The Red Thread site grew out of an interdisciplinary, Honors College seminar, Global History of Color. I made colour the focus of a course for four reasons:
it intersects with my own research into early modern experimentation with color;
it is a vehicle for teaching a course that is global, interdisciplinary, and material;
it is not too intimidating for students;
and I thought it would be a way to connect disparate corners of campuses and to build a public intellectual community.
Everyone knows that artisanal production is big in Oregon, but there is little connection between wider public interests in historical craft practices and academic research on those topics. When it comes to the study of material culture, we not only have under-used collections of objects at UO, but also many unique and wonderful resources around campus–an Urban Farm, Craft Center, and Beach Conservation Lab. We also have a highly skilled, curious and passionate local public of artists, crafters, homesteaders and farmers. What we don’t have is a way to connect and strengthen these various constituencies, especially in a way that places the University and historical research at the center of this connection.
Particularly as a faculty member at a public university, I feel that engaging the university with a wider public is part of its mission. Historically, recipe collections have served as forms of social media tracing community building and sharing across different domains of knowledge. At a moment when face-to-face interaction, civil discourse, and communities are weakening on a national scale, we can draw on the strength of this historical genre to engage ourselves, our students, and the public in a collective endeavour to build intellectual community.
Color proved to be an accessible way for both students and the public to engage with primary sources, material practices, and historical artifacts. In the course, we focused on a range of reds: ochre, coral, cinnabar, vermilion, kermes, madder, cochineal, Tyrian purple, brazilwood, logwood, colloidal gold, ruby glass, and red-painted porcelain. Together, we studied the history of these pigments through the lenses of the history of science, the history of medicine, economic history, cultural history and material culture. Each student focused on a single material object from campus collections, which became the subject of their exhibition labels for a co-curated exhibition and a final research paper.
We visited three campus collections: Special Collections and University Archives, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH) and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA), with strengths respectively in European, Native American and Asian materials. Through a campus grant for teaching initiatives (the Williams Foundation), I invited a guest speaker to campus for a public event. Marie-France Lemay, the paper conservator at Yale Library, brought with her the Yale Traveling Scriptorium — a traveling showcase of the materials found in premodern books and manuscripts. With Lemay, we explored the Scriptorium alongside rare books and manuscripts from our campus collection. Lemay also demonstrated a cochineal recipe, which highlighted for students the wide range of materials and processes involved in producing premodern books.
The course produced several intertwined outcomes that were oriented simultaneously to the classroom and to the public. The Museum of Natural and Cultural History hosted a small exhibition of the student-researched objects drawn from their collections. A selection of all the students’ work is also featured on a site I was able to build through a grant from our campus Digital Scholarship Center. All the books and manuscripts were completely digitized as part of the grant. My aims in building the site were to advertise our under-utilized campus collections; to highlight my students’ research; and to produce a resource that could be used in other courses and by the public.
With remaining funds from the Williams grant, I built our own version of the Traveling Scriptorium, with help from UO’s conservators Marilyn Mohr and Ashlee Weitlauf. The Scriptorium is a case full of nearly 100 materials. We experimented a lot with packaging and labelling its various parts. Through my use of the Scriptorium in various classroom settings, we tested the ease and rapidity through which it could be unpacked and repacked. When we were satisfied with it, we donated the Traveling Scriptorium to our campus library, where it is now cataloged and can be checked out by faculty for a week at a time.
At the same time that I was working on developing the digital Red Thread site and the physical teaching resource, the Traveling Scriptorium, I also worked on an on-going third initiative, “Farm to Book” , a collaboration between myself, the Beach Conservation Lab and the Urban Farm. We experimented with historical ink recipes drawn from my archival researches with conservators of the Beach Lab. We also planted ingredients for inks and dyes at our Urban Farm.
We’ve held several highly successful public events at the Craft Center and at the new “Dream Lab” in our library where members of the public could craft with our inks produced according to historical recipes, practice calligraphy, hear student presentations on their historical research, explore the Traveling Scriptorium and the Red Thread site, see selections from our rare book materials, and learn about the history of our campus collections. We even served cochineal cake!
My hope is that the Red Thread site can be used in tandem with the Traveling Scriptorium in other classes or in public presentations, either in preparation for a visit to our campus collections, or in the case of large class sizes, in lieu of a group visit. Pairing the hands-on Scriptorium with the digital resource proved to be a great way to minimize some of the limitations of digital surrogates by giving participants a sense of the material constituents of the original books and manuscripts. I used the site and the Scriptorium, for example, during a presentation for a program bringing high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus.
The tactile nature of the Traveling Scriptorium offered a great way to draw people in, as members of the public found it fascinating to handle all the little bottles of materials. I purchased one seventeenth-century volume (for less than $100) to include as part of the Scriptorium, so that an actual rare work could travel to events off campus. Being able to hold a four-hundred year-old book always has an immediate effect upon public audiences. The initial wonder and curiosity sparked by these hands-on interactions often then provoked questions and deeper discussions.
Do you think that there is something to gain from connecting classroom instruction on historical practices of making with makers across campus and from your local community? If so, how would you do it?
Leiden University’s English Language and Culture BA is aimed at teaching about not just the literature and language of the English-speaking world (broadly defined) but also about its culture. This means that when I design my medieval English literature courses, I encourage students to explore this literature within its beautiful, conflicted and multifaceted cultural environments—and their present-day resonances.
One of the activities I introduced to my courses most recently was a medieval feast. Students were tasked with translating historical recipes out of their original Middle English—a language that was spoken in England between c. 1100 and 1500, years before Shakespeare was born. Once students had translated their recipes, they tried out some medieval cooking and wrote short and imaginative reflections about how their culinary creations reflected medieval culture. I’ve compiled these recipes and reflections for a ‘digital medieval cookbook’ here.
The activity was structured in a way that would allow students to lead their own learning experiences, since scholarship of teaching and learning tends to suggest that people learn better through activities that emphasize active exploration over passive listening (cf. Messineo et al. 2007). So, students, working in groups of three or four, selected for themselves which recipes they wanted to focus on out of pre-defined sets, and they decided independently how best to approach the assignment. The resultant projects drew from an impressive range of multimedia formats, from comic strips to vlog-style cooking tutorials, and reflected an insightful understanding of medieval written and culinary culture.
In keeping with the student-driven structure of this learning task, this post will feature reflections from two of the groups who participated in the assignment. These reflections will explore some of the striking differences between modern and medieval cuisine and speak to the fascinating experience of preparing medieval food in a modern kitchen.
For medieval writers, feasting could be political. In a widely-popular medieval legend, a well-timed “wassail” (a drinking toast still in use today) was key to the arrival of the Saxons in Britain (in the 5th century CE). One of the earliest versions of the stories comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), which is best known for containing one of the longest early accounts of King Arthur. In Geoffrey’s account, Vortigern (leader of the Britons) invited Hengist (leader of the Saxons) to Britain from across the North Sea. Hengist brought his daughter Rowena with him. When Rowena met Vortigern at a feast, she approached him with a full cup of mead and, in her own language, toasted him with the words “Lauerd king wacht heil!” (“Lord king, wassail!”). Rowena’s greeting was apparently so pleasant that Vortigern was enchanted by Rowena, let his guard down and drank too much. Ultimately, he married Rowena and, in so doing, enabled the Saxon invasion of England. While undoubtedly an invention, the story illustrates how the feast, in medieval popular imagination, held the potential to influence the succession of kingdoms, the building of dynasties, and the collapse of empires.
Despite its importance to medieval writers, food has traditionally been left out of discussions of medieval culture and the value of recipes as historical documents is often overlooked. This neglect of culinary culture is due, in part, to a pervasive sense that it belongs in a domestic sphere separated from the political one, where the “real” history is thought to happen. Yet this distinction between the domestic and the political has been shown, in various domains, to be artificial; and as the Rowena anecdote makes clear, it holds little grounding in medieval culture. By shedding light on medieval culinary culture, this class project participates in a broader movement of recognizing the manifold ways in which food shaped and reflected medieval culture.
The recipes for the project came from a medieval cookbook known as the Forme of Cury(c. 1390s). It was, according its preface, compiled by “the chef Maister Cokes of kyng Richard the Secunde kyng of Englond” (fol. 1r). The recipes were taken from Samuel Pegge’s edition; while it has the disadvantage of being rather antiquated, it has the advantage over more modern editions of being out of copyright. I selected recipes that would be feasible to cook and that would be easily transportable, so that students could share their delicious creations with the class.
Medieval Food in the Modern Kitchen
By Ilse van Oosten (Leiden University)
After receiving a set of recipes, our group of four was responsible for all the stages of our project: translating our recipes, researching medieval food, and (perhaps the most enjoyable part) recreating one of our recipes. It was interesting to see what kind of ingredients and dishes a medieval person would have been familiar with and how food could reflect a person’s social position in the medieval period. Unlike reading literature, which can seem removed from everyday medieval life, reading these recipes felt like peering into a medieval kitchen.
Funnily enough, many of the recipes we translated were quite similar to some modern-day recipes. One recipe, named “appulmoy,” was a pudding-like version of our contemporary apple sauce. What surprised me is that many of the recipes were either vegetarian or fully vegan. The stereotype of the meat-loving medieval population was certainly called into question by these recipes. Discovering these links between medieval and modern-day cooking—the similar recipes and the mixed diet—was an unexpected and fascinating aspect of this project.
As we learned during the project, medieval recipes are a distinct text type that differs from its modern equivalent. There are, of course, some similarities; both medieval and modern recipes tend to start by giving the name of the dish as the title, and both tend to favour relatively short, practical sentences. Both also rely on some standard, formulaic phrases; many recipes in the Forme of Cury, end “and serue it forth,” which is comparable to the modern phrase “and serve the dish.” Yet medieval recipes tend to be rather sparse compared to their modern counterparts. They lack the kinds of measurement specifications and information about cooking time and temperature that are generally found in modern recipes. Medieval recipes also feature a limited set of cooking terms and are not divided up into separate steps, but are written in continuous sentences. They are much shorter than modern recipes and expect a great deal of prior knowledge from cooks. All this forced us to improvise a bit while trying out the recipes.
Although some medieval recipes did not sound too appetising, such as a “salat” consisting mainly of onions and an odd mixture of fresh herbs, some medieval recipes are really tasty and fun to make. Even though the real experience of a medieval kitchen would have been different, making medieval recipes today offers a glimpse of what went into making medieval food. Among other things, a lack of modern tools like blenders and programmable ovens means that it took much longer to prepare food in the medieval period than it does today. A modern cook trying these recipes for the first time may need to spend some time researching unfamiliar ingredients like “powdour fort” (“strong powder”) and I would recommend preparing the dish as a group, simply because it was the most fun bit of this assignment. Most recipes were not very difficult to make and offer a nice culinary experience for anyone interested in both history and cooking.
Medieval Food, Health, and Social Status
By Ellemijn Galjaard, Vita Jansen and Lisanne de Wolff (Leiden University)
Going into this assignment, our view of medieval food was stereotypical to say the least. We expected the medieval diet to be extremely carnivorous, unvaried and bland. However, we were surprised to find quite the opposite. An article by Rosalie Taylor revealed that medieval cooks were perfectly capable of preparing a wide variety of vegetables. In fact, greens were often left out of recipes because cooks were expected to know how to create a balanced dish without this information — not because medieval people didn’t eat vegetables. Unlike today’s cookbooks, medieval cookbooks omit specifics about boiling, blanching or sautéeing vegetables because these were thought of as general knowledge.
Indeed, many of the medieval recipes we read turned out to be far from bland. Two of the key ingredients in the recipe for Appulmoy, for example, were saffron and the aforementioned spice blend known as “powdour fort”. Compared to these powerful spices, the more generic combination of sugar and cinnamon used for Dutch ‘appelmoes’ comes up somewhat short. After tasting our home-made Appulmoy, we knew one thing for sure: the Middle Ages witnessed some great culinary creations.
To understand the differences between medieval and modern recipes, it is valuable to look at Middle English cooking in general. During the Middle Ages, cookery books were not as commonplace as they are today. The audience for cookery books was generally literate and well-off, because the production of books was rather costly (Mikkelsen Talgø 8). Additionally, the ingredients mentioned in medieval recipes could be quite expensive and thus inaccessible to the lower-income households. This aspect of medieval recipes was evident from an ingredient in one of our recipes: saffron. Even today, saffron is considered exceptionally pricey, and saffron had the same reputation as an exclusive spice in medieval times. Volker Schier describes saffron as “an object of conspicuous consumption reserved for the wealthy” (57).
But it had medical properties: “tonic, mood elevator, antidepressant, and hallucinogenic drug” (57). This means that saffron was not only to enhance the taste and colour of recipes, but served a medical purpose. J. Estes claims that “[b]y the late Middle Ages, the therapeutic benefits of food had entered into the everyday planning of at least the grand households” (1537). Spices more generally “were regarded as both aids to digestion and evidence of a hosts’ wealth” (1537). From this evidence, we can conclude that spices in the medieval period were thought to promote both one’s health and one’s reputation. This dual purpose of spices is not prominent in modern day cuisine, although there has been an increase in recent years in using spices for their antimicrobial properties in health-conscious diets.
Three ingredients in our recipe were hard to find, each for a different reason. The first was saffron, which can be hard to include in medieval cooking due to its cost and rarity. Although it can be a rather exclusive spice, it was available in a regular supermarket and we were able to procure some of it for the Appulmoy. But we were not able to obtain almond flour. It is today considered a health product akin to superfoods such as dried cranberries and dairy substitutes such as rice milk, but such products are not widely available. The inclusion of almond flour rather than regular flour in a medieval recipe, albeit one that was probably for the wealthy (judging from the saffron), suggests that in the medieval period almond flour was a more common ingredient than it is today. The third ingredient, “powdour fort” (or “strong powder”), was hard to find because its name was initially a mystery. We now know this refers to a mix of spices, containing pepper and cinnamon or pepper and ginger. We decided to try the cinnamon blend for our Appulmoy.
A few final tips for anyone embarking on a medieval cooking project…
When making medieval recipes, proceed with an open mind and an experimental attitude.
Do not worry too much about the right amount of pepper or cinnamon, or about the end result.
If you want to make sure your food turns out right, you can compare the medieval recipe with similar modern ones in order to get more exact timings and measurements.
However, this might take away from the experience, which is really the most important part: the experience of cooking something special with friends.
Estes, J. “Food as Medicine.” Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1534-53.
Messineo, Melinda, et l. “Inexperienced Versus Experienced Students’ Expectations for Active Learning in Large Classes.” College Teaching vol. 55, no. 3, 2007, pp. 125-33.
Mikkelsen Talgø, M. An Edition of the Fifteenth-Century Middle English Cookery Recipes in London, British Library’s MS Sloane 442. MA Thesis. University of Stavanger, 2015. Web. Accessed 20 April, 2019.
Although the 18th century was not the era of mixed drinks or “cocktails” (those come out in force in the late 19th to early 20th centuries), one important exception was punch. This popular and convivial beverage swept the globe in the 1600s. Punch combined five basic components: citrus juice, sugar, botanicals, water, and distilled spirits – usually rum, brandy, or arrack, a beverage made from either rice, palm juice, or coconut flower sap, common throughout South and Southeast Asia.
Some clues about punch’s origins point to India, and others to the practical needs and available resources of European sailors. The title of the recipe we decided to recreate points to this origin on ship board: “To make Milk Punch that will keep Years by Sea or Land.” As part of their victuals, sailors had increased access to distilled alcohols during the 17th century. Some European ships had citrus on hand to combat scurvy, long before such fruits were formally dolled out as rations and scientifically understood as antiscorbutics. Sugar and spices were also often part of the cargo. If punch did begin life aboard long-haul voyages, it quickly jumped ship, making its way into well-to-do homes, where people could afford costly ingredients (one citrus fruit in 18th-century Europe cost the modern equivalent of roughly $8).
To make Milk Punch that will keep Years by Sea or Land.
Steep the Peel of twenty Lemons, and four Seville Oranges, in six Quarts of Brandy or Rum, for twenty-four Hours; and then add two Quarts of Lemon and Orange Juice (almost three Parts of Seville Orange Juice) five Quarts of Water, four large Nutmegs grated, and two Pounds and a Half of double-refined Sugar. When these have stood twenty-four Hours, add three Quarts and a Pint of boiling Milk; then let the whole stand about twelve Hours; after which run it through a Jelly-Bag, till the Liquor becomes quite clear. This will keep good to either of the Indies.
With its heavy dose of lime or lemon juice, punch was highly acidic; one way to counteract its zing was to add sugar. Another way to cut the sourness of the citrus juice was discovered somewhere in the late 1600s, and is used here: add milk! By the mid-18th century, milk punch was extremely popular and enjoyed its ride into late 19th century (and is currently seeing a bit of a resurgence in modern cocktail culture). The recipe we used in Alcohol’s Empire was published in Ireland by Mary Johnson in 1770.
Making Johnson’s 18th-century milk punch is an experience in textures quite unlike our modern experiences with cocktails and punches. Rather than relying on sweet juices or sodas, whey from curdled milk is what smooths the bite of the rum and citrus juice and makes this a pleasant summer beverage. When boiling milk is added to the punch in the third step, it immediately curdles (see video) in a process that is essentially the same as making paneer, ricotta, or other soft cheeses. When it meets milk at a high temperature, lemon juice causes the separation of milk solids from the whey. When the milk punch is strained a few times and the curds are removed alongside the citrus peel, the whey remains to give the drink a much smoother mouthfeel, and a taste that, at least to us, is slightly tangy and yogurty. Being able to remove the milk solids from the punch also has the benefit of ensuring that the punch is shelf stable, which is why Johnson could assert that her punch would keep during the voyage to “either of the Indies,” meaning either the Americas or Asia.
This video shows what happens when boiling milk is added to the punch in the third step.
The milk immediately curdles, with milk solids hanging down from the top as the punch steams from the milk’s heat.
Emily Beck is the assistant curator of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. She received her PhD from the Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses broadly on histories of medicine, pharmacy, and making in early modern Europe.
Nicole LaBouff is associate curator of textiles at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and worked previously in the Department of Costume and Textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She received her PhD in history from the University of California, Irvine. Her research deals with the intersection of art, science, and women’s domestic work in early modern Europe, with interests spanning needlework, botany, and distilling.
This question is often asked on Facebook pages dedicated to the Instant Pot and other electronic pressure cookers. While many people know that the pressure cooker existed prior to becoming trendy during the past few years, it may come as a surprise to learn that it was invented in the 1670s by a man named Denis Papin. Although Papin is not a household name or textbook staple like his colleagues Robert Boyle, Christiaan Huygens, or Isaac Newton, he was a noteworthy member of the European knowledge community during the second half of the seventeenth century. (For more on Pepin and his connections to early modern scientists, technicians, machine-makers, natural scientists, and philosophers, see Thony Christie’s super post at The Renaissance Mathematicus!)
Born in Blois, France in 1647 he studied medicine and utilized patronage connections with Marie Charron, the wife of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in order to receive a position assisting the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens with physical and chemical experiments at the Louvre in 1673. In 1675, Papin relocated to London—equipped with a letter of introduction from Huygens—where he soon began assisting Boyle with his air pump experiments. While doing so, Papin designed his pressure cooker, which was a sealed container, in which water could be heated to create internal pressure that was many times greater than that of the earth’s atmosphere. By experimenting on food, Papin was applying the principles of temperature, pressure, and volume to practical problems, while simultaneously formulating additional theoretical principles from his observations.
After having demonstrated his device to the Royal Society, Papin published an account called A New Digester or Engine for Softening Bones in 1681. His text contained a description of the experiments he did with his Digester, and how it radically decreased the time required to cook meat, soften bones, ferment wine, prepare confections, dyes, and chemicals, and even incubate eggs. He also included an account of the cost to build his engine, and provided some cost-benefit analysis, highlighting the potential for large profits.
Papin especially highlighted how valuable his device would be at sea, both logistically—because one could cook with sea water in it—and with regards to nutrition. Scurvy, which has the symptoms of weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin problems, was a habitual problem for early modern English mariners. While medical professionals now understand that scurvy is caused by a deficiency of ascorbic acid, also referred to as vitamin C, during the seventeenth century there were many competing theories about the causes.
Calling upon his medical training, Papin claimed that mariners’ high instances of developing scurvy was related to overconsumption of salted meat, which was a staple of mariners’ diets. Papin considered his Digester’s ability to quickly and easily turn bones—which might have otherwise been discarded—into nutritious and flavorful jellies to be one of its most significant applications. He claimed, “that Gellies being made of volatile parts, and easie to be digested, would be apt to correct that defect of the salt meat.” Papin thought that jellies would be nutritious for people on land as well, and he focused on jellies when making his financial arguments about the profitability of his Digester.
Although some of his contemporaries, including the diarist John Evelyn, enjoyed his jellies, Papin made it clear in his 1687 text, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, in which he detailed additional experiments that he had done, that “very few People have been willing to make use of it.” Throughout Continuation, Papin made efforts to promote his device to a wide variety of people. He even performed a weekly live demonstration of his device—kind of the seventeenth-century equivalent of an infomercial. However, his stipulation that anyone who attended needed “to bring along with them a Recommendation from any Members of the Royal Society” may have been working against his objective of trying to get more quotidian people interested in utilizing his Digester for practical purposes.
There are many reasons why the pressure cooker may not have been immediately successful, including the temporal and monetary investment required to build the device, the fact that they did occasionally explode, and that preparing food was traditionally a female task, whereas Papin advertised his new technology toward men. Nevertheless, Papin serves as an illustrative example of a member of the seventeenth century European knowledge community. Similarly to many of his counterparts, Papin’s intellectual interests spanned many disciplines. He studied medicine, performed physical and chemical experiments, taught mathematics, and knew multiple languages.
The fact that Papin, and many of his counterparts, sought to apply theoretical principles to practical problems, such as food preservation and nutrition, while in turn utilizing their observations of these quotidian problems to further develop and refine their physical and chemical theories, can help us to understand that the equations written on the pages of our textbooks, and the quotidian events of our daily lives—such as preparing our daily bread—are not as disparate as we may have been lead to believe.
Resources and Further Reading
Papin, Denis. A continuation of the new digester of bones its improvements, and new uses it hath been applyed to, both for sea and land : together with some improvements and new uses of the air-pump, tryed both in England and Italy. London: Printed by Joseph Streater, 1687.
Papin, Denis. A new digester or engine for softning bones containing the description of its make and use in these particulars : viz. cookery, voyages at sea, confectionary, making of drinks, chymistry, and dying : with an account of the price a good big engine will cost, and of the profit it will afford. London: Printed by J.M. for Henry Bonwicke, 1681.
Shapin, Steven. “The Invisible Technician.” American Scientist 77, no. 6 (1989): 554-63. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.library.nyu.edu/stable/27856006.
Shapin, Steven. A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Jennifer Egloff earned her PhD in History from New York University in 2015. Combining her undergraduate training in Mathematics with her graduate training in History, Egloff’s dissertation “The Cultural Life of Numbers in the Early Modern English Atlantic” incorporates elements of Atlantic History and the History of Science to explore the multivalent ways that Anglophone individuals utilized numerical methods and mathematical techniques to attempt the face the challenges brought on by the opening of the Atlantic to increased exploration and commerce, competing religious philosophies, and the increased availability of information. A strong advocate of interdisciplinarity, Egloff recently held a short-term fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, and she will be joining the History Department of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in August 2019.