Category Archives: Experimentation

Of Porridge, Poetry and the Philosophers’ Stone

By Anke Timmermann

Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
(ÖNB MS 11410, f. 186r, s. xvi)[1]

 [He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.]

These rhymes will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up in a German-speaking family: unbeknownst to many, the children’s song “Backe, backe Kuchen” can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. Perhaps understandably it is commonly accepted that this is a piece of folklore for toddlers rather than a recipe proper.[2] Even the original recipe for porridge–or cake, in the children’s rhyme–is simple and elliptic. No measurements or methods are provided, and the phrasing and listing of exactly seven ingredients seems formulaic. But the environment that brought forth this recipe is much more complex, bringing together medieval poetry, recipes and scientific communication.

To see the connection between science and porridge we need to look at the manuscripts in which the text was originally written. The earliest documented copy of the poem can be found among jottings on the inner cover of a fifteenth-century manuscript, beside medical notes and recipes.[3] The cited sixteenth-century version appears in a medical recipe book owned by a physician-apothecary near Vienna, Wolfgang Kappler. This pharmacological reference work contains hundreds of recipes, some of them traditional instructions for the manufacture of pills and salves, many explicitly using alchemical methods and ingredients, others covering diet and regimen, and all of them intended to be useful in his professional practice. The rhymed parts of both manuscripts are comparatively few. But beyond the confines of their covers, they form part of a medieval and early modern written tradition in which scientific verse spread across Europe. To Kappler and his contemporaries, these rhymes would not have conjured up the image of chanting children. Rather, they would have recognised the rhymes as an accepted medium of communicating knowledge.

Why would anyone choose to write a recipe in rhyme rather than in plain instructive prose? Answers to this question are many and varied. In late medieval England, for example, the hope of attracting royal funds for a future project certainly inspired some alchemical practitioners to compose couplets.[4] Medical recipes, much less often subject to versification, might sometimes cross over into the realms of charms, cookery and general Middle English poetry. Incidentally, John Lydgate’s (author of the Fall of Princes) most popular poem during his lifetime was a medical one, his Dietary.[5]

Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Scientific poems on botany, the stars and their movements joined longer learned treatises (‘encyclopaedic poetry’) on the make-up of man and God’s creation. Particularly in alchemy, rhyme served as a vehicle for preserving practical instructions, making it easier for a copyist to transport the text from one manuscript into another or for the practitioner to memorise important steps in the laboratory. With ancient didactic poetry as ancestor and current concerns about techne, craft and knowledge at its heart, scientific poetry was a working genre for those who wrote, read and used it.[6]

When English antiquarian Elias Ashmole published Middle English alchemical poetry in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum he focused on the poem’s role in English language and literature, not in the laboratory.[7] Since then the connection between poetry and science or craft has been lost. It is this discrepancy between the nature of modern scientific publications and that of their historical ancestors that makes scientific poetic recipes so intriguing and yet so difficult to research. While it may not be child’s play it tells us much about how historical experts transformed experience into knowledge as they turned prescriptions into rhyme.


[1] On the manuscript, see the Austrian National Library’s catalogue HANNA, s.v. 11410.

[2] C.M. Blaas, “Ein Kinderspruch aus dem XV. Jahrhundert” in Germania 23 (1878), 343.

[3] HANNA, s.v. 12503. On recipes in German Fachliteratur see also J. Telle, “Das Rezept als literarische Form” in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 26 (2003), 251-74.

[4] For example, see: P. J. Grund, ‘Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite’: An Edition of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy (2011).

[5] K. Bühler, “Lydgate’s Rules of Health in MS Lansdowne 699” in Medium Ævum 3 (1934), 51-6.

[6] On the history and functions of scientific, especially alchemical, poetry see e.g. R. M. Schuler, Alchemical Poetry, 1575-1700 (1995), D. Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis” in Ambix, 57-58 (2010/11), 249-74/62-77, and my forthcoming article in the Companion to Fifteenth Century Verse. Note also J. Telle’s forthcoming monograph on German alchemical poetry, Alchemie und Poesie.

[7] E. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652).

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.

A Recipe for Trouble, or Criminal Chemistry

By Lisa Smith

It’s the tenth anniversary of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, a wonderful online resource that I frequently use for teaching and research. As one might expect, there is lots of medical history to be found in the court records. The expertise of physicians, surgeons, midwives and apothecaries was increasingly drawn on to describe injuries and deaths over this period. What may be more surprising is that recipes occasionally play a starring role in London’s criminal underworld. Previously at The Recipes Project, we’ve blogged about recipes being used for social or cultural currency, but today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you an intriguing tale of a recipe for economic gain.

On 4 May 1698, F.P. of St. Giles-in-the-Fields stood trial for “washing and diminishing” two guineas (gold pieces worth approximately twenty shillings) “with a sort of poisonous Liquor” in order to commit fraud. The first witness recounted meeting the prisoner at a Pall Mall coffee-house where “they had some Discourse relating to the Mathematicks”. Naturally, the conversation turned to recipes and the witness told F.P. that “he had an excellent Receipt to make good Vineger”, which he would sell to F.P. for his servant. F.P. declined to purchase the recipe, but invited the witness to visit him, which he did.

During the visit, F.P. told the witness that “he knew of an excellent Liquor that would diminish Guineas 15 or 20 d. each, without defacing the Characters”. The problem was getting the guineas in the first place. Perhaps, F.P. suggested, “if they had a Banker to furnish them with Guineas” then they could wash up to five hundred pieces in a day.

William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
William and Mary Guinea. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The witness visited the Duke of Schomberg, a military man, who advised the witness to find a willing banker. A banker found, the first witness set up a meeting with F.P. in St. James’s Park. The banker provided F.P. with two guineas “to make an Experiment”, which took place at a room on Dean Steet. The process entailed first weighing the coins, then putting them into water over the fire and stirring them “a pretty while” along with unidentified “Druggs”. The chemicals must have been rather expensive, as F.P. insisted that the banker would need to provide four-hundred guineas per day, or “it would not be worth his while”. The coins were weighed again afterwards to show the difference. The banker at this point complained that the coins have been too diminished (about four shillings each), but “the Prisoner condescended they should only be diminished to the value of 18 d. each, for the more easy covering the Cheat”.  F.P. further noted that only one of the coins might go undetected. Indeed, the coins were weighed at trial and there was a weight difference, with one coin “4 s. too light, and the other 3 s. 6.”

At this point, F.P. may have realised that trouble was not far behind.  The first witness reported that F.P. “designed suddenly to go to France, when he would leave ’em the Secret for their pains, they allowing him 30 l. per Month, which they were to remit thither; but in the mean time all the Profit while he staid here should be his own”. The witnesses did not take him up on his offer, but instead “delivered” the diminished coins to the Duke who in turn showed them to the King. The King sent the guineas to the Secretary of State, William Vernon, who ordered the prisoner’s arrest.  The stakes were high, with—as the banker put it—F.P.’s “Secret being enough to ruin the Nation”.

The prisoner did try defend himself, claiming that it was one of the witnesses who had tried the experiment. Although he called several character witnesses, it seemed he had few friends, as some of them “said he had been guilty of endeavouring to suborn Witnesses to swear falsly against one Camelle” on one occasion. In any case, there was clear evidence that the whole idea had been his in the first place: “the Names of the Druggs to be used being writ in one of the Evidences Pocket books by the Prisoner’s own Hand, which he owned in Court”. F.P. was found guilty of High Treason, punishable by death.

A curious story overall, and one very much of its time. Two men talking at a coffee-house about mathematics and recipes? How very urban Enlightenment. Secrets to be shared, for a cost? Typical of the early modern tension between public and private secret knowledge. A desire to use chemicals to make gold? Well, it’s not quite the Philosopher’s Stone that seventeenth-century alchemists continued to seek, but certainly much more practical. Condemned by a written recipe? Should have left it in the oral realm instead of trying to organise his knowledge…

The case of F.P. does show, however, the importance of recipes. He was in possession of one that worked and threatened to undermine no less than royal authority. But all that knowledge came to nothing. In the end, it was just a recipe for trouble.

The Early Modern Matter of Fecal Medicines

Whilst perusing some seventeenth century recipes for medicines I stumbled across a few curious ingredients. Granted, many of the ingredients found in Johanna St. John’s recipe book – aside from now common herbs and spices like cinnamon or saffron – might look odd to the modern eye. Some of the ingredients that struck me were spermaceti (sperm whale fat); the sole of an old but clean shoe, burnt to ashes; a crab’s eyes, and the black tips of its claws.

As I read I couldn’t help but assume that the addition of spices, or the use of wine, sugar, and brandy might have best served to make some of the recipes more palatable. But then something caught my eye that all the cinnamon, saffron, and distillation could not possibly conceal. To put it lightly, it was, well, poo. Precisely, for smallpox, “a sheep’s dung, cleane picked”. Clearly you would want to make sure you were getting pure, uncontaminated crap. The recipe goes on to instruct the user to mix a handful of the stuff into a pint of white wine, “mash it well” and after leaving it to stand a full night, to serve a spoonful or two at a time. But wait, there’s more! A note tucked into the margin recommends this smelly recipe for gout and jaundice. Fecal wine, if you will: good for what ails you.

Manure. Credit: Petr Kratochvil

In the mid-seventeenth century Nicholas Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia Londinensis (1652) heavily criticized the Royal College of Physician’s required inventory for Culpeper and his fellow apothecaries. In his work, which translated the tome on medicine to English from Latin for the first time during the English Interregnum, Culpeper wrote this of a section featuring “living creatures” and “their excrements”: “alack! alack! the king is dead, and the College of Physicians want power to impose the turds upon men” (Culpeper, 52). Culpeper was right, it seemed many were holding onto ideas about fecal medicine. However, while most insisted that ordure altered by the art that was physick was medicinal, some practitioners had more radical ideas about the uses of feces and medicine.

Culpeper’s Pharmarcopoeia, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Paracelsus was an enthusiastic alchemist, whose writings from the mid sixteenth century blasted Galenic based humoral models that were then commonly taught at European universities. Historian Philip Ball explains that Paracelsus’ particular alchemy “was concerned not with gold making, but with medicines” (Ball, 164). The Swiss magus claimed that regular doctors forced “worthless, bookish remedies” on the sick  “by following ancient methods” strictly for gain (Ball, 165). Paracelsus claimed to have found an alternative to the medicines of the ancients by experimentation, which left him with the conclusion that alchemical processes could render the virtues of nature by separation: “a parting of the detritus and waste of mundane reality from the vital healing forces of nature” (Ball, 165).

Line engraving of Paracelsus, Wellcome Library no.7594i. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

And he just loved manure, as you may have guessed by now. Paracelsus was convinced by his alchemical experimentation that “‘decay is the beginning of all birth’ – and of all health, for ‘that which prevents putrefaction also will prevent health'” (Ball, 205). This is how Sir Robert Boyle, eminent scientist of the Royal Society would come to recommend human excrement, dried into powder, and blown into the eyes as a treatment for cataracts (Sugg, 152).*

During the period of the English Civil War, the writings of Paracelsus polarized the medical community, and Ball argues that as civil war approached, Paracelsians formed line with Parliamentarians while Galenic minded scholars went with the Royals (Ball, 358). Historian Richard Sugg explains,  “Paracelsianism flourished during the Civil War and Interregnum, congenial to many of those who – like Culpeper – practised iconoclasm at various levels” (Sugg, 39). Despite congeniality in iconoclasm, Culpeper wasn’t having the dung. Unfortunately for him, however, the divergent views of medicine both found their respective reasons to prescribe crappy remedies, with Paracelsians and Galenics promoting poop for years to come (Sugg, 163-168).

*Boyle’s manuscript reads: “Take Paracelsus’s Zebethum Occidentale (viz. Human Dung)”. Boyle explains that his recipes are classed by letter: “whereof A, is the Mark of a Remedy of the highest classes of these”. The recipe for cataracts was marked with an ‘A’.

Works Cited:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Boyle, Robert. Medicinal Experiments 5th edition. 1712. Gale DocNumber: CW10708275

Culpeper, Nicholas. Pharmarcopoeia Londinensis, or The London Dispensatory. 1652.

Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. London: Routledge, 2011.