Category Archives: Early Modern

“To shorten winter evenings”: Recipes as Remedies Against Seasonal Melancholy

By Anna Speyart


Fig. 1 – Playful games and tricks of the trad from the frontpiece of Simon Witgeest, Het Niew Toneel der Konsten (Amsterdam: Jan ten Hoorn, 1679).

For anyone fearing the winter blues, a recipe collection from the seventeenth-century Low Countries presented a delightful remedy. Simon Witgeest’s Het Nieuw Toneel der Konsten[The New Theatre of Arts] (1679) aimed “to shorten winter evenings, which some find very dismal and which give rise to myriad wicked temptations” (Figure 1). In his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), the English physician Robert Burton had already suggested that continuous diversion was the best remedy for melancholy moods, since it kept the affected mind distracted from its cogitations. Filled with magic tricks, brainteasers, remedies, pranks, and experiments, Witgeest’s collection fulfilled its promise to provide readers with a “banquet of treats for long winter evenings.” As a diversion, the recipes themselves became a remedy, which “not only sharpen young people’s wits, but also entertain old and melancholy brains.” Though Witgeest’s emphasis on recipes as a pastime can easily be dismissed as frivolous, it is worth appreciating how the collection entertained readers by teaching them to craft remedies, curiosities, and mischief with materials found in the late seventeenth-century household.

Many of Witgeest’s tricks could be done with objects found around the dinner table, suggesting that they were intended as party tricks. Readers learned fun feats with tumblers, knives, dishes, eggs, candles, bread, and lobsters, for example. One recipe described a jug with which unwitting and thirsty guests would always spill liquids over themselves. Readers also found out how to cut an apple in two without removing it from the handkerchief in which it was wrapped (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Apples sit central to the work of the Dutch master Floris Claesz van Dijck, Still Life with Cheeses (ca. 1615), Rijksmuseum. Source: Rijksmuseum Rijksstudio

Some recipes explicitly referred to the social settings in which the trick would be performed. “When one has gathered for a meal with good friends,” one recipe read, “it is considered dignified if one can present a few amusing tricks. This can be done with a pocket fountain, which can be used to sprinkle others with water from aside so that they do not know where it came from so suddenly.”

Specific instructions taught prospective pranksters how to maximize the desired effect on their audiences. A trickster could, for instance, bet that it was possible to poke a horse or camel through the eye of a needle. Once the bets were made, the trickster should “fool around for a while,” trying to pull the large animals through the tiny hole. Only when bystanders had laughed at the trickster for long enough, the feat should be revealed: if the eye of the needle was placed against the animal, the trickster could use another needle to poke the animal through the eye of a needle. In variations on the same word game, heads could be poked through a small ring, or large cheeses and bread loaves through the ear of a pitcher.

Some recipes described experiments that were sure to impress guests, including designs for a magic lantern and camera obscura, but also setups that could more easily be achieved in household settings. One gravity-defying experiment saw a full bucket hang from a table at an improbable angle (Figure 3).

Fig. 3 – A woodcut illustrating the setup of a gravity-defying trick from Witgeest’s Het natuurlyk tover-boek (Amsterdam, 1684), page 119.   Source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KW 30 K 20.

Readers also learned that it was possible to throw a ring into water and pull it out without getting one’s fingers wet. “Take a flat dish, pour some water into it, and throw in your ring… Take a large tumbler or beer jug and put a burning piece of paper into it. While the paper is still burning, I place the tumbler onto the water upside down… As the air in the tumbler starts to cool, all the liquid in the dish will be pressed into the tumbler. You will see the dish empty and you will be able to retrieve your ring without wetting your hands” (Figure 4).

Fig. 4 – A woodcut illustrates how water rises into a glass with a small fire inside from Witgeest’s Het natuurlyk tover-boek (Amsterdam, 1684), page 145.
Source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KW 30 K 20.

Whether readers practiced these recipes by the book is difficult to ascertain, but at least one reader used the margins of his or her copy to work through the numbers of a scatological brainteaser. Nonetheless, even the armchair trickster would have been able to feast on the variety of quirky tidbits in Witgeest’s collection.

Simon Witgeest, which means “white spirit,” was most probably a pseudonym chosen to dispel suspicions of black magic. Although the identity of the recipes’ compiler has not been retrievable, a polemic pamphlet circulated in 1690 gives an impression of the collection’s publishing context. The pamphlet targeted Jan ten Hoorn, the publisher of the Witgeest books, for selling a pirated Dutch translation of Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy (1690) in his “trashy shop.” A fictional “Doctor Witgeest” also featured in the pamphlet, blushing at the accusation of plagiarism leveled against Ten Hoorn’s collaborators.

A first edition of the Witgeest collection appeared in 1679, but subsequent editions differed significantly from the first. With diminished emphasis on artisanal practices in favor of vastly expanded tricks of all kinds, these later editions, such as the sixth, better represent what the Witgeest books came to stand for as they continued to be published in the eighteenth-century Low Countries and in Germany. In the twenty-first century, readers can glimpse the appeal of some of Witgeest’s tricks on social media channels that specialize in life hacks, where variations on the experiments with gravity-defying buckets and water rising into a tumbler continue to feature. Meanwhile, the poking game has found new life in the realm of dad jokes.


Playful Learning with Food: Historical Recipe Assignments in the Classroom

By Amy M. Froide


Recipes are powerful tools to teach about the past and the present. I like to experiment with assignments that mix a dash of fun with a quantity of learning in my courses on early modern British and European history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. These courses are upper-level surveys that do not require extensive background and content knowledge. Because not all students are history majors, I incorporate both multi-modal content and applied or experiential learning assignments. Students engage with historical sources and materials in different modalities; they will read scholarly articles along with a website, a blogpost, or a podcast on the same subject. And instead of assigning a paper, I structure assignments that require students to read, analyze, synthesize, and write, but the final product might be in a less textual format. Students respond well to this kind of hands-on and experiential teaching of history and the most successful examples have involved the history of food.

Utilizing some of the exceptional resources assembled by scholars and libraries, I have honed an assignment with the following constituent parts: 1) research and choose a historical recipe, 2) recreate the recipe,  3) present your results in class, and 4) write up a reflection on the experience and what food can teach us about history. Students consider various issues familiar to food historians, including the origins of foodstuffs and ingredients; histories of food production, labor, and gender; social status and class’s connection to foodstuffs; and food’s relationship to social settings, holidays, and religious events.

I ran this assignment for the third time in Spring 2022 in a course on Pre-Modern European Women’s History. I thought I had it down, but my 30 students staged a rebellion. Their act of charivari made a good assignment even better. Because I am a historian of Britain, I often do not assume my undergraduates can read non-English languages. In this course, I curated a set of digitally available recipes from early modern England. After perusing these recipes, however, my students balked. They did not feel attached to these recipes. They were distant and foreign. Diversity is a hallmark of my institution, and over a third of my students were Muslim with families from the Middle East and North Africa. A smaller percentage were Hispanic or from the Caribbean, many were African American, and several were Jewish. Given the breadth of backgrounds, I allowed these students to find a recipe that reflected their own past, with the caveat that it still had to be a documented early modern recipe.

The mandate for my students was to connect the past and the present through food.  Their background became the foundation for engaged historical learning. Thanks to this change on the last day of class we feasted on Sephardic Jewish recipes from late medieval Spain, agua fresca, and rosewater cakes. One student who is from the Philippines, chose to make adobo and taught about European colonialism in a new way by presenting native vs. Spanish adobe recipes. The main differences were the type of meat used–native Filipinos used goat, but Spanish Conquistadores introduced cattle–and the amount of vinegar to taste as Spanish tastebuds preferred a less tangy sauce (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 – “Potage de adobado de gallina” – a source typical of student online research from  Francisco Martínez Montiño, Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería, y conservería (Madrid: José Fernández de Buendía, 1662).

The part of the assignment that elicits the most discussion and concern is the recreation of the recipe and it often ends up being the most educational moment. I try to assuage their worry by reminding students that the ‘result’ does not have to be pretty or appetizing, it is the process I want them to think about. I must admit in the age of cooking shows, this is a hard habit for the students to break, but I repeatedly announce that results are not graded on taste or appearance. When students are in the act of recreation, they discover different perspectives and different questions to ask. How do I know what measurements to use? How can a modern stove top recreate a pot over a fire? What would pre-modern cooks have used as substitutions? And how long is it until something is ‘done’?

In my women’s history course, students recreated and presented food in ways I did not expect. One student chose to recreate a family pizzelle recipe (figure 2). She brought in heirloom pizzelle irons for her presentation and ran a taste test competition between northern European (made with butter) vs. southern European (made with olive oil) recipes. Spoiler alert: butter won. A few students chose to recreate medicinal rather than culinary recipes. A student compounded a salve used to treat Henry VIII’s leg sores. A key ingredient in the original recipe was turpentine. I had forbidden the use of toxic substances, which led to her regaling us with a comedy of errors tale of substitutions. The recipes that didn’t work out were some of the most fun. A student who produced a very dry and unappetizing seed cake was a good sport and allowed the class to laugh with and not at her. Her misfire introduced a lively discussion about the difficulties of recreating recipes without standard measures and suggested baking temperatures.

Fig. 2 – Student-made, historically-inspired pizzelles!

Between the research, recreation, presentation, and write up, I think this recipe assignment is more involved and productive than a standard paper. And yet, the successful work is ‘hidden’ in several ways. One, the multiple steps automatically break down the assignment into chunks. Two, because there are several elements of choice in the assignment students do not mind spending time on it. Three, because there are elements of play involved it doesn’t seem like ‘work’ or ‘study’ to them. I will admit, not every single student enjoys a recipe recreation assignment. A handful of shy students, or those who think cooking and food are insignificant to historical inquiry, are not won over. One option is to allow students to choose between this assignment and a traditional research paper. Overall, I have found that most students devote more time and thought to an experiential learning experience and enjoy the process much more.  Having fun while learning, mixing work and play, is a recipe for student engagement.

If you are interested in creating your own recipe recreation project, there is a bit of upfront work to creating the assignment. I suggest doing this part during a summer or winter break. If you trial the assignment, you might find you lose total control (like I did) or that you did not envision everything ahead of time, so you must be willing to do some improvisation. Making student reflection part of the assignment will help you figure out what worked and what did not. By your second or third iteration, your assignment will be much refined–much like any recipe!


It Roars and Breathes Fire! Dragons and Sixteenth-Century Recipes of Wonder

By Madison Clyburn


It roars and breaths fire! A dragon from Raffaello Gualterotti’s Feste nelle nozze de don Francesco Medici (Florence, 1579). More information below.

Dragons were not unusual in early modern Europe, at least as depictions of art and material culture.  In architectural embellishments, domestic goods, military regalia, and recipe books, dragons were frequently depicted in a wide variety of works.  In the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta’s  Magia Naturalis of 1658 (fig. 1), for example, one could find a recipe to  make “The flying Dragon.” The finished product is a mechanical kite of sorts, which is “witty and not to be despised…[by] ingennous Men, and Artificers.”[1] By following the instructions and considering the role of the dragon in Western myths and legends and its endurance in early modern European spectacle, the recipe offers insight into the science of flight and the wonder of technological entertainment that were not untypical in the period. 

Figure 1 – Giambattista della Porta’s “The flying Dragon,” in Magia Naturalis. Full text available via the Internet Archive.

Della Porta’s recipe to make a flying dragon, included in the chapter “Some Mechanical Experiments,” begins with general instructions on how to assemble the dragon’s interior framework with small pieces of reeds and cords. For the tail—multiple cords are attached to the frame, with scraps of paper tied to each piece. Next, apply thin paper or linen over the body. What follows are tips on how to make it fly: one must position the dragon askew rather than directly into the wind and only allow the dragon to sail when the wind is equal and uniform. It is crucial to strike the perfect balance between gentleness and force when releasing the dragon from a tower or some other high place since the wind that cuts through the snaking pattern of houses can disrupt the dragon’s flight.

Figure 2 – Full page of John Bates, “How to make flying Dragons” in The mysteryes of nature, and art (London: [T. Harper for R. Mab and are to be sold by John Jackson and Francis Church], 1634), 79. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

John Bates’ Mysteryes of Nature and Art (1634) and the German naturalist Athanasius Kircher’s Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis (1680) also include similar recipes (fig.  2). These recipes for flying dragons are part of a broader “how-to” culture that experimented with natural magic. Further, they occupy a space within the fashionable books of secrets genre and can be read alongside receipts for soaps and cleanliness, plague, and fertility.

The dragon is a mythical creature whose role in folklore differs in cultures worldwide. Western customs designate dragons as large, scaly, winged, horned, fire-breathing reptilian creatures. Greco-Roman and Christian sources spurred its popularity in medieval and early modern culture. Several Greek epics detail battles between heroes and dragon-like creatures, like Cadmus and the Ismenian dragon, Apollo and the Python, and Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. In Christian tradition, malevolent dragons represent Satan and the impending apocalypse, for out from the heavens came an “enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” (Rev. 12.3). Paintings, manuscript illuminations, woodcuts, and sculptures often depict legends such as St. George and the dragon, St. Martha the Dragon-Slayer, and St. Elizabeth the Wonderworker and Dragon-Slayer.

The European dragon’s formidable appearance lent to its participation in military, diplomatic, and matrimonial spectacles. The medieval draco standard, possibly introduced to the Roman military in the second century AD and carried by cavalry, is composed of a hollow dragon’s head attached to a lance and a body of silk. The concept of the militarized dragon persisted well into the fifteenth century; De Re Militari (1472), a military treatise and the second illustrated book printed in Italy, depicts a large and foreboding portable dragon-shaped war machine (fig. 3) with a ladder and multiple canons built into the body.

Figure 3 – Roberto Valturio (author), Matteo de’ Pasti (artist), and Johannes ex Verona (publisher), “A portable dragon-shaped war machine,” in De Re Militari (Verona, 1472), folios 167v-168r. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.71.4). Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The military arena was not the only place to find mechanized bellowing, fire-breathing dragons. In 1520, Henry VIII and François I met in a historic moment in what became known as The Field of Cloth of Gold. This grand 18-day meeting featured a flying dragon similar to the one in della Porta’s recipe. The dragon, pictured in the top-left of the painting The Field of Cloth of Gold (1545) in the Royal Collection Trust, was a kite created by stretching canvas over wooden hoops.

Dragons also often played a part in nuptial festivities, especially as wedding processions became more extravagant during the Renaissance period. Wealthy families hosted multi-day celebrations: the Medici weddings of the sixteenth century are of particular note for their spectacular pyrotechnics and mythologized dramas. For instance, the 1579 wedding of Duke Francesco de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello featured a battle between the god Apollo, an evil sorceress, and a five-headed mechanical dragon (fig. 4). The fight between Apollo and the Python was repeated in the 1589 wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine de Lorraine.[2]

Figure 4 – Raffaello Gualterotti (author) and Stamperia Giunti (printer), “The Maga and the Dragon,” in Feste nelle nozze de don Francesco Medici gran duca di Toscana; et della … sig. Bianca Cappello (Florence, 1579). Etching, 4 3/4 x 8 5/8 in. (12.2 x 21.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1931 (31.34). Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

But back to della Porta’s recipe: like many recipes in Natural Magick, “The flying Dragon” prompts opportunities for creativity based on personal preference. For example, to make the dragon more dramatic, della Porta suggests you place a lantern inside the body to make it shine like a comet. You can insert a roll of gunpowder to make it roar and breathe fire. An alternative is to bind a cat or puppy to the reed structure and listen to its cries as it soars through the sky. Although the last option is less than appealing to me, the wonder that these mechanical dragons inspired demonstrates the role of recipes in producing technological entertainment.

[1] Giambattista della Porta, Natural magick (London: Printed for Thomas Young, and Samuel Speed, and are to be sold at the three Pigeons, and at the Angel in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1658), 409.

[2] Philip Steadman, Renaissance Fun: The Machines Behind the Scenes (London: UCL Press, 2021), 87-88.


‘I Have Known’: Copying Personal Accounts in Early Modern Receipt Books

By Margaret Maurer 

Reading British Library Sloane MS 559, a seventeenth-century receipt book, I came upon a recipe with the following efficacy statement: “I have knowne a woman heale many blind people with this medicine following” (MS 559 6v). The sentence was striking, not only because it places powerful healing with Biblical resonance in the hands of an unnamed woman, but because I had already seen it in another early modern receipt book.

The sentence appears word-for-word in British Library Sloane MS 2488; both manuscripts contain this specific and seemingly personal testimony: “I have known…” Confronted with two handwritten accounts, the identity of the first-person pronoun becomes murky. Did either scribe witness this miraculous healer?

 

Two panels show manuscript documents that detail similar recipes.
LEFT: BL Sloane MS 559 6v. RIGHT: BL Sloane MS 2488 8r. © British Library Board BL Sloane MS 559 6v, BL Sloane MS 2488 8r.

 

At a glance, these manuscripts do not seem to have much in common. Sloane MS 2488 is a fair-copy folio in a neat italic hand, with the owner’s mark “Elizabeth Beere: her booke” (fol. 1r). In contrast, Sloane MS 559 is a quarto-sized receipt book in secretary hand, with the owner’s mark “James Manninge” (1v).

However, while these receipt books are not identical, they contain many of the same recipes in the same order. Both feature organizational headers that divide medical recipes by afflicted body parts, beginning with “The Head,” before listing a series of identical recipes for various head ailments.

 

Two panels show manuscript documents that detail similar recipes.
LEFT: BL Sloane MS 559 2r. RIGHT: BL Sloane MS 2488 2r. © British Library Board BL Sloane MS 559 2r, BL Sloane MS 2488 2r.

 

Both manuscripts also share numerous recipes and their organizational structure with Ralph Williams’ printed Physical Rarities containing the most choice receipts […] (first published 1651). Williams’ longer text contains many additional recipes, and this printed book likely served as a source that was copied into manuscript to create a “starter” recipe collection.1

Williams’ printed text is not the only source of overlapping passages between these manuscripts. Both receipt books include a passage about “pluresy” (MS 559 38r; MS 2488 31v-32r) that does not have a clear print analogue, although it has similarities with a description of pleurisy attributed to Galen in Christopher Wirtzung’s The General Practise of Physicke (1617). Additionally, both manuscripts contain a collection of confectionary recipes beginning, “Heere follow notes how to make certaine conserues and other thinges” (MS 2488 84r), including: “To clarify sugar” (MS 559 133r; MS 2488 84r), “To make oil of roses” (MS 559 134r; MS 2488 85r), and “To make snow” (MS 599 137; MS 2488 87r).

 

Two panels show manuscript documents that detail similar recipes.
LEFT: BL Sloane MS 559 133r. RIGHT: BL Sloane MS 2488 84r. © British Library Board BL Sloane MS 559 133r, BL Sloane MS 2488 84r.

 

Each manuscript also contains recipes that do not appear in the other, including Sloane MS 559’s “Weapon Salve” (148r-149r), attributed to Paracelsus, and Sloane MS 2488’s recipes attributed to Thomas Noble (MS 2488 88v-89v). These differences reflect their compilers’ interests and needs; despite their similarities, these manuscripts appear to have been expanded and customized over time.

However, given their notable textual overlap, these manuscripts likely have a shared textual genealogy, even if their precise relationship is unclear. Sloane MS 559 includes “For a copper face” (MS 559 19r) − a recipe from Physical Rarities that does not appear in Sloane MS 2488 − which signals that Sloane MS 2488 is likely not an intermediary text between Sloane MS 559 and Physical Rarities. While it is possible that Sloane MS 559 served as a source for Sloane MS 2488, there could just as easily be another unknown manuscript or manuscripts that served as intermediaries between these receipt books. A preliminary comparison does not yield a definitive answer, but further comparison between and beyond these two receipt books, as well as research into their provenance, may help illuminate their relationship.

 

Two panels show manuscript documents that detail similar recipes.
LEFT: BL Sloane MS 559 19r. RIGHT: BL Sloane MS 2488 19r. © British Library Board BL Sloane MS 559 19r, BL Sloane MS 2488 19r.

 

Despite this uncertain relationship, an intertextual comparison challenges assumptions that conflate first-person accounts with the scribe’s experience. As it turns out, neither scribe witnessed the woman who miraculously healed blind people. Instead, Williams’ Physical Rarities features the attestation in print: “I have knowne a woman heale many blind people with this medicine following.” This first-person efficacy statement was copied and recopied in these extant manuscripts and may have been copied additional times.

Comparing these three receipt books, two manuscript and one print, demonstrates that the use of first-person statements in early modern receipt books is not always indicative of the compiler-practitioner’s own experience. After all, domestic receipt books were created for personal or familial use, and the scribe likely did not consider how these texts might be interpreted by archival researchers.

Furthermore, the transcription of first-person accounts demonstrates the weight that compiler-practitioners gave to experience, whether that was their own experience or the declared experience of a trusted source. The writing and rewriting of first-person accounts do not undermine the importance of experience within early modern recipe culture. Rather, the repeated transcription of first-person accounts demonstrates the weight of personal accounts as evidence and the central role of experience in demonstrating a recipe’s efficacy. 

 

1 For more on “starter” collections, see Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2018), p. 20-23.

 

Margaret Maurer is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Margaret is currently a Dissertation Fellow at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, studying “everyday alchemy” in early modern households, paper mills, printing houses, and beehives.