Of Porridge, Poetry and the Philosophers’ Stone

By Anke Timmermann

Wer ain guot Muess wil machen
[Es] kompt von siben sachen
Aijr und salz
Milch vnd Schmaltz
gewurtz vnd Mell
von Saffran wirdt es gell
(ÖNB MS 11410, f. 186r, s. xvi)[1]

 [He who wants to make a good porridge needs seven items: eggs and salt, milk and suet, spice (elsewhere: sugar) and flour; saffron gives a yellow colouring.]

These rhymes will seem very familiar to anyone who grew up in a German-speaking family: unbeknownst to many, the children’s song “Backe, backe Kuchen” can be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. Perhaps understandably it is commonly accepted that this is a piece of folklore for toddlers rather than a recipe proper.[2] Even the original recipe for porridge–or cake, in the children’s rhyme–is simple and elliptic. No measurements or methods are provided, and the phrasing and listing of exactly seven ingredients seems formulaic. But the environment that brought forth this recipe is much more complex, bringing together medieval poetry, recipes and scientific communication.

To see the connection between science and porridge we need to look at the manuscripts in which the text was originally written. The earliest documented copy of the poem can be found among jottings on the inner cover of a fifteenth-century manuscript, beside medical notes and recipes.[3] The cited sixteenth-century version appears in a medical recipe book owned by a physician-apothecary near Vienna, Wolfgang Kappler. This pharmacological reference work contains hundreds of recipes, some of them traditional instructions for the manufacture of pills and salves, many explicitly using alchemical methods and ingredients, others covering diet and regimen, and all of them intended to be useful in his professional practice. The rhymed parts of both manuscripts are comparatively few. But beyond the confines of their covers, they form part of a medieval and early modern written tradition in which scientific verse spread across Europe. To Kappler and his contemporaries, these rhymes would not have conjured up the image of chanting children. Rather, they would have recognised the rhymes as an accepted medium of communicating knowledge.

Why would anyone choose to write a recipe in rhyme rather than in plain instructive prose? Answers to this question are many and varied. In late medieval England, for example, the hope of attracting royal funds for a future project certainly inspired some alchemical practitioners to compose couplets.[4] Medical recipes, much less often subject to versification, might sometimes cross over into the realms of charms, cookery and general Middle English poetry. Incidentally, John Lydgate’s (author of the Fall of Princes) most popular poem during his lifetime was a medical one, his Dietary.[5]

Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford).
Elias Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, vol. 1. MS Ashmole 971, f. 014v, s. xvii2. Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Scientific poems on botany, the stars and their movements joined longer learned treatises (‘encyclopaedic poetry’) on the make-up of man and God’s creation. Particularly in alchemy, rhyme served as a vehicle for preserving practical instructions, making it easier for a copyist to transport the text from one manuscript into another or for the practitioner to memorise important steps in the laboratory. With ancient didactic poetry as ancestor and current concerns about techne, craft and knowledge at its heart, scientific poetry was a working genre for those who wrote, read and used it.[6]

When English antiquarian Elias Ashmole published Middle English alchemical poetry in his Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum he focused on the poem’s role in English language and literature, not in the laboratory.[7] Since then the connection between poetry and science or craft has been lost. It is this discrepancy between the nature of modern scientific publications and that of their historical ancestors that makes scientific poetic recipes so intriguing and yet so difficult to research. While it may not be child’s play it tells us much about how historical experts transformed experience into knowledge as they turned prescriptions into rhyme.


[1] On the manuscript, see the Austrian National Library’s catalogue HANNA, s.v. 11410.

[2] C.M. Blaas, “Ein Kinderspruch aus dem XV. Jahrhundert” in Germania 23 (1878), 343.

[3] HANNA, s.v. 12503. On recipes in German Fachliteratur see also J. Telle, “Das Rezept als literarische Form” in Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 26 (2003), 251-74.

[4] For example, see: P. J. Grund, ‘Misticall Wordes and Names Infinite’: An Edition of Humfrey Lock’s Treatise on Alchemy (2011).

[5] K. Bühler, “Lydgate’s Rules of Health in MS Lansdowne 699” in Medium Ævum 3 (1934), 51-6.

[6] On the history and functions of scientific, especially alchemical, poetry see e.g. R. M. Schuler, Alchemical Poetry, 1575-1700 (1995), D. Kahn, “Alchemical Poetry in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: A Preliminary Survey and Synthesis” in Ambix, 57-58 (2010/11), 249-74/62-77, and my forthcoming article in the Companion to Fifteenth Century Verse. Note also J. Telle’s forthcoming monograph on German alchemical poetry, Alchemie und Poesie.

[7] E. Ashmole, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London, 1652).

A recipe fit for a king

Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.
Attalus II or III. Altes Museum, Berlin. Credit: Marcus Cyron, licensed under Creative Commons.

By Laurence Totelin

One of my favourite characters in the history of ancient pharmacology is Attalus III, king of Pergamum (ruled from 138 to 133 BCE). As a king, he is remembered for bequeathing his small kingdom to Rome at his death. Apart from that, we know very little about his rule. Instead of focusing on his political achievements, ancient historical sources dwell on his strange hobbies. According to the historians Plutarch (first-second century CE, wrote in Greek) Justin (second century CE, wrote in Latin), after having his mother and wife killed, the king lost all interest in his physical appearance and developed a passion for gardening.  He planted highly poisonous herbs such as henbane, hemlock and hellebore in his gardens. He then sent to his friends samples of these plants, mixing their sap to that of non-poisonous plants. Tired of this, he then moved on to wax-modeling and pouring and forging bronze.

Plutarch and Justin are very negative in their presentation of these silly pastimes. For a more positive view of Attalus, one has to turn to medical and agronomic texts. The Latin agronomical writers Varro (116–27 BCE), Columella (first century CE), and the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) list the king as a source on animals, fruit trees, crops, drugs from animals, metals and gems. Celsus (first century CE), in his work on medicine, gives a recipe for an Attalic plaster (5.19.11), which contains relatively large amounts of copper.  He does not, however, say whether that plaster had been created by the king Attalus or by a namesake:

There is the Attalic plaster for wounds. It contains: copper scales, 16 sextulae; frankincense soot, 15 sextulae; ammoniac salt, same amount; liquid turpentine resin, 25 sextulae; bull suet, same amount; vinegar, three heminae; oil, 1 sextarius.[1]

Although interesting, these Latin sources do not add more to our knowledge of Attalus. For more information, one needs to turn to Galen. The famous physician too came from Pergamum and on several occasions refers to Attalus as ‘Attalus who was king among us’, that is, king among the people of Pergamum. Galen was active several centuries after the death of the king, but he may have had access to some lost Pergamene sources. He may also have consulted the king’s lost medical works. He casts a very different light on Attalus’ experiments with dangerous plants. In a passage on another king, Mithridates VI of Pontus, he writes that:

Mithridates himself, like Attalus among us, desired to have experience of almost all simple drugs that are given against deadly substances, testing their powers on evil men who were condemned to death.[2]

Galen presents the two kings as methodic researchers in the field of pharmacology. While their method of experimentation seems abhorrent to us, Galen approves of it, as it greatly advanced knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Galen also devotes a great part of his treatise On the Composition of Medicines according to Types I to various Attalic plasters. There is no doubt in Galen’s mind that these were created by the last king of Pergamum:

White plaster made with pepper, according to Attalus… This remedy has already been prepared many years ago by Attalus, ruling over us people of Pergamum, a man who was most studious about all sorts of remedies.[3]

Again Galen presents his fellow countryman as a serious scholar, not as a mad hatter. Who is right? Galen or the historians Plutarch and Justin? Nobody will ever know, but Attalus’ story is an excellent exercise in source criticism!


[1] Celsus, De Medicina 5.19.11. A sextula is a sixth of an ounce. An hemina is a half of a sextarius. A sextarius is roughly the equivalent of a British pint.

[2] Galen, On Antidotes 1.1 (14.2 Kühn).

[3] Galen, On the Composition of Medicines according to Types 1.13 (13.414 Kühn).

Exploring CPP 10a214: Pages from Gerard’s Herbal

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

In recent months, as part of our continuing exploration of the unique and marvelous manuscript at the College of Physicians, Hillary Nunn and I have been examining the nature of sources as they are or are not delineated in the collection. Whether divine (12/03/2013) or noble (09/04/2013) in origin, each recipe has revealed something about the nature of the overall collection at the same time it makes connections to other manuscripts in other repositories. This month, I have chosen to focus on two entries that leave no doubt to their origin, and, in naming their origin, point to the larger cultural practice by women in the period.

On folios 26 and 27 the compiler, “Cal: Downing,” records two wound remedies “probatum per” [proved by] Elizabeth Downing. The first is an oil made from St. John’s wort, the second a salve from English tobacco or henbane. Such wound recipes are common in seventeenth-century collections, but what is unusual is the addenda attached to the end of the recipes by either the compiler or by the source Elizabeth Downing. On page 26, the compiler writes, “Master Gerrard saith folio, 433, that it is good as any balsom and there is not a better oyle in the world”, and on page 27, “this Master Gerrard saith folio 285, hath gotten him both Crownes and Credit”. Upon investigation, I indeed found the recipes in the entries for the corresponding herbs on page 433 and 285 of the 1597 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, the most popular treatise on plants and their medicinal uses from the time.

I have shown elsewhere that women from the sixteenth and seventeenth century regularly owned/read large authoritative herbals. This instance and two others found since 2009 bring the total up to 28.[1] Recipe books provide regular evidence of this reading. Indeed, Elizabeth Digby’s “Receipts Approved by Persons of qualitie and iudgment” (1650) even contains the same directions for St. John’s Wort Oil as the CPP manuscript, as well as another “To make Gerrards excellent Balsome” made from Peruvian Henbane, or Tobacco proper.[2] Elaine Leong has analyzed Elizabeth Freke’s extensive copying of Gerard in the British Library collection.[3] The Wellcome Library, so often invoked in the Recipe Project, also has a “Booke of Hearbes and Receipts” (Wellcome MS 169), owned by Elizabeth Bulkeley and dated 1627, that begins with 23 Gerardian entries on common English plants.

The reasons for this general practice of copying could be indicative of thrift, a gift, or a means of rote memorization, but the Downing entries stand out in the way they cite the source, revealing the text behind the text. In citing Gerard’s authority, the compiler adds evidence to Elizabeth Downing’s “probatum,” or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Elizabeth Downing’s “probatum” adds proof to Gerard’s published assertion.

This is the fourth in a series of monthly posts on the topic.

[1] This blog entry extends the work of my introductory chapter in Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550–1650 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009) into our discoveries about CPP 10a214.
[2] British Library MS Egerton 2197, Images 38 and 25 in the database Defining Gender (Adam Matthews), Online.
[3] Elaine Leong, “Medical Recipe Collections in Seventeenth-Century England: Knowledge, Gender, and Text” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2005/06). See also Elizabeth Freke, The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671-1714, ed. Raymond A. Anselment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Royal Historical Society, 2001).

An Early Modern Medicine for a Re-emerging Disease

By Glennda Bayron

A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A rachitic skeleton, measuring two feet two inches in length (1749). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In Mrs. Jane Baber’s cookbook (Wellcome MS 108), there is a medicinal recipe “For the Ricketts” tucked between a recipe to treat rheumy eyes and another for preserving raspberries. For many of the medicinal recipes in early modern receipt books, there is often no clear modern disease correlation, but rickets has again recently started to become more common in the western world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rickets is a “disease of children caused by vitamin D deficiency, which results in abnormal calcium and phosphorus metabolism and deficient mineralization of bone (osteomalacia) with skeletal deformity”.[1] In April 2012, congenital rickets was found to have resulted in the death of a little girl in London. Since the disease is uncommon in Britain, the parents had initially been charged with murder. With the resurgence of the disease, physicians and parents need to be aware of its early signs, with an eye to prevention. Modern treatments for rickets include increasing the amount of vitamin D and calcium in a child’s diet.

Rickets 2
Jane Baber, Wellcome Library, WMS 108, f. 4v.

The recipe in Mrs. Baber’s cookery book calls for speecke, rosemary, camamill, sage, verbane, hayhoes, nipp, neats foote oyle, butter, ale, and sasafras.  While some of these are cooking herbs that we use today, many of them are unrecognizable to the modern chef (or doctor, for that matter). Through researching herbal databases as well as help from others, I was able to determine what the uncommon ingredients were and how they were beneficial. “Speecke” turns out to be spike lavender, which is used as an anti-inflammatory. [2] “Verbane” is considered to strengthen the nervous system and creates a relaxing effect on the body.[3]  “Hayhoes” is the shortened version of hayhooves, another name for alehoof, which is often used with chamomile flowers (also in this recipe) as a poultice for abscesses.[4] “Neats foote oyle” is comprised of boiled cow skin bones and feet and is used today for shining leather and there is no record of a modern medicinal use.[5] “Nipp” or catnip, an ingredient not commonly found in your medical doctor’s office, is found in many holistic medicines to treat insomnia, anxiety, migraines, indigestion, gas, and to assist with delayed menstruation in girls.[6]  Sassafras is “the dried bark of this tree, used medicinally as an alterative; also an infusion of this”.[7] Although considered poisonous, it is still used to treat urinary tract disorders, syphilis, gout, cancer, and high blood pressure.[8]

Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw,  Wikimedia Commons.
Can of Neatsfoot Oil. 2008. Credit: Montanabw, Wikimedia Commons.

Barber’s recipe calls for the ingredients to be boiled together and applied by cloth to the joints of the child–minding the lower back as to not weaken the joints. The child must then drink ale with sliced sassafras in it. In the mid-seventeenth century, Hannah Wooley describes a beer with herbs boiled into it as the cure for rickets.[9] The Queen’s Closet Opened (1659) contains a recipe that created an ointment to apply to the weak joints of a child’s body afflicted with rickets.  What these two recipes show is that while the recipes were different, the methods of curing the disease were similar, including ingestion of ale with herbs and application of ointment on joints.  Given that all three recipes provide a similar cure, they suggest the widespread thought and practices in seventeenth-century England. Rickets treatments focused on the results of the problem, from inflammation and skin problems to pain and anxiety. Something, perhaps, for modern physicians to keep in mind.


[1] “rickets, n.”. OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[2] Thanks to Rebecca Laroche for the help identifying “Speecke” and “Hayhoes.” See also: “Lavender (Spike) Essential Oil”, Mountain Rose Herbs, viewed 10 May 2013.

[3] “Vervain Herbal Information”, Vervain / Verbena Officinalis Herbal Information. Indigo Herbs of Glastonbury, viewed 10 May 2013.

[4] “Alehoof (Glechoma Hederacea)”, TJ Clark Liquid Mineral Supplements, viewed 10 May 2013.

[5] “neatsfoot oil, n.”. OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[6] “Catnip: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings”, WebMD. Viewed 23 March 2013; “nip, n.”. OED Online, accessed March 2013.

[7] “sassafras, n.”, OED Online, accessed 23 March 2013.

[8] “Sassafras: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings”, WebMD, viewed 23 March 2013.

[9] Hannah Wooley, The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675), section 57.

Glennda Bayron is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine