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Consumers of the Exotic: summary of a workshop in Cambridge, April 5-6, 2017

By Emma Spary and Justin Rivest

By Reede tot Drakestein, Hendrik van,1637?-1691 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The project “Selling the Exotic in Paris and Versailles, 1670-1730”, running in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, and funded by Leverhulme Research Grant 2014-289, held its planned workshop in April this year. Its theme, “Consumers of the Exotic: European commerce and the consumption of exotic materia medica, 1670-1730”, brought together a group of international scholars working on these questions in a broad variety of European contexts.

Our goal at the workshop was to produce a comparative picture of the ways in which exotic plant materials were processed, bought and consumed in Europe. Why did European consumers buy—and more significantly ingest—exotic plant materials? What did exoticism mean to them? While recent work has focused on colonial bioprospecting and the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, our aim was to investigate demand within Europe itself, exploring divergences and similarities across contexts. The choice of a restricted timespan—the decades around 1700—provided a baseline for comparison of drug production, sales and consumption in different cultures. Alexandra Cook (University of Hong Kong) kicked off the programme with a study of a proprietary drug, Garcin’s “Maduran pills”, sold around Europe in the early eighteenth century by an entrepreneur whose Protestant faith led to a complex intellectual and commercial itinerary. Cook argued that exotic ingredients were not necessarily a selling point for eighteenth-century patients. Harun Küçük (University of Pennsylvania) provoked us to think about the complexity of defining the exotic, and the importance of a multi-perspectival view of the history of drugs: Ottoman healers associated New World exotica like cinchona bark and ipecacuanha root with French medicine, since these substances often reached them via French commercial and intellectual networks. Continuing the global theme, Samir Boumediene explored the place of drugs in the missionary activities of the Society of Jesus. The decades around 1700 represented a decline in the relative importance of Jesuits in the global drug trade, as new players came to disrupt their initial privileged position.

Šebestián Kroupa (University of Cambridge) offered a counterpoint to the workshop’s focus on European consumption by exploring the supply of European drugs to transplanted European populations—Manila in the Philippines. European drugs were in fact imported in large volumes to this “exotic” locale; little attention was paid to the pursuit of plant substances that might be commodified in the metropole, an exception being the Saint Ignatius bean. Victoria Pickering explored the diverse trajectories, contacts, and exchanges that were necessary to assemble the massive collection of exotic plant substances of Sir Hans Sloane.

Moving to early modern Russia, Clare Griffin suggested that its unique geographical connections—in the form of a land route between Europe and the Far East—led commentators to represent distant substances and peoples as subject to incorporation into the Empire, rather than “exotic” in the sense of “foreign”, as the case of rhubarb showed. Paula De Vos concluded the first day with an account of Palacios’ prominent 1706 pharmacopoeia. Early modern Western pharmacy was indebted, for its materia medica, to the Indo-Mediterranean world rather than the continent of Europe. The slow appropriation of new drugs spread outwards from this Indo-Mediterranean core to the Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean, and eventually the Atlantic world.

On day 2, Laia Portet explored the architecture of exoticism in printed French materia medica. Where familiar European plants tended to be classified alphabetically, unfamiliar exotics were classified by parts (roots, barks, leaves) since this was the form in which they entered the European marketplace. Emma Spary used a case history of an exotic aromatic, cinnamon, to point up the disjuncture between textual, material and empirical knowledge of drugs, a conundrum for medical experts, market regulators and individual consumers. Hjalmar Fors provocatively suggested that for early modern Europeans, “the exotic” primarily evoked traded material goods, including spices and drugs, rather than foreign peoples or distant geographies. Lack of knowledge about the places of origin of drugs was critical to a substance remaining “exotic” in European eyes.

Justin Rivest spoke of the encounter between political power, the emerging state and the large-scale administration of drugs in France, looking at how personal trialling of drugs by successive ministers of war led to a centrally administered programme of dispensing exotic drugs like tobacco, quinquina and ipecacuanha to French troops. In a very different take on the end-user, Wouter Klein introduced us to the uses of print culture as a research tool for relating newspaper advertising and ships’ cargoes of drugs in the Dutch republic after 1700.

Several common themes emerged from the papers. It seemed that “colonial bioprospecting” had its limits as a way of understanding European engagement with non-European materia medica. Most substances discussed did not reach Europe thanks to state intervention, but rather were trafficked by a heterogenous set of actors: missionaries, trading company officials, entrepreneurial merchants and court physicians. Many papers also showed that “exoticism” was not necessarily inherently desirable. A drug’s value was established through consensus-building over time. Furthermore, “exoticism” was a relative, context-specific category, subject to change, not solely a feature of geographic origin, or of a core-periphery relation between European metropoles and their colonies. The papers demonstrated that exoticism was also, perhaps largely, a product of degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which varied widely across different European contexts. In sum, rather than being inherently valuable objects of appropriation, exotic drugs were socially constructed goods.

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade: experimenting with woad and its history

Jodi Reeves Eyre, PhD, RPA

Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
We are, apparently, living during a ‘post-truth’ time when alternative facts have just as much impact on some people’s decisions and beliefs as, well, fact facts. The concept of the “alternative fact,” which refers to promoting emotional or biased assertions over facts, has historic precedent. Julius Caesar, when documenting his campaigns in Gaul, noted that:

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and it maketh the more terryble to beholde in battell.[1]

Surely if woad were so widely available, there would be decent archaeological evidence for its application. There is one early find at the Iron Age site of Dragonby. The site revealed woad remains, in the form of seeds and pods, as part of a waterlogged assemblage from a late Iron Age pit. The exact purpose of the pit has not been identified.[2] The seeds and pods can be considered circumstantial evidence when it comes to claiming that the plant was introduced for its dye because the material needed for dyeing, the leaves, may not survive nearly as well. The difficulty of finding woad leaves archaeologically means that we can only rely on the indirect evidence of the plant as a possible dye from Dragonby.

As a conqueror displaying his military strength and emphasizing the legitimacy of his triumph, Caesar may have called on Romans’ traditional concepts of fierce barbarians. Blue had negative connotations within Greco-Roman culture, being associated with ghosts, death, and, perhaps worst of all, barbarians.[3] By including such a charged description of ‘blue’ Britons, Caesar set down more than an ethnographic account. He used existing preconceptions for his political advantage. It is doubtful, however, that Caesar conceptualized the lasting legacy his charged description would have on social memory and identity. Even today, it is common to see depictions of ancient Britons painted blue, despite limited botanical-archaeological evidence and possible evidence to the contrary. The image of bluely decorated warriors can be found everywhere from the early 20th century, one example being the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons and another the anachronic depiction in the movie, BraveHeart.[4]

But, why?

Because it’s tradition, apparently. The 1565 translation of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, above, translates the word vitrum as woade (woad, Isatis tinctoria). This translation, by Arthur Goulding, is the earliest I’ve identified. Gillian Carr and several others give other possible translations as being “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass.”[5] So why is vitrum so often translated as woad in this context?

Woad was an important crop for some English abbeys during the medieval period, and a key crop in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[6] What better way to form a defense against an encroaching foreign material than to highlight the cultural importance of its proud, “indigenous” counterpart?

Enter vitrum as woad. Caesar may not have a historical monopoly on shaping a narrative to support a cause. In fact, he may not even have a monopoly on shaping his own narrative to support a cause. Still, just as there is limited evidence regarding the use of woad in ancient Britain, there is limited evidence supporting the reasons behind the historical trend in translating vitrum as woad.

Despite the potential mistranslations and lack of archaeological, textual, and iconographic evidence, people are still interested in the question, “does it work?” Without a recipe or replicable evidence, experimentation depends primarily on how other pigments are made ethnographically or in the past under other conditions and contexts. We know woad is a dye, and we know that it can color the skin and that it can be added to a binder to make a pigment. Some experiments reveal that woad, when compared to our perceptions of its color and use, is a poor choice for corporal decoration in terms of dyeing, tattooing, or staining the body. Want to replicate the results of these studies or develop your own? Carr describes her experiments in her article, and a link to my initial methodology and experimental recipes can be found in the footnotes below. Find out for yourself whether it works by using woad and other pigments and dyes to paint or dye your skin blue.[7]

Sharing research and experimental results is one remedy to the promotion of potentially alternative facts (such as blue Britons) through critical engagement of evidence. The lack of recipes or physical remains is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to encourage the exploration of other materials, methods. The confusing, and possibly sordid, history of woad in Britain also provides an opportunity to explore not only the history of translations of Caesar’s works and how identity and social memory reflect our relationship with plants, but it is also an interesting context in which to explore the use (or misuse) of woad.

[1] Caesar, Julius. The Eyght Bookes of Caius Iulius Cæsar Conteyning His Martiall Exploytes in the Realme of Gallia and the Countries Bordering Vppon the Same Translated Oute of Latin into English by Arthur Goldinge G. (London: Willyam Seres, 1565),, Book V.

[2] Veen, M. Van Der, Hall, A.R. and May, J.  ‘Woad and the Britons painted blue,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1993), 367-71.

[3] Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Gibson, Mel. Braveheart (Warner Bros., 1995).

[5] Lewis, Charlton T.  and Charles Short. “Vī^trum,” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879,; Carr, Gillian. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 3 ( 2005): 273–92, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2005.00236.x).

[6] Carr, “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Pyatt,F.B., et al. “Non Isatis Sed Vitrum Or, the Colour of Lindow Man,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, no. 1 (1991): 61–73, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1991.tb00006.x; Thirsk, Joan. “The Agricultural Landscape: Fads and Fashions,” in 1. S. R. J. Woodell, ed., The English Landscape: Past, Present, and Future, Wolfson College Lectures 1983. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[7]  Carr. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Fish, Pat. Woad and it’s mis-association with Pictish BodyArt, available at:; Reeves Flores, Jodi. Woad is me: Woad as a corporal decoration in Iron Age Britain, (master’s thesis, University of Exeter, 2008), 31-53.


Jodi Reeves Eyre has a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Exeter and served as a CLIR/DLF Fellow on Data Curation in the Sciences and Social Sciences at Arizona State University (2013-2015). She is a member of the Secretariat for the group EXARC, an ICOM affiliated organisation representing archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. Jodi is also a co-founder of Eyre & Israel, LLC, which provides research, editing, and digital curation consulting. Her work promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and explores perceptions about the past and social memory. She has conducted ethnographic research among other archaeologists, woven on models of ancient Greek looms, and painted people blue.

Twitter: @thejodireeves

Teaching Chocolate from the Bean to Drink

By Amy L. Tigner

Making chocolate from bean to bar has become fashionable both in cottage industries, such as the delightful husband and wife shop, El Buen Cacaco, in Idyllwild, California that creates a wickedly hot Ghost Chocolate Bar made with bhut jolokia (aka ghost chili). In 2016, Carol Wiley listed 183 bean to bar chocolatiers on her website, but I would imagine there are even more artisanal chocolate businesses popping up every day.

Making chocolate in the classroom from “bean to drink” also seems to be gaining traction, as least in the early modern recipe world. Amanda Herbert posted her experiments with “teaching with chocolate tasting” which you can read here and John Kuhn and Marissa Nicosia talk about theirs here.

For my own part, I have been interested for several years in the historical aspects of chocolate as it made its way across the Atlantic, and in earlier blog posts, I have written about Hannah Woolley’s mid-seventeenth-century chocolate recipes in her printed cookbooks here and here . The most interesting recipe that I have come across is in the cookbook manuscript by Lady Ann Fanshawe (Wellcome MS 7113), who lived in Madrid in the 1660s as her husband was the English Ambassador to Spain. The recipe, dated 1665, is especially intriguing first because Fanshawe attached a drawing of a “chocelary potte” and a whisk or molinillo and secondly because it is entirely scratched out with large loops. One of my graduate students did quite a bit of transcription magic and was able to recover some of the recipe underneath and ever since that point, I had wanted to try to make the recipe.

Last fall I had the opportunity when I was teaching a senior seminar and graduate seminar on “Early Modern Women’s Writing and Literary Practice.” The class was designed to incorporate as many material practices as possible as we were transcribing women’s letters and recipes from the seventeenth century. Early in the semester we had made ink, as I describe in this blog, but I really wanted to try to make chocolate from the bean, as Fanshawe had done. But because there were still some lacunae in the Fanshawe recipe I thought I had better consult one of her contemporaries, Penelope Jepson, who also has a chocolate recipe in her manuscript cookbook (Folger V.a. 396).

To make chocolato

Take a pound of the cacao nuts finely beaten or searsed, half a pound of hard sugar finely beaten or searsed, an ounce of cynamon, half an ounce of nutmeg, half an ounce aniseede, half a dram of long pepper, as much of Jamaica pepper. Beat and searse all those spices, then put in two stickes of vanillas beaten and searsed (two drachms of Achiote beaten and searsed) with ambergrise as you like to taste. When all those are pounded and well mixt, roast them in an earthen pan till they are as hot as you can endure with finger in it. Keep it well stirred that it burn not then put it into a mortar and beat it very fast till it begin to oile, so as it will work like paste, then make into paste.

As class time was limited, I did most of the preparation beforehand and was struck by how much labor was involved, especially peeling away the outer shell of the cacao after it is roasted. About 2 months in advance, I researched fair trade beans and bought them from Santa Barbara Chocolate.  Jepson’s recipe has quite a few spices, most of which are familiar, except perhaps the achiote and the ambergris. I was able to locate the achiote in a Fiesta Supermercado, which are fairly common in Texas, but I left out the ambergris, which is incredible expensive, since it is used in perfume, and a little bit gross, as it is a secretion from the bile duct of sperm whales. I also bought a traditional Mexican molinillo and chocolate pot, which looked quite amazingly similar to Ann Fanshawe’s drawing.

To facilitate easy recipe assembly, I pre-ground all the spices and the chocolate separately (and I cheated by using a spice grinder). On the day of the class, students combined the various ingredients to make the chocolate mix, and then one student rolled the molinillo in the ceramic chocolate between their hands as another student poured in boiling water.

Though Fanshawe’s recipe specifies china cups, students brought their favorite coffee mug from which to drink their chocolate. Students were surprised by the grainy texture, the bitter taste, and its wateriness, but they tended to like the spicy flavor (perhaps because we are in Texas and Mexican spices are ubiquitous here). We discussed how industrialization and global trade has influenced and changed our taste in the last 400 years. In the words of one student, “I really enjoyed the smell of the cocoa beans and the drink itself, but it was difficult to believe that there was half a pound of sugar in it. Like we mentioned in class, people really like sugar.”

Amy L. Tigner teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Day 10: ‘What is a Recipe?’ Final Event

WMS 4051, Wellcome Library, London.

And so we must come to an end…

For the past month, we’ve been regularly feasting on delicious presentations on and indulging in wonderful conversations about ‘What is a Recipe?’

On July 10, we’re going out on a high note, with two livestreamed panel discussions of about 45 minutes hosted at the Wellcome Library, London. RP editors Amanda Herbert, Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Laurence Totelin, along with Elma Brenner (Research Development Specialist, Wellcome Collection), will discuss ‘What is a Recipe?’

The first panel will kick off around 2:30 p.m. (UK time) with an examination of some recipe book highlights from the Wellcome Library, followed by our thoughts on ‘What is a Recipe?’, drawing on our virtual conversations.

The second panel will start around 4:00 p.m. (UK time) with an examination of some recipe-related objects, followed by a round-table discussion in which we respond to your questions. So please send in your questions — here, on Twitter, on Facebook…

Details about the live-streaming and timing to follow. We will update on Twitter, Facebook, and here!

Please join us in bringing our conversation to a close.