Category Archives: Series: Recipes at Play

Publication Highlight

An Interview with Hannah Bower, author of Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play (Oxford University Press, 2022)

This month, we have the pleasure of highlighting the work of Hannah Bower, author of Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 1375-1500, published by Oxford University Press in 2022.  Dr Bower is a Junior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Find out more about her research and interests here.  Below is an edited conversation between Elizabeth Hunter, Recipes at Play Series Editor, and Hannah Bower.

Available as Open Access through Oxford Academic

Elizabeth Hunter: Hannah, so glad you could chat with us!  Your expertise is in medieval English Literature.  How did you come to study recipe books?  Can you explain that journey? 

Hannah Bower: I first came to study recipe books during my master’s degree. I was looking for some texts that had not been closely examined in their manuscript contexts and our course leader, Daniel Wakelin, suggested that recipes would be a good place to start. As soon as I started looking at a few collections in the Bodleian Library, I was hooked! The collections appealed to me because of their strange mix of the formulaic and the whimsical, the predictable and the eccentric. On the one hand, many of the recipes contained the same structural features (lists of ingredients, imperatives, promises of efficacy) but, on the other hand, the recipes could be combined with one another in different ways, copied into large recipe collections or alone on a spare flyleaf, rubricated or left plain, amended and added to, annotated, or struck out. I was keen to pay them closer attention by analysing in detail the choices that different scribes, writers, and compilers made. To me, then, their textual and material forms invited a kind of close reading that had many parallels with the close reading techniques of literary criticism.   

“Recipes taught readers to prepare healing treatments but they could, this study argues, also act as nexus points for the intersection (and playful redefinition) of different written and spoken styles, spaces, and identities”

Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 2.

EH: The title of this series is ‘Recipes at Play’, and play is also in the title of your book.  What did the term play imply in this period and how important was it in the recipe form? 

HB:  Play had a wide range of meanings, including merriment, pleasure, entertainment, theatrical performance, spectacle, game, music-making, jest, joke, and trick. Of course, these are not normally things that you would associate with recipes for broken bones and pus-filled boils! But there are some surprising connections. For instance, medical recipes can contain a lot of sound play: alliteration, rhyme, and puns all recur. Sometimes these devices may have made the recipe easier to remember by heart; sometimes they might have convinced readers that the recipe carried an occult power supplementary to its ingredients; at other times, these embellishments may suggest pride or pleasure in the copying of the recipe. Interestingly, this patterning does not normally appear in every recipe in a collection or even in all parts of a recipe: it is one example of the sporadic and whimsical aspect that I was mentioning a moment ago that contrasts and coexists with the genre’s more formulaic aspects. This opens up further parallels with play as formulated by the cultural historian John Huizinga: like recipes, play has boundaries, rules, and repetitive structures but it is also flexible and adaptable. Writers and readers of recipes could experiment (or ‘play’) with the text before them, adapting or adding to its instructions as they enacted it (like a theatrical performance or ‘play’).

“[R]ecipes can be activated or translated into action like instruments are played; they can be connected, ordered, and rearranged by imaginations in play; and they can be mischievous, comic, or playful in content”

Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 26.

EH: What were you hoping to find when you first began your research?  What surprised you along the way? 

HB: When I began, I wasn’t sure what I was going to find; I just wanted to sit and read texts that often hadn’t been read closely in a long time and weren’t normally considered to contain any literary potential! What surprised me was the care that could be invested by writers, scribes, and readers in the copying, embellishment, and preservation of the recipes. Some scribes copied hundreds of recipes and some—though not all!—invested a lot of time trying to make those recipes navigable and usable. I was also surprised by the way that the language deployed in recipes and related medical texts could tap into commonplace images also used in literary and devotional writings. We might deride such commonplaces as trite and jaded, but they clearly had great explanatory purchase and could—I think—not only be deployed to make bodily afflictions easier to identify but also to make those bodily afflictions less offensive and gruesome to think about. For instance, urinary texts sometimes copied alongside medical recipes sometimes compare sediment in urine to specks of dust in the sunlight…quite a beautiful image! 

EH: In the book you cover a number of genres of imaginative literature, including Chaucer, romances and fabliaux.  How important do you think the imagination is in the reading and writing medieval recipes? 

HB: Very important! Many readers were probably persuaded to translate a recipe into practice because they could imagine themselves—or the person they were treating—becoming healthy through it. To embark upon the task in hand, they must also have been able to imagine themselves acquiring, collecting, and preparing all of the ingredients in the correct order.

What I found particularly interesting, though, was the way that some medieval writers seem to use echoes of the recipe form in their writing to encourage readers to imagine their bodies in different ways. For instance, in the book, I discuss an example from Thomas Malory’s romance Le Morte d’Arthur where recipe discourse is used to situate the bodies of two knights in several different time schemes simultaneously. Readers are encouraged to connect the knights’ bodies at once to life and death, earth and heaven, sickness and health.  It is ironic that recipes—a form we normally associate with linear sequences of action (‘do this…do that…do this…’) instead work in that text to stimulate temporal and imaginative flexibility.

[W]riters of remedies and writers of more consistently literary or imaginative texts influenced one another in more precise ways than have hitherto been acknowledged, and both groups partook in shared cultural modes of creative expression. Tracing possible connections and overlaps will allow us to arrive at a more nuanced, holistic understanding of what ‘practical’, ‘careful’, ‘imaginative’, and ‘playful’ might have meant for late medieval writers and readers.

Middle English Medical Recipes and Literary Play, 3-4.

Dinner and a Show: Magic Tricks at the Medieval Table

By Vanessa Da Silva Baptista

Le Vivendier is a fifteenth-century anonymous French cookbook, surviving in a single miscellany of medical, botanical, and household recipes. It retains an innocuously titled recipe ‘To make a chicken to be served roasted’ [1]  But this is no ordinary recipe for a roast dinner: the cook is instructed to pluck and paint a live chicken so that it appears roasted and place its head under its wing to render the bird unconscious. When the chicken was cut for serving, it would ‘wake up and make off down the table upsetting jugs, goblets and whatnot’ to the surprise, and, no doubt amusement, of the diners. This bizarre recipe is immediately followed by a similarly strange recipe to make a genuinely roasted chicken sing by binding its neck at both ends, filling the throat with mercury and sulphur, and putting the chicken in a hot place.[2] Allegedly, the singing effect was produced by mercury vapour travelling through the chicken’s throat, creating a whistling sound much like stovetop kettle.

Figure 1 – Le Vevendier Recipe ‘To make a chicken sing on the spit and turn’ with an accompanying illustration of said chicken in Richard’s own hand. The image could be simply a doodle or it may act as a finding aid like a manicle © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 86, (c.1271-83) fol, 47r. Creative Commons License: CC-BY-NC 4.0


Medieval cookbooks, a predominantly aristocratic genre recording the cooking practices of courtly head-chefs, frequently contain recipes that aimed to surprise, delight, and awe.[3] For example, the cookbook of the Duke of Savoy’s head-chef, Maistre Chiquart, Du fait du cuisine (1420) included instructions for crafting an enormous pastry castle, adorned with four towers each housing a fantastic dish: an armed boar’s head; a pike cooked three ways; a piglet; and finally, a swan, roasted, redressed in its plumage – all spitting fire.[4]  What makes Le Vivendier interesting is that it was most likely produced in a less affluent environment. Its manuscript context suggests that it was written or commissioned by an individual for their own private use. Additionally, the recipes discussed here were written by a later hand in the blank space following the main text indicating that they were added by a later reader with specific interests.[5] It therefore speaks to a shared late Medieval culture of playful dinner entertainment that was not limited to the wealthy and powerful.

Le Vivendier contains recipes that are concessions to its owner’s class, balancing the desire to provide dinnertime entertainment with their financial capabilities. A recipe to change the colour of wine in Le Ménagier de Paris (1393) further illustrates this point. This recipe was specifically intended to be performed at the table before guests, with the reader instructed to make a powder of red plants and ‘[t]oss it secretly into a glass of wine’.[6] Le Ménagier is addressed to the fifteen-year-old bride of an old  Parisian bourgeois who, while wealthy, would not have been able to afford the same level of spectacle as Maistre Chiquart but clearly still wished to provide entertainment at his dinner table.

Figure 2 – Detail of a boar’s head and redressed swan spitting fire in ‘The Marriage-Feast at Cana,’ by an unknown artist c.1550. Image in the public domain.


That medieval people revelled in playing with their food is further highlighted by informal household recipe collections. In the late thirteenth-century, Richard de Grimhill, a low-ranking Worcester noble, collected recipes that used mercury to make an egg run through the house and make a chicken sing on the spit and turn itself over.[7] The Tollemache Book of Secrets, written in fifteenth-century Suffolk by and for a gentry family, also retains, amongst a plethora of medical, codicological, and other household recipes, two similar English recipes using mercury to animate a cooked chicken and a loaf of bread.[8] In my research on magic tricks in late Medieval Europe, I have found no fewer than thirteen manuscripts, composed between the late thirteenth and fifteenth century in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, that contain at least one recipe to animate an egg, cooked chicken, or loaf of bread with mercury. Many more have instructions to turn water into wine or make cooked meat appear raw.

Whether at court or in the gentry household, the medieval dinner table was a space for both dining and diversion. Medieval people outside the aristocracy adapted the elaborate and expensive centrepieces displayed on wealthier tables to their own more modest means, exchanging fire-breathing boar’s heads for jumping eggs. These tricks demonstrate that amusement, delight, and spectacle were important aspects to medieval entertaining at all levels of European literate society.

[1] The Vivendier, ed. and trans, Terence Scully (Totnes: Prospect Books, 1997),  81 (recipe 58).

[2]The Vivendier, ed. and trans., Scully, 82-83 (recipe 59).

[3] For an overview of the medieval cookbook as genre see Bruno Laurioux, Une histoire culinaire du moyen âge, (Paris: Champion, 2005), especially 39-41.

[4] Maistre Chiquart, Du fait du cuisine, ed. and trans., Terence Scully (Arizona: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010),137-145 (recipe 10).

[5] For more on this manuscript see Terence Scully, The Vivendier, 3-15.

[6] Le Ménagier de Paris, trans. Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 330.

[7] Hic incipient experimenta bona et optima, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 86, fol 47r.

[8] Tollemache Book of Secrets Suffolk, Helmingham Hall LH. II., 27r