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Interview with the author: Elaine Leong

Our very own Elaine Leong’s new book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England has just come out with the University of Chicago Press. We are super excited to offer you this interview with the author.

TRP: Congratulations Elaine on your new book! We have read it with such pleasure. Ina few sentences, could you tell our readers why they should read it too?

Sure! My book offers a window into the rich and diverse knowledge practices in early modern English households. Using a range of sources such as recipe books, letters and more, it brings into focus what I term “household science” – that is, quotidian investigations of the natural world – and situates these within broader and current conversations about gender and cultural history, the history of the book and archives and the history of science, medicine and technology. Using a number of case studies, I argue that household science involved a range of activities from conducting structured, multi-stepped recipe trials to gaining in-depth knowledge about the natural and material world. I also show that knowledge-making in the home was deeply framed by a number of concerns, from social obligations to household economies to family strategies.

All that said, if you’re interested in 17th century methods for fattening turkeys, pickling samphire, brewing ale or creating a family archive, this is the book for you.

TRP: What drew you to researching household medicine? Why is this important?

The sources! Very early on in my research career, I spent a few amazing days in the Wellcome Library looking at their manuscript recipe collections and was hooked! I had so many questions during those first few encounters with the manuscripts, many of which became central themes in the book. For example, my initial curiosity about how these books were created and how the know-how contained within was tried and tested were developed into chapters 1 (Making Recipe Books in Early Modern England), 3 (Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step) and 4 (Recipes Trials in the Early Modern Household) in the book. For me, recovering the everyday knowledge practices of the household is crucial as it pushes us to recognize that exploration of the natural world can happen in the humblest circumstances and conducted by a wide range of actors.

TRP: Your book contains several beautiful illustrations, including photos from manuscripts. Can you tell us a little about the materiality of recipe writing in the Early Modern England?

For sure. As some RP readers might know, I have long been interested in paper use within the household. Working on this project, I was struck by the many ways in which householders used pen and paper to record and communicate knowledge practices. Many used their notebooks from front and back, entering culinary recipes on one side and medical ones on the other. Others used multiple notebooks to separate different kinds of tasks. Within the books themselves, we see householders annotating, writing over and scrawling out recipes. I use these very material practices to tease out the multi-step assessment processes used in recipe trials.

The cheesecake recipe in the Godfrey family collection is one of my favorite examples as it shows how the family tried over and over again to test and modify the ingredient proportions and baking instructions, only to declare it “not to be write”, i.e. not to be added to the family’s go-to recipe book. This eagerness to preserve or salvage the recipe, as I termed it, is due to the fact that the know-how was afforded both social and epistemic value. If recipe exchange was a way to strengthen social relationships and build networks, it makes sense that householders thought twice (or three times) before discarding the gifted recipe.

Cheese cake recipe in the book of the Godfrey family. Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. With kind permission from the Wellcome Collections.

TRP: Since we are in the festive season, could you tell us a bit about ‘Bess’ Turkey’,which you discuss in your book?

Ha! That is one of my favorite episodes in the book. The dozens of detailed letters between Johanna St. John (see here and here) and her steward Thomas Hardyman were a really lucky find and made writing the chapter about household management super fun. In the end, it was difficult to pick and choose between the numerous examples offered by their epistolary conversations. I settled on talking about raising turkeys, maintaining the Lydiard garden and distilling medicines to display the broad range of natural, material and technical knowledge utilised by householders (masters/mistresses and servants) on a daily basis.

The turkey episode was fascinating. At first, I was a little surprised to discover that turkeys occupied such a central place on early modern tables, and reading deeper into the letters, I found the “turkey letters” (as I call them) to be revealing of contemporary knowledge about animals and the difficulties of managing a household from afar. Basically, in this period, Johanna St. John and her family were residing in Battersea but relied upon their country estate at Lydiard Park near Swindon to produce a myriad of foodstuffs from turkeys to bacon to cheese to venison. A run of letters demonstrates Johanna’s particular concerns about her dairymaid Bess’ skills in rearing turkeys. She continually pleaded for more turkeys to be sent to London and repeatedly complained that the sent turkeys were either not fat enough or past their prime. Wonderfully, Johanna tries a number of strategies to encourage or scare Bess into doing a better job and ends up offering detailed instructions on how to feed turkeys. Initially, this seemed like a lot of fuss about poultry but contemporary menus revealed a food economy where one turkey was transformed into a number of meals. Like 21st century cooks, the St. John household first ate their turkey whole and then feasted on the leftovers like cold meat or turkey hash for many meals afterwards. The final piece of the puzzle came when Johanna confided in Hardyman that she’d love a turkey to give away. It turns out turkey was one of Johanna preferred “little presents” (as Felicity Heal terms them), in the vibrant early modern economy of food gifts and returned favors. 

Second to Bess’ troubles with fattening turkeys, my other favorite episode in that chapter involves the runaway gardener and bickering over plant cuttings. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more.

Image of a turkey taken from Conrad Gesner, Historia animalium (Tigvri : Apvd Christ. Froschovervm, anno MDLI[-MDLXXXVII] [1551-1587]). With thanks to the National Library of Medicine.

TRP: One aspect of your work that stood out for us was your attention to recovering the experiences and expertise of servants, not just of gentlemen and gentlewomen? How did you go about this?

This is a wonderful question. As all our readers know, while manuscript recipe books are rich and fascinating sources, they are mostly created by gentlemen and gentlewomen. Early modern gentry households though, as social historians have shown, were filled to the brim with people, each with a specific role. While the mistress and master of the house have received quite a bit of attention in the past, I was really eager to dig deeper into who did what and into the social relationships and power dynamics between the different actors. With my focus on household science, I was also interested in finding out more about what Steven Shapin has termed “invisible technicians”.

As I outlined in the previous question, I was lucky to find the series of letters between Johanna and her steward. Johanna was quite the micro-manager and so it made it possible to understand the various tasks taken on by household servants and the complex web of obligations and expectations held by both parties. Another series of letters, this time about beer brewing and water boiling, between Edward Conway and his nephew Edward Harley further revealed how Conway viewed the Petworth brewers in incredibly high regard, refusing to conduct recipe trials on their advice. The appearance of dairy maids, gardeners, herb women, cheesemakers, brewers, stewards and more in these letters remind us of the need to view early modern households as collective of knowers and makers and to tease out dynamic relations within these communities.

Aside from these two runs of letters,  I also scoured handwritten recipe books for hints of servants’ experiences and expertise. As readers of the book will discover, sometimes these were noted in recipe titles, other times it might just be a change of handwriting. I remain committed to recover the knowledge activities of a wide swath of historical actors. I think that there is still a great deal of work to be done here which makes for many fascinating research projects to come (see for instance Leah Astbury’s project).

TRP: Could you share with us an anecdote or story about your research?

Gosh. This has been such a long project that there are definitely stories, though most are quite nerdy. One thing though sticks in my mind. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Warwick, I sat next to the inestimable Bernard Capp for some seminar or another. In passing, Bernard mentioned to me that he had just read a letter where the writer claimed that he was sent recipes which had originated from the writer’s own collection. I was fascinated and followed-up the generously provided citations. The letter was sent by Viscount Edward Conway to his nephew Sir Edward Harley and one in a series of letters which I now consider one of the most revealing sources about recipe knowledge in early modern England. In them, Conway described how he assessed recipes on paper, assigned expertise and detailed how he sent Harley on recipe hunts or to follow-up on his recipe trials. The Conway/Harley letters formed the central case study for my third chapter “Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step” and were crucial in helping me figure out the rich knowledge practices behind the hundreds of recipe books in our archives. I probably would never have found the letters were it not for the chance conversation. In many ways, this anecdote reflects some of the main arguments of the book – that knowing so often comes from the “practices of everyday life”.

Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is available and also directly from the University of Chicago Press website where readers can 20% off the list price using the code UCPNEW.

Cleopatra’s Eye: The Significance of Kohl in Ancient Egypt

By Hazel Lunn

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 production of Cleopatra, portraying malachite and galena kohls used in Egyptian makeup. Courtesy of http://flavorwire.com/535384/the-fashions-of-cleopatra-in-cinema

Kohl has been a popular cosmetic in civilisations across the world since prehistoric times, but its association with ancient Egypt is most well-known. We are all familiar with the Egyptians legendary eye-makeup. With Cleopatra as its ‘poster girl’, most famously depicted by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, the queens signature eye-paint still inspires costumes and makeup looks today. Though the Greeks and Romans also used kohl as an eye-liner, its use in Egypt was much more than simply cosmetic. Used by both men and women of all social classes, the Egyptians believed kohl also had important medicinal, magical and religious qualities.

Cosmetic Use

In the eyes of the Greeks and Romans, excessive adornment belonged only to the prostitutes and favoured more naturalistic makeup, using kohl to finely line the eyes and extend the brow. The Egyptians however shared a different view and smeared kohl over their eyes daily. Wearing both green malachite and black galena in bold designs, kohl exaggerated their eyes to enhance their beauty (Tyldesley 1994, 159). Although she was not Egyptian herself, Cleopatra likely followed ancient traditions wearing beautifully elaborate eye looks, perhaps similar to our modern recreations.

To create these eye paints, kohl was ground in a pestle and mortar and mixed with oils or animal fats on palettes to; then the kohl paint was applied to the eyes using a small stick. Galena, replacing malachite, gradually became the predominant ingredient in kohl cosmetics and its use continued through until the Coptic period; the Fayum mummy portraits display less complicated, everyday use of kohl by both men and women during the Roman period, perhaps influenced more by the styles of Roman women which became popular after the first century AD. As well enhancing beauty, the cosmetic use of kohl could also indicate social rank and achievement, perhaps with more complicated designs worn regularly by the elite (Pak 2009, 108).

Religious Importance

So important was its use in ancient Egypt that containers of kohl, along with various instruments for its preparation and application, were buried alongside the dead. This clearly shows just how essential kohl was in daily life but also in the afterlife, which indicated that it had important religious functions. Kohl was associated with the deities Horus, Ra and Hathor and was regularly used in ritual. Egyptians also exaggerated their eyes with bold liner in veneration of the gods, as they believed it possessed magical properties in providing protection from diseases and warded off the Evil Eye (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457; Illes n.d., 2).

Medicinal Benefits

Though these magical benefits of kohl may seem irrational to us today, these protective qualities are fully supported by recent studies of the various ingredients found in kohl. Egyptians faced many health issues that effected the eyes; from dust from the desert, to insects and bacteria from the flooding of the Nile, diseases such as conjunctivitis, cataract, trachoma and trichiasis played the population. The proscription of kohl to treat and prevent these illnesses can be found extremely early on in the Ebers papyrus, but were ancient physicians correct to think kohl could heal them?

Kohl contained multiple ingredients that not only added to the beautiful shine of galena, but are also known for their medicinal benefits. Zinc oxide is a powerful natural sunblock, neem has astringent and antibacterial properties and also possesses anti-viral activity like silver-leaf, while fennel and saffron were often used to fight many eye diseases. Other ingredients, such as chaksu and precious gems, were also believed to improve sight (Pak 2009, 110). It has also been discovered that Egyptians synthesised lead compounds (laurionite and phosgenite) to add into their cosmetics, which Dioscorides explains “appear to be good medicine to be put in the eyes” (Dioscorides 5,102).

Although the addition of lead to cosmetics may seem absurd due to its known toxicity, with some pitying the “devastation” kohl must have cause in ancient Egypt, these compounds were not harmful and did actually provide beneficial medicinal roles (Hallmann 2009, 71-2). A biomedical study, which made the news in 2010, ended controversy over the harmful effects of kohl. By analysing various samples found in Egyptian tombs and recreating ancient recipes, reported by Greco-Roman authors, scientists were able to test the effects of these led compounds on skin cells. Amazingly instead of causing lead poisoning, these lead compounds instead triggered an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NOo), which stimulates nonspecific immunological defences. This data suggests that the daily wearing of kohl made Egyptian eyes almost immediately resistant to bacterial infections due to the spontaneous response of immune cells. Although concerns about the toxicity of lead, overshadowed its benefits, this study proves that the lead compounds found in kohl did in fact serve a significant medicinal function. Tapsoba therefore argues that these compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in cosmetics to prevent and treat eye diseases (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457-60). Galena and these other lead sulphides also provide protection from Egypt’s harsh sun by providing a shield from its glare and harmful UV rays (Pak 2009, 109). The addition of these various ingredients to kohl supports the magical protective beliefs of Egyptians and shows an understanding of ancient physicians of the many benefits this cosmetic possessed.

Although kohl was used by the Egyptians to beautifully decorate their eyes, its daily use for religious and medicinal purposes were extremely important. Though the general population may have attributed kohl’s magical healing powers to the gods, physicians and perhaps even Cleopatra herself, understood that the ingredients they added to their cosmetics were effective medicines. Its use, in various forms, has been important to many cultures throughout history and it remains a popular cosmetic across the world today.


Hallmann. A. (2009), ‘Was Ancient Egyptian Kohl a Poison?’ in J. Popielska-Grzybowska, O. Białostocka & J. Iwaszczuk (eds.), Proceedings of the Third Central European Conference of Young Egyptologists. Egypt 2004: Perspectives of Research. Warsaw 12-14 May 2004. 69-72. Pułtusk: The Pułtusk Academy of Humanities.

Illes. J., n.d. Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup

Pak. J. (2009), ‘Review Kohl (Surma): Retrospect and Prospect’, Pharmaeutical Sciences 22, 107-122.

Tapsoba. I., Arbault. S., Walter. P., and Amatore. C. (2010). ‘Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Makeup Revealed by Amperometry and Single Cells,’ Letters to Analytical Chemistry 82, 457-460.

Tyldesley. J. (1994), Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books.


My name is Hazel Lunn, I am 21, and I have recently graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Ancient History. I am a food lover interested in gender studies and environmental issues. My degree has sparked my interest in writing and my previous love of makeup inspired my blog on the significance of khol in ancient Egypt. I hope you enjoy reading my findings.

Apicius’ Pumpkins with Turkey

By Sean Coughlin

This post follows on yesterday’s post on whether the Romans had pumpkins.

Translation:

[Cooked] gourds with fowl: [add] hard-fleshed peaches, truffles, pepper, caraway, cumin, silphium, green herbs – mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, mentuccia –,  honey, wine, liquamen, oil and vinegar. (The Latin text is here).

Stewing turkey, pumpkin and apples in the wine and stock. Photo by the author.

My interpretation:

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsps. olive oil
  • 2 large turkey drumsticks (about 750 g)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Half a sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed
  • One apple, peeled, cored and diced
  • 1/4 tsp. asafoetida
  • 1/2 tsp. caraway
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • Silphium (1/2 tsp. fennel seeds will do)

For the sauce

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • dash of fish-sauce or MSG
  • Fresh herbs to taste (mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, oregano)
  • Truffles, shaved (to taste)

1. Season the turkey legs with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in deep pan over high heat. Add turkey legs and cook, skin-side down, until crispy and golden brown (8 minutes or so). Flip legs and cook until the other side is browned, another 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

2. Return pan to heat with a bit more oil, and when it’s hot, add the pumpkin or squash and asafoetida. Cook until the pumpkin just begins brown, about 5 minutes. Add the apple, caraway, cumin and fennel seeds and cook for another few minutes until browned.

3. Add wine to the pan and reduce by half. Add stock, honey, fish-sauce and herbs. Return the drumsticks to the pan, cover and let simmer for an hour until drumsticks are fall-apart tender. Add water or more stock if it begins to look too dry. Alternatively, place in an oven preheated to 375 F / 190 C. Serve drumsticks with roasted sweet potatoes, drizzle on some of the sauce with some shaved truffle.

Deglazing with white wine. Photo by the author.

I’ve recently become obsesessed with cucurbits thanks to a question from Peter Singer. This resulted in a discussion with Laurence Totelin that took place this summer during a workshop at the Humboldt-Universität as part of SFB 980, project A03, “The Transfer of Medical Episteme in the ‘Encyclopaedic’ Compilations of Late Antiquity”, with Philip van der Eijk. The subject was our forthcoming translations of Books I and II of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections. “We” are Sean Coughlin, Eric Gowling, Christine Salazar, and Piero Tassinari. Many thanks to our guests Alessia Guardasole, Matteo Martelli, and of course Laurence for attending. The translation of Book I was completed by Eric Gowling as a doctoral dissertation and was in the process of being revised by Piero Tassinari and myself when he passed away last year. I hope Piero would appreciate this little essay. He is dearly missed.

Thanksgiving with Galen and Apicius

By Sean Coughlin

For Thanksgiving, I thought I’d come up with a new English translation of a seasonal recipe from the Roman cook-book of Apicius. It comes from the third book of De re coquinaria. The Latin is cucurbitas cum gallina. In Joseph Vehling’s English translation: “Pumpkin and Chicken”.

If only the Romans had turkeys. And pumpkins.

I first learned that the Greeks and Romans were pumpkinless from Laurence Totelin earlier this year and it left me utterly confounded.

I had been revising a translation and commentary of the first book of the sixth-century CE physician Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections, and a question came up about how to identify different kinds of cucurbits, that immense botanical family of vines which produce comically-large-berries, like cucumbers, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and luffa sponges.

Naively, I thought it would help to look at how authors like Aetius or Galen say cucurbits are prepared. And, since Galen (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.3) tells us that people always ate their cucurbits cooked, I figured that Greco-Roman cucurbits must be something like zucchini.  After all, who on earth would cook a melon?

“But,” Laurence told me, “zucchinis are new world.”

Now, before going into why I found this so shocking, I want to bring everyone up to speed.

“Old world” cucurbits include a lot of different genera: Cucumis, the cucumbers and melons; Citrullus, the watermelons and colocynths; Lageneria, the bottle gourd or calabash; and a few others like Luffa and Bryonia. No one is quite sure where in the old world they first evolved, but the recent consensus is somewhere in Africa. In other words, they could have existed in the Greco-Roman world.

Various old world cucurbits: cucumbers and melons. Photo from the author.

“New world” cucurbits, however, are the vines descended from plants native to the Americas. They almost certainly could not have been known in antiquity, and the group includes all species of the genus Cucurbita. This includes zucchini, courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000 kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before Columbus.

I would like to imagine that there is at least one other kindred reader of classics in English who feels a bit anxious at this news. It’s not just a problem for Apicius’ Thanksgiving casserole or my rehearsal of Epicrates’ lampoon of Plato’s Academy.

What about the “Pumpkin Pirates” of Lucian’s True History (2.37)? Or Psyche’s sister’s husband who Apuleius says is “bald as a pumpkin” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 5.9)? And what will become of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii – the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius?

English translations are unusually problematic in the case of cucurbits. Pumpkins show up all over the place. And this isn’t merely because of translators’ license, or a confusion of names.

As far as I’ve been able to sort out, it’s mainly the result of an unfortunate coincidence between the rise of an influential but erroneous botanical hypothesis, and the publication of two influential Greek and Latin English dictionaries.

Here is the story:

Before the mid-19th century, the evidence about the origins of Cucurbita was mixed. The names of the plants suggested they came from the “old world”, but depictions of Cucurbita species don’t show up before the mid-1500s.

For instance, in Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium, we get one of the first European depictions of the pumpkin plant, the species Cucurbita pepo L. Fuchs, however, calls it cucumis turcicus, the Turkish cucumber, a name which might lead one to think the plant was native to the “old world”.

Not long after Fuchs, in an herbal of Matthiolus from 1586, the same plant appears again, but with a different name: cucurbita indica – the Indian gourd. And “Indian,” Matthiolus tells us, means American: “they say these [new gourds] came into Italy from the West Indies, whence they are called by many ‘Indian’” (Matthiolus of Padua, Commentary on Dioscorides 1559, p. 292, my emphasis).

“He has a pumpkin” (ipse cucurbita habet). Using pumpkins as camouflage. Woodcut, late 16th century, Netherlands. CCBY

Both Fuchs and Matthiolus agree that these cucurbits are foreign (and probably even recent) imports to European markets. They disagree about where they came from: were they indigenous to the old or the new world?

This continued until the 1850s, when the hypothesis that Cucurbita species were indigenous to the old world reached its most articulated form. It happened as part of a public debate between two great 19th century botanists: Alphonse de Candolle and Asa Gray.

De Candolle argued that because people had used the same names for cucurbits since ancient times, the plants with those names must have come from the old world.

In response, Gray argued that new and ‘foreign’ cucurbits only start showing up in 16th century herbals like those of Fuchs and Matthiolus. That, along with documentary evidence from the first European explorers, suggests a new world origin.

The debate continued for over thirty years, only coming to an end in 1883 after a devastating two-part review of De Candolle’s last book, The Origin of Cultivated Plants. In this review, Gray, along his colleague J. Hammond Turnball, presented almost documentary evidence from European explorers that cucurbits were cultivated in the Americas before European explorers ever reached it in 1492.

These explorers recorded indigenous names for the plants they encountered, but they also used European ones, and these are the names that stuck: in Latin, cucurbitae and cucumeres; in Spanish, calabaças, melones, pepinos and cogombros; in French, melons, concombres, citrouilles, and courges; in Italian, zucca; and in English, musk-melons, cowcumbers, and, — most importantly — the pompion, the source of our word, ‘pumpkin’. Only the name “squash” from the Algonquin vernacular made its way into English.

Gray and Turnball’s review, however, appeared only after the work on the great Greek and Latin lexica had finished up – A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddel and Scott, and A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short. Both dictionaries identify some Greco-Roman cucurbits with American pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L. or Cucurbita maxima L.), and pumpkins have shown up in English translations ever since.

So for this recipe, I figure, why fight it?

Tune in tomorrow for Apicius’ recipe!

The author with pumpkins, sometime in the late 2000s. Photo from the author.

Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in the history of philosophy, science and medicine at Excellence Cluster Topoi and the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is completing a revised translation and commentary on Aetius of Amida, Medical Collections, Book I, an edition and translation fragments of the 1st century Pneumatist physician, Athenaeus of Attalia, and co-editing a volume on the concept of pneuma after Aristotle.