Tag Archives: Making and Knowing Project

Making Senses: Artisanal Practice and Sensory Perception in an Early Modern French Manuscript

By Tillmann Taape

Ms Fr. 640 was written in French by an unknown craftsperson in Toulouse, likely between 1580 and 1600. [1] It is an intriguing and eclectic source, with entries ranging from medical recipes to metalwork and pigment-making, and it forms the core of the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University, introduced previously on the Recipes Blog in a post by our Director, Pamela Smith.

With its numerous instructions for making things, our manuscript provides a rich case study for the way artisans worked with and thought about materials. As previous posts in this series on Recipes and the Senses have shown, physicians, alchemists, apothecaries, and other craftsmen recognised in their bodies and its senses an important set of tools for understanding and manipulating the material world, and historians pay increasing attention to these embodied and sensory ways of knowing. In this post, I will share a few examples of the rich language of the senses in Ms. Fr. 640. As one might expect from a manuscript including painting and sculpture, the eye often takes precedence over the other senses. However, a discussion of the visual in the manuscript would by itself be far beyond the scope of a single post – we spent much of this year just trying to figure out how the author-practitioner conceptualises different pigments and shades of blue. The aim here, therefore, is to focus on the oft-neglected non-visual senses and what they can teach us about our author-practitioner’s concept of the material world, his ‘material imaginary’.


A strong smell was often a sign that things had gone wrong – the papier-mâché had turned rotten while being left to soak, or a kitchen pot had been made with too much latten (a copper alloy), which ‘stinks and smells bad’ (fol. 36v). However, smells could also help identify the materials needed for a recipe. The ingredient list for a metal alloy, for example, includes the intriguingly specific ‘congealed mercury with the smell of tin’ (fol. 92v). Musing on one of his favourite topics, the properties of fine sand used for metal casting, the author-practitioner notes that

white sand smells like sulphur when heated, and I believe it would melt. And as the substance has been cast in it, it acquires in the mold a lustre as if it were leaded or vitrified. I believe that glassmakers could use it (fol. 99r).

In addition to his observation of a vitreous glaze on the cast object, it is the sulphurous smell which suggests to the author-practitioner that this particular kind of sand is prone to melt and could even be used for making glass. Throughout the manuscript, sulphur does indeed appear as a material which can easily be melted and used to cast small objects, and even appears to function as a sort of material metaphor for transformation and experimentation.


The sense of hearing becomes itself the subject of a short entry. Under the heading ‘hearing from afar’, the author-practitioner records one of the tidbits of advice and tricks for daily life which are scattered here and there throughout the manuscript: ‘Make a small hole in the ground, put your ear against it during the night or during a quiet time, and you will easily hear muffled sounds’ (fol. 125r). In addition to facilitating amateur espionage, specific noises could serve as helpful indicators in the workshop. Before casting metal into a mould made from cuttlefish bone, the author-practitioner writes, one has to make sure that it is completely dry: ‘you will know that they are dry enough when, after having held them near the fire a little, their inside and the impression scream & crackle when you hold them up to your ear’ (fol. 145r). If one was prepared to listen carefully, the materials themselves could tell when they were ready to be worked upon.

Cuttlefish bone used for casting metal objects. © The Making and Knowing Project


The sense of taste could also help to assess and adjust one’s materials. To make ‘essence of sal ammoniac’, for example, ‘the size of two chestnuts of pulverized sal ammoniac suffices in a pot of water, and to the tongue you find the water moderately salty, for too much is not good’ (fol. 111v). The concentration of the sal ammoniac solution was clearly of some importance here, and like in most early modern recipes, the given measurements – size of a chestnut, a pot of water – might not yield very consistent results, so a qualitative sensory indication – ‘moderately salty’ – is added as a further point of reference. As well as checking one’s own procedures, taste could of course be used to assess the quality of merchandise. The city of Toulouse, where our manuscript was compiled, gained much of its considerable wealth from the trade in woad, a blue dyestuff whose French name, pastel, is a likely origin of the term ‘pastel’ colours in English and other European languages. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author-practitioner mentions this sought-after material and tells us how to tell the good from the bad. This involves several steps, including inspection and a dyeing test, but the first step is a taste test: ‘The goodness of the woad is known when, put in the mouth, it gives a taste as of vinegar’ (fol. 39r).


Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who clearly worked with his hands a lot, the sense of touch plays a particularly important and intriguing part in the author-practitioner’s practice and writing. Returning to his favourite topic – the different kinds of sand or plaster used for casting moulds – he describes how the addition of a substance called alum de plume (literally ‘feather alum’ – it probably refers to a group of minerals known as feldspars in English) helps the mould hold together because it forms fibrous structures (hence probably the reference to feathers). Its production requires a complex process of heating and grinding up in a mortar. In the margin next to the recipe, the author-practitioner notes that one should grind the alum slowly and in small portions, and finally ‘render it very fine & soft to the touch’ (fol. 108v). The manuscript is full of these kinds of haptic properties to indicate the appropriate consistency or particle size of materials. Another ‘sand’ for casting, for example, is made with ‘the bone of oxen feet, very burned & pulverized & ground on porphyry, until it is not felt between your fingers’ (fol. 84v). Intriguingly, here the reader is told to stop grinding not when they can feel a particular sensation, but when they can no longer feel the material at all with their fingers.

As it turns out, this criterion of eluding the sense of touch was an important technical concept for early modern artisans. Our former Making and Knowing postdoc Jenny Boulboullé and former students, Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, have shown that the term impalpable, that is to say ‘un-feelable’ or ‘impalpable’, is central to the way the author practitioner experiences and thinks about different kinds of materials used for casting moulds.[2] Furthermore, they found that he is not the only one: the use of the term ‘impalpable’ is used in published works on metallurgy, such well-known book Pirotechnia by the sixteenth-century Italian founder and metallurgist Vanoccio Biringuccio, and the Secreti, a famous book of secrets attributed to Alessio Piemontese. In his emphasis on the haptic sensation of a material being impalpable, then, the author-practitioner speaks to a sensory terminology apparently widely shared by expert makers.

‘Knead as if you wanted to make bread’: making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab. © The Making and Knowing Project

Describing specific sensory experiences can be difficult, and it makes sense to refer to well-known parallels from daily life – a smell like sulphur, a taste like vinegar, and so on. When it comes to the sense of touch, too, the author-practitioner relates processes described in his recipes to everyday practices. As our former student Emma Le Pouésard has shown, the practices surrounding making bread were a particularly fruitful source of these kinds of comparisons.[3] To unmould a cast object, one should ‘strongly separate the moulds as if you wanted to tear bread apart’ (fol. 114v). In an age before thermostats, this could even provide a way of gauging consistent temperatures. For one’s domestic taxidermy needs, the author-practitioner writes, one could dry animals ‘in an oven as warm as when bread has been taken out’ (fol. 129v). In a recipe for making stucco, bread making is used as a referent for working up the right kind of consistency: the recipe tells us to ‘knead as if you wanted to make bread’, until the stucco paste is ‘firm as bread dough that is ready for the oven’ (fol. 29r).

When we tried making stucco in the Making and Knowing Lab in the Fall semester, this proved to be very useful guidance. While we were not experienced bakers in the way that many early modern householders probably were, we could draw on our experience from one of our ‘skillbuilding’ exercises a few weeks earlier, when we made bread to use as a mould for wax casting, replicating one of the most intriguing processes in the manuscript. When it came to making stucco and mixing the right amounts of tragacanth gum and rye flour or champagne chalk, the author-practitioner’s instructions about kneading to a consistency like bread dough were very useful, especially in the absence of any other indication of measurements. By adding flour until we achieved a dough-like mass which would ‘stretch enough without breaking’ (fol. 29r), we eventually produced stucco which displayed fine detail and could be detached from the mould without too much trouble.

Even this brief tour of Ms. Fr. 640 shows that much is to be gained by paying attention to the non-visual senses in recipes and practical instructions. In the absence of precise standardised measurements and procedures, sensory descriptions were paramount to articulating a material’s properties, whether it was of good quality, or how much longer it needed to dry, boil, soak, or be crushed in a mortar.


[1] High-res digital images of BNF Ms. Fr. 640 are available through Gallica. The Making and Knowing Project is preparing a Digital Critical Edition of the Manuscript. In the meantime, readers may wish to refer to our Minimal Edition prototype (with translation still in progress).

[2] Raymond Carlson and Jordan Katz, ‘Casting in a Box Mold’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.

[3] Emma Le Pouésard, ‘Pain, Ostie, Rostie: Bread in Early Modern Europe’, The Making and Knowing Project, A Digital Critical Edition of BnF Ms Fr. 640, forthcoming. For more information see http://www.makingandknowing.org/.

Making ‘powder for hourglasses’ in the early modern household

By Stephanie Pope

There are numerous fascinating recipes in BnF Ms. Fr. 640, the sixteenth-century French metallurgist’s manual which forms the basis of Pamela Smith’s Making and Knowing Project–but, for me, the most fascinating of all is the one to make ‘powder for hourglasses’:

It must be made very fine and not subject to rust and with enough weight to flow. Taking i lb. of lead, melt it and skim and purify it from its filth, then pour into it four ℥ of finely ground common salt, and take care that there are no stones or earth. And immediately after pouring it, stir continuously very well with an iron [tool] until the lead and salt are quite incorporated, and take it immediately off the fire, stirring continuously. And if it seems too coarse, grind it on a marble slab and pass it through a fine sieve then wash it as many as times as necessary until the water runs clear, throwing out the fine powder that will float on it, renewing the water as many times as necessary until it is completely cleared.

What was this recipe doing in the working manuscript of a sixteenth-century French practitioner? This recipe, however, provides valuable insight into the flexibility of ingredients in early modern recipes and the experimental nature of the domestic setting in this period.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Image credit: author’s own.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Image credit: author’s own.

The origin of the hourglass is unclear. Although the device has its precedent in the ancient Egyptian water clock known as the clepsydra, the hourglass seems to be a medieval invention. The earliest reference to its existence is iconographical and symbolic. It appears in a series of frescoes dating to 1338 in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and is held by the female figure of Temperance, one of the six virtues of good government.

Although there is some confusion over the earliest functions of the hourglass, it seems that at some point the production of hourglass sand became part of a repertoire of standard household recipes. This is suggested by a recipe in Le Menagier de Paris (‘The Goodman of Paris’), written c. 1393 by a wealthy Parisian burgher for the instruction of his wife in various marital matters. The miscellaneous section, ‘Other small things that be needful’, includes–along with recipes for various preserves and rosewater–a recipe:

TO MAKE SAND FOR HOURGLASSES. Take the grease which comes from the sawdust of marble when those great tombs of black marble be sawn, then boil it well in wine like a piece of meat and skim it, and then set it to dry in the sun; and boil, skim and dry nine times; and thus it will be good.

Although the ingredients in this recipe differ from those in Ms. Fr. 640, the processes and their ends seem comparable to our recipe (e.g. heating and skimming are both required).

Attempting to determine why the production of hourglass sand became a sort-of domestic chore is difficult. Perhaps its presence among household recipes was partly due to the ready availability of the necessary ingredients. Variant seventeenth-century recipes state that pulverised eggshells can also be used to make sand of this sort, which would certainly have been easily accessible, and an efficient use of domestic waste. More than this, though, the various recipes for hourglass sand–lead and salt, eggshells, “grease” from marble–suggest that it could be produced from any materials that the experimenter had on hand.

So, lead and salt may be the principal ingredients of our author-practitioner’s recipe because these two substances would have been in ample supply in his workshop. While the marble grease that features in the Menagier de Paris’s recipe seems a little more exotic than lead or eggshells, we should bear in mind that great marble tombs were being constructed in Paris in the fourteenth century; this particular material probably played a more significant role in quotidian life than we might initially guess.

The notion that hourglass sand might be produced by any scraps of material readily available might also explain the spike in popularity experienced by the hourglass in the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries: if the ingredients for hourglass sand could simply be anything readily available, hourglass sand could (and would) be produced frequently. Increased hourglass production would cause people to find more uses for it in their daily lives, and demand for its production would consequentially increase.

At any rate, the hourglass gained prominence in daily life during the fifteenth- and sixteenth centuries, and was used to measure intervals such as the length of sermons, cooking time, and breaks from labour. It was also employed in specialist domains: the hourglass marked the length of lectures for the students at Oxford University, helped medical practitioners to measure pulses, and regulated working hours in craftsmen’s shops. The last might be why our author-practitioner was interested in their production: he could have needed one as part of his working environment.

Even as domestic hourglass sand production spread across early modern Europe, the product was notoriously inaccurate. Can this tell us anything about the conception of time in early modern Europe? Well, the lack of time standardisation across areas of the same country in sixteenth-century Europe meant that time was much more heterogeneous than now. This non-universal understanding of time is reflected more widely in MS. Fr. 640 by the use of anthropocentric forms of temporal and spatial measurement.

For instance, the author-practitioner often measured objects in terms of handspan, an individually-variable form of measurement. Even more intriguingly, he also referred twice to the recitation of the paternoster as a measurement of time duration. In the recipe for ‘Something excellent against burns’, the author stated that an oil-wax must be stirred for ‘the time you need to recite 9 pater nosters’. The presence of a prayer as a form of time measurement provides a link between theology and horology. It also suggests that time was not a universal standard for our author-practitioner, but was something local to individuals and their measuring practices.

The domestication of hourglass sand production, then, is a neat illustration of how material culture can often shed new light on contemporaneous intellectual, ideological, artistic, and literary concerns.

A Recipe for Recipe Research: The Making and Knowing Project

By Pamela Smith

The Aim

BnF MS Fr 640, f. 3r: coral contrefaict (imitation coral). Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
BnF MS Fr 640, f. 3r: coral contrefaict (imitation coral). Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The Making and Knowing Project is a five-year initiative to create an open-access critical digital edition and English translation of an intriguing late sixteenth-century French manuscript, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Fr. 640. This anonymous manuscript is the written result of recipe collecting and workshop practice in the sixteenth century, and it gives unique insight into craft and artistic techniques, daily life in the sixteenth century, and material and intellectual understandings of the natural world. This compilation of artisanal techniques, recipes, and experimental notes produced by an experienced practitioner stands at a pivotal moment in the growth of a new mode of gaining knowledge which we now call “science.” It grants an invaluable view into the continuous, methodical experimentation through which art objects were created by skilled labor, and how the process of artistic creation yielded insights into the behavior of natural materials.

The fact that an artisan recorded these technical procedures at all is part of a seminal development in early modern European history. Around 1400, craftspeople increasingly began to write down their embodied knowledge. Their “how-to books” were imitated and disseminated by entrepreneurial printers to a diverse audience, helping to foster a culture that valued practical knowledge. Ms. Fr. 640 shares in the practical format and aims of these how-to books, but it differs significantly from any other known how-to text in its lack of formulaic recipes, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its extensive observation of animal behavior, and its illustrations.

The critical edition will add a rare and important text to a limited corpus of technical treatises and will make the manuscript accessible to diverse audiences. It will contribute to the careful deciphering of materials and techniques done by museum curators and conservators; it provides rich evidence for new scholarship in the histories of art and of science; and its extensive interpretative apparatus of textual, historical, and technical annotations will open fertile avenues of research on technical “recipe books” to literary scholars and historians, among others.

The Process

The Making and Knowing Project is creating the critical edition and English translation of this manuscript by a series of “expert crowd sourcing” workshops and courses that involve students, practitioners (such as sculptors, conservators, technical art historians), scholars of the humanities and social sciences (history, art history, anthropology, and museum scholars), natural scientists (chemists, conservation scientists, and engineers), and practitioner-scholars from the emerging field of the digital humanities.

The first stage of transcription and translation of the manuscript is carried out in a series of three-week summer paleography workshops that bring together graduate students (of, for example, French literature, history, and art history) to gain skills in middle French script by transcribing and translating the manuscript in the collaborative workspace of a Google Drive folder. The first paleography workshop was held in June 2014, during which 15 students from European and North American universities transcribed and translated about a third of the manuscript (concentrating on metalworking “recipes”). The following summer (focusing on colormaking recipes), the students were able to complete a draft of the entire transcription and translation. The next paleography workshop (which will also include data visualization work) is scheduled for June 2016.

Laboratory seminars. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Laboratory seminars. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The second stage of the project, the Laboratory Seminar, began September 2014. In the Laboratory Seminar (History G8906: Craft and Science), students conduct historical and laboratory research on the recipes transcribed and translated by the paleography workshop. Laboratory research focuses on attempting to understand materials and processes appearing in the manuscript by means of a variety of techniques, including experimental reconstructions of the processes described in the manuscript. The students take field and laboratory notes, stored on a Wiki and photos stored in Flickr, in which they record their reconstruction experiments as well as their experience as history students doing hands-on work in the lab, for the entire project is also meant to be a reflection on methodology and the use of reconstruction as a historical source. The student research (text-based, object-based, and hands-on) is brought together in multi-media essays that form the historical and material commentary for the critical edition of the manuscript. This course is being offered every semester for at least three years (2014-17).

The third phase of the project began May 2015, when a Working Group Meeting brought together scholars, practitioners, and the students from the 2014-15 Craft and Science classes to discuss and critique the “moldmaking and metalworking” annotations written by the students. This phase provides expert oversight on the critical edition. Working Group Meetings will be held each May at Columbia University; the next is slated from May 25-28, 2016.

The fourth phase of the project (begun 2015) includes design and development of the final digital environment for the completed critical edition and translation. This stage includes digital encoding workshops to collectively complete the markup of the manuscript, and a Digital Humanities Laboratory Seminar in which humanities and computer science students help develop the final digital edition.


The Project has taught all its many participants much about both collaborative work in the humanities (primarily its remarkable efficacy!), and how much information the reconstruction of technical recipes can yield. One of the most important results of reconstruction has been the new level of interpreting the recipes that it necessitates and fosters. By the constant moving between the manuscript and recipe texts and the hands-on experimentation, we have gained an understanding of the manuscript that would not have been possible by attempting to read through it in a linear way (which, because of the manuscript’s nature as a compiled text would have been difficult at best).

Pattern and concave side of medal following Ms. Fr. 640, f. 92r. Michaela Groeneveld and Marianne Nuij (M.A. Conservation, University of Amsterdam), building on research by Columbia students Rozemarijn Landsman and Jonah Rowen, Making and Knowing Project collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Pattern and concave side of medal
following Ms. Fr. 640, f. 92r. Michaela Groeneveld and Marianne Nuij (M.A. Conservation, University of Amsterdam), building on research by Columbia students Rozemarijn Landsman and Jonah Rowen, Making and Knowing Project collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The combination of text-based, object-based, and reconstruction research has allowed us to decipher obscure materials and techniques, such as the method for “incuse reverse casting,” or, as Ms. Fr. 640 has it, “Molding a hollow on one side and a relief on the other”). We also learned more about workshop practice, and, interestingly, have found ourselves able to follow the learning process of the author-practitioner himself in the course of his trying the recipes. He appears to have learned and recorded his experiences in some of the processes, while other recipes he seems not to have tried. In all, we have come to appreciate the constant experimentation of the workshop, and we have come to see that failure, repetition, and “extension” are important components of experiential learning in the workshop.

Lifecast rose. Giulia Chiostrini and Jeffrey Palframan, The Making and Knowing Laboratory. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Lifecast rose. Giulia Chiostrini and Jeffrey Palframan, The Making and Knowing Laboratory. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

We have also come to understand better the author-practitioner’s bodily intimacy with some materials used, and how this understanding may have shaped his classification of materials into taxonomies. We have been able to map out some parts of his taxonomy of materials—his material imaginary—to see the ways in which he reasoned and experimented across types of materials in order to hypothesize about useful materials and probable results of his trials. We have gained insight into his primary areas of interest, which include transforming the state or properties of one material to resemble another material, such as casting an ephemeral rose in metal, or attempting to transform a brittle material into a malleable one. Such manipulation of materials to bring about transformation of properties and states, as well as his “material mimesis” is typical of technical recipes more generally, indeed of craft making in early modern Europe in general.