Category Archives: Tools and Techniques

Seasonality and the (Re)creation of Early Modern Color Worlds

By Jenny Boulboullé

Color played an important role in the early modern world across a number of areas from arts and crafts to Christian religion to politics to natural history and philosophy. In recent years, scholars have begun to explore how early modern men and women engaged, produced and conceptualized colors within and across color worlds.[1] Just as in early modern culinary and medical recipes, seasonality is a recurrent theme in artisanal recipes. The art of preservation was highly valued for its powers to make flavors and healing properties of foodstuffs, plants and herbs endure well beyond their seasonal availability. In my contribution to the seasonality series I focus on recipes that celebrate the art of color preservation and on the mindful attention to seasons called for in color making recipes. I am particularly interested in the challenges that recipes for making natural dyes and pigments from seasonal products posed to modern historians trying to reconstruct them.

Today the symbolic significance of colors in early modern Europe is perhaps most readily associated with the compellingly colorful medieval and renaissance art works that have survived in sacred spaces and museums.

Figure 1, Caption: Giotto (1266-1337), The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, Padua, Italy. ca. 1305. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

But in the pre-modern period a deep concern with colors was not limited to the arts: colors were associated with the four humors and close attentiveness to colors was of vital importance to practices of healing in the Hippocritean and Galenic medical tradition.[2] The perception and display of colors was also highly charged with political meanings: colors were a form of symbolic communication and played an important role in consolidating and displaying religious and secular power relations. European courts and courtly events were important sites of “chromatic politics” as contemporary witness accounts and meticulous historical reconstructions of ephemeral, yet splendid and compellingly colorful festive events have shown.[3]

Figure 2, Caption: Peter Paul Rubens, Design for state decorations for the triumphal entry of Cardinal Infante Ferdinand into Antwerp, on April 17, 1635, Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Image from

The historical reconstruction of a sixteenth-century dress, originally created for the Augsburg Imperial Diet from 1530, is a particularly compelling example of the politicized use of brightly colored dress made from dyed textiles.[4] The owner of this dress and his contemporaries might have regarded its colors “as related to intrinsic qualities and powers”. Deep scarlet reds were regarded at that time “as carriers of life and heat, while a strong yellow was linked to gold as metal, which had given its powers by the influence of the sun”. Ulinka Rublack notes the challenges encountered during the reconstruction process. The yellow color obtained in their first dying trials “was just not quite vibrant enough” which was detrimental “as faded hues of yellow could have negative associations of weakness and coldness”.[5]

Other sixteenth century recipes for ‘yellows’ from organic sources, demonstrate that making natural dyes of this color depended on local seasonal knowledge. As Marieke Hendriksen has discussed, here in Utrecht, we are building a new database of artisanal recipes. A quick search in the Artechne Database yields several fifteenth- and sixteenth century German recipes for green and yellow colors that call for buckthorn berries (some with precise indication for picking times, like this one for “Green color” from 1543). Here an Italian one from the anonymous Padua Manuscript (ca. end 16th/17th century), translated and published in English:

To make giallo santo

Take the berries of buckthorn towards the end of the month of August, boil them with pure water, until the water is loaded and thick with color; add a little burnt roche alum and then strain it. You may boil the strained liquor to make the color deeper, mixing with it some very pure gilder’s gesso; then make the color into pellets, and dry them in the shade.[6]

In color recipes such as this one, seasonality and intimate knowledge of seasonal products sensitivities to additives play a key role. Berries had to be picked at specific times of the year to attain the right hues, and while the juice of ripe buckthorn, available in most of Europe, gives a greenish color, also known as sap green, one needs to get hold of unripe berries, fresh or dried, in particular a species imported from the Middle East, also known as “Persian berries”, to attain the deep golden yellow hue that the reconstruction team had envisioned for this dazzling sixteenth-century dress.[7] Only by patiently repeating the dye processes using the right berries picked at the right moment, can the desired vibrant hue of rich quality be achieved – both in the early modern period and during 21th century reconstruction.[8]

Thus, the commission of brightly dyed dresses for display at important events must have been a time-consuming affair that required planning long ahead of the political event and entailed a collaborative process of sourcing and experimenting that depended not only on seasonal knowledge and availability, but was also prone to risks of seasonal change. As Rublack’s work shows, reconstruction research makes us of acutely aware of the complexities and risks posed to those who aspired a part in the “chromatic politics” of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century. Moreover, as I will show in my next post, color recipe reconstructions allow us to experience the efforts and knowledge that went into the creation of early modern color worlds, which have become unfamiliar to our modern period eye.


[1] Tarwin Baker, Sven Dupré, Sachiko Kusukawa, and Karin Leonhard, eds., Early Modern Color Worlds (Brill, 2016).

[2] Baker, Dupré, Kusukawa, and Leonhard 2016, 4.

[3] Ulinka Rublack, “Renaissance Dress, Cultures of Making, and the Period Eye.” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 23, no. 1 (March 1, 2016): 6–34. doi:10.1086/688198.

[4] Rublack 2016.

[5] Rublack 2016, 23, 24.

[6] Maria Philadelphia Merrifield, Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting, in Oil, Miniature, Mosaic, and on Glass; Of Gilding, Dying, and the Preparation of Colours and Artificial Gems (John Murray 1849), 708.

[7] Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon, eds. Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700 (Archetype Publications, 2010) Glossary, 447.

[8] Rublack 2016, 25.

‘Thus it prevails against its time’: distillation and cycles of nature in early modern pharmacy

By Tillmann Taape

In past centuries, devoid of freezers and heated greenhouses, the seasons affected medicines as well as foodstuffs. In addition to pickled vegetables and stored grain, early modern people worried about their provisions of healing plants and animal substances. These, too, had their season: many herbs were considered most powerful when picked in May, and ‘May dew’ collected from fragrant meadows at this time of year was said to have many healing properties. In his Destillierbücher (distillation manuals), published in the early sixteenth century, the Strasbourg surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig addresses the challenges which arise in pharmacy from nature’s cyclical changes. He explains that most preparations of fresh medicinal herbs are ‘unkeepable’. For example, ‘if you pound herbs, roots or other substances and squeeze the juice from it, then it becomes unpleasant, does not last, […] and soon putrid corruption ensues’.[1] Even with dried materia medica and compound drugs, their medicinal virtues faded over time.

Brunschwig knew this all too well from personal experience. As an apothecary running his own shop near the fish market, maintaining a stock of efficacious remedies was his chief responsibility and expertise. The issue of pharmaceutical provisioning was taken very seriously by Strasbourg’s magistrates. Twice a year, they would send round a committee of medical experts to all apothecary shops, to ensure that no perished goods were stocked, and to throw away any that had gone off.

An apothecary pounding medicines. Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v. © Wellcome Library, London

Brunschwig’s understanding of the material world was shaped by his experience as a pharmacist and shopkeeper, but also by the cosmology and medical theory of his day. While the heavenly spheres were characterised by material perfection and changelessness, all matter on earth was made up of the four elements (air, water,fire, earth) and subject to their constant permutations. They were doomed to endless cycles of generation, change, and decay. Material stability was only possible where the elements were in perfect balance, ‘as you can see in May when it is neither too dry nor too humid, neither too warm nor too cold’.[2]

Brunschwig’s seasonal simile is revealing: a perfect balance of elements is just as rare and fleeting as those precious few balmy weeks in May. As well as pointing to the instability of all earthly matter, the language of seasons and their cold, hot, dry or moist qualities was associated with early modern ideas about the stages of human life. Youth, health, reproduction, decline and death were analogous with the annual cycle of flourishing and decay in nature – a relationship which is richly illustrated in a set of anonymous seventeenth-century engravings (see here for an interactive digital reproduction). The idea of changing seasons was emblematic of an early modern view of the material world which was characterised by instability. Human bodies fluctuated with the shifting balance of their humours, and the very substances which could be used to cure the resulting ailments were themselves fleeting and, in Brunschwig’s words, ‘unkeepable’.

Faced with such difficulties, Brunschwig and others turned to a branch of knowledge with a longstanding commitment to imitating and manipulating natural processes underlying the transformations of matter: alchemy. In particular, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful artisanal technique to ‘keep the unkeepable’.[3] Distillation was the art of separation, and in the case of medicinal simples, Brunschwig claimed, their ‘soul’ or healing virtue could be separated from their ‘body’, that is to say the material dross made up of the problematic four elements. Thus liberated, the healing ‘spirit’ of a plant in the form of a distilled water could be bottled and neatly stored on Brunschwig’s alphabetically ordered shelf, where they would keep well beyond their harvest season, for up to three years. Later Destillierbücher echo the idea that one can ‘keep these waters over the year’ as a major selling point of distilled remedies.[4]

While distillation in theory had the power to produce pure and incorruptible ‘quintessences’, this was far too laborious for everyday pharmaceutical practice. Brunschwig wrote for an audience of ‘common men’ as well as artisan colleagues, and most of the distilled remedies he discusses are much more pedestrian. They still have some of the elemental qualities of the original herb, and are ultimately perishable. Compared to ‘unkeepable’ plant juice, however, their decay is slower and more predictable. Brunschwig confidently charts the decline and change in a water’s healing powers over the years, and even gives instructions for ‘recharging’ them. A water can be saved by infusing it with fresh herbs and distilling it once more – thus, Brunschwig reassures his readers, a distilled remedy can ‘prevail against its time’ for another year.[5]

In the early modern world of matter, the seasons symbolised cycles of change and decay which spelled trouble for healers and makers of medicines. In some of the earliest vernacular works on pharmacy, Brunschwig describes distillation as a powerful tool for defying the material corruption of seasonal changes.

[1] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[2] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 36v.

[3] Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus… (Strasbourg, 1500), sig. C1v.

[4] Eucharius Röslin, Kreutterbuoch von allem Erdtgewaechs… (Frankfurt, 1533), title page verso.

[5] Brunschwig, Liber der arte distulandi simplicia… (Strasbourg, 1509), fol. 18v.


Constance Hall’s ‘Carrott Pudding:’ A Rendition

The following post is by an undergraduate student, Jessie Foreman, who worked with me on a research placement this summer, as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme at the University of Essex. She spent part of her time transcribing early modern recipe books for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, along the way discovering interesting old recipes and even trying her hand at them. What I appreciate most about her following post is the way in which she highlights the assumed knowledge behind cooking, now as well as then.

By Jessie Foreman

From the Cookbook of Constance Hall, 1672, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.20.
From the Cookbook of Constance Hall, 1672, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.20.


A carrot pudding, how hard could it be?

Being a total beginner to early modern recipes, it was only logical that I should find a very simple recipe–not necessarily all that easy to do… I finally found a recipe that wasn’t cut off at the sides, used sixteen eggs and could feed the whole street… or require any ingredients that I couldn’t get from the local Co-op. In fact, I thought I was one step ahead of the recipe, since I had a fan-assisted oven and an actual Early Modern Assistant (thanks Nan!). How naïve I was!

As instructed in the recipe, we started by boiling three large carrots in a saucepan to fulfil the order of ‘4 spoonfulls of Carrotts.’ My Nan did start to scrape them before they were boiled, noting that it would be easier to do while they were still raw and not boiling hot, but we stuck to the recipe and scraped them after they were boiled. Beating the carrots in a mortar also proved to be very ineffective when it came to taking the pudding out of the oven, as you could see that they hadn’t distributed very well. I’m not trying to give baking advice to Constance Hall, but maybe she should think of grating in a few more things for a more even flavour.

Next were the eggs. I should’ve known that with ten eggs (two of which had the yolks removed) and a pint of cream, that I’d have needed something else substantial so it doesn’t come out as a runny mess. We whisked them up, but only to a normal whisked egg consistency – ‘beat them well’ leaves a lot to the imagination.

After that we added a generous amount of Aldi’s Own Brandy (in place of sac)k and softened butter, along with cream, salt and nutmeg. We used a spring whisk in lieu of not being able to use an electric mixer, and came out with a butter lump mix and cramp in one hand. It was hard to get rid of the lumps of butter in the mix, which had started clumping together and kept getting harder to remove. With the help of a spoon we did manage to squish all of them, but I wonder if the smaller remaining lumps can be blamed for the wobble on top of the pudding when it was in the oven. At ten minute intervals while the pudding was in the oven, I had to drain a growing lake of butter from the top of the pudding.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.
Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

Grating the breadcrumbs was a nightmare: I’d bought fresh bread that morning, so it was very fresh and doughy. We should’ve used day-old bread, but by the time my Nan flagged that up, the carrots were already boiling, and the batter, already made. The recipe did not specify how much bread we should put in, only just enough to make it into a batter. As the mix was already sort of looking like a batter, we added in enough so that the grated bread was distributed evenly and went all the way through.

This was one of the main challenges we encountered while trying to follow this recipe: in any recipes, both old and new, there is a substantial amount of implied knowledge in the recipes. Given that fewer people would have read Hall’s manuscript recipe than modern printed recipe collections, there is even more implied knowledge; her audience was much more selective to begin with.

This wasn’t to last, though, as when we were pouring it into the baking tin, all of the mashed carrot and bread immediately sunk to the bottom. It was at this point that I started to think that the pudding might not quite turn out as planned… but there was nothing to do about it now, so I put it in the preheated oven for half an hour, draining Lake Butter every ten minutes. When the timer started beeping, I stuck in a knife to see if it was baked through. The knife was covered in grease, so we turned up the oven a little and left it again for ten minutes.

Image credit: Jessie Foreman.
Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

By the time the timer rang again, the top of the pudding was very brown, so there was no way that it could last any longer in the oven without getting burned. Whatever was inside of the tin now – whether cooked or sludge – was the finished product. I left it on the side to cool for about twenty minutes before turning it out onto a plate. The good: it solidified and kept its shape! The bad: just as predicted, everything had sunk to the bottom, so there was a very uneven distribution.

The pudding had mixed reactions from the official taste testers. My Mum said that the top of it, where there were no breadcrumbs, tasted like an egg custard. She quite enjoyed it. My Dad? He spat his into the bin.

Trying out this recipe wasn’t exactly a resounding success, but I thoroughly enjoyed a somewhat blind cooking experience and it felt like I was doing Constance Hall’s version of the technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off. If you’re not sure what this is, you should definitely check it out, where you’ll see baking disasters even worse than mine!

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.
Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

Jolly Good Ale and Old: Or, Were Early Modern People Perpetually Drunk?

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  Here, Drs. James Brown and Angela McShane discuss their work with the Intoxicants Project.]

By Dr James Brown (University of Sheffield) and Dr Angela McShane (V&A/University of Sheffield)

We’re part of a research project exploring the history of intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, and opium) in England in the period 1580 to 1740, based in the UK with generous funding from the ESRC and the AHRC. Like most academic projects these days we’re committed to sharing our work on pre-modern drug cultures with audiences beyond the academy, and one of our most successful and rewarding engagement experiments has been an evening of beer, ballads, and banter that we call ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old’. We’ve now done three instalments of this musical extravaganza, all of which follow the same formula: at a suitable venue – usually a pub – the crowd are equipped with specially created songbooks (pdf), and led in rousing renditions of seventeenth-century drinking songs by early music expert Lucie Skeaping (of BBC3 and The City Waites fame). The historical harmonies are interspersed with roundtable conversations in which a handful of invited scholars informally tackle some hot topics in drinking studies while fielding questions from the barstools.

Special Guest Star: The BBC's Lucie Skeaping teaches a capacity crowd how to sing an early modern drinking ballad at our most recent Jolly Good Ale and Old event, hosted by Being Human Festival in Chancellor’s Hall at Senate House, University of London. Photo Credit: TBC
Special Guest Star: The BBC’s Lucie Skeaping teaches a capacity crowd how to sing an early modern drinking ballad at our most recent Jolly Good Ale and Old event, hosted by Being Human Festival in Chancellor’s Hall at Senate House, University of London. Photo Credit: © Being Human Festival (via Flickr).


The eight ballads and catches we showcase at ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old’ are diverse, ranging from earnest paeans to the humble leather bottle over new-fangled drinking vessels such as tankards and glasses (Joan’s Ale is New), to NSFW ditties featuring heavily euphemised interactions between soldiers and barmaids (The Trooper Watering his Nag). A stalwart of the repertoire is The Black Bowl, a ballad on the unlikely topic of weights and measures composed by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1614. Over twelve verses the audience are introduced to a full range of twelve early modern drink vessels, from the titular black bowl up to the mighty 252 gallon wine tun. The cavalcade of receptacles of ever-increasing capacity ushers in a question that, while often ignored, dodged, or finessed by historians of alcohol, has dominated discussion at every one of these events: were early modern people perpetually drunk?

Tavern Scene Woodcut from J. W. Ebsworth ed. The Roxburgh Ballads: Copyright Free.
Tavern Scene Woodcut from J. W. Ebsworth ed. The Roxburgh Ballads: Copyright Free.


It’s a thorny issue, to which the response is too often a kneejerk cliché about the weakness of early modern ‘small’ beer and its status as a low-alcohol alternative to polluted water supplies (which, we know now, were actually pretty clean). Instead, to address the question properly, one of our expert panel – our own Dr James Brown, Research Associate on the Intoxicants and Early Modernity project – draws on recent work by Professor Craig Muldrew in his book Food, Energy, and the Creation of Industriousness (2011), which tackles the question head-on.

Paraphrasing Craig Muldrew’s findings, James B. argues that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beer was more important as a source of energy (via calories both from grain and alcohol) than as an alternative to water (p 66). Amounts consumed were thus considerable, especially for men engaged in moderate to heavy labour, where most institutional allowances ranged from four pints to over a gallon of beer a day (p. 70). Most interestingly of all, Craig uses recipes from early modern brewing manuals such as Jeffrey Boys’s Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700) to estimate both ‘the calorific content of beer and its potency as a drug’. The results are startling: while ‘small’ beer would indeed have been very weak (at around 2% alcohol by volume), ‘table’ or ‘middle’ beer was around the 5-7% ABV mark, while ‘strong’ beer (sometimes called ‘October’ or ‘harvest’ beer and generally consumed at alehouses) could easily top 10-12% ABV. (pp. 73-83). Thus, in light of the amounts consumed, especially by labourers, and given that the weakest ‘small’ beer was generally avoided – it was described by many authors as ‘trough beer’ injurious to health, and used primarily for children and in workhouses (p.74) – it seems likely that early modern people were indeed constantly tipsy, if not perpetually drunk. This is to say nothing of the proliferation of exotic wines and spirits in the period!

How-To: title page from Jeffrey Boys's Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700).
How-To: title page from Jeffrey Boys’s Directions for Brewing Malt Liquors (1700).


However, nothing in alcohol history is simple, and the audience is plunged into the excitement of live historiographical controversy when another expert panellist, Dr James Sumner, energetically calls the findings into doubt. James S., a historian of science and technology whose book on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century brewing came out in 2013 (and whose practical demonstration of the adulteration of the Victorian pint is a recipe-driven highlight of the ‘Jolly Good Ale and Old’ events), argues that ‘alcohol by volume’ was rarely used as a measure of strength for beers and wines until the work of nineteenth-century French chemists such as Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and that it’s therefore ahistorical to apply it to earlier cultures and beverages.

Moreover, even if we accept the anachronism, James S. goes on to point out that while you can achieve the percentages suggested by Craig using modern barley, malting techniques, yeast, and equipment, such ‘show-stopping’ figures were unlikely to have been achieved by even the commercial producers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, even had they had the technical means to achieve such high levels of fermentation, they would probably not have wanted to: in the more expensive beers, using a lot of malt, they were likely to have been pushing for ‘sweetness and body’ rather than maximum alcoholic strength, which could lead to thinness and an astringent taste. According to the modern understanding of nutrition, this would have helped to meet the needs of manual workers: alcohol needs to be broken down by the liver into acetaldehyde before it can be used for energy, so is nowhere near as efficient a source of calories as carbohydrates and sugar.

In every case, our audience for these events has included practicing home-brewers, who have universally agreed with James S. that such high levels of alcohol content are nigh-on impossible to achieve without severely impairing taste. So the nature of historical enquiry means that the question over this recipe and its outcomes must still remain uncertain. Our readers may like to try this one at home (don’t forget to sing an appropriate song while you’re doing it!), but make sure you let us know the results!

Barreling Along: 'The Brewer', designed and engraved by Jost Amman in the sixteenth century. Were early modern beer producers pushing for alcoholic strength or sweetness and body? Wikimedia Commons.
Barreling Along: ‘The Brewer’, designed and engraved by Jost Amman in the sixteenth century. Were early modern beer producers pushing for alcoholic strength or sweetness and body? Wikimedia Commons.