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.
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.
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.
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.
Between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, cookbooks flourished throughout the Arabic-speaking world, from Baghdad to Murcia. Fortunately for scholars, in recent decades both critical Arabic editions and English translations of these cookbooks have appeared with increasing frequency. Coming from a region frequently cast as a site of unchanging convention, or as a place where traditional and modern necessarily clash, these recipes offer a way to track change over time in subtler ways.
The most recent addition to the genre is Nawal Nasrallah’s translation of the fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-fawā’id fī tanwīʿ al-mawā’id (“Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table”), some of whose recipes I explore in this post (Nawal Nasrallah, trans., Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill, 2018). Nasrallah’s edition includes extensive introductory material and glossaries that situate the work within the broader corpus of Arabic cookery books – making it highly accessible to scholars who work on other languages or regions.
Kanz al-fawa’id offers the reader a detailed picture of what elite Egyptian cuisine looked like prior to the culinary transformations ushered in by the Columbian Exchange, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and European colonial rule.
Among historians of food in the Middle East, Kanz al-fawa’id and other medieval cookbooks are often discussed in terms of how much the region’s cooking has changed since they were written – and with good reason. Charles Perry has suggested that Middle Eastern cuisine as we know it is 500 years old, pointing out that many of today’s staple ingredients, like tomatoes and potatoes, and common techniques, like stuffing vegetables, are absent from medieval Arabic recipe collections, having been introduced to the region centuries later. And medieval cooks’ liberal use of cinnamon, caraway, and coriander is a far cry from the typical Middle Eastern palate today.
But not all contemporary Middle Eastern foods are without precedent in these medieval works. These collections also include recipes whose flavorings and makeup have shifted over time even as their essential techniques or structures have remained the same. An excellent example is the assortment of tahini- and chickpea-based dishes that we can read as forerunners of today’s hummus (Arabic for “chickpeas”).
At its most basic, contemporary hummus is a dip made from chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice. Kanz al-fawa’id includes several recipes that hint at various iterations of this combination. Perhaps most obvious are recipes from a chapter of “cold dishes” that combine chickpeas and tahini with an array of flavorings, including aṭrāf ṭīb, a blend of a dozen spices:
Mash the [boiled] chickpeas and pass them through a sieve. Take toasted walnuts, pound them until the oil is released, and add tahini [and the mashed chickpeas]. Add enough olive oil, aṭrāf ṭīb, toasted and finely pounded seeds of coriander and caraway, rue, mint, and enough wine vinegar. Beat these ingredients together by hand until they mix well.
Next add lemon preserved in salt (laymūn māliḥ) after you cut it into very small pieces. Also add [pounded] pistachios (p. 378).
Salt-pickled lemons, which are still popular in Egypt and Morocco, likely came in handy when fresh lemons were unavailable. Although Kanz al-fawa’id largely reflects elite tastes, Nasrallah points out that in fourteenth-century Egypt, most city dwellers had no home kitchen and largely ate prepared foods purchased from market stalls and ambulant vendors – including those who specialized in cold meatless dishes like this one (pp. 40-44).
Recipes from other sections of the book offer a glimpse into how
these tart, tahini-based dips were meant to be consumed (p. 315). One recipe from a chapter on condiments includes no chickpeas, but features tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice, and a flavor profile similar to the chickpea concoction described above: it includes hazelnuts, mint, coriander, caraway, cinnamon, ginger, and rosebuds. The author warns the cook that liquids should be added “just enough so that you can still scoop it up with a piece of bread.” My attempt to recreate this recipe is pictured here: while certain aspects of its flavors resemble today’s hummus, its rich colors and textures are a reminder that changing tastes were a matter not only of ingredients, but appearance and consistency, too. Yet another recipe for a citrus-lanced tahini dip explains that it should be served “between courses” and eaten with bread (p. 206).
Fourteenth-century recipes suggest that contemporary hummus evolved from a much broader genre of acidic, tahini- and/or chickpea-based foods. In some ways they changed drastically over time, as spices were downplayed and streamlined. But hummus can also be read as part of a longstanding historical tradition: a lens through which to understand when tastes changed, and to begin asking why and how it happened.
Examples of Arab influence on medieval European recipes abound, from the introduction of durum wheat to imported medicinal ingredients to the aesthetics of medieval cooking sauces. Conversely, shifts in spice use in the Middle East followed early modern Ottoman and European trends. Who knows how many more unexplored connections lie in the wealth of medieval Arabic recipes – more accessible today than ever.
Selected bibliography of translated medieval Arabic recipe books:
Ibn al-Karīm, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan, and Charles Perry. A Baghdad Cookery Book: The Book of Dishes (Kitāb Al-Ṭabīkh). Petits Propos Culinaires 79. London: Prospect, 2005.
Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, al-Muẓaffar ibn Naṣr. Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyār Al-Warrāq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Translated by Nawal Nasrallah. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
Nasrallah, Nawal, trans. Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table: A Fourteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. Leiden: Brill, 2018.
Perry, Charles, trans. Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. New York: New York University Press, 2017.
Zaouali, Lilia. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
Charms are incantations or magic spells, chanted, recited, or written. Used to cure diseases, they can also be a type of medical recipe. Such recipes were often described as charms in their title and linked to a ritualistic form of language intertwined with religion, medicine and magic.
The charms of a Middle English manuscript at Trinity College Library, Cambridge (MS O.1.13) bear the hints of the conversion of a pagan ritual into a remedy approved by the Church. They include several Latin formulae uttered during Masses, mention Christ or Saints, and finish with signs of the cross. Effectively, God should remain the supreme doctor, in order to maintain the hegemony of the Church.
Numerous attempts of classification of the different kinds of charms have been elaborated by several researchers, notably J.F. Payne. He established six different types of charms :
invocations and prayers addressed to herbs;
mystical words or prayers chanted or written on papers that the patient had to apply on his body;
conjurations or exorcisms addressed to diseases,;
narrative charms : episode of the life of sacred or legendary characters who suffered similar diseases with the patient;
the attribution of magical powers to certain objects, plants, animals or stones;
transference of a disease by a formula or a ceremony to animals or material objects.
Looking at manuscript O.1.13, I focus on two sorts of these charms: mystical words or prayers chanted or written, and narrative charms related to sacred or legendary characters who suffered.
Payne’s second category of charms is characterized by associations of words or letters to which are attributed occult powers. They constitute magical formulae in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or Celtic. In MS O.1.13, numerous charms elided with more traditional medical recipes.
The mix of Latin and Middle English allows the identification of a charm. It is through a precise analysis of the medicinal recipes contained in MS O.1.13 that we can identify them. Charms are not always defined as such in their titles. Here is an example of a charm hidden among medical recipes.
Ffor þe feuers.
Take iij. oblyes and wryte: ‘Pater est Alpha’, and one vp to oon. And make a poynte and lat þe seeke ete þat þe fyrste day. Þe ij. day wryte on þat oþer obely : ‘Ffilius est vita’, and make ij. poyntes and gyfe þe seeke to ete. And on þe iij. day, wryte on þat oþer obly : ‘Spiritus Sanctus est remedium’, and make iij. poyntes and gyfe þe seke to ete. And þe fyrste day, lat þe seek saye a Pater Noster [as] he ete it. And þe ij .day: ij. Pater noster a[s] he ete it, and þe iij. day: iij. Pater Noster and a Credo. (MS O.1.13, f.47v.)
For the fevers.
Take three Hosts and write : ‘Pater est Alpha’ [Father is the first] and one up to one. And make a dot and let the sick man eat it the first day. The second day, write on that other Host : ‘Filius est vita’ [Son is life] and make two dots and give the sick man the Host to eat. And on the third day, write on that other Host : ‘Spiritus Sanctus est remedium’ [the Holy Spirit is the remedy] and make three dots, and give the sick man the Host to eat. And the first day, let the sick man say a ‘Pater Noster’ [Lord’s Prayer] as he eats it. And the second day: two ‘Pater Noster’ as he eats it. And the third day, three ‘Pater Noster’ as he eats it. And the third day, three ‘Pater Noster] and a Credo [Creed].
The religious character of the text is important, mixing Middle English and Latin words. Latin was used to gain the approval of Christian religion, as well as to increase the healing power of formulae borrowed from prayers.
Here is another example of the second category of charms, in which words and formulae were adressed to the patient or written or applied on his body, as a protective amulet.
Ffor to charme thre obeles for the feveres
Take thre obelyes and wryte þes wordes : on þefyrste : + l. +Helye + Sabaot +. And in þe secounde : + Adonay + Alpha + and one + Messias. In þe thryd : + pastor + agnus + fons +. And gyfe þe seke to ete ilke a day on, right as þai be wryten, the first day þe firste, þe secound day þe secounde, þe thryd day þe thryd, and at ilke an obelye þat he ete, late þe seke say iij. Pater Noster and iij. Ave Maria and Credo. (MS O.1.13, f.51 v)
To charme three Hosts for the fevers
Take three Hosts and write these words : on the first : l + Helye + Sabaot + (50 + Lord of the Universe +) And in the second : + Adonay + Alpha + and one + Messias. ( God + Alpha + and one + Messiah). In the third : + pastor + agnus+ fons + (shepherd+ lamb+ fountain+). And give the sick man one Host to eat each day, right as the words be written. The first day the firste, the seond day the second, the third day the third, and for each Host that he eats, let the sick man say three Pater Noster and three Ave Maria and Crede.
The particularity of these Christian formulae is the fact that they are composed of three parts. The number 3, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, is recurring in this passage. The protection of the patient is thus multiplied.
These two charms are also similar to the blessed sacrament, since the patient had to eat Hosts (‘obelyes’) on which were written the prayers or magical formulae, as part of the healing process.
Litanies with signs of the cross were not only written by the practitioner, but also probably recited or sung at the patient’s bedside. The patient became an actor in her own healing as she also had to declaim prayers.
According to Payne, the fourth category of charms is characterised by the presence of a story extracted from the Bible about the pain or illness of the Christ or one of the Saints.
In the next example, the story of Christ’s baptism is depicted in Latin and is a charm dedicated to the healing of bloodshed. It was probably pronounced by the practitioner who was acting on God’s behalf. These incantations were used as a further protection, for either the success of blood letting or other surgical operations, or after the administering of a remedy. Such prayers represented a means to accelerate the healing process, and for the poorest who couldn’t offer any medical assistance, the only way, or hope, to be cured.
Here is a charme for þe blody flux
In nomine + Patris + et Filii + et Spiritus Sancti +Amen. Stabat + Ihesus contra flummen Jordanis et posuit pedem suum et dixit : Sancta aqua per deum te coniuro. Longinus miles latus Domini nostri + Ihesus Christ lancea perforauit et continuo exiuit sanguis et aqua, sanguis redempcionis et aqua baptismatis. In nomine Patris + restet sanguis + In nomine Filii, cesset sanguis. In nomine Spiritus Sancti non exeat sanguinis gutta ab hoc famulo dei. N. Sicut credimus quod Sancta Maria vera mater est et verum infantem genuit Christum, sic retineant vene que plene sunt sanguine. Sic restet sanguis sicut restat Jordanis quando + quando Christ in ea baptiȝatus fuit. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. (MS O.1.13, f. 48v)
Here is a charm for the bloody flux
In the name of the Father + and the Son + and the Holy Spirit + Amen. + Jesus was standing near the River Jordan, he put in his foot and said : Holy Water, I conjure you by God. Longinus the soldier pierced the side of our Lord + Jesus Christ with his sword, and blood and water kept on flowing out, and also the blood of redemption and the water of baptism. In the name of the Father +, may the blood rest + In the name of the Son, may the blood stop flowing out. In the name of the Holy Spirit, may no blood drop go out of this of God. (named here). Just as we believe that Holy Mary is the true Mother and the one who gave birth to the true infant Christ, then may the veins that are full of blood retain it. So may the blood stand still, like the Jordan stands still at the same time when Christ was baptised in it. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The distinctive feature of this exampleis the omnipresence of Latin, whereas the title is in Middle English. It is likely that the book’s compiler did not translate the passage on Christ’s baptism. The story about Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist and having the Holy Spirit appear afterwards as a dove was a famous one. What was most essential for the practitioner was an ability to recognize the illness that the formula could cure, as suggested by the use of Middle English in the title.
Even though relying on the power of God or the Saints for healing may strike us as irrational today, medieval people firmly believed in God and occult powers. The profusion of copies of these charms point to the faith of many learned practitioners and patients in the efficiency of the formulae in invoking a higher assistance.
All translations from Middle English to Modern English are the author’s own.
 J.F. Payne, English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times: The Fitz-Patrick lectures for 1903 (Oxford, 1904), pp. 114-5.
 Manuscript O.1.13 is classified by James under the entry Medica. It is a compilation of different books dealing with medical recipes, plants and their vertues, and the influence of planets on the practice of medicine.
 For more detailed explanations and other variants of this charm, see: Lea Olsan, ‘The Three Good Brothers Charm: Some Historical Points’, Incantatio, An International Journal on Charms, Charmers and Charming, 1 (2011), pp. 58-59.
Véronique SOREAU is currently completing her PhD in English and Anglo-Saxon Languages and Literature at the Université de Poitiers and Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale, entitled : ‘La médecine par les plantes et les étoiles entre le quinzième et le seizième siècle en Angleterre. Edition inédite d’une sélection de textes en moyen-anglais de quatre manuscrits situés à Trinity College Library, Cambridge : MSS O.1.13, O.5.26, R.14.32, R.14.51, et commentaires. Deux volumes.’ Her researches focus on the edition of Middle English texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth century dealing with medieval popular medicine, medical recipes, the use of plants in remedies, and astrological medicine. She has published articles, notably in the Bulletin des Anglicistes Médiévistes.