Recipe Organization: It’s not as easy as A, B, C.

By Elaine Leong

In my last post, I bemoaned the lack of a flexible search engine and information management technologies in the ‘favourites’ recipe box of the Epicurious iPhone app.  While still declaring my adoration for the app, I would like to talk a little more about issues of categorization in alphabetical information organization.

Now some of you might wonder, is she seriously offering a post about information categorization and alphabetization? Well, yes I am! And I bet this will even spark debate around your dinner table tonight!

Why don’t I start by sharing with you some of the recipes in the ‘B’ section of my Epicurious app recipe box: Baked pork chops with a parmesan sage crust, Baltimore crab cakes, Barbecue turkey burgers, Bass with herbed rice, Beef stroganoff and Blueberry buttermilk pancakes.

Of course, this is a historical recipes blog and so why don’t we pair this with a look a few of the recipes under ‘B’ in Johanna St John’s alphabetically organized mid-seventeenth century recipe book: for a kanker in a woman’s Brest, Dr Mathias for the whites and the weaknes in the Back, for a Bone ach excellent,[1] for Bleeding at the nose, For a Blast or the poison of the Toad,[2] for any knob or hardnes in the Brest or milk quard,[3] For the Bitting of a mad dog never failing and Mr Boyles Balsame of Sulphire.[4]

As you can see, inadvertently, the electronic search engines of the Epicurious iPhone app used several different knowledge categories to create the list of my favourite recipes beginning with ‘B’.  Here we have cooking method (baked, barbecue), locality (Baltimore) and ingredient (bass, beef and blueberry).  Johanna St. John, too, uses several different categories: parts of the body (breast, back, bone), action (bleeding), type of medicament (balsame), and external actions on the body (blast, dog bites).

Alphabetization and categorization is not as simple as A, B, C. While it is obvious that the Epicurious app merely assumed that the first word of each recipe title represented the key word, Johanna St. John’s parameters for categorization are not so clearly laid out. In fact, it appears that she herself was unsure about particular groupings and, in a later reading of the books, re-categorized a number of recipes.  Take a look at this folio, from the ‘W’ section, below:

Wellcome Western MS 4338, fols. 210v-211r.

 Many of the recipes on this page are to be used during childbirth. Some ease the experience of the mother-to-be, while others address potential complications.  In my mind, these recipes were first collected in the ‘W’ section as St. John saw them as a cohesive body of knowledge dealing with Women’s health concerns. However, if you look closely, you can also see a number of letters written to the right of the recipe titles.  Thus, a ‘D’ is written next to ‘To hasten delivery’, a ‘R’ next to ‘For an immoderate flux of the Redds’ and a ‘G’ next to ‘A Glister to be given in labor’ and so on…

Initially, these letters baffled me but after a bit of pondering, I realized that they are records of St. John’s second attempt to categorize her book of medical knowledge. Evidently, the second time round, she decided that a remedy to haste Delivery should be filed under ‘D’ rather than ‘W’, and that the ‘Redds’ and ‘Glister’ are the keywords in the other two recipes. St. John’s first pass at categorization suggests that, for her at least, there is a defined body of knowledge dealing with women’s health issues. In her second pass, this knowledge was folded into the rest of her collection.

So, where recipes are concerned at least, our methods of categorization are revealing of how we imagine and view bodies of knowledge. They also, as we now know, play a crucial role on whether we can ever find the required recipe again.  After all, I don’t immediately look under ‘B’ for pork chops or crab cakes, do you?

[1] Wellcome Library, Western MS 4338, fol. 14r.  For emphasis, I have capitalized and put in bold what I think are the relevant ‘B’s in these recipe titles.

[2] Ibid., fol. 14v.

[3] Ibid., fol. 16r.

[4] Ibid., fols. 17r and 18r.

Roman remedy books?

By Helen King

If you know anything about food history, you’ll know about the ancient Roman writer, Apicius. His recipe book was reprinted in 2006 and is even available in an English translation; and you can get a pdf of the full text of 64 of the recipes at

Elaine Leong’s recent post,, reminded me about another sort of Roman book: the remedy books. Of course, as anyone on this blog knows, there is not much of a line between recipe and remedy…  Alun Withey’s post, about ‘what is a recipe collection?’ then made me think about this some more. So, here are some thoughts concerning collections in the ancient world.

Traditional Roman medicine is still something of a mystery. It seems to have been overshadowed by the medicine of the Greeks – despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC. In this case, and in contrast to modern colonial history, it was the medicine of the conquered people that won the battle of the body; as the Roman poet Horace wrote, in many cultural fields Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, ‘Captured Greece took captive her savage conqueror’.

So what was Roman medicine like before Greek medicine took over? We know that in around 160 BC, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor, 234-149 BC), wrote a book for the farmer and head of the household to use, called De agri cultura (On agriculture,  literally On the cultivation of the fields). The text survives. It includes recipes – for pudding, for porridge, for purges. In his Life of Cato, the Greek historian Plutarch later referred to a book written by Cato that does not survive: a recipe collection. Plutarch writes, ‘[Cato] himself had compiled a notebook (hypomnema) of recipes and used them for the diet or treatment of any members of his household who fell ill’. So, other than what we have in De agri cultura, what was in this book and how did it come into being? Perhaps, like early modern remedy collections, it was a ‘commonplace book’ of remedies Cato had picked up based on books he had read, or suggestions made by friends and family. Plutarch also tells us that Cato ‘never made his patients fast, but allowed them to eat herbs and morsels of duck, pigeon, or hare’ (Life of Cato 23). Sounds good so far!

We have a second source for this recipe/remedy collection. Here, in the Roman writer Pliny, it is called a commentarius, a word meaning treatise, notebook or memo. We find that it was kept by the head of household: Cato used it to treat ‘his son, servants, and household’. While Plutarch says Cato ‘himself’ compiled it, Pliny simply says that Cato ‘had’ such a book. Cato was rapidly anti-Greek. He warned against the dangers of Greek doctors, although in fact he uses enough Greek technical terms to make it clear that he had read Greek medicine for himself. So were some of the remedies in his collection taken from Greek books? And did other Roman heads of household own, or compile, collections like this one? And how did they organise them?

For that last question, we have one tantalising hint. The reason why Pliny tells us about the collection is that he says it is the origin of the recipes he gives in his Natural History. That collection of knowledge is organised in a very complicated way – it is nothing like a modern encyclopedia with an A-Z structure. Pliny implies that he has taken apart Cato’s notebook and put the recipes wherever they best fit for his purposes. So does that mean that they were arranged in some sort of structure by Cato? Cato would most likely have been writing on papyrus scrolls, so he may have just written down recipes as he acquired them, or he may have had a reorganised copy made. Perhaps, picking up an idea Elaine Leong explored, he wrote an index? The ancient world raises so many questions – and has so few answers!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University; her interests range from ancient to early modern, and focus on gynaecology and obstetrics

On Pliny: Aude Doody, ‘Pliny’s Natural History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009):


London Seminar on an Early Modern Recipe Collection

This just in from Sara Pennell…

There is an upcoming seminar that may interest many of you. Ashley Buchanan will be speaking on ‘The Alchemical, Medicinal, and Culinary Recipe Collection of an Eighteenth Century Princess: Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743)’.

  • Date: Wednesday, 7 November
  • Time: 5 p.m.
  • Place: University of Roehampton, Roehampton Lane Campus
  • Room: Howard 103, Digby Stuart College

All welcome. If you would like further information, please contact:

The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books Part I: Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book

By Sylvie Neven

During the mediaeval and early modern periods, artisanal knowledge was notably transmitted in collections of recipes, of which hundreds of examples exist in addition to the well-known ones–such as the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus (ca. D 1100)[i] or Il libro dell’arte of Cennino Cennini (ca. 1390)[ii]. The so-called Strasbourg Manuscript is a well-known example of this type of artistic literature. This artist’s recipe book, whose content has been dated to the beginning of the early fifteenth century, is believed to be the oldest German-language source for the study of Northern European painting techniques.

The art-technological instructions of the Strasbourg Manuscript cover a wide range of crafts. They are mostly dedicated to painting and illuminating and, in particular, to the preparation of pigments (refining, grinding, suitable mixing, building up of layers of paint, and using gold or its imitation in gilding). Some recipes concern the manufacture of specific binding agents, glues and varnishes to be used on various artistic supports. Others correspond to instructions for auxiliary crafts such as polychromy and mural painting, dyeing of textiles and skins, the preparation and the colouring of the parchment support, or the working of metal.

Unfortunately, the Strasbourg Library Ms. A VI 19, in which these technological instructions were originally preserved, was destroyed during the 1870 fire in the Strasbourg Library. By chance, a few decades before, a copy of the recipe book was made for Sir Charles Eastlake, the first director of the London National Gallery. This was partly published in 1847. The two later main editions of the text are based solely on this transcription[iii].

Since its discovery, the text of the Strasbourg Manuscript has been frequently cited by scholars and has been renowned for being the Nordic counterpart of the famous Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. Numerous studies have referred to its technical content within the context of analytical reconstructions or for the purposes of artistic attributions. However, the previous editions of the recipe book – on which these studies relied – contained many divergences and contradictions. No one has raised the question of the reliability of the nineteenth copy, nor questioned the degree of similarity between this document and the mediaeval recipe book. A few years ago, examination of the modern transcription led me to suspect that its accuracy is questionable; closer reading of the artistic recipes of the Strasbourg Manuscript highlighted anomalies within the text.

To favour the current use of the Strasbourg recipe book and to counteract the lack of the original text, I have proposed a new revised edition and translation, based on the modern copy, the two editions and other historical witnesses of the text[iv].

As with many mediaeval and early modern recipe books, the Strasbourg Manuscript was the result of copying and compiling various sources. Its content appears in other contemporary recipe books and persists in treatises such as the edition of the Valentin Boltz von Ruffach’s Illuminierbuch (1549). The manuscripts related to this tradition mainly originated from the South of Germany and North of France. Within this textual and technical ‘Tradition’, the Strasbourg Manuscript is the oldest surviving example[v].

The new edition of the Strasbourg Manuscript allows an overview of the current structure of this recipe book, which has had several amendments and loss of physical material. It aims to determine the location of corrected or amended errors or lacuna in the nineteenth copy, thus offering an opportunity to reconstruct the text of the lost manuscript. The conclusion? The text of the Strasbourg Manuscript is a result of contributions from textual and oral sources.

The systematic comparison of all the witnesses of this tradition of artists’ recipe books, taking into account the inherent characteristics of these writings (historical, codicological, textual and technological), has also been exploited for diverse purposes–which I will discuss in future posts.

Within the witnesses of this tradition, the Strasbourg recipe book has not been copied word-for-word. It has been subject to additions, elisions and corrections. Studying the textual modifications during its spread and interpretation of its variations or errors across provides a deeper understanding of the historical context for its production. It has also suggested the ways in which these sorts of recipe books were handled by their many scribes and owners.

Finally, comparative analysis of all the witnesses to this textual and technical tradition clearly signals their analogies and divergences, which are meaningful in terms of the original function and use(s) of these texts. This kind of observation, and the conclusions that can be made from them, allow for a better assessment of the relevance of artists’ recipe books within the framework of historical artistic practices.


[i] Dodwell, C.R., Theophilus, De diversis artibus. The various arts. Translated from the Latin with Introduction and notes, London, 1961 ; Hawthorne, J.G. and Smith, C.S., De Diversis Artibus of Theophilus, Chicago, 1963, 1979 (edition and English translation). See also BREPOHL, E., Theophilus Presbyter und das Mittelalterliche Kunsthandwerk, 2 volumes (1. Malerei und Glass ; 2. GoldschmiedeKunst), Cologne-Vienna, 1999 (edition and German traduction).

[ii] Thompson, D. V., Cennino d’Andrea Cennini da Colle di Val d’Elsa. Il Libro dell’arte, New Haven, 1932 ; Brunello, F., Cennino Cennini, il libro dell’arte, commentato e annotato da Franco Brunello, Vicense, 1982 ; Deroche, C., Il libro dell’Arte, traduction critique, commentaires et notes, Paris, 1991.

[iii] Berger, E., Quellen und Technik der Fresko-, Öl- und TemparaMalerei des Mittelalters von der byzantinischen Zeit bis einschliesslich der Erfindung der Ölmalerei durch die Brüder van Eyck, 3 (Beiträge zur Entwickelungs-Geschichte der Maltechnik), Munich, 1897, pp. 154-175 ; Borradaile V. and R., The Strasbourg Manuscript. A Medieval Painter’s Handbook translated from the old german, Londres, 1966.

[iv] Neven, Sylvie, Les recettes artistiques du Manuscrit de Strasbourg et leur tradition dans les réceptaires allemands des XVe et XVIe siècles (Étude historique, édition, traduction et commentaires technologiques), thèse de doctorat en histoire, art et archéologie, Université de Liège, janvier 2011.

[v] A new philological analysis of Eastlake’s transcription has allowed a more precise date to be suggested. Orthographical features and connections with some archival documents from the Strasbourg Chancellery and documents of the painters’ guild regulations allow us to propose a date of ca. 1400.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine