Tales From the Archives: FOLLOW THE RECIPE! UN/AUTHORIZING MUSLIM WOMEN’S COSMETIC EXPERTISE IN THE MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN WEST

The Recipes Project is now six years old, and that means we host a lot of content! We now have over 700 posts in our archives. (And thank you to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But 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, making old material new once again.

This month, we’re featuring a post by Montserrat Cabré on ideas about medieval Muslim women, which first appeared in 2014 as part of a fascinating series on beauty recipes organized by Jessica Clark. Enjoy!
-The Editor

By Montserrat Cabré

“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”[1]

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.[2]This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.[3]

Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.
Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.

Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]
Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]

The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.[4]

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.

[1] Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women’s medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.
[2] Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.
[3] Montserrat Cabré, “Beautiful bodies”, in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.
[4] Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.

Montserrat Cabré works at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

Follow the Recipe! Un/Authorizing Muslim Women’s Cosmetic Expertise in the Medieval and Early Modern West

By Montserrat Cabré

“I saw a certain Saracen woman from Sicily,” claimed an anonymous twelfth-century author in Latin, “curing infinite numbers of people [of mouth odour] with this medicine alone.”[1]

Knowledge about beauty circulated extensively in medieval Western Europe, and this know-how was almost always associated with women. Virtually every medieval healthcare handbook in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic contained sections devoted to questions of beauty. In particular, tracts on women’s cosmetics abounded. Recipe collections included a considerable number of beauty recipes, serving either the laity or a variety of health practitioners.

Latin medical texts, and the vernacular traditions they inspired, did not simply acknowledge women’s interest in cosmetics, but also emphasized their expertise. Texts portrayed women as active agents and producers of collective knowledge on beauty.  Cosmetic recipes—often penned by male authors—conveyed women’s common interests and shared knowledge in beautification.

At the same time, Latin medical texts ascribed specific practices to certain individual women or to particular groups of women.  As we see in the opening quotation, texts very rarely included women’s given or family names. Instead, other features identified them: their place of birth, where they lived, or, often, their religious identity.  As the works of reputed Arabic physicians and surgeons were admired in medieval Western Europe, Christian sources unambiguously distinguished Muslim women’s expertise in the art of beauty treatments. However, Moorish women’s collective authority would eventually become lost in favour of other women.

For example, in the earliest versions of the Salernitan De Ornatu Mulierum, a twelfth-century Latin treatise written by an anonymous male author, a certain “ointment… which removes hairs, refines the skin, and takes away blemishes” was recorded as a recipe for noble Saracen women. However, less than a century later, the new Latin version of the same text attributed the depilatory to Salernitan noblewomen.[2] This was neither an accident nor a simple adaptation of a recipe for new audiences. Rather, it marked the beginning of an on-going erasure of Muslim women’s authority from Western cosmetic literature.

This obliteration of female Muslim expertise happened gradually. Later vernacular texts dealing with cosmetics still acknowledged their collective or individual authority about beauty. For instance, we see six acknowledgements for recipes from an unnamed Saracen woman in the late thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Ornatus Mulierum.[3]

Untitled 2
Vergel de señores. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 8565, libro 3, cap. 9, fol. 134r.

The fifteenth-century Vergel de Señores (Garden of Gentlemen), an anonymous Spanish recipe book for household use, attributed certain beauty treatments to Moorish women. The text devoted a long section to cosmetics, mentioning the practices of ladies (señoras) and their particular investment in knowing recipes that beautified the face. The expertise of Moorish women was called upon, however, when referring to cosmetic recipes containing lead and mercury. The dangerous effects of these ingredients had worried physicians and surgeons for centuries, particularly in regards to potentially noxious effects on the gums and teeth. The compiler of Vergel advised his readers to use them wisely, detailing safe practices.

Untitled
Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1160, fol. 97r. [facsimile edition: Juan Vallés, Regalo de la vida humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. II.]
The authority acknowledged to Muslim women on cosmetics, however, did not last.  Sometime before 1563, Juan Vallés compiled another household manual which was meant to go into print—albeit it never did. The Regalo de la Vida Humana also contained a long section of cosmetic recipes, copied extensively from the Vergel de Señores. Its author, Juan Vallés, still acknowledged women’s authority in beauty treatments, but he narrowed their agency by gracefully tending to portray them as the intended audience of the recipes rather than asserting their expertise. And significantly, he omitted any mention of Moorish women and their knowledge of beautifying recipes. Having been recognized as experts in the medieval traditions, Muslim women did not make it into the new texts. Stripped of identifying traits, female agency was impoverished and transformed into an audience of Christian women.[4]

Ultimately, noticing these shifts reveals the delicate and fragile nature of the acknowledgement of collective and anonymous authority over knowledge –that is, of the particular types of authority granted to women.  Recipes, therefore, should be treasured sources for they offer us a unique perspective to detect and trace how specific groups of people, particularly vulnerable people, are empowered or unauthorized over a long time span.


[1]  Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula. A medieval compendium of women’s medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001), p. 46.
[2]  Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula, pp. 169, 246.
[3]  Montserrat Cabré, “Beautiful bodies”, in Linda Kalof, ed., A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Medieval Age (Oxford: Berg, 2010), pp. 134-136.
[4]  Juan Vallés, Regalo de la Vida Humana, edited by Fernando Serrano Larráyoz (Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, 2008), vol. I , pp.  306-310, 410-411.

 

Montserrat Cabré is an Associate Professor of the History of Science at the Universidad de Cantabria, Spain, where she teaches the history of science and women and gender studies. She works on medieval and early modern women’s medicine, particularly on women’s knowledges as well as the construction of sexual difference.

Beauty Recipes: A December Series

By Jessica P. Clark

"Productos de Belleza Luxor," 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
“Productos de Belleza Luxor,” 1918. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

When the editors of The Recipes Project invited me to compile a series on beauty and cosmetics, we thought it a timely topic for the holiday season. As twenty-first-century consumers, we associate the holidays with the careful selection and purchase of gifts. These are often of the luxury variety, including wares that beautify recipients: scents, cosmetics, grooming products and tools. While we typically purchase these goods, historical gift-givers relied on recipes to concoct homemade offerings. Foodstuffs and preserves, healing remedies, and potpourris helped forge social bonds and convey good tidings.

But research shows us that beautifying goods were not always associated with luxury. Up until the twentieth century, beauty recipes served a variety of functions: as medicines, to conceal age, to disguise debility. The research featured in December’s special series on beauty is no exception. Rather than highlight the relationship between beauty and luxury, our contributors foreground quotidian uses of beautifying goods as medicinal aides, dangerous but necessary appearance enhancers, or professional tools of the workplace (in this case, the theatre).

This means, of course, that we have expanded beyond holiday-appropriate themes of luxury and exchange. Instead, contributors Montserrat Cabré, Kirsten James, and Sean Trainor introduce us to the multiple meanings and uses of beauty recipes — even those with potentially deleterious effects. They also remind us of the close historical linkages between cosmetics and other beautifying goods in western beauty cultures, as perfumes and hair tonics were produced alongside powders and paints. Ultimately, a focus on function over luxury highlights changing uses of beauty recipes from the twelfth century, not to mention western attitudes about self-fashioning more generally.

We hope you’ll join us this holiday season as we explore the “serious” side of goods now associated with luxury and self-indulgence. And we look forward to hearing from readers working on historical beauty recipes across geographic locales and historical moments, so please get in touch via Twitter or in the Comments section!

The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence

By Katherine Allen

In this post I would like to link several themes that have been explored on this blog recently: recipe exchanges, letters, and the role of emotions. Historians are frequently asked how compilers got their recipes (something that Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche raised in their post on the Countess of Exeter). In other words, we are continually searching for evidence from recipe books that suggests a wider network of information exchange.

In the case of eighteenth-century recipe books, attributions and marginalia can indicate an exchange, though these are often ambiguous. Occasionally longer anecdotes are included, revealing the circumstances of a specific recipe’s inclusion. Rarer still, letters associated with a recipe book can provide significant insight into the compiler’s health history, or domestic duties, as discussed by Elaine Leong in her recent post on Johanna St. John. Some sets of letters that are not associated with a recipe book can still tell us much about the creation and use of recipe books, as well as domestic medical care’s social milieu.

One collection of mid-eighteenth century letters that I am using in my doctoral research belonged to the Cox family, landed gentry based in Herefordshire. The majority of the letters are addressed to the elderly family benefactress, Mrs. Elizabeth Witherstone. Montserrat Cabré recently proposed that exchanging and preserving recipes can be emotionally charged. In the typical recipe collection, emotions and hidden lives are not always transparent, but they do emerge in letters that discuss recipe exchange.

Letters were crucial for keeping up-to-date on the extended family’s wellbeing and life events, and the Cox family kept each other informed about health matters in very intimate detail. Concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s poor health, cousin Alicia Cox wrote ‘let me beg you to take care of your health, kitchen physick as Broaths, and Jellys, are the best medicines at your time of life’.[1] Mrs. Witherstone also occasionally exchanged letters containing recipes. An acquaintance, S. Phillips, thanked Mrs. Witherstone for sending a receipt of ‘Turner’s Cerate’ for her mother’s leg. In exchange, she included a recipe for the Chin Cough, which she had used for her children and was ‘of great service to them’. This remedy was an ointment of spirit of hartshorne and powdered amber, which was to be rubbed on the children’s palms, soles of their feet, and pits of their stomachs for several days, morning and night.[2]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756
Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756

In a follow-up letter, Mrs. Phillips again thanked Mrs. Witherstone for the Cerate recipe, proclaiming that her mother thought ‘it has been of great use to her for thank god she has now little or no pain. She did not put it on just on the place of the wound’.[3]

Mrs. Witherstone’s family also sent her remedies to preserve her health in old age. Upon receiving an account of Mrs. Witherstone’s illness, Alicia Bund [Cox] concluded that the woman’s blood was poor and her frame ‘languid’; restorative medicines would be beneficial. She wrote: ‘I beg you would make trial of, its recommendation is the nurrishment it affords at the same time it never loads the stomach’. Alicia’s recipe for a restorative broth was as follows:

You must get a tin can to hold about a pint & quarter with a cover to it, for it is to be  done by a slow infusion the least boiling spoils it but I will set it down as particularly as I can. Take half a pound of lean Beef cut into small pieces and pick of[f] every bit of skin and fat and put a pint of boiling water to it and let it gently stew it is reduced to a strong broath. Put in 3 or 4 pepper corns but no salt till you drink it and eat with it a bit of  toasted bread and would advice (if it agrees) to make it your Breakfast and supper.[4]

Another relative, Elizabeth Saunders, was also concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s health and recommended an eye drop remedy that she described as ‘trifling but I have known it of use’. Confident of the remedy’s efficacy she concluded ‘I hope your next Letter will bring better News of your Eyes as you have no pain in them I flatter myself the complaint may get of the sooner.’[5]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Exchanging remedies was evidently an important part of the Cox family’s lives and these letters exemplify how the responsibility of family health care extended beyond each household to include the advice and remedies of concerned relatives and friends.

Letters are valuable resources for revealing the exchange process of a recipe’s history and the close relationship that recipe books had with the letter-writing tradition. Within these letters, expressions of authority, sympathy, hope, and desperation bring out the emotionally charged nature of recipes. Letters can provide recipe historians with a more complete picture of approaches to health care among England’s upper sorts, and they are important supporting documents for understanding the place of recipe books in a wider information exchange.


[1] Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone July 5 [no year]’.

[2] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756’.

[3] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone May 25, 1756’.

[4] Ibid., ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone Jan 11, [no year]’.

[5] Ibid., ‘Eliz Saunders to Mrs Witherstone March 27 [no year]’.