Tag Archives: European

Around the Table Podcast: Odeuropa with William Tullett

By Sarah Peters Kernan

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In this episode, Sarah Kernan talks to William Tullett, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York and a Lead in the Horizon 2020 funded project Odeuropa. This European research project was designed to show that the sense of smell and scent, or olfactory, heritage is an important way to connect, promote, and protect Europe’s cultural heritage. This episode was recorded just before the project’s funding period concluded at the end of 2023. Follow William Tullett and Odeuropa on X (formerly Twitter) for updates.


Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0


Odeuropa Website

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage

Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit

Heritage Smell Library

Historical Scent Collection

Mentioned in the Show

Uncommon Senses Conference, Centre for Sensory Studies

American Historical Review, “Knowing by Sensing: How to Teach the History of Smell”


Museum Ulm


Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Dr. William Tullett, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York and a Lead in the Horizon 2020 funded project Odeuropa. This European research project was designed to show that the sense of smell and scent, or olfactory, heritage is an important way to connect, promote, and protect Europe’s cultural heritage.

Will, thank you so much for joining me today!

William Tullett 00:53

Thanks for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sarah Kernan 00:55

Could you tell us a bit about Odeuropa? What’s the purpose of this project? Who is participating? Just some general information about it.

William Tullett 01:05

Yeah, so it’s a project that, well it’s still running, although it started in 2021 in the midst of Covid and will finish at the end of this year. Because of that it feels like it’s been running for a much longer time than it has, I think. But the main idea of the project is to use a kind of multidisciplinary mix of methods that includes not just history and art history and literary studies, but also computer science, so natural language processing and computer vision to work with both digitized text and images from the past, um, and also heritage science. So, kind of working with museums, um, and what we would call GLAMs, so galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, but also with chemistry, analytical chemistry, that allows us to examine the smells that objects from the past exude, um, and to try and preserve them for the future.

William Tullett 02:04

So it’s, ah it’s, an interdisciplinary project. It involves people across 6 countries, 7 different languages, multiple different universities, so it’s been quite a feat of organization. Um, and I’m luckily not the chief PI. So the PI is Inger Leemans in Amsterdam, who with her other Amsterdam colleagues including Marieke van Erp, have been the ones kind of really organizing and making sure that we all do what we’re told. So it’s been quite a big project and an exciting project to be part of and we’re now getting to the stage where we’re finally releasing a lot of the kind of results and final outputs of the project for people to kind of look at and play with. So there are tools. There are books. There are various websites and bits of digitized data for people to look at. So we’re now at the point we’re encouraging people to engage with all of that really.

Sarah Kernan 02:59

But before we get into all of those products that are coming out of Odeuropa, um, could you speak a little bit about how the project was initially developed and how the team came together. Because this, as you mentioned, it is a very large project. It’s a very impressive group of researchers who have come together.

William Tullett 03:16

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, so the project came together really, um, from the Amsterdam side, from Inger Leemans and Marieke van Erp and Arno Bosse, who are in the Dutch side of the project. And I think one of the things that they did that was really good was, and that you don’t see all the time now we’ve got Zoom for everything, is that they invited all of the people that they wanted to be involved in the project to Amsterdam, right. So we had multiple workshops together where we kind of talked about the kind of things that we’d like to do, the kind of outputs that we wanted to see from the project. And I think one of the big challenges with these big interdisciplinary projects of the sort that European Horizon 2020 funds, is that you want projects that give outputs that are state-of-the-art, not just for the historians on the project, but also for the people who are doing compute the computer science side of it, The heritage science side of it. So trying to make sure that all of the people involved are doing work that they find kind of useful and cutting edge and is going to advance knowledge in their own disciplines. And I think smell has, you know, was a useful thing to focus those various disciplines around, partly because it’s a sense and a stimuli that really presents a whole series of problems.

William Tullett 04:36

So, like linguistically smell is a problem, right? It’s difficult to describe smells. How do we find them? How do we categorize them? What does it mean to visualize smell in an image and how do we identify them in images? Can we archive smells? How do we archive and preserve them? So kind of all of these questions that I think resonated with all the different disciplines that were involved in the project made smell a kind of, to use the slang of grants people, a kind of wicked problem for us to kind of have work with and um, really the project, the call that we applied for, because obviously you know you can’t just come up with good ideas, there has to be a call out there that fits it, and the call that we aimed at was one that was about reconnecting digital resources with museums. And so essentially what we’re trying to do is use smell as a way to connect all of these digitized texts, databases, and image databases, and archival catalogs, and so on, with the kind of experience of heritage in heritage sites and museums and spaces by bringing smells back into those spaces, And so that’s really what the kind of project has been all about and sort of geared towards.

Sarah Kernan 05:51

As you alluded to, smell is a difficult topic to work with in many ways and it’s quite ephemeral and in so many ways and contexts, it’s different to so many people. Why should we be interested in studying and preserving and contextualizing smells and olfactory heritage and experiences, especially ones in the past? Why does that matter and how does Odeuropa fit into that?

William Tullett 06:22

So I think the reason that historicizing smell, preserving smell, contextualizing smells both in the past and present matters is because smell is a kind of fundamental part of our everyday experience. It’s a fundamental part of how not just humans engage with the world but also other animals more than human animals, as well. And if one of the goals of academic research in general is to understand the ways that we and other creatures experience the world then smell should therefore kind of be a fundamental part of that. But I think also there’s been a tendency ever since really the nineteenth century in museums, and it’s a tendency that luckily is now slowly being undone, to make museums and the experience of heritage all about the visual or at least the audio visual. And so if smell is really central and fundamental to our everyday experience and indeed was central and fundamental to people’s everyday experience in the past, then you know it makes sense to try and reintegrate that into museum spaces particularly actually in cases where you know the artifacts themselves or the paintings or other objects in museums and heritage sites have had particularly important olfactory or smell-related connections. It’s the classic case of, well we can have an incense burner in a glass case, but you know the whole point was that this thing was supposed to be used to burn incense and that had a smell and indeed had other kind of visual, tactile qualities to it.

William Tullett 07:56

So, I think it’s necessary for us to kind of recontextualize all of the things in museums that we have, but I think there’s kind of a much bigger broader reason why engaging with smell is really important. And that’s that many people today are often alienated from their sense of smell. And yet if we are to respond to the massive challenges that face the globe in the you know in the next five, ten years, we need to engage more with our environment and understand our environment better. And one way to do that is through smell. So by engaging people’s noses, by engaging not just academics and students with smell, but museums and libraries and the people that work in them and the audiences that use them, by engaging those constituencies with their nose, what we’re trying to do is also create a sense of olfactory awareness and encourage people to attend to the evidence of their noses more.

William Tullett 09:04

And a simple example of why that’s important is we’re all familiar with the idea of sell by dates and use by dates on packaging for food. Now if you’re in the seventeenth century and you went to buy food, you would go to a market and you would pick stuff up and feel it and touch it and you know put your knife into butter and take out the center of it so you could smell it. You know, all of this kind of very multisensory interaction. And now in the twentieth and twenty-first century, smell in supermarkets and other spaces that sell food, you know smells are still important but they’re fundamentally about trying to get people to spend their money. They’re about creating a desire for products rather than allowing people to assay quality of products. And so when there’s now been a move to try and get people away from using sell by dates and use by dates and instead just to kind of trust their own senses in order to be more sustainable by using food if it’s still fresh. Actually it’s been really interesting to see that many people are not able necessarily to smell out whether milk is fresh or not right, or whether it’s gone off or not because they’re just not used to using their noses. So that’s a kind of simple example I think of why encouraging people to be attentive to the evidence of their nose and getting people to engage with their nose is quite important from the point of view of sustainability and environmental awareness and you know, engaging our students, engaging museums and their audiences with smell is one way to create that more sustained olfactory awareness among people. So there’s a kind of wider social role I think that smell can play and history is one way to get that to people.

Sarah Kernan 10:48

That’s a really wonderful connection from the historical to how we can use that today in present day contexts. How does Odeuropa actually collect information, research that information about smells? What is the process of what Odeuropa is doing?

William Tullett 11:07

So, one of the things that Odeuropa is trying to do is to get smell out of lots and lots and lots of digitized archives. So, for anybody who’s listening to this podcast who is a historian, you know, or has worked with historical texts online, you’ll be aware that there are a load and those of great databases now full of historical source material. For example, Early English Books Online, or particularly relevant for this podcast, the Wellcome Library’s amazing collection of digitized recipe books. But we wanted to be able to do is kind of cut down the kind of needle in the haystack work of finding smell in those documents and to extract as many examples of smell occurring in digitized texts, historical texts, as possible. And so, we composed a massive dataset of historical text that includes text in English, German, Italian, Dutch, French, Slovenian, and some Latin. And then we trained models to be able to detect references to smell in those texts. And so we have kind of seed words like smell, or stink, or you know, kind of key olfactory terms. But then we also are looking for the different, what the natural language processing people would call frame elements. So, who’s doing the smelling, where is the smelling occurring, how are they describing what they’re smelling, all of that kind of data as well. What are the emotions that are connected to the example. And so, we trained, we trained models by annotating texts ourselves and then using those to train to train the models and let them loose on this historical text data, and then it’s gathered loads and loads and loads of references to smell.

William Tullett 12:57

I mean, you know, I think we’re now at the stage in the Smell Explorer, which is our kind of online database which anybody can go and look at, of smell excerpts, I think we’re now at the stage where there’s millions of references to smells from text data in there, including text from Gallica, the big online French digitized collections, the Deutsche Historic Archive, like loads of different text. So that’s the text part, then there’s the images part which is much more difficult because how do you decide what’s smelly in an image?

Sarah Kernan 13:29

Right? Exactly.

William Tullett 13:31

Yeah, that’s a problem, right? Like and it’s a problem that kind of, I think you could easily annoy a lot of art historians by answering badly, and so one of the things that we did early on in the project was to think about, well, what are the types of objects, or animals, or gestures, or spaces, which in different periods from the 1600s to the 1920s were thought to evoke smell? So there are really obvious things like gestures around, like holding the nose, or taking snuff, or smoking tobacco, for example, or throwing up, which is something that occurs in lots of allegories of smell, particularly Dutch ones, in the seventeenth century. And, but also we’re looking at animals, so like dogs, civet cats, you know, that were particularly associated with smell, and then also flowers as well. So, we did a whole kind of side project where we were training models to look and identify different flowers in still lives.

William Tullett 14:33

That’s been an interesting and tricky part of the project, but essentially it involves drawing boxes around objects and then training computers to then find more of those objects. That’s the very short form explanation. So, for example, we trained it to find gloves because early modern gloves were almost always perfumed. So, if we can find lots and lots of examples of gloves we can, kind of, that’s one olfactory object that we can find. Or we looked at chimneys and then we looked at chimneys with smoke and without smoke to think about the representation of smell and pollution, or different smoke coming from different objects. So if it’s coming from a chimney, it’s smoke, if it’s kind of a cloud of smoke that we’ve identified that’s coming from a teapot then it’s more of a kind of steam, right? So, thinking about different forms of vapor and how you identify them in images. So that’s the text and image stuff and then the other part of it, I guess, is the heritage side of it, which has involved some quite different methods.

William Tullett 15:30

And for the heritage science side of it, we’ve kind of had a mix of social science methods. So, for example, one of our case studies was the smell of heritage vehicles, particularly cars, and we ended up interviewing lots of car enthusiasts about like kind of do they value the smells of their cars and how would they describe them? We also, but then, we also used scientific methods. So, we used various forms of pump and other that that would basically pump air over a fiber and the fiber would extract the volatile organic compounds. So then once you’ve captured the volatile organic compounds, you take them to a lab, you put them in a gas chromatography mass spectrometry machine, which then allows you to essentially see which smells are, you know, which compounds are making up the smell of that particular car, right. So, it was a mix of kind of social science stuff and more kind of what people wrongly or rightly might call hard sciences like chemistry. So, it’s a truly interdisciplinary project and it’s partly thinking about, I think, the way in which smells and the impressions that they leave are not just textual but also actually materially about us today, which I think the kind of car example really nicely gives you a sense of.

Sarah Kernan 16:56


William Tullett 16:57

So yeah, whole different mix of methods to extract smells. And hopefully we’ll keep to use, keep using that multidisciplinary mix into the future, because I think that’s kind of the future of smell studies and sensory studies.

Sarah Kernan 17:09

That’s really fascinating how many, how many different sides there are to this project and how many different disciplines are converging in one place. Um.

William Tullett 17:19

Yeah. I mean I think that’s always been a strength of sensory studies right? So, like, sensory studies you know is a field that really comes from anthropology and geography, but now has this kind of rich interdisciplinary mix of methods. And if you go to the Uncommon Senses conference which is the big kind of interdisciplinary sensory studies conference in Concordia in Montreal every two years, you’ll kind of see a whole rich array of people doing a whole different series of methodologies, from kind of more common historical literary, art historical types of thing, to people who are doing like research on senses and spider sex. And you know we had a whole panel where it was people getting to play with different types of tactile technologies like rumble chairs and tools for training dentists that involved scraping off virtual plaque and all this kind of stuff. So, I think there’s kind of a sense in which we are just drawing on a tradition within sensory studies that is very multidisciplinary in really interesting ways.

Sarah Kernan 18:21

Now that Odeuropa is coming to a close, could you talk a bit about some of its outputs, the products that have come of Odeuropa, and whether or not those have achieved Odeuropa’s main goals.

William Tullett 18:37

Well, of course we’ve achieved all of our main goals on Odeuropa, and I’m not going to suggest otherwise. I mean, I think, I think in some ways that we’ve achieved and um, exceeded in many respects what we set out to do and that’s partly because as soon as we started to talk about smell and the past when we announced the project in late November 2020, the amount of interest we got was absolutely incredible. And that’s led to lots of opportunities like the American Historical Review where we’ve done a series of articles with them that’s included the first ever published smell in a historical journal with its own DOI, right? So, you know we’ve been able to do this extra stuff that we never planned in the first place but has, I think, pushed the field forward in really interesting ways. But the main outputs that we kind of planned to do, which we’ve also managed to do in the time that we’ve had, um the Smell Explorer, which is as I’ve said before the kind of big data set online where people can browse all of the text data that we’ve gathered and image data that we’ve gathered. So that has millions of references on it and people can freely use that online and there’ll be a link in the show notes for people to look at that. We are hoping in the future we’ll be able to add more data to that. The problem is, of course, with anything like this is it costs time and money to process data to put more in, but there’s already another project going on called POEM in the Netherlands which is all about early modern English literature and poetry and smell, and we’re hoping to integrate more data from that project into the Explorer.

William Tullett 20:14

And then the other things we’ve done. We’ve got the Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage which I’ve kind of been the editor-in-chief of, which is an ever-expanding resource and we very much plan to keep adding entries to that. So if you want to write about a smell or a particular nose and way of smelling in the past or a particular kind of place or smellscape, then please do get in touch with me. Very happy to welcome more entries to that. But the encyclopedia also has alongside the entries what we call storylines, which are a way of representing smell not just in the form of a kind of linear text as you would get in a kind of article or a book, but in the form of kind of interactive hypertext stories. So we use the open source tool Twine, which some listeners may be familiar with, that basically allows you to create digital choose-your-own-adventure type stories as a way to create stories that kind of, you could use smell to leap between different places and times in the past, right. And kind of making real use of smell’s full potential there to crisscross across times and places. So there are lots of storylines for people to explore in the Encyclopedia as well. And then there’s the Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit which is kind of really an attempt to give people the resources, particularly in museums and heritage sites, to integrate more smell into their practice. And so that contains lots of advice on kind of how to find stories that you can tell about or with smell in your collections, about how to kind of work to create smells and then diffuse them in a space, different diffusion methods that people might want to use for example, and also has information on kind of the risks to be aware of, right, because lots of conservators and other people are quite nervous about using smells in museum spaces. So that’s like a 200 and something page PDF that you can download online. But there’s also a series of resources connected to that that people can use, for example, to create smell walks around their own museums and heritage sites, or cards that they can use to kind of do storyboarding to think about smell in their collections and how they can tell stories with smell.

William Tullett 22:31

And then the final thing, I guess, that the final big kind of public-facing thing that we’ve produced which is at the moment accessible to fewer people because it’s not online. And one of the beauties of smell is that it frequently resists digitization in an ever more online and virtual world. And, but, the final example is something that I can show on camera but you won’t be able to see because you’re listening to this. But what I’ve produced is this magical box and it contains twelve different scents that we’ve worked on with perfumers during the project. Re-creations of different historical smellscapes or smells, some of which were kind of, very much imaginary, sort of, creative interpretations. So we’ve got the smell of hell in there which is based on looking at the way the smell of hell is described in seventeenth century sermons, and then working with a perfumer to interpret them. Some of them are kind of more based on looking at recipes. So, we’ve got pomander and perfumed gloves in there. Both kind of based around an interpretation of early modern recipes. So it’s a real range of different scents and the aim is to give those kits to museums and then to work with them on integrating them into some of their curating and education practices in attempt to get smell into more, into more people’s lives right? We kind of, and all of this, the Toolkit the Smell Kit, they’re all based on things that we did during the project as well. So we had a kind of smell tools that we arranged with smells at ah Ulm Museum in Germany, we did a whole workshop on malodors and kind of how to use, which was partly about you know how do we use bad smells in a heritage context. And of course we started during the pandemic so we kind of had to innovate and use some different methods to get smells to people and so some of that material has ended up in the Toolkit, as well. Different ways to distribute scents to people for events. So it’s all based on those three years of experience and research. So yeah, there’ll be links in there. There’ll be links in the show notes. Please do look at the Encyclopedia and the Smell Explorer and download the Toolkit. And if you do do look at them or use them then get in touch with us and let us know what you do with them.

Sarah Kernan 25:00

That’s fantastic! That, that box is very impressive. It really is a little magical box of smells that you were showing. Will that be available for anyone to try to get a hold of, or is that exclusively for museums?

William Tullett 25:15

So at the moment it’s exclusively for partners that we’re working with and the people who attended our kind of big end event which was in Amsterdam last week. But we’re also doing something else with the box and the smells, in that they’re going to be preserved in the Osmothèque. So for those who don’t know what the Osmothèque is, it’s essentially the world’s largest archive of perfumes. And they, Odeuropa and the Osmothèque have collaborated so that the Osmothèque can begin to host a heritage smell collection there, which would include our smells and hopefully in the future more smells with the scents themselves and the documentation that we’ve produced with them. The hope is that more places like the Osmothèque will begin to kind of preserve smells as well and that in the end we’ll encourage a culture where archived smells are publicly accessible to people on a wider basis in the way that say video or text or audio are. I think we’ve got a long way until we can we can get to that position. But that’s kind of like a much longer term goal for us.

Sarah Kernan 26:25

Great. Has anything surprised you or the team as you have been working on Odeuropa? Have you have you come across anything whether it’s a smell or a story or a description or any new conclusions that have just really knocked everyone’s socks off?

William Tullett 26:44

It’s always very difficult to answer, isn’t it, when you’re somebody who’s kind of like, knee deep in a subject area. Stuff that you will find fascinating and that knocks your socks off will probably be quite boring to lots of other people and seem like a kind of minor discovery. But, I think that the thing for me that has been really interesting and surprising. So, the first thing has been the public reaction to it which has been really welcoming and really engaged and really fascinated with what we’re doing in a way that I’m not sure I expected. And I think hopefully that will open up opportunities for more people to do this kind of work because it will encourage more researchers to go into the field. In terms of the actual research though, I think that one of the things that, I wouldn’t say it was surprising to me but which I think the project has really allowed us to do, is to tell a richer variety of stories about smell and its histories than were otherwise kind of there in the historiography before. So, you know, a lot of the work pre-Odeuropa had kind of focused on one of two things: perfume and its histories or sanitation and public health. And so it was either the fecal or the fragrant and that was kind of your choice.

William Tullett 28:15

And I think one of the things that has been really nice about Odeuropa is it’s given us the opportunity and the resources to explore a series of other stories, and for me that work has involved kind of opening up new questions about the history of animals and smell that I hadn’t really thought about before. You know, one of the things I found really interesting on going through our material was just the sheer amount of stuff about the care of animals and being sensitive to animal sensitivities around smell in not just in kind of sixteenth, seventeenth century sources but all the way through into the late nineteenth century. And I think there’s so much work to be done to be done there and that’s something I’m going to be working on in my next project. But also stories about war and conflicts, that was another kind of area that I thought was, came out a lot in the source material that we’d collected and the relationship between war and smell over time. But I think there’s a final thing that did surprise me is that the project has completely changed my attitude to my methodology.

Sarah Kernan 29:20

Really? How so?


So, basically when I started the project, I was very much of the mindset of a lot of other sensory historians like Mark Smith, which is that but we can never really reconstruct what it was like in the past and there’s no real point in using our noses. You know, it’s all about text. It’s all about language. There’s no point in actually engaging our own senses. And indeed, that’s kind of what I say in the introduction to my first book. And now thanks to this project and thanks to working with not just the computer scientists and the heritage chemists and scientists, but also working a lot more with creative practitioners and artists with perfumers and flavor and fragrance specialists, it’s kind of completely upturned that viewpoint and now I’ve ended up publishing a whole book that basically argues we should use our noses. You know, and that there’s a lot to be gained by smelling stuff and that maybe we should publish smells instead of publishing books. Maybe that would be a more exciting and interesting way to engage people with the past that’s still based in scholarly research. So I think actually the big surprise for me has been that working with all of these wonderful people and collaborating across disciplines and outside of academia, has completely changed how I see my field and how I see research. And I think there is something to be said for that more widely for historians, actually. A lot of academics and historians are some of the worst examples of this tend to assume that their understanding of the modern world is kind of just like how the modern world is, and so then they compare say, the early modern world, with that, right, and that’s kind of led into all kinds of weird assumptions about smell, including the idea that we live in a less smelly and more deodorized world today than we did in the past. Now you can say that if you’re an academic in an air-conditioned office that’s regularly cleaned by underpaid cleaners. It’s rather more difficult to say that we live in a deodorized world if you live next to one of the massive waste dumps that we have here in the UK, or if you live in the South of the United States next to a paper pulping plant, right. So, I think yeah, that’s the thing that’s really come out of the project for me is just working with a much more diverse range of people. You have a much more diverse range of sensory experiences and that has made me kind of question how I do my work and how I should do it in the future. It’s a very long answer, but I think, you know, it actually that was the thing that surprised me the most.

Sarah Kernan 32:02

Well, I think this is a perfect tie-in to a final question. Um, so say someone who’s listening to this podcast episode is thinking learning about historical smells sounds absolutely amazing. How do I do that? What do I do next? What do you recommend?

William Tullett 32:23

Yeah, I mean the first thing I’d say if you’re thinking about learning more about the history of smell and about historical smells and how to engage with the past through smell, congratulations. You’ve made the right decision, and you’ve listened to this podcast correctly. So well done. I think that the first thing I would say is to just pay attention to the smells around you, actually. So, one of the things that I try to do in the new book is I have olfactory figures which are just moments in the book when I say go and smell this thing that might be in your cupboard, right. Because lots of the smells that are around us every day have a much, much deeper history than perhaps we appreciate. And, I mean, one example of that and the kind of specificity of those histories is wintergreen. So, wintergreen is a kind of smell and flavor that is in lots of different products. In the 1960s and 70s they found out that people in the UK hated the smell of wintergreen. It was their one of their least favorite smells. In the US it was one of the most liked smells, most preferred smells. And the reason for that was because wintergreen was in loads of medical stuff in the UK, and in the US it was in root beer and candy, right. So, what I’m saying is if you kind of start at the tip of your nose and think about, well, why do I like this this particular smell right? Why is this smell important to me, you know, and use that as a kind of road into thinking about your relationship to the past through smell I think is the first thing I would suggest.

William Tullett 33:54

But then there’s so much great material that’s been published in the field and there are various ways that you can kind of get an introduction to it. We published a conversation piece in the American Historical Review which is free to access. And that was, that’s a really nice introduction to the field. But also, there’s a whole online bibliography that I’ve curated of over seven hundred entries, so if you want a kind of giant reading list to start and to pick out something that might interest you, look out for the Past Scent Bibliography which you can find on the Odeuropa website for information on how to do, to look at that. But finally, I mean one other thing you can do is do what lots of people I suspect on this podcast do, which is do things like recreate recipes right? I mean before we came on air, I was suggesting that, you know, one of the nice things about doing this with the Recipes Project is that I think lots of people who are interested in historical recipes are much more minded to be welcoming to ideas about reconstruction. And yeah, just find a historical recipe and try and remake it and think about, you know, what do the different materials that are going into that recipe smell like individually, what does the process smell like, what does the end result smell like, just doing some basic material engagement with actual stuff, I think is really important. Because I could sit here and recommend you loads of stuff to go and read, but I think it’s actually more important you engage your nose than engage your eyes as a kind of route into this.

Sarah Kernan 35:33

Everyone heard it here first, just go out and smell things. That’s all you need to do to get started.

William Tullett 35:39


Sarah Kernan 35:40

Well, thank you so much! This is a great conversation. Thank you for joining me today to talk about Odeuropa.

William Tullett 35:48

No problem at all. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Kernan 35:50

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.

Around the Table Podcast: Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 with Deborah Krohn

By Sarah Peters Kernan

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In this episode, Sarah Kernan talks to Deborah Krohn, Associate Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at Bard Graduate Center, about the recent exhibition Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 at Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Staging the Table explores early modern dining practices through illustrated manuals featuring instruction and carving and napkin folding. The books are considered alongside early modern material artifacts such as table linens and carving knives, as well as modern napkin folds based on period designs. Follow Deborah Krohn and Bard Graduate Center on Instagram to learn more about current and future projects.


Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 Exhibition Website

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 Digital Exhibition

Instruments of Dining: A Research Symposium

Settings and Sounds: An Exploration of Early Modern Dining with Food Historian Ivan Day and Music Ensemble Sonnambula

Studio Visit: The Gentle Art of Napkin Folding: A Demonstration by Joan Sallas

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 Catalogue

Mentioned in the Show

Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy: Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens

Ivan Day

Molly Taylor-Poleskey


Napkin, Netherlands or Germany, ca. 1600, with later inscriptions and labels. Linen. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. Moore, 1923, 23.80.74a.

Frontispiece, from Neu Verbessertes Trenchir-Büchlein . . . (Breslau: Caspar Müller, 1660). Engraving. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz.


Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Deborah Krohn, Associate Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at Bard Graduate Center about the exhibition she has curated, Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800. The exhibition at Bard Graduate Center Gallery explores dining practices through illustrated manuals featuring instruction and carving and napkin folding. The books are displayed alongside early modern material artifacts such as table linens and carving knives, as well as modern napkin folds based on period designs. Deborah, thank you so much for joining me today.

Deborah Krohn 1:02

My pleasure.

Sarah Kernan 1:03

So, Staging the Table has so many different components, including physical and online exhibitions, a catalogue, a symposium, performances, lectures, workshops. The project also pairs texts with imagery and material objects, including modern reproductions and interpretations of really exquisite napkin folding. This comprehensiveness is so helpful for conceptualizing the early modern table. Could you talk about how you developed the idea for Staging the Table and how it came to encompass so much.

Deborah Krohn 01:39

Sure. So, like so many of our projects it came really out of a very long-term interest in culinary history, as well as the history of books and print culture and early modern Europe. And I had been teaching classes for a number of years where I was using recipe books as primary sources to try to understand cultural history. You know, the culture of the table, food production, food distribution, images, images of food and still life painting, in more prescriptive texts like herbals and, you know, botanical treatises, anything that had to do with anything that was potentially edible, and recipes of all kinds, cosmetic recipes as well as culinary recipes. So, really that whole sort of very, very broad group of ideas and material things and images. And I had written a previous book about a 1570 cookbook, Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera. And that was, that really sort of got me into book history in a major way because I kind of, as an art historian, trained as an art historian, I realized after being really, sort of, gripped by the incredible illustrations in this recipe book that in order to actually understand what they were doing there I had to read the book. And then, you know, it sounds pretty obvious, but for art historians I dare say it is not always obvious to read the book. And then once I’d read the book I realized, well, you know, why it is what kind of editions are there, and how many times was it published, so it sort of was like, almost like following a breadcrumb trail to get, to use a food metaphor, to get to the whole. And after I’d written that book, I realized that there was a lot of other stuff that was similar:  carving manuals that were, by the end of the sixteenth century, very specific; books that were didn’t have any of the other kind of stuff that was in these larger recipe compendia and that were much more focused. And I just started kind of collecting references and exploring those and realized that there was a lot of, a lot of copies of these just in the New York area. Because part of the exhibition at Bard Graduate Center is part of a program that we call the Focus Project, where faculty (it’s mainly faculty and postdoc-curated exhibitions that are done as part of a curricular enterprise within the teaching structure) and we’re not really supposed to borrow stuff from far away places. You know, we’re really supposed to keep it as local as possible. So, I realized that there was this kind of treasure trove of these carving manuals really at five or six libraries in the tri-state area around New York, and that it would be really potentially very, very good to develop it into an exhibition so that’s a kind of long-winded answer to your question.

Sarah Kernan 04:50

No, It’s great. Um, so by the time this episode is released, the in-person exhibition will have ended at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, but the catalogue and all the digital components like the online exhibition and the YouTube videos are all still going to be available. Before we actually turn to those lasting components, I just have a few questions about the physical in-person exhibition.

Deborah Krohn 05:17


Sarah Kernan 05:18

So, Staging the Table showed how dining at elite early modern tables was really a multi-sensory experience and every part of the meal from the food to the napkin folding, the room and table decorations, even the small details like the carving knives, that those could really represent or highlight a family, or a specific event, or a theme, and every aspect of the meal could be highly manipulated to a really dramatic degree. This exhibit really hits home that the table encompassed so much more than just the food that was on the table and there’s really a wealth of extant material culture to examine. Could you, could you talk about this for a moment, reflect on this for a moment?

Deborah Krohn 06:07

Sure, probably more than a moment. Um, yeah. So, the table was a really important space because in the early modern period there wasn’t that much else to do besides work, sleep, and eat. And, so, a lot, I think, a lot of social life came, came down to what happened around the table, whether it was in, a very illustrious banquet in an aristocratic or princely home or castle or even in a modest home in, in a town, or you know, perhaps even in the countryside, that meals were central to people’s lives, and so, understanding how important that was, I, I realized that it was, it would be really interesting to pull together as much information as, as I could about that event. And one, one parallel that became really evident to me when I was preparing the exhibition was thinking about the table as a kind of, of a Wunderkammer, a chamber of wonders. You know there’s been a lot of attention amongst art historians and historians of material culture to look at this phenomenon in the early modern period of these collectors cabinets where all kinds of objects were, were thrown together for private consumption and, and enjoyment, but that these were really the nucleus of the modern museum. And it struck me that the table was also a place for display, and contemplation, and kind of a socializing around a group of objects in the same way that the Kunst- and Wunderkammer was.

Deborah Krohn 07:59

But the table was in motion. It was, it was set up and put away. Tables were not permanent pieces of furniture. They were trestles. And they could be taken down. They wouldn’t, there wasn’t a dining room for a lot of this period, right. Not a set place in the home where dining took place. It was, could, you know, usually in the biggest room there was when it was a banquet and then it would became something else afterwards or the next day, so you know there, these were not kind of permanent spaces. But they were nevertheless very important, so I wanted to get a sense of what these spaces looked like. A lot of people think about and talk about the culture of food and dining and a lot of the objects as ephemeral, as things that sort of come and go, they, they, they, they’re not around. They’re not lasting. And I find this word somewhat problematic because they are a lot of the objects themselves were ephemeral but then there’s ways to kind of access the experiences that people had through texts, through images, through prints, through objects, that you know, and through recipes and all of that.

Deborah Krohn 09:02

So, so really I was trying to presuppose that the table is a kind of space for all of these activities and and it’s it’s also, doesn’t come out so much, I mean in an exhibition you have limited space to explain all your ideas, right? You have these labels, and labels are amongst the most frustrating things for somebody to write because you know they have to be really short and there’s so much that you want to kind of cram in, an object does speak a thousand words and for a label you often only have 150, and how you can possibly do that. So my labels are a little long. Um, but that’s actually what’s on the website. The labels are there. They’ve been slightly edited to be sort of in conjunction with the online exhibition but that information has been preserved on the website. So, yeah, I mean that’s sort of the idea of bringing together the um, especially the knives, some of the cut the carving knives and the linens is to just give people a sense of like the look and feel of this in a material sense and, you know, the one thing that you can’t have in an exhibition in a museum is food. So how to get around that, you know that’s another topic we could potentially talk about that, you know, in in another part of this, but that because it’s a huge subject, but I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Sarah Kernan 10:27

Yeah, yeah, I was able to visit the exhibition a few weeks ago, and…

Deborah Krohn 10:33

Oh great. You should have gotten in touch with me!

Sarah Kernan 10:38

I was really struck by just seeing some of these objects in person, especially the table linens, seeing the napkins. That’s not something you usually see on exhibit in too many museums. So, being able to see those and then see the the modern reproductions or interpretations of these Renaissance and early modern napkin folds was so fantastic, and seeing how they repeated a lot of these same ideas and themes like sugar sculptures, that I think might be a lot more familiar through people who look at these recipes and see recipes for how to mold things out of sugar paste.

Deborah Krohn 11:20


Sarah Kernan 11:22

But actually seeing these sculptures in essence out of linen repeating that same idea and having the same visual impact was really stunning.

Deborah Krohn 11:31

Right. Well, we were really fortunate to be able to have some reconstruction folded linen centerpieces made by Joan Sallas who lives in Barcelona and whom we flew over for the first week of the exhibition so he could bring some of his amazing creations, and he really has recreated these based on very, the very limited information in the treatises. You know, they explain how to make the basic folds but they don’t explain, you know, the step-by-step of how to take these basic folds and make a crab, or, you know, a double-headed eagle, or a turkey, or some of these fantastic objects that he, that he has created so, you know that’s, that’s a part of it too understanding the kind of ingenuity and the craftsmanship that went into it and all of what people sometimes refer to as tacit knowledge, right? You know, you have these books and there’s information in them. But what does the information actually tell you, how far does it take you, what other types of pedagogical support would be needed to create these, these objects and that’s something that, that’s very hard to kind of communicate that in an exhibition. But that was a big part of the research process for me was trying to think about how you might make these things and what kind of training and how that training was, was communicated. I guess you saw some of the wonderful frontispieces from the carving manuals where there were pictures of these, these men who were in it, caught in the act of teaching and sort of depicting that pedagogical moment is something I found super interesting and something you don’t often see in other types of imagery and visual material from the period. You know, to had it, teaching is not something that’s easy to represent visually.

Sarah Kernan 13:27

Yeah, yeah.

Deborah Krohn 13:29

So that was something that I, I mean there, you could, there is a whole history of it and that would be a whole other interesting topic, like you know Bolognese fourteenth-century legal scholars, you know, tombs with pictures of, you know, people standing at a cathedra teaching there, that they exist. But it’s a very specific kind of iconography. So, you know that was just like one of the many things that interested me about these books.

Sarah Kernan 13:56

How did you actually decide on what items to include in the exhibition? Was there really, was there anything you really wanted to include but couldn’t?

Deborah Krohn 14:07

I mean, yeah. If you, if I could have made a wishlist of everything I wanted from every museum in the whole world, yes, there would a lot been lots of things I would have borrowed from that, you know, the Kunstkammer in Vienna and, you know, the V&A, and any other number of European museums that have fantastic examples of this. So yes, but I did I think I did manage through the generosity of the Metropolitan Museum and the Cooper Hewitt which both of those have great collections of cutlery that’s completely understudied and it’s usually not out in the galleries, it’s hidden away in the storerooms. So I was able to find examples of, of objects that that were illustrative of this culture and which helped me to tell the story in ways. So yes, I think that everybody, every curator, would say that there are things that got away, but given the limited kind of construct of this exhibition, I was very pleased to have the loans that I, I got and to be able to kind of make them carry that the sort of messages and the meanings that that I wanted to convey, so, you know, that’s important that you, you have ideas and then you have to find objects that, that you can use to kind of illustrate those ideas. I think the process is different than if you set out to do an exhibition of, you know, impressionist painting for example, where there that the objects speak for themselves. There’s, there’s the early, middle, and late style. There’s all kinds of thematic ways you can organize a show like that, but it’s basically a paintings by an artist, whereas here, you know, an exhibition that involves all these different kinds of things I think involves really figuring out what the narrative is and what the basic ideas are that you want to communicate and then finding ways to do that through the objects that are available to you.

Sarah Kernan 16:09

Could you tell us a bit about the team of people who helped you put together Staging the Table?

Deborah Krohn 16:15

Sure. Well first, first I should mention the, the two designers, the designer of the book Jocelyn Lau and the exhibition designer Ian Sullivan, because they really helped me to kind of make my visualization that I had in my mind come to fruition, that was really important. I had very specific ideas of how I wanted this material to be displayed and both of them were incredibly good listeners, but, and creative, and so they kind of work with me and wait. It was a really good team I think that was part of it. But then beyond that, you know, we have the whole installation team and the students who over a period of three or four years, actually was drawn out because of covid. The exhibition was originally supposed to take place in 2021 and was delayed for two years and honestly, that was a kind of godsend because it would have been a totally different exhibition if I had mounted it in 2021. So, as a result of that, multiple generations of students got to work on it in the context of the of the two-year MA program that we have and they contributed through their research both directly and indirectly to parts of the exhibition. One really specific way that they contributed was through an amazing website based on a deck of playing cards published in seventeenth-century London that we were not able to borrow from the Beinecke Library, but we used a digitized copy of those decks of cards, and they created this fantastic website that brings food, and that was the brief was find recipes that the carving animals and fruits on the on these cards could have, how they would have been made, and so they they use the cards as a kind of way of getting into the whole period in terms of food. So, so that’s one very specific way in which other people contributed to the exhibition and then, you know, then of course there’s the usual: the editors, and, you know, the people that work with you to make sure that your labels make sense and are are clearly expressed and don’t have too many convoluted sentences and and all of that. So I guess you don’t mean really that, you mean more sort of intellectual collaboration.

Sarah Kernan 18:45

Well, those are all people I, I was thinking of, you also, there were also people who popped up in the exhibition itself, like Ivan Day…

Deborah Krohn 18:56

Ivan Day. Absolutely, right.

Sarah Kernan 18:58

…with his recorded, audio recordings of reflections about different appropriate food history commentary, and then Sallas’s napkin folding and his workshop and involvement in that. So.

Deborah Krohn 19:13

Yeah, I mean those people, both of those people I was, I was obviously aware of their work, and Ivan and I have known each other for maybe ten or fifteen years and I’ve, I’ve been to various conferences, and over the years have really come to understand the incredibly unique way that his knowledge and experience can be activated for an audience and the ways that that kind of practical understanding of things is so key to, to bringing the period alive and and bringing the objects alive. So I was really thrilled that he agreed to come to New York and and see the show and and comment on it and bring his reproduction set of knives with him and some other objects that he used for some of the programs that are, I think you’ll have links to those on on the podcast. But, but, yeah, I mean he his knowledge contributed both in direct ways and and in indirect ways as well in terms of my own kind of study and research and and coming to understand this in the way that I I did to put together the exhibition. So we we we stand on the shoulders of all of these people as we do our research.

Sarah Kernan 20:30

Absolutely. Well speaking of all these other people who do this research, could you speak a little bit about the symposium that was associated with the exhibition, I believe it was called Instruments of Dining, and also the other events like Settings and Sounds and how they complimented and added to the exhibition? And for our listeners, all these programs are going to be linked in our in our podcast notes.

Deborah Krohn 20:53


Deborah Krohn 21:59

Great. So, I wanted to do something for symposium that would kind of be accessible to a, to a larger audience than than simply the four or five people that might be interested in early modern recipe books. I mean, I know that there are a lot of people and that they’re probably all listening to this and thinking well like, why not just do programs that are geared to us? But part of it is the the person who’s the head of our public programs and research program, his name is Andrew Kircher, really was very encouraging in terms of trying to open it up to a, to an audience, which I really appreciate. This is something that a lot of places in thinking about public humanities and other ways of engaging a broader public with with kind of research projects, right? So that’s kind of the bigger background. So the symposium, I invited a scholar who I’d met at various conferences, Molly Taylor-Poleskey, who who works on dining at the German courts in the seventeenth century and she gave an archivally-based paper that was very interesting and really spot-on in terms of the courts and the the types of things that would be happening based on these archival sources that she’s researched and then I I had some, the music side of it.

Deborah Krohn 22:24

Well then Ivan, of course, because for the evening program, that was the Settings and Sounds, and the symposium, did different lectures where he was talking about ways that objects and he he made this wonderful sugar sculpture tazza that he demonstrated its use and shows showed us some cutlery from the period, so he did a lot of really great, very hands on things. And then the music, that came about because one of the carving manuals and folding manuals that became kind of the protagonist of the exhibition was something compiled, translated from the Italian in the 1640s by a German Baroque literary figure named Georg Philipp Harsdörffer. And Harsdörffer, I’d never heard of him before I was engaged in this project, but he’s actually an incredibly important person for other publications and and activities and among which he wrote the first libretto for the first German opera that was produced in the early 1640s and so I started digging around and finding all kinds of fascinating stuff and and in almost all the images of dining and banqueting from the period you see musicians and and a number of the images in the show and some of the prints, and I wanted to try to imagine what that what it would sound like to be at a meal and to have the the kind of music that would be played at a banquet at the table.

Deborah Krohn 23:54

And Andrew Kircher has a lot of contact in the performance world and was able to create a relationship between a wonderful early music group called Sonnambula, and specifically the person who is the the sort of director of Sonnambula, Elizabeth Weinfield, and together we kind of crafted a program where they actually went back and found the score for some of the music that was connected to one of the events that’s pictured in one of Harsdorfer’s books is the banquet to celebrate the Peace of Westphalia, which is the end of the Thirty Years’ War that took place in Nuremberg in 1649, and so we went back and found some of the music and she was able to, you know, play a snippet of it live for the event. And that was something that was really significant for me was to put together the the kind of soundscape as well as the tablescape for these events and and that was the idea of it and there were some other music um Telemann and some other more well-known kind of table music Tafelmusik that that she found to play for this. So, you know, a kind of involving people in what the the term Gesamtkunstwerk, you know, sort of “total work of art” is something that often is used in conjunction with German opera from the nineteenth century, but it it was really the case that these banquets from the seventeenth century were were total works of art with the with the food, the the visual stimulation, music, and and then sort of poetry and recitation and emblematic literary inscriptions that apparently would appear on so a lot of the sculptures made out of food or made out of sugar or linen. So there were all these elements and dimensions that I that I you know couldn’t really even in an exhibition communicate to say nothing of in, you know, a monograph, so that was really what I I tried to use those programs to do is to bring in all this other content and to kind of, you know, obviously one could quibble endlessly about authenticity and you know that’s another, that’s a whole other conversation, but I think in terms of just getting a broader sense of it with a, with the proviso that it’s not completely authentic and it’s impossible to to go to a situation where you have complete authenticity and any kind of reconstruction or recreation, but it at least provides a sense of what that experience would have been like.

Sarah Kernan 26:33

If we could switch gears now to the catalogue.

Deborah Krohn 26:37


Sarah Kernan 26:38

I absolutely love this catalogue, actually. I don’t normally say that about catalogues. They’re usually really large and unwieldy and not exactly the most easy books to use. But this is really so manageable to to hold and to flip through. It’s such a beautiful book. It’s so evocative of the text of the period from the exhibition. It uses both red and black font throughout, like it’s so often the case with these early print books. There are decorative elements, they’re really evocative of the woodcuts found in books at the time, the different sorts of typefaces that you often see. So I really just love the visual aspects of the book as well. But it’s also such a valuable scholarly resource as well, and I was wondering if you had actually visualized this exhibition as a book or a monograph before an exhibition because this catalogue actually reads so fluidly, more like a monograph than an exhibition.

Deborah Krohn 27:49

Well first of all, thank you. It’s it’s wonderful to hear that because those are all things that I was very, very engaged with sort of making happen and and this. And to answer the question, I mean, you know, it is a monograph. A lot of catalogues are multiple authors and part of the the, this focus project idea, is that it’s a way for faculty members to deploy their research in a way which is more public-facing, so in a sense it I did think of it as a monograph, but I but I wanted it to be written for a broader audience. When I first started thinking about this, it was sort of amorphous. Once I got into it, I realized how significant visually it would be for an exhibition.

Sarah Kernan 28:40

So, the exhibition is now digitized and it’s freely available online. Could you tell us a bit about the process of digitizing a physical or in-person exhibition and some of the challenges associated with that, as well as some of the benefits you see?

Deborah Krohn 28:57

Sure, I mean the benefits are pretty clear, because an exhibition is around for a limited number of months and then it disappears. So having some permanent record of it is really important and it’s really nice because it’s it’s actually it’s so sad to think about the end of an exhibition. You know you work so hard on these and then and then they inevitably come to an end. So it’s really great that it exists in the digital form. So in order to create that, we have two wonderful, sort of digital people at BGC, Jesse Merandy and Julie Fuller, and I worked really closely with them to figure out how to, you know, organize it into some form, choose the order that the objects would occur in, but the process was pretty straightforward. I I just we we used the the images that, we had digitized images because of because of the book and the book illustrations, uploaded them, and uploaded the label material, and Jocelyn Lau who had designed the book created the design for the website, so that it was kind of a seamless transfer of all the graphic details that you mentioned, that were so important in in the sort of look and feel of the exhibition. So, in this case, the the online version does capture a lot of those aspects that you mentioned that the mixed typefaces the color scheme and all kinds of, kind of the quirks of early letter press printing which was what we you know we really wanted to communicate that. So I’m glad that came through.

Sarah Kernan 30:34

Well, final question. Did you have a favorite book or object from Staging the Table?

Deborah Krohn 30:42

Hard question. Who’s your favorite child. Um, let’s see. I, a favorite single object. Gosh. I mean…

Sarah Kernan 30:55

Or a couple, if you can’t really choose.

Deborah Krohn 30:57

Yeah, I mean, you know. One of the napkins that we borrowed from the Met that was, it’s it’s a napkin that was from seventeenth-century Haarlem or Belgium, sort of that area, that has a wonderful kind of label that’s sewn onto it with a series of names of different family members over several generations. And it’s it’s an American family, that’s how it got to the Met, and it was it’s actually in the American Wing at the Met, it was donated by an American family along with a lot of other objects. But the fact that this napkin had such an important status in the family that it became this kind of locus of of these different memories and the the kind of set of names on it. I I found that just so moving to see how something that many people would consider a kind of humble object, a napkin, became really the bearer of memory and transmitting family, you know, the family history, so that that object to me was just like a really important thing. Because you know these napkins, people had hundreds of them in the early modern period, literally hundreds, because they um they were used constantly. And they were really, you know, necessary to to this the rituals of dining and they do survive but people don’t really use them anymore.

Deborah Krohn 32:30

They’re too much work. I think when you start asking questions and talking about this, so many people when I was doing tours of the exhibition would say, oh yeah, I have all this big box of of of linens from my grandmother, but I never use them because they’re so hard to wash and, you know, and iron, and so but these are really these sort of humble material objects. And and so that’s something that’s that was one of my favorite objects. And then I’ll have to say some of some of the books that just the illustrations. There’s there’s one illustration of a carver and he’s standing in what looks to me very much like a Kunstkammer, and I think it’s kind of riffing on this the the theme of the Kunstkammer, you know that, I found that actually at the very end of my research process and we didn’t have time to even borrow the book, so I have a reproduction of it. And and one thing I’ll just say this really quickly. In the exhibition we also have a lot of reproductions because when you’re doing a book exhibition one of the challenges is you can only open a book to one page, but what I chose to do is to attach all of those reproductions with nails to the wall so it looked sort of like the workshop and so that the visitor. wasn’t deluded into thinking these were actual objects. I wanted it to be really clear what was a reproduction and what was, you know, an actual object. So this this image of the carver in his workshop that looks like a Kunstkammer, to me made that exact connection. And instead of having precious objects like jewels, and cameos, and ancient sculpture that you’d see in a in a Kunstkammer illustration, they’re carcasses of animals and and carved fruits. So, and I think it was actually humorous. I mean, whoever made that had a sense of humor about the sort of visual tradition that was being quoted, and that, so that to me was, it’s a favorite object because it seemed to kind of embody some of you know some of my ideas about the exhibition.

Sarah Kernan 34:25

Wonderful! Well Deborah, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about Staging the Table.

Deborah Krohn 34:32

It’s been a really wonderful opportunity for me to reflect as the exhibition is coming to a close and to think about some of the themes. And I really appreciate your interest. Great to meet you.

Sarah Kernan 34:43

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.

Records and Reminiscences: Some Interesting Aspects of Chiquart’s Du fait de cuisine (1420)

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque Valais, S 103: Maître Chiquart, Du fait de cuisine, 1420, fol. 113r (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/mvs/cuisine).

With the holiday season behind me, I am already reminiscing about my family’s recent celebrations and thinking ahead to next year. I have gathered recipes I would like to try next year, made notes about recipes that worked (and those that didn’t), and listed the menus of the many meals my husband and I hosted for friends and family. When I starting thinking about appropriate topics for a Recipes Project post, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to consider the 1420 Savoyard cookbook, Du fait de cuisine. In it, Master Chiquart Amiczo, the chef of Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, dictates seventy-eight recipes to a scribe, provides an extensive description of how to acquire food and provisions for days of feasting, and records a menu of one particular feast. In October 1403 Chiquart prepared two days of lavish feasts in honor of Mary of Burgundy. Although Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy had been contracted in marriage since 1393, due to a number of political complications the bride had not left her Burgundian home. The feast celebrated her arrival at the Savoy court when she would join Amadeus VIII’s household as his wife.[1] Chiquart’s menu and notes on preparing for a feast describe a much grander event than any I might prepare during the holidays, but the intention is the same: describing a successful event so that one might remember it or even replicate it.

Despite being a very accessible medieval cookbook, Du fait de cuisine has had relatively little scholarly attention. This cookery exists in a single manuscript, held at the Médiathèque Valais in Sion, Switzerland (MS Supersaxo 103). While the manuscript has been digitized, Terence Scully has been the only scholar to devote significant attention to the book, producing a French edition and two English editions.[2] Du fait de cuisine is particularly interesting when considered among the larger corpus of contemporary cookbooks. While there are many similarities among the recipes, the surrounding text is remarkably different from most contemporary Continental and English cookbooks.

First among these differences is the amount of text and detail provided to the appointment of a kitchen for a feast. Folios 12r to 18v are devoted to this topic; Chiquart describes the necessary kitchen staff, how to order food from various purveyors, how much food to order, the vessels and equipment necessary for cooking, and the proper serving dishes. This section seems to be an attempt at describing the art of the kitchen, part of the aim of Du fait de cuisine.[3] The only other medieval cookery with such an extensive section on these aspects of the cooking process is Le Ménagier de Paris, produced in 1390s Paris for a wealthy administrative, but not noble, household. [For  more on the Ménagier de Paris, see my previous Recipes Project post on “A November Feast.”]

 Du fait de cuisine stands apart from contemporary texts in the level of detail included in the recipes. Many fit on a single folio, but others span up to eight folios. Other cookbooks describing lavish entremets, like the Viandier of Taillevent pale in comparison to the description of the final products. Chiquart’s creations of performative, edible art come alive on the page; even without illustrations, it is easy to imagine his castle with four lighted towers defended by various soldiers. Characters breathing fire are part of the creation, as well as a Fountain of Love spouting rosewater and mulled wine. Roasted and redressed peacocks and hedgehogs also make an appearance. As if this weren’t enough, Chiquart’s glorious entremets includes a faux sea filled with ships attacking the aforementioned castle. The entremet is naturally accompanied by a small group of musicians.[4] Each aspect is described in such a manner that it can be replicated, provided that the cook has some knowledge of creating pastry and sugar and meat pastes which constituted the basis of construction.

Another difference is a variety of brief texts that Chiquart includes after the culinary recipes. This includes a verse the Chiquart composed to honor Amadeus VIII and his family on fols. 107v to 109r and several other types of brief writings on the final nine folios. These are mainly non-culinary writings, including a verse against the plague, a note on Virgil’s Georgics, and several aphorisms. It is not unusual to find such an array of writings alongside cookery books in late medieval manuscripts, especially in English manuscripts. Du fait de cuisine is unique in its inclusion of these items within the cookbook itself, seemingly at the request of the author, self-described as lacking learning and wit (“n’ay grand science ne sens”).[5] I find these elements one of the most intriguing of the cookery and deserving of much more exploration.

The combined coat of arms of Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 18982, fol. 9v. (http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8528579f/f20.item.zoom)

A final difference is the menu of the feast in honor of Mary of Burgundy.[6] Many medieval cookbooks provide generic menu suggestions or menus for unspecified events, and many non-culinary records provide menus for historically important feasts. However, relatively few cookbooks include menus for actual events.[7] Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy’s wedding feast was certainly a magnificent affair and a significant event in the House of Savoy. Mary was the eighth child of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret III. Philip the Bold had arranged Mary’s marriage to solidify a political alliance to Savoy in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. The bride was only seven when her marriage was contracted; she would not arrive at the Savoy court for another ten years. While the alliance was only initially important to the House of Burgundy, the Savoy court benefitted greatly from this alliance. Amadeus VIII needed to welcome his bride to Savoy with all the opulence he could muster. His chef was tasked with preparing two days of lavish feasting to accomplish the goals of proving his wealth and status to his new bride and her family.

The fact that Chiquart recorded an account of the wedding feast seventeen years after the event is quite interesting; this is the only specific event the author describes. While Chiquart was evidently asked by Amadeus VIII to write the cookbook as a compendium of culinary knowledge, Chiquart does not provide any reason for recording the wedding events at the end of the cookbook.[8] The menu is also written after what seems to be the original ending, the poem glorifying and thanking Chiquart’s employing household. I wonder if it was associated with the birth of Amadeus and Mary’s ninth and final child in 1420; perhaps the pregnancy or birth was particularly difficult, and Chiquart attempted to garner favor with his lord by crafting a glorious recollection of Mary’s arrival in Savoy after his original culinary text was complete. However, my guess is merely that, as the text does not indicate a specific intent.

 Du fait de cuisine is an imaginative and detailed record of culinary information. There is much to explore in its similarities to and differences from other contemporary texts. For the moment, however, I take heart that some of my post-holiday recordkeeping habits are a bit like Master Chiquart’s.


[1] Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Reprint, Boydell Press, 2002), 89.

[2] Terence Scully, “Du fait de cuisine,” Vallesia 40 (1985): 103–231; Chiquart’s On Cookery: A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (P. Lang, 1986); and Du fait de cuisine / On Cookery of Master Chiquart (1420): “Aucune science de l’art de cuysinerie et de cuisine” (ACMRS, 2010). Another French edition was also published: Florence Bouas and Frédéric Vivas, eds., Du fait de cuisine: Traité de gastronomie médiévale de Maître Chiquart (Actes Sud, 2008).

[3] Sion, Switzerland, Médiathèque Valais, MS Supersaxo 103, fol. 11r.

[4] S 103, fols. 30r–33r.

[5] S 103, fol. 108v.

[6] S 103, 111v–114v.

[7] A couple exceptions are the Ménagier de Paris (multiple manuscript copies) and London, British Library, MS Harley 279.

[8] S 103, fols. 11v–12r.

Strawberries: Delicious and Devotional

By Sarah Peters Kernan

While looking through the Newberry Library’s extraordinary collection of medieval books of hours, I was surprised to see how frequently strawberries dotted the marginal illuminations. The berries usually appear alongside colorful flowers; while obviously decorative, I began to wonder why this food was so prolific in imagery, yet relatively more obscure in contemporary recipes.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 27r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Books of hours are books for Christians that provide prayers and devotions, particularly the Hours of the Virgin. The Hours of the Virgin are an abbreviated form of the Liturgy of the Hours, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these books were enormously popular. Scribes created copies for readers of varying socioeconomic levels, and the most expensive books of hours were lavishly illuminated. Containing colorful images and frequent goldleaf, these manuscripts allow us to see the beautiful, opulent life of the wealthiest nobles and royals in the late Middle Ages. The images can be a feast of information for scholars, incorporating medieval clothing, table settings, and room décor with familiar Biblical imagery. Although I set out trying to locate images of food and dining in books of hours, strawberries kept attracting my attention. Whether French or Flemish, fourteenth- or fifteenth-century, and moderately or lavishly decorated, it seemed as though strawberries were everywhere.

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 43 fol. 104r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Strawberries were undoubtedly consumed in medieval Europe. Fruit sellers sold the berries on the street, having advertised them with musical cries. The Parisian street cries for fresh strawberries lived on in an anonymous thirteenth-century (c. 1280) French motet; you can listen for “frese nouvele” sung in conjunction with other sounds of Parisian life. Strawberries appear in household records of the aristocracy and royalty. England’s King Henry VII not only received these fruits as gifts in 1506, but his gardener at Greenwich cultivated them. Entries in the records of Anne Stafford, dowager Duchess of Buckingham, reveal her purchase of the berries throughout the summer of 1465.[1] The fruit also occasionally appears in contemporary menus; the French Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (1555) lists strawberries in a course served alongside items like almonds, a Flemish cake, and white jelly.[2]

Despite these references to strawberries in a variety of texts, the fruit appears infrequently in medieval recipes. French recipes, to my knowledge, exclude this ingredient. Only a few medieval English recipes include strawberries. Some include little instruction, such as:

“Freseyes. Streberyen igrounden wyþ milke of alemauns, flour of rys oþur amydon, gret vlehs, poudre of kanele & sucre ; þe colur red, & streberien istreyed abouen.”[3]

Other recipes include more informative details:

“Strawberye.—Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of ȝere in gode red wyne ; þan strayne þorwe a cloþe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun oþer with þe flower of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do þer-in Roysons of coraunce, Safroun, Pepir, Sugre grete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale ; poynte it with Vynegre, &a lytil whyte grece put þer-to ; colure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with þe graynys of Pome-garnad, & serue it forth.[4]

Still other recipes, such as one for darioles, a type of custard-filled pie or tart, invite the cook to include strawberries alongside dates and other spices, only “if it be in time of yere.”[5] While strawberries were obviously a known, accessible, and popular summer berry, they appeared relatively infrequently in contemporary recipes.

The Christ Child holds a basket filled with strawberries.
Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 50.5 fol. 135r
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Why, then, do these berries appear so frequently in the religious imagery of books of hours given their proportionately few occurrences in recipes? I conjecture two main reasons. First, the number of recipes including strawberries is likely quite low because the fruit was probably most often served fresh and whole, rather than in prepared dishes, as mentioned above in the course of a French meal. After all, how many strawberries do you manage to carry into your kitchen after a harvest in your strawberry patch or a U-Pick farm? Freshly picked strawberries are quite easy to consume in embarrassingly large quantities, no cooking required!

Newberry Library, Chicago, IL, Case MS 47 fol. 87v
Photo by Sarah Kernan

Second, strawberries were rife with symbolism in medieval Christian iconography. Depending upon the context, as well as the viewer/reader’s subjectivity, the red berries could represent drops Christ’s blood, while its trifoliate leaves were suggestive of the Holy Trinity.[6] Or when paired with flowers, as strawberries typically are in horae marginalia, they represented righteousness. The fruit was also associated with the Virgin Mary.[7] I have selected a variety of personal images from my research in the Newberry Library’s books of hours, each illustrating at least one of these interpretations of strawberry iconography.

Strawberries were likely depicted in these devotional margins because they were so popular. The little fruit did not require the preparations which burdened other victuals. A noble reader, especially, would instantly recognize the berry not only as a delicious fruit so easily eaten out-of-hand, but also one symbolizing Christ’s suffering, the Holy Trinity, and the dedicatee of Books of Hours, the Virgin Mary. What a great amount of work for such a tiny fruit.


[1] Christopher Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 109.

[2] Ken Albala, and Timothy Tomasik, eds., The Most Excellent Book of Cookery: An Edition and Translation of the Sixteenth-Century Livre fort excellent de Cuysine (Prospect Books, 2014), 241.

[3] Constance Hieatt, and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including the Forme of Cury) (Early English Text Society, 1985), 46.

[4] Thomas Austin, ed., Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Early English Text Society, 1888), 29.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[5] Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 24; and Celia Fisher, “Flowers and Plants, the Living Iconography,” in The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography, ed. Colum Hourihane (Routledge, 2016), 460–1.

[6] Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times (Greenwood, 2004), 22.