Charmed: into the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Kristof Smeyers

Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the "Spellbound" exhibition.  Photo by permission of the author.
Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the “Spellbound” exhibition. Photo by permission of the author.

Entering the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, you are confronted with a ladder leaning against a wall like a menacing question mark. There is no avoiding this ladder. Do you walk under it or do you go round? Even before you are inside the Ashmolean’s exhibition space, ‘Spellbound’ asks big questions about magic, ritual, and witchcraft. The ladder is a clever prelude: it shows how magical thinking is not part of a past inhabited by our ‘superstitious’ predecessors, but smugly points out that we live in a magical world today (and will still do so tomorrow). The ladder sets the tone: visitors are encouraged to engage with their own magical thinking. By the time you have made your decision, you know not to approach the magical objects in the exhibition as unenlightened remnants of delusions and misconceptions. They are, instead, intrinsic parts of people’s ‘inner lives’—not incidentally, research from the Leverhulme Trust-funded project Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900 lies at the foundation of the exhibition.

‘Spellbound’ stretches out across three thematic exhibition spaces divided between learned magic, witchcraft, and folk magic, though they are best experienced in dialogue with each other: retracing one’s steps between rooms can help make sense of some of the more enigmatic objects, and help one draw emotional or sensory connections of one’s own. Together, the spaces immerse the visitor in more than eight centuries of magical thinking and feeling, simultaneously encouraging us to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings. The thematic set up invites us to draw connections across ages and cultures without, importantly, trying to convince us of a ‘universalist’ interpretation of magic.

Its innovative approach—across themes and ages—raises questions of its own. How do you create an exhibition that aims to capture interiority and emotions, in particular when those emotions and their related practices are related to subjects as wilfully elusive as the magical and supernatural? The invisible is a tricky thing to display in a glass case of a museum. Thankfully for the curators (and for us), magic has been captured in a wide variety of writings and objects—sometimes literally—for example, the small flask which famously contains a witch came with a warning from the woman who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in the early twentieth century: ‘…if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.’ In fact, several objects in ‘Spellbound’ hail from the cabinets of Pitt Rivers and are re-imagined in what at first glance seems like a more sterile and modern museum environment. The supernatural and the magical, so this exhibition convincingly shows in the form of hundreds of things, were profoundly material categories.

A second question that arises when looking at the many, very different objects is: How do you recreate a museum context in which a worn shoe or a feather can be ‘seen’ and ‘experienced’ by visitors as magical and emotional, ideally without having to read essay-length labels that explain its significance for the person who made it, kept it, or used it? Labels are used sparingly, and to effect. The meaning and emotional significance attributed to everyday objects instead becomes apparent when you take the time to look. Objects of magic show signs of emotional practices throughout the ages: pages of grimoires were read until they fell apart, things were carved, bound, charmed, pierced, tied, burnt, scratched, bottled.  

In other instances, the fact that they were kept is revealing in itself: the worn leather of a shoe found concealed under floorboards by homeowners, for example, attests to a patina of emotional and magical meaning that remains vivid despite—or because—of its mystifying character. The accompanying catalogue poignantly quotes Sara Ahmed’s The cultural politics of emotions on how emotions ‘stick’ to objects, whether we recognise them as magically material like the steel of a horse shoe and the obsidian of John Dee’s black mirror—or not. It is to the curators’ credit that visitors are compelled to figure out precisely how a shoe or corset were magical. That materiality becomes particularly powerful when the exhibition lets different kinds of objects communicate with one another, as in the case of the Boy with Coral painting and the piece of red coral depicting St Michael defeating the devil. Several modern art installations beautifully enrich the visitor’s sense of wonder as they wander between objects.

St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.
St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.

‘Spellbound’ makes clear how structures of magical thinking remain vibrant and flexible; they are not, nor were they ever paradigmatic, rigid belief systems. Rather, they constitute of pragmatic, idiosyncratic amalgams of beliefs, practices, and objects that made sense to individuals and shaped communities. They are profoundly human. This popular and charming exhibition will do much to rid us of the persistent dismissal of magical thinking as ‘superstition’ and to begin to take people’s experiences—past and present—seriously. Touch wood.

Kristof Smeyers (Twitter: @kristof_smeyers) works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. His research attempts to untangle the grey areas between science and religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by focusing on supernatural religious phenomena in Britain and Ireland. 

Around the Table: Introductions

Editor’s Note: In this post, we’re delighted to welcome one of our new editors, Sarah Peters Kernan. Sarah completed her Ph.D. in History at the Ohio State University, with a dissertation entitled, “For all them that delight in Cookery”: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600, and she’s now working as an independent scholar. Here, Sarah describes some of the new ideas and activities she’ll be bringing to the RP. –AH

A doctor taking the pulse of a woman patient, seated at a table. Watercolour by Zhou Pei Qun, ca. 1890, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
A doctor taking the pulse of a woman patient, seated at a table. Watercolour by Zhou Pei Qun, ca. 1890, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

By Sarah Peters Kernan

As the Recipes Project begins a new year, we also begin a new series focused on our blog community. I recently joined the Recipes Project’s editorial team, and during my initial conversations with the other editors, I mentioned the many ways in which this blog has been important in my scholarly development. Throughout the final years of my graduate training and now, in my early career as an independent scholar, the Recipes Project has not only provided an outlet for writing and developing ideas, but a venue for connecting with other researchers and authors. I began meeting other contributors and readers at many conferences and seminars I have attended. While organizing conference sessions, I contacted potential presenters after perusing their posts on related topics. I have learned about new resources and methods from the diverse group of contributors. And, most importantly, the personal connections that I have made through the site have led to exciting conversations, ideas, projects, and even friendships. I value these ideas and relations all the more, because I have worked away from an academic home for a few years. I completed my dissertation hundreds of miles away from my university and am now working as an independent scholar. So despite being a virtual and international community, the Recipes Project has become a place to which I return often, frequently reading and occasionally contributing. My experiences appealed to the editors, and we decided to try strengthening this sense of community among our readership. Many of you have had similar connections because of the blog; it is now my job to facilitate even more of this.

Each month, I will highlight a different part of the Recipes Project community in the new series, Around the Table. The idea of any community joining together around a table is a powerful one; when we work together sorting through the issues surrounding historic recipes research, we can unearth so much more, as well as enjoy time with our colleagues. No matter what kind of table we encounter in our work and research—be it kitchen, craft, lab, or surgical—we can all learn from others around us. The editors know that our readers have many interests, careers, and uses for the blog. Hopefully this series serves as a catalyst for meeting other readers and contributors in person, collaborating on future projects, and confidently contacting others when you have questions about research, teaching, publishing, recipe re-creation, and more. Occasionally, I will revive the type of content found in past series, like First Monday Library Chats. In other posts, I will share conversations with curators, publishers, podcasters, and other scholars. You will find out what is going on in our fields at conferences and sharing in congratulations of our contributors with new jobs and completed degrees. As we all begin to know each other a bit more, it is my hope that you, too, will turn to the Recipes Project when you need to find a person, project, or idea.

In order to do all of this, I need your help! I encourage you to reach out to the Recipes Project through social media. We are active on Twitter and Facebook; let us all know when you have completed a degree, secured a new job, or won a major fellowship or award. Tell us about new job posts related to recipes, calls for papers, exhibition announcements, historical meal re-creations, and more. Please also share the conferences you are planning to attend. Just remember to use #historecipes so we can easily track your announcements; if you have shared your news or conferences, I may even contact you when working on certain posts in this series focused on topics like conference roundups and contributor accomplishments. You may, of course, also email the Recipes Project if you would prefer not to use social media. From time to time, the Recipes Project will use social media to organize informal cocktail hours and meetups at conferences, when we know many contributors and readers will be there. These informal gatherings may be infrequent for now, but it is our hope that these meetings will be a source of community and conviviality for those who can join us.

I look forward to hearing from you all and I am excited to share more about our wonderful Recipes Project community next month Around the Table!

Happy 2019 From the Recipes Project

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "New Years greetings." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-47b5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New Years greetings.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed December 21, 2018. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e3-47b5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Dear readers, supporters, and contributors:

Thank you for all of your interest, your engagement, and your brilliant ideas over the past year. We had a busy but very fulfilling 2018 at the Recipes Project. In addition to a wealth of posts from contributors around the world, we featured pieces on new collections of recipe-related materials in our First Monday Library Chats; cross-posts with blogs like Res Obscura, History of Knowledge and Cooking the Archives; conference round-ups, author interviews, and book and exhibition reviews. We hosted several special series: on the senses, on hot and cold, and on teaching. Perhaps most exciting of all, we welcomed a new editor — Dr. Jess Clark — and then decided to expand the Recipes Project even further by opening a call for three additional editors as well as a larger social media team. We’ll be introducing our new editors and social media colleagues to all of you in the new year, and we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting new perspectives, topics, and activities they bring to our Recipes Project community.

We wish you all a very happy new year!
Jessica Clark
Amanda Herbert
Elaine Leong
Lisa Smith
Laurence Totelin

Tales from the Archives: SNOWBALLS: INTERMIXING GENTILITY AND FRUGALITY IN NINETEENTH CENTURY BAKING

I recently spotted these “schneeballen”  at the bakery counter of my local supermarket. From Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, these delicious cookies are actually made from strips of shortcrust pastry, draped over a wooden stick or spoon to shape into a ball. They are then covered in powdered sugar. The chocolate version on the right has sprinkled almonds on top. They’re quite large – the size of a tennis ball – and made for a great after school snack for the kid. Seeing these Schneeballen reminded me of Rachel Snell’s excellent post from 2015 on the American dessert “snowballs”. Enjoy!

By Rachel A. Snell

Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg
Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. Of course, there is also the Sno Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and pink coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947.[1] The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century, snowballs took a decidedly different form depending on the region where they were produced, revealing the intermixing of gentility and frugality that occurred in rural or peripheral areas.

My research suggests there were several versions of Snowballs circulating within the Anglo-American world during the first half of the nineteenth century. These versions of Snowballs were essentially apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One particularly sumptuous version consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[2] This description of Snowballs comes from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860 that were readily available throughout North America. The comparative extravagance of this recipe is unsurprisingly since Mackenzie’s recipes appear to be aimed at a middle-class or higher audience with many elaborate and costly recipes.

 

Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).
Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).

The American variation on this dish, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, is a dish consisting of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[3] The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, printed in Toronto in 1840, presents a related, but decidedly unusual version of Snowballs. A.B., the anonymous author of the Manual, undoubtedly had access to Mackenzie’s Snowballs recipe. Five Thousand Receipts was a major source for the Manual, nearly the entire cake section and many of the pudding recipes were adapted or copied from Mackenzie. Unlike the American versions, A.B. omitted the apples entirely. An unusual choice since apples would have been readily available in the Lake Ontario region. This incredibly simple recipe consists of balls of boiled rice, sifted with loaf sugar and served with “wine sauce is best with them, but butter and sugar with them is very good if they are kept warm.”[4] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. It would be a very pretty dish and an economical one as well.

Snowballs FHM 1
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)

Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)

A.B.’s Snowballs were likely adapted to make the recipe better suited to regional cooking and entertaining habits. Her recipe for Floating Island, a popular nineteenth-century dish of French origin consisting of meringue floating on vanilla custard, has likewise been significantly altered to both simplify and economize the recipe. A.B. suggested serving her recipes for Floating Island and Snowballs together, which would produce a dramatic effect, Floating Island “is a very ornamental dish by candle-light, together with a dish of snowballs on the opposite part of the table; in exchange for a snowball you get a bit of floating island.”[5] Allowing the housewife to impress her guests with manageable effort. Thus, the recipe for Snowballs was tempered with frugality from the sumptuous and elaborate dish presented by Mackenzie, to the American variation that substituted cheap and plentiful rice, and finally A.B.’s version, which avoided expensive ingredients and time-consuming labor to produce a dish pleasing to both the eyes and the taste buds.

In this way, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual reveals a transition in regional foodways within the Ontario Lake region. At mid-century, recipe collecting was shifting from the practical and frugal recipes associated with subsistence farming in a frontier region to the recipes associated with status and gentility that signal established agriculture and the beginning of middle-class sensibilities about dining and entertaining. Recipe collections like The Frugal Housewife’s Manual allowed women to balance frugality and gentility in their cooking and entertaining. An example of the hybrid sociability identified by Catherine E. Kelly, A.B. and her community sought to imitate urban, middle-class social mores within the constraints of agricultural work rhythms and rural work-based sociability. For these women, gentility intermixed with frugality was the answer. While A.B. presents recipes that rely on imported luxuries (liquors, wine, citrus fruits, raisins, currants, and spices) and commercial products (saleratus, milled wheat flour, loaf sugar) that together suggest a comfortable family budget, economy is still the underlying theme. A.B. frequently notes recipes that are inexpensive to prepare or provides hints for preparing dishes less expensively, such as substituting or omitting rare and costly ingredients. She likely would have echoed Lydia Child’s advice to housekeepers to “prove, by the exertion of ingenuity and economy, that neatness, good taste, and gentility, are attainable without great expense.”[6]

Note: For those interested in attempting to make Snowballs in their own kitchens, Kevin Carter has an excellent post at Savoring the Past with instructions to make two versions and a discussion of rice’s connection to the American slave system.

[1] And we cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup, often topped with marshmallow cream. More information about this local treat is available here.

[2] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[3] Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, Ms. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215.

[4] A.B. of Grimsby, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual: Containing a Number of Useful Receipts Carefully Selected, and Well Adapted to the Use of Families in General (Toronto, Ont.: J.H. Lawrence, 1840), 10.

[5] A.B., The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, 9.

[6] Mrs. (Lydia Maria) Child, The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838), 6; Catherine E. Kelly, “‘Well Bred Country People’: Sociability, Social Networks, and the Creation of a Provincial Middle Class, 1820-1860” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 3 (1999), 451-479.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine