Tag Archives: commonplace books

On Berlin Plums: Recipes from Johannes Magirus’ Medical Diary

By Sabine Schlegelmilch

For some years now, I’ve been doing research on Johannes Magirus (1615-1697). He was a German physician, and by now has made me shake my head quite often because of a certain quirkyness his writings reveal. On the other hand: when not quarelling with his surroundings or boasting his genius (or then especially?), he makes me learn quite a lot about medicine in the seventeenth century in Germany and abroad. As a student, Magirus travelled through the Netherlands, England and France. He was stunned by the practical approach of bedside teaching he witnessed there, as it was different from any medical education he had known back in Germany.  After his return, he began to practise in Berlin in 1640, and afterwards moved to Zerbst (in Anhalt-Saxony).  He soon left the town again, steaming with anger because of a personal enemy he named the ‘Sauffteuffel’ (booze devil). Finally, he became professor of medicine in Marburg (in Hesse) and tried to implement his experience gained abroad into his own teaching.  In the announcement for his classes, he advertised to take his students to the sick whom, for demonstration purposes, he would treat for free – an early polyclinical  concept largely unknown in Germany for his time.

Titel of Magirus' Medical Diary (University of Marburg Library, Ms. 96)
Titel of Magirus’ Medical Diary [Credit: University Library Marburg]
Magirus managed to reach the respectable age of 82, although he displayed a certain proneness for self-experiment. So he couldn’t help to explore the construction of a fortress while it was besieged (!), and nearly was hit by a cannonball. In medicine, he was equally eager to gain personal experience. His special interest lay in drugs, and in particular in ‘chymical’ ones. We know this from his well-preserved medical diary and a notebook with commonplaces from his time in Berlin and Zerbst. For me, it was fascinating to see how systematical his approach was in drug-testing as a young practitioner. With each recipe he prescribed, he precisely noted its impact on the patient. With a woman in pain, he wrote in his diary: ‘after the first half of my pills, there was no bowel movement, after the second half she had a motion eight times’ or ‘before my pill, she always was in pain at two o’ clock, but afterwards at three o’ clock’. Often there are notes like ‘this is the powder I also have prescribed to the tailor in the roßstrasse’ that show how Magirus drew connections between different cases. He recorded successes as well as failures, and even tried to reduce side effects by singling out the one substance his patient showed an intolerance for, and then substituting it.

Fortunately, with drug-testing on his own body he was more cautious than in his cannonball-adventure. He surely was interested in the effect of new remedies and collected information on them. It is striking, however, that he made excerpts e.g. on mercury but, according to his diary, never used it with his patients, and never did test it on himself. Reading the excerpt in his commonplace book, one doesn’t wonder; it says that

if you use an ointment with mercury, it will cause convulsions, and the patients will get blisters in their throat, their uvula will fall off, they will develop ulcers, all teeth will beginn to loosen and  get black, and a huge amount of stinking spittle will run out of their mouth.

With less dangerous drugs, though, he experimented on himself and noted his personal experience. So we read that some aloe rosata ‘had dried up my stomach and I felt even worse than before’. When one of his colleagues prescribed a plum puree to one of his patients, Magirus took some of it to try it himself. He didn’t like the effect very much, as he ‘felt  a pain and rumble in my left hypochondrium’, and therefore came to the conclusion: ‘so it’s true: sugar and everything sweet are noxious for a spleen condition’. As unpleasant as this plum-related experience was for him, as rewarding was another: one of his patients, an advocat also named Johannes Magirus, obviously had told our Magirus how to prepare a formidable plum-juice with raisins, senis-leaves and fennel-seed that did wonders as a purge. Magirus must have tested this juice, as we can see that in the following time he began to prescribe it to his patients.

MS. 96, p. 22: Magirus crossed out the ingredients of his recipe that he pharmacy couldn't provide and that he had to add from his own stock (addantur in aedibus meis).
Magirus crossed out the ingredients that the pharmacy couldn’t provide and that he had to add from his own stock. [Credit: University Library Marburg]
I imagine Berlin at this time, i.e. just around the end of the Thirty-years-war, as a rather shabby place. Contemporary sources tell us that the elector was absent for most of the time and swine were roaming the mudden streets of the town outside the court-buildings. Magirus’ notes reveal that even the court-pharmacist was not able to provide some of the more sophisticated ingredients for his recipes. So it takes no wonder that something as simple as plums grew essential to his Berlin practice.

Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes (Part II)

By Amanda E. Herbert

This page from Anne Brumwich’s recipe book shows contributions by different authors, with different styles of handwriting. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

In this blog post and in my previous post, I’m presenting material from my forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).  The material in this post comes from Chapter Three, “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”

In my last post, I discussed how early modern advice books encouraged women to work together in kitchens.  But did women follow these directions in their own homes?  Kitchen accidents and mistakes of course caused tempers to fray.  When Elizabeth Freke discovered that her servant had damaged a pot, she was so angry about it that she recorded it in her kitchen inventory, saying that the pot had been “brok out by Amey”!  But you can also find proof of women’s attempts to foster positive relationships with each other.

One of the best sources for understanding “real” early modern women’s work in kitchens is through their manuscript – handwritten – recipe books.  Recipe books were living manuscripts, typically added to and amended by many people. Women collected recipes from their female and male friends and noted donors’ names next to borrowed recipes in their books. Jane Baber’s manuscript recipe collection of 1625 included eight attributions from other women, among them a recipe “for the woorms” she had received from her “sister Earnly.” Women probably did exchange these recipes in person, but manuscript evidence shows that they also received them in correspondence from their female friends and relatives.  In the later seventeenth century, Anne Lany scrawled a recipe “for Guidiness of the head” on the back of her letter to her friend Anne De Gray. Sometimes women valued the recipes that they received from friends over those offered by male physicians: Beatrix Clerke wrote in 1665 that she hoped to procure a recipe from her friend Lucy Hastings, stating that she “doth believe that your Honor’s study and practice in phisicke is above our docters.”

Even the recipes themselves show how women helped one another in the kitchen. Female authors wrote recipes from a communal perspective. Mary Bent’s recipe book featured instructions on how “to pickle cowcombers the best way,” and the author noted that “you may put a little pepper in if you please but we do not.” The use of the plural “we” here suggested that, for the recipe’s author, pickling cucumbers was a communal rather than a solitary activity.

Women thus counted on one another for help in the kitchen, but they also used their recipes to advance female independence. Women’s recipes allowed them to share knowledge about acquiring materials and ingredients, navigating through urban spaces, and negotiating with shopkeepers. Many recipes encouraged women to purchase supplies in London, which had large numbers of apothecary shops. “M.B.’s” recipe of 1640 “to whiten the Teeth” called for “the stones of crabbs,” and readers were told that “you may buy [them] at the Redd Crosse in Cheap side a drugist.” An anonymous mid-seventeenth-century woman’s book recorded that “Vatican Pills” could be purchased from “the Apothecary . . . in the old Bayly in London.” Anne Brumwich’s book contained a recipe for a lotion that was said to prevent hair loss, and the ingredients for this lotion had to be purchased at “a Chymist a dutchmans in high holborn neare Grayes Inn field.” And Mary Chantrell’s book had a recipe for “an Excellent Coole pummatum [pomatum] for the face,” with ingredients that could be purchased “in See Lane in Holbourn.” From Gray’s Inn to Cheapside and from the Old Bailey to Holborn, early modern women used the information they gleaned from the recipe books of friends and relatives to traverse urban space. This knowledge was surely both useful and empowering. By furnishing women with information about reliable dealers, fair prices, and shop locations, handwritten recipe books allowed female recipe authors and their readers to share vital knowledge with one another and assert their independence in London’s streets and alleys.

Manuscripts cited in this blog post:
1. Elizabeth Freke, “Kitchen Inventory,” October 18, 1711, Freke Papers, MS 45718, British Library.
2. Jane Baber, Recipe Book, 1625, MS 108, f. 18, 22, Wellcome Library.
3. Anne Lany, Letter to Anne De Gray, c. 1670, Correspondence of the Family of Gawdy, ADD 36989, F540, British Library.
4. Beatrix Clerke, Letter to Lucy Hastings, Countess Huntingdon, 1665, Hastings Collection, Box 25 HA 1466, Huntington Library.
5. Mary Bent, Recipe Book, 1664, MS 1127, f. 2, Wellcome Library.
6. Anonymous Woman [Possibly Mrs. M. Baesh], Recipe Book, 1640, MS 8086, f. 14, 19, 35B, 54, 81, 94–94B, and 102, Wellcome Library.
7. Anonymous, [possibly “EG”], Recipe Book, 17th c., MS 7391, Wellcome Library.
8. Anne Brumwich and Others, 1625–1700, MS 160, f. 94, Wellcome Library.
9. Mary Chantrell and Others, Recipe Book, 1690, MS 1548, f. 84, Wellcome Library.

The Disappearance of Charms from a Fifteenth-Century Notebook

By Laura Mitchell

Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.
Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

Studying medieval charms can bring to light a lot of intriguing social practices and help us to understand what sorts of everyday worries occupied the mind of a medieval person. It can also be an exercise in frustration at the limitations of our information. The Trinity College Library MS O.1.57 manuscript (Cambridge) offers just one such case. This household notebook was originally copied and owned by the Haldenby family and members of their household compiled in the first half of the fifteenth century.[1]

The manuscript contains texts that range from medical recipes to physiognomy to gunpowder recipes. The Haldenby family was part of the lower gentry of fifteenth-century Northamptonshire and the book reflects a significant sub-section of the gentry who, along with members of the secular clergy, were interested in medical and scientific texts.

The Haldenby family and its household also seems to have had an interest in magical or quasi-magical texts, including the Serpentium corius, a group of magical and non-magical experiments using snakeskin, texts on the virtues of plants and animals, which include a number of items of natural magic, and an ad hoc book of secrets containing charms and magic tricks in their notebook, as well as the charms. The charms themselves are nothing extraordinary as far as fifteenth sensibilities go: a charm against fire, three medical charms, a charm to catch a thief, and a love charm (discussed in a previous entry).

Of particular interest to me for this post are three of charms scattered throughout the manuscript: charms for a sore, for sleep, and to catch a thief. All three were originally labelled as charms, but at some point in their history these titles were partially or completely erased by carefully scraping them off.[2] Now these headings are only visible under UV light!

The charm for a sore began with the heading “<A charme> for þo felun” and the sleep charm ended with “Þis is <a charme> for a man þat may not slepe.” The charm to catch a thief originally had an elaborate heading below the charm that consisted of a face and scroll that read “Carmen pro fures” [Charm for thieves], although the heading, like those for the medical charms. In addition to being erased, the thief charm was also partially covered by a later pen drawing, making it especially difficult to see even under under UV light.

Complete erasures of objectionable texts often occurred, as in the Arundel MS 342 (British Library), in which instructions for conjuring spirits has been partly erased.[3] The Sloane MS 513 (British Library) also suffers from an admittedly shoddy attempt at censure of its copy of the Ars notaria. These cases, at least, were more problematic magic rituals.

Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171.  Photograph: Lisa Smith.
Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171. Photograph: Lisa Smith.

However, in TCC O.1.57 there was only a partial erasure. It is impossible to know when these erasures happened: was it in the generation immediately following the original owners? Was it the sixteenth-century owners? The latter seems unlikely given their inclusion of a love charm in the sixteenth century. Moreover, why remove only the title and not the content? This mysterious eraser may have wanted to take advantage of the contents of these charms while publicly denying their true nature.

It seems clear that whoever erased these titles was more concerned about the perceived nature of their book rather than the reality. Indeed, the charm to catch a thief could easily have been cut out entirely without affecting any other text in the book. Less clear is why there was such a concern, since such charms were used throughout the early modern period (as Lisa Smith recently discussed for an eighteenth-century manuscript). Perhaps the owners simply felt particular concern about the respectability of their book at one point in time… It is doubtful that we will ever know.

[1] Genealogical entries regarding the Haldenby and Mortemer families give the manuscript a terminus post quem of 1454.

[2] The other three charms do not have such obvious headings.

[3] Sophie Page includes an image from the Arundel manuscript in Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 39.

Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes

By Amanda E. Herbert

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Not in early modern England.

We know that early modern women were charged with the feeding and care of their family and friends and that lower-status women were often employed in the domestic labor of cooking, brewing, dairying, baking, and gardening. More surprising is that women were expected to collaborate in the kitchen, undertaking these traditional tasks in groups.  The expectation was that in any well-run household, domestic laborers (usually, but not always, women) would share their knowledge, time, labor, and kitchen-space – without grumbling, fighting, or competing!

Such guidelines for behaviour can be found alongside cooking in prescriptive recipe books. If you spend time with early modern prescriptive literature and printed recipe books, you quickly learn to flip to the front first: elaborate frontispieces often decorate the inside covers of these works. Although recipe books were supposedly intended for elite readers, authors and publishers marketed their products in sophisticated ways. Prescriptive literature conveyed information through images as well as writing. The mix of text and print was supposed to appeal to many different kinds of consumers. Literate people could read the text, while partially-literate people could “read” the images in order to learn about the mechanics of domestic labor in elite homes.

William Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor; Or, The Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of my favorite frontispieces can be found in William Henderson’s Housekeeper’s Instructor; or, the Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). The image shows a busy kitchen, with many workers cooking, carving, stirring, and slicing in order to prepare a meal. Most fascinatingly, the frontispiece shows itself–several people in the image are using recipe books. In the middleground of the picture, an elite woman (marked by her powdered wig) offers a book to a female servant (marked by the knife held in her right hand). At the bottom of the frontispiece, an “Explanation” of the image confirms that the picture shows “a Lady presenting her Servant with The Universal Family Cook who diffident of her own knowledge has recourse to that Work for Information.”

Men are also shown using recipe books. In the foreground of the frontispiece, two male kitchen workers carve a roasted fowl. The figure on the left points with one hand to an illustrated diagram in a book, which indicates how the meat is supposed to be cut, and with the other hand gestures toward the roast. The male figure on the right, who wields the knife, looks toward both the book and his companion for guidance. These men are not reading the text of the guidebook, but are instead examining its pictures in order to learn how to carve correctly.

The kitchen in Universal Family Cook is an ideal cooking space, being calm, pleasant, and productive. It shows both high and low status people cooperating with one another in a friendly manner as they work towards a common goal. Friendliness, cheerfulness, and passivity were also qualities that were idealized in early modern women. A good woman, this image tells us, is like her kitchen: productive and cooperative, efficient and pleasant.

But did “actual” early modern women live up to these expectations?  Did they cooperate and collaborate in their kitchens?  Find out in my next post…

Editors’ note: This blog post is based on chapter 3 of Amanda’s forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). The chapter looks at “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”