Around the Table: Chat with a Scholar

This month on Around the Table, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation with architectural historian Sarah Milne. She was introduced to an early modern English manuscript in the archives while researching another project. That text, the Dinner Book of the London Drapers’ Company, grew into a project of its own, and her newly-published edition is sure to be of great interest to historians of architecture, civic life, and food. In April, her research came full circle as she publicly launched her book at the site of the dining in the manuscript: Drapers’ Hall in London. Following my conversation below, Recipes Project editor Lisa Smith, who was able to attend the book launch, shares some comments about the presentation.

Sarah Milne speaking in Drapers’ Hall, where the dinners take place. Photo courtesy of Sarah Milne.

Could you describe the Dinner Book and how you found it? On what type of project were you working?

Rather unusually, I first came across the Dinner Book as a postgraduate architecture student trying to get to grips with the City of London as a place, so that I could design for it effectively. Walking around its streets, I identified the livery company (guild) halls as important footholds, entry points into the guilds themselves, and I set myself the task of designing a new livery hall for recently formed guilds. It did not take me long to figure out that one of the focal-points of company life was the annual ‘Election Dinner’, when new leaders of the companies were invested in their new roles at grand dinners held in the halls. For me, in representing guild hierarchies structured within the hall, this was a critical moment to design for, and I was keen to research the history of dinners as much as I could in order to uncover the meaning and cultural context of these long-standing events. To be honest, my design project was over and done with far too quickly, but I was able to develop my interest through a written dissertation. Influenced by Carolyn Steele’s writing on how food shapes cities, I wrote to a number of guild archivists enquiring records which would give me insight into the sorts of foods presented at the dining tables of the Election Dinners. I was intrigued by the mercantile guilds’ attitudes to ‘new world’ products, and the extent to which dinners were experimental or conservative. Penny Fussell at the Drapers’ Company invited me to visit Drapers’ Hall to see a document she thought I might be interested in. That was the Dinner Book.

At the time I encountered it, I didn’t really have the skillset to deal with it effectively, I was not trained in palaeography for a start, but I knew that this account book seemed rare and important. Spanning from 1564–1602, though mostly weighted towards the 1560s and 1570s, it listed the foods, drinks, suppliers, servants, attendees and their positions within Drapers’ Hall at a series of Election Dinners. For me at that time, the potential of the document was to ground City sociability in a place, a space and a time, allowing for present-day dinners to be read through the lens of the past. Slowly but surely I made progress in making sense of the document.

It was only many years afterwards during my PhD, and several drafts of transcriptions of the Dinner Book later, that I was able to say with more certainty why this book was important for early modern historians, and suggest its significance for food historians. The period covered by the Dinner Book was one of particular instability and change in the City. The Drapers’ dinner records for the closing decades of the sixteenth century indicate that livery companies recognised the potential of their annual Election Dinners to reinforce the antiquity of corporate authority, inferring a mythical past as a means of legitimizing their stake in the future. Naturally, the food presented was implicated in this endeavour, and mostly tended towards traditionally high-status meats such as venison.

Sarah Milne showing the Dinner Book to a Draper. Photo courtesy of Sarah Milne.

It is interesting how such a beautiful space (Drapers’ Hall) has such a rich accompanying textual history; that is not always the case! Is this kind of menu book unique to the Drapers? Do you know of other examples of similar guild records (in London or elsewhere), particularly ones accompanying an existing architectural space?

Though the Great Twelve Companies shared a common culture of dining and a concern for their orchestration, it does appear that The Dinner Book is the only coherently detailed document which accounts for a series of these sorts of dinners. It seems to have been produced as a sort of aide memoire to inform the planning of future dinners as well as giving an account of what was spent year by year. There may well have been other Dinner Books, but they have not survived, excepting one very partial record from the late seventeenth century. In individual guild archives and at the Guildhall, the odd account of comparable Election Dinners of other companies can be found, but nothing quite matches the Dinner Book.

I am very thankful for the ways in which the Drapers’ Company accommodated me in their Hall over many years. To be able to research the Dinner Book in near enough the same location as it was produced, and the kitchens where the dinners actually prepared, was quite special. Indeed, though Drapers’ Hall has been rebuilt many times, the memory of the sixteenth-century Hall persists in the arrangement of interior spaces, so that the present-day main hall where the dinners were eaten is effectively in the same location, and of a similar scale, as it was at the time the Dinner Book was written-up. Other companies too retain Halls, though none survive from the sixteenth century (excepting the fifteenth-century kitchens of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall).

Has working with the Dinner Book influenced your other research interests and recent projects?

My encounter with the Dinner Book affected the trajectory of my working life quite significantly. From a focus on architectural design, I shifted to focus on architectural history, understanding that the two need to be held in tension, especially when the complexity of a city like London is in view. If it is not already apparent, I should clarify that I take architecture to be a broad discipline concerned with how space is produced by many hands over time. Architecture is always relational, contingent, and, at its heart, it is really about people. In this way, the study of food exchanges and dining practices can be very relevant to urban and architectural historians interested in working from the inside out of buildings, or thinking about flows of traded goods in the city more generally. Indeed, I feel strongly that the link between designers, urbanists and architects on the one hand, and historians on the other, needs to be cultivated so that cities can be acted within and planned for with sensitivity and wisdom. Spatial ‘micro-histories’ can be very effective in engaging a broad-range of people in deep conversations about the way cities change over the long-term.

Now I work for the Survey of London, a group of historians who write histories of London’s built environment, paying attention to all sorts of stories of the capital city and addressing a huge range of buildings past and present. We tend to work parish by parish, and currently I am working on an especially experimental project centred on Whitechapel in East London. We have taken a participatory approach to this project, inviting the public and professionals to enter into dialogue with us and each other about the area, sharing their research, memories and archives, as we share our findings, all framed within the context of a digitally accessible online map. Speaking to people, it is amazing to see how often food or dining comes up, especially in relation to migrant experiences of settlement and inter-cultural exchanges. We have been especially excited to commission a film about the local South Asian restaurant trade – Changing Tastes.

Thanks, Sarah, for chatting with me about such an interesting project! You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahannmilne.

And now, Lisa Smith’s comments on the book launch.

On April 8, I had the pleasure visiting the Drapers’ Hall in London to celebrate a book launch for Sarah Milne’s edited volume of The Dinner Book of the London Drapers’ Company 1564-1602. Although I’ve visited a range of splendid medical buildings, from the Royal College of Surgeons (London) to the Académie Nationale de Médecine (Paris), this was my first experience of an actual London guild hall. To say that the Drapers’ Hall is very grand would be an understatement; the marks of power, pomp, and ceremony remain visible to historians, even if the main hall is now bookable for wedding receptions.

In the introduction to The Dinner Book, Dr Milne describes the ‘theatre of hospitality’; beyond the grandeur of a hall, the guild displayed its wealth through elaborate feasts. At the Election Dinner of 1564, for example, the first course included foods like swans, pikes, venison pasties, and custards; the second course included lighter foods, from quails to marchipane; and the banquet course was comprised of sweet items, like spicebread, wafers, fruits, and hippocras. The necessity of luxury was so important that the guild hall even had a separate space for preparing the banquet course—the hippocras house, which was staffed by three servants during the 1564 dinner.

“Interior of Drapers’ Hall” From Old and New London, Volume I, by Walter Thornbury (1897). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There is no modern-day hippocras house, but the book launch took place in the same room as the early modern great hall. A modern chef attempted to recapture some of the early modern flavours for us, too, with treats such as venison pasties and pottage…

In her talk, Dr Milne discussed the complicated nature of space and public activities in early modern London; the domestic, social, and business worlds co-existed behind the guild hall gates. The great hall may have been used for corporate assemblies, but the courtyard house was the Master’s residence. The parlour was the site of the guild’s day-to-day business. Corporate celebrations, such as Election Dinners, included entire families: widows, wives, and occasionally young children. And the garden provided the fruits, nuts, and herbs used in creating grand dinners.

The Dinner Book is a wonderful window into the food, people, and activities of an early modern guild hall, listing as it does the foods served, the people paid, and the activities undertaken. In preparation for the feast dinner of 6 August 1571, for example, we learn that Treacle the Cook spent two days preparing the meal; that Mr Crowley preached for two days; that the Master Wardens’ wives sold the hall comfits and biscuits; that the grocer Henry Falks provided a substantial amount of luxury spices and dried fruit; and that the hall bought eighty pounds of butter from the market.

Thanks, Lisa! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Magical Charms, Love Potions, and Surreal Tricks

A compact fifteenth-century paper book, MS Sloane 1315 (British Library, London), stands as a manuscript witness to many of the works of popular Middle English instruction.

The book might be said to be a miscellany or multi-text manuscript that is home to vernacular works of the kind that were widely-read and much copied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Among its many texts is

  • a copy of the courtesy text The Boke of Nurture, purported to have been compiled by John Russell in the service of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester;
  • a treatise on lucky and unlucky days;
  • a leechbook;
  • a verse lunary called “The Thirty Days of the Moon” (extant in several manuscripts of this kind);
  • an abridged version of the widely-circulated Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy;
  • a copy of the popular herbal known as the Agnus Castus;
  • a medical regimen with the title “A Generall Rewle for to yeue Medycyns”.
‘The Zodiac Man’, or homo signorum, is a diagram of a human body and astrological symbols. This example is taken from a 15th-century Welsh manuscript. Credit: National Library of Wales.

But why stop there? Sloane 1315 also preserves a dietary, and is well-illustrated with useful diagrams, charts, and curative aids in the form of calendars and astrological tables. There is even a homo signorum at ff. 68–69.

The manuscript, originating in the south-east of England, is likely to have served a individual practising astrological and herbal medicine, collating a series of texts and tables that would have been useful to that individual.

The layout and page placements in the manuscript suggests regular consultation. For example, there are clear headings supplied throughout. Although the manuscript is in many ways unremarkable, it is clear and accessible, written in a legible cursive hand.

BL MS Sloane 1315, f 28r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

The book is, however, remarkable in one aspect. In the midst of the many works is a curious collection of short medical recipes, interspersed with a series of short texts that might be described as recipes and charms. Some of these recipes are magical or fantastic, or contain properties associated with illusion or trickery. Laura Mitchell has previously written at The Recipes Project about ludic and lascivious medieval charms.

The ones in Sloane 1315 are strangely at odds with the rest of the texts, sitting rather uncomfortably with the diagnostic and curative theme of the volume as a whole. They are extremely varied, to the point of almost being random: some of the more extreme examples with spell-like qualities include charms to “make a flodde of water to com into a howse”, to “make a lofe of brede to dawnce in an oven or on a tabull” (which calls for the use of quicksilver), and “to make a howse seeme full of snakys.”[1]

There is a method as well to “make a lampe to bren wythowte fyre”, which seems to involve soaking a wick in oil, and one to “make a whyte spotte on a blacke horsse”, which involves anointing a horse with water which has been steeped in a special herb. One that caught my eye (and too late for Valentine’s Day 2019!) is a short instruction “How to Make a Woman to love the”, which I transcribe here (with light edits):

Take the harte of coluere and bren hit on a ty3le ine to powder, and yeve here thereof in mete or dryncke; and sche schall love the

The text calls for the “harte of a coluere” – the heart of a snake – to be burned and ground into powder, then sprinkled into the food or drink of a woman. It reads like something that students at Hogwarts might create using snake fangs or skins in their Potions lessons, and indeed this section of the book has a fictive quality to it: we cannot imagine that any of these instructions could possibly work by delivering what their titles promise.

However magical and impossible they might be, moreover, they are framed as recipes, manifesting many of the same features as the recipe text-type while also bearing some relation to charms. The “take and make” formula that is so familiar to us–and common to premodern recipes–is interrupted only slightly by the strangeness of the ingredients and the apparent simplicity in achieving what seems to be rather a difficult effect.

All things considered, these recipes do seem to fit their context. Sloane 1315 is clearly a manual for giving care, containing works that will be familiar to any student of medieval astrological and herbal medicine. The strange recipes are not textually distinguished from other works in the volume; rather, they are normalised, and look as if they are intended to fit in with the book’s other contents. Their regular appearance masks their unusual qualities, and though the love-recipe might seem at first fairly innocuous, the fact that it and its co-texts are disguised to dovetail with the other works in the book may give us pause. In short, the fantastic nature of these texts may not sit well with the pretty practical bent of the book as a whole.

They cause me to pause because they recast the way in which I think about the rest of the book. On the one hand, they may have been used in unscrupulous ways. If, as literary scholar Douglas Gray observes, this is the kind of manuscript that would have been used by “leeches, ‘wise women’, and ‘cunning men'”, then these people would have occupied positions of trust in a community (35). Can we countenance, then, the possibility that the individual who owned this book may have been involved in a lucrative side-line, peddling recipes that didn’t work and perhaps selling the ingredients as well: quicksilver, snake’s hearts and skins? The recipes seem ripe for facile dissemination, being short enough to have been memorised or quickly copied, and they may have been used to bolster the credibility of the owner of the manuscript, showcasing his knowledge of strange or exotic methods or ingredients.

Or perhaps their function is altogether different. Could they have been intended to introduce humour to the healing context? Perhaps they functioned like the modern-day prank box, a kind of textual cabinet of curiosities, intended to entertain clients who were not feeling well, or appealing to younger audiences? As Gray writes, one can “sympathize with the curious owner or reader eager to discover” the varied arts described therein, and the owner of the book may have just wanted to spread some joy and mischief (35). What we read here may be an entirely personal impulse to collect (or create) fun from a pretty standard, recognisable textual tradition and format. Or perhaps the book provides further evidence of the close relationship between medicine and magic in this period (that persisted in some contexts in later centuries; see Lisa Smith’s post on an eighteenth-century magical manuscript), giving expression to a particular understanding of popular medicine as, in some respects, fanciful? Whatever the scenario, Sloane 1315 is a fascinating volume, hiding amongst its popular medical works a collection of weird and wonderful textual gems and raising all sorts of questions about the varied role of the folk practitioner in this period.

With thanks to Mary Wellesley.

[1] See Douglas Gray, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 35.




How to correct Plato, alchemically?

By Bojidar Dimitrov, AlchemEast Project

Jabir Ibn Hayyan is a figure of key importance for the development of alchemy and chemistry. A vast body of literature virtually covering the entire spectrum of ancient science has been attributed to the Islamic polymath, and yet much of the little we know about him remains shrouded in mystery. The very historicity of Jabir’s person and the authenticity of his works have been the subject of rigorous scholarly debate. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of the texts which belong to the Jabirian corpus have not been edited and published.

The scant biographical data provided by mediaeval Islamic sources and Jabir’s own works suggests that his lifetime spanned the period between ca. 721/725 and 812/815 AD. The so-called Jabir Problem mainly revolves around different aspects of this alleged historical context. The ambiguous relationship between the Arabic Jabirian corpus and the nascent alchemical tradition of the Latin West is the other major side of the conundrum. 

Paul Kraus’ ground-breaking studies on Jabir[1] proposed that the Jabirian corpus was probably compiled over a longer period of time by a school of alchemists who circulated their works under Jabir’s name. Similar doubts were already expressed by mediaeval Islamic scholars, and Kraus’ detailed analysis of the language and the content of seminal texts argues that the scientific terminology, doctrines and references to Greek authorities found in them point to a later stage of Islamic intellectual history, which began in the ninth century. Kraus’ conclusions have been debated by scholars since their publication in the 1940s, but the scope and depth of his research remain unmatched to this day.

One of the current objectives of the AlchemEast Project is to make available a collection of alchemical recipes belonging to a sub-genre of Jabir’s corpus. Plato’s Rectifications is the only surviving collection of a cycle of pseudepigraphical ‘rectifications’ associated with ancient authorities. The work is presented as a commentary on alchemical doctrines ascribed to Plato that the Greek sage is said to reveal to his disciple, Timaeus. The ninety recipes involve alchemical procedures with mercury which are intended to illustrate the application of Plato’s theories.

Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples (from a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript).

Jabir’s attribution of alchemical material to Plato is pertinent to the reception of Platonic influences in Islamic alchemy and the wider context of Islamic thought. While Jabir’s system incorporates key Neoplatonic traits of Greek philosophical alchemy, its experimental and arithmological developments are highly original and do not seem to derive from extant Greek texts. Furthermore, no alchemical texts are attributed to Plato (or Socrates) in the Greek tradition.[2] There are, however, Syriac recipes attributed to Plato, and he is generally accorded a prominent place in Arabic occult literature. Such facts may indicate that Jabir could have been influenced by late antique Neoplatonic traditions of a distinctly Near Eastern flavour.

An excerpt from Rectification Nr. 14 presents a recipe which involves the heating and cooling of mercury:

Then he said: take ten measures of spirit (i.e. mercury), put it in the middle gourd (i.e. glass vessel), and tighten upon it the alembic which has no aperture (i.e. valve). Heat it over gentle fire for ten days, then cool it off on the eleventh. Repeat the operation and gather the first water. The gourd containing mercury will be heated, or joined to the other gourd until it (i.e. mercury) dissolves in one of the two gourds. Take the thickened [residue], put it in the second gourd, and heat it until it melts, becomes liquid and turns red. Then heat the water until it boils and [the condensate] starts dripping all over the residue, [so that] it swells, absorbs some of the water and is incerated by it, and yields. It will become like wax, just as we described initially, and [even] better. If the procedure starts by heating the water until [the condensate] drips over the residue, it will be dissolved, and both will be dissolved, coagulated and incerated together, [and thus the procedure] is also complete. Peace.

Image 2: Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS, BNF Arabe 6915)

Depiction of alchemical apparatus with an alembic (MS BNF Arabe 6915).

The text exemplifies the fluidity of content that alchemical recipes often exhibit. The procedures it describes are relatively simple, but the textual variants in the manuscripts allow different possibilities. The translation above is not conclusive, since the relationship of the alembic and the two vessels is somewhat ambiguous. According to certain readings, for instance, the second vessel and the alembic must be alternated during the process of dissolution. The examination of further textual variants and manuscripts can expand our understanding of Jabir’s technical methodology. Ultimately, the intertextuality of Platonic pseudepigrapha found in Jabir and other traditions calls for an overarching discussion of Plato’s role in alchemical discourse. Whether this role was itself rectified by practitioners over the centuries, or the fluctuations we encounter in manuscripts are of a purely textual nature, are the main questions AlchemEast aims to address.

[1] Paul Kraus, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Vol. II. Jābir et la science grecque (Cairo: Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte 45.1, 1942).

[2] Ibid., p. 58.