Category Archives: Alchemy

Nature’s Coin: Beauty and Alchemy in Margaret Baker’s Book

This two-part post is by a former student of mine, who also happens to be an author of popular history. Karen has written on fun things like fashion and Essex Girls (in history). Her original, longer post is taken from a digital group project on Margaret Baker’s recipe book that was complete for my 2016-7 module, The Digital Recipe Book Project.


By Karen Bowman

A delicate powder for the face, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.169, f. 97.

In the late seventeenth-century, recipe book compiler Margaret Baker listed twenty-eight recipes for beauty, amidst medicines for dropsy and distemper and recipes for custards and the stewing of racks of mutton. Baker’s recipes for beauty ranged from face powder and whitened hands to face waters and hair growth treatments (ff. 51, 109).  Baker had the chemical knowledge to beautify. Not only do the beauty treatments suggest her agency, status, and knowledge, but hint at strong connections between beauty and alchemy.

It was The Lady Croon’s recipe for pomatum (f. 106) that first caught my attention, pointing to chemical transformation in the social sense. While Lady Croon appears to be the author of the pomatum recipe, the contributor’s name “Mistress Anne Corbett” appears in the margin. If Mistress Corbett had passed on the recipe directly from Lady Croon, it seems likely that both had the means to make the pomatum and shared in an aristocratic social network (or aspired to one). Lady Croon’s pomatum was more than a means of creating a beautifying substance; the transference of knowledge was a gift that affirmed friendship bonds, social standing, and aspirations.

Pomatum was a greasy, waxy, or water-based substance used to style hair before applying powder. Given that powdered hair was a sign of class identity, the recipe suggests that Baker may had occasions to attend polite gatherings. Dressing one’s hair and caring for one’s skin required ‘self knowledge and inward identity and knowledge beyond one’s self reflecting an understanding of the body, its cultural and social meanings’ (Snook, 7). In a patriarchal society, in the absence of of wider legal and political representation, the ability to transform oneself was powerful information.

One’s face and body was the blank canvas for identity and social standing. For famed beauty Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (b. 1623), fair white skin was even political. She insisted that her mother was ‘a woman with perfect skin and politics’; skin thus represented social order and familial harmony–and, in her case, the Royalist cause. Other women, too, recognized beauty as nature’s coin and a way of forging identity within their own domestic structures and hierarchies.

Unknown, Lady at her Toilet, c. 1650-60. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the real achievement for women was not the face and body they showed the world. It was the the female knowledge of how to manipulate nature through chemistry and alchemy in order to transform basic materials into healing and beautifying physic.

There were relatively few make-up items in Baker’s book, as we today would understand them. Many were even gender neutral. Her products include items to ‘take away heat and pimples in the face’, ‘to make a clense from spotts’, ‘waters for the face’, ‘to take away freckles’, ‘to stop hair falling and grow thicke’, ‘to take away chapped hands’, and to keep the face smooth’ (ff.14, 44, 51, 83, 109, 49, 92). In addition there are instructions for making ‘a butter to curl the hair’, ‘to make hands soft and white’, ‘make a perfume’ and to perfume gloves’. (ff. 94, 85, 31, 98).

What many of the recipes have in common is that they were designed to transform the skin rather than cover it. Even hand ointments had a higher purpose, not just removing blemishes; keeping hands soft avoided drying and cracking, and becoming susceptible to disease. Protecting and preserving the skin was central to beauty.

Oyle of talcum, Margaret Baker, Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.619, f. 21.

Many of the recipes required extensive time, skill, and effort to prepare. Baker included a powder recipe is for ‘oyle of talcume’ (f. 21), which was labourious to make. At one point in the process it needed to be let down by a rope

into a well some yard & a halfe or two yardes from the water nere to the well soe it touch it not’ & soe let it hang .20. or. 25. daies then if you find that it begine to cast out some oyle take it out of the well & set it in some moyst place, in some corner of your seller to defend it from the ayre: wind or other harmes & soe leaue it soe longe untill all the liccor become out of it.

The result was powder that could be mixed with water to wash the hands and body, making ‘them very white, soft and free from freckles or spottes – good for ladies’.

An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger,. c. 1610-1690. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sometimes, the connections between alchemy (or chemical medicine) and beauty were literal. Baker used mercury in both her medicinal recipes and beautifying physic. This was not just an ingredient. Its knowledgeable deployment put Baker within the (assumed) masculine spheres of medicine, surgery and alchemy. Throughout her book, there are clues that Baker read widely on medicine and alchemy.

But the connections between alchemical transformation and bodily protection are clearest in beauty recipes. For example, in relation to one particular beautifying physic (f.12v.) it appears that Baker is attempting the impossible. An anomaly arises in the title ‘the taking away ‘quicksilver from mercurie’–the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that mercury and quicksilver are in fact the same. However, it seems that Baker may have been aware of cutting-edge experiments. Natural philosopher Robert Boyle, Baker’s contemporary, explained that through a system of depuration or continuous distillation and reduction, common quicksilver will run from the purified form of mercury left behind, which is then suitable for more sophisticated use (Boyle 645). In Baker’s case she is able to produce a ‘perfect water to keep the face cleare from spots or wrinkles.’

Baker’s recipes reveal her intellect and interaction with ideas of the day, as well as point to the uses of beauty treatments: transforming one’s body chemically and alchemically.  Bodily transformations included protecting and beautifying the skin, or even enabling social elevation.  Beauty and alchemy sat close together in Baker’s book.

 

How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!

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Jennifer M. Rampling

When it comes to “how-to” books, alchemy poses particular problems. Medieval alchemical treatises claimed to offer detailed advice on a host of spectacular products and processes, ranging from the Philosophers’ Stone, a transmuting agent capable of turning base metals into gold and silver, to medicinal elixirs that offered cures for otherwise intractable diseases, as well as the prospect of renewed youth and an extended life span. Yet, at least to modern eyes, no amount of “know-how” could teach anyone how to make these things — they are impossible practices, which no alchemist can ever have successfully carried out, nor described in accurate, replicable instructions. What, then, is the function of a “manual” of alchemy?

First, many of the early readers who studied alchemical writings did consider these ends to be obtainable, while recognizing that their sources might not always include complete or accurate information. Even seemingly straightforward processes can be difficult to reproduce in practice. For instance, the Liber de aluminibus et salibus (Book of Alums and Salts), a Latin treatise translated from an Arabic exemplar and pseudonymously attributed to the Persian polymath al-Rāzī, includes a simple procedure for subliming mercury with vitriol (a metal sulphate) and “common” or “general” salt.[1] According to the text, this mixture will sublime to the top of the vessel in the form of “white and shining” crystals, a description that sounds a lot like corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride, in modern parlance).

As it happens, corrosive sublimate was a staple ingredient of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alchemy, although its manufacture normally requires a nitrous salt, such as saltpeter, rather than common salt. Working with Professor Lawrence Principe at the Johns Hopkins University, I have attempted to solve this puzzle by following al-Rāzī’s laconic instructions in a modern laboratory setting.

Figure 1. Grinding quicksilver, vitriol, and salt with mortar and pestle. Copyright of the author.
Figure 1. Grinding quicksilver, vitriol, and salt with mortar and pestle. Copyright of the author.

The Liber directs us to take as much quicksilver as we want, then grind it with equal quantities of vitriol and salt until the quicksilver “dies” in them — that is, until globules of mercury are no longer visible in the mixture. But does “quantity” refer to weight or volume? Although the recipe does not say, the answer must be weight, since measurement by volume results in an excess of quicksilver, which stubbornly refuses to die:

Figure 2. Excess quicksilver. Copyright of the author.
Figure 2. Excess quicksilver. Copyright of the author.

Once we have killed our quicksilver (the Liber tells us), we should leave the mixture in a bread oven overnight. In the morning, we moisten it with salt solution before returning it to the oven. We repeat the cycle of moistening and overnight heating until the mixture has tarnished to a reddish colour (an effect caused by the rusting of iron in the vitriol). Later recipes refine this process, suggesting different ways of achieving the same result. One Middle English procedure recommends grinding the mixture several times a day for two to three days, with “esy dryynge and moysty[n]g with a lytel vynegre.”[2] Another advises scooping the mixture onto an old potsherd and stirring it over hot embers until no moisture remains.[3] We left ours on a low heat overnight.

Figure 3. The mixture after being left overnight on a low heat. Copyright of the author.
Figure 3. The mixture after being left overnight on a low heat. Copyright of the author.

The mixture is now ready to be sublimed. According to pseudo-Rāzī, it should be placed in an aludel, sealed, and heated (a process that takes longer in winter than in summer). We must use a soft rather than a hasty fire. Otherwise, as one fifteenth-century writer warns, the quicksilver will lose its active power and sublime in its “crude” form — a hazard that can easily be replicated in a modern laboratory. If performed correctly, the mixture sublimes into a substance as “white as milk.”[4]

Figure 4. Sublimation in a glass aludel over gentle heat. Copyright of the author.
Figure 4. Sublimation in a glass aludel over gentle heat. Copyright of the author.

This is the point when our reconstruction foundered. As already noted, corrosive sublimate requires a nitrous salt — common salt, as specified in both the Liber and the Middle English variants, should not work. In fact, our practice based on common salt conspicuously failed to generate any white crystals.

On the other hand, replacing the NaCl with sal niter immediately produced the desired effect:

Figure 5. Lawrence Principe removes corrosive sublimate from the aludel head. Copyright of the author.
Figure 5. Lawrence Principe removes corrosive sublimate from the aludel head. Copyright of the author.

 

Figure 6. White crystals of corrosive sublimate. Copyright of the author.
Figure 6. White crystals of corrosive sublimate. Copyright of the author.

Our initial failure illustrates the difficulty of precisely identifying ingredients from alchemical texts. Making corrosive sublimate seems to rely on an ability to distinguish between the properties of different salts, but can we acquire that knowledge entirely from books? Perhaps lack of technical expertise explains the “transmutation” of sal niter into common salt as a transcription error made by a scribe unversed in chemical procedures. Alternatively, our saline setbacks may result from our own lack of experience with this type of procedure.

We are certainly not the first experimenters to face this dilemma. Medieval and early modern recipe collections contain hundreds of procedures for subliming mercury, involving diverse salts and methods of preparation, and no doubt resulting in a variety of chemical products (even pseudo-Rāzī follows up his common salt recipe with a variant using sal ammoniac [5]). But readers also knew that not all recipes were reliable. As the English alchemist Thomas Norton warned the readers of his Ordinal of Alchemy (1477):

Avoide youre bokis writen of receytis,

For al such receptis be ful of deceytis.[6]

Norton was suspicious of recipes precisely because they offered fixed, literal readings of ingredients — but such readings could be wrong. The writers of alchemical treatises typically chose to present themselves as philosophers rather than artisans, whose knowledge stemmed from a profound understanding of nature gleaned not only from practice, but also from studying the writings of past authorities. These “philosophers” emphasized the privileged nature of alchemical knowledge and the need to preserve its secrets from impious or otherwise undeserving readers: an injunction manifested in their use of cover names, allegories, and other methods of obfuscation. In the hands of a self-identified alchemical philosopher, a term like “mercury” could take on almost as many identities as there are chemical substances.

This strategy placed a burden on readers, who sought to disentangle practical instruction from a web of possible meanings. Take, for instance, the opening procedure in one of the most influential works of Latin alchemy: the Testamentum. This lengthy treatise, probably written in the 1330s by a follower of the Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull (ca. 1232–ca. 1315), uses Lullian style diagrams to express alchemical doctrines and practices.[7] Here the writer plots his ingredients onto an alphabetical wheel:

Figure 7. Pseudo-Lullian wheel from the Practica Testamenti. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, MS Mellon 12 (mid. 15th cent.), fol. 97v. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
Figure 7. Pseudo-Lullian wheel from the Practica Testamenti. New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, MS Mellon 12 (mid. 15th cent.), fol. 97v. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

The wheel begins with “A” (Deus), signifying God. The practice starts with B (defined in both text and diagram as quicksilver), C (saltpeter), and D (vitriol azoqueus), a combination that strongly hints at the making of corrosive sublimate. Has the author of the text simply decked a simple procedure in the garb of Lullian philosophy? Or are the terms merely cover names for other substances, as suggested by the fact that vitriol is qualified as “azoqueus”?

A naive reader may have tried to follow the instructions as they stand. A reader more familiar with the conventions of alchemical writing might regard several of the terms with suspicion. Is ordinary mercury intended, for instance, or does B denote some other “mercury”? And if a procedure fails to work, who is to blame — the authority for setting down a faulty procedure or the reader for supplying a faulty interpretation? Under such circumstances, what the novice alchemist really needs is not a manual of chemical practice, but advice on how to read such practices in a philosophical way. It is in this regard that works like the Testamentum truly come into their own.

 

I am grateful to Professor Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins University) and to the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project (Princeton University) for supporting the experimental reconstructions detailed above.

[1] Ps. Razi, Liber de aluminibus et salibus, in Robert Steele, “Practical Chemistry in the Twelfth Century. Rasis de aluminibus et salibus,” Isis 12, 1 (1929): 10-46, on p. 24; see also Julius Ruska, Das Buch der Alaune und Salze. Ein Grundwerk der spätlateinisches Alchimie (Berlin: Verlag Chemie, 1935). The Arabic version of the text is currently being edited by Gabriele Ferrario.

[2] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1451, fol. 5v.

[3] Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 759, fol. 42r.

[4] MS Ashmole 759, fol. 42v.

[5] Steele, “Practical Chemistry,” 24.

[6] Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy, ed. John Reidy (London: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press, 1975), 7.

[7] On the Testamentum and its author, see Michela Pereira and Barbara Spaggiari, Il Testamentum alchemico attribuito a Raimondo Lullo: Edizione del testo latino e catalano dal manoscritto Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 255 (Florence: SISMEL, 1999).

 

Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Gershom Bulkeley (1635-1713): A Sensory Chymist in Colonial Connecticut

By Donna Bilak

Who was Gershom Bulkeley? (you may well ask). A Harvard-educated Puritan gentleman from an important New England family, Bulkeley spent most of his life in Connecticut as a colonial divine, physician, and magistrate of upstanding (and by contemporary accounts obstinate) character. Bulkeley was also an iatrochymist – an aspect of his work that is only now starting to receive scholarly attention – and prolific compiler of notes about the medico-alchemical experiments that he conducted in his laboratory, likely a part of his dwelling place.

About 25 miles from where Bulkeley once lived, there now exists a kind of biblio-bunker in the University of Connecticut Health Center. This is where the Hartford Medical Historical Society Library keeps its collection of rare books and manuscripts. And this is where twenty-four manuscripts that are either by or associated with Bulkeley ended up. NB: there is treasure buried in this underground archive! (I am sure that as a Puritan with millenarian expectations, Gershom himself would be comforted to know that in the event of some kind of apocalyptic event, his notebooks will survive intact.)

I came across this cache back in 2011 while chasing down different leads for my dissertation about one of Bulkeley’s contemporaries, another Harvard-trained Puritan minister-physician-alchemist named John Allin (1623-1683). But in going through the various manuscripts, I was drawn to one of Bulkeley’s notebooks in particular: Bulkeley MS 5.

FIG 01 shows the spine of the 19th-century book cover (constructed of boards covered with period cloth of a by now indeterminate greenish-blue color), the spine bears the imprint “Parley’s Fables 1834” in faded gold letting.
(author’s own photograph)
FIG 02 the eighth page of the first (8-page) set of lab notes at the start of the book; on the right hand side is the start of the Institutiones medicae (shows for comparison of scrawly lab hand, and nice neat and TINY copy hand)
(author’s own photograph)

This is a small book that has been rebound using the cover from a 19th-century book of fairy tales, and it contains a series of entries about alchemical experiments that Bulkeley undertook between 1703 and 1706 scrawled across eight pages, with an additional sixty-three pages oriented upside down at the back of the book of more extensive laboratory notes of ongoing experiments, dated 1702 to 1707. At some point in time, both sets of notes were bound together with Bulkeley’s (undated) abridged copy of the Institutiones medicae by Lazare Rivière (1589-1655) – i.e., two hundred and forty-four densely written pages of Latin in a neat and minute hand ­– sandwiched between the aforementioned two sets of laboratory records. Intriguing stuff…

…because Bulkeley crammed this notebook full of particulars about chymical substances, instrumentation, and techniques. Bulkeley worked with different chymical substances for pharmaceutical production. His recorded experiments are filled with actions (tasting, weighing, drying, stirring, observing, waiting), and his laboratory entries document a range of output (he made salts, spirits, powders, pills, oils, dissolvents, elixirs). In their preparations, Bulkeley worked with iron, copper, and antimonial substances, as well as mercury, arsenic, silver, coral, and turpentine, and he used various chymical processes (calcination, coagulation, sublimation, evaporation, distillation). Bulkeley also detailed the equipment he used, describing things like various retorts (one is silver) and curcurbits (a glass one, a silver one), heavy and light scales, a blue jug, a copper vessel, an alembic, a receiver.

Another striking feature of this notebook is Bulkeley’s use of naked senses – taste, touch, and sight – as tools of investigation in his experiments. Bulkeley describes the consistency of experimental matter in comparison to common foodstuffs (“pudding” features large in his notes as a standard for assessing viscosity). Bulkeley also records the presence, or absence, of “lixiviate”, “vinegar”, “alcalisate”, or “urinous” tastes; interestingly, these references to tasting generally occur (when they do) at the conclusion of a given entry. Bulkeley’s haptic perception in the lab comes across in three entries, which record experiments that took place between January 27 and February 1, 1702. Here, Bulkeley detailed a distillation process involving nitre, mineral iron, and oil of vitriol (the objective appeared to be the production of aqua fortis), whereby an outcome of these distillation experiments was to harvest the caput mortuum.

Bulkeley observed that the dregs from January 27th “looked pretty white,” while that from January 29th was reddish, and he concluded with the comment, “Both the Cap. mort came out easily enough & crumbly but the 2d was not so soft & easy as the first/”. This seems to indicate mixed results in Bulkeley’s estimation. A third (and likely final) entry dated February 1 indicates the continuation of this experiment, with some changes in ingredients (i.e., the addition of flowers of sulphur) and procedure (Bulkeley undertook the sublimation of the matter in question). Notably, Bulkeley recorded that he did not lute his receiver (meaning that he did not undertake the preventative measure of smearing a claylike compound around this vessel to seal and thusly protect it in heating procedures).

This time, things did not go so well with the experiment:

I could not get no more off the broken pot: & flowers in the head that I could save, [6…] : that is in all. But it was the same pitcher in which I had destilled A. F. put in before, suc. Janr 27. & 29. & now it was cracked & had leaked a little out into the sand, had drunke up some into it; & I could not get the Cap. mort cleane off, nor the flowers absolutely cleane: & tis very Pbable some might evaporate, the Rec. not being luted on./ The sulphur in the Capt Mort was not fixt, but which upon a coale readily smoake & flame burne with a very fine blew flame./

FIG 03 LH page: Feb.1, 1702 caput mortuum experiment entry (goes with my transcription) (author’s own photograph)

These entries about the caput mortuum show Bulkeley’s bodily way of knowing as a form of assay, a testing procedure that links sensory analysis with chemical analysis in his evaluation of the progress of his work. This also shows that Bulkeley paid just as much attention to detailed sensory descriptions of his failures in the lab as he did to successes.

Bulkeley MS 5 is a valuable artifact of Bulkeley’s heuristic laboratory methods in the production of chemical pharmaceuticals, likely destined for use in his medical practice. While this notebook presents us with puzzles (what prompted its compilation? how was it used?), at the same time we are granted open access into Bulkeley’s experimental activities, a window into his dynamic medico-alchemical operations in a colonial community at the turn of the 18th century.

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Donna Bilak is a historian of early modern science specializing in material culture, and works on the history of alchemy in British North America, England and the Continent, the study of emblematics, and jewelry history and craft technology. Donna’s current research focuses on Atalanta fugiens (1618), a musical alchemical emblem book by the German physician and alchemist, Michael Maier; she is currently a Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America (Columbia), working on her book about Atalanta fugiens and playful humanism; and Donna is co-editing a digital edition of this extraordinary work with Tara Nummedal supported by Brown University Library’s Mellon-funded Digital Publishing Initiative.

Recipes and the Senses: An Introduction

By Hannah Newton

Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630). Wikimedia.

 

Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.

Approaches

There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.

Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell.  One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.

A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.

Challenges

One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’

To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.

Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.