What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russia

By Carolyn Pouncy

Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
Russian Cabbage/Sour Cabbage Soup (Shchi)
(Wiki Images)

There is a Russian proverb, well known among historians of the prerevolutionary years and especially of the peasantry—“Cabbage soup and kasha are our food.” It sounds better in Russian, where it rhymes: Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha. But in either language, it conveys a basic truth about Russian life—probably even today, but certainly in the past, when the range of foods was so much narrower and abject poverty more widespread than they are now. The great dishes of Russian cuisine, the Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff, are not only relatively recent inventions but creations developed for the 19th-century elite. Such foods never formed part of most people’s diet.

So it is both amusing and a bit sad to turn to Domostroi, the 16th-century book on domestic management (the name means, literally, House Structure or House Order), and read its prescribed meals for servants:

“As everyday food servants receive rye bread, cabbage soup, and thin kasha with ham. Sometimes they may have thick kasha with lard. This is what most people give their servants for dinner, although they vary the menu according to which meat is available. On Sundays and holy days servants sometimes get turnovers [pirozhki—small pies stuffed with a mixture of meat or vegetables, cooked grains, and eggs], jellies, pancakes, or other, similar food. At supper they eat cabbage soup and milk or kasha.”

Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
Meat/Vegetable Turnover (Pirozhki)
(Wiki Images)

These prescriptions were for meat days. On the many fast days that dotted the Orthodox calendar, the cabbage soup and kasha continued to appear, with fish or vegetables rather than meat, “sometimes with broth, peas, or turnip soup.” Fish soup, pease porridge, pickles, and oatmeal were also considered suitable. On ordinary days, feast or fast, servants drank “second-grade beer,” upgraded on Sundays and holidays to ale. Those who served at table, together with children and poor relations of the family, did better, since they were permitted to share in the leftovers of the much more elaborate dishes served to the master and mistress of the house. Seamstresses and embroiderers, as well as visiting tradesmen, might be permitted to eat with the master and mistress. This expressed high appreciation indeed, treating these skilled craftspeople and merchants as subordinate members of the family. It also guaranteed them a good meal.

From a modern perspective, it all sounds rather grim and regimented. It’s easy to imagine staring at yet another bowl of cabbage soup, made from sauerkraut in winter, and silently grumbling—as my heroine Nasan does in The Golden Lynx—that if someone cut her open, they would find her green and curly inside. (Nasan is a Tatar, and a khan’s daughter at that, accustomed to somewhat different fare.)

But the real question historians must ask about the instructions in Domostroi is whether anyone followed them. Domestic servants in 16th-century Russia were, almost without exception, full, hereditary slaves; the mere acceptance of a position in household service equated, in the eyes of the law, with selling oneself. Slavery functioned as a kind of social welfare, and those who purchased domestic servants implicitly took responsibility for their maintenance.

Even so, most slaves did not live in the compounds where they worked but supported themselves in whatever miserable lodging they could afford on the basis of a meager allowance, out of which they were also supposed to supply their own food, drink, and clothing. Some resorted to robbery and murder to make ends meet. Most of them would have rejoiced at the thought of two full meals a day, with beer or ale and meat several times a week. Through the early 20th century, many peasants and members of the urban poor would have agreed that such a situation constituted pure, unadulterated bliss.

Sometimes cabbage soup and kasha, delivered regularly and on time, doesn’t look so bad after all.

Text quoted from Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 161–62 (chapter 51, “Instruction from a Master to His Steward on How to Feed the Family in Feast and Fast”).

Translating Recipes 4: The Girl, the Scorpion, and the Doctor

By Carla Nappi

Hi there! In my previous post, I described an experiment in translating a Manchu medical recipe into a fairy tale. This is the second half of that discussion.

What you have below, similar to what we did in Part 1: Narrating Qing Bodies and Part 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls, is a comparison of two translations of the same Manchu medical recipe. This is a short recipe from the Si yang-ni okto-i bithe [Handbook of Western Drugs], in Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書 (Haikou: Hainan chubanshe, 2001), 294.

You’ll notice several things as we move from the first to the second text. This recipe concludes with directions that are specifically geared toward use in children, and I’ve used that to inspire the second rendering of the text. Once again, as we saw previously, the power and danger of (Manchu) language is at the center of the story. And repetition, as it is central for both drug and fairy tale literature, is an important feature of the story of the girl and her family. There are additional little tricks hidden in the fairy tale for the savvy reader to spot. Enjoy, and I’ll see you again for the next installment in Translating Recipes!

Translation 1:

Fourth recipe. An oil to expel worms inside the body. [Can be used for] each kind of worm that forms inside a person’s body. Heat this oil and smear it on the navel, on the place of the opening on the stomach, or on the nose, and all worms inside the body will be expelled. After drinking this oil, each person’s worms will be expelled. It is very good to use this with small children who otherwise aren’t able to take drugs. If one is poisoned by scorpions and similar creatures and the wound develops worms, smear this oil on the place where the person was stung or bitten.

A Manchu archer, taken by John Thomson in 1874. Image GC Hist. G. O/S 2  from the General Collections, Wellcome Library, London.
A Manchu archer, taken by John Thomson in 1874. Image GC Hist. G. O/S 2 from the General Collections, Wellcome Library, London.

Translation 2:

I. Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived with her parents. They lived by a forest, and the little girl would often run into the woods and play for hours with the other animals that lived there. Her parents knew the forest creatures well and they didn’t mind, but there was one rule that they insisted on. “If you ever come upon the scorpion, make sure to run straight away. It is proud and fickle, and it doesn’t like to be looked at. Play with any of the other creatures you like, dear daughter, but you must not bother the scorpion.”

One day, while running through the woods the little girl came across a very small and very beautiful animal she hadn’t seen before. She realized immediately that it must be the creature her parents had warned her about. “What would be the harm in giving it just a tiny peek?” she thought, and bent down to admire it. The scorpion stared back at her without moving. “What would be the harm in giving it just a tiny touch?” she thought, and reached out her hand to stroke it. When she moved to touch the scorpion it flicked its tail and stung her on the hand. She cried out in pain and ran home to her parents. Her mother put her in bed and her father ran to summon the doctor.

II. The doctor came and looked at her wound, which was now swollen and red. He rummaged in his bag for a handful of herbs, which he gave to the mother. He pointed to the stove and the wine, and the mother went off to boil the herbs into a hot potion. She returned a while later with a steaming cup and gave it to the daughter, but the daughter refused to drink.

The doctor looked again at her wound, which was now oozing and green. He rummaged in his bag for another handful of herbs, which he gave to the mother. He pointed to the honey and the spoon, and the mother went off to dissolve the herbs into a sweet potion. She returned a while later with a sweet, sticky bowl and gave it to the daughter, but the daughter refused to eat.

The doctor looked again at her wound, which was now black and crawling with worms. He rummaged in his bag for a bottle of oil, which he gave to the mother. He pointed to the fire and the brush, and the mother went off to warm the oil. She returned a while later with a warm bowl and a brush, and smeared it on the daughter’s wound. In no time at all, the girl fell asleep. After several minutes, the worms dropped away. After several days, the bite had nearly healed. After a week, the doctor came in to check on the girl’s wound, which was completely healed.

III. The father asked the doctor, “Doctor, what was in the oil that you gave our daughter?” The doctor was silent. Then the mother asked, “Oh doctor, please tell us what was in the oil that cured or daughter!” But the doctor still did not utter a single word. Finally the daughter asked, “Dear doctor! I must know what was in the oil that saved my life! If you don’t tell me, I shall run back into the forest and find the scorpion once again!” At this, the doctor looked at the girl and finally opened his mouth. “Jai hiyedz i jergi ehe horon bisire umiyaha de xexebuhe saibuha de ere nimenggi be julergi songkoi ijuci sain..,” the doctor cried, and left the house.

Neither the father, the mother, nor the daughter understood a word of what the doctor said, and they looked at each other, perplexed. The mother opened her mouth to comment on the strangeness of the doctor’s behavior, but all that came out was, “Hefeli i dorgi umiyaha be wasimbure nimenggi!” The father, having no idea what his wife had just said, worriedly asked, “Okto omici ojorakv ajige juse…” and then covered his mouth in disbelief. The daughter, frightened and confused, cried out, “…baitalaci ambula sain!” as she and her parents stared terrified at one another. They ran out of the house to look for the doctor, but he was nowhere to be found.

From that day on and until the end of their days, the family could only speak to each other in this language that none of them understood. The daughter cared for her parents as they grew old, and none of them ever went back into the forest again.

Translating Recipes 3: Fairy Tale Drugs

By Carla Nappi

Hello again! When last we met, I was telling you about a recent and ongoing experiment in translating Manchu-language medical recipes into different storytelling forms as a way to get at the narrative power of drug texts and their formulae. If you don’t recall that, take a moment to check out the previous two posts in this series and you’ll get the most out of what follows: Part 1: Narrating Qing Bodies and Part 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

All done? Good to have you back! Now, let’s reminisce a bit. Whether it was worrying over Little Red Riding Hood or wondering at the fate of Cinderella, many of us spent our childhoods reading and living a dream-life in fairytales. Many of these stories have common elements. Often, they incorporate some kind of magic or enchantment. They usually include conventional, stock characters that don’t change much over the course of any given story. And importantly, the stories move across time and space: different versions of a story might be found in very different contexts; often a fairytale story is transmitted orally rather than depending on a specific textual materialization of the narrative. In his introduction to Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman thus characterizes fairy tales as being in “a perpetual state of becoming and alteration.”

Image:   A Manchu woman in a rocky garden, taken by John Thomson in 1869. Image 19678i from the Iconographic Collection, Wellcome Library, London.
Image: A Manchu woman in a rocky garden, taken by John Thomson in 1869. Image 19678i from the Iconographic Collection, Wellcome Library, London. 

If you think about it, an early modern medical recipe shares many of the same narrative features as a fairy tale. (At least, this is true of the early modern Manchu medical recipes that we’ve been exploring together.) These recipes often incorporate ingredients with (at least reputedly) incredible powers: gold, pearls, precious animal horns. They also feature a limited number of stock directions (mix this, smear that) and basic ingredients (wine, fat, water). There often exist many versions of the same formula, with the core identity of a particular recipe not dependent on its materialization in a particular text. And like Pullman’s fairy tales, if we consider how these recipes are used, they are also in a constant state of alteration and variation. Put another way, both Manchu medical recipes and fairy tales exist in a continuing state of translation. Like a fairytale, the recipe becomes a kind of basic storyline that is recorded into textual form but doesn’t depend on any single, specific textual inscription and can be adopted and adapted into different local contexts.

So what would happen, I wondered in the course of considering this parallel one afternoon, if we read a medical recipe as a fairy tale? Are there stories hidden in the lines of these Manchu texts, and how might looking for them change (at least in some small way) how we think about the kind of work a medical recipe does? Translating a recipe as a fairy tale does a few useful things for us. It emphasizes the translatability, literary form, and movement of these texts, and of the bodies within them. It puts a different spin on early modern medical recipes: sometimes, the formula (or, storyline) was more important than the identities of the individual ingredients it combined. And it highlights the fact that, for many readers, there was a kind of magic at work in an early modern medical recipe: powerful, unfamiliar ingredients were invoked in powerful, unfamiliar language. (Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun.)

In the next post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you.

Translating Recipes 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

By Carla Nappi

Translation 1

A medicinal oil eliminating (harmful) poison.

One kind [of oil] used if a person has just been poisoned.

Before eliminating the poison, after taking a flour-based drug in accordance with the 30th prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach.

If the person has consumed so much poison that a lot of internal things are going wrong and the condition has become very serious, after taking 15 – 20 drops of the oil and combining it with either the fatty broth from boiled meat, or butter combined with milk, drink it. Having already smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach again after 2 erin periods, the following day smear it again two times.

If this has still not eliminated the poison, after taking one or more drops of this medicinal oil again according to the prescription, if you smear it according to the prescription all will be well.

IMG_9087The text above is a fairly straightforward translation of a Manchu medical recipe into English, preserving the structure and form of the original. But what if we were to read the recipe in another way, translating it instead (in light of my previous post) as another kind of narrative altogether?

I’ve incorporated Manchu phrases to give a sense of the disorientingly multilingual character of the original, with includes Latin, French, Manchu, and Chinese. The story is intimate, reflecting the sensual nature of the relationship that this recipe creates among its ingredients and the human body. Some of the plot is playful. For example, “nure” is the Manchu term for wine or alcohol, leading to the “drunken conversation” with her. “Manju beye” is a term for the Manchu body.

There are resonances that aren’t obvious on the first (or fourth) reading. Partly, this reflects the obscurity of some references in the original recipe. With that, I bring you the second translation of the recipe.

Translation 2

Act I, Scene 1.

You are incense. You are pearls. You are amber, roses, sugar. You are urine and clay, saliva. You are cinnamon and bile.

It is the end of the seventeenth century and you are the protagonist. (You are always the protagonist.)

You are booxi or nicuha. You are aisin, ding hiyan, gu-i pi. You are gingina okto.

You have just arrived at the court of the Kangxi Emperor. (Or maybe you’re still at the capital, en route to the court.)

You’ve spent the last months stuffed into close quarters with different ones in different languages: Eliksir, Mei Gui, Balsamun. At the beginning, you didn’t understand each other. Some muttered uncomfortably in Latin. You thought you heard a few of them complaining to each other in Chinese. There was a very quiet one in the corner that may have been French, but you’re not sure.

The only way you’ve managed to communicate is by using some of the words you’ve picked up from the world outside your temporary home. Cold words like xahvrun, watery words like muke. You had a drunken conversation with a mysterious one about nure: though you don’t remember much of it, it seems to have been heated and she’s been stealing looks at you since.

This last one, actually, might have potential: it’s a short life, and a lonely one, and any chance for intimacy before the final, sudden coming together…well, it gives you some sense that something might be in your control. Your first words are halting, but as they melt the silence she starts to turn toward them: uju. nimenggi okto. Ge-te-rem-bu-re nimenggi okto.

The first whispers of a response reach you…ehe horon be ge-te-rem-bu-re nimenggi okto…

And then you turn away as you realize that the words are coming from outside: someone has been poisoned, and everything changes.

Act II, Scene 1.

Everything in you has led to this moment.

The foreignness of the others to you, and yours to them, stops mattering.

You come together and now the only words you have are sounds that felt dissonant before but now flow like music. They surround you and come sliding out of you like the oil you’re feeling yourself dissolve into.

You see her – she’s also dissolving and you start dissolving into each other niyalma yaya ehe horon de neciburakv and you’re both moving toward the poisoned one and you’re absorbing into each other emu juwe sabdan gaifi and into him

and you’re moving and

he retches aikabade jeke omiha ehe horon umesi amba ofi and…

…And it doesn’t work. There was too much poison.

And now what do you do? She’s also half-dissolved and looks at you, disbelieving, not comprehending.

This is it. You can’t do anymore. This can’t be all there is…

Act II, Scene 2.

Here is what you do.

You don’t give up.

You collect what there is left of yourself and you wait and you wait and the others wait.

You turn away from each other, embarrassed, having forgotten how to communicate.

You’ve lost your language and you’re starting to reel from the swaying of the poisoned one, who is jerking as his systems shut down.

You have nothing to say.

And then. And then you smell something.


Act III, Scene 1.


You smell butter and milk, and you feel some of it against you, and you look in surprise as she feels it too,

…and you start to speak and eici yali bujuha tarhv sile de and you find yourself moving down the poisoned one’s throat together and dissolving together, again, and you look at each other expecting to be torn apart again…

…try to get as much out of this brief time as possible eici sun nimenggi suwaliyaha sun de suwaliyafi omi and you sing to each other this time gu-we-ji-he teisu bade ulenggu de…and…

…and…and you stop singing. You start to drift. You lose the sense of a center, of your own boundaries.

You become her, become the once-poisoned one, become beye, Manju beye, and you sleep.