Tag Archives: Making and Knowing Project

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.