Tag Archives: Early Modern

“Astonishable composed posset”: Comestible, Curative, and Poison

By Bethan Davies

We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.

A receipt ‘Mrs Fanshaw of Jenkins, her receipt to make a sack posset. the best that is,’ from the receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707). Image © Wellcome Library, London, MS.7113, p.320.

Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.

Posset pot, with a spout for drinking the syrupy liquid (c.1650-1655). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’.  Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments.  Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9),[1] ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).

Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.

However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.

We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5).  The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.

Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.


Novel Liquids: Brandy, Shrub, and Early Modern “Cocktails”

A receipt 'To make Shrub' from a ‘Book of Receipts for Cookery and Pastry 1732 & c.’, attributed to Sarah Tully. (Wellcome Collection, MS.8687, p. 131).
A receipt ‘To make Shrub’ from a ‘Book of Receipts for Cookery and Pastry 1732 & c.’, attributed to Sarah Tully. (Wellcome Collection, MS.8687, p. 131).

Tyler Rainford

Everyone has a favourite drink. Whether it’s a pint of pale ale, a smooth glass of merlot, or a certain cocktail for when we’re feeling fancy, we know what we like and what we’d rather avoid. We’re also very particular about how we drink it. Hold the ice. Shaken not stirred. Deviations from the norm can be seen as a form of alcoholic sacrilege, as today’s debates over the merits of the pre-mixed or pre-batched cocktail might indicate. Everyone has their preferences. In many ways, early modern Britons were similarly pedantic, and recipe books from the period indicate an intense interest in what went into any one drink. This was particularly clear following the emergence of distilled alcohols, which we commonly refer to as “spirits”.

Spirits had long played a vital role in the maintenance of household health and wellbeing in the early modern period. Featuring prominently in English receipt books alongside a host of physicks, syrups, and salves, these curious cordials were designed to alleviate the ailing body and bring a physical respite to the suffering drinker. However, as the seventeenth century progressed, their medical function became increasingly opaque. By the early eighteenth century, distilled spirits were also consumed for their apparent intoxicating effects, fiery flavours, and socially lubricating potential. Although not all contemporaries were enthused by the emergence of these new tipples, recipe book writers demonstrated an acute awareness of how these liquors could be crafted to serve individual tastes and personal pleasures.

This newfound taste for distilled spirits was most evident in the case of flavoured brandies, and recipes abound for brandies made from, or infused with, a host of fruits, sugars, and spices. Cherries, raspberries, oranges, and lemons were enthusiastically squashed and squeezed into this heady mix. An anonymous receipt book, possibly kept at Worth House, near Tiverton in Devon between 1714 and 1773, even contained a recipe for rhubarb brandy, combining rhubarb, cardamom seeds, saffron and nutmeg. The author considered it an ‘an excellent receipt’ but suggested no obvious medical benefits.

Another popular beverage, infused with the juices and rinds of citrus fruits, was shrub. Although relatively time consuming, this fruity liquor was easy to make and did not require the use of a still.  An example from the receipt book of Rebecca Tallamy, likely kept between 1735 and 1738, dictated:

To a Gallon of good Rum put a Quart of Juce fresh squees’d & strain’d, two pounds of good Loaf sugar, take half the Lemon rinds & six of Oranges & steep them one night in the Juce & Rum then strain it through a Coarse Cloth or Bag into a vessel or Bottle, Shake it three or four Times a day for Fourteen Days then let stand to settle till it is as water, then draw it off in Bottles Cork them well & hosen them down, besure not to put in any decay’d fruit nor a Sweet one.

(Wellcome Collection, MS.4759, fo. 173v.)

On the one hand, Tallamy’s receipt for shrub was straightforward. It contained three key ingredients – citrus fruits, sugar, and a form of liquor – that were to be mixed, strained, and shaken to produce what we might define as an early modern cocktail. However, beyond these three basic ingredients, there was no one prescriptive formula to be followed. Contemporaries either made do with what they had or adapted receipts to suit their individual tastes and preferences. The only restriction was to avoid using overripe or rotten fruit. Beyond this, the choice was theirs to make.

Another receipt book, supposedly belonging to Sarah Tully (c. 1708/9 – 1736), contained two recipes for shrub, each written in a different hand. One specified it should be made with brandy and three pints of boiling milk, whereas another suggested the reader could substitute the brandy for rum, ‘if you think Proper’, but made no mention of milk. Despite being penned only a few pages apart; these two receipts were considerably different, suggesting there was no one ‘proper’ way to make shrub. Personal preferences were paramount and could change over time. Another receipt book, likely composed by Anne Lisle in 1748, used the juice from ripe currants alongside a gallon of rum, brandy, or arrack, suggesting the choice of liquor was subject to taste. Similarly, a receipt book belonging to Anne Talbot of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire claimed shrub could be mixed with white wine, cider, or brandy. The reader could choose ‘which [they] please’.

Clearly, shrub was a liqueur drunk for pleasure. But how was it consumed? Although some contemporaries might have drunk shrub as it was, it was frequently mixed with water to make punch: an immensely popular beverage with fascinating maritime origins. This choice is understandable. Undiluted, shrub was likely very strong, and very tart. Its zing needed to be tamed and receipt book authors made this clear. Sarah Tully’s receipt referenced above suggested that the liquor could be mixed with water to create an ‘Excellent punch at once’. Another receipt book, attributed to Mary Bent, contained a receipt for shrub with the addendum: ‘In Makeing the punch put two pints of Watter to one of Shrubb’. Shrub could be quickly transformed at a moment’s notice, suggesting it was a highly adaptable beverage.

In this respect, rather than being served as a drink in and of itself, shrub could be compared to an alcoholic squash, or a premixed cocktail. A point that might give some snobbish mixologists today pause for thought. It was bottled, sealed, and stored in keen anticipation of revels to come. Preparation was a fundamental part of this process. The prevalence of shrub in contemporary receipt books provides but one example of how individualised and adaptable the landscape of drink could be in early eighteenth-century England.


Tyler Rainford is a second year PhD student at the University of Bristol, funded by the SWW DTP. His research explores the role of intoxicants in early modern England, with a specific focus on how distilled spirits informed ideas about the self and society over the course of this period. More broadly, he is interested in consumption, work, and identity in the early modern Atlantic world, c. 1600 – 1800.

Around the Table: Events

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Last month, many Recipes Project contributors and readers participated in a virtual conference on Food and the Book: 1300-1800. This exciting event, spread out in sessions over two weeks, was co-sponsored by the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library and Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon Foundation initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I had the pleasure of co-organizing the conference along with David Goldstein and Allen Grieco. Many individuals at the Newberry Library and on the Before Farm to Table team were involved with the planning and execution of this conference, including our very own Recipes Project co-editor Amanda Herbert.

Food and the Book was planned as an interdisciplinary conference which examined the book as a primary intersection for foodways throughout the premodern world. Focused primarily on Europe, the conference examined the language and imagery of food in all kinds of books, including printed cookbooks, manuscript recipe books, literature, historical documents, religious writings, medical treatises, and engravings.

Although the conference had originally been planned as an in-person event, the arrival of COVID-19 necessitated a virtual format. And while many things could have gone awry, the conference appeared to run effortlessly thanks to a flurry of behind-the-scenes technical work by so many at the Newberry and Folger. Each session had a large and enthusiastic audience, particularly our public sessions, which were hosted as Zoom webinars and live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube. Thanks to the widespread interest, the Q&A portions of sessions were lively and full of creative and interdisciplinary inquiry and suggestion.

A screenshot of Food and the Book’s first public session, “Cooking by the Book: A Conversation with Chefs and Writers.”

Two public sessions focusing on current food issues, particularly those of minority and marginalized communities, bookended the conference. The first, a session on food writing, featured a panel of distinguished food writers, historians, and chefs: Tamar Adler, Irina Dumitrescu, Paul Fehribach, and Michael Twitty. Their conversation, linking the premodern topics to be covered over the next two weeks to modern food writing, ranged from the definition of a recipe, hunger, and the pleasure of food. In the final public session, chef Sean Sherman and scholars Elizabeth Hoover and Eli Suzukovich III celebrated Indigenous food cultures. The panelists invited the audience to expand their notions of historical records and consider food beyond colonial contexts and frameworks. They each emphasized that the range of Indigenous culinary activities like food cultivation, cooking, and medicine, actively use a historical knowledge base carefully curated and preserved over time.

The remaining sessions featured innovative programming, incorporating not only a wide range of topics and scholars, but also a variety of formats, including presentations, roundtables, and seminar discussions of pre-circulated papers. In order to build a sense of community potentially lost by hosting a conference online, Food and the Book participants frequently live tweeted, transcribed part of Folger Library recipe book at a virtual Transcribathon with Heather Wolfe, enjoyed a virtual happy hour, and got a taste of the Newberry Library’s holdings of food-related books in brief video collection presentations. So, despite the challenges of a virtual conference in terms of creating community and networking, there were opportunities for personal engagement and conviviality.

The Recipes Project community is undoubtedly familiar with many of the Food and the Book’s thirty-five presenters, as they have frequently appeared on the Recipes Project as contributors. Just to provide a few examples, Marissa Nicosia and Molly Taylor-Poleskey discussed their work in roundtables on “Cookbooks and Recipe Books” and “Documenting Food History in Archival Sources.” Sara Pennell presented recent research on kitchen waste in early modern English households in a session about “Material Kitchens and the Social Life of Early Modern Food,” while Jennifer Park simultaneously delighted and disgusted the audience with her description of eating mummies in a broader discussion with Nicholas Jones and Gitanjali Shahani about “Race and Food in the Early Modern Book.” And in a discussion of pre-circulated papers on literary ecologies, Andy Crow, Madeline Bassnett, and Kathleen Long heartily considered topics ranging from rationing words and food in poetry, weather and climate concerns, and the excesses of Henri III’s court. Larger digital projects like CoReMA, EMROC, and the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network were also represented in a panel on “Digitizing Food and the Book.”

While the overall breadth of research throughout the conference was quite energizing, perhaps one of the particularly exciting points was the number of early career researchers and graduate students. ECRs were represented in many sessions and a graduate student lightning round featured the work of seven graduate students. These students, hailing from departments of history, literature, and archeology and institutions around the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, demonstrate the long future ahead for research in food and the book.

The conference also revealed significant gaps in past and current research, and the need for inclusion of a more diverse body of scholars in this area of study. As evinced by the discussions of premodern racial and identity issues during Food and the Book, there is much more research in this area which can be done. Several sessions also highlighted gaps and drawbacks in both the accessibility of archival and special collections materials and efforts to mitigate accessibility concerns through digitization. There are many opportunities for growth and expansion of the study of food through books, and many prospects for collaboration and support of this scholarly community.

The Food and the Book conference may have concluded, but recordings of all the sessions are available on YouTube. Please watch what you can, and let’s continue the conversations started at the conference and communicate virtually (and hopefully again soon in person!) about all of the exciting research yet to be done.

Thanks to all involved in Food and the Book, including the presenters and the planning teams at the Newberry Library and Folger Institute, especially David Goldstein, Allen Grieco, Lia Markey and the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies, Kathleen Lynch and the Folger Institute, and the Before Farm to Table Team, especially Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

Around the Table: The Making and Knowing Project

This month on Around the Table, we have a very special treat. Many of our contributors have been a part of the Making and Knowing Project and we have enjoyed occasional updates on the project throughout the years. Here, we have an update and reflection provided by previous Recipes Project contributor Tillmann Taape, in coordination with his former Making and Knowing team.

In 2014, Pamela Smith founded the Making and Knowing Project, an initiative in pedagogy and research to investigate the intersection of “craft” and “science” in the Renaissance. Combining experimental laboratory work with more traditional ways of doing history, the Project has explored a unique manuscript source, BnF Ms. Fr. 640, a collection of notes and recipes on craft practices from 1580s Toulouse (see Pamela Smith’s introduction to the Project in a previous post on the Recipes Blog). Over the past six years, the Making and Knowing Team and students of Columbia University’s “Craft and Science” seminar have accumulated insights into early modern materials, making processes, and the relationship between nature and human artifice. Some of these previously featured on this blog, in posts on making powder for hourglasses and the role of sensory perception in artisanal expertise. The sum total of our work has recently been published in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France: A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, containing intensively marked-up versions of the manuscript text (diplomatic and normalised transcriptions plus an English translation), over a hundred essays by collaborating scholars, “expert makers,” and students, as well as other resources such as a glossary of over 13,000 technical terms in Middle French. [1] Looking back over the past years, our intense experimental, historical, and digital engagement with this fascinating text has changed the way we think about recipes and how to read them as historians.

Recipes, instructions, observations: texts of action

Fig. 1. A page from BnF Ms. Fr. 640 showing headers and text units. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Source: gallica.bnf.fr.

Ms. Fr. 640 consists of around one thousand semantic units of text, usually with a heading in a distinct italic script, followed by anything from a few lines of text to several pages of densely-written observations, corrections, and marginal annotations (see Fig. 1). Are these recipes? We started out calling them that, and to be sure, many of them have the structure and elements one would expect of a recipe: a statement of the end product(s), often in the header, enumerations of ingredients, with or without indication of the amount, and instructions for what to do with them, in more or less the intended sequence – sometimes the “author-practitioner,” as we call him, gets halfway through a sentence of instructions and only just saves himself with a “…having first done x.” [2] There is even a group of entries/text units on making varnishes and colouring wood that fits the definition of a recipe like a glove: the great majority start with the imperative prens or prenes (“take!”), the French equivalent of the Latin imperative recipe that gives us the English word for recipe. Four of these are explicitly labelled as a “recipe” (recepte), as in “Another recipe for making varnish” (fol. 73v).

But there are also pages filled with magic tricks, pranks, silly puns, and early modern equivalents of the dad-joke (How do you fix a candlestick to the wall without making a hole? – Have a servant hold it). Other passages break out of the recipe form through their sheer meandering length. Once the author-practitioner gets going on his favourite topic – different types of sand for making casting molds – he often does not stop for at least a few pages. What starts as a note on “experimented sands,” for example, promptly grows into a lengthy discussion of diverse sands and their merits, including the author-practitioner’s own observations and speculations about future improvements, more closely resembling detailed field notes than a mere recipe (fol. 85v–87v). Given this variety, we eventually decided to call these units of text “entries” – a more neutral and capacious term that takes its cue from the overall structure of the text more than the content.

It is clear, however, that the vast majority of entries – “recipes” or not – have one thing in common: they are texts of action. Whether walking potential readers through metalworking techniques or observing how different artisans (from day labourers to goldsmiths) do their jobs, these entries encode sequences of gestures and material processes. The challenge for historians is that writing encodes action imperfectly. However detailed the recipe, there is always much that remains unsaid, and perhaps cannot be said, but only known and experienced by the body performing the action. This is true of modern recipes, of course, but add a few hundred years, and a recipe becomes like a fossilised, flattened husk of a once-dynamic process unfolding in real time. Much of the Making and Knowing Project’s work has focused on how to re-hydrate this instant noodle of practical expertise to the extent where it makes a certain amount of sense to modern historians. Reading alone, it turns out, doesn’t get us very far. With their sparse prose and minimal structure, often only amounting to a list of ingredients and a handful of imperatives (chop, mix, heat, etc.), recipes deflect the kinds of analytic tools that historians are used to unleash on their sources. In a sense, the Project was founded around the idea that recipes and other texts of action become more fully accessible when we place them back in a context of action, reading them with our hands rather than just with our eyes.

Performative reading and emergent knowledge

Thus the Making and Knowing Laboratory was born. Housed in a 1940s chemistry lab at Columbia University, it has been home to cohorts of students’ hands-on reconstructions of objects and techniques described in Ms. Fr. 640. In its drawers and shelves, a peculiar material microcosm has accumulated, from tiny vials of pigments to counterfeit jasper made from buffalo horn to preternaturally preserved plants and animals.

While it seemed obvious from the outset that reconstructing or “acting out” recipes would tell us more than simply reading them, precisely what the payoff would be was not at all clear. In that sense, the Project was itself a true experiment. In a recent article that forms part of a special issue on “Rethinking Performative Methods in the History of Science,” the Making and Knowing Team had occasion to reflect on what we have gained from our reading-by-doing approach to recipes, for both pedagogy and research.[3]

Fig. 2. Foot of a life-cast lizard showing traces of the pin used to fix the animal in place during moulding (detail). Wenzel Jamnitzer, Writing box, c. 1560, silver, 22.7 x 10.2 cm x 6 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer, 1155 bis KK 1164. Photograph by Pamela H. Smith and Tonny Beentjes.

One of the key outcomes of hands-on work is that it recalibrates our eyes and hands in a way that allows us to appreciate the material literacy artisans of the past must have possessed. Early on in their research on lifecasting, a technique whereby a real animal or plant is molded in plaster and then cast in metal, Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes noted hitherto unexplained knob-like protrusions on the feet of lifecast lizards (Fig. 2). Their reconstruction of lifecasting instructions in Ms. Fr. 640 revealed that these protrusions were caused by metal pins used to fix the dead lizard on its clay base before molding.[4] This performative research produced a more informed reading not only of the text, but also of surviving lifecast objects whose subtle traces of the making process now revealed themselves to the attuned eye.

Starting out as a way of answering pre-formulated questions, reconstruction also turned out to be a powerful way of raising new questions that do not arise from reading alone. The work of making hourglass sand according to a recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (introduced in a previous post by Stephanie Pope on this blog) involved mixing salt with molten lead. Having got this far, our students balked at the instructions to wash this mixture in water. Would this dissolve the salt and thus undo their work? As it turns out, it does not, but their question sparked further research into the interaction of hourglass sand and water, turning up a fascinating story: until the middle of the eighteenth century, it was impossible to blow an hourglass in one piece, and since there was always a danger of moisture entering through an improperly sealed joint between the two halves, it was imperative that hourglass sand be non-hygroscopic, i.e. non-reactive with water. Thus the hands-on reading of the recipe led to detailed questions about materials, production, and calibration – questions that would not have been raised by a “dry” reading of the recipe.

Other entries encode cultural and spiritual meanings that emerge fully in doing rather than reading. A recipe for burn salve, for example, includes instructions to wash with holy water for specific intervals, measured by the time it takes to recite the paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer in Latin). The connections to religion and timekeeping practices are obvious at first read, but the full extent of their relationship with the process and the final product only emerge when we immerse ourselves in the making process. As we add holy water while reciting prayers, we can witness the dramatic transformation of the transparent yellowish mixture of wax and linseed oil into a thick, fluffy substance of an opaque white – a vivid material instantiation of the spiritual purification implicit in the use of prayers and holy water (Vid. 1).

Vid. 1. Burn salve made according to the recipe in Ms. Fr. 640 (fol. 103r). Note the transformation of the transparent yellow mixture of melted wax and linseed oil into a thick white salve (beginning at around 04:15). (c) The Making and Knowing Project (CC BY-NC-SA).

Such insights from our own experience into the mental and cultural worlds of people in the past are powerful and evocative, but they need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Historians have shown that early modern people had diverse and completely different ways of understanding and experiencing their bodies compared to us moderns. For a start, few of us trained our bodies to specific manual tasks and expertise through years of apprenticeship. And that is before we get into problems of historical authenticity surrounding the use of pure modern ingredients and reading the paternoster off a laptop screen rather than reciting it by heart from lifelong habit. Properly considered, however, these limitations of reconstruction can be turned into a virtue, especially in a pedagogic context. They force students to think carefully about the historicity of materials and embodied experience, and thus help them problematise terms such as “body,” “craft,” and “nature” – categories that historians take for granted at their peril. Future researchers leave the laboratory with a greater critical awareness of what it means to understand material processes and to know by doing rather than through text, both in the present and the past.

All of this underscores a key point about recipes as texts: they are texts of action, and to fully read them, we have to get our hands dirty, however imperfect our modern ingredients and bodies may be for the job. The knowledge encoded in recipes is practical and, to use Pamela Smith’s term, emergent: it unfolds not in the reading, but in the doing. At best, reconstruction allows us glimpses into past worlds of materials and expertise; at worst, it shows us the gaps in the recipe that most early modern artisans or householders would have easily filled in, and the gaping holes in our own mastery of the requisite materials, gestures, and ideas.

The Making and Knowing Project is committed to sharing its own “recipe” for the kind of historical, practical, and digital work that we have been doing. In addition to the Digital Critical Edition, we are preparing a “Research and Teaching Companion” – a scalable template for hands-on teaching and online editions that teachers and researchers can adapt to their own needs. It will be ready in about a year’s time, and we look forward to bringing it to the “Around the Table” series.

Thanks, Tillmann, for the update on Making and Knowing! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.


[1] Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano, eds., Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640 (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020), https://edition640.makingandknowing.org.

[2] Francisco Alonso-Almeida, “Genre conventions in English recipes, 1600–1800,” in Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550–1800, eds. Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 68–90.

[3] Taape, Tillmann, Pamela H. Smith, and Tianna Helena Uchacz, “Schooling the Eye and Hand: Performative Methods of Research and Pedagogy in the Making and Knowing Project,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 43, no. 3 (2020): 323–40.

[4] Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2010): 128–79.