A New Year’s Recipe from Old Prussia

Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I)
The Lebküchner, Handschrift Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg Amb. 279.2°, Folio 11 verso (Landauer I).

By Molly Taylor-Polesky

In the winter of 1397, the effects of plague were finally beginning to lift in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia). The citizens, grateful that the Lord’s wrath had been appeased through their suffering and prayer, made honey cakes. They formed the cakes into deer, rabbits and people and laid them on warm oven tiles to harden. In the afternoon of New Year’s Day they carried the cakes to their neighbors with the wish that God would bless them with long life and health.

This story is recounted by Lucas David in his Prussian Chronicle (Preußische Chronik) of 1575 (p. 25–7).  David, a Protestant convert, was employed by the Duke of Prussia to revise Prussian history without the Catholic slant. He used this story about local customs to jump into a diatribe against the 1564 ordinance by the Catholic French king Charles IX that the year begin on January 1, not on Christmas. (January 1 was later also confirmed as the first day of the year by Pope Gregory’s calendar of 1582.)

The traditional New Year’s cake survived dynastic changes at the court in Prussia and was still being made there in the seventeenth century, when the Hohenzollern were Dukes of Prussia. Palace kitchen accounts from the years 1631, 1646, 1651-2, and 1655 record as much as 24 quarts of honey being used specifically for “the New Year’s dough.”[1] The court was not in residence at the palace in Königsberg over New Years in all of these years, which suggests that the cakes were not for the court itself but rather were gifts either for remaining palace servants or citizens of the town.

Even when the old Julian calendar was abandoned in the Protestant lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the honey cake remained a New Year’s tradition in Prussia-it simply migrated to the new calendar date. The 18th-century lexicographer Johann Georg Krünitz described a “Leib=kuchen (a variant name of the aforementioned honey cake) that “in some regions, for example, Prussia, was a round bread of fine wheat flour that was baked for New Year’s and either sold or given as a gift.” Krünitz continued by relating a superstition associated with the bread in which the name of the intended recipient would be written on a slip of paper and placed atop the loaf before baking. If the loaf cracked, it was an omen that the named person would die in the coming year, which eerily harks back to the role of the cake during the uncertain time of the plague.

In Königsberg in the medieval and early modern period, the honey cake took on religious and communal meanings, which changed in conjunction with other historical shifts. Ultimately, it was not the date, or the religious conflict, or cake’s role in the thanksgiving ritual that mattered. The traditions varied, but the honey cake remained.

Today, the Nuremberg recipe for Lebkuchen is the most famous of this type of spice cake and it is undoubtedly associated with the Christmas holiday in Germany. The East Prussian honey cake is all but forgotten, but recipes can still found online–and perhaps among descendants of displaced Prussians.


[1] Geheimes Staatsarchiv, Preußische Kulturbesitz, XX. H.A. Ostpreuss. Folianten. Current-day measurements estimated for “24 Stof” of honey based on Wolfgang Heidecke. “Alte Maße Altpreußens.” Altpreußische Geschlechterkunde 13 (1939): 22–23, 53–54, and 92.

Happy Holidays!

A Victorian Christmas card from 1871. © Hulton Archive and Getty Images

Dear Readers,

Ah.. it’s that time of the year again. The semester/term has come to an end, essays and  exam papers have been written and graded and we’re all heading home to our families.  The team at the Recipes Project will be taking a mini break to spend time with our closest and dearest and to read and test out some… um… 21st century recipes.  As your editors, Lisa and I would like to thank all our wonderful contributors for sharing their fantastic research with us in 2013 and all our readers for sticking with us and for their insightful comments.

See you all in 2014 – we’re back on New Year’s Day and we’ve already got some great posts planned… watch this space.

Happy holidays everyone!

Elaine and Lisa

Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán (Part 2)

By R.A. Kashanipour

My previous post introduced how colonial Maya healers writing in Ritual of the Bacabs situated their remedies in line with deeply rooted traditions that saw sickness as aspects of supernatural relations. Let’s now return to the matter of personification and the fascinating remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures. This is no simple sickness. It is, quite literally, a cursed affliction. “I curse you, little seizures!” the healer writes. “Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1]

Ritual of the Bacabs  The first page of the work known as Ritual of the Bacabs.  The work was uncovered by the Maya bibliophile and collector William Gates in the early 20th Century and then sold to Princeton Library.  The entire work is written in a single hand but seems to be a compilation of remedies from multiple sources.  The remedies on the final folios of the work appear on the back of an Indulgence printed in Mexico City in 1779.  Courtesy of Princeton Library
Ritual of the Bacabs
The first page of the work known as Ritual of the Bacabs. The work was uncovered by the Maya bibliophile and collector William Gates in the early 20th Century and then sold to Princeton Library. The entire work is written in a single hand but seems to be a compilation of remedies from multiple sources. The remedies on the final folios of the work appear on the back of an Indulgence printed in Mexico City in 1779. Courtesy of Princeton Library

The colonial healer makes it clear that it is a painful, miserable experience. The healer notes as much by describing that the pox takes four days to swell and eventually burst. The afflicted “does not sleep, he does not lay down. No, because of the eruptions!” [2] The healer, throughout the remedy, addresses the sickness directly. First, he or she curses (quite literally) the affliction. Then, the healer situates the sickness as a bridge between the human and supernatural realms. Like people, the disease has familial relations. “By its mother, by its father, it claimed its mother the woman called Ix Hun Ye Ta, Ix Hun Ye Ton… What was the lust of its birth? What was the lust of its creation? And who created them? Yes, it was the father that created them.” [3] This affliction has a known mother and father who conceived it out of lustfulness. In this manner, the healer describes the disease as originating in desire, traits known to both the gods and humanity.

Once tied to the human realm, the curandero directly questions the fever, eruptions, and seizures in the natural world. “Who brings these bobote [smallpox] eruptions?,” the healer asks. “Who brings this bird?… Oh, yes, this is the creation of the red macaw, the white macaw, the black macaw… These are the birds, the birds that bring eruptions.” Macaws emanated from the jungles and, in this context, also stood as symbols of this disease. Going further, the healer also examines the natural connections of the disease by questioning its botanical relations. “Who is your tree? Who is your plant of fiery pox?,” After this interrogation, our healer discovers a specific botanical connection to the sickness. “It [the disease] comes with the arrival of the red chacah (chocolate) tree.” [4] In this manner, then, the healer finds that the affliction comes from the frontier, from the unsettled jungles of the Yucatán commonly called el monte [The Mountain]. Through the colonial period, this region harbored recalcitrant Mayas, escaped slaves, and those wishing to escape the authority of the Church and State. It was, for Spaniards and Mayas alike, often described as the dangerous home of violent communities, powerful animals, and poisonous plants.

This affliction, as our healer details, is a lustful creation that emanates from the dangerous interior of the peninsula. The painful and uncontrolled ailment stands as a physical manifestation of a violent and savage frontier. Much as the fiery pox and eruptions involved red (think blood!), the animal and botanical personification of the sickness involves red macaw and red chocolate tree. This, then, brings us to the remedy. “Drink chocolate [chacah] with two chiles [ik], a bit of honey [cab], and little tobacco [kutz]. It is to be drunk.” The actual recipe for the cure is exceedingly direct and simple. This illustrates that in responding to diseases, Mayan healers focused their attention on presenting remedies that built upon the traditions that characterized sicknesses as physical manifestations of the supernatural world. By personifying diseases, they created a framework to understand them, to situate them in the human environment and, ultimately, attempt control them. They also found a way to express outrage against the disorder that inhabited their bodies and societies. In this manner, colonial indigenous healers created order out of the chaotic landscape of sickness and disease.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 102.

[2] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 101, 103.

[4] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 104.

Sickness Personified: Clandestine Remedies from Colonial Yucatán (Part 1)

By R.A. Kashanipour

“I curse you, little seizures! Whose erupting pox are you? Eruptions on the head and body, open eruptions, internal eruptions, fiery eruptions…” [1] So begins a highly ritualized remedy for fever, eruptions, and seizures from late colonial Yucatán. As I noted in my last post, sickness and disease were endemic throughout colonial Latin America and brought together distinct traditions of healing. As this remedy and the dozens of others from the manuscript known as Ritual of the Bacabs show, eighteenth-century Mayas of the Yucatán were not silent victims of disease. Instead, they understood sickness and infirmity as extensions of the natural and human world. They incorporated ancient traditions and firmly rooted healing in colonial context. And, as I would like to note in this post, healers personified and naturalized diseases to bolster their own therapeutic powers.

Before returning to this remedy, I want to touch on the manuscript source and then briefly make note of ancient traditions of Maya healing. Ritual of the Bacabs is a collection of healing incantations, prayers, and remedies written in Yucatec Maya sometime in the eighteenth century. This unique work, which today is held at Princeton University, addresses afflictions common to the colonial world, including pox (kak), difficulty breathing (coc), and difficulty walking (chibal oc). The devastating affects of disease are often noted as seizures (tancas). Several cures associate these outbursts with their origins, such as walking seizures (ah oc tancas), while others ascribe direct ties to the natural world as their sources, including macaw-jaguar seizures (mo balam tancas) and tarantula seizures (chiuoh tancas). The culturally bound ailment often described as madness (coil) regularly appears associated with extreme cases of the pox and seizures.

On the whole, the remedies of the text illustrate the ongoing revision of long-standing Maya traditions in the face of colonial institutions. In particular, in the pre-Hispanic period, infirmity and remediation were associated with the supernatural world and directly tied to the deities Ix Chel and Itzamná. In 1571, Diego de Landa, the second Bishop of Yucatán and infamous crusader against pagan practices, noted Ix Chel’s centrality to healing. “The physicians and the sorcerers assembled in one of their houses with their wives … they opened the bundles of their medicine, in which they kept many little trifles and … little idols of the goddess of medicine, whom they called Ix Chel.” [2] The two deities, the goddess of the moon and lord of the sun, were bound as husband and wife and mirroring elements of health and sickness.

Ix Chel and Itzamna This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual.  The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire.  © Justin Kerr, K2794, www.mayavase.com
Ix Chel and Itzamna
This rollout image from a classic period pot depicts the goddess Ix Chel (center) caring for an ailing Itzamná (right) and a female healer (left) performing a healing ritual. The leaves surround the infirmed and bedridden Itzamná most likely represent the purgatives used to induce the deer to vomit. A vulture appears underneath the old god’s bed, just to make clear that his condition is dire. © Justin Kerr, K2794, www.mayavase.com

During the colonial period, local Church authorities attempted to root out any expressed association with ancient religions. In healing, however, it is clear they were unsuccessful. These deities, who were central to the creation mythology of the Classical Maya, were represented as powerful animistic forces in the healing text. In a remedy for a breathing affliction in Ritual of the Bacabs, both Itzamna and Ix Chel are invoked to harness the use of the powerful cardinal directions. The enchanter is to “for four days, shake the face of the red Ix Chel, the white Ix Chel, the yellow Ix Chel; four days he shakes the face of the red Itzamna.” [3] These supernatural forces figure prominently in the background of numerous remedies. They serve to root the cures in line with ancient traditions, which endured well into the colonial period.

The remedies of Ritual of the Bacabs represent a clandestine system of ritualized healing that directly built on past Maya practices. As a text designed for alienating and eliminating sickness, the curanderos that penned the work most likely identified themselves as a special Maya class of healers known as mak ik or benevolent shamans that controlled healing winds. In this way, they stood in line with ancient traditions, but were fully immersed in colonial experience.

In my next post, we will return to the issue of the personification of sickness as a means to frame healing. In particular, we will look how the curanderos of Ritual of the Bacabs animated diseases in order to position them in the natural and social colonial landscape of the Yucatán.

[1] Ritual of the Bacabs, Princeton University Library, Garrett-Gates Collection, Mesoamerican Manuscript No. 1, folio 100.

[2] Diego de Landa and Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatan: A Translation. (New York: Kraus, 1966), 154.

[3] Ritual of the Bacabs, folio 65.

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