Category Archives: Experimentation

Making Ink

By Amy L. Tigner

ink-and-quillI had been thinking for a couple of years that I would like to try to make ink the early modern way. I had run across several recipes for ink over the years in my research of seventeenth-century receipt books and I had read Amanda Herbert’s blog in which she discusses making ink in an undergraduate class.  I was also interested to find blogs in which scholars were teaching reconstruction in their classrooms, such as Patty Baker and Laurence Totelin, who are making ancient recipes for a MOOC video (read about it here), or Amanda Herbert, who had her students try tasting early modern hot chocolate (here). Finally, last fall I had a chance to teach both an undergraduate and a graduate class entitled “Early Modern Women’s Writing and Literary Practice” and decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to make ink.  

As it turns out, my interest in making ink comes at a time when scholars are in the process of reconstructing historical recipes, such as Marjolijn Bol, who has made Leonardo da Vinci’s Walnut Oil and ancient Greek and Egyptian recipes for fake gem stones.  Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicossi write a blog that is all about cooking from early modern recipes in Cooking with the Archives.  Some larger reconstruction projects are also occurring around the world: ARTECHNE in Utrecht is working to rediscover historical art conservation techniques; and The Making and Knowing Project, which is interested in reconstructing art and craft techniques and recipes from the sixteenth century. The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective is working on a digital humanities project that is transcribing early modern recipe manuscripts that will eventually be available online; they often cook the recipes they are transcribing.

Back to my own project: the process of ink making turned out to be more expensive and more time-consuming that I had imagined, though both of these factors were also likely similar in the period and in the end a great learning experience.   I cheated a bit by looking on some ink-making websites that were quite helpful (especially, this one), as it explained about the chemistry of the ink making and also translated some of the recipe terms, such as “copperas” into “ferrous sulfate.”  The site also had links for purchasing ingredients.  I considered several different early modern recipes, but I finally decided on one of the several recipes in the Mary Grenville family receipt book manuscript (Folger V.a.430), because it was in English (some of the recipes are in Spanish) and it was the simplest in terms of ingredients, steps, and time.


To make=Inke=Verie Good

Take a quart of snow or raine water and a quart of Beerevinegre, a pound of galls bruised, halfe a pound of coperis, and 4 ounces of gum bruised, first mix your water and vinegre together, and put itinto an earthen Jug, then put in the galls, stirring itt 2 or 3 times a day letting it stand 8 or 9 daies and then put in your coperas and Gumme, as you use it straine itt.

Most recipes use some kind of wine or vinegar that keeps the ink from molding, but this particular one uses beer vinegar, which I discovered is quite easy to make by combining the “mother” of cider vinegar and a bottle of beer, then letting it ferment for several days. As for the galls, I had been collecting oak galls on my walks in the spring and had several gallon zip lock bags full, but when I weighed them I had only about 6 ounces—not close enough to the one pound required. It turns out that Texas oak galls are the big, light, and fluffy apple gall rather than the smaller but denser traditional iron oak gall.


Not trusting the Texas apple galls would work, I ordered a pound from Amazon for $45, and they arrived from Guatemala (link here):


These I “bruised” with a meat hammer and then combined with the beer vinegar and rainwater. Because the mixture needed to “stand” for 8 or 9 days, I decided that I would do this in advance, so that we could simply add the final ingredients in class and try out the ink immediately.  I reserved the big fluffy apple oak galls for students to pound in class. The last two ingredients: gum arabic and the coperias (ferrous sulfate or green vitriol) I also ordered online from Amazon and Natural Pigments, respectively. I knew that gum arabic takes a while to dissolve, so I decided that I would pre-dissolve the crystals, first by grinding them into small pieces in a mortar and pestle and then placing them in hot water and finally I strained out the impurities. That process took about 24 hours.


On the ink-making day, students assembled the ingredients following the recipe. The most surprising and exciting part was adding the ferrous sulfate, which turned the formerly beer-brown liquid into the blackest black.


We then strained the liquid and poured them into old spice bottles. The recipe made enough for each student to have a bottle.

dsc01590The ink turned out to be very good in terms of viscosity and color–and I’d argue better than the run of the mill India ink you can buy on the market.  Students really loved the project, especially as they were actively involved, and I am certainly planning to make ink the next time I teach a manuscripts class, though perhaps I will try a different recipe.

Amy L. Tigner teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas, Arlington.

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

By Julia Martins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Recipes and the “Weird”: A Halloween Rumination

By Jennifer Munroe

Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).
Henry Fuseli, Weird Sisters (1783).

We might recall Shakespeare’s “Weird Sisters,” the seemingly-sinister witches from Macbeth. Their “Double, double toil and trouble” resonates in our memories as it does in their incantation before Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble: / Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble” (4.1.20-21). As All Hallow’s Eve approaches, it seems to me useful to revisit their charms; or, as it were, how we might use our sense of Macbeth’s witches to rethink some of the more unsavory of ingredients in early modern recipes, and how we might use these recipes to rethink our assumptions about the witches.

The Weird Sisters’ “hell-broth” includes such mammalian and amphibious creature parts as “eye of newt,” “Gall of goat,” “Adder’s fork,” “Wool of bat,” and “tongue of dog.” Macbeth is appalled at the concoction they brew, and, as it seems, so are audiences (especially modern).  The witches, so often portrayed today as elusive, macabre, dangerous, even grotesque, have been written into our modern imagination as integral to the darkness engulfing Dunsinane.

But what if their witchy-work is not-so-sinister after all? What if they simply get a bad rap? After all, it is Macbeth who does the killing in the play; they merely prognosticate his actions.

I turn to the manuscript recipe book of Rebeckah Winche, a contemporary source, though not of the kind we typically turn to when we ask about early modern witchcraft. For that, we more often go to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) or the like. However, such animal ingredients were not uncommon in early modern recipes; and in those books, they certainly do not denote the dark arts. In Winche’s book, we find a series of recipes for “The King’s Evil,” Scrofula (or, tuberculosis), one that helps to identify the disease, and two to cure it:


A redy way to know the deseas called the Kings

Take a grownd worme & lay itt alive to the place greved &
take a green docke leafe or 2 andlay them upon the worme
& bine them to the place at night when the patient goes to
bed & if it be the kings evill itt will turne to dust or poud
=er by the morning otherwise it will remayn dead in his owne
former forme as it was a live

A perfect remydy to cure the desease called the kings evill
Take an ounce of pure yellow bees wax or something more
& an ounce uenice turpentine a good quantity of sheepes
suet clarified. boyle them alltogether & when thay are well
boyled put therein 2 good handfulls of the purest barly flower
clear without weedes then temper this flower with the other
things. then put therein 3 spoonfulls of the urin of a man
childe he being not above 3 years olde then boyle it agane
put itt in some earthen or gally pot & stop itt close, keepe it
for your use: when you use it spread it on a peece of fine
linin or on lether and lay it on the sore plaster waise &
by gods helpe it will cure the patient

A nother for the same deseas
Take a live toade & cut of one of her hinder legs
sewe it up in a pece of silke & hange it presently about the
neck of the party greeved. observe if it be a boy or man that
is greeved then a girl or woman must kill the toade but if
a girle or woman be ill then a man must kill it
this hath cured many however if doth sertanly help the other
remydy or any other you shall apply to the sore (if any) to
worke the better efect & sooner cure.

To diagnose “The King’s Evil,” one is instructed to lay a live worm to the aggrieved area, to fix to the unfortunate worm to  “green docke leafe” and wait to see whether the worm desiccates or remains plump (but still deceased) to determine whether the patient is indeed infected.

And to cure “The King’s Evil,” should the patient (and the worm) be so unfortunate, the practitioner summons not the powers of the otherworld, but the urine of a man-child… or the pieces of a toad, who is taken alive and dismembered, removing one of her “hinder legs,” which is then sewn into a silk parcel and hung from the patient’s neck. If a male patient, a woman kills the toad; if a female patient, then a man.

Certainly, this diagnosis and cure might strike some as hocus-pocus, drawing on superstition more than sound medical training and having no more validity than, say, snake oil or verging on something much darker. However, early modern medicine is flush with examples of such diagnoses and cures, and its practitioners appeared quite ready to employ them.

While early modern men and women used these cures as healers and patients, this sort of household medicine was also (and increasingly) understood as inferior relative the professional medicine of scientists and doctors, as practice not to be trusted—or, as we see so often in depiction of witches, as that which ought make us suspicious of its source and its agents.

So what is it about domestic medicine and cookery that has lent itself to this sort of denigration, or the fear associated with witchcraft that enables its marginalization? After all, early modern domestic medicine is not unlike modern herbal medicine, both of which have been relegated to inferior practice, nudged out by codified and “professional” modes of healing that tend to privilege machinery over touching, pharmaceuticals over tinctures and teas.

By juxtaposing Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters” with the recipes from the Winche book, both of which contain what are often associated with “witchy” ingredients, we focus less on the contents of the concoctions. Instead, we are forced to see the ways in which both highlight ways of knowing that are not easily quantified; this is not the ostensible “objective” knowledge of (early modern) science, but something more murky.

This does not mean they are at best silly frivolities and at worst sinister machinations. For Macbeth’s witches are guilty of nothing more than “knowing” (or foreknowing, since they merely predict his actions); they no more dictate Macbeth’s murderous ambitions than he can direct their appearances and disappearances. Early modern recipe practitioners who administer the earthy worm, who collect and pour the spoons full of man-child urine and dismember the toad and make a modern reader say, “Ew,” arguably did no less to diagnose and cure tuberculosis than the scientists of the day.

And as these amateur practitioners worked their medicine, they were necessarily called upon to observe their patients (and their ingredients) in ways that professional doctors and scientists were beginning to move away from: their tactile contact with worm, toad, urine, human skin, and the intensive observation within natural surroundings (rather than a lab) meant that they had to look, listen, and touch differently. Rather than in the laboratory, such amateur practitioners adapted their cures on site, modified their medicine according to individual need (see the many recipes “for another”) rather than generic conditions.

And so, I wonder if on this All Hallow’s season we might take the opportunity to revisit what seems “weird” about the sisters, and how the ingredients and practices of so many early modern men and women, might help us revisit the seemingly strange aspects of medicine in the period and its relation to its ostensible opposite, science. For in these recipes, the strange, the “weird,” may indeed be the very thing that we have made alien—the intimate connections between person and patient, between animal or plant and human, between self and Other–rather than what has in fact been alien all along.

Constance Hall’s ‘Carrott Pudding:’ A Rendition

The following post is by an undergraduate student, Jessie Foreman, who worked with me on a research placement this summer, as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme at the University of Essex. She spent part of her time transcribing early modern recipe books for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, along the way discovering interesting old recipes and even trying her hand at them. What I appreciate most about her following post is the way in which she highlights the assumed knowledge behind cooking, now as well as then.

By Jessie Foreman

From the Cookbook of Constance Hall, 1672, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.20.
From the Cookbook of Constance Hall, 1672, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.20.


A carrot pudding, how hard could it be?

Being a total beginner to early modern recipes, it was only logical that I should find a very simple recipe–not necessarily all that easy to do… I finally found a recipe that wasn’t cut off at the sides, used sixteen eggs and could feed the whole street… or require any ingredients that I couldn’t get from the local Co-op. In fact, I thought I was one step ahead of the recipe, since I had a fan-assisted oven and an actual Early Modern Assistant (thanks Nan!). How naïve I was!

As instructed in the recipe, we started by boiling three large carrots in a saucepan to fulfil the order of ‘4 spoonfulls of Carrotts.’ My Nan did start to scrape them before they were boiled, noting that it would be easier to do while they were still raw and not boiling hot, but we stuck to the recipe and scraped them after they were boiled. Beating the carrots in a mortar also proved to be very ineffective when it came to taking the pudding out of the oven, as you could see that they hadn’t distributed very well. I’m not trying to give baking advice to Constance Hall, but maybe she should think of grating in a few more things for a more even flavour.

Next were the eggs. I should’ve known that with ten eggs (two of which had the yolks removed) and a pint of cream, that I’d have needed something else substantial so it doesn’t come out as a runny mess. We whisked them up, but only to a normal whisked egg consistency – ‘beat them well’ leaves a lot to the imagination.

After that we added a generous amount of Aldi’s Own Brandy (in place of sac)k and softened butter, along with cream, salt and nutmeg. We used a spring whisk in lieu of not being able to use an electric mixer, and came out with a butter lump mix and cramp in one hand. It was hard to get rid of the lumps of butter in the mix, which had started clumping together and kept getting harder to remove. With the help of a spoon we did manage to squish all of them, but I wonder if the smaller remaining lumps can be blamed for the wobble on top of the pudding when it was in the oven. At ten minute intervals while the pudding was in the oven, I had to drain a growing lake of butter from the top of the pudding.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.
Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

Grating the breadcrumbs was a nightmare: I’d bought fresh bread that morning, so it was very fresh and doughy. We should’ve used day-old bread, but by the time my Nan flagged that up, the carrots were already boiling, and the batter, already made. The recipe did not specify how much bread we should put in, only just enough to make it into a batter. As the mix was already sort of looking like a batter, we added in enough so that the grated bread was distributed evenly and went all the way through.

This was one of the main challenges we encountered while trying to follow this recipe: in any recipes, both old and new, there is a substantial amount of implied knowledge in the recipes. Given that fewer people would have read Hall’s manuscript recipe than modern printed recipe collections, there is even more implied knowledge; her audience was much more selective to begin with.

This wasn’t to last, though, as when we were pouring it into the baking tin, all of the mashed carrot and bread immediately sunk to the bottom. It was at this point that I started to think that the pudding might not quite turn out as planned… but there was nothing to do about it now, so I put it in the preheated oven for half an hour, draining Lake Butter every ten minutes. When the timer started beeping, I stuck in a knife to see if it was baked through. The knife was covered in grease, so we turned up the oven a little and left it again for ten minutes.

Image credit: Jessie Foreman.
Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

By the time the timer rang again, the top of the pudding was very brown, so there was no way that it could last any longer in the oven without getting burned. Whatever was inside of the tin now – whether cooked or sludge – was the finished product. I left it on the side to cool for about twenty minutes before turning it out onto a plate. The good: it solidified and kept its shape! The bad: just as predicted, everything had sunk to the bottom, so there was a very uneven distribution.

The pudding had mixed reactions from the official taste testers. My Mum said that the top of it, where there were no breadcrumbs, tasted like an egg custard. She quite enjoyed it. My Dad? He spat his into the bin.

Trying out this recipe wasn’t exactly a resounding success, but I thoroughly enjoyed a somewhat blind cooking experience and it felt like I was doing Constance Hall’s version of the technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off. If you’re not sure what this is, you should definitely check it out, where you’ll see baking disasters even worse than mine!

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.
Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.