Category Archives: Digital History

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

A recipe for a community — 5 Years On

By Marieke Hendriksen 

My first contribution to The Recipes Project appeared in June 2013: a post on mercurial drugs, the topic of my then postdoctoral project at Groningen University. Elaine Leong had read my own research blog, The Medicine Chest, and invited me to contribute. Seventeen posts and over four years later, I still write for The Recipes Project a couple of times a year, even though the focus of my research has now shifted from the history of alchemy and medicine to the intersections of (technical) art history and the history of medicine.

For the five-year anniversary, Elaine asked me if I would like to write a blog about what The Recipes Project means to me, and of course I am happy to do so.

From one of my first posts: Antimony ore, antimony cup and Basilius Valentinus, Triump-Wagen Antimonii, Leipzig 1604. From: C. van Heertum, Alchemy on the Amstel. On Hermetic Medicine. Amsterdam: In de Pelikaan, 2012.

The beauty of The Recipes Project to me is that it facilitates and encourages a broad interdisciplinary approach. For me, it is a place to test new ideas, to announce new projects, to let my peers know what I am working on and to keep track of what they are doing. It has helped me to see that my seemingly diverse research interests are inextricably connected, and to find others who share them. Over the years I have been asked by a few people if it isn’t dangerous to put your ideas out at an early stage, and why the ‘regular’ academic channels of conferences and peer-reviewed printed publications aren’t enough to keep in touch with the field.

Nothing too strange for The Recipes Project: from my post on human taxidermy. Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

The first time someone suggested it could be ‘dangerous’ to blog about work in progress I really thought I had misheard them. When I asked them why it would be dangerous, they suggested someone else could run off with my ideas, and that I would look ridiculous if I had to change my mind about something I wrote in an early stage of a research project.

My rebuttal to this is that I see only benefits from discussing my research with my peers as it evolves. I am not worried about someone ‘stealing’ my ideas – as a matter of fact, a blog could even serve as proof that I was working on something first, but that is not something I was ever really worried about.

As for the idea that I would make a fool of myself if I change my mind about something over the course of researching it… I expect my ideas to change, and I do not mind sharing that process with the world. What would be ridiculous to me is a researcher who never changes their mind.

To me, blogging on a collaborative platform like The Recipes Project is a valuable addition to sharing ideas at conferences and in printed publications. The main reasons for this are speed and accessibility. A blog is a fast way to test and spread your ideas. Writing it forces you to develop your thinking and express your initial thoughts and questions in a concise manner, and the responses it elicits can help you develop your work further.

A blog can be published within a matter of days–a pace that is unheard of in traditional academic publishing, where research often isn’t published until after a project is finished. In terms of accessibility, a blog is a very democratic way of sharing your research: it is not hidden behind a pay wall, and readers do not have to have the financial means to attend an international conference. Although both print publishing and conferences have an important function, I think academic blogging is a valuable addition.

Last but not least, what makes The Recipes Project such a constant factor for me is that it is an online community of peers, a repository of work in progress. Over the years, it has not only enabled me to share my ideas and learn about other people’s work, it also helped me find panel members for conferences, collaborators for grant applications, to be found by others, and lowered the bar for approaching people via email, at conferences and during visiting fellowships abroad.

When I finally first met Elaine in person in Berlin in the fall of 2014, thanks to The Recipes Project, it felt as if we already knew each other. More than anything, The Recipes Project has proved to be the perfect recipe for building a community.

Engaging MLIS Students with Recipe Transcription: Mariabella Charles’s Book of Cookery Recipes and Medical Cures (ca. 1678)

Philip S. Palmer, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA)

While planning a microgrant project when I was a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) fellow from 2014-16, my colleagues and I were interested combining TEI, special collections, and graduate student pedagogy. I had recently learned about the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and their efforts to transcribe culinary and medicinal recipes in libraries around the world. Knowing that MLIS students do not always receive hands-on experience with rare books and manuscripts, I chose a transcription project for library students. The task? Complete a TEI-encoded transcription of an entire early modern recipe manuscript and make it available to a wider audience online.

I recruited a UCLA MLIS student, Christine Curley, to work on the project. While she had no previous experience with recipe manuscripts or paleography, she proved to be apt for the work, picking up paleographical nuance quickly and doing a remarkable job of capturing the vagaries of early modern orthography. She also took a course on TEI so she could encode her transcription with confidence. Since opportunities to gain such skills in graduate school are typically reserved for Ph.D. students in humanities fields, I thought it was important to expose an MLIS student to the kinds of methods (paleography, textual editing, digital humanities) that scholars use to interpret texts and make them accessible to other researchers, especially since librarians are increasingly collaborating with faculty and students on projects.

The manuscript itself, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678], was primarily compiled by a woman named Mariabella Charles, though there appear to hands other than hers in the text. The book is divided fairly evenly between culinary and medicinal recipes, with a few that, for lack of a better term, we called “hunting recipes.” These include directions “to drive Rats from a house,” “to destroy moles,” and “to take deare,” the last of which is as brief as it must have been effective: “Take Opium and put it in Apples and set them on Sticks.”

Before Christine encoded the manuscript, I created a slightly customized version of the typical TEI schema using the web tool Roma; the schema incorporated tags the EMROC group was already using in their transcriptions (<ingredient>, <ailment>, <administrationMethod>, and <productionMethod>). We also added <utensil> and color-coded each tag in our basic HTML output of the TEI edition. All of these custom tags can be easily transformed into normal TEI using a simple XSLT script. This manuscript was also part of the Clark’s CLIR Digitizing Hidden Collections project to digitize over 300 early modern bound manuscripts. Mariabella Charles’s manuscript is now freely available on Calisphere, in addition to 166 other MSS. We plan to add Christine’s transcription of the manuscript into page-level metadata on Calisphere in the next couple of months.

Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
Custom TEI-encoded transcription by Christine Curley of Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
One interesting aspect of the Charles manuscript lies in its description of the various female knowledge networks through which recipes passed. There are recipe texts attributed to a “Mrs hanway,” “mrs dabe,” “mrs Jean,” “Mrs Harding,” and others. Several physical addresses added to the manuscript’s endleaves provide even more information on female knowledge networks: examples include “Att Mrs Paige in warwick street ouer Against Sr Henry goodrick golden square.” When transcribing and encoding these addresses both Christine and I wondered if this type of evidence might be marshaled in early modern recipe projects. If such addresses are fairly common in recipe manuscripts, could we catalog and map them onto a cartographical representation of London? Would such a visualization of recipe manuscript data reveal anything about early modern foodways and the geography of ingredient collection/preparation? With more and more recipe manuscripts being transcribed today, such questions and methodologies are becoming increasingly feasible for early modernists to answer and implement.

Making librarians partners in these endeavors, and training them appropriately, is crucial. Besides the skills Christine gained transcribing and encoding, she really enjoyed the learning opportunity of working on the edition. In her words,

It was so nice to be able to get to know the authors of the manuscript by deciphering the handwriting of their recipes. The recipes show a high degree of self-sufficiency; most of the ingredients could be hunted and gathered from nature … Something I also noticed from a more technical standpoint was that that the neater, more careful handwriting was actually more difficult to discern, and the handwriting that was more like quick script was actually much closer to modern messy handwriting … This gives me hope that maybe in the far future, if my letters and journals survive the centuries, perhaps my descendants may actually be able to decipher my own sloppy handwriting and make sense of it.

As Christine also notes, “there are many culinary recipes which actually seem quite delicious, such as mutton with lemon, butter, capers, nutmeg, and white wine. There is a recipe for ‘the best cake that ever was eaten,’ which really does sound very good.” Librarians at the Clark are hoping to collaborate with Christine on a future public event involving early modern culinary culture—hopefully with samples of this “best cake” on offer.

“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009
“To make the best Cake that euer wase eaten,” Mariabella Charles, [Cookery recipes and medical cures] [ca. 1678]. William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA): MS.1950.009

Philip S. Palmer, Ph.D. is Head of Research Services at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (UCLA). His work centers on digital approaches to early modern material texts, Renaissance travel writing, and Thomas Coryate. His publications include articles in Renaissance Studies, Huntington Library Quarterly, and The Library, as well as an edition of the booklist of Sir Thomas Roe for Private Libraries in Renaissance England. He is currently Principal Investigator on grants from CLIR and NEH to digitize early modern manuscript material in the Clark’s collections.

Sweet Endings

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Pastern.

The Recipes Project team would like to thank everyone who participated in our month-long Virtual Conversation on ‘What is a Recipe?’ It was a wonderful month in which had a chance to explore a question near and dear to our hearts, as well as to meet (virtually) people working on recipes in a wide-range of ways.

On 10 July 2017, we hosted a two-part discussion on Facebook Live, in which the RP editors (Amanda Herbert, Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Laurence Totelin) joined Elma Brenner at the Wellcome Library, London. The first part is available here, or on Facebook.

In this section, we chatted about some of our favourite recipe books at the Wellcome Library, as well as four themes that came up during the conference: recipe-like things, reconstruction, celebrity, and stories.

Laurence also put together a great Pinterest board on Cleopatra as a celebrity endorsement of products.

In part 2, we opened with a discussion about how different archives–the Wellcome Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library–have collected recipe books, followed by an examination of two sources that Laurence brought in from her own collection: an early twentieth-century advertisement for Allenbury’s food (infant formula) and a 1960s Australian edition of Mrs. Beeton. These sources led us to a conversation on empire, race, and recipes.

We then took questions from our Facebook audience. Unfortunately, Facebook has lost our video! Some questions were quite general (e.g. how can you start researching recipes), while others were much more specific (e.g. why do we assume recipes only mean food today?).

For those of you interested in researching recipes, please take a look through our blog, which is a snapshot of recipes scholarship. Our First Monday Library Chat series also offers a glimpse into various recipe collections around the world. We also have a Zotero bibliography in which several recipe scholars have shared details of  useful primary and secondary sources. And, eventually, we will have an exhibition site of our entire virtual conversation — so please stay tuned!

As to why we think of recipes being food… We considered, in particular, the ways in which the term ‘recipes’ is used in a lot of ways, even today — such as IFTTT ‘recipes’ or recipes for paint. It’s just that these occur within more niche groups. And when it comes to science and medicine, the search for precision has led to the use of the term ‘formula’ rather than ‘recipe’.

A fine place to conclude our many discussions on ‘what is a recipe?’… We still can’t pin down the term, as flexible boundaries are useful when looking at the subject. But the distinction between formula and recipe also links back to our earliest discussions on recipes being alive and in the wild. We can’t detach experience, embodiment, and constant change from the concept of ‘recipe’. Whatever a recipe is, it is NOT precision.

And that is what makes them so much fun.

Thank you once again for your presentations, your chats, and your interest that have made our virtual conversation such a success! Regular blogging resumes next Tuesday. Please don’t be a stranger.