Category Archives: Early Modern

Olfactory Notes: Integrating Embodied Research in Art History

By Madison Clyburn

In early modern Italy, perfumes were powerful substances whose therapeutic properties could generate pleasure and preserve or remedy one’s health if worn on or consumed by the body. In this post, I feature a typical Italian perfume recipe, “To make perfume for clothes,” from the Italian engraver and author Eustachio Celebrino’s (c. 1490-after 1535) printed vernacular pamphlet, Opera nova piacevole laqvale insegna di far varie compositioni odorifere per far bella ciaschuna donna…intitulata Venusta (Venice, 1550) intended for female consumers. Celebrino’s formulaic recipe books, typical of the genre, are printed records of socially important topics, like women’s health and adornment.

I made this recipe in Dr. Chriscinda Henry’s graduate seminar, Materiality and the Senses in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Art, at McGill University in the Winter of 2023. Celebrino’s recipe allowed us to work through experimental research methodologies in our final week dedicated to Embodied Knowing and Experimental Methods, which I co-led with fellow seminar member Mahdis Mohajeri. Making this perfume recipe raised questions about what it means for art historians living in one sensorium and studying others, like early modern Italy, where smelling amber rosary beads during prayer might bring one closer to God, chewing myrrh pastilles could prevent plague or wearing musk might help conceive a healthy child.

“To Make Perfume for Clothes”

The first step toward integrating embodied research in our art history seminar was to choose a recipe with accessible ingredients that was relatively quick to make. Celebrino’s perfumed sachet was just right since it simply asks one to take “fresh rose leaves & dry them in the shade & then take two carats [or vials] of musk, and make it into a powder, & two coins of fine cloves, and mix together, & then put it [all] in one or two little bags in the clothes.” 

Graduate student, Em Grisdale’s sachet keeps sweaters moth-free and smelling fresh one year later!

Before our seminar, I assembled a recipe kit with instructions and ingredients for each participant. I found cloves and dried roses from a local herbalist shop, while I substituted musk root for musk, whose extraction from the musk deer’s preputial gland is primarily illegal today. 

Next, I transcribed and translated the recipe, placing that information in a PowerPoint. This left more time in class to examine primary texts like Pliny’s The Natural History and Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentaries (1565) to understand the varied classical and early modern uses of musk, roses, and cloves. At the same time, selections from Sven Dupré et al. Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment (2020) and Pamela Smith’s From Lived Experience to the Written Word (2022) grounded our entrance into an aromatic art history, offering insight into how hands-on historical recipe experiments can help make students more resourceful researchers and inform early modern health, hygiene, and beauty practices.

The final step consisted of interpreting the recipe through practice. Students opened their kits and began to crush, mix, and add the ingredients to a draw-string bag.

Some participants followed the recipe, and others adapted it; some used their hands, while others used a hammer or mortar and pestle to crush the musk root.

The recipe’s flexible ending tells one to put the sachet “in the clothes,” possibly in a chest, carried in a pocket, worn under a skirt or attached to a belt. Making the recipe together allowed us to pose questions, such as what types and materials of bags might be preferred, how much musk equals a carat or vial, and share reactions like musk stinks! 

Em Grisdale shows us how to wear Celebrino’s recipe on a belt loop.

Implications for Sensory Research in Art History

Embodied research welcomes questions about the sensuous relationships between the ephemeral body and its material culture. Things like perfumed sachets for clothes hinted at but not seen in visual media reveal how olfactory experiences in the early modern period are everywhere and nowhere. For example, middle- and upper-class women often had the luxury of owning multiple sets of clothes. When not worn, women stored their clothes in chests with sachets made from pure ingredients like musk or, for aspiring citizens, a counterfeit version made of spices and toasted breadcrumbs to preserve the fabrics’ quality and cleanliness. One can imagine only the finest ingredients perfuming Lambert Sustris’ Reclining Venus (c. 1548) in this wholesome atmosphere comprised of a downy mattress sprinkled with fragrant pink and white roses, sumptuous fabrics, and a woman playing a folding harpsichord, whose charming sounds vibrate through the clean air wafting through an open colonnade window.

Attributed to Lambert Sustris (c. 1515-20 -1584), Reclining Venusc. 1548, oil on canvas, 116 x 186 cm, Venice or Padua, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-3479. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

But of course, we cannot see the physical sachet made from Celebrino’s recipe that may lie nestled inside the elegant cassone (chest) in the background of Sustris’ painting. We cannot sniff notes of rose, musk, and clove possibly escaping the fibres of the pastel pink dress that a woman holds above the chest. Only by reconstructing these sachets can we begin to sense smell’s critical role in preserving hygienic bodies and homes as well as in observing or challenging socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in early modern Italy.

Detail of Sustris’ Reclining Venus showing a young woman leaning over an open-lidded cassone. Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Embracing what we cannot see or smell through embodied research allows us to imagine how Celebrino’s recipe and Sustris’ painting document once fragrant interiors. An art historical approach to making recipes aims to recenter early modern sensuous practices and experiences in artworks so that teaching and academic scholarship can help us bridge two sensoria—that of our current moment and overlooked pasts.


Madison Clyburn is an Art History PhD candidate at McGill University. Her thesis focuses on the material culture of women’s wellness in late medieval and early modern Italy. Her research combines art and gender history, the history of medicine, material culture, and sensory studies to determine how perfumes were used to observe, challenge, and invert socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in the early modern period.

Early Modern Research with Britain’s Favourite Organic Producer

By Grace Palmer

In the spring of 2023, I undertook a deep dive into early modern British (and some European) recipes for a project with Hexhamshire Organics, an organic farm near Newcastle in the North East of England, focused on creating short sentences on the historic uses of herbs, fruit and vegetables, designed to pique their customers’ interests by examining how their favourite produce was consumed in the past. Within this project, I focused on using domestically-produced receipt books – which were often collaborative family books carefully curated by multiple generations to create unique recipe collections – and horticultural texts, produced as instruction manuals for gardeners, providing information on the multitude of plants that were cultivated by early modern Britons. Admittedly these sources were produced by and for the upper- and middle-classes, however they are a fascinating route to understanding how food was enjoyed in the past, and do provide some insights into the culinary habits of ordinary Britons.

Pages exploring ‘mountayne Radish’ and ‘Carrottes’ in Rembert Dodoens (trans. Henry Lyte Esquyer), A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, (published in England- 1578), pp 600-601


Perhaps especially because our audience for this project was consumers interested in organic, locally-sourced produce, I was struck by the similarities some recipes held to many present-day dishes loved by modern Britons. For example, many recipes including carrots described the vegetable being enjoyed grated and baked with a variety of spices, reminiscent of a modern carrot cake. Similarly, by the 18th century, recipes instructing how tomatoes (a ‘New World’ discovery for many early modern Europeans) could be made into ketchup were more commonplace. It was fascinating to see how some of my favourite and regularly consumed dishes had such long-reaching origins. While early modern recipe books often contained the spectacular, documenting exceptional meals that were not eaten on an everyday basis, I was struck by the variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables that were clearly dietary staples. Explorations into the New World expanded the origins of commonly eaten produce: potatoes, the Jerusalem artichoke (named the “potato of Canada”), and peppers (initially viewed with some suspicion, but were quickly cultivated by poor farmers as a cheap alternative of expensive, imported black pepper) were often included in recipe collections, alongside spices from across South and Eastern Asia. Contemporary cooks displayed a clear interest in the presentation and taste of their dishes. A variety of herbs and spices were used – including dill, savory, chillies and sorrel – to add depth of flavour. Recipes describe the various innovative ways produce was used as a garnish, instructing the reader to pickle red cabbage to enhance its purple-red hue, or to finely chop brussels sprouts, to make dishes more visually appealing. I found that my research challenged pre-existing conceptions I myself had about potentially “backwards” culinary habits from the early modern era as the recipes instead showcased the diverse and rich culinary traditions from the period.

Early modern people assigned a fascinating array of medical uses to almost all plants. While some seem to make logical sense to the modern reader, many seem incredulous. (Giant) mustard leaves were often placed like a plaster on a patient’s head to help prevent vertigo. Spring onions were made into an ointment to cure dandruff, and lettuce was eaten after supper to prevent drunkenness, imagined to stop alcohol vapours (widely believed to cause drunkenness) reaching the brain. One early modern writer even used globe artichokes as a deodorant, believing the vegetable helped reduce the smell of his armpits. The huge variety of medical uses assigned to various herbs, fruits and vegetables is a testament to the ingenuous inventions of contemporaries, showcasing how they innovatively used all aspects of different produce to understand the world around them. Many medicinal recipes for common ailments and diseases were passed between generations, adapted and improved through experimentation over time. Much of the way early modern people understood their diet was influenced by humoral theory, often dictating the imagined medicinal cures behind plants and even the combination of ingredients set out in recipes. For example, sorrel was often paired with meats or eggs for its perceived cooling properties, imagined to aid digestion. Similarly, “hot and dry” horseradish was commonly eaten with fish, believed to counteract the negative associations of the “cold and wet” nature of fish. The humoral properties of produce meant some recipes came with warnings for future readers: cooks were advised against serving raw onions, imagined to induce headaches and dull the senses, and readers were warned about the overconsumption of spinach, believed to cause nausea. While sometimes comedic to the modern reader, early modern cooks used commonly consumed produce in innovative ways to understand the world around them, a testament to their ingenuity and invention.

Overall, this was a fascinating project, which taught me a huge amount about early modern recipes, diets, and consumption habits more broadly. While this project focused on highlighting the spectacular and sometimes comedic aspects of early modern food habits, I was struck by the many similarities to modern recipes and gained a deeper understanding of the rich history behind British cuisine. I hope this project will help inform Hexhamshire Organics’ customers on the fascinating interplay between early modern and present-day uses of their favourite produce, and perhaps even provide historic inspiration for unconventional and thrifty ways to make the most of locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Grace Palmer is currently studying for her MA in history at Durham University, having recently completed her undergraduate studies there. She is writing her dissertation on poisoning as a method for resistance by enslaved men and women and white fear of poisoning conspiracies in plantation era America. Outside of academia, Grace is a keen foodie and enjoys experimenting with new vegetarian recipes. She is also an avid sports fan and shares a season ticket to her local football club with her brother. 

House of the Dragon and The RP

By Jess Clark

I know, I know – 2023 is not the Summer of Dragons. Most of you have moved on from the battle for the Iron Throne, although maybe not the negroni…sbagliotos…with Prosecco in it. But some of us (ahem) are still catching up on last year’s slate of TV shows, and I’m sure I’m not the only one…right? For me, this means binge-watching House of the Dragon despite being a year late. The series, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, offers a prequel to Game of Thrones, charting the early years—and dynastic politics—of the Targaryen family. While the fabulous slate of acting talent, not to mention the costumes, set design, and visual effects, garnered critical acclaim, everyone knows who are the real stars of the show: Syrax, Caraxes, Vermax, and other dragons who help secure Targaryen power. In the face of endless and often ruthless familial in-fighting, these giant beasts intimidate enemies, decide battles, and secure royal lineages.

The dragons’ centrality to HOTD invokes historical descriptions of dragons, including those in recipes, as explored by Madison Clyburn in her recent RP post. As Clyburn notes, dragons frequently appeared in western manuscripts and myths; they were also central to many Middle Eastern and South Asian texts and art. Yet, in contrast to the enormous, reptilian beasts dominating HOTD, historical depictions of dragons ranged in size, color, and shape. In her review of western manuscripts from the late fifteenth century, for example, Sarah J. Biggs charts creatures ranging from “a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.” Meanwhile, Kanishk Tharoor observes the global movement of dragon representations, including the ways that “[i]n Persian art, the form of the dragon looks very similar to traditional Chinese ones, with a snake-like body surrounded by wisps of fire.” Regardless of their appearance, dragons almost always conveyed important symbolic messages. In some instances, they were cast as opponents to “a saint or angel,” engaged in epic battles of good versus evil. In other cases, Dorothy Kim and others show how (real-life) aristocratic groups and families adopted the dragon in heraldic and artistic forms, as powerful symbols of prestige and standing.

Ten people surround a fire-breathing dragon with weapons.
Barham Gur kills the dragon that had killed his youth. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

 

They also functioned in recipes, as symbols of engineering, technology, and innovation. Clyburn’s post explores how, in the mid seventeenth century, writers across Italy, England, and Germany circulated recipes for “Flying Dragons.” These “mechanical dragons,” constructed out of paper, line, and cords, “demonstrate the role of recipes in producing technological entertainment.” Meanwhile, Samantha Sandassie mentions the inclusion of “dragon’s blood” in a late seventeenth-century recipe, “a plant-based resin, [which] was used as a wound coagulant historically but may have been added to…recipe[s] for aesthetic purposes.”

A winged dragon. Woodcut, unknown date and location. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

 

The widespread fascination with dragons, owing to their symbolic import, also connects to broader themes in histories of recipes, including the centrality of myth, magic, and conceptions of animal life. Over the years, RP authors have foregrounded the importance of exoticized animal ingredients, not to mention the power imbued in them, in a variety of times and locations. This includes:

While these posts primarily focus on “real” animals, guinea pigs and puppies nonetheless took on enhanced qualities in the imagination and hopes of recipe-writers who sought sustenance, relief, and health.

A broad range of animals may have been central to historical recipes, but let’s be clear – when it comes to HBO dramas, it’s the dragons that give HOTD its magic. Targaryens may come and go, but dragons will always reign supreme.

Outside Issues: Tea Gardens in Early Modern London

By James Brown

The HERA-funded research project Intoxicating Spaces (2019–22), on which I was fortunate enough to work and which explored material environments for the production, trafficking, and consumption of new intoxicants in Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm 1600–1850, coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant lockdowns. An avid user of bars, cafes, and restaurants in Sheffield in the UK, where I live and where the project was headquartered, I admired and became fascinated by the creative ways in which these hospitality businesses adapted and repurposed outdoor spaces – gardens, pavements, patios, roads, and yards – in response to bans and restrictions on indoor socialising (measures which have a long historical precedent in plague time). These present-day crisis developments inspired me to take my own research on early modern London outside into the open air.

Photo of two shoppers at ordering at the outdoor window of a bar.
Gatsby on Sheffield’s Division Street with its new outdoor serving window – ‘The Great Hatchby’ – in April 2021. Photo: Author.

There were various kinds of al fresco food and drink retailing in the early modern capital, from the street-sellers recently investigated by Charlie Taverner and Freya Purcell, to the temporary (or, in modern parlance, ‘pop-up’) booths that sprouted in the royal parks and during fairs. However, one of the most common was the tea garden, a distinctive species of space that flourished in the metropolis – as in other cities across the continent – between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. The significance of these environments, especially for the enjoyment and assimilation of new intoxicating substances, has yet to receive the historiographical attention it deserves. Environmental and garden historians have tended to focus their energies on large-scale, well-documented pleasure gardens such as Marylebone, Ranelagh, and Vauxhall. Most historians of intoxicants and intoxication, meanwhile, have generally ignored tea gardens in favour of the more familiar indoor locales of alehouse, coffeehouse, household, inn, and tavern; they get only a single passing reference, for example, in this excellent recent monograph on tea. This is possibly because, faced with London’s spiralling population and growing pressure from property developers, most of them disappeared from the urban landscape over the course of the nineteenth century.

Watercolor painting of white building with several people standing in the lawn in front of the building.
An 1853 watercolour by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd depicting Copenhagen House tea garden in Islington. British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The heyday of the metropolitan tea garden was the eighteenth century into the early decades of the 1800s. Estimates of their numbers vary, from c.200 at the top end to the more conservative figure of 65 proposed by Penelope Corfield. I’ve identified around 90, the locations of 81 of which I’ve been able to pinpoint with some accuracy using the visualisation software Tableau. As the interactive map shows, tea gardens were broadly dispersed across the capital and its rural hinterland, although in the terminology of human geography five broad ‘clusters’ can be identified: there was a particularly concentrated central group around Clerkenwell; a Marylebone group; a Chelsea group; a south of the river group; and two outlying Islington and Hampstead groups scattered along the leafy roads and arteries leading out of the city to the north. Within the overarching rubric of tea garden, however, surviving visual evidence indicates there was a huge amount of spatial variety; compare Copenhagen House in Islington, a huge semi-rural tavern with extensive grounds, to the much more bounded setting of the Yorkshire Stingo public house and tea gardens in Paddington.

Water color painting of a two-story pub with fenced front yard where several patrons are sitting.
A mid nineteenth-century watercolour by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd showing the Yorkshire Stingo pub and tea garden in Lisson Grove. British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Food and drink was central to the offering, and – as their name denotes – tea gardens were most closely associated with a new generation of New World intoxicants, especially caffeinated beverages, and particularly tea. There were three main ways in which they fostered the incorporation of these novel substances into the diets and habits of Londoners. First, they were highly visual environments, dedicated to spectacle, the gaze, and the pleasures of the eye. Perhaps more so than any other kind of space, this made them ideal viewing platforms for the conspicuous consumption of fashionable new commodities like coffee, sugar, tea, and tobacco, and the cultivation of polite rituals surrounding them (the tea arbour or trellis is a recurring motif within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century century artistic discourses). Second, the availability of new intoxicants at the handful of spa gardens formed around natural springs – like Bermondsey Spa tea gardens, here described by the printer George Smeeton – would have strengthened existing conceptual associations between coffee, tea, tobacco, and good health. Third, while not wishing to labour the obvious, tea gardens were botanical. Their lawns, shrubberies, and trees offered a carefully curated, sometimes exotic rusticity, while those in outlying locations to points north, east, west, and south offered vantage points from which the sprawl of the global imperial city could be appreciated and admired. They were therefore almost archetypal settings for the enjoyment of agricultural derivatives from tropical climes.

Black-and-white water color painting of many patrons enjoying tea in the gardens abutting a large house.
An 1830 watercolour by George Scharf depicting Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead, featuring customers taking tea in distinctive arbours or alcoves. British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

However, in characteristic fashion, tea gardens were also hybridised consumption spaces that retained close associations with traditional stimulants and intoxicating spaces. They were not standalone or sui generis ventures emerging from nowhere, but were generally opened by enterprising publicans on sites contiguous with inns, taverns, and alehouses; as well as the example of the Yorkshire Stingo above, see this drawing of the Chalk Farm tea gardens in Camden, where the outdoor space is adjacent to the colonnaded public house. As such, ‘old’ intoxicants in the form of alcohols (beer, wine, and spirits) were just as likely to be served and consumed within them as caffeinated drinks. This satirical etching, for example, depicts Bagnigge Wells, a fashionable spa and resort in Clerkenwell; while a kettle sits abandoned in the distance, a grinning waiter uncorks a bottle of wine or spirits for the three fashionably dressed male customers. This chimes with our findings elsewhere in the project; coffee’s percolation throughout provincial England, for example, was facilitated not by freestanding coffeehouses but by the creation of ‘coffee rooms’ within long-established drinking houses.

Hand-colored etching of four men smoking and drinking alcohol at a table outdoors.
A satirical 1804 etching showing three men consuming alcohol at Bagnigge Wells spa and tea garden. British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)