Category Archives: Ingredients

Searching for Syphilis in Recipe Books

By Olivia Weisser

I have been on the search for syphilis – or venereal disease as it was known in England in the 1600s and 1700s. In that era, there was one broad disease category, “venereal disease,” for what we know now to be different STDs. Personal writing about venereal disease can be challenging to find because the disease was stigmatizing and disfiguring. Few individuals admitted to having venereal disorders in letters to healers and even fewer wrote about their experiences in personal writing. And yet the disease was rampant by the early decades of the 1700s. I set out for the archives with the hope that recipe books might provide rare glimpses into the private side of the disease. Of course, recipe books are by no means private forms of writing. In many instances, they were cherished objects bequeathed to friends or passed down through families. Yet the stigma of the disease created a market for treatment at home. Recipes, I hoped, could offer insights into that domestic practice.

I found a large number of recipes aimed at particular ailments, such as the falling sickness, but only a rare few targeted venereal disorders. One of these entries is from a 1680 book owned by Johanna St John. She recorded a remedy for treating heat and inflammation in venereal sores.

Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127
Johanna St. John, Recipe Book, Wellcome Library, London, MS.4338/127

Recipes like this one are few and far between—but why? Perhaps venereal treatments were mostly cure-alls that are difficult to trace to one particular set of ailments. Peter Temple‘s “Balsome for wounds” treated 42 different disorders, for instance. Or perhaps authors chose not to label venereal cures as such in order to protect their reputations. Temple was openly interested in remedies for venereal disease, but he did not always categorize them as anti-venereals in his recipe book. He titled one entry “A drinke to heale any wound old greefe or sore,” which does not indicate a venereal cure. But at the bottom of the entry he added: “I believe this more proper for a wound given by one of venus fayr nimph.”

The ingredients in Temple’s wound drink are also telling. Several were believed to work as anti-venereals, including sarsaparilla and guaiacum. Instead of searching for a particular set of ailments, I started combing recipe books for ingredients associated with venereal cures. The most popular of these was mercury. Mercurial remedies took the form of pills, drinks, ointments, and even smoke that patients inhaled, and they were comprised of mercury in all of its forms: calomel, sublimate, liquid quicksilver, and cinnabar (mercury mixed with sulfur). Ingesting mercury causes excessive salivation, a reaction that today we associate with mercury poisoning. But within the humoral framework of health–in which abundant, imbalanced, or clogged fluids were thought to cause illness–prolific salivation was evidence of a potentially curative bodily transformation.

Caption: Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London
Albarello drug jar for Sublimate of Mercury, Italy, 1501-180, Wellcome Library, London

I found several recipes for mercurial ointments and waters. They were said to be good for treating itch, inflammation, ulcers, fistulas, or “old soares” – all common symptoms of venereal disorders. There were, it seems, recipes for venereal disease after all. They were just a bit tricky to find.

One recipe for mercury water was said to cure “all manner of Ulcers, Cancers, Fistulaes, the wolfe, and such other like infirmities & diseases.” Others targeted the physical effects of mercurials themselves. Here’s a recipe for curing bad breath caused by consuming mercury — one of the drug’s many conspicuous side effects.

A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13
A Book of Phisick, Wellcome Library, London, MS.1320/13

This recipe calls for holding a piece of gold in the mouth, not the most accessible ingredient.

A recipe from Mary Birkhead’s book treated the bodily effects of consuming mercury:

Take the roots of marsh mallows gathered in the beginning of nouember and dried and kept till you haue ocation to use them take of the powder of the said roots halfe a spoonful and giue it to the patient in warme milke a good draught this euery 2 or 3 howers for 3 or 4 times but first giue the partey a vomit of a quarter of a pinte of salet oyle with bloud warme water.

My search for venereal disease in recipe books suggests that some authors were ashamed enough to veil or downplay the anti-venereal dimensions of their remedies. More broadly, my search points to an important lesson of historical research: the inability to find what we are looking for in the archive can be, itself, something worth knowing.

Tales from the Archives: A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I want to share a seasonally-appropriate post by Molly Taylor-Poleskey.  In this piece from January 2014, Taylor-Poleskey discusses the ways that religious beliefs overlaid the cultural meanings – as well as the baking practices – of honey cakes in early modern Prussia.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations


By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.

[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

Illustrated Recipes in Crophill’s Cookery

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While I was researching medieval and early modern cookeries for my dissertation, I came across several manuscripts that were notable in one regard or another but they did not make it into my final document. In the hope of inspiring further research, I am focusing on one of these books here. London, British Library, MS Harley 1735 is a fifteenth-century manuscript owned by a rural physician, John Crophill. This manuscript contains a cookery (fols. 16v–28v), remarkable not necessarily for its recipes, but its context and marginalia.

Harley 1735 is one of at least twelve cookeries located in manuscripts owned by medical professionals in fifteenth-century England. I have argued that these cookeries were primarily used as aspirational texts.[1] Professionals could learn about the foods they should aspire to eat as members of a rising social group. While occasional recipes may have been useful in their household kitchens or medical practices, the codicological context of these cookeries suggests that readers used the texts to familiarize themselves with what had been served to their social superiors as a way to fit in and excel in a new social environment. Recipes were a vehicle for shaping a group’s new identity.

The marginalia of Harley 1735 begs for a closer look, as it contains not textual notes, but illustrations. I cannot begin to describe my excitement when I first opened this manuscript! Expecting to see a plain text in black ink with occasional rubrication, I was delighted to see abundant marginal sketches of animals, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and cooking implements. While some other contemporary English and French manuscripts contain a sketch or two of distillation stills or fish (and one instance of a diagram for food preparation), this cookery contains tens of drawings on multiple folios. Furthermore, the sketches align with the recipes. Since all of the drawings are marginal and not integrated into the text, it is safe to assume that they were added after the cookery was copied.

Harley 1735, fol. 18r contains sketches of a dog, swan, rabbits, and grains of wheat. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
Harley 1735, fol. 18r contains sketches of a dog, swan, rabbits, and grains of wheat. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735

While there are marginal sketches in other texts in the same manuscript, it is difficult to say with certainty that Crophill himself added the sketches. None of the images depict cooking actions or processes, but all of the drawings refer to ingredients in the recipes or an implement required to carry out the recipe. There is one exception: a sketch of a dog appears on a leaf with recipes for “Chaudon sauȝ of swannes,” “Amydoun,” and “Conyes in graue.”[2] The dog appears to be an illustrative accompaniment to sketches of a swan or rabbits in the same margin, visually chasing these necessary ingredients.

Harley 1735, fol. 25r contains sketches of several cooking implements and ingredients.. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
Harley 1735, fol. 25r contains sketches of several cooking implements and ingredients. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735

Perusing the cookery, one finds implements like pots, mortars and pestles, bellows, and a knife. Other less identifiable implements also reside in the margins. There are fruits and vegetables like figs, dates, plums, grapes, and even leeks! Almonds appear several times, as well as other grains, which might be wheat, sugar, salt, or possibly spices (some of the grains are particularly difficult to distinguish from one another and the recipes contain many possible suggestions). Ginger root also makes an appearance. The supply of animals is particularly healthy; fish, rabbits, chickens, quail, swan, stag, cow, and the rogue dog prowl about.[3]

A manicule on Harley 1735, fol. 21r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
A manicule on Harley 1735, fol. 21r. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
A stag on Harley 1735, fol. 19v. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735
A stag on Harley 1735, fol. 19v. (c)British Library Board Harley MS 1735

These sketches in the margins of Harley 1735 problematize my conclusion that the cookery was primarily an aspirational text. At first glance, the number of sketches, especially manicules, might seem to indicate that the book was regularly referenced in a kitchen.[4] However, the cookery lacks the food stains and markings regularly exhibited by manuscripts used in kitchens. The artist also clearly enjoyed sketching and may have chosen to artistically render the text based on a preference for drawing certain items, rather than a correlation with preparation of foodstuffs. And perhaps most importantly, some of the recipes accompanied by sketches were almost certainly not prepared by Crophill or his household; luxury recipes like “Chaudon sauȝ of swannes” accompanied by a sketch of a swan, or “Roo in sewe” with a drawing of a stag, were simply out of reach for non-noble preparation.[5] So while this cookery is a problematic cookery, I still believe it was primarily used as an aspirational text, rather than an instructional one.

Ultimately, I am still left wondering why the illustrations were added, since it is so unusual. No contemporary cookery in England or France matches the degree of illustration. European cookbooks did not include copious illustration until the late sixteenth century with Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera (1570) and Charles Estienne’s L’agriculture et Maison rustique (1564), and the first heavily illustrated English cookery, Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1660), was not published until 1660. Perhaps the sketches in Harley 1735 were a finding aid for Crophill or another reader. Perhaps the drawings were created for a more enjoyable reading experience; modern cookbook readers are certainly familiar with this concept! Another possibility is that the sketches were created out of the sheer enjoyment of drawing and the cookery margins were an available space. Crophill’s rural surroundings in Wix, Essex, could have inspired the copious and sometimes remarkably naturalistic drawings. Or perhaps the illustrations were created as a teaching aid or storytime delight for a child in the household, with the familiar animals more akin to a Beatrix Potter tale.

In any case, these remarkable drawings deserve much more attention, and could shed light on a host of topics, from available animal breeds and vegetal varietals, household objects, or illustrative practices in late medieval manuscripts.



[1] Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016), 64–102.

[2] fol. 18r

[3] Lois Ayoub, “John Crophill’s Books: An Edition of British Library Ms Harley 1735” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1994), 24–5. Ayoub catalogues the sketches in the manuscript.

[4] fols. 21r, 22r–v, 23v, 26v–27v

[5] fol. 18r and 19v


What’s in a name: Plaster of Paris

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the problems we face as historians studying and reconstructing recipes is that the names describing ingredients, tools, and materials change over time, and that the meaning of terms itself changes over time. This is even the case with relatively recent recipes and materials that are in theory unchanged as I recently discovered. As part of my research for the ARTECHNE project, I recently looked at instructions for making anatomical casts from plaster from 1791.

Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons' Hall Museums, RCSEd.
Painted plaster cast of a large fibroma of the jaw, 1830s. Courtesy Surgeons’ Hall Museums, RCSEd.

The creation of anatomical casts and models using plaster of Paris became increasingly popular towards the end of the eighteenth century, fuelled by the omnipresence of plaster in the visual arts and interior decoration, and the increasing importance of pathology and later physiognomy within the study of medicine. The latter meant that medical men were looking for durable three-dimensional ways to preserve diseased bodies and body parts that could not be preserved otherwise (e.g. in a preparation), either because decay could not be stopped or because the patient was still alive.

Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1771-72
Johan Zoffany, The Portraits of the Academicians of
the Royal Academy, 1771-72. Note the plaster models of antique statues around the room.

In his 1790 book The Anatomical Instructor, physician Thomas Pole (1753-1829) not only gave advice on how to make anatomical preparations and drawing, but also included over fifty pages on how to create, colour, repair and maintain plaster casts and models. Pole started the chapter on modelling with outlining the relevance of the quality of the plaster of Paris, or calcined alabaster, that was to be used. He explained that

Illustration of how to make a cast of a diseased bone from Pole's 1790 'Anatomical Instructor'
Illustration of how to make a mould of a diseased bone from Pole’s 1790 ‘Anatomical Instructor’

“…that of a middling price is used for making of moulds; the finer sort is for casts, to be poured first into the mould, when properly prepared; after it has formed a layer of about half an inch, more or less, according to circumstances, then the coarser sort is to be used to fill up the mould, or to give it sufficient thickness.”[1]

But exactly what were the various qualities of plaster for sale in London in the 1790s made of? The term ‘calcined alabaster’ tells us little, as alabaster was and is a collective noun that designates both various kinds of light-coloured, translucent and soft stone used mainly for carving decorative artefacts (often the minerals gypsum or calcite – the former much softer than the latter), and a specific compact and fine-grained variety of gypsum. In the decades after Pole’s publication, the French chemist Antoine François de Fourcroy (1755 –1809) would distinguish nine kinds of calcareous sulfate, one of which was sulfate of lime or common gypsum. In an 1810 ‘dictionary of the arts’ Fourcroy’s sulfate of lime or common gypsum was described as follows:

“Sulphat of lime, or common gypsum, or plaster-stone. This substance is white, more or less inclining to grey, interspersed with small brilliant crystals, easily cut with a knife. it is found disposed in Paris. We shall hereafter find, that it is not pure selenite, but owes its most valuable property, as plaster, to the admixture of another kind of earth. (…) Calcareous sulphat is likewise found dissolved in waters, as in the well-waters of Paris; it is never pure, but always combined with some other earthy salt, with base lime or magnesia. This salt has no apparent degree of taste. It decrepitates if a sudden heat be applied to it; it is then of an opaque white, in which state it is called fine plaster, or plaster of Paris: by this calcination it loses about twenty in one hundred.”[2]

Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.
Entrance to the Montmartre gypsum quarry. Probably early 19th century, artist unknown.

As this fragment suggests, plaster of Paris indeed derives its name from a large and very pure gypsum deposit at the Montmartre and Menilmontant hills in Paris – there were plaster quarries at this site at least as early as the year 500. This led “calcined gypsum” (roasted gypsum or gypsum plaster) to be commonly known as “plaster of Paris”, even after the exhausted quarries were converted into Montmartre cemetery and the Buttes de Chaumot gardens respectively in the mid-nineteenth century. Although not all plaster came from Paris at the time Pole was writing, there is a fair chance that much high-quality plaster was indeed plaster from Paris.

Today, gypsum plaster, or plaster of Paris, no longer comes from Paris, but is still produced by heating powdered gypsum to about 150 °C. When mixed with water, this forms a paste that will harden within minutes, producing an exothermic reaction, which means it warms up. You can easily buy ‘plaster of Paris’ from artist’s supplies shops and online retailers, but none of these mention the exact chemical composition. Yet before I (or anyone else) can try my hand at reconstructing Pole’s instructions I will need to find out whether the best, finest plaster of Paris still contains a percentage of lime or magnesia, what the ‘coarser varieties’ that Pole described contained, and whether these are still available.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718), and was supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant number 203403/Z/16/Z).

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p. 202-3.

[2] Wilkes, John. Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Or, Universal Dictionary of Arts. Vol. 4. London: J. Adlard, 1810: p. 230.