Category Archives: Medicine

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. Every Thursday, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These four features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Matteo Martelli

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology — from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE.

In antiquity, medical recipes were easily exchanged among experts. Physicians used to send letters containing recipes to each other, as evident in Graeco-Roman papyri. Moreover, recipes were sold to people interested in specific formulas. And they could be quite pricey! In the second century CE, for example, a friend of famous physician Galen of Pergamum (second-early third century CE) was ready to spend over a hundred gold pieces to purchase highly valued recipes, some of which were preserved in “two folded parchment volumes.”[i] About a century earlier, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus (mid-first century CE) referred to the price of valuable formulas he had included in his Compositiones for a powerful drug against abdominal pains or an antidote made of hyena skin.[ii]

We can safely infer that recipes were collected in Antiquity. They were shifting atoms of knowledge that could be disseminated in a variety of treatises of different genres or simply piled into collections of variable length. The accumulation of technical knowledge could produce recipe books, usually in the form of lists or compilations of (often anonymous) recipes. Papyri offer strong, albeit fragmentary evidence for this process. A telling example is a fourth-century medical book usually referred to as The Michigan Medical Codex, which consists of thirteen leaves containing formulas for different plasters and salves.[iii] In a codex format, the papyrus has been identified as a manual copied for a practicing physician, who in some cases corrected the text or even expanded it by adding personal notes and recipes in the margins. In the alchemical field, two well-known examples of recipe books written in codex form are the so-called Leiden and Stockholm papyri (third-fourth century CE), which have been variously linked to workshop practices (Figure 1). They were defined either as handbooks for ancient craftsmen (e.g. goldsmiths, dyers) or as copies of the workshop notes of an artisan.[iv] The two papyri include more than two hundred recipes on how to dye metals, stones, and textiles (wool in most cases).[v]

Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library:
Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library:

These kinds of recipe books could be quite difficult to navigate, due to their lack of structure and fluid arrangement of the collected material. Readers often find no guidelines to assist them in the difficult task of locating specific procedures and techniques in a given collection. Moreover, these compilations often provide no information about the criteria for selecting and accumulating recipes. Important questions remain difficult to answer: to what extent does collected information correspond with the state and characteristics of a given discipline? How exhaustive is the selected material? To what extent were these collections used as reference works? Or were they local, produced by a single workshop or a scholar in contact with a small circle of artisans? What kinds of authority did the authors or compilers of ancient recipe books rely upon in selecting instructions to be included in their collections?

The three “manuals” or “handbooks” mentioned so far (the Michigan Medical Codex and the Leiden and Stockholm papyri) date to between the third and the fourth century CE, a moment of transition when “traditional” bodies of knowledge were inherited, selected, and re-organized. This cultural transfer and rearrangement of texts and practices had a strong effect on the ways that recipes were transmitted and organized. This is especially evident in the works of two almost contemporary authors: the so-called medical encyclopedia by Oribasius (fourth century CE), physician of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, and the alchemical books by the Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (third-fourth century CE).

Figure 2. Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right)
Figure 2. The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right). Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE.

On the one hand, these authors had to cope with an already rich and well-established tradition. Oribasius regularly exploited Galen’s huge medical corpus as well as the works of many other (less known) physicians. He extracted passages and quotations from earlier, authoritative writings and re-arranged them to build his own compendia. Even though less systematic, Zosimus’ approach to early authorities is equally dense. He constantly refers back to those figures of the first and second centuries CE who were identified as the founders of the alchemical art: Pseudo-Democritus, Maria the Jewess, and Pebichius, to name but a few.

On the other hand, Oribasius and Zosimus tried to provide as comprehensive a picture as possible of the disciplines they were committed to. In the introduction to his major compilation the Medical Collections, Oribasius spells out his aim “to seek through the most important writings of all the best authors and collect all that is of practical use to the very purpose of medicine.”[vi] Zosimus probably had a similar goal. According to the Byzantine lexicon Suda (Ζ 168 Adler; tenth century CE), he wrote an alchemical oeuvre in twenty-eight books. Regrettably, this work is no longer available in its original form, since only excerpts or kephalaia have been included in Byzantine manuscripts. However, one can get a glimpse of its structure by considering the twelve books preserved in Syriac translation, which I am currently editing and translating into English.[vii]

Both Oribasius and Zosimus shared a similar effort to systematize their fields. They were similarly committed to developing strategies in selecting and legitimizing the technical recipes they re-organized in their own works. A fresh comparison of their writings with the almost contemporary recipe books mentioned above can help to highlight these strategies. In fact, it is possible to track the movement of some recipes from the “manuals” on papyrus to the new, more exhaustive works of Oribasius and Zosimus.

Recipes were attributed to authoritative figures and organized in sections devoted to specific areas of expertise: the treatment of a single disease, for instance, or the description of a particular craft. Explanatory sections introduced the recipes, thus providing critical information for situating the copied procedures in a broader (either technical or theoretical) context. On the one hand, the combination of theoretical parts with bodies of recipes anticipates the structure of Latin alchemical handbooks in the Middle Ages.[viii] On the other hand, the tendency to be as exhaustive as possible could lead these authors to write vast treatises that were difficult to handle for a practicing physician or alchemist. Oribasius was certainly aware of this risk. He wrote a summary (Synopsis) of his Medical Collections for his son Eusthatius: “for when they (i.e. professional physicians) read what I have stated concisely and in outline, they will remember the whole of each field of knowledge, and without having to carry with them a heavy weight it will possible for them to be sufficiently equipped with what is needed in practice.”[ix] Meanwhile, Oribasius’ summary is presented as a kind of “portable” reference book. This perhaps suggests the meaning of modern terms “manual” or “handbook,” given that the Greek word encheiridion (usually translated as “manual, handbook”) never occurs in the texts considered here.

Exhaustiveness, acknowledgment of the authority of earlier authors, and clear organization of the material around key areas represented important goals in Oribasius and Zosimus’ works, which reorganized recipes that we find scattered in “manuals” on papyrus. They tried to secure medical and alchemical practices against the risk of being fragmented and dispersed in a variety of recipe books, thus producing crucial writings in the study and transmission of these disciplines.


[i] Galen, On Avoiding Distress (De indolentia), §§ 32-33, trans. Vivian Nutton in Peter N. Singer, Galen: Psychological Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 87.

[ii] Recipes 122 and 172 in Scribonius Largus, Compositiones, ed. Sergio Schonocchia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1983).

[iii] The extant fragments of this codex have been edited by the American papyrologist Louise C. Youtie in a series of articles for ZPE (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik). Later on, these editions were republished in a single volume by Ann Hanson in Lousie C. Yountie, P. Michigan XVII, The Michigan Medical Codex (P. Mich. 758 = P. Mich. Inv. 21), ed. Ann Hanson (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).

[iv] See, for example, Mark Clarke, “The Earliest Technical Recipes. Assyrian Recipes, Greek Chemical Treatises and the Mappae Clavicula Text Family,” in Craft Treatises and Handbooks: The Dissemination of Technical Knowledge in the Middle Ages, ed. Ricardo Córdoba (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 9-32.

[v] Greek text and French translation in Robert Halleux, Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981). Both papyri were translated into English by Earle Radcliffe Caley: “The Leyden Papyrus X: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 3.10 (October 1926): 1149-1166 and “The Stockholm Papyrus: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 4.8 (August 1927): 979-1002. A reprint of both translations (edited by William B. Jensen) is available here.

[vi] Oribasius, Medical Collections, introduction (CMG VI.1,1, p. 4 Raeder). English translation in Philip van der Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation and Abbreviation in the Medical ‘Encyclopaedias’ of Late Antiquity,” in Condensing Texts – Condensed Texts, eds. Marietta Horster and Christiane Reitz (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), 526.

[vii] For a French translation of extensive sections of these Syriac books, see Marcelin Berthelot, Rubens Duval, La chimie au Moyen-Âge, Vol. 2: L’alchimie syriaque (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1893), 210-266.

[viii] These are so-called medieval pratica, a well-organized description of series of procedures opened by a general introduction and often complemented by a theoretical part (theorica). See Robert Halleux, Les textes alchimiques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979), 80-81.

[ix] Oribasius, Synopsis, introduction (CMG VI.3, p. 5 Raeder). Translation in Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation,” 529.

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.


Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Bitter as Gall or Sickly Sweet? The Taste of Medicine in Early Modern England

Figure 1: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; © Städel Museum – U. Edelmann – ARTOTHEK

Adriaen Brower’s The Bitter Potion (1640) depicts a man’s reaction to the taste of a medicine – his face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion (Figure 1). The image seems to confirm Roy Porter’s generalisation that ‘pre-modern medicine tasted foul’.[1] Contemporary medical recipes and patients’ memoirs tell a more complicated story, however. While some remedies were full of bitter ingredients, others were pumped with sugar. Below, we will see why this was the case, and discover that the actual flavours of medicines sometimes bore little relation to how they were actually experienced. This research is part of a new Wellcome Trust project, Sensing Sickness, which investigates the impact of disease on the five senses, and uncovers the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the early modern sickchamber. I also discuss some of these issues in my forthcoming open access book, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (OUP, June 2018).

Bitter medicines

Amongst the most common bitter ingredients in early modern medicines were the herbs wormwood and aloes. Lady Barret’s remedy against ‘any illness in the stomach’ contains 4 drams of aloes, together with myrrh, saffron, and brandy. The Ayscough family’s recipe book suggests a remedy ‘to drive away agues’ composed of wormwood, marigold leaves, agrimony, and mugwort. A rare insight into the imagined reaction of a patient to these bitter drugs is provided in a collection of Italian medieval novels, published in English in 1620: as ‘soone as’ the man’s ‘tongue tasted the bitter Aloes, he began to cough and spet extreamly, as being utterly unable to endure the bitternesse’. Once taken, the mere sight of ‘the vessel in which the potion is kept’ is enough to provoke vomiting in some patients, wrote the physician William Bullein (c.1515-76). So notorious was the bitterness of aloes, it was used as a metaphor for describing any unpleasant experience, including pain, grief, and spiritual guilt.[2]

Figure 2: ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY
Figure 3 : ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Why did medicines contain these bitter ingredients? According to popular legend, the medicine has to be ‘as bitter as the disease’ for it to work. This idea is rooted in Galenic understandings of disease and treatment. Disease was due to the malignant alteration of the body’s humours, the constituent fluids of living creatures, and it was removed when the humours had been rectified or evacuated. Bitter medicine facilitated this process in two ways – first, it helped ‘devide, [and] extenuate…grosse and clammy humours, that they may be ready to flowe out’ of the body’.[3] Metaphors of cleaning were used in this context: the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius (1505-68) averred, ‘the filth…of the humours stick no lesse to these mens bodies than the…dregs do to vessels, which must be soked…with pickle’, a bitter vinegary mixture, ‘to make them clean’. The second stage of evacuation was the movement of the humours from the body’s interior to its exit points, such as the bowels, where it could be expelled through defecation. Bitter medicines could be given to induce such movements. Lemnius explained that seeing that ‘attraction is made by the similitude of substance’, there must be a ‘natural familiarity’ between ‘the humour [to be evacuated] and the medicament’. Since the most noxious humours were bitter, medicines should be bitter too. Quoting Hippocrates, Lemnius expanded, ‘Physick when it come[s] into the body, it first…draws unto itself, that which is most…like unto it, then it moves the…humours…and forceth them out’. This idea was familiar to laypeople as well as doctors.

Sweet medicines

Although bitterness was necessary for purgative physic to work, the ‘cunning Physician…tempereth his bitter medicines with sweet and pleasant drinke’.[4] It was hoped that by disguising the bitter flavour, the medicine would be easier to swallow. This intervention was particularly important when it came to treating children, whose tolerance for bitter tastes was especially low due to the sensitivity of their taste-buds. This is still an issue today: in one survey, over 90 percent of paediatricians reported that a drug’s taste is the biggest barrier to completing a course of treatment. The most popular sweeteners in early modern England were sugar and honey. Speaking of her ‘speciall medecine’ for jaundice in c.1608, Mrs Corlyon instructed that ‘you must make it pleasant with Sugar according to your taste more or lesse’ (Figure 4). Anne Glyd’s recipe ‘Against the chin cough’ from the mid-seventeenth century states that it should be taken with ‘hony…or what the child likes best’.

Figure 4: Extract from Mrs Corlyon’s ‘A Booke of divers medecines’, 1606; MS 313, Wellcome Library, London

Intriguingly, these sweetened medicines did not always taste sweet. Recalling a recent illness, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91), observed that some of his remedies had been, ‘sweetened with as much Sugar, as if they came not from an Apothecaries Shop, but a Confectioners. But my Mouth is too much out of Taste to rellish anything’. The Galenic explanation for these altered perceptions was that the organ of taste, the tongue, is ‘filled with some strange fluid’ during acute illness, which mixes with the gustatory juice of the medicine, so that ‘all things would seem salty to taste, or all bitter’.[5] Other causes were the drying of the tongue from the ‘fiery heat’ of fevers, or the presence of bitter humours in the mouth.[6] So familiar was the experience of altered taste that religious writers found it a useful metaphor to invoke when describing the more abstract idea that sinners fail to relish wholesome counsel. The Yorkshire minister Thomas Watson (d.1686), wrote in his treatise on repentance, ‘Tis with a sinner, as it is with a sick Patient[:] his pallat is distempered; the sweetest things taste bitter to him: So the word of God which is sweeter than honey-comb, tastes bitter to a sinner’.

We tend to be disparaging about premodern medicines, assuming they were deeply unpleasant. This brief foray into the gustatory qualities of remedies demonstrates that such a reading is too simplistic, and does not take into account the often benevolent intentions behind the use of bitter treatments, nor the attempts of practitioners to make their remedies more palatable. In any case, I think we need to be more wary about assuming the actual qualities of medicines were perceived by patients, since many diseases impaired the patient’s capacity to taste. In the next stage of my project, I seek to discover how the other four senses were affected by illness and treatment.



[1] Roy and Dorothy Porter, In Sickness and in Health: The British Experience 1650-1850 (London, 1988), 105; see also Lucinda Beier, In Sickness and in Health: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1985), 170.

[2] E.g. Mark Frank, LI Sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank (1672), 391.

[3] A. T., A rich store-house, or treasury for the diseased (1596), preface. See also William Bullein, The government of health (1595, first publ. 1559), 9-10.

[4] William Kempe, The education of children (1588), image 31.

[5] Galen, ‘On the Causes of Symptoms I’, in Ian Johnston (ed. and trans.), Galen on Diseases and Symptoms (Cambridge, 2006), 203-35, at 220-21, 189. This text was available in Latin in the early modern period, translated from the Greek by Thomas Linacre as De symptomatum differentiis et causis (1524).

[6] Helkiah Crooke, Mikrokosmographia a description of the body of man (1615), 631.

Fragrant Protection: Saffron in Medieval China

By Yan Liu

In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.

This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.

What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.

Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.

How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.

Figure 1: Illustration of saffron in an early 16th-century pharmacological text (Bencao pinhui jingyao, 1505). Image from Zhonghua dadian, ed. Zheng Jinsheng, 2008

In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.

Figure 2: A recipe of thirty-two aromatics in the 7th-century Buddhist text Sutra of Golden Light. The purple box highlights saffron, written in both Chinese and Sanskrit names. Dunhuang manuscript S. 6107. Image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project (British Library).


Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.

Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.

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.