Category Archives: Early Modern

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.

The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

By Erik Heinrichs 

Titlepage of Philippus Culmacher’s plague treatise, Leipzig: circa 1495
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While researching German plague treatises I became fascinated by one odd treatment for buboes that appeared again and again, despite sounding so far-fetched. One sixteenth-century version calls for plucking the feathers from around the single hole in a chicken’s backside, then placing it on a person’s bubo. The instructions say to hold the chicken on the bubo until it dies, when it must be replaced with a new chicken, similarly plucked. I soon dubbed this the “live chicken treatment for buboes” and after years of casual encounters I began to track the recipe more systematically. As strange as it sounds, versions of this “live chicken treatment” were fairly common in plague writing, beginning with the Black Death and lasting, amazingly, into the eighteenth century. Tracing the long history of this recipe led me to explore questions such as: Where might this come from? Why chickens? Why might healers think that this was a good idea? Did anyone actually try this or is this all theoretical? As a historian, I was also interested in change over time within the recipe. Here I found much to explore, as I followed the recipe’s twists and turns over a seven-hundred year period, roughly 1000 to 1700.

The “live chicken treatment” turns out to have a long history, indeed. Its origins seem to lie in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, although it may be older than that. Chickens and chicken broth were a common source of medicine in early times, probably because chickens were such ubiquitous and useful animals since antiquity. Not only did Avicenna praise chicken broth for its general benefits for the body, but he also recommended placing a cut chicken on a poisonous bite or sting in order to fight poisons. In later centuries European physicians turned to Avicenna’s advice when they faced the mysterious and devastating epidemics of the fourteenth century. As Europeans emphasized the poisonous nature of the plagues around them, older treatments for poisons drew new attention. The first mention of using a chicken rump to draw poisons out of a bubo appeared in the very first plague treatise of 1348, coming in response to the so-called Black Death. Here the Catalan author Jacme d’Agramont seems to have introduced a novel and lasting adaptation of Avicenna’s recipe, although the “cut chicken” version persisted in plague treatises for centuries to come.

Most interesting for the history of trying and testing cures are the many variations of the “cut chicken” and “chicken rump” versions of the treatment, as well as physicians’ comments about how effective they are. Especially after 1400, physicians seem to be thinking about this recipe quite often as they seek practical treatments for the plagues of the time. Physicians were preoccupied with altering the recipe in order to reason out the nature of the mysterious poisons underlying the plague. Some add substances to the process, such as salt placed on top of the chicken as it is placed on the bubo. During the fifteenth century, a number of German physicians began to explain the treatment’s workings in a strikingly physical way—that the chicken breathes through its backside and thus pulls the bubo’s poisons into itself. This change led to the suggestion to hold the chicken’s beak shut during the treatment in order to force the chicken to breathe from below. My article (accessible here) show how all aspects of the treatment changed over time as physicians engaged with the recipe, including the quantity of chickens used, the amount of time required, and even the type of animal in question. This work demonstrates the importance of the recipe itself as a platform for thought, experimentation, and communication among physicians.

Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, many physicians praised their version of the “live chicken treatment,” describing it as effective and desirable. Such comments multiply after the introduction of print, which encouraged the production of plague treatises, some fitted with fetching cover illustrations for the marketplace (see image below of Philippus Culmacher’s treatise of circa 1495). In German-speaking lands especially, sixteenth-century physicians used their printed plague treatises to promote their own services and expertise at a local level.[1] This brought about a change in the genre whereby physicians seem more eager to discuss their own experiences with effective recipes in order to appeal to the practical interests of a broad audience. Amidst this change comes evidence that some German physicians witnessed first-hand the successful use of the “live chicken treatment.” Another interesting change during the sixteenth century is the increased attention to the bodily warmth of the chicken as the treatment’s active healing force. These emergent views provide a tantalizing link to modern medicine, since moist heat remains one of the treatments for buboes today. For more information, please read my article.

Erik Heinrichs is an associate professor of history at Winona State University (Minnesota). His interests are the history of medicine and religion in the late medieval and early modern periods. His book Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 will be published by Routledge this November.


[1] For a survey of German plague treatises from the first century of print, see: Erik A. Heinrichs, Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 (London: Routledge, 2017).

True but not Tested: Experimentation in the Apothecary’s Shop

By Valentina Pugliano

Testing and standardization are firmly entrenched in the pharmacological imagination of western biomedicine and its public. Before a new drug can be put on the market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration demands five rounds of trials. Approximately 70% of new ‘recipes’ fails to pass the first round. Similarly, the European Medicines Agency maintains a database of adverse drug reactions (EudraVigilance) which, growing of one million entries yearly, is used to monitor all pharmaceuticals on sale across the European Economic Area. Meanwhile, the media seizes upon the perils of untested cures as if on morality tales, policing the boundaries of modern science from potential intrusion from the miraculous and the charlatanesque.

Yet, can the same be said of premodern drug manufacturing? Was a drug’s efficacy established by testing? And what did ‘testing’ recipes even mean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? When these questions were suggested at Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin’s Testing Drugs, Trying Cures Workshop in 2013, I began to look for answers among those early modern medical practitioners who most closely resemble the pharmaceutical industry of our times, combining the manufacturing of a Glaxo Smith-Kline and AstraZeneca with the retailing of Boots and Walgreens: apothecaries. [1]

Pharmacy shop, Tacuinum sanitatis, 16th century (BNF, MS Latin 9333, fol. 51v).

While not corporate giants, apothecaries thrived in every large hamlet and town of Italy, reaching spectacular numbers in metropolises like Rome, Naples, and Venice. Unlike free-lance alchemists and empirics, they belonged to the city’s official infrastructure of healthcare: they worked from a licensed shop, trained through formal apprenticeship and, like physicians and surgeons, belonged to a professional association or arte. This ‘trade brotherhood’ gave them bargaining powers but also subjected them to standardization rules and quality controls. As disgruntled masters testify from the archives, in severe cases of infraction the apothecary could see the remedies he had belaboured on for weeks thrown into the gutter or burnt to ashes.

So what did it mean to have ‘correct’ remedies that passed the test of shop inspections and satisfied “God and the public good”? As a historian of artisan knowledge I have learnt that infractions, those occasions when things go (deliberately) wrong, sometimes provide the best clue to understanding which methods of doing things were considered orthodox in the crafts. Apothecaries loved to speak of the abuses supposedly perpetrated by their colleagues. In Florence, for example, they conned customers by mixing expensive guaiac wood with the bark of mulberry trees. In Mantua and Padua, those with a fever and a bad stomach better beware the Lenitive Electuary, regularly adulterated with black sugar (instead of its fine white variety) and counterfeit tamarinds (mimicked by a paste made of old cassia and badly preserved dates ).[2]


These complaints were not the only ones to be voiced, but they are telling. They are not motivated by protestations from patients, who are remarkably absent from the writings of early modern apothecaries. Nor are they driven by doubts about the method employed to make the remedy from a set of instructions. While household experimenters and professors of secrets were always seeking new formulas and ways to stabilise them, the corpus of remedies sold in sixteenth-century Italian pharmacies was fairly stable, and so were their recipes.

What these criticisms suggested, rather, was that medicinal ingredients possessed a purity, and that this purity had been tainted. The rogue apothecary had played around with the ‘honesty’ of simples, diluting their strength or altogether replacing the ‘sincere originals’ prescribed in the recipe with fraudulent alternatives (often from the kitchen pantry).

With this concern for authenticity in mind, I returned to the apothecaries’ writings, and especially to two bestselling pharmacopoeias, Girolamo Calestani of Parma’s Observations on the Antidotes and Medicaments Most Used in Italy (1562), and Giorgio Melichio of Venice’s Warnings on the Compound Remedies in Use in Pharmacy (1575). Leafing through these texts, I made a curious discovery. Repeatedly, key plant and mineral ingredients in their recipes were referred to according to their reputed truth or falsity: e.g. “true cinnamon”, “true rhaponticum”, “false stibium”, “false balsam”. Repeatedly, apothecaries stressed the importance of sourcing these authentic materials, while their absence was said to ruin the preparation.

Even the use of substitutes began to be criticised. The practice of substituting one ingredient with another possessing similar qualities (quid pro quo), usually a local simple for an exotic import difficult to acquire, had been necessary since antiquity. Yet, the changing attitude to substitutions in the sixteenth century is summarised well by the Neapolitan physician Bartolomeo Maranta: “Substitutes are an abuse.” Never more so than for Theriac, the most celebrated antidote of Italian pharmacy and the toughest to prepare with over sixty ingredients. A Theriac with substitutes instead of true ingredients, Maranta declared, “will be itself in a certain way sick”.[4]

How should we interpret such appeal to the truthfulness of ingredients? At a superficial level, we can understand the apothecary wanting to reassure the public of the genuineness of his wares. After all, practitioners of pharmacy were often portrayed as profiteers and cheats. But, as I argue in my article “Pharmacy, Testing and the Language of Truth in Renaissance Italy,” something else had changed between the medieval period and the 1540s, when this terminology of trues and falses appears: Greek and Roman books on materia medica were reintroduced into western Europe. It is well known that the reappearance of Dioscorides’s On Medicinal Plants, Theophrastus’s On Plants and Pliny’s revised Natural History created as many problems as it solved for those who wished to implement their teachings. Many of the Mediterranean and Levantine simples described in them remained entirely unavailable during the sixteenth century, while many others were plagued by problems of identification and nomenclature.

My sense is that this ‘Language of Truth’ was an intervention into this state of affairs. It helped the apothecaries get a grip on which was which among rare ingredients, and reflected their aspiration, shared with many contemporaries, of restoring the wisdom of the ancients. It also showed the increasing influence on pharmacy of the contemporary botanical renaissance and the ethos of naturalists who, for the first time, put nature in the foreground, liberating flowers, trees, animals and rocks from the need to be useful.

Crucially, authenticity came to replace experimentation. As ingredients acquired more importance in the apothecary’s mind, the efficacy of the recipe began to be pegged to their presence and quality. Providing the remedy contained the true, correct ingredients its efficacy and fitness for human consumption would be guaranteed, with no need to involve test subjects or pursue the feedback of patients and colleagues. How much this ‘testing by truth’ differed from modern-day trials becomes clear when we turn to the contemporary idiom of the pharmaceutical industry: it is as if the apothecaries’ R&D stopped at the preclinical stage.



[1] V. Pugliano, “Pharmacy, Testing and the Language of Truth”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 92/2 (2017): 233-273. See also the other articles in the same issue of BHM.

[2] Ricettario Fiorentino dell’Arte dei Medici e Spetiali di Firenze (Florence, 1574), pp. 45, 74; Giovanni Antonio Lodetto, Dialogo degl’inganni d’alcuni malvagi speciali (Padua, 1572), pp. 21-22.

[3] Giorgio Melichio, Avvertimenti nelle compositioni per uso della spetiaria (Venice, 1601), pp. 27-28.

[4] Bartolomeo Maranta, Della Theriaca et Mithridato libri due (Naples, 1572), p. 33.



Exploring CPP 10a214 – Five Years On: Of Binaries and Collaboration

Editorial: This is the eighth of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Rebecca Laroche and Hillary Nunn

When we began this blog project in February 2013, we did not know where it was going to take us. We always saw our work with College of Physicians of Philadelphia Manuscript 10a214 as a work in progress, a work on progress. Given our different backgrounds and interests, we had a sense of the themes that may emerge, but in reading back through our collaborative endeavor, we can clearly see our efforts to locate the College of Physicians manuscript in time and place, but we also have seen how avenues of inquiry have permeable definition and numerous overlaps, can evolve and change. In particular, we have seen how working with recipe books requires a different sense of textual identity, that the individuals involved are not simply individuals – fixed identities tied to one lifespan and contained geographical boundaries – but rather entities that exist together as an interrelated network of being across time and space.

After all, this is a do-si-do book: on one side a collaborator who seems to have died for the Parliamentarian cause, and on the other, likely a man who was imprisoned as a Royalist. There are two compilers, but to treat them as being in binary opposition is misleading. Furthermore, extending these political differences to their wives and mothers, named as authorities and owners of the book, would be a mistake. There are also numerous people who probably never saw the book but who nonetheless are cited within it and who therefore influenced its creation. How these voices came to be captured within one collection is part of its mystery, but it is clear that these disparate elements are not oppositional, but rather in conversation with each other. The result is a multivocal, overlapping mixture of concerns.

To say that the two of us are working in a binary structure is also a temptation, with Rebecca concentrating on the textual history and Hillary working from a different angle on the geopolitical history. But this is not actually true. Looking at source material, from John Gerard’s Herball to Lancelot Andrewes’s Private Devotions, and imagining recipe exchanges between Anne Dacre and Elizabeth Downing illuminates a text that is many texts, spanning over a century of production, at once. Similarly, finding out more about those less famous people who contributed their recipe knowledge to the manuscript brings a different sense of how domestic practices were communicated outside of print in the time period. In the course of our research, which is indexed here, we have pursued timelines of personal history for those named in the manuscript (birth to death, marriage, children, and occupational appointments), religio-political history (particularly around the English Civil War), and textual history. While most of the relevant dates fall between 1606 (birth of Calybute Downing) and 1680 (death of Edward Layfield), the cross generational circulation of recipes and the staying power of print mean that the earliest associated dates extend well back into the 16th century and forward into the 18th. What we have discovered is that our seemingly separate topics are embedded in interconnected networks. Our efforts have helped us locate the text, but we have come to realize that we may never pinpoint it, and that doing so would be inaccurate and falsely stable. In fact, we have come to see that recipe manuscripts challenge that very desire for stability.

Furthermore, our work has been influenced by a collection of other scholars and texts in a mode that no doubt mirrors the circulation that gave rise to the CPP manuscript. Numerous postings to the Recipes Project blog itself have leaked into our thinking – as have our monthly conversations with Early Modern Recipes Online Collective steering committee members. As a result, Elaine Leong’s name occurs several times in these postings, for example. But there are certainly conversations that we’ve had that have less clear-cut trails through our thinking as well. Attempting to trace these networks is at the heart of our collaborative efforts, even though there will always be elements that escape our recognition.

This is not to say that we have made no progress in articulating the complicating connections embodied in the CPP manuscript. We have realized that, while we first hoped to discover how a Parliamentarian text fell into Royalist ownership, our terminology was unhelpfully confining. Instead, we now hope to articulate how people with such seemingly different views occupied the same, or overlapping, networks. In doing so, we hope to also complicates similar ideological categorizations that might hinder our readings of other texts. In the end, we may have to ask how the fluid nature of recipes and their circulation break apart/open the historicist project.

Without the Recipes Project and the collaborative possibilities it offers, articulating these observations would have been far more difficult. Having the space, and opportunity, to report our research in increments has enlivened our project, allowing room for serendipitous discoveries in the archives, as well as in conversations with colleagues. Our work with the CPP manuscript has already taken us in some surprising directions, and our continued engagement with the text will no doubt bring other unexpected possibilities. And we can’t wait to report them all here in the coming months.