Category Archives: Early Modern

Bibulous Erasmus

Brian Cummings

"The fower quarters of the yeare: Autumne," (London, 1643) ART 232- 608.3, Folger Shakespeare Library.
“The fower quarters of the yeare: Autumne,” (London, 1643) ART 232- 608.3, Folger Shakespeare Library.

Ars longa, vita brevis, as you hear every day in the tearoom at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This Christmas at the Folger I made a discovery which made me feel young: Erasmus’s favourite wine! The thought had been with me since I heard a disputation at the British Academy, years ago, between Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. All of a sudden, for once they agreed on something: that the Reformation was essentially a quarrel between beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers. You will be glad to know that the new Encyclopaedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation (New York, 2017) has a learned entry on Beer. And as Duffy and MacCulloch wound down into post-symposium revelries, already an Erasmian colloquium was forming in my mind, on whether Erasmus was a beer-drinker or a wine-drinker. After all, he was born in Holland, one of the great beer-drinking countries of the world, which even invented the world’s best drinking snack, bitterballen, precisely to go with monastic ales.

Frans Huys, Magnus ille Erasmus Roterodamus... (n.d.) ART Vol. a11 no.105, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Frans Huys, Magnus ille Erasmus Roterodamus… (n.d.) ART Vol. a11 no.105, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[Guide gastronomique [1]: De Jopenkerk, a converted church, Haarlem, NL – try “Malle Babbe”]

On the other hand, I felt sure that Erasmus preferred wine, just as, despite espousing reform, and flirting with the young Luther, he remained a life-long Catholic. Familiaria colloquia (1522) – where else – provides a definitive answer. It comes in the Convivium profanum, a dialogue between a variety of characters (chiefly Augustinus, Christianus, and Erasmius), who vie with each other in gluttony, and in describing foods and wines beloved of gourmets (or else people who just eat a lot). There are jokes at the expense of Stoics and other moralists, and worst of all, Diogenes the Cynic, who lived off raw vegetables and clear water. Kale, quinoa, and mesclun, are definitely off the menu at this particular feast.

Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum... (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum… (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the author.

[Guide gastronomique [2]: sweetgreen, 221, Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, all-day kale]

At this point, Christianus asks what his friend likes to drink with a meal: does he prefer red or white (rubrum an candidum)? Augustinus replies: “The colour’s no hindrance provided the taste’s agreeable” (a classic wino’s quip). But something else is going on: how do we use words to describe sensory things? Verbal discrimination is deliberately elided by Erasmus into distinctions of taste, since food – and especially wine – is famously hard to put into apt words, at least without resorting to absurd metaphor. Christianus comments: “Yet there are famous gourmets who deny that wine deserves approval unless it pleases the four senses: the eyes by its colour, the nostrils by its fragrance, the palate by its taste, the ears by its name and fame.” Now he drops his foodie bombshell: Tantum, ut multi non stupidi palati vehementer probarint villum Louanio vernaculum quum crederent, esse Belnense. Many people with “not stupid palates” can’t tell a wine from Louvain from one of Beaune in Burgundy.

Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum... (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Desiderius Erasmus, Familiarium colloquiorum… (Basil, 1533) 189- 464q, Folger Shakespeare Library. Image courtesy of the author.

This is the joke that got me salivating. At first I thought it was a beer gag: because in Louvain these days you will not find Belgian wine (the very idea is an oxymoron) but plenty of Belgian beer, including Bourgogne de Flandres (which sounds like an Erasmian trope). But in the fifteenth century, the Dukes of Burgundy planted vines in their territories at Brussels, Namur, Mons, and Louvain. Still, the thought brings a sneer to the nose of Erasmus: who could make such a terrible mistake? And there is a theological joke, too: Louvain is home to the nastiest scholastics.

[Guide gastronomique [3]: Le troubadour, Louvain (nr. KU) – mussels with Bourgogne de Flandres]

So, is Beaune Erasmus’s favourite wine? Here I digress into a visite du vignoble via P.S. Allen’s great edition of Erasmus’s letters. Epistola 1342 to Marcus Laurinus is one of the most extraordinary in the 3000 letters that survive. Half of it is a defence of his position on the Luther affair, which was convulsing Europe; the other half is an itinerary of his odyssey around Europe in 1521, especially an uncomfortable stay in Constance and a long convalescence in Basel. In Constance he was very ill with fever and the gallstone, and nearly died (before we feel too sorry, remember that Erasmus is always nearly dying of something). But on return to Basel he is sent a half-cask of red Burgundy by Nikolaus von Diesbach, dean and bishop-designate. Erasmus makes a miraculous recovery: he felt reborn, renatus in alium hominem. Is this a sly dig at Luther, in a letter which is all about Luther’s evangelical doctrines, and how they are worse than any disease? Especially when he now claims that red Burgundy has had a direct medicinal benefit observed by the doctors, who say that his stone has disappeared. Happy is the name of Burgundy, he raptures: O felicem vel hoc nomine Burgundiam! In another letter he calls the wine a deus ex machina. He might move to France tomorrow, except that with fresh supplies he will not need to, as he reports in Ep. 1510, a year later: “I have done a deal with the vintner for three half-casks, one of old wine and two of new”.

[Guide gastronomique [4]: Domaine Albert Morot, négociant at Ave. Jaffelin, Beaune: several 1ercrus]

Can we locate what particular wine might have brought such magical results? Here we encounter a great aporia in epicurean history, which is that the technological revolutions of the eighteenth century – in bottling and especially in corks – mean that we judge wine by completely different standards. Beaune, with its beautiful coloured rooftops, is now the commercial centre of a multi-million-Euro industry. Wine is a science (oenology, a word Erasmus surely must have invented) which went from France to California and back again, transforming an everyday drink into the wine-tasting superlatives of today. Red Burgundy, some connoisseurs say, has typical aromas of horseshit [sic] and blackberry jam. What would Erasmus have made of that? I think he would have loved it, and cited it in De copia, his great book which makes a philosophical marriage between all the possible words, and all possible things in the world. But what did he taste? There are three references in the letters to a wine from Beaune, which seems to be the one he liked best; it “was of a most agreeable colour – you might call it ruby-red”; the taste was “neither sweet nor dry”, “neither cold nor fiery”, and so kind to the digestion that “it did very little harm” – even when taken in quantity.

Thomas Trevilian, Detail of grapes from the Trevelyon Miscellany (1608), V.b.232, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Thomas Trevilian, Detail of grapes from the Trevelyon Miscellany (1608), V.b.232, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[Guide gastronomique [4]: Chez Jeannette, Fixin, boeuf bourgignon; Beaune 1ercru «Les Cent Vignes»]

The mythology of French wine is based on a holy trinity of values: the grape; the vintage; and most mystical of all, le terroir. This untranslateable word means something like “all the best wine comes from France”. White wine in Burgundy is now dominated by the Chardonnay grape, which in unoaked form is still perhaps the most opulently elegant white in the world; but in Erasmus’s time almost certainly the whites of Burgundy were made from the Fromenteau grape, perhaps equivalent to Pinot Gris. As for reds, on the other hand, we have documentation: on 6 August 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, made the political decision of his life in banning the “vile and disloyal Gamay”, and giving precedence to the Noirien, a less high-yielding grape. This is the ancestor of the modern Pinot Noir, that most quixotic and awkward of grapes. For those who love it, it is the cutest grape in history, but it is very hard to grow in abundance, and likes poor soil, cool climates, and fairly steep hills. Since these are also the conditions that wipe out harvests in bad years, the Pinot Noir is a cruel mistress, although it has found renewed success in chillier areas such as Oregon, New Zealand, and Alpine Italy, as well as its native Burgundy. However, good red Burgundy also needs a bit of age in the bottle to develop its flavours, and nothing about wine storage in Erasmus’s time was much suited to ageing. He describes liking wine with a bit of age (perhaps two years), but after four he says most of the flavour has disappeared.

We are left with terroir. The intensity of the modern wine trade is such that individual parcels of land perhaps 30 metres wide are prized as having such a particularity of flavour that they are considered quite distinct from others only a hundred metres away. It is possible that for Erasmus “Beaune” meant nothing like that. Belnense might be a generic name for wine of the whole region, somewhat like “Bordeaux” or “Sonoma”. But it is also possible that Erasmus does mean the name of this particular village. So could we find his wine on a map? It got me thinking, and indeed googling, looking at wine maps, which have always given me a special kind of pleasure. There is something cartographically exciting about a wine map: all of those tiny parcels of land, and weird names, coloured in crimson for red wine, or yellow-green for white; in the case of Burgundy, with darker shading, the better the wine. So I googled this.

Screen capture courtesy of
Screen capture courtesy of

And it got me thinking: if any of these vineyards are really old, they will be close to the town but not part of it; for instance, those near the cemetery. The cemetery will always have been in the same place. And here I was excited, because there on the map, at just that point, were some vineyards I knew the names of: “Toussaints”, “les Bressandes”, “les Cent Vignes”. Not really expensive wines – but of a price which a father, shall we say my own father, might buy his son for his 40th birthday.

The last bottle from my father's gift.  Image courtesy of the author.
The last bottle from my father’s gift. Image courtesy of the author.

For here the strands of my story had become personal. My father, who was a complicated man, was always happiest when opening a bottle of red Burgundy with his own family. He discovered Burgundy, place and wine, when I was in my teens. We used to stay at an unpretentious hotel in one of the smaller villages, Fixin – Beaune even then was hopelessly expensive and chic. The hôtel was called (as almost all nice Logis de France are, at least in the memory) Chez Jeannette, and we would stay for a week, and each night my father would buy a slightly better wine. He wasn’t buying the most expensive stuff, and Burgundy was then still quite a backwater for most travellers, nothing like the Côte d’Azur. In memory of these trips, when I was 40, he did indeed buy me 12 bottles of Beaune, “Les Cent Vignes”, made by Albert Morot, an extremely traditional negociant.

How did these vineyards get such beautiful names? Originally, the story goes, it was “Sans Vignes”, because no wine was made there; then they planted vines and changed the name. “Les Bressandes” is either named after the 13th century canon, Johannis Bressand – or else after the women of Bresse. “Les Marconnets” perhaps refers to an ancient gallic tribe conquered by the Romans.

[Guide gastronomique [5]: Le Diplomate, 14th St, NW, DC, Beaune 2006 Domaine Maillard.]

Such etymologies are very Erasmian. It would be nice to believe in an Erasmian vineyard. It is not impossible – for it was the Benedictines from Cluny who first began cultivating wines on a large scale, and the Cistercians who first walled off individual vineyards and prized the difference between small parcels of terroir. They were doing this in the 14th century. But the oldest map of Burgundian wine, to my knowledge, is 18th century. It offers nothing at this level of detail, consisting of a range of small mountains and the names of the main villages.

Claude Arnoux, "Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne..." (London, 1728). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.
Claude Arnoux, “Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne…” (London, 1728). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.

It is appended to the first ever book on Burgundy, by Claude Arnoux: Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, et sur les vins qu’elle produit (1728). He mentions four vineyards in Beaune, St Desiré, la Montée, les Grèves, and la Fontaine de Marconney. Traces of all these can still be found – the last is now Les Marconnets, above. Arnoux favours even more the wines of Volnet (now Volnay) and Pommard. Wines from Beaune, he says, much as Erasmus does, do not do well after two years of age. Volnay, he says, has the colour of l’oeil de perdrix – the eye of a partridge – and goes on: “il est plein de feu, de montant, & de legereté; il est presque tout esprit” (“it is full of fire, of flavour, and of lightness; it is almost all spirit”). Just like in Erasmus, Arnoux presents us with the problem of copia: how to represent things in words. Word is added to word, to express through variety of language the abundance of matter. Wine, like language, is a cornucopia. And so, as we continue to try, and fail, to give expression to sense perception through metaphor, there is nothing for it but to open another bottle, and wonder if it might be, as for Erasmus, a cure for life’s ills or even a deus ex machina.

[According to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men.]

Brian Cummings FBA is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. His books include Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (OUP, 2013), and an edition of The Book of Common Prayer: the Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, which appeared in Oxford Worlds Classics in 2013. In 2012 he gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University on ‘Bibliophobia’, and in 2014 the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library, coinciding with a NEH-sponsored conference on Shakespeare’s Biography. With Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge) he is leading the project “Remembering the Reformation”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2016 to 2019. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

A Taste for the Rare and the Well-Done: Recipe Texts and the Book Trade

By Anke Timmermann

Part II: The thrill of the hunt

Rare book dealers working on recipe collections are in the enviable position to be able to do original work on unique and little-researched materials, and to learn from the collections they handle, as well as from collectors, whether private or institutional. Collectors’ ambitions to acquire interesting and rare material in as comprehensive a manner as possible (including later editions, which were, for a long time, considered inferior to the first edition) have made it possible to piece together at least part of the history of the cook book. It is important to understand that, as a genre, cook books really are rather complex: they were popular publications, and somewhat ephemeral in that they were constantly replaced with more fashionable versions, revised editions or new titles. The example of one female cook book writer of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth Raffald, née Whitaker (bap. 1733, d. 1781), illustrates this point well.

Image 2: Elizabeth Raffald’s woodcut facsimile signature, intended to prevent the publication of pirated editions. Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper, for the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c. Written Purely from Practice, and Dedicated to the Hon. Lady Elizabeth Warburton, whom the Author Lately Served as Housekeeper: Consisting of Near Nine Hundred Original Receipts, Most of which Never Appeared in Print… The Tenth Edition. With… Two Plans of a Grand Table of Two Covers; and A Curious New Invented Fire Stove, wherein any Common Fuel may be Burnt instead of Charcoal. London: R. Baldwin, 1786, p. 1. From

Raffald was a food writer whose books, among her other enterprises, afforded her much success. Raffald had her own shop for ‘cold Entertainments, Hot French Dishes, Confectionaries, &c.’ (ODNB), expanded it into a cookery school, ran two inns, and, with the publication The Experienced English Housekeeper, became ‘after Hannah Glasse, the most celebrated English cookery writer of the 18th century’ (Virginia Maclean, A Short-Title Catalogue of Household and Cookery Books Published in the English Tongue 1701-1800 (1981), p. 123 n1). The Experienced English Housekeeper is remarkable in many ways and, among other things, a landmark in the development of the English wedding cake, recording the use of marzipan and royal icing for the first time. It was issued in fifteen authorised editions between 1769 and 1810, but also inspired some twenty-five unauthorised editions. In order to prevent such piracies, Raffald issued her authorised versions with a woodcut facsimile of her signature on the first text page. Enthusiasm for Raffald’s work outlived the author herself, and a ‘new edition’ appeared posthumously in 1807, promising more additional recipes on the title than the text actually provides. Only a comparison between different exemplars, and detailed bibliographical information on other editions, can fully chart the authors’ attempts to protect their work and thwart others’ efforts to benefit from their popularity; the cunning imitations that yet bypassed these measures; and, amidst these struggles, the constant evolution of recipes, their ingredients and methods. And since many of these editions only survive in a handful of copies (due to their replacement, historical neglect or destruction by use in the kitchen), the collections that do preserve little known or rare editions are the best, and often only, means for the diligent bibliographer or bookseller to make such comparisons.


Manuscript recipe collections, by contrast, are unique by definition, and have long been very highly sought after, although not for all historical periods alike. In the late twentieth century, manuscripts produced before 1800 were the main focus for collectors, but more recently manuscripts from the early nineteenth century have also attracted much interest. No matter when acquired or how old, manuscript recipe books are often the defining features of the collections of which they form part. The Folger Library in Washington DC is, famously, home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States (see for an example from the collections), and other collections prize their manuscripts on a smaller and perhaps more modern but, overall, no less significant level – see, for example, the New York Historical Society’s holdings of recipe compendia, extending to the 1950s to 1970s, all instructive in their own right.

So how much is a recipe book worth? And is it worthwhile starting a collection today, now that collecting cook books, recipe collections and manuscripts is no longer a niche interest? For recipes as for any other collecting activity, it is the individual that makes the mark on a collection, beyond any perceived restrictions of a canon of literature or any financial constraints. One recent example for how collecting interests can flourish and develop is a young collector who won an honourable mention in booksellers Honey & Wax’s Book Collecting Prize: Ashley Rose Young, a doctoral candidate in history at Duke University, ‘began by collecting historic Creole cookbooks, then expanded her focus to the food markets of the port of New Orleans, a local economy historically dominated by African-Americans and immigrants’ . Further, it could be argued that some of Christopher Hogwood’s cook books were not collectibles when they first caught his eye, but have now, through their distinguished provenance, earned a place in other collections. Recipe books are, then, certainly a subject in which each collector can develop their own taste, and which will be valuable to their owners on many different levels. It also seems certain that they will continue to be valued in the book market, and that our knowledge of them will continue to grow over time, thanks to the endeavours of all those who handle them – be they private collectors, institutions, book dealers, or scholars.

Dr Anke Timmermann FLS is a historian of science-turned-antiquarian bookseller, and the author of Verse and Transmutation: A Corpus of Middle English Alchemical Poetry (Brill, 2013). Anke joined Bernard Quaritch Ltd, one of the oldest antiquarian booksellers in London, after finishing her Munby Fellowship in Bibliography at Cambridge University Library in 2014. She recently set up as an independent bookseller (A T Scriptorium), and specialises, among other things, in the history of science, and recipe books including culinary, medical and alchemical recipes. She tweets as @ElixirLibri.

The Wellcome Library’s Manuscript Recipe Books: Reflections on a Quarter-century of Collecting

By Richard Aspin

Page from Lady Ayscough’s book of ‘Receits of phisick and chirurgery’, dated 1692, the first recorded acquisition for Henry Welcome’s library in 1897 (Wellcome Western MS.1026)

Manuscript recipe books were at the forefront of Henry Wellcome’s collecting activities. Perhaps no other genre of European written artefact spoke more directly to his conception of healthcare as the fundamental preoccupation of human beings. Indeed his first recorded Library acquisition in 1897 was a late 17th-century English manuscript recipe book. At the time of Wellcome’s death in 1936 there were probably between 150 and 200 such books in the collection, depending on how they are defined. Thirty of so of these came from the cookery book collection of John Hodgkin of Reading (1857-1930), purchased at Hodgson’s auctioneers in London in April 1931.

Acquisition of recipe books fell away after 1936, in line with overall retrenchment in the development of the collections; but it is probable that this genre of manuscript suffered disproportionately as the focus of the postwar Wellcome Library and later Institute was firmly directed towards the history of scientific medicine and professional practice. Not more than a dozen manuscript recipe books were acquired between 1936 and 1986. There was no obvious scholarly interest in the history of domestic medicine, and it was not even clear that cookery was a relevant subject for a medical library.

This was the position of the field when I came into post as curator of western manuscripts in 1991. I occasionally purchased manuscript recipe books for the Wellcome collection over the coming years – we had a generous acquisitions allowance and manuscripts of this type were fairly inexpensive – but I had little sense of developing an important research resource. The standout acquisition of the nineties, Lady Ann Fanshawe’s book (MS.7113), which has recently been the subject of a popular monograph[1], was purchased as much for its associational and provenance interest as its content, and the hammer price at auction of £2800 in 1995 (equivalent to just over £5000 today), which now seems nugatory, was deemed somewhat extravagant at the time. When cataloguing recipe books we more or less followed the pattern set by S.A.J. Moorat, who after the war had catalogued the items acquired in Henry Wellcome’s time: scant attention was paid to the nature and content of the recipes beyond a broad indication of whether they were medicinal or culinary.

Little did I know that the growth of research interest in this genre of manuscript was already well under way, and not just in the productions of one or two ladies-bountiful, but in the wider practice of recipe-making and taking among the middling sort in early modern England. How I slowly became aware of this is now difficult to reconstruct: certainly it had nothing to do with proximity to the Wellcome Institute academic history of medicine department, where there seemed to be very little interest in recipes. It was probably largely owing to the growing number of researchers consulting our recipe books in the Wellcome Library, often Americans, and often coming from a literary studies rather than a medical history background.

The phenomenon was sufficiently salient to lead me to propose a seminar series on recipes to the academic department’s programme committee, which duly took place in autumn 2002, and led in due course to the formation of the Medicinal Receipts Research Group the following year. In the meantime the evident research interest in recipes stimulated increased collecting activity, such that well over a hundred additional English manuscript recipe books have entered the collection over the past twenty-five years. Many more could have been added: indeed, along with the growing realisation of the research value of these books has been a recognition of just how ubiquitous this genre of manuscript must have been among the literate population of early modern England.

The growing research interest in recipe books was marked by the microfilming of a substantial proportion of our collection by Thomson Gale in 2003[2], albeit framed within a now rather anachronistic-looking women’s history paradigm. Later, the seventeenth-century books – some seventy or so volumes – were digitised and their contents selectively indexed, so that individual recipe headings could be searched on-line. It was becoming clear that in addition to the evident interest of one or two standout recipe books such as the Fanshawe volume, the generality of books

Remedy for the plague from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, mid 17th cent (Wellcome Western MS.7113)

formed in aggregate a substantial research resource that could be used by scholars to illuminate questions such as the circulation of recipes, the relationship between domestic and elite medicine, and the use of exotic drugs.

Paradoxically the prices realised on the open market have not reflected the increased availability of manuscripts for purchase; if in the 1990s we could buy a solid if unremarkable late-seventeenth or eighteenth century recipe book for £350 or £400, this had increased at least tenfold by 2017. Such an exponential price rise almost certainly implies vigorous activity by a new generation of collectors building twenty-first century equivalents of the John Hodgkin cookery book collection. I am not aware of any other public collection in the UK that targets recipe books as a genre of manuscript. The price rise almost certainly means that the period of ‘heroic’ collecting of recipe manuscripts by Wellcome has come to an end. Henceforth acquisitions – of which there seems to be no sign of a diminishing supply – will no doubt be highly selective. In short, the Wellcome’s collection is to all intents and purposes complete.

Richard Aspin was curator of western manuscripts and later head of special collections in the Wellcome Library from 1991 to 2016. He took a leading part in developing the Library’s research collections during that time, including the Wellcome’s unrivalled range of early modern domestic recipe manuscripts, which are today the most-frequently consulted pre-twentieth century manuscript materials in the library. His investigation of the links between two seventeenth-century recipe manuscripts in the collection was published as ‘Who was Elizabeth Okeover?’, in Medical History, 2000, 44: 531-540


[1] Lucy Moore, Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: The Life and Times of a Civil War Heroine (2017)

[2] Women and medicine : remedy books, 1533-1865 : from the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London, ed. Sara Pennell (2004)


Water to Drink: Fit Only for Invalids and Chickens?

By David Gentilcore 

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730) © Bibliothèque nationale de France

When the French Dominican Jean-Baptiste Labat was captured by the Spanish in the 1690s, and offered water to drink aboard ship, he informed the chaplain that ‘only invalids and chickens drink water in my country’ (Labat 1722). Perhaps this comes as no surprise. If people in past times drank plenty of wine and beer, historians generally assume, this was because the water was risky and potentially unhealthy, perhaps even fatal. But that is to project our own modern conception of water – for example, as a disease-carrying agent – into the pre-modern past. Labat’s aversion to water as a beverage, as expressed in this anecdote (and as the teller of the stories he always gets the best lines!), was due not so much to concerns about its poor quality as to biases inherited from classical culture. As a drink of the lower classes (and animals), water was often described in unflattering terms, especially when compared to what was considered the beverage par excellence – wine (Squatriti 1998). And indeed, in his account, wine is exactly what Labat goes on to request.

However, if we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Not only does Labat then proceed, very laboriously, to temper his wine with water, as was the usual way of drinking wine in much of pre-modern Europe; his very successful published mixtures of travelogue, memoir and natural history positively abound with references to water. Every place he visits, Labat describes the nature of the fresh-water supply, and the varied techniques used to harvest, store and access it. In Labat’s eyes a town without its own reliable supply, like Cadiz, is one that would not be able to survive a siege. He is impressed by the technology of water, in particular aqueducts, but even more by water as display. This is evident in his detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of the ornamental fountains present in many Italian towns and cities. And he gets so carried away by his instructions on how to construct a rainwater cistern, the fruit of his own experience overseeing the establishment of a Dominican monastery in the French Antilles, that he repeats them in at least two separate works (Labat 1728; Labat 1730).


The Tivoli waterfall, as Père Labat might have seen it (not to be confused with Niagara Falls).

Even limiting ourselves to his account of Spain and Italy (Labat 1730: in eight four-hundred-page volumes!), Labat’s knowledge and curiosity regarding water and its uses is amply evident. How the clean, clear and pure water of Tivoli’s waterfall, which he compares to Niagara Falls no less, becomes full of silt and mud when it rains, making it unhealthy, or how the bouillantes (boiling) waters of a spring on the outskirts of Viterbo remind him of the spring of that name in Guadeloupe (French Antilles). Siena’s ‘magnificent’ fountain in the main square (the Fonte Gaia) provides a ‘prodigious quantity of very good water’, whilst the numerous fountains of Rome are both delightful and necessary, since the water from the River Tiber ‘is good for nothing’. He notes the high number of itinerant water-sellers in Naples, despite the public fountains on every street, and how in Spain they are registered and taxed, like all other shopkeepers and pedlars. He praises the ‘light’ waters of Bologna and the ‘admirable’ waters of Naples, in tune with the eighteenth-century Hippocratic revival of the importance of ‘airs, waters and places’ in the pursuit of health. He describes various healing springs and the different diseases they are good for, whilst noting that local doctors were rarely much in favour, since ‘nothing disconcerts doctors more than natural remedies’. He remarks on the priest so afraid of water that he wouldn’t even wash his hands, or the doctor who quickly realised that the best remedy for disease was fresh water to drink, rest, a change of air and, most of all, plenty of patience.

We know from a wide range of other sources that communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works, like aqueducts, conduits and fountains, to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in larger towns. If I gave drinking water rather short shrift in my recent study of food, diet and health (Gentilcore 2016), it at least means that I can now devote a research project entirely to the ‘water cultures’ of early modern Europe and the Mediterranean. It is already evident from work in progress that doctors went from being circumspect in their advice regarding drinking water, during the Renaissance, to great enthusiasts for table water as a ‘universal cure’, effective both in preventing and treating disease, during the eighteenth century.

Whatever his own personal drinking preferences might have been, the widely travelled Père Labat turns out to be a connoisseur of waters. Although his enthusiasm occasionally gets the better of him – the water-sellers of Naples were actually a necessity in a city perennially short of fresh water – Labat provides a generally reliable and entertaining introduction to the importance of water and its provision throughout the early modern world.

David Gentilcore is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester. His research interests lie in the medical, dietary, social and cultural history of early- and late-modern Italy. He is the author of seven books and his most recent monograph is Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450-1800 (Bloomsbury, 2015). Our blog readers interested in the history of food might also be interested in David’s books on the potato and the tomato in Italy.


Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouveau voyage aux Isles de l’Amérique (Paris: Pierre-François Giffart, 1722), 6 vols. A heavily abridged translation by John Eaden was published as The memoirs of Père Labat, 1693-1705 (London: Frank Cass, 1970 [first ed. 1931])

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouvelle relation de l’Afrique occidentale (Paris: Guillaume Cavelier: 1728), 5 vols.

Jean-Baptiste Labat, Voyages du P. Labat de l’ordre des FF. Precheurs, en Espagne et en Italie (Paris: Jean-Baptiste Delespine, 1730), 8 vols.

Paolo Squatriti, Water and society in early medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

David Gentilcore, Food and health in early modern Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)