By Anna Speyart
For anyone fearing the winter blues, a recipe collection from the seventeenth-century Low Countries presented a delightful remedy. Simon Witgeest’s Het Nieuw Toneel der Konsten[The New Theatre of Arts] (1679) aimed “to shorten winter evenings, which some find very dismal and which give rise to myriad wicked temptations” (Figure 1). In his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), the English physician Robert Burton had already suggested that continuous diversion was the best remedy for melancholy moods, since it kept the affected mind distracted from its cogitations. Filled with magic tricks, brainteasers, remedies, pranks, and experiments, Witgeest’s collection fulfilled its promise to provide readers with a “banquet of treats for long winter evenings.” As a diversion, the recipes themselves became a remedy, which “not only sharpen young people’s wits, but also entertain old and melancholy brains.” Though Witgeest’s emphasis on recipes as a pastime can easily be dismissed as frivolous, it is worth appreciating how the collection entertained readers by teaching them to craft remedies, curiosities, and mischief with materials found in the late seventeenth-century household.
Many of Witgeest’s tricks could be done with objects found around the dinner table, suggesting that they were intended as party tricks. Readers learned fun feats with tumblers, knives, dishes, eggs, candles, bread, and lobsters, for example. One recipe described a jug with which unwitting and thirsty guests would always spill liquids over themselves. Readers also found out how to cut an apple in two without removing it from the handkerchief in which it was wrapped (Figure 2).
Some recipes explicitly referred to the social settings in which the trick would be performed. “When one has gathered for a meal with good friends,” one recipe read, “it is considered dignified if one can present a few amusing tricks. This can be done with a pocket fountain, which can be used to sprinkle others with water from aside so that they do not know where it came from so suddenly.”
Specific instructions taught prospective pranksters how to maximize the desired effect on their audiences. A trickster could, for instance, bet that it was possible to poke a horse or camel through the eye of a needle. Once the bets were made, the trickster should “fool around for a while,” trying to pull the large animals through the tiny hole. Only when bystanders had laughed at the trickster for long enough, the feat should be revealed: if the eye of the needle was placed against the animal, the trickster could use another needle to poke the animal through the eye of a needle. In variations on the same word game, heads could be poked through a small ring, or large cheeses and bread loaves through the ear of a pitcher.
Some recipes described experiments that were sure to impress guests, including designs for a magic lantern and camera obscura, but also setups that could more easily be achieved in household settings. One gravity-defying experiment saw a full bucket hang from a table at an improbable angle (Figure 3).
Readers also learned that it was possible to throw a ring into water and pull it out without getting one’s fingers wet. “Take a flat dish, pour some water into it, and throw in your ring… Take a large tumbler or beer jug and put a burning piece of paper into it. While the paper is still burning, I place the tumbler onto the water upside down… As the air in the tumbler starts to cool, all the liquid in the dish will be pressed into the tumbler. You will see the dish empty and you will be able to retrieve your ring without wetting your hands” (Figure 4).
Whether readers practiced these recipes by the book is difficult to ascertain, but at least one reader used the margins of his or her copy to work through the numbers of a scatological brainteaser. Nonetheless, even the armchair trickster would have been able to feast on the variety of quirky tidbits in Witgeest’s collection.
Simon Witgeest, which means “white spirit,” was most probably a pseudonym chosen to dispel suspicions of black magic. Although the identity of the recipes’ compiler has not been retrievable, a polemic pamphlet circulated in 1690 gives an impression of the collection’s publishing context. The pamphlet targeted Jan ten Hoorn, the publisher of the Witgeest books, for selling a pirated Dutch translation of Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy (1690) in his “trashy shop.” A fictional “Doctor Witgeest” also featured in the pamphlet, blushing at the accusation of plagiarism leveled against Ten Hoorn’s collaborators.
A first edition of the Witgeest collection appeared in 1679, but subsequent editions differed significantly from the first. With diminished emphasis on artisanal practices in favor of vastly expanded tricks of all kinds, these later editions, such as the sixth, better represent what the Witgeest books came to stand for as they continued to be published in the eighteenth-century Low Countries and in Germany. In the twenty-first century, readers can glimpse the appeal of some of Witgeest’s tricks on social media channels that specialize in life hacks, where variations on the experiments with gravity-defying buckets and water rising into a tumbler continue to feature. Meanwhile, the poking game has found new life in the realm of dad jokes.