Category Archives: Early Modern

The Order of Things (2)

By Saskia Klerk, with Sietske Fransen.

Over a year ago, Sietske and I started our ongoing series on a Dutch recipe collection BPL 3603, kept in the Leiden UL. We have already learned much about the manuscript and its compiler from examining a number of entries. But, as Sietske showed in her most recent post, there is more to discover by turning our attentions to the organization of the manuscript as a whole.

We recognized a certain order to how the recipes were entered into the 70-folio volume. Especially the fact that a first set of pages (p. 1-76) is alphabetized and a second set (p. 77-122) isn´t, appears significant. Still, some anomalies remained a bit of a mystery to us. A closer look at the alphabetical organisation of the first part was a big eye opener.

We can be sure that, as Sietske has suggested, the recipes in the volume were transcribed from a collection of recipes kept in a notebook or on loose slips of papers, which then formed the basis for further collecting.[1] The recipes were initially ordered alphabetically, mostly according to the affliction they were supposed to cure.

The manuscript allocates only one page to the letter "E", marked on the top right corner.
The compiler allocated only one page to the letter “E”, marked on the top right corner.

To fit his recipes into the manuscript, the compiler took into account how much room he needed for each letter. The number of pages assigned varied from one half-filled page for afflictions starting with “E” (p. 11), to the seven full pages for the letter “O” (p. 32-38).

Crucially, he marked only the recto pages with a letter in alphabetical order and initially left the verso pages blank. In this way, the verso pages remained open for additions and their letter grouping could be assigned later, creating a flexible information organisation system. Additional recipes transcribed on the verso pages tended to start with or contain the letter on surrounding recto pages.

A variety of tobacco illustrated in Johannes Neander´s Tabacologia (Leiden 1622).

The letter T shows how this system worked. Two and a half recto pages were filled with cures for toothaches and loose teeth (p. 55, 57 and 59), leaving space on the last recto page for additional recipes. Two of their verso pages are assigned to cures for consumption and split nipples on the one hand and a discussion of the virtues of tobacco on the other (p. 58). Importantly, the one page in the manuscript that remains completely blank is a verso page (p. 60).

Many recipes were later added onto the initially blank pages. This arrangement meant that on the verso pages of part one, we find materials that the compiler came across after he designed the manuscript with the alphabetical organisation.

As Elaine Leong has pointed out here, arranging recipes within a basic, alphabetical organisation is not as straightforward as it might seem. Clearly, this was the experience of the compiler of BPL 3603.

Practicalities such as running out of space on a page, forced him to reconsider how he categorized recipes. For example, due to space constraints, he entered recipes for the same affliction under as many as three different letters. When the page on dysentery (Rode Loop p. 47) under R was full, the collector grouped further recipes under L with recipes for lame Limbs instead (p. 28) and also under the much broader defined “afflictions of the belly” in the B section, particularly with recipes against diarrhea and stomachache.

His efforts to organize his recipes provides a perspective on how decisions about appropriate treatment could be informed by the organization of medical knowledge on paper.

Seventeenth-century physicians tended to organise their knowledge around illnesses rather than recipes, in order to choose a treatment. Various complaints, loose teeth and joint pain for example, could be subsumed under one disease, scurvy, and treated with the same remedies. On the other hand, dysentery (Rode-loop) distinguished itself from diarrhea (Buick-loop) by the presence or absence of blood in the stool, and each required different treatments.

This manuscript reveals the different organizational options that this compiler´s focus on recipes presented him with. He considered the area or part of the body where an illness occurred, its different common names, the letter that a recipe contained or started with, its main ingredient or manner of preparation.

An unexpected result of choosing where to put a new recipe on paper, the compiler of our manuscript also created new relations between illnesses and treatments. Why not try a recipe for dysentery in case of diarrhea or stomachache? The creative arrangement of recipes by the compiler might have led to more such epistemic effects than we initially realized.

[1] The recipe collection of Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), a prominent diplomate and poet, remains in the form of such untranscribed and unorganized notes and slips of paper, in the Dutch Royal Library: Mss. KB: KA 47.

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

800px-margarine-on-toast
Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.

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Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.

Thinking About 17th c. Potatoes (And Eating Them)

Amanda E. Herbert

[A version of this post appeared on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog, a current, sometimes playful, and always lively resource on a wide range of Shakespeare topics. Shakespeare & Beyond is created for the great variety of Shakespeare enthusiasts—young and old, from across the US and around the world.  You can see the original post here, and read more about our “recreation” of the recipe in a related post, here.]

Potatoes are an iconic food in the United States  They’re a staple of most American diets, and at holiday meals they often appear twice – white potatoes mashed with butter, and sweet potatoes layered into casseroles with gooey marshmallows melted on top (a dish invented by the Cracker Jack Company in 1917) – on tables around the country.  But potatoes have a complex and sometimes troubled American history, one that started outside of today’s United States.

Culinary historians and archaeobotanists now think that potatoes originated in Peru, and they were eaten by women and men living in South and Central America long before western Europeans arrived in these areas in the fifteenth century.  Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are frequently conflated or confused with yams (genus Dioscorea), and this slippage began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Sweet potatoes are of American origin, but their first major migration was westward, across the Pacific: in the 13th c. CE, they were taken to Easter Island and Hawaii, and later to New Zealand.  At the end of the fifteenth century, they traveled eastward across the Atlantic, when they were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus around 1493.  Yams, another edible root crop, are native to many different places around the world: Africa (Dioscorea cayenensis), Southeast Asia (Dioscorea alata, batatus, bulbifera, esculenta, japonica, and opposita) and even South America (Dioscorea trifida).  Potatoes and yams have a high yield, thrive in any kind of soil, are drought-resistant, and grow in many different climatic zones.  Their taste is not dissimilar and neither is their method of cultivation (although yams extend much deeper underground and it takes more work to dig them up).  And in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people of African, American, Asian, and European origin were all growing, selling, and eating these plants, and they didn’t always do a good job of distinguishing between them.

By 1500, the sweet potato (and/or yams) had become an established crop in western Europe.  They were a staple of European sailors’ diets.  And they were fed – often with great violence, and by force – to enslaved women and men, on the African continent, during the middle passage, and after arrival in the Caribbean and the Americas.  “Common,” or white potatoes, took a bit longer to catch on; they arrived in Europe as a cultivable vegetable between 1550-1570.  Metropolitan Britain was one of the last European countries to take to the potato; the first mention of potatoes (sweet, “common,” or otherwise) in a printed British book was in 1596, when famed herbalist and botanist John Gerard included it in his Catalogue.  This was apparently so well-received that a year later, Gerard devoted an entire chapter of his famous 1597 Herbal to this new and unfamiliar plant.

"Of Potatoes of Virginia," in John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
“Of Potatoes of Virginia,” in John Gerard, The Herball (London, 1597). Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more British subjects – enslaved and free, and on both sides of the Atlantic – began to grow, harvest, cook, and eat potatoes (as well as, and alongside, yams).  In the early modern period, news of the potato spread through contact with print as well as people.  Women and men learned about potatoes through experimentation, books, and word-of-mouth.  They exchanged potato recipes with friends.  They shared potato cuttings with their neighbors.  They read about potatoes and tried their hands at preparing them.  And some were forced to learn about and eat potatoes out of necessity, because they had – or were given – nothing else.

A team of Folger researchers recently uncovered a very early European potato recipe in our archives.  The Folger Library in Washington, DC is proud home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States.  And in one of these recipe books, a manuscript collection kept by the Grenville family from c. 1640-1750, is a recipe entitled “to make a potato puding.”  The recipe called for some ingredients that would have been familiar to any early modern British person, like butter and eggs.  But it also included ingredients that might have seemed luxurious and even exotic: sweet wine imported from Spain, cinnamon (which was sourced from India and Sri Lanka in the early modern period), and three pounds of potatoes.  This recipe reveals one family’s attempt to bring a new and unfamiliar food to their table, but it also teaches us about wealth and social status in seventeenth-century Britain.  The Grenville’s potato pudding was a fancy dish, saved for special occasions, and something that most early modern families would not have been able to afford.

Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, (ca. 1640-ca. 1750), V.a.430, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Cookery and medicinal recipes of the Granville family, (ca. 1640-ca. 1750), V.a.430, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

We learned a lot about early modern markets, economies, foodways, and methods of cultivation as we studied the Grenville recipe for potato pudding, but we also wanted to try it for ourselves.  So we invited Dr. Amanda Moniz, a former professional chef, veteran Recipes Project contributor, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy, to visit the Folger in order to help us re-create the Grenville’s potato pudding in our test-kitchen.

We faced three major challenges in making this dish in a form that early modern people would have recognized.  First, the recipe calls for sack, a type of sweet fortified wine originally produced in Spain and the Canary Islands.  Sack fell out of use in the nineteenth century, and isn’t available in most American markets.  The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern sherry, and especially a dark sherry like Oloroso, which is what we used in our adaptation.  The second challenge is that the pudding calls for a lot of eggs: eight of them, both whites and yolks.  Early modern eggs were smaller, less uniform, and had different moisture levels than our modern American ones.  In order to reach the right consistency, we cut the number of eggs in our potato pudding down to five, and we adjusted our cooking time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes so that the pudding would set properly.  And last, the recipe doesn’t specify what types of potatoes the Grenvilles used in their pudding.  But since sweet potatoes were the first kind of potato to be widely adopted in early modern Europe – and since we thought that those flavors would be more familiar to most modern Americans today – that’s what we chose.

When it was finished, the potato pudding was delicious, earning high marks from all of the members of our Folger tasting team.  Creamy and rich, delicately scented with sweet wine and cinnamon, this early modern sweet potato pudding was both unusual and familiar, imparting a sense of the past without compromising the sensibilities of a present-day palate.  We don’t know how often the Grenvilles made this potato pudding, but I’m going to be making it again very soon.

Sweet potato pudding. Image courtesy of the author.
Sweet potato pudding. Image courtesy of the author.

The Grenville Family’s Sweet Potato Pudding (adaptation)
Ingredients:

3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
¾ lb. butter, softened
½ c. sherry (we recommend a dark sherry like Oloroso)
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
5 whole eggs, lightly beaten

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 350F.  Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil.  Add potato pieces and cook until tender.  Drain.  In a large bowl, mash the potatoes with the butter until uniform and combined.  Fold in the sherry, cinnamon, and eggs.  Bake in a buttered casserole dish for 45 minutes, or until the pudding has pulled away from the sides of the dish and the middle jiggles slightly when shaken gently.  The pudding will continue to set as it cools.

Sources & References:
Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006); Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd., 1993); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972); Redcliffe N. Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949).

Interested in learning more about early modern potatoes?  Check out this Recipes Project post by Rebecca Earle from 2014, and learn more about her ongoing research project “The Early Modern Potato: A Global History.”

From Dificio di ricette to Bâtiment des recettes: The Afterlife of Italian Secrets in France

By Julia Martins

Title page of the 1574 edition of the Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricett. Image from Archive.org. 

In 1525 a book called Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricette was published in Venice. The book promised to reveal all kinds of secrets to the reader, from cosmetic to medical recipes. This anonymous Italian best seller (which we may call in English ‘Palace of Recipes’) was a collection of 187 short and straightforward recipes, most of them only 5 or 10 lines long. The printer combined utilitarian and pragmatic secrets (including treatment of everyday ailments) with playful elements. Indeed, a taste for the wonderful and a desire to entertain guests were a vital component of this book. After all, the printer included instructions to perform magic tricks such as ‘how to make a candle burn under water’. The work was a commercial success in Italy, and was reprinted 28 times in the forty years after its publication.

The Dificio di ricette also circulated across Europe in many different languages, giving it a truly Pan-European flavour. The work was translated into French in 1539 and in 1545, also translated into Dutch via the French translation. This kind of indirect translation was common in the secrets genre. As William Eamon has shown, Alessio’s Secrets were also translated in English through the French translation. It is notable that in both cases, the French translation served as a cultural and linguistic mediator and it was in France that the Palace of Recipes reigned supreme.

Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560
Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560

Titled the Bâtiment des recettes, the French edition of the work found even greater success than the Italian one. Between its first French publication in 1539 and the final edition in 1830, the book was published 60 times. The main reason for this enduring success is probably the fact that, in 1631, the Bâtiment des recettes was added to the series of books printed in Troyes and commonly known as the ‘Bibliothèque Bleue’, since all the editions had blue covers. This collection of cheaply printed booklets included many books of secrets, and the Bâtiment des recettes continued to be sold in France until well into the 19th century.

What makes the Bâtiment des recettes so interesting is that it is not simply a translation of the Dificio di ricette. Rather it is a collection of different texts, themselves anonymous compilations of recipes. These include a collection of 26 ‘Secrets Specially Proposed for Women’ added by the printer Jean III Du Pré in 1539 and the ‘Pleasant Garden’ (Plaisant jardin) added in 1551. A translation from Italian, the ‘Pleasant Garden’ consisted of 202 varied medical recipes ‘developed by doctors very experts in physic’. Therefore, this 1560 edition contained more than double the number of recipes in the original Italian Palace.

Of the many editions of the Dificio, the 1560 French edition proved particularly popular and was most reprinted. Recently, Geneviève Debloc published an annotated critical edition of the 1560 edition of the Bâtiment des recettes. This is a very useful tool for historians, tracing the several different additions and suppressions in the Bâtiment des recettes throughout its four centuries of history, as well as providing us with tables that offer a systematic account of the ingredients used in the recipes (see my review here).

Thanks to digitisation and new critical editions, a growing number of early modern sources are becoming more easily accessible to scholars. We can compare and contrast complex texts, as in the case of the Dificio. Through a bibliographical approach, we are given the opportunity to read an important primary source in the history of knowledge in a new way – at the crossroads of the history of the book and the history of technologies in tracing the evolution in the composition of the text (including paratextual materials and changes in vocabulary), it is possible to understand how multiple agents were involved in the production of the book, from translators to printers. The Bâtiment des recettes can therefore be understood as both process and final product of these interventions. Through its fragmentary and polymorphic constitution, this re-edited recipe book gives us compelling insight into early modern life in France and Italy and its medical practices.

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Julia Martins is a PhD student at the Warburg Institute in London. Her research focuses on recipes about female fertility in Italian books of secrets (as well as their translations) from 1555 to 1700. Her aim is to show how knowledge about “women’s secrets” circulated in early modern print, drawing a comparison between Italian and French books of secrets and English midwifery manuals.