Category Archives: Knowledge Transmission

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

By Margaret Maurer 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Conference Report: ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’

This review is also featured on The Polyphony.

By Rachel Clamp

Institute of Medical Humanities, Durham University

17 June 2022

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

Earlier this month, I was delighted to attend the Institute of Medical Humanities symposium ‘Sense Methods: Literature, History and Embodied Experience’ at Durham University. The symposium was designed to bring together colleagues with an interest in embodied experience and the senses to reflect on methodological and theoretical approaches and to provide opportunities for future collaborations.

I should preface this post with a brief disclaimer to say that I am not a sensory scholar myself. I am a third-year PhD candidate in the history department at Durham where I work on the history of plague and plague workers in early modern England and Scotland. I am, at best, sensory-adjacent. I do, however, try to gain access to past experience through my research, and I was keen to learn more about how I could incorporate theories of embodied experience and the senses into my work. Yesterday’s symposium allowed me to think critically about what exactly we mean when we talk about past ‘experience’. What is human experience if not sensory?

Conference mind map, courtesy of the author.

The day began with a rich and thought-provoking keynote lecture from Dr William Tullett in which he argued that whilst we might have succeeded in our approach to exploring and reconstructing smells in the past, we still have much work left to do concerning smell and/of the past. He demonstrated the need for scholars to ‘re-odorise’ the past, to develop an understanding of both the presence and absence of smells and the role of smell in history, memory, and heritage. He showed how the study of historical smellscapes can enrich our understanding of the past, allowing us to ask more difficult questions and make our arguments more interesting and persuasive. He suggested that with training and practice, humanities scholars could learn to smell ‘better’ and that the more we use our noses the more we are able to bring them into historical perspectives.

The remainder of the day consisted of a series of 10-minute ‘provocations’ rather than traditional conference papers. After each provocation, we were encouraged to write down our thoughts collectively and to draw connections between our responses.

Dr Megan Girdwood shared her work on movement and kinaesthesia drawing our attention to the early-twentieth-century researchers Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson to show that the sense of movement extended far beyond the realm of conscious, deliberate motion. Having identified her partner, Anstruther-Thomson, as someone with an especially well-developed sense of kinaesthesia, Lee recorded the minute physiological responses she experienced as a result of engaging with renaissance art.

Lena Ferriday explored relationships between the body and the environment in her provocation on the pedestrian navigation of the Devon and Cornwall coastlines. She illustrated that local residents and those who worked in these spaces on a daily basis had a very different haptic relationship to those who visited the area for leisure. They possessed an embodied expertise that allowed them to walk over difficult terrain more easily, in turn allowing them to guide visitors through the landscape for a fee.

Dr Coreen McGuire investigated the ways in which we measure the senses, once again drawing our attention to the extreme diversity of individual experience. Using the example of a stethoscope, she encouraged scholars to broaden their interpretation of the senses and to look at breath and breathing as an embodied sense. She also demonstrated the importance of the objects used to measure senses for accessing hidden histories.

Paula Teixeira Moláns explored the issue of diversity of experience further by demonstrating the vast diversity of language used to describe sensory perception. She looked at the relationship between semantics and colour, showing that not all languages describe colour, and asked what meaning is left behind when we translate sensory language.

Dr Richard Bellis used the example of the eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter to demonstrate the extent to which anatomists were required to actively engage with their senses during experiments. Hunter’s method for separating the placenta from the umbilical cord used sight, smell, touch, and even taste to better understand the processes he witnessed throughout the experiment. Once again, we returned to the issue of sensory standardisation. How did all anatomists know that they were experiencing a cadaver in the same way as their colleagues? The answer, for eighteenth century anatomists, lay in religious belief. Dr Bellis highlighted the contemporary belief that, providing an anatomist worked ‘appropriately’, the consistency of sensory experience was guaranteed by God.

Dr Fraser Riddell looked at alternative models for describing sensory experience drawing on neurodiversity studies. If we have established that sensory perception and embodied experience are both deeply unique and personal phenomena, what sensory worlds could we access with reference to neurodiverse experiences? He asked scholars to think critically about the ways in which sensory history has been shaped by neurotypical assumptions.

In reflecting on the day, was struck by the way in which the work of scholars from such a broad range of interdisciplinary backgrounds shard aurprising number of common themes. One way or another, all presentations touched on the idea of the senses as skills that one can develop rather than phenomena that simply happen to a person, of the difficult process of measuring and describing the senses, the need to expand our understanding of what we consider ‘senses’, and the importance of the senses in the construction of knowledge.

In addition, the symposium made it abundantly clear that sensory experience is deeply personal and unique. This can make the process of defining methodologies and approaches exceedingly difficult. The answer, it seems, lies in interdisciplinary research. Only through collaborative, interdisciplinary research can we access the resources, knowledge, and expertise required to tackle the complex questions that sensory studies raise and arrive closer at our collective goal of better understanding the senses and embodied experience.

A Taste of Tamarind

By Allison Fulton, Amara Santiesteban Serrano, and Jeannette Schollaert

Sturdy Contradictions

The grand and imposing hard-wood tree Tamarindus indica, commonly known as the tamarind tree, has long been a contradictory plant: it is at once a place of refuge and site of danger, a medicinal purgative and a culinary shape-shifter, an ingredient in a thirst-quencher and a drought-tolerant species. And while the tree has been documented across historical and literary genres for millennia, its place of origin remains scientifically obscure. Genetic studies do suggest an African origin, though wood charcoal analysis confirms that the tree has inhabited India since at least 1300 BCE, leading some to argue it is indigenous to the region. The tamarind narrative is rooted in so many singular places, but its global circulation speaks to the plant’s long history and steadfast ability to grow in dry and hot climates.

Black and white botanical drawing of tamarind
Botanical drawing of tamarind from Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 1679. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Such contradictions have been explored through storytelling: the tree serves as creative inspiration, thematic motif, and simple theatrical site across myth, legend, and fiction. The tamarind got its small leaves, according to a Bihar tribal story, when the exiled Lord Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita came upon a tamarind grove, where the tree’s large leaves provided shelter. But Rama was convinced that they were meant to suffer during their exile and so he ordered Lakshmana to shoot at the leaves with his bow and arrow—the leaves have been split ever since. 

Though many cultures venerate the tree as sacred or home to gods, some purport the tree’s curses and dangers; some Indian and Caribbean communities warn that the tamarind is home to spirits. A Hindu legend illustrates how the tree became cursed: one day, Radha, goddess of love and compassion, was on her way to meet Krishna when she stepped on a piece of ripe tamarind fruit bark and cut her foot. Now late for her meeting with the god, she cursed the fruit to fall from the tree still unripe, as it does today. The sheer pervasiveness of the plant in visual, oral, and written cultures across the globe speaks to its mythological status as both sprawling and rooted, exemplifying the sturdy contradiction that is the tamarind tree.

Image from book.
Krishna Woos Radha: Page from the Dispersed “Boston” Rasikapriya (Lover’s Breviary). Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tamarind’s Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Virtually every part of the tamarind tree—seeds, fruity pulp, bark, root, and leaves—is edible in some form. Its fruit contains the rather unusual tantric acid that makes it simultaneously the “most acidic and sweetest fruit.” The acid’s sweet-sour flavoring has a cooling effect in hot weather which makes it a valuable ingredient in a wide variety of dishes and beverages and inextricably links the fruit to warm climates. Moreover, as French botanist Joseph de Tournefort (1656–1708) conjectured, the fruit’s acidity lends itself to uncountable medicinal uses, such as a “purging medicine,” a laxative, an aid in facial paralysis, and a flavoring to make more bitter or unpleasant medicines taste sweeter. 

Tamarind’s resilience has made it a central part of herbal medicine practices across history.  A seventeenth-century oil painting created after a design by the French printmaker Nicolas de Larmessin II portrays three men as the personifications of medicine, pharmacy, and surgery. At the center of the composition, the physician personifying medicine is cloaked in garb that bears the names of medieval authors central to traditional Western medicine, including Avicenna and Mesue, two Persian polymaths credited by Tournefort as key to the spread of knowledge about tamarind. Taking a closer look, just beneath the medicine man’s hand, is a written prescription to treat medical ailments, and nestled within the text that includes “cassia” and “rhubarb,” is none other than “tamarind.”

Tracing the appearance of the tamarind tree’s commonly used parts across materia medica, travelogues, and cookbooks, is a means to track the dissemination of traditional herbal Ayurvedic medicinal knowledge through the peak of colonial expansion, to call attention to the colonial economic interests in T. indica, and to foreground the diverse religious and culinary cultures that the plant sustains.

Windward Islands, Barbados: The Pavilion, Queen’s House, showing the verandah of the Artist’s bedroom (the upper windows) and the covered way to the left leading to Queen’s House, July 28, 1881. The tree in the foreground is a tamarind tree. Image Credit: Yale Center for British Art

Cooking and Empire: Tamarind Recipes

Tamarind is most known for its culinary uses and is a staple in Indian cuisine. During or following their time in the British colonies, white women colonists like Mrs. Carmichael would often feature tamarind in English-language colonial cookbooks. Flora Steel and Grace Gardiner’s 1909 The complete Indian housekeeper & cook, for example, instructs readers to use tamarind water to quench their thirst in the course of their missionary work. The authors refer to tamarind using the Hindi term “Imli,” suggesting that their knowledge of the plant comes either directly or indirectly from those speaking Hindi. The cookbook does not offer any insight into how the British women gained access to the tamarind itself–there are no instructions for harvesting the pods from the trees or even directions for how best to acquire the plant from a market. This suggests that British women could easily obtain tamarind. Some British cooks noted that when unable to import tamarind, they “had to rely on lemon juice (and sometimes sour gooseberries) as a substitute.” British cooks like Eliza Acton even advocated for the importation of tamarind “in the shell – not preserved” in an effort to replicate the cuisines made in India.[1]

[1] Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, 144.

The Power of Peony

By Ashley Buchanan

The Secret Ingredient

In 1735, a Viennese baroness wrote to the last Medici princess, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici (1669—1743), to thank her for sending a miraculous infant convulsion powder. Anna Maria Luisa’s recipe for infant convulsion powder contained a precipitation of a human skull (of “a man who died violently but was never buried”), a precipitation of “Oriental pearls,” a precipitation of red coral and white coral, as well as yellow amber and peony roots and seeds. While the more outrageous ingredients—the skull and Oriental pearls—stand out, it was actually the use of peony that made Anna Maria Luisa’s powder effective.

In her letter to Anna Maria Luisa, the baroness praised the powder’s effectiveness, stating that the children she treated with it had been so violently taken by convulsions that the attending physicians had “given up on them.” Not only had the “miraculous powder” cured the children, but they remained in perfect health several months later. Well known for her miraculous powder, Anna Maria Luisa strategically distributed it to influential individuals and courts across Europe. As a result, she created valuable socio-political alliances to protect The Grand Duchy of Tuscany as the end of the Medici dynasty neared.

Handwritten recipe in Italian.
Recipe for infant convulsion powder featuring peony. Image Credit: Archivio di Stato di Firenze (ASF), Miscellanea Medicea (MM) 1, ins. 2, fol. 186r. Photo by Ashley Buchanan.

The Popularity of Peonies

Peonies are not typically associated with medicine, since they have long been coveted for their beauty. In fact, peonies were first cultivated for their attractiveness and fragrance in China more than 1,400 years ago and became especially popular under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). In the Tang imperial gardens, tree (or moutan) peonies reigned as the “king of flowers” and symbolized happiness, wealth, and prosperity. We can see the association of peonies with wealth and class in a rare Tang scroll painting that depicts five ladies of the court and one maidservant. The rank and prestige of each lady is shown by their scale relative to one another as well as by the lavish peonies that adorn their hair. As the popularity of peonies grew in China, so too did their varieties, as horticulturalists selected, hybridized, bred, and eventually grafted peonies for their fragrance, petal color, petal number, and size.

The center of imperial peony cultivation was in Luoyang, where there were peony festivals and competitions, gardens devoted solely to peonies, and even a peony research center. This led to a plethora of ornamental peony cultivars as peony breeding became an artform. More than 200 peony cultivars were described during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE); today, China has more than 1,000 cultivars.

Botanical painting of peony
Ming herbal (painting): Chinese herbaceous peony. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

While peonies have a long history of appreciation and cultivation as ornamental garden plants in Chinese as well as Islamic gardens, in western Europe they mainly were valued for their utility. Over the course of the sixteenth century that changed, when Ottoman floriculture introduced numerous ornamental flowers to the gardens of Europe, including hyacinths, narcissi, peonies, and most famously, tulips. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that Europeans would begin intensively breeding ornamental peonies.

In 1789, famed British naturalist Sir Joseph Banks acquired a “moutan peony tree” (Paeonia lactiflora) from Canton, China, through his connections with the British East India Company. Surviving the arduous journey to Britain, it was planted in the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Other peonies from China soon followed, ushering in something of a peony craze in Europe as, thanks to centuries of cultivation, Chinese peonies were larger, fuller, and more fragrant than native European varieties. Peonies became increasingly popular as French, English, and American horticulturists began developing ornamental varieties of their own from these exotic imported peony cultivars.

As a Chinese botanical export, eastern ornamental peonies, as well as the new herbaceous and tree hybrids created from them in Europe, carried connotations of the “exotic Orient” and became a popular subject in nineteenth-century art. The depiction of peonies in nineteenth-century French paintings, however, does more than simply signify the exotic or differentiate Occident and Orient. For example, in Frédéric Bazille’s Young Woman with Peonies (see below), the foreign provenance of ornamental peonies is emphasized by the Black model who arranges the blooms in an “Oriental” vase. Notably, Bazille pairs the peonies with irises, France’s national flower. Once new and exotic, ornamental peony cultivars had become a product of cultural hybridity, simultaneously signaling the plant’s eastern origin as well as the new varieties that were being developed in France.

Painting of young woman holding peonies, surrounding by other flowers
Frédéric Bazille, Young Woman with Peonies, 1870, NGA 61356. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today, peonies remain one of the most sought-after ornamental flowers in the world. Thanks to their abundant delicate petals, peonies often adorn gardens and homes, and are popular for wedding bouquets and floral arrangements. While peonies have long been, and continue to be, a coveted ornamental plant, what may surprise you is that they also have an equally long history—over two millennia—as a powerful medicinal therapeutic.