Category Archives: Material History

Recipes and the Senses: An Introduction

By Hannah Newton

Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630). Wikimedia.


Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.


There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.

Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell.  One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.

A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.


One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’

To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.

Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.


Tales from the Archives: Of Dirty Books and Bread

As our loyal readers know, yesterday we celebrated our fifth birthday! We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. What a wealth of knowledge on recipes from our wonderful contributors. However, 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 in a ‘Tales from the Archives’ series.

This month, we’re getting a bonus Tales from the Archives. Here in the U.K., The Great British Bake Off airs on Tuesday nights and, this season, contestant Kate Lyon regularly uses historical recipes. Tonight, bread is on the menu!  This post, by Anke Timmermann, is one of my favourite bread-related posts. Let’s just say that Wonder Bread takes on a whole new meaning!

We’d also like to congratulate Anke on her new business. She left academia a couple years ago to move into the antiquarian book business and recently opened her own in London: A T Scriptorium.
Editor Lisa Smith

By Anke Timmermann

There are certain things that even the most innocent manuscript scholar cannot avoid, among them dirty books. This post will discuss the traces that careless readers have left on manuscript pages since they were first filled with writing: smudges and splodges created through physical contact between books and readers. Blemishes and damaged manuscripts have occurred to me recently in different guises as I was tracing alchemy across Cambridge manuscript collections. The following three observations may amuse and inspire the current audience – not least because they connect codices with bread, cheese and other foodstuffs.

Bad And Good Dirt

Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons)
Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons) 

Richard de Bury, cleric, bibliophile of the early fourteenth century and author of a book-lover’s guide to books, wrote passionately about the correct handling of codices. Books were meant to be seen but not touched. In the appropriately entitled Philobiblon, de Bury exemplifies readers’ common if damaging behaviour in the figure of ‘some headstrong youth’:

He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.

Many modern users of libraries observing fellow-readers will find this scenario familiar.

But in recent years scholarship has made visible previously hidden signs of historical book usage. An excellent article of 2010 demonstrates the use of a densitometer, ‘a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface’, e.g. for revealing traces of medieval readers’ kisses of saints’ images.[1] One can only imagine, and deduce from obvious stains, what a similar analysis of recipe books would uncover.

Medieval Bread and Books

Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.
Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.

Dirt on book pages did not need to wait for modern technology to be noted. Late medieval book owners remarked upon and tried to find solutions for the appearance of unwanted substances on their manuscript pages. Recently discovered examples include paw prints and bodily fluids left by cats in manuscripts, but after the fact, at a stage when these manuscripts were beyond hope of cleaning.[2]

I was, therefore, delighted to find the following instruction for cleaning books in a manuscript at Cambridge University Library (CUL MS Ee.1.13, f. 141r).

ffor to make clene thy boke yf yt be defouled or squaged[3]

Take a schevyr of old broun bred of þe crummys and rub thy boke þerwith sore vp and downe and yt shal clense yt

Formally a recipe text, this advice relies on just a single ‘ingredient’: bread. And while bread features widely in culinary and religious texts, in the proverbial diet of prisons (bread and water) and the pairing of ‘bread and salt’, this early mention of bread in cleaning instructions deserves more consideration. It bridges the recipe genre, bread as a culinary product of the kitchens and its alienated, secondary use that relies on its texture and other material qualities. Moreover, this text draws silent parallels with contemporary instructions for the cleaning of pots and pans, tools and instruments. I wonder whether the abovementioned technology might discover trails of bread across manuscript pages?

Modern Books and Wonder Bread

An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum
An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum

Bread as a cleaning device for books continues until today, and may be familiar to some readers of this blog, especially those dealing with books or paintings in a professional or otherwise intense capacity. The American loaf known by the modest name of Wonder Bread is said to have particularly good cleansing power. Pertinently, the V&A, however, includes this practice in its category ‘What not to do…’:

Don’t use old fashioned cleaning remedies

Bread is a traditional dry cleaning material used to remove dirt from paper. If you rub a piece of fresh white bread between your fingers, you will see that it is quite effective in picking up dirt. The slight stickiness of bread is the reason why it works and also why it can be a problem. It can leave a sticky residue behind that will attract more dirt. Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth and encourage pest attack.[4]

This piece of advice forms the antidote to the abovementioned instruction for cleaning books: conflicting advice across the centuries.

Undecided on the issue I will, however, continue to make sure my hands are clean as I continue through manuscripts with recipes, especially the alchemical ones. You never know what may have left that stain in the margin.

I would like to extend my thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for the kind permission to use an image from their collections in this blog post.

The Tenement Museum’s blog post on the history of bread (whence the second image above originates) is not directly connected to this particular post’s themes but an interesting read for different reasons: Judy Levin, ‘From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread’ (19 Jan 2012).

[1] Kathryn M. Rudy, ‘Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer’, Journal of Historians of Netherlendish Art 2:1-2 (2010).

[2] See this guest post by Thijs Porck at medievalfragments: ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’.

[3] ‘squagen (v.) [Origin unknown; ?= squachen v.] To make a stain, smudge; also, dirty (sth.), smudge, stain.’ MED.

[4] V&A, ‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’ (accessed 25/11/2013).


Author Bio

Anke Timmermann is an antiquarian book specialist and historian of science, with a scholarly focus on the history of alchemy and medicine. She recently set up as an independent bookseller as A T Scriptorium in London, and is an Associate Member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association as well as a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. Anke previously worked at one of the oldest antiquarian booksellers in London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, following her Munby Fellowship in Bibliography at Cambridge of 2013-2014 and a career as a historian of alchemy.

When Does a Drug Trial End?

By Justin Rivest

An eighteenth-century proprietary medicine vendor. Detail from “Le Charlatan, 1785.” Hand coloured etching and aquatint. Antoine Borel after J. Augustin L’Eveillé. Source: Wellcome Images.

The question I’d like to begin this post by asking is, When does a drug enter “normal use”? Is a trial a “provisional” phase, that reaches a definitive end, say when “proof” is found, or when the relevant authorities are convinced? Or in an age where drug monopolies were insecure and difficult to enforce, was the state of trial—l’épreuve—always ongoing?

This question first crossed my mind while preparing my contribution for the recent special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “Testing drugs and trying cures,” edited by Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin. My article focuses on the role of patient trials in granting monopoly privileges for proprietary drugs in eighteenth-century France. These royally-granted privileges were the distant ancestors of modern drug patents. They gave their inventors a legally enforceable monopoly over the drug in question by enabling them to fine counterfeiters.

Even after they were granted monopoly privileges, drug vendors continued, almost compulsively, to gather further evidence of the effectiveness of their drugs. This evidence often took the form of an attestation or certificat. These documents could take several forms: some were notarized statements, made by a patient declaring that he or she had been cured of this or that condition. Others were endorsements signed by an expert practitioner—a famous doctor, a representative of a local college or guild—who had personally witnessed the drug’s effects.

In this post, I will use the practice of what we might call “cure attestation collection” to question whether “trials” (épreuves) of a drug really had an end from the perspective of early modern drug monopolists.

The most important reason to continue gathering documentation of the effectiveness of their drug was to convince authorities to renew their privilege at a later date, as most monopoly privileges had fixed terms of three, ten, or fifteen years. But even within these term limits, they did not have perfect guarantees. Early modern drug monopolies were tenuous. Vendors knew that they might even have to re-submit both their drugs and their documentation for arbitrary re-examination by the authorities.

Even barring arbitrary re-examinations, the multi-generational duration of many early modern monopolies meant that they would be evaluated more than once by the authorities. The drug monopoly I studied in my article, the poudre fébrifuge of the Chevalier de Guiller, was particularly long-standing, extending across four generations. As a febrifuge, the drug was targeted at “intermittent fevers,” an important cause of mortality in the French army in this period. The drug was first awarded a monopoly privilege in 1713, at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. Its inheritors faced various challenges in exploiting it over the coming decades, but they consistently managed to get the privilege renewed. By the 1770s, in fact, the latest inheritors, the sisters Marie-Thérèse and Marie-Victoire de La Jutais, had accumulated a veritable archive of attestations in favour of their drug, spanning over sixty years.

Most of these documents were cure attestations and endorsements from patients, and prominent medical practitioners. A signed personal endorsement of the drug from the supervising practitioner was often the most important result of a hospital trial. Vendors who sold drugs in bulk to the state, especially to the military, could appeal to a special type of attestation. The La Jutais sisters, for instance, did not just rely on the documents that had been handed down to them through their family. They also went to government archives—much as historians do today—looking to collect documentation that might endorse their drug. They paid the navy office to make official copies of fifty-year-old correspondence concerning their drug so that they could submit it with their petition to renew their monopoly.

Monopolists were not, however, impartial researchers. The La Jutais sisters seem not to have collected any documentation which might cast their drug in a negative light—or at least, if they came across such evidence, they avoided disseminating it. Indeed, during my research I came across several documented cases of ambiguous or negative patient trial results of the poudre fébrifuge. In one 1714 trial involving “twenty or thirty” patients at a navy hospital, the drug was deemed to be too inconsistent in its effects and was dismissed as a violent purgative rather than a true febrifuge. It seems at least plausible that the La Jutais sisters’ archival searches might have drawn up this material as well. Nonetheless this report is notably absent from their petitions for monopoly renewal in the 1770s.

The “selective archive” of positive attestations that the La Jutais sisters assembled helped them to renew their monopoly privilege in 1775. We can see from their case that early modern drug monopolists had good reasons to keep collecting cure attestations wherever they could get them. They had the effect of turning the drug’s everyday use into a form of legally acceptable evidence, making a successful trial out of every cure.


Justin is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge and his work focuses on early drug monopolies and the role of bulk drug producers and consumers in the early modern medical marketplace. He recently co-wrote a short piece in The New England Journal of Medicine with Alisha Rankin on this topic, as well as an article in the Canadian Journal of History on one particularly successful drug entrepreneur, Adrien Helvétius (1662-1727), who sold massive quantities of his drug against dysentery to the French state for use in the army and rural poor relief efforts. His research has shown that trials on patients played a critical role in licensing early drug monopolies as well as in helping entrepreneurs secure lucrative supply contracts with the state.

Anecdotes and Antidotes

By Alisha Rankin

How did early modern individuals test and try their recipes and cures? This question is at the heart of the special issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” in which I participated as both a co-editor and an author. My article, “On Anecdote and Antidotes: Poison Trials in Early Modern Europe,” examines the ways in which early modern practitioners tested a specific kind of cure: antidotes to poison. It contains some information I discussed in earlier posts on this blog – here and here – but adds many details and thoughts about testing in general. Most cures, I argue, tended to be tested in the course of regular clinical experience. A patient got sick; a practitioner tried a particular remedy, observed the results, and frequently shared anecdotes of success or failure. The scale of this kind of testing could be small or large, but in most cases it involved patients who were already sick.

Poison antidotes were a little different, because practitioners could actually create the condition of illness by giving poison to a test subject. In 1563, for example, the royal surgeon to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, Claudius Richardus, wrote a letter describing the marvellous virtues of bezoar stone. As avid Harry Potter readers will know, bezoar was an animal byproduct prized as a poison antidote and cure-all. Richardus recounted a series of marvellously successful tests he had conducted on bezoar at the Emperor’s behest. In two of them, patients received bezoar in the midst of a serious illness – the usual practice. In the other two, bezoar was tested in contrived trials on condemned criminals.[1]

Bezoar stones from the imperial Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Photo by Alisha Rankin.

This second kind of test – which I call a poison trial – has a long history dating back to antiquity. Many ancient kings, most famously Mithridates VI of Pontos (135-63 BCE), used condemned criminals to test poison antidotes, from which he developed his famous antidote and cure-all, mithridatium. The Greco-Roman physician Galen reportedly tested theriac, a derivative of mithridatium, on roosters, and versions of this test appeared in the writings of several Arabic physicians, including Avicenna’s highly influential Canon of Medicine.[2] Medieval physicians repeated the description of Galen’s test as well. However, poison trials tended to be described as theoretical tests that one could conduct rather than as anecdotes about tests that had actually taken place, and they were mainly suggested as a means to test whether a batch of theriac was inferior, fraudulent, or old – not whether theriac actually worked. From the time of Galen, moreover, poison trials were conducted exclusively on animals, not humans. The dominant argument for the efficacy of these drugs remained anecdotal reports of their use on sick patients.

In the Renaissance, poison trials expanded significantly, as did their role in medical communication. From the 1520s, powerful rulers began to revive the gruesome tradition of using condemned criminals to test a variety of poison antidotes – not just theriac. In addition, these tests were reported and circulated as anecdotes rather than being described as theoretical suggestions. The first known example comes from Rome in August 1524, when Pope Clement VII directed his medical personnel to test an antidote oil created by the surgeon Gregorio Caravita. He granted the medics two Corsican criminals who had been condemned to death by beheading. Both prisoners were given a strong dose of the deadly herb wolfsbane (aconitum napellus). Caravita then anointed one prisoner with the oil. The other, a “savage spirit,” was given no antidote. The first man survived; the other died in much agony.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

A second successful test was conducted on a Mantuan prisoner given arsenic. Soon thereafter, the medical personnel published a public service pamphlet describing these trials in detail.[3]

A shorter version of this anecdote also appeared in the famous herbal published by Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544 (with a Latin version in 1554). Mattioli’s influence helped spread poison trials around Europe. From 1561-67, a number of contrived trials on condemned criminals took place under powerful princes, including Emperor Ferdinand I, King Charles IX of France, and Duke Cosimo II de’Medici. Significantly, royal physicians and surgeons spearheaded these poison trials, and they communicated the results in anecdotes that appeared both in private documents and printed books. Claudius Richardus’s bezoar trials were part of a series of such events.

These anecdotes demonstrated careful thought in how the trials were devised and conducted. They described the trials in in excruciating detail, including the number of times a prisoner had vomited and defecated as well as the hour at which these events had occurred. In some cases, physicians attempted to created conditions that would lead to a useful outcome. Richardus’s letter described how food was withheld from a prisoner before the test, “so that one could be more certain of the trial.” This step came in response to a previous case in which the physicians had trouble getting the poison to work. Finally, physicians took care in reporting and circulating their reports about the trials, clearly imbuing them with significance. A series of poison trials on dogs conducted in 1580 by a German prince circulated in both manuscript and print as a detailed Observatio, a report intended to be shared.

Poison trials represented only a miniscule part of drug testing in early modern Europe. Indeed, anecdotes about drugs used successfully on sick people helped drive the interest in new drugs from around the globe, as described in this post by R.A. Kashanipour. Nevertheless, the anecdotes about antidotes demonstrated significant developments in both testing practices and medical communication. To find out more, read my article!


[1] Richardus’s letter, to Archbishop Nicholas Olahus, was later published in Latin and German. Thomas Jordan, Pestis phaenomena (Frankfurt, 1576), 621–630; Johann Wittich, Bericht von der wunderbaren bezoardischen Steinen (Leipzig, 1592), 21.

[2] Galen’s poison trial appeared in the treatise On Theriac to Piso, which may be spurious. However, scholars in the Islamic world and Europe assumed it was authentic. See Robert Leigh, On Theriac to Piso, Attributed to Galen: A Critical Edition with Translation and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[3] The pamphlet was signed by the physician Paolo Giovio, the apothecary Tomasso Bigliotti, and the senator Pietro Borghese. Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524).