The Food in History Conference

Editors’ note: This is our first report on the Anglo-American conference 2013. Rachel Rich’s post considers “The Politics of Food”.

By Sally Osborn

The 2013 Anglo-American conference, which took place in London on 11-13 July 2013, was a fascinating mix of periods, styles and types of food history and social history more generally, ranging from reconstructing historical loaves of bread to food and national identity, from chocolate and coffee to alcohol and milk, from gardens to therapeutic diets, feast to famine. This report is inevitably impressionistic, first because of the number of parallel panels, but also because of the absolute wealth of fascinating information. I’ve mainly focused on the ‘aha’ moments and what struck me as most interesting in the talks I attended.

Three of those papers considered institutional food. Ilaria Berti from Università degli Studi di Genova spoke on ‘Eat sparingly of all kinds of fruit’, discussing the differences between norm and praxis in British Army soldiers’ diets in the West Indies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was a very high death rate and a significant incidence of illness, mainly reflecting a lack of fresh food in the diet and a high consumption of salted and preserved foods. Indeed, the government of the day actually asserted that salted meat was preferable to fresh. Scottish physician Andrew Halliday recommended increasing the consumption of fresh food from two days to four, advising that in addition to being less monotonous, more fresh food might increase discipline, since it would avoid the soldiers becoming obstinate and unmanageable due to an excess of salt.

Their unwelcome behaviour could also have been because the salt increased their thirst, therefore led to them drinking more – and the habit was to add brandy or rum to the water! In the event, the local government only followed the medical advice to provide fresh food daily when fever broke out or scurvy became common, but this move was frequently cancelled by the Treasury.

Oracle Workhouse, Reading
The entrance to the Oracle in Minister Street. Scanned from The Story of Reading (Countryside Books, 1802), p. 53. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, scanned by BaldBoris.

Susannah Ottaway from Carleton College considered ‘Food and the eighteenth-century workhouse’. Her question was whether the workhouse should be viewed as punitive or charitable – as a pauper Bastille or a pauper palace? In contrast to the prevailing impression of undernourishment, her investigation of the records reveals the relative generosity of food provision in such institutions. According to various dietaries, meat was consistently served at least three or four times a week, although in some areas it was traded off for cheese as an alternative protein. Bread was eaten twice a day, replaced sometimes by oatmeal in the north of England. Broth and beer were also frequently served, as well as milk in the north. Extra allowances included tobacco, tea and sugar, reflecting the humanisation of the workhorse.

In times of sickness food was increased, particularly cheese and sugar, and porter was distributed to women. Inmates were often part of food preparation or serving. Food deprivation was sometimes used as punishment, such as for refusing to work or bad behaviour. Food represented around 60-70% of overall workhouse expenditure, so these institutions were major purchasers in the area, and there was a significant degree of corruption and mismanagement. Furthermore, the generosity of provision has to be understood in light of the fact that the workhouse committee contained a large number of traders, who benefited from the purchasing, so in fact humane reasons were not necessarily paramount.

Jeremy Boulton from Newcastle University (who is working on the Pauper Lives project) built on this with an examination of the records of St Martin’s workhouse, one of the largest in Britain with between 400 and 900 inhabitants at various times. After calculating an estimate of calorific values, he claimed that the diet was at least adequate for life, but not enough for the hard work to which people would be subjected in the workhouse. The bulk of the calories came from bread, flour and peas, as well as beer or ale. Although comparison is difficult, he asserts that people would have been eating more or less the same foods as outside the institution, but the nutritional value obtained outside would have been higher. Tim Hitchcock pointed out that this situation might have reversed by the end of the eighteenth century, by which time wages had declined significantly; and that the workhouse might also have been a better place for women, because they tended not to eat as much food as males in a patriarchal household where food was short.

Inhabitants of the workhouse were given seasonal treats, but with the exception of Christmas/New Year these occurred in June or July when the intake was at its lowest. Tobacco was provided, although not at a level that would have been likely to match consumption outside, and would either have represented a pipeful for most adults or more for a smaller proportion of regular smokers. Lastly, the cash allowances and payments that were given in return for many tasks or when inmates had to leave for a day indicate that there was the possibility of a significant alternative economy in food and drink (particularly gin) smuggled in by ward nurses and returning inmates.

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a dark green vegetable with rounded leaves attached to a long stem. From Image Credit: Masparasol, Wikimedia Commons.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a dark green vegetable with rounded leaves attached to a long stem. From Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Masparasol.

There were of course many ways of making money from food. Rebecca Ford of University of Nottingham told us about ‘The watercress girl and the watercress garden: Cultural landscapes of watercress in the nineteenth century’. She took a view of food as a cultural object, in which produce, place and people intertwined. Watercress was widely available and could be easily gathered by individuals, both for their own consumption and for sale. The development of the railway network allowed cress growers to move further out of the city, and at the same time the street vendors grew in both number and visibility, certainly in London.

Watercress, washed and grown in pure water, came to symbolise the purity of the countryside, from which city dwellers were becoming increasingly divorced. The watercress girls featured frequently in morality tales, particularly as children looking after sick parents or taking the place of an absent father. The purity of the product gave female sellers – romanticised as poor but happy rustics – an erotic allure. The picture was filled with contradictions, however: they were virtuous and honest, but close to nature and perhaps unbounded by social conventions; their wares could be purified by water, but water itself can also be contaminating if it is not pure.

Virtue was also a concern for Bruna Gushurst-Moore of the University of Plymouth, who spoke on ‘Gardens, foods, medicines: Foods of the sickroom in nineteenth-century America’. She stressed the idea of familial responsibility and ‘every man his own doctor’, which applied from the garden to the sick room in the provision of both herbs and herbal remedies. Proper care was prudent, pure and reflective of propriety. Rather than reflecting a relationship between medical and moral – echoing Steven Shapin (whose keynote is considered in another post by Rachel Rich), who claimed that in doing what was good for you, you were doing what was good – in nineteenth-century America the reverse was true: moral righteousness consisted in physical fortitude and robustness. Right thinking and action not only led to physical health: both were seen as the same.

Health was closely associated with hearth and home, and the ability to provide one’s own food and medicine was seen as living industriously within God’s bounty. Furthermore, sickroom food was a critical component of the proper restoration of health. The ideal food was liquid, easily digested and nutrient dense, such as milk porridge, panada, egg nog or raw beef tea. While in professional medicine there was no association between the individual and virtue, thus the moral probity transferred from the person to the ingredients, the emphasis in the US remained on using ‘the weapons of our country’ and the importance of self-provision.

Replica Victorian kitchen
Replica of a Victorian Kitchen, Museum of Lincolnshire Life, 2011. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, author Green Lane.

Domestic virtues were also the concern of Rachel Rich of Leeds Metropolitan University, who took as her theme ‘Mealtimes and domesticity: Victorian women and the shape of the day’. Like Ken Albala (whose keynote is discussed in a second post on the conference), she views cookbooks and domestic advice manuals as literature rather than as evidence of practice. The focus of her research is timekeeping and the ways in which middle-class housewives are given advice on food but also time management. Time was a precious commodity that must not be wasted and timekeeping was a moral consideration. However, women’s time works in a slightly different fashion to factory-led time and is more fluid.

Meals created order in a day, moments of togetherness between work and leisure; they were used as timetabling devices and were a crucial factor in allowing sets of people to come together in a social network. Nevertheless, timekeeping devices at home were not often reliable, so synchronisation was not possible. Time was not only linear but there were multiple and overlapping temporalities, reflecting the various rhythms of household activities but also occasions like Christmas. A good housewife had to expect the unexpected and shield her husband from stress within the home stemming from the unpredictability of the outside world, but at the same time there was a tension between setting regular times for meals and having to be ready for everything. Dinner was the main event and the most stressful for the mistress of the house, as even household meals acted as dress rehearsals for the regular dinner parties that she was expected to hold. Almost all the domestic advice books stress the need to get up early, and their continual emphasis on punctuality implies that in fact people weren’t living up to the advice!

Finally, as food was a universally accessible luxury, it was affordable in some form to everyone and therefore was present at all significant events. Sarah Fox of the University of Manchester’s theme was ‘“The usual cheer”: The role of food in early modern childhood’. Food was used to celebrate the safe arrival of the infant as well as to medicate the mother. Alcohol was employed as well to wash or rub the newborn, lending religious overtones of being fortifying and life-giving to its practical astringency. In addition, there is plentiful evidence that women toasted the new arrival as well as men and christenings had a particular reputation for drunken behaviour. The new parents’ provision of alcohol for such occasions perpetuated their network of social obligations.

However, the food that featured most prominently in eighteenth-century birth celebrations was cake, specifically the ‘groaning cake’ prepared by the mother before her confinement. This was strongly associated with social customs like putting a piece of cake under your pillow to dream of your future husband, or that all attendees must partake to avoid bad luck. The sharing of food gifts symbolised the contract between the newborn and its community, but there was also a medicinal aspect – carraway, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg were used in cakes but also in remedies for the mother and infant.

The role of food in this kind of event was reflective of the female-associated culture of care rather than the male professional culture of cure, a uniting theme in many of these papers.

Eating of curds and whey: rennet in ancient medicine

Last month, I examined the issue of ‘curdled milk in the breast’ in Greek and Roman medicine. The texts I quoted all used the words ‘cheesy’ (turōdēs) or ‘to make cheesy’ (turoō) – they did not refer to rennet (putia), the curdling agent in cheese making. This month, I look into the role of rennet in ancient medicine, and particularly in ancient embryology and gynaecology. Rennet is a liquid found in the stomach of young mammals; it helps sucklings digest their mother’s milk. Used in cheese making, it causes milk to separate into curds (solid element) and whey (liquid element). In a well-known passage, Aristotle (fourth century BCE) compared the action of semen in generation to that of rennet in cheese making:

The action of the semen of the male in ‘setting’ the female’s secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk. Rennet is milk which contains vital heat, as semen does, and this integrates the homogeneous substance and makes it ‘set’. As the nature of milk and the menstrual fluid is one and the same, the action of the semen upon the substance of the menstrual fluid is the same as that of rennet upon milk (Generation of Animals 739b21-27. Translation: A.L. Peck).

Scholars have found similar analogies between generation and cheese-making in various cultures: semen is like rennet; women’s blood is like milk; children are like cheese.[1] In this context, it is interesting to note that actual rennet was used in ancient medicine either to help or to hinder conception, as well as for various other purposes. The pharmacological writer Dioscorides (first century CE) writes:

A weight of three oboloi of hare’s rennet taken with wine is suitable for those bitten by wild animals, for dysenterics, for women who suffer from discharges, for blood clots, and for coughing up blood from the chest; applied to the cervix with butter after menstruation, it aids conception, but if drunk after menstruation, it causes barrenees… (Dioscorides, De materia medica 2.75. Translation: L. Beck)

The reader can be forgiven for not immediately seeing the linking factor between these conditions. After several paragraphs, Dioscorides provides the key: rennet, he says ‘congeals substances that have been dissolved and dissolves substances that have been congealed’. Rennet dissolved clots of blood; in the case of bloody sputa and female discharge, it must have either liquefied that blood, enabling its elimination, or ‘curdled’ it; applied in a pessary, it facilitated the role of semen in ‘curdling’ the menstrual blood; but drunk after menstruation, it probably ‘dissolved’ any ‘curdled’ blood in the womb, that is, it caused what we would an early abortion; in dysentery it may have ‘curdled’ faeces in the intestine. What about the role of rennet in the treatment of bites? Bites were thought to cause blood clotting, hence the recommendation to use rennet.

After discussing hare’s rennet, Dioscorides turns to seal’s rennet, explaining that it is particularly good in cases of epilepsy and uterine suffocation, that is, the feeling of suffocation that accompanies movements of the womb. Both ailments were conceived as forms of ‘suffocation’ (pigmos). The rationale for the use of rennet might have gone something like this: suffocation is caused by a ‘choking’ agent; rennet can dissolve what is congealed; rennet will dissolve the choking agent in uterine and epileptic suffocation. Interestingly, seal’s rennet is the only rennet mentioned in the Hippocratic Corpus (a series of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE), where the following recipe is recommended for the treatment of uterine suffocation:

If the womb leans and lies against the groin: the skin of seal’s rennet, sponge and bryon (possibly a sea-weed); chope them fine; mix together with seal oil; and fumigate. (Hippocratic Corpus, Diseases of Women 2.203).

Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants (late fourth century BCE), informs us that the all-heal of Heracles, mixed with seal rennet, helps in epilepsy (9.11.3).

Why seal’s rennet? Surely it would have been simpler to get the rennet from a hare or a calf? Well, seals were seen as liminal animals in the ancient world: they breast-fed their cubs, yet looked like fish; they lived both on land and in water. Their rennet – and Dioscorides says that one must use the rennet of a cub who cannot yet swim – must therefore have been thought valuable in the treatment of diseases that themselves involved ‘liminal’ states: the ‘near-death’ condition that characterizes epileptic seizures and other forms of suffocation.


[1] See in particular Ott, Sandra. “Aristotle among the Basques: the’cheese analogy’of conception.” Man (1979): 699-711.


A Recipe for Disaster: How not to Distill Turpentine

By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.  © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.


[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.


A Post-Summer Solstice Round-Up of Blog Posts

This post does not fall within the strictest definition of “recipes”, but since it was just the summer solstice, the best time of year for magic and pagan celebrations, it seemed like an appropriate time and opportunity to offer a round-up of links to some of the more “magical” blog posts that may be of interest to readers of The Recipes Project.

The Societas Magica has recently revived its blog with a post by Damon Lycourinos on Ritual Magic and Conjured Bodies: A Philosophy and Methodology. He presents some thoughts on his current doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh – essentially his philosophical framework for his dissertation. Interesting stuff, indeed.

Other academics will appreciate Wouter Hanegraaff’s post on the problems with terminology in, Alt & Neumann on Hermetismus, which discusses how widely or how narrowly a term like “Hermetic” should be applied. In a thoughtful review of Peter-André Alt’s book, Imaginäres Geheimwissen: Untersuchungen zum Hermetismus in literarischen Texten der frühen Neuzeit, he also addresses that persistent problem among scholars of not reading secondary literature outside our native language – certainly something that should be discussed in this international, digital, age!

Praeludia Microcosmica is a very new blog started by Mike Zuber of the University of Amsterdam and his most recent post, Investigating the ‘Real Frankenstein Potential’ of Johann Conrad Dippel, Pt. 1, examines the real man behind the supposed inspiration for Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a lively account of the man and his early life at the University of Gießen and whets the appetite for pt. 2.

The Heterodoxology blog alerts us to a new, open-access online journal on the history of Western esotericism. Even for readers uninterested in the subject matter, the growth of open-access peer-reviewed journals is an important subject in academia and it will be interesting to see how this journal fares.

Finally, the iCHSTM blog for the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (at which I’ll be presenting in a few weeks) has been posting some excellent entries. They are all worth checking out, but I will just note a couple. Anita Guerrini’s The Ghastly Kitchen: Animals, Cooking, and the Birth of Experimental Science gives a brief overview of the history of experimentation in the kitchen from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries and its role in modern science. Seb Falk’s post, How to Cast a Medieval Horoscope, provides a very informative introduction to the medieval equatoria, a device to model the motion of the planets, mainly for educational purposes (and to help medieval astrologers correctly construct horoscopes).

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine