.  His manuscript book of remedies, known as “Vieux recueil de remèdes,” contains instructions on the preparation of the puppy oil, oleum catellorum.  To treat foulures (muscle sprains) and sang caillé (blood coagulation), the healer recommends the oil derived from nine-days-old puppies boiled in olive oil (Figure 3). For a more effective result, and likely taste, he advises to mix in Burgundy wine. Patients should be kept warm and sweating before taking spoons full of the concoction each morning and evening.

Figure 3 – Sébastien-François de Blanchart, Vieux recueil de remèdes.

The use of animals in popular remedies for everyday ailments figured as prominent, though largely overlooked, aspects of the history of medicine. To modern eyes, the methods of preparation are likely to offend. Nevertheless, for centuries, the human and animal connection was one that touched on everything from friendship and love to health and healing.  For more on the use of dogs in remedies, please see: Lisa Smith’s “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” from October 23, 2018. 

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I am most grateful to Mme Zeien curator and librarian at the Archives nationales for making the digitised document available; it was originally classified as item 423 of the 15th department of the historic section of the Institut grand-ducal in Luxembourg.

Canine Cures or Our Best Friend…

By Marc Bruck

To paraphrase the old adage: dogs are humanity’s best friend. Loving, loyal and protective, they are often considered members of the family. They are symbols of wealth and power, love and affection. Recent accounts in the popular press, such as the Guardian’s piece from July “Hot dogs: What soaring puppy thefts tell us about Britain today”, have shown that they are also valuable accessories to modern life. However, in Early Modern Europe, the qualities of the canine were much more varied than that of a cherished companion. In particular, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, folk healers identified dogs as treasure troves for medical remedies and treatments. While an affront to many modern sensibilities, dogs were not simply pets, but were themselves useful sources of materia medica that cured a variety of ailments.  This essay puts the focus on an aspect of dogs that is ubiquitous with the ownership of the animal, dog feces, which was known in medicinal terms as album graecum

The use of  dog feces in medicine can be traced back to ancient Egypt and classical Greece and Rome. Known by a variety of medicalized names in the premodern period, including album graecum, tercus canis, cynocoprus,zibethum caninum, and flores melampi, the medical feces comes from dogs that are fed limited diets of bones alone.  Album graecum, therefore, is white dung produced by a dog (preferably a white one) that is free of color and obnoxious smells (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 – Album graecum

At the chemical level, album graecum contained significant amounts of calcium phosphate, mineral that figures prominently in many modern drugs and remedies.  Today, for human consumption, the mineral is largely extracted from the mineral Apatite, while in veterinary practice it is derived from animal calcium and bone meal.

In early modern European recipe books, album graecum was used as a dried and friable element in medicines for everyday ailments.  For instance,  one can find the white powder incorporated in the records of the seventeenth century German doctors von Mynsicht (1588-1638) and Ettmüller (1644-1683).  In the eighteenth century, album graecum appeared in pharmacopoeias across Europe. The Cyclopaedia of Chambers of 1728 designates its usage “with honey, to clean and deterge, chiefly in Inflammations of the Throat; and that principally outwardly, as a Plaister.”

The medicinal uses of the materia medica of dogs figures prominently in a fascinating mid-eighteenth century medical manuscript written by a healer called Sébastien-François de Blanchart.  Penned largely in French, de Blanchart’s work is known as the “Vieux recueil de remèdes” and commonly called “Blanchart’s Remedies.” It is currently housed in the National Archives of Luxembourg, where it has been scanned for digital access for the public.  While little is known of Blanchart, his remedies featured everyday materials of unsanctioned healers of Early Modern France.  In particular, dog feces, or album graecum as it was known in Latin, figured prominently in remedies for moderate internal inflammation. 

The seventeenth century healer de Blanchart considered album graecum essential to the treatment of common maladies affecting the throat, though not for those where the inflammation obstructs breathing and swallowing (Fig. 2). His records show that white powder could be administered directly to the uvula by means of a feather or combined into a serum. In one recipe, he records its combination with a mixture of everyday items, including beer and honey. 

Figure 2 – Sébastien-François de Blanchart, Vieux recueil de remèdes, fs 200. National Archives of Luxembourg.

De Brouchart’s recipe for throat ailments calls for the following: 

1 pint of beer of the strongest and oldest available

6 pieces of Album graecum

2 spoons of mel rosatum (honey)

The preparation involved cooking the ingredients over a gentle fire until the liquid reduced to half its volume. The liquid was to be strained and sieved, before being administered to the patient either consumed by the spoonful or by rinsing the mouth.  

Materials derived from dogs figure prominently in numerous recipes from de Brouchart and other early modern European medical texts, which we will pick up in a subsequent post called “Puppy Love.” For more on the use of dogs in remedies, please see: Lisa Smith’s “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” from October 23, 2018. 

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I am most grateful to Mme Zeien curator and librarian at the Archives nationales for making the digitised document available; it was originally classified as item 423 of the 15th department of the historic section of the Institut grand-ducal in Luxembourg.

Precious Secrets – Pearls & Coral in Early Modern Recipes

By Juliet Claxton

Pearls and coral have been worn on the body not only for adornment, but also for the belief in their powerful and mysterious properties as an effective prophylaxis against injury and disease. In literature, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat gave Sir Lancelot a red sleeve of scarlet embroidered with great pearls worn on his helmet during a tournament, while archaeological grave goods reveals that pearl or coral amulets and beads were worn for protection both in this world and the afterlife. Images and portraiture, of children in particular shows coral jewellery was worn in the belief that the stones would protect them in their fragile early years (fig 1). From a lay perspective the use of precious stones was not ‘enchantment’ but stemmed from a belief in a cosmology in which the divine was present in and could work through the natural world. Indeed, only a diminutive gem was needed – rings could incorporate just a tiny shard of material to make them efficacious as no matter how infinitesimal, it was the material’s presence that counted. 

Fig 1: Boy with coral c.1650-1660, © Norfolk Museums

Taken internally the protective and healing power of pearls and coral have been revered for their medicinal properties and they have an extensive history in pharamacology, particularly in traditional Chinese and Far Eastern treatments where they remain in use to this day. In the early modern period European doctors praised them for their efficacious medicinal uses and they were taken either in the form of ground powder or dissolved in acid solutions such as lemon juice. Albertus Magnus, a Dominican scholar born in Germany in the 12th century, wrote that pearls were used in mental diseases, in affections of the heart, haemorrhages and dysentery. The 13th century Lapidario of Alfonso X of Castile, noted:

“the pearl is most excellent in the medicinal art, for it is of great help in palpitation of the heart and for those who are sad or timid and in every sickness which is caused by melancholia because it purifies the blood clears it and removes all its impurities. Powders applied to the eyes because they clear the sight wonderfully, strengthen the nerves and dry up the moisture which enters the eyes.”

Even more miraculous properties were ascribed to pearls by Anselmus de Boot, the physician to Emperor Rudolph II, whose recipe for aqua perlata claimed to be: ‘most excellent for restoring the strength and almost for resuscitating the dead’. The English philosopher Francis Bacon also noted that pearls were used for in recipes for the prolongation of life. 

For the European market, pearls came from India and the Middle East, while coral was fished from the Mediterranean coast around Naples, Capri and Sardinia. As an expensive, imported ingredient pearl and coral were usually sourced from an apothecary’s supplies, where they were dispensed from decorated mayolica or pottery jars (fig 2). Coral, for example, is itemised in the 1571 inventory of the the Southampton apothecary John Brodocke. 

Fig 2: 18th-century apothecary jar, aqua-colored glass container. Marked in alternating red and black paint CORAL ALBI. ©Smithsonian

From the early 16th century pearl and coral appear in many domestic recipe collections, although as a costly element the quantities used are generally quite small. Dorothy Pennyman’s 1698 manuscript (FSL digital image 130614) has a recipe ‘For a Cough. Cousin Wakes it has done great cures’ that included ‘Powder of Red Coral 2 drams’.  The gems often feature in remedies for the most serious maladies when they were frequently credited to a well-known doctor or came with aristocratic provenance. Mr Gaskin’s ‘Cordial powder’ first published in Natura Exenterata (London, 1655), and attributed to the countess of Arundel, instructed: “Take the rags of pearle or seed pearle, of red Corrall, of Crabs Eyes, of Hawthorne, of white Amber, being all severally beaten into fine pouder, and searced through a fine searce.” It purported to prevent small-pox, cure consumption, mitigate against fits and even claimed to cure plague and all other burning fevers. Hannah Wooley’s Accomplished Ladies Delight (London, 1675) contained a recipe called the countess of Kent’s Powder that called for a mixture of “magistery of pearl [pearl dissolved in vinegar], prepared crabs eyes, white amber and hartshorn,” which claimed to be: “Excellent against all Malignant, and Pestilent Diseases, French Pox, Small-Pox, Measles, Plague, Pestilence, Malignant or Scarlet Fevers, and Melancholy; twenty or thirty Grains thereof being exhibited (in a little warm Sack, or Harts-Horn-Jelly) to a Man, and half as much, or twelve Grains to a Child.” As well as featuring in general panaceas pearl and coral also had more specialist uses.  Coral was an important ingredient for toothpaste, and certainly ground calcium carbonate is an effective scouring agent. The countess of Arundel’s own manuscript (Wellcome MS 213/34) includes: “A Medecine to skower the teethe to make them cleane and stronge, and to preserue them from perishyinge beyng vsed two or three tymes a weeke,” which used equal parts of finely beaten coral and amber blended with honey rubbed onto the teeth with a coarse cloth. While the Queen’s Delight (London, 1671) contained a recipe for powdered pearl or mother of pearl mixed with lemon juice that was used as a face wash. Both traditions that continue to the modern day – babies still chew on coral teething rings, while references to pearls remain a consistent feature of expensive face creams and make-up.