Tag Archives: Dinner Show

Dinner and a Show: Magic Tricks at the Medieval Table

By Vanessa Da Silva Baptista

Le Vivendier is a fifteenth-century anonymous French cookbook, surviving in a single miscellany of medical, botanical, and household recipes. It retains an innocuously titled recipe ‘To make a chicken to be served roasted’ [1]  But this is no ordinary recipe for a roast dinner: the cook is instructed to pluck and paint a live chicken so that it appears roasted and place its head under its wing to render the bird unconscious. When the chicken was cut for serving, it would ‘wake up and make off down the table upsetting jugs, goblets and whatnot’ to the surprise, and, no doubt amusement, of the diners. This bizarre recipe is immediately followed by a similarly strange recipe to make a genuinely roasted chicken sing by binding its neck at both ends, filling the throat with mercury and sulphur, and putting the chicken in a hot place.[2] Allegedly, the singing effect was produced by mercury vapour travelling through the chicken’s throat, creating a whistling sound much like stovetop kettle.

Figure 1 – Le Vevendier Recipe ‘To make a chicken sing on the spit and turn’ with an accompanying illustration of said chicken in Richard’s own hand. The image could be simply a doodle or it may act as a finding aid like a manicle © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 86, (c.1271-83) fol, 47r. Creative Commons License: CC-BY-NC 4.0


Medieval cookbooks, a predominantly aristocratic genre recording the cooking practices of courtly head-chefs, frequently contain recipes that aimed to surprise, delight, and awe.[3] For example, the cookbook of the Duke of Savoy’s head-chef, Maistre Chiquart, Du fait du cuisine (1420) included instructions for crafting an enormous pastry castle, adorned with four towers each housing a fantastic dish: an armed boar’s head; a pike cooked three ways; a piglet; and finally, a swan, roasted, redressed in its plumage – all spitting fire.[4]  What makes Le Vivendier interesting is that it was most likely produced in a less affluent environment. Its manuscript context suggests that it was written or commissioned by an individual for their own private use. Additionally, the recipes discussed here were written by a later hand in the blank space following the main text indicating that they were added by a later reader with specific interests.[5] It therefore speaks to a shared late Medieval culture of playful dinner entertainment that was not limited to the wealthy and powerful.

Le Vivendier contains recipes that are concessions to its owner’s class, balancing the desire to provide dinnertime entertainment with their financial capabilities. A recipe to change the colour of wine in Le Ménagier de Paris (1393) further illustrates this point. This recipe was specifically intended to be performed at the table before guests, with the reader instructed to make a powder of red plants and ‘[t]oss it secretly into a glass of wine’.[6] Le Ménagier is addressed to the fifteen-year-old bride of an old  Parisian bourgeois who, while wealthy, would not have been able to afford the same level of spectacle as Maistre Chiquart but clearly still wished to provide entertainment at his dinner table.

Figure 2 – Detail of a boar’s head and redressed swan spitting fire in ‘The Marriage-Feast at Cana,’ by an unknown artist c.1550. Image in the public domain.


That medieval people revelled in playing with their food is further highlighted by informal household recipe collections. In the late thirteenth-century, Richard de Grimhill, a low-ranking Worcester noble, collected recipes that used mercury to make an egg run through the house and make a chicken sing on the spit and turn itself over.[7] The Tollemache Book of Secrets, written in fifteenth-century Suffolk by and for a gentry family, also retains, amongst a plethora of medical, codicological, and other household recipes, two similar English recipes using mercury to animate a cooked chicken and a loaf of bread.[8] In my research on magic tricks in late Medieval Europe, I have found no fewer than thirteen manuscripts, composed between the late thirteenth and fifteenth century in England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, that contain at least one recipe to animate an egg, cooked chicken, or loaf of bread with mercury. Many more have instructions to turn water into wine or make cooked meat appear raw.

Whether at court or in the gentry household, the medieval dinner table was a space for both dining and diversion. Medieval people outside the aristocracy adapted the elaborate and expensive centrepieces displayed on wealthier tables to their own more modest means, exchanging fire-breathing boar’s heads for jumping eggs. These tricks demonstrate that amusement, delight, and spectacle were important aspects to medieval entertaining at all levels of European literate society.

[1] The Vivendier, ed. and trans, Terence Scully (Totnes: Prospect Books, 1997),  81 (recipe 58).

[2]The Vivendier, ed. and trans., Scully, 82-83 (recipe 59).

[3] For an overview of the medieval cookbook as genre see Bruno Laurioux, Une histoire culinaire du moyen âge, (Paris: Champion, 2005), especially 39-41.

[4] Maistre Chiquart, Du fait du cuisine, ed. and trans., Terence Scully (Arizona: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2010),137-145 (recipe 10).

[5] For more on this manuscript see Terence Scully, The Vivendier, 3-15.

[6] Le Ménagier de Paris, trans. Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 330.

[7] Hic incipient experimenta bona et optima, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 86, fol 47r.

[8] Tollemache Book of Secrets Suffolk, Helmingham Hall LH. II., 27r