But does it work? Playful magic and the question of a recipe’s purpose

By Melissa Reynolds

An early sixteenth-century recipe for “good gome” in Wellcome Library MS 406, f. 23r. Digitized images of the manuscript available at https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18935709.

One of the many pleasures of studying late medieval English “how-to” manuscripts is the wide and often surprising array of knowledge to be found within them. Most contain a good bit of medical information, such as herbal recipes and instructions for bloodletting, and many also contain useful household information, like directives for animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, sewing, ink-making, and so on. Also common to these collections are charms for curing fevers, staunching blood, and protecting women in childbirth. Some medieval English collections of recipes also contain magic of a lighter sort, like directions to “make a woman lift her skirts” or “to make thunder and lightning,” discussed in earlier posts by Laura Mitchell and Catherine Rider.

One such example of a light—and somewhat lascivious—recipe is found on folio 20 of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1389, a late fifteenth-century recipe collection compiled by William Aderston, probably a surgeon working in London.[1]

To make men & women to take off their clothes

Take grain with evil thistles [thystylls] which grow above the ditch & make from that a powder & put it in someone’s lap & immediately he or she will take off his or her clothes.[2]

Image credit: British Library, from Prudence Guilllaume de Roujoux, Histoire d’Angleterre (Paris, 1844), text added by Melissa Reynolds.

Certainly, as Mitchell has suggested, recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are inherently playful. Yet I am also inclined to agree with Rider who points out that there is little evidence that medieval compilers drew a sharp distinction between lighthearted recipes and straightforwardly practical ones. In the case of Ashmole 1389, the recipe to make men and women shed their clothes appears within a short section of non-medical recipes in an otherwise overwhelmingly medical collection. Most other non-medical entries in the manuscript are clearly useful, like a recipe to make glue or instructions for fishing and engraving on metal.

So why was this recipe included in an otherwise useful collection, and what can its inclusion teach us about late medieval culture?

Historians can read 500 year-old recipes for medicine, agriculture, textile production, or cooking and understand why such knowledge was selected for “how-to” manuscript collections, even though the materials and techniques described are unfamiliar to us now. We can understand why so many collections feature useful, natural magic, as there was little distinction between magical and non-magical cures in medieval culture. In these cases, our understanding of the medieval recipe book rests on the basic premise that people wanted acces to useful (and useable) knowledge.

But recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are perhaps more illuminating precisely because they don’t fit this mold. They challenge our presumptions about the purpose and function of a recipe. This recipe isn’t obviously practical, nor is it even apparent that it could be, or ever was, attempted by its compiler.

Though lighthearted magic like that in Ashmole 1389 is not nearly as common as healing magic, its presence in medieval collections should encourage us to reflect on what we expect from a recipe, and how those expectations color our historical interpretation. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if our focus on finding out how pre-modern recipes “work” always reflects the focus of pre-modern compilers and readers? Attempts at recipe reproduction can yield unmatched insights into pre-modern worldviews, materials, and techniques; hands-on and collaborative research into recipes should by all means continue! But while we’re building furnaces, making chacolet, and casting flowers, let us also remember that a pre-modern recipe might have had any number of meanings or uses for the pre-modern reader, some of which we may not yet fully understand.

[1]Aderston left his signature at the bottom of a recipe on folio 14v (“per me W. Aderston”) and a record at the National Archives of the UK contains reference to a “William Aderston, of London, surgeon” as plaintiff in a trespassing case against the sheriffs of London sometime between 1483–1515.

[2]Ad faciendum homines & mulieres deponere pannos suos / Accipe grana malignos cardenibus ^thys tylls^ qui crescunt super fossat & fac inde pulvere & ponite in gremio alicuius & statim exuet pannos. The Latin gremio could be “lap, bosom” or “womb; female genital parts.” You can see how a different translation would change the sense of the recipe entirely.