Tag Archives: books of secrets

Books of Secrets

By Mandy Aftel

From Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel

Alession Piemontese Frontispiece

In the early sixteenth century, a new kind of book appeared in Europe: Books of Secrets were popular compendiums that professed to divulge to the reader the secrets of nature, culled from ancient sources of knowledge and wisdom. The most famous was The Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont, the pseudonym of an Italian physician and alchemist. More than seventy editions were published in at least seven languages, including my personal copy of the 1595 English edition. A third of the book was taken up with formulas that were not culinary but medicinal, remedies for common ailments. There was a chapter of recipes for perfumes and other scented ingredients—lotions, soaps, and body powders. And it wasn’t only the culinary and perfume recipes that called for spices and natural essences. There was a mouthwash of benzoin, cinnamon, rosemary, and myrrh, for example.[i]

These books’ closest descendant in the modern world is the cookbook. But the very idea of a cookbook is a recent one. To the pre-modern mind, there was no clear distinction between food and medicine and craft, the domestic and healing and creative arts. Substances derived from plants and animals and minerals were “simples”—building blocks that could be combined to form different compounds. “Pharmacists had to know how to grind up mixtures of simples according to medical instructions or their own ingenuity,” writes Paul Freedman in Out of the East. “Pounding and grinding together these aromatic products was a tedious task and became a symbol of the art and labor of the medical or culinary expert in spices, the cook and the pharmacist.”

When I discovered the Books of Secrets, I was smitten not only by their wealth of useful knowledge but by their charm. Their primordial scrambling of appetites and arts mirrored the synesthetic nature of the senses. Here home remedies mingled with folk wisdom, traditional knowledge with family lore. They combined the seemingly contradictory strands of the practical and the mystical in a way that reminded me of perfume, which—for all the formulas generated in all the labs in all the fragrance houses—can never be reduced to a science. Indeed, herbs, flowers, and spices played a great role in the arts they covered, and so the books focused on the same ingredients that are used to create natural perfumes.

I’d reveled in the same promiscuous muddling of material in my library of antique perfume books, in which fragrance recipes rubbed shoulders with alchemy, folk remedies, and precursor versions of aromatherapy. But when I tried to use the recipes in a straightforward way—as if from a cookbook, I discovered something interesting.

I’d always thought, in the back of my mind, that if I ran out of ideas for new perfumes, I could use the recipes in these books to replicate the perfumes that used to be made—though I had not quite figured out how I would find, or afford, the copious amounts of musk and ambergris so many of the recipes called for. One day I decided to put that idea to the test and start making the perfumes in some of my old recipe books.

Handwritten Formula Book from 1838

Many of the formulas were for what were known as soliflors, the attempt to replicate the aroma of a delicate flower that couldn’t be scent-harvested, like lily of the valley or violet; they seemed to rely heavily on bitter almond, which smells like cherries, to convey the nuance of flowers. When I made a couple of the perfumes, however, they struck me as decidedly “old lady” and uninteresting. Moreover, as I combed through the books, giving the recipes a closer look, I realized that the recipes had frequently been copied from one book to another. Over time, presumably by being carelessly recopied by scribes who didn’t understand the processes behind the words they were transcribing, many of the recipes had become garbled in places, or completely unintelligible. None of this stopped me from regarding these antique books as important links to a remote and rich past, initiating me into the mysteries of antiquity. In fact, I realized that their true genius lay not in their formulas but in the world they conveyed, a lost world of eccentric personalities consumed with the passion for travel to uncharted places, in search of undiscovered treasures and exotic substances. And the most important “secret” they contained was an alternate way of looking at the world—an aura of romance, sensuality, adventure and creativity.

Perfumers Notebook 1876

As for the recipes, they taught me something too—not how to replicate the perfumes of the past, but how to regard the process of making things and passing on knowledge about that process. The recipes in these books had the patina of having been forged in a crucible of trial and error by real-life practitioners who were passing on their hard-won knowledge to like-minded artisans. But recipes, even faithfully copied, cannot convey the deeply personal, idiosyncratic processes out of which they were distilled. “Recipes collapse lived experience into a series of mechanical acts that, once parsed, anyone can follow,” Eamon observes. “While a ‘secret’ is someone’s private property or the property of a group, a recipe doesn’t belong to anyone. Once it is published, someone else appropriates it, uses it, varies it, and then passes it on. At each stop it gains something or loses something, is improved upon or degraded, and is changed to fit new needs and circumstances. Recipes are built upon the belief that somewhere at the beginning of the chain there is someone who does not use them.”[ii]

Inherent in the Books of Secrets were attitudes and beliefs that grew out of the medieval imagination and resonated deeply with my work as an artisan perfumer. They reflected a belief in “Maker’s knowledge” (verum factum), which means that to know something means knowing how to make it. Such expertise cannot be acquired from someone else’s experience, but must be accrued by handling, experimenting with, and learning from the materials themselves. The search for how to do something was an essential part of the process, and it even had a name: venatio, “the hunt,” which referred to the hunt after the secrets of nature. Venatio was exactly what I experienced when I was searching for the lost knowledge of natural perfumery.


Mandy Aftel is an artisan perfumer who has published on scent and flavour. She also has a small museum, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. (Details here.) The above excerpt is from her award-winning book, Fragrant:The Secret Life of Scent (Penguin, 2014). You can purchase her books here.

Mrs. Headman’s Preparations: Safeguarding Secrets in a Victorian Beauty Business

Jessica P. Clark

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the mid-nineteenth century saw a rise in commercial beauty products aimed at British consumers. A variety of new goods, expanding through the second half of the century, promised to enhance men and women’s complexions, hair, and bodies. But selling secret commercial compounds could be a tricky business given widespread mistrust of beauty products. For some Victorians, including medical commentators, secret compounds signaled potentially deleterious ingredients like mercury. But for others, these same recipes represented exciting opportunities to rid themselves of baldness, rashes, or other unsightly ailments. In this way, mysterious commercial beauty products could both deter and attract the Victorian public, as sources of bodily danger but also transformation.

"Women And Bonnets, England, 1860." From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
“Women And Bonnets, England, 1860.” From The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Art and Picture Collection, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-e150-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tensions around “secret” commercial recipes did not only shape consumer interest, but also the production practices of those behind the new beautifying goods. British beauty providers in London and beyond understood the power of beauty secrets as they vied for success in the potentially lucrative mid-century market. Commercial recipes were central to their economic livelihood, and many of them actively labored to protect their secrets. This included a small cohort of female beauty entrepreneurs working in London at the mid-nineteenth century, some of whom feature in my book project Beauty Brokers. For them, the possession of a distinct—and exclusive—beauty recipe could mean the difference between business success and failure.

Records suggest that beauty traders developed a number of strategies to protect their recipes from critics, but also  competitors. This could include legal measures against business rivals or the trademarking of product names and logos. But it could also entail more intimate, daily strategies in the management of shop space and employees, something that comes to the fore in the case of London-based trader Agnes Headman. From April 1850, Headman ran a profitable business as a “Hair Restorer and Advisor to Ladies on the State of their Hair” from No. 24 Savile Row. Visitors to the respectable commercial space consulted with Headman before having their hair treated and dressed by Headman’s main assistant, Esther Gaubert. According to the London Times, Headman “was [also] in the habit of performing certain processes on ladies’ hair,” which seems to suggest hair dyeing, a practice of questionable repute.[1]

Map showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4
Map of Mayfair and Soho, showing shop locations of Agnes Headman (yellow star) and Esther Gaubert (blue marker). Map from Society for the Useful Diffusion of Knowledge (London: Edward Stanford, 1865), courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection, https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/n9j7q4

Although Headman offered hairdressing services, most of her profit came from the sale of “Mrs. Headman” products: at the Savile Row shop, through local agents, and via mail order. As this was the heart of her business, records reveal that she took special measures to protect her recipes from falling into the hands of others. For instance, despite her modest operations, Headman reportedly had a separate room at Savile Row devoted exclusively to production. There, she single-handedly made up—or “compounded,” as she dubbed it—her secret preparations, including “Darkening Fluid,” “Rejuvenescent Hair Cream,” and “Botanic Hair Wash and Curling Fluid.” To further protect her work, she strictly regulated access to the compounding room; the only other person granted admission was an illiterate charwoman, Mrs. Bass, who washed out bottles in a neighboring basin. When not in use, Headman kept the room locked to prevent other employees from discerning her methods. She even had her assistant Gaubert sign a binding agreement upon her hiring in 1853, which forbade her from investigating recipe ingredients or  methods of production. This did not stop Gaubert, however, who found herself in the Court of Chancery in 1858, accused of absconding with Headman’s “Book containing the secret recipes” and recreating them in her new business around the corner from Savile Row.[2]  This betrayal suggests that Headman’s precautionary measures were warranted, as someone trading in—and profiting from— the business of secrets.

Often characterized as dangerous by Victorian critics, commercial beauty recipes were in fact very lucrative, something clearly understood by Agnes Headman and other beauty traders. For businesspeople like Headman, secret beauty recipes were key to attracting customers and thus worthy of protective measures. But it was not only consumers who valued the mysteries of her trade. Headman’s own employees sought out her secrets, as they labored side-by-side in a small-scale commercial setting – conditions that, despite her attempts, made her recipes all the more vulnerable to discovery.

 

 

[1] “Vice-Chancellors’ Courts, April 30,” London Times 22982 (1 May 1858): 11.

[2] Ansell v. Ganbert A.39 (1858) UK National Archives, C15/444/A39 (Gaubert’s surname is misspelled in the records).

From Dificio di ricette to Bâtiment des recettes: The Afterlife of Italian Secrets in France

By Julia Martins

Title page of the 1574 edition of the Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricett. Image from Archive.org. 

In 1525 a book called Opera nuova intitolata dificio di ricette was published in Venice. The book promised to reveal all kinds of secrets to the reader, from cosmetic to medical recipes. This anonymous Italian best seller (which we may call in English ‘Palace of Recipes’) was a collection of 187 short and straightforward recipes, most of them only 5 or 10 lines long. The printer combined utilitarian and pragmatic secrets (including treatment of everyday ailments) with playful elements. Indeed, a taste for the wonderful and a desire to entertain guests were a vital component of this book. After all, the printer included instructions to perform magic tricks such as ‘how to make a candle burn under water’. The work was a commercial success in Italy, and was reprinted 28 times in the forty years after its publication.

The Dificio di ricette also circulated across Europe in many different languages, giving it a truly Pan-European flavour. The work was translated into French in 1539 and in 1545, also translated into Dutch via the French translation. This kind of indirect translation was common in the secrets genre. As William Eamon has shown, Alessio’s Secrets were also translated in English through the French translation. It is notable that in both cases, the French translation served as a cultural and linguistic mediator and it was in France that the Palace of Recipes reigned supreme.

Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560
Title page of the Bâtiment des Recettes, printed in Paris by Jean Ruelle in 1560

Titled the Bâtiment des recettes, the French edition of the work found even greater success than the Italian one. Between its first French publication in 1539 and the final edition in 1830, the book was published 60 times. The main reason for this enduring success is probably the fact that, in 1631, the Bâtiment des recettes was added to the series of books printed in Troyes and commonly known as the ‘Bibliothèque Bleue’, since all the editions had blue covers. This collection of cheaply printed booklets included many books of secrets, and the Bâtiment des recettes continued to be sold in France until well into the 19th century.

What makes the Bâtiment des recettes so interesting is that it is not simply a translation of the Dificio di ricette. Rather it is a collection of different texts, themselves anonymous compilations of recipes. These include a collection of 26 ‘Secrets Specially Proposed for Women’ added by the printer Jean III Du Pré in 1539 and the ‘Pleasant Garden’ (Plaisant jardin) added in 1551. A translation from Italian, the ‘Pleasant Garden’ consisted of 202 varied medical recipes ‘developed by doctors very experts in physic’. Therefore, this 1560 edition contained more than double the number of recipes in the original Italian Palace.

Of the many editions of the Dificio, the 1560 French edition proved particularly popular and was most reprinted. Recently, Geneviève Debloc published an annotated critical edition of the 1560 edition of the Bâtiment des recettes. This is a very useful tool for historians, tracing the several different additions and suppressions in the Bâtiment des recettes throughout its four centuries of history, as well as providing us with tables that offer a systematic account of the ingredients used in the recipes (see my review here).

Thanks to digitisation and new critical editions, a growing number of early modern sources are becoming more easily accessible to scholars. We can compare and contrast complex texts, as in the case of the Dificio. Through a bibliographical approach, we are given the opportunity to read an important primary source in the history of knowledge in a new way – at the crossroads of the history of the book and the history of technologies in tracing the evolution in the composition of the text (including paratextual materials and changes in vocabulary), it is possible to understand how multiple agents were involved in the production of the book, from translators to printers. The Bâtiment des recettes can therefore be understood as both process and final product of these interventions. Through its fragmentary and polymorphic constitution, this re-edited recipe book gives us compelling insight into early modern life in France and Italy and its medical practices.

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Julia Martins is a PhD student at the Warburg Institute in London. Her research focuses on recipes about female fertility in Italian books of secrets (as well as their translations) from 1555 to 1700. Her aim is to show how knowledge about “women’s secrets” circulated in early modern print, drawing a comparison between Italian and French books of secrets and English midwifery manuals.