Category Archives: Art

Making Senses: Artisanal Practice and Sensory Perception in an Early Modern French Manuscript

By Tillmann Taape

Ms Fr. 640 was written in French by an unknown craftsperson in Toulouse, likely between 1580 and 1600. [1] It is an intriguing and eclectic source, with entries ranging from medical recipes to metalwork and pigment-making, and it forms the core of the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, introduced previously on the Recipes Blog in a post by our Director, Pamela Smith.

With its numerous instructions for making things, our manuscript provides a rich case study for the way artisans worked with and thought about materials. As previous posts in this series on Recipes and the Senses have shown, physicians, alchemists, apothecaries, and other craftsmen recognised in their bodies and its senses an important set of tools for understanding and manipulating the material world, and historians pay increasing attention to these embodied and sensory ways of knowing. In this post, I will share a few examples of the rich language of the senses in Ms. Fr. 640. As one might expect from a manuscript including painting and sculpture, the eye often takes precedence over the other senses. However, a discussion of the visual in the manuscript would by itself be far beyond the scope of a single post – we spent much of this year just trying to figure out how the author-practitioner conceptualises different pigments and shades of blue. The aim here, therefore, is to focus on the oft-neglected non-visual senses and what they can teach us about our author-practitioner’s concept of the material world, his ‘material imaginary’.


A strong smell was often a sign that things had gone wrong – the papier-mâché had turned rotten while being left to soak, or a kitchen pot had been made with too much latten (a copper alloy), which ‘stinks and smells bad’ (fol. 36v). However, smells could also help identify the materials needed for a recipe. The ingredient list for a metal alloy, for example, includes the intriguingly specific ‘congealed mercury with the smell of tin’ (fol. 92v). Musing on one of his favourite topics, the properties of fine sand used for metal casting, the author-practitioner notes that

white sand smells like sulphur when heated, and I believe it would melt. And as the substance has been cast in it, it acquires in the mold a lustre as if it were leaded or vitrified. I believe that glassmakers could use it (fol. 99r).

In addition to his observation of a vitreous glaze on the cast object, it is the sulphurous smell which suggests to the author-practitioner that this particular kind of sand is prone to melt and could even be used for making glass. Throughout the manuscript, sulphur does indeed appear as a material which can easily be melted and used to cast small objects, and even appears to function as a sort of material metaphor for transformation and experimentation.


The sense of hearing becomes itself the subject of a short entry. Under the heading ‘hearing from afar’, the author-practitioner records one of the tidbits of advice and tricks for daily life which are scattered here and there throughout the manuscript: ‘Make a small hole in the ground, put your ear against it during the night or during a quiet time, and you will easily hear muffled sounds’ (fol. 125r). In addition to facilitating amateur espionage, specific noises could serve as helpful indicators in the workshop. Before casting metal into a mould made from cuttlefish bone, the author-practitioner writes, one has to make sure that it is completely dry: ‘you will know that they are dry enough when, after having held them near the fire a little, their inside and the impression scream & crackle when you hold them up to your ear’ (fol. 145r). If one was prepared to listen carefully, the materials themselves could tell when they were ready to be worked upon.

Cuttlefish bone used for casting metal objects. © The Making and Knowing Project


The sense of taste could also help to assess and adjust one’s materials. To make ‘essence of sal ammoniac’, for example, ‘the size of two chestnuts of pulverized sal ammoniac suffices in a pot of water, and to the tongue you find the water moderately salty, for too much is not good’ (fol. 111v). The concentration of the sal ammoniac solution was clearly of some importance here, and like in most early modern recipes, the given measurements – size of a chestnut, a pot of water – might not yield very consistent results, so a qualitative sensory indication – ‘moderately salty’ – is added as a further point of reference. As well as checking one’s own procedures, taste could of course be used to assess the quality of merchandise. The city of Toulouse, where our manuscript was compiled, gained much of its considerable wealth from the trade in woad, a blue dyestuff whose French name, pastel, is a likely origin of the term ‘pastel’ colours in English and other European languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author-practitioner mentions this sought-after material and tells us how to tell the good from the bad. This involves several steps, including inspection and a dyeing test, but the first step is a taste test: ‘The goodness of the woad is known when, put in the mouth, it gives a taste as of vinegar’ (fol. 39r).


Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who clearly worked with his hands a lot, the sense of touch plays a particularly important and intriguing part in the author-practitioner’s practice and writing. Returning to his favourite topic – the different kinds of sand or plaster used for casting moulds – he describes how the addition of a substance called alum de plume (literally ‘feather alum’ – it probably refers to a group of minerals known as feldspars in English) helps the mould hold together because it forms fibrous structures (hence probably the reference to feathers). Its production requires a complex process of heating and grinding up in a mortar. In the margin next to the recipe, the author-practitioner notes that one should grind the alum slowly and in small portions, and finally ‘render it very fine & soft to the touch’ (fol. 108v). The manuscript is full of these kinds of haptic properties to indicate the appropriate consistency or particle size of materials. Another ‘sand’ for casting, for example, is made with ‘the bone of oxen feet, very burned & pulverized & ground on porphyry, until it is not felt between your fingers’ (fol. 84v). Intriguingly, here the reader is told to stop grinding not when they can feel a particular sensation, but when they can no longer feel the material at all with their fingers.

As it turns out, this criterion of eluding the sense of touch was an important technical concept for early modern artisans. Our former Making and Knowing postdoc Jenny Boulboullé and former students, Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, have shown that the term impalpable, that is to say ‘un-feelable’ or ‘impalpable’, is central to the way the author practitioner experiences and thinks about different kinds of materials used for casting moulds.[2] Furthermore, they found that he is not the only one: the use of the term ‘impalpable’ is used in published works on metallurgy, such well-known book Pirotechnia by the sixteenth-century Italian founder and metallurgist Vanoccio Biringuccio, and the Secreti, a famous book of secrets attributed to Alessio Piemontese. In his emphasis on the haptic sensation of a material being impalpable, then, the author-practitioner speaks to a sensory terminology apparently widely shared by expert makers.

‘Knead as if you wanted to make bread’: making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab. © The Making and Knowing Project

Describing specific sensory experiences can be difficult, and it makes sense to refer to well-known parallels from daily life – a smell like sulphur, a taste like vinegar, and so on. When it comes to the sense of touch, too, the author-practitioner relates processes described in his recipes to everyday practices. As our former student Emma Le Pouésard has shown, the practices surrounding making bread were a particularly fruitful source of these kinds of comparisons.[3] To unmould a cast object, one should ‘strongly separate the moulds as if you wanted to tear bread apart’ (fol. 114v). In an age before thermostats, this could even provide a way of gauging consistent temperatures. For one’s domestic taxidermy needs, the author-practitioner writes, one could dry animals ‘in an oven as warm as when bread has been taken out’ (fol. 129v). In a recipe for making stucco, bread making is used as a referent for working up the right kind of consistency: the recipe tells us to ‘knead as if you wanted to make bread’, until the stucco paste is ‘firm as bread dough that is ready for the oven’ (fol. 29r).

When we tried making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab in the Fall semester, this proved to be very useful guidance. While we were not experienced bakers in the way that many early modern householders probably were, we could draw on our experience from one of our ‘skillbuilding’ exercises a few weeks earlier, when we made bread to use as a mould for wax casting, replicating one of the most intriguing processes in the manuscript. When it came to making stucco and mixing the right amounts of tragacanth gum and rye flour or champagne chalk, the author-practitioner’s instructions about kneading to a consistency like bread dough were very useful, especially in the absence of any other indication of measurements. By adding flour until we achieved a dough-like mass which would ‘stretch enough without breaking’ (fol. 29r), we eventually produced stucco which displayed fine detail and could be detached from the mould without too much trouble.

Even this brief tour of Ms. Fr. 640 shows that much is to be gained by paying attention to the non-visual senses in recipes and practical instructions. In the absence of precise standardised measurements and procedures, sensory descriptions were paramount to articulating a material’s properties, whether it was of good quality, or how much longer it needed to dry, boil, soak, or be crushed in a mortar.


[1] High-res digital images of BNF Ms. Fr. 640 are available through Gallica. The Making and Knowing Project is preparing a Digital Critical Edition of the Manuscript. In the meantime, readers may wish to refer to our Minimal Edition prototype (with translation still in progress).

[2] Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, ‘Casting in a Box Mold’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see

[3] Emma Le Pouésard, ‘Pain, Ostie, Rostie: Bread in Early Modern Europe’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see

Teaching a Perfect Knowledge in the Arts and Sciences: Robert Dossie’s chemical, pharmaceutical, and artistic handbooks

Front page to a 1796 reprint of Dossie’s Handmaid

By Marieke Hendriksen

Robert Dossie (1717-1777) was and English apothecary, experimental chemist, and writer. Within just three years, he published three very successful handbooks: The elaboratory laid open (1758) on chemistry and pharmacy for ‘all practitioners of medicine’, Theory and practice of chirurgical pharmacy (1761) for surgeons, and The handmaid to the arts (1758), which taught ‘a perfect knowledge of the Materia Pictoriae’ such as painting, gilding, and japanning. Gibbs (1951, 1953) has written a short overview of Dossie’s life and work, with a focus on his role in the Society of the Arts, but paid no attention to the cohesion of his seemingly divergent work.

Lowengard (2006) has briefly noted that Dossie used a form typical for books about materia medica for his book on the arts, grouping the contents according to techniques employed as well as by the media to which they might be applied, yet his work has never been thoroughly analyzed. Did Dossie indeed transmit a way of structuring and presenting practical knowledge in text from one realm to another? Recipe collections and how-to books before the eighteenth century were often a mixture of medicinal and artisanal recipes and instructions, and the boundaries between medicine, chemistry, and the preparation and application of artist’s materials often so fluid as to be almost non-existent.

Moreover, some earlier printed books on painting and dying techniques did employ the format of a systematic discussion of materials and their preparations, followed by their application, for example Willem Goeree’s 1760 Verlichterie-kunde  What was novel about Dossie’s Handmaid of the Arts though was the combination of this way of presenting practical artisanal knowledge, his attempt to be encyclopaedic in his collection – listing the uses of the same base materials in the production of various artistic and decorative objects, and his very intentional use of the term ‘Materia Pictoriae’.

Rubia tinctorium (madder), one of the many plants that was both materia medica and materia pictoria

The latter appears to have been an attempt to subtly elevate the status of the visual and decorative arts by paralleling the materia pictoriae to the materia medica. Finally, the intended audience gives us more insight in how Dossie understood his own work. From the preface of the book, it appears that Dossie did not so much aim at the people creating visual and decorative objects, but at the professional preparers of artist’s materials, of whom he wrote: “a much greater share of knowledge in natural history, experimental philosophy, and chymistry, is required to the understanding the nature of the simples [sic], and principles of the composition, in a speculative light, than is consistent with the study of other subjects more immediately necessary to an artist.” (p. vii-viii)

In eighteenth-century England, high street chemists and druggists were evolving from preparers and sellers of chemical substances to compounders, stockists, and sellers of drugs and dispensers of medical advice, and it is in this light that Dossie’ work and his division between materia medica and materia pictorial must be seen. Did Dossie intentionally and successfully adapt and implement formats and language traditionally used in one field (medicine) for the organization and transmission of practical knowledge in text to others (chemistry and the arts)? To me it appears that in his mind, materia medica and materia pictoriae were both branches on the tree of chemistry, and that his corpus, which we now tend to see as divergent, was actually a cohesive body of work to him and his contemporaries.


Dupré, Sven, ed. Laboratories of Art : Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th Century. Archimedes 37. Cham [u.a.]: Springer, 2014.

Gibbs, F.W. “Robert Dossie (1717–77) A Further Bibliographical Note.” Annals of Science 9, no. 2 (1953): 191–93.

Gibbs, F.W.  “Robert Dossie (1717–1777) and the Society of Arts.” Annals of Science 7, no. 2 (1951): 149–72.

Lowengard, Sarah. The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Columbia University Press, 2006.

Worling, Peter M. ‘Pharmacy in the Early Modern World, 1617 to 1841 AD’, in Making Medicines: A Brief History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals, ed. by Stuart Anderson (London: Pharmaceutical Press, 2005), pp. 57–76.



Reading the London Cries: how to analyse food sellers in art

By Charlie Taverner (Birkbeck, University of London)

This post is part of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food (IEHCA) series “Summer University on Food and Drink Studies”

Across early modern Europe, wandering food sellers were a multimedia phenomenon. From the sixteenth century, artists captured street vendors in poems, plays, songs and – most famously – printed pictures. The cries, as the genre of visual art became known, showed hawkers selling everything from artichokes and apples, oranges to oysters, turnips to tripe. For historians, a suite of such images, like Marcellus Laroon’s 1687 ‘The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life’, seems a gift. Its characters open a window on rarely represented parts of everyday life: city streets and food.

Helped by early historians, the cries have been entrenched in urban legend. In Victorian England, Charles Hindley collected hundreds of the ‘ancient and far-famed London Cries’. He saw these traders as timeless symbols of the metropolis, from ‘the days of Queen Elizabeth’ to his own. Just two years ago, The Gentle Author of Spitalfields claimed the cries revealed an essential truth about such sellers: ‘… they do not need your sympathy, they only want your respect – and your money.’

Such romance has risks, as scholars, especially art historians, have warned. Sean Shesgreen, in his comprehensive survey of the English cries tradition, argued the images were not ‘transparent reflections of historical reality’. From the late seventeenth century, he suggested, the cries ‘inexorably evolve in the direction, not of increasing realism, but of increasing idealism’. In her lecture to the IEHCA’s summer school this year, Valérie Boudier proposed a sounder approach for using early modern pictures of food. Breaking down vibrant works, such as Vincenzo Campi’s ‘The Bean Eaters’ and Annibale Carracci’s ‘Butcher’s Shop’, she suggested food historians interrogate not the images’ truthfulness, but the artistic conventions and symbolic meanings they contain.

Marcellus Laroon, ‘Crab Crab any Crab’, 1688. British Museum, London.

This approach can be applied to Laroon’s suite. Take, for example, his crab seller. At first glance, the picture reveals much about the women who peddled seafood in seventeenth-century London, perhaps nearby the artist’s Covent Garden workshop. Looking for information on the food trade, we might draw out the crab seller’s age, clothes, shallow basket, and purposeful stride. Most obviously – as we are interested in food – we could look more closely at the dozens of crustaceans, balanced on her head.

But in several ways the crab seller is not, as the suite’s title claims, ‘Drawn after the Life’. Many of Laroon’s characters have the same face, which makes them more mannequins than people. They are extracted from the street and set against a blank background. Notice too that the crab seller’s cry, printed at the page bottom, is translated into French and Italian. It reminds us these images, priced at half a guinea for the set of up to 74, were destined for an international market, with copies surviving in Paris and Amsterdam. Influences also flowed the other way. Not only was Laroon Dutch-born and –trained, his suite owed a debt, in its structure and the resemblance of its characters, to a Parisian set, drawn a year or two earlier by Jean-Baptiste Bonnart. The briefest scan through a survey of the European cries, such as Karen Beall’s 1975 bibliography, shows that common characters, selling familiar foods, cropped up time and again across the continent.

So, what can such images reveal? If we concentrate on form, it seems that artists and their audiences were interested in order. By arranging the criers in a grid, suite or illustrated book, they were classifying the street life of the city. Boisterous wanderers were dragged into the rigidity of the artist’s system. This tendency is part of a broader interest, across Europe at this time, of representing social groups in quasi-scientific hierarchies. But the structure also hints at a particular urban concern: contemporaries, especially in London and Paris, were grappling with the disorientating complexity of their fast-expanding cities.

With the crab-seller, we could also consider gender. In the cries, many roving vendors were drawn as young, attractive women, even if the actual labour split was more balanced. In an image like the crab-seller, two ideas are in tension. In one view, female hawkers are legitimate business folk, who keep the city fed; in another, they are scorned as temptresses, whose siren-like calls, such as ‘Crab Crab any Crab’, are stuffed with innuendo. On the streets of London, women traders had a similarly ambiguous position, as Eleanor Hubbard has argued. They were watched with suspicion on the margins of official markets, but also feared as food-selling rivals.

Depictions of those that sold food are deep, valuable sources, if they are used carefully. Bound up in artistic traditions, they cannot tell us what and how people ate, in the manner of a photograph. But, by concentrating on the symbols used and the way these images were produced, we can unpick past attitudes to not just food – but nascent metropolitan life.


Beall, Karen. Kaufrufe und Straßenhändler: Eine Bibliographie / Cries and Itinerant Trades: A Bibliography. Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1975.

Hindley, Charles. A History of the Cries of London (Ancient & Modern). London, 1884.

Hubbard, Eleanor. City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in Early Modern London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Shesgreen, Sean. Images of the outcast: The urban poor in the Cries of London. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Charlie Taverner is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. His project examines the experience of selling food in the street in early modern London, with particular focus on urban space and informality. Trained as a journalist, he has covered business, food and agriculture for British magazines and newspapers. He blogs at and tweets @charlietaverner.

Recipes in the archives of the early Royal Society

By Sietske Fransen

‘What is a recipe?’ was the simple opening question asked by the organizers of the virtual conversation hosted by The Recipes Project. This month-long online discussion has made me look at the archives of the Royal Society with different eyes.

During my weekly visits to the Royal Society Archives in London I am usually searching for anything visual from the period 1660-1710. Once found, the particular page of archival material with something visual on it is added to the Making Visible database. With this database the Making Visible team is creating a research tool through which it will be possible to enter the archives on image level, and ask and answer questions about the usage of images in early modern science. Have a look at our blog in case you are curious to find out more, or follow us on twitter @MVCRASSH. However, while my colleagues and I are looking for images, we also come across many other interesting documents that are currently part of the early archives. Like recipes!

Those of you who have followed the Twitter storm during the #recipesconf might have seen that I have tweeted about recipes in the last few weeks: recipes for the making of pigments and varnish; food recipes (for bread, butter, and bacon); and medical recipes. The discussions on Twitter have made me come up with several questions. And even though there are too many questions to answer in one blog post, I will discuss them briefly, and hope to continue this wonderful conversation with so many colleagues around the globe.

First of all, why did all these recipes make their way into the archives of the Royal Society? When I started working on the Royal Society materials two years ago, I did not expect to find so many recipes for making food and drinks, nor was I expecting the Fellows’ interest in the making of pigments and varnishes. However, it turns out that the Fellows of the Royal Society were very interested in the history of trades, which made them collect recipes from artisans, including many recipes and treatises on things related the making of images, book printing, and engraving techniques.[1]

The food recipes might need to be seen from the perspective of making products in the house, with which men and women can show off their skills to their friends.[2] During my tweet-storm, I showed a set of recipes brought to the Royal Society by John Evelyn about how to make the best French bread. But also bacon, butter, cheese, and cider recipes are part of the collections in the archives.

In the case of the bread recipe we have the name of John Evelyn stuck to it. And it is indeed interesting to know who provided the Fellows of the Royal Society with the information now in the archives. Who were the sources for the recipes? Were they named? Relatively often we find a name on the recipe. Many to the recipes related to the art of picture making have male names on the recipes, such as Jonathan Goddard in the recipes for colours. Between the recipes I found several had a female name on them, such as the butter recipe from Mrs Elizabeth Papworth, and the recipe for a remedy for scurvy by Mrs Bancroft. Is this surprising? Not at all, since regular readers of this blog know very well that recipes were very often collected by women in early modern English households. However, from the perspective of the early history of the Royal Society it is definitely interesting how recipes from women are still part of the archives. Much more research needs to be done on the women around the Royal Society.

A Receipt to cure mad dogs, or men. Cl.P/14i/33. Image @ Royal Society

There was an interesting discussion about whether or not the description of a tool needed for the performance of the recipe (such as an oven for bread baking) should be treated as a recipe? Or is it even an ingredient? The description of the oven in John Evelyn’s bread recipe almost looked like a recipe inside a recipe, as it was so clearly describing the various things needed to make the oven and made sure it would actually work correctly. And a good working oven was a prerequisite for making the best bread in itself. Also here I am looking forward to a continuing discussion about tools in recipes!

A Receipt to cure Mad Dogs, or Men. RBO/7/8. Image @ Royal Society

Finally, I would like to quickly answer a question that Elaine Leong raised  about the many underlinings and crossing-out in a recipe for curing rabies. As I suspected the crossings were done in the original document that was brought in to the Royal Society. The recipe was thought important enough to make it into the Royal Society’s Register Book, where we find it again in volume 7. All the crossed out sections that you can see in the image to the left are omitted from the neat version of the recipe in the Register book. Also the information about the effective cure of the His Majesties’ dogs is left out. But instead we do find a short Note Bene, explaining that the plant named in the recipe as “Starr of the Earth” has several Latin and vernacular namens “known among Botanists”, which will make it easier to find this ingredient.

Thanks to the organisers of the #recipesconf for giving me a great excuse to look into recipes in the Royal Society Archives and for all the stimulating conversations online!

[1] See for the history of trades and especially the Royal Society’s interest in the making of images Matthew C. Hunter, Wicked Intelligene (Chicago, 2013), esp. chapter 1.

[2] See on the exchange and discussion between households for example Elaine Leong, “Brewing Ale and Boiling Water in 1651”, in M. Valleriani (ed.), The Structures of Practical Knowledge (Springer 2017), pp. 55-75.  DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-45671-3_3