Category Archives: Medieval

Playing with Language in Medieval Satirical Recipes

By Chelsea Silva

The anonymous Scots poem “Lord Fergus’s Gaist” instructs its reader in summoning a spirit. It calls for a range of ingredients, some of which are unusual but obtainable, such as horse teeth, the tails of toads, and bundles of withered grass—just the kind of vaguely spooky materials we might expect to use in a conjuration. The coherence of the recipe’s instructions stops there, however; the summoner must sit within a circle and sprinkle holy water “w[ith] pater noster patter patter,” an action that transforms the Pater Noster, or Lord’s Prayer, into a collection of well-worn syllables spoken rapidly and insincerely, or perhaps into the sound of the small footsteps of the poem’s titular “littel gaist.”[1]

I’m interested in moments like this, where the expected text, form, or action of a recipe breaks down into nonsense. Many joke recipes take aim at the objectives of their “serious” counterparts. Robert Henryson’s “Sum Practysis of Medecyne,” for example, survives in the Bannatyne manuscript with “Lord Fergus’s Gaist,” and uses disgusting or ill-advised ingredients to satirize medical pretensions to knowledge—something about which Julie Orlemanski has written extensively.[2] Another example is provided by a verse recipe written into a copy of Caxton’s 1481 Mirrour of the World, which claims to restore a woman’s virginity using a variety of impossible or immaterial ingredients, such as seven miles of moonlight caught up in a bladder or the creak of a cart-wheel.[3] 

Poems like “Sum Practysis” and the recipe for revirgination rely on the kinds of internal logic that structure recipes, even as they subvert readers’ expectations of that logic. The kind of nonsense that occurs in “Lord Fergus’s Gaist,” however, is especially fascinating to me because it points playfully and specifically to the constructed—and therefore deconstructable—nature of language itself. The dismantling of a Latin prayer to its composite sounds underscores meaning as made of sound, the raw material of language, able to be recombined and remixed into a new product like any other ingredient. 

Fig. 1 – London, BL MS Sloane 4, fol. 105r. Photo by Chelsea Silva, reproduced with permission of the British Library.

BL MS Sloane 4 (figure 1), a household miscellany produced in England between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, provides an especially intriguing example of the recipe’s capacity for semantic breakdown and reconstruction. The wide-ranging manuscript includes instructions in English, French, Dutch, and Latin for products ranging from perfumes and sauces to remedies and angling bait, as well as a number of more fantastical ones, including recipes for turning ale to wine and making water burn like oil. I’ve been fascinated by one seemingly unrelated scribble ever since I came across it a few years ago. On one folio at the very end of the book, opposite a page strewn with overlapping pen trials and signatures, are the following lines: 

Is thy pott enty cole lent I: Gote eate yvy:

            mare eate ootys Is thy Cocke lyke owrs

            [Is thy pot empty? Coal lent I. Goat[s] eat ivy;

Mare[s] eat oats. Is thy cock like ours?]

Underneath, a different hand has scrawled a partial echo: Is thy potte empti; below that, the words fracture further, into “colle” and “ll.”[4]

The modern English translation above shows the lines to be almost semantically meaningless. It is the sound of the Middle English words that presumably interested their writer; spoken quickly, they sound similar to Latin (“is thy pott enty” a soundalike for “isti potenti,” maybe?) or French (“cocke lyke owrs” perhaps providing “coq” and “liqueurs”). 

These lines represents the earliest known attestation of the nonsense phrase that became one of the most recognizable refrains from 1940s music. The song “Mairzy Doats,” perhaps best known in its performance by the Andrews Sisters, transfigures familiar words (“mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy / a kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?”) into non-lexical vocables, syllable units without semantic meaning (“mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey / a kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?”). Sometime between the production of Sloane 4 and the nineteenth century, part of the passage was apparently incorporated into a different pseudo-Latin verse: 

In fir tar is,

In oak none is,

In mud ells are,

In clay none are.

Goat eat ivy;

Mare eat oats.[5]

From there, presumably, it found its way into the popular music of the 1940s and 50s, having lost the Latin-esque sounds of phrases like “in fir tar is” (“infirtaris,” meaningless, but Latin-sounding) but retaining the English lines. The result was something so defamiliarized and uncanny that the song eventually became the soundtrack for cinematic depictions of abnormal, uncomfortable behavior—Leland Palmer (played by Ray Wise) bursts into a jazzy and unsettling rendition of “Mairzy Doats” in Twin Peaks (1990), for example, and Radio Days (1987) uses the Merry Macs performance of the song as the backing track for an absurdist scene in which Mr. Zipsky, played by Joel Eidelsberg, runs up and down the street brandishing a cleaver at passersby. 

This may seem like a digression from the satirical recipes about which I’ve been writing and thinking. But the presence of “mares eat oats” in Sloane 4—a recipe collection that evinces the transformative, productive potential of breaking down and recombining familiar elements—demonstrates the particular resonance between practical recipes and language, both of which enabled their users to transform everyday material into something new.

[1] The poem survives in Bannatyne MS (Edinburgh, NLS Advocates MS 1.1.6), fols. 114r-115r, and is published in Early Popular Poetry of Scotland and the Northern Border, vol. 1, ed. David Laing (London: Reeves and Turner, 1895), pp. 284-288.

[2] See Orlemanski’s Symptomatic Subjects: Bodies, Medicine, and Causation in the Literature of Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[3] The recipe is reproduced in Reliquiae antiquae: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, ed. Thomas Wright and James Orchard Halliwell (London: J. R. Smith, 1845), pp. 250-251.

[4] Fol. 105r, transcription mine; the same lines (without the later echo) are also reproduced in Reliquiae antiquae, p. 324. 

[5] This likelihood is discussed briefly in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, ed. Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: OsUP, 1951), pp. 222-23.

Publication Highlight

An Interview with Hannah Bower, author of Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play (Oxford University Press, 2022)

This month, we have the pleasure of highlighting the work of Hannah Bower, author of Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 1375-1500, published by Oxford University Press in 2022.  Dr Bower is a Junior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Find out more about her research and interests here.  Below is an edited conversation between Elizabeth Hunter, Recipes at Play Series Editor, and Hannah Bower.

Available as Open Access through Oxford Academic

Elizabeth Hunter: Hannah, so glad you could chat with us!  Your expertise is in medieval English Literature.  How did you come to study recipe books?  Can you explain that journey? 

Hannah Bower: I first came to study recipe books during my master’s degree. I was looking for some texts that had not been closely examined in their manuscript contexts and our course leader, Daniel Wakelin, suggested that recipes would be a good place to start. As soon as I started looking at a few collections in the Bodleian Library, I was hooked! The collections appealed to me because of their strange mix of the formulaic and the whimsical, the predictable and the eccentric. On the one hand, many of the recipes contained the same structural features (lists of ingredients, imperatives, promises of efficacy) but, on the other hand, the recipes could be combined with one another in different ways, copied into large recipe collections or alone on a spare flyleaf, rubricated or left plain, amended and added to, annotated, or struck out. I was keen to pay them closer attention by analysing in detail the choices that different scribes, writers, and compilers made. To me, then, their textual and material forms invited a kind of close reading that had many parallels with the close reading techniques of literary criticism.   

“Recipes taught readers to prepare healing treatments but they could, this study argues, also act as nexus points for the intersection (and playful redefinition) of different written and spoken styles, spaces, and identities”

Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 2.

EH: The title of this series is ‘Recipes at Play’, and play is also in the title of your book.  What did the term play imply in this period and how important was it in the recipe form? 

HB:  Play had a wide range of meanings, including merriment, pleasure, entertainment, theatrical performance, spectacle, game, music-making, jest, joke, and trick. Of course, these are not normally things that you would associate with recipes for broken bones and pus-filled boils! But there are some surprising connections. For instance, medical recipes can contain a lot of sound play: alliteration, rhyme, and puns all recur. Sometimes these devices may have made the recipe easier to remember by heart; sometimes they might have convinced readers that the recipe carried an occult power supplementary to its ingredients; at other times, these embellishments may suggest pride or pleasure in the copying of the recipe. Interestingly, this patterning does not normally appear in every recipe in a collection or even in all parts of a recipe: it is one example of the sporadic and whimsical aspect that I was mentioning a moment ago that contrasts and coexists with the genre’s more formulaic aspects. This opens up further parallels with play as formulated by the cultural historian John Huizinga: like recipes, play has boundaries, rules, and repetitive structures but it is also flexible and adaptable. Writers and readers of recipes could experiment (or ‘play’) with the text before them, adapting or adding to its instructions as they enacted it (like a theatrical performance or ‘play’).

“[R]ecipes can be activated or translated into action like instruments are played; they can be connected, ordered, and rearranged by imaginations in play; and they can be mischievous, comic, or playful in content”

Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 26.

EH: What were you hoping to find when you first began your research?  What surprised you along the way? 

HB: When I began, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find; I just wanted to sit and read texts that often hadn’t been read closely in a long time and weren’t normally considered to contain any literary potential! What surprised me was the care that could be invested by writers, scribes, and readers in the copying, embellishment, and preservation of the recipes. Some scribes copied hundreds of recipes and some—though not all!—invested a lot of time trying to make those recipes navigable and usable. I was also surprised by the way that the language deployed in recipes and related medical texts could tap into commonplace images also used in literary and devotional writings. We might deride such commonplaces as trite and jaded, but they clearly had great explanatory purchase and could—I think—not only be deployed to make bodily afflictions easier to identify but also to make those bodily afflictions less offensive and gruesome to think about. For instance, urinary texts sometimes copied alongside medical recipes sometimes compare sediment in urine to specks of dust in the sunlight…quite a beautiful image! 

EH: In the book you cover a number of genres of imaginative literature, including Chaucer, romances and fabliaux.  How important do you think the imagination is in the reading and writing medieval recipes? 

HB: Very important! Many readers were probably persuaded to translate a recipe into practice because they could imagine themselves—or the person they were treating—becoming healthy through it. To embark upon the task in hand, they must also have been able to imagine themselves acquiring, collecting, and preparing all of the ingredients in the correct order.

What I found particularly interesting, though, was the way that some medieval writers seem to use echoes of the recipe form in their writing to encourage readers to imagine their bodies in different ways. For instance, in the book, I discuss an example from Thomas Malory’s romance Le Morte d’Arthur where recipe discourse is used to situate the bodies of two knights in several different time schemes simultaneously. Readers are encouraged to connect the knights’ bodies at once to life and death, earth and heaven, sickness and health.  It is ironic that recipes—a form we normally associate with linear sequences of action (‘do this…do that…do this…’) instead work in that text to stimulate temporal and imaginative flexibility.

[W]riters of remedies and writers of more consistently literary or imaginative texts influenced one another in more precise ways than have hitherto been acknowledged, and both groups partook in shared cultural modes of creative expression. Tracing possible connections and overlaps will allow us to arrive at a more nuanced, holistic understanding of what ‘practical’, ‘careful’, ‘imaginative’, and ‘playful’ might have meant for late medieval writers and readers.

Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 3-4.

Rice Bread in Sixteenth-Century Italy

By Lena Breda

While scholars are broadening our understanding of food in early modern Italy, one curiously absent ingredient from such pictures is rice. Rice (or oryza sativa) is hypothesized to have been brought to Europe as early as 400 BCE [1], used more as medicine than as a culinary ingredient. The European consumption and cultivation of rice, however, increased rapidly in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as eastern trade networks faltered following the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 1453 [2]. Aided by contemporary improvements in irrigation, sixteenth-century Italian farmers from across the peninsula took to their soils to grow this increasingly popular grain.

Although there is much to be uncovered regarding the ‘Rice Renaissance’ of the sixteenth-century, one area for further research is its cause. While there may have been the necessary land and technology for rice cultivation, such features do not explain why Italians decided to start cultivating rice as opposed to any other crop.

One possible motivation yet unexplored by historians is the contemporary lack of wheat. Wheat—specifically wheat bread—was the cornerstone of pre-modern Italian diets; its absence was detrimental for urban society. Sixteenth-century Italy suffered a series of wheat shortages as a result of inclimate weather, forcing many to find suitable alternatives. Contemporary accounts praising the abundant harvest and agricultural fortitude of rice suggest these were considered important benefits, possibly indicating why rice’s cultivation grew in this period. Rice, resistant to soil erosion and cold weather, may have proved an appealing and reliable alternative to wheat during harvest crises.

Relatedly, grain fraud petrified sixteenth-century Italians during famines. As bread prices surged, fears that bakers substituted wheat with alternatives (but charged the same price) verged on paranoia. Many sixteenth-century Italians recount how contemporaries would make hybrid loaves during famines, combining numerous grains together including beans, millet, oats—and rice. Given the simultaneous shortage of wheat and increasing cultivation of rice, is it possible bakers made rice breads that would have passed as wheat?

Reading numerous such mentions of rice bread, I asked myself: is this even feasible? Would rice bread be a presentable or edible product? Could these accounts be merely impracticable exaggerations? Therefore, I conducted an experiment to see if rice bread could be crafted, and whether it would be aesthetically pleasing, delicious, and mistakable for a pure-wheat bread.

As other contributors have noted, it is impossible to recreate a historical recipe exactly given the difference in ingredients, tools, and training. Despite these deviations, my experiment would still allow me to observe whether rice bread could be executed in practice or whether such accounts were myth.

For this experiment, I based my recipe off of Giovanni Battista Segni’s Discorso sopra la carestia e fame (1591). In this text, Segni recounts famine in his life and in history, and describes various ingredients in terms of their role during food shortages. While he does not include a classic ‘recipe’ for rice bread, Segni describes the proportions people would use to increase the size of their bread loaves without more wheat flour. Segni writes that for every 30 pounds of “grain” (presumably wheat) flour, they would add three pounds of rice flour with hot water (41).

Based on this proportion, I modified a bread recipe to substitute 10% of the wheat flour with rice flour and see if that modified the final size, taste, and appearance of the bread loaf. For comparison, I also created a 100% wheat and 100% rice flour loaf.

Control Recipe

Segni-Hybrid Loaf

Pure Rice Loaf

      ●         200 g wheat

      ●         4 g salt (2%)

      ●         7 g yeast (2.5%)

      ●         120 g water (60%)

      ●         5 g sugar (.005)

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         181 g wheat flour

      ●         18 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         200 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil


While creating the loaves, I was forced to modify the base recipes due to the nature of the ingredients. While the control and hybrid loaves followed the planned recipes, the pure rice dough needed much more water. Likely due to the lack of gluten, the pure rice mixture was oilier and crumblier, creating a mass that felt more like wet sand than supple bread dough.

After letting the loaves rest, the two wheaten ones had risen nicely (the pure wheat somewhat more than the hybrid) while the rice loaf appeared the same after forty minutes. Once baked, the rice loaf was very white but very wrinkled, and had barely grown in size. The other two loaves, however, had risen, browned, and were nearly identical.

Upon tasting, it was clear that a 100% pure rice loaf would be unable to pass as wheat bread. The flavor was very bland, but the clearest problem was the texture. Incredibly hard and crumbly, the rice loaf was nearly impossible to slice. This result corroborates some sixteenth-century authors who remark on the heaviness of rice bread. Indeed, the rice bread was substantially heavier than the others: 318 grams while the wheat loaf was 306g and the hybrid was 304g. Its greater weight was likely caused by the additional water I added to form a workable dough. On the other hand, the hybrid was a near doppelganger of the wheat loaf. In fact, both were so identical I had to be attentive to not confuse them. Their interchangeability was underscored by the fact that there was no rice flavor in the hybrid loaf.

While my experiment was unable to corroborate Segni’s assertion that a 10% rice flour loaf would be larger or heavier, it did confirm that it would be possible to substitute without detection some rice flour for wheat in grain scarcity. This experiment also demonstrates that rice substitutions could not occur in a complete absence of wheat given the inability to create a successful 100% rice loaf. While these results do not prove conclusively that famines contributed to the rise in rice cultivation during the sixteenth-century, they do suggest that rice would have been an appealing alternative to wheat during such shortages. My experiment also confirms that rice flour substitutions could occur unbeknownst to the buyer, given that the hybrid and wheat loaves were near identical. Moreover, both findings present the value of remaking as a mode of historical analysis.

[1]: For more on rice’s history before its arrival to Europe, read: Chang, Te-Tzu, “Rice,” The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), 132-149.

[2]: For more on Italy’s historical relationship and cultivation of rice, consult: Bevilacqua, Piero, Tra natura e storia: ambiente, economie, risorse in Italia (Rome: Donzelli, 1996), 39-48.

A Snake Oil from Tenth Century al-Andalus

Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides' Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b,
Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b,

Leonie Rau

Historians of medicine might know him as Abulcasis, the ‘Father of Surgery,’ but Andalusian physician Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf Ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī (936–1013) wrote about much more than the inner workings of the human body. As Katarzyna Gromek has explored in her post on “Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula,” al-Zahrāwī devoted parts of his famed Kitab al-Taṣrīf li-man ‘aǧiza ‘an al-ta’līf  (“The Book of Management for Those who are Unable to Compose”) to topics such as perfumes. At the time these were understood not necessarily as sensorially pleasing fragrances, but as remedies used to treat illnesses.

The book furthermore contains pharmaceutical chapters dealing with compound drugs such as stomachics, laxatives, eye-salves, and various oils. While most of his recipes for distilling and infusing oils call for ingredients like rose petals, bitter almonds, or basil, two of his formulas read as fairly peculiar to the modern eye.

The first of these is a literal snake oil, and al-Zahrāwī offers not one but two methods for its extraction, translated from the Arabic below:

Take three parts sesame oil and pour into a ceramic pot. Throw in five to ten black vipers, depending on their size. Close the pot’s lid and cook on a small flame. Take off the fire and leave to cool a little. Then open the lid, careful of the steam, and leave until it has cooled completely and the vapour is gone. Strain into a bottle and use as we have described by brushing it [onto the skin] with a brush. If you see that it causes harm, stop using it, then take it up again until it cures you, God willing.

Another method of extracting snake oil is to “cast [the vipers] into boiling water and to cook them until they fall apart. Then gather the oil from the water’s surface and store it. When it is needed, mix the oil with a bit of sesame oil and use, for it is stronger, God willing.[i]”

According to al-Zahrāwī, this snake oil is “useful against anything similar to leprosy when applied to [the skin].”

Viper flesh has a long history of being included in so-called theriacs—cure-alls and antidotes supposedly effective against all sorts of poisons, in use from antiquity up until the 19th century—because it was thought that viper flesh contained a cure to the snakes’ own poison. While there is no modern scientific basis for any of these claims, medical practitioners like Galen believed that theriacs containing viper flesh were effective against leprosy.

As if snake oil wasn’t odd enough, al-Zahrāwī immediately follows this recipe with an oil made from flying ants:

Take a thousand flying ants and soak in one pound of white lily oil. Leave in the hot sun for two weeks and use as an oil rub.[ii]

Some ant species do have medicinal properties, with one even being used to suture wounds, but otherwise most effects found through the medicinal use of ants are related to the insects’ venom. Even if al-Zahrāwī does not specify where exactly on the body this oil is to be rubbed, his indication that it is “useful for arousal” might give us a rough idea.

We luckily find clarification in a similar recipe, listed by Persian philosopher and scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201–1274) in his Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya (translated by Daniel L. Newman as The Sultan’s Sex Potions), which assembles a variety of aphrodisiacs and sexual stimulants apparently in use in the medieval Arabic-speaking world.

Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī  directed the reader to use just a hundred regular black ants instead of al-Zahrāwī’s thousand flying ants, and calls for “blue liquorice oil” instead of lily oil, but otherwise describes a similar preparation. He does, however, explain that it is to be used “on your fingers, teeth, armpits and elbows,” so that, “[e]ven if you were to engage in coitus with ten women during the night, you would not be incapacitated.”[iii]

It can only be hoped that al-Zahrāwī’s readers were somehow aware of these directions for the administration of this oil, since we can (hopefully!) only speculate what a flying ant oil might feel like when applied to one’s private parts.


[i] I would like to thank Timo Blocksdorf for his help in deciphering the uses of viper flesh, and Nicolas Hintermann for his feedback on this text.
Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[ii] Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[iii] aṭ-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn, The Sultan’s Sex Potions. Arab Aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages [Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya]. ed., tr., and introduced by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saqi Books, 2014), p. 118f.


Leonie Rau is a master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is currently writing her thesis on a medieval Arabic pharmacological manuscript and plans to pursue a PhD after her graduation.She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.