But does it work? Playful magic and the question of a recipe’s purpose

By Melissa Reynolds

An early sixteenth-century recipe for “good gome” in Wellcome Library MS 406, f. 23r. Digitized images of the manuscript available at https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18935709.

One of the many pleasures of studying late medieval English “how-to” manuscripts is the wide and often surprising array of knowledge to be found within them. Most contain a good bit of medical information, such as herbal recipes and instructions for bloodletting, and many also contain useful household information, like directives for animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, sewing, ink-making, and so on. Also common to these collections are charms for curing fevers, staunching blood, and protecting women in childbirth. Some medieval English collections of recipes also contain magic of a lighter sort, like directions to “make a woman lift her skirts” or “to make thunder and lightning,” discussed in earlier posts by Laura Mitchell and Catherine Rider.

One such example of a light—and somewhat lascivious—recipe is found on folio 20 of Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1389, a late fifteenth-century recipe collection compiled by William Aderston, probably a surgeon working in London.[1]

To make men & women to take off their clothes

Take grain with evil thistles [thystylls] which grow above the ditch & make from that a powder & put it in someone’s lap & immediately he or she will take off his or her clothes.[2]

Image credit: British Library, from Prudence Guilllaume de Roujoux, Histoire d’Angleterre (Paris, 1844), text added by Melissa Reynolds.

Certainly, as Mitchell has suggested, recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are inherently playful. Yet I am also inclined to agree with Rider who points out that there is little evidence that medieval compilers drew a sharp distinction between lighthearted recipes and straightforwardly practical ones. In the case of Ashmole 1389, the recipe to make men and women shed their clothes appears within a short section of non-medical recipes in an otherwise overwhelmingly medical collection. Most other non-medical entries in the manuscript are clearly useful, like a recipe to make glue or instructions for fishing and engraving on metal.

So why was this recipe included in an otherwise useful collection, and what can its inclusion teach us about late medieval culture?

Historians can read 500 year-old recipes for medicine, agriculture, textile production, or cooking and understand why such knowledge was selected for “how-to” manuscript collections, even though the materials and techniques described are unfamiliar to us now. We can understand why so many collections feature useful, natural magic, as there was little distinction between magical and non-magical cures in medieval culture. In these cases, our understanding of the medieval recipe book rests on the basic premise that people wanted acces to useful (and useable) knowledge.

But recipes like this one “to make men and women take off their clothes” are perhaps more illuminating precisely because they don’t fit this mold. They challenge our presumptions about the purpose and function of a recipe. This recipe isn’t obviously practical, nor is it even apparent that it could be, or ever was, attempted by its compiler.

Though lighthearted magic like that in Ashmole 1389 is not nearly as common as healing magic, its presence in medieval collections should encourage us to reflect on what we expect from a recipe, and how those expectations color our historical interpretation. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if our focus on finding out how pre-modern recipes “work” always reflects the focus of pre-modern compilers and readers? Attempts at recipe reproduction can yield unmatched insights into pre-modern worldviews, materials, and techniques; hands-on and collaborative research into recipes should by all means continue! But while we’re building furnaces, making chacolet, and casting flowers, let us also remember that a pre-modern recipe might have had any number of meanings or uses for the pre-modern reader, some of which we may not yet fully understand.


[1]Aderston left his signature at the bottom of a recipe on folio 14v (“per me W. Aderston”) and a record at the National Archives of the UK contains reference to a “William Aderston, of London, surgeon” as plaintiff in a trespassing case against the sheriffs of London sometime between 1483–1515.

[2]Ad faciendum homines & mulieres deponere pannos suos / Accipe grana malignos cardenibus ^thys tylls^ qui crescunt super fossat & fac inde pulvere & ponite in gremio alicuius & statim exuet pannos. The Latin gremio could be “lap, bosom” or “womb; female genital parts.” You can see how a different translation would change the sense of the recipe entirely.


Making Mr. Song’s Cheeses

By Miranda Brown

The subject of this post may strike readers as odd. The combination of “Chinese” and “cheese” brings little to mind: neither memorable textures, nor fragrant flavors. Nothing, not even a single name like Parmesan or cheddar. The reason for the dearth of associations is obvious enough. Cheese is largely absent from the Chinese diet, nowadays found only in the periphery of the Chinese world, in places like Yunnan and Mongolia, where it is regarded as ethnic food for Tibetans and other minorities.

Yet things were different several hundred years ago. Chinese gastronomes once waxed poetic about the taste and texture of cheese, professing their preference for it over elaborate delicacies. One poet, living in the thirteenth century, extolled the flavor of cheese, saying, “No need for fancy morsels when there is cheese!”[1] Another, living a century later, asserted the superiority of dairy to bean curd. “While this old fellow is content with his tofu,” he wrote, “The delight gotten from cheese is double.”[2]  These early foodies related recipes for manufacturing fresh, non-melting cheeses like paneer and the secrets for creating stretched curds like mozzarella.

Over the last several years, I have experimented with recipes for Chinese cheese, attempting to recapture the flavors and textures of centuries past. One recipe, for stretched-curd “milk threads,” proved tricky. Preserved in a 16thc-cookbook, Song’s Instructions for Preserving Life (Songshi yangsheng bu 宋氏養生部), the recipe can be summarized like this:

  1. Heat cow’s milk until hot.
  2. Pour in a souring agent (akin to diluted vinegar), dripping it into the milk gradually.
  3. Once a curd forms, collect it with a cotton wrap and shape into a disc.
  4. Take the curd and place inside of a pot of scalding water.
  5. In a separate vessel of scalding water, press it into the shape of a thin sheet of coarse silk.
  6. Place the curd onto a stick, rolling and pulling.
  7. Put the curd inside the scalding water in the pot, rolling and pulling three to five more times while in the water.
  8. Roll out the resulting thread, placing it on a rack to dry in the sun (oil can be added to make the product smoother).[3]

This recipe assumes a working knowledge of the cheesemaking process. Hence, the omission of precise measurements. Readers must know beforehand the quantities of milk or souring agent, and the temperature of the milk or scalding water. Needless to say, this presents a challenge to a modern cook who is unfamiliar with cheesemaking.

My first attempts to produce the cheese failed, even with un-homogenized milk. The resulting curds, small and grainy, refused to stretch after being immersed in hot water. I sought help from Youtube, watching videos of Indian housewives making kalari, a non-rennet string cheese that was similar to Song’s stretched curd in terms of ingredients (cow’s milk, vinegar, hot water). I noticed that when coagulating the milk, the home cooks would test the temperature of the milk with their fingers, stopping the heating process once they could no longer keep their fingers in the liquid, rather than waiting for the milk to come to a soft boil as one would when making ricotta or paneer. This made me think that control of temperature was key to success, something hinted by Song’s own directions: heat the milk until hot, not boiling. Still, my subsequent efforts to make the cheese failed despite the care taken during the initial curdling process. I wondered if the pasteurization process, which requires that the milk be heated to at least 165° Fahrenheit, had something to do with my lack of success.

My breakthrough came during a trip to California, where I was able to purchase raw or unpasteurized milk. I heated a quart of the raw milk gently until hot (110° F), then poured in a little diluted vinegar and shut off the heat, all the while continuously stirring the milk. Within minutes, the milk transformed into one large curd.

Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 1: Raw milk coagulated with diluted vinegar . Image courtesy of the author.

I removed the curd and heated a pot of water to simmering, and immersed the curd into the scalding water for a few moments, removing it from the pot and kneading, repeating the process three times. Voilà, an elastic curd that stretched easily.

Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.
Figure 2: The stretched curd with the author, made with a quart of milk. Image courtesy of the author.

Looking back at the experience with Chinese cheesemaking, I can say that the success of my experiment depended on a variety of factors: knowledge of arcane texts, watching other cheesemakers at work, and many failed experiments in the kitchen.

Miranda Brown teaches the history of Chinese science and food in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Fascinated with recipes of all kinds, she is the author of the Art of Medicine in Early China (2015) and with Yang Yong, “The Wuwei Medical Manuscripts” (2017). She is currently writing a book about the premodern history of dairy in China.


[1] Zhu Xi  朱熹, Zhuzi wenji 朱子文集 (Taipei: Defu wenjiao jijinhui, 2000), 3/110.

[2] Yang, Lian 楊鐮 (chief editor), Quan Yuan shi 全元詩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2013), 109.

[3] For a translation of the whole recipe, see Miranda Brown, “Mr. Song’s Cheeses, South China, 1368-1644.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies (Forthcoming). 

The “Gentle Heat” of Boerhaave’s Little Furnace

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Ruben Verwaal is curator of the historical collections at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, and at the Museum for Communication in The Hague. He obtained his PhD in June 2018 with a thesis on the role of bodily fluids in eighteenth-century chemistry. Marieke Hendriksen is a postdoctoral researcher on the Artechne Project at Utrecht University and a long-time contributor to The Recipes Project. She specializes in the material culture of science and art in the long eighteenth century. Ruben and Marieke share an obsession with an eighteenth-century object that has since disappeared: a small chemical furnace.

With the introduction of chemistry into the university curriculum in the late seventeenth century, new practical needs arose for students  such as being able to perform experiments. Would it be possible to build a chemical furnace that provides a gentle heat, yields no smoke, and is safe for students to use? Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) believed he found the perfect solution in, what came to be called, Boerhaave’s little furnace.

Portrait of Herman Boerhaave by Cornelis Troost, c. 1730.

Boerhaave was professor of medicine, botany and chemistry at Leiden University in the early 18th century.[1] Instead of starting with the most difficult experiments with metals and minerals, he was convinced that students were better off when they learned the techniques of through simpler processes, such as distilling leaves and flowers, and fermenting bodily fluids. But most chemical laboratories were equipped with elaborate devices too complicated for freshmen students, who in the eighteenth century could be as young as fourteen. Moreover, the brick-build furnaces were designed to create high temperatures, in which small and delicate materials like rosemary leaves would burn instantly.[2] Boerhaave hence needed a device that was low-cost, user-friendly, and would provide a gentle heat.

The plan for the oven, • H. Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, Quae Anniversario Labore Docuit in Publicis, Privatisque Scholis, (Leiden 1732).

A small wooden oven was the answer. Boerhaave claimed he had designed this type of furnace when he himself was studying chemistry in the 1690s. He opened the chapter on instruments in his chemistry textbook with the words: “I shall begin with my simplest furnace; which I invented forty years ago, when I practiced chemistry in no large study, where there was only one little chimney, and where I required several furnaces at once.”[3]

Woman at the Virginal and stove under her feet, by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1630-1640. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This kind of device was probably inspired by ordinary foot stoves. These little stoves, also known as foot warmers, were very popular in the Dutch Republic. Coming in a wide variety of shapes (square, octagonal, cylinder), these stoves often feature in books and paintings. Filled with glowing coals or peat, women placed the little stoves under their robes or blankets to keep warm.[4] Many foot stoves were equipped with a wire bail handle for lifting and easy transportation. Such stoves were used in carriages, sleighs, at home and in church to keep one’s feet warm. This ordinary foot warmer got new applications too, namely as tea and coffee stove,   and we suspect it was the model for the ‘simplest furnace’ in the Leiden chemical laboratory.

Woman carrying a little stove, Harmen ter Borch, 1648–1677. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The gentle heat produced by Boerhaave’s small oven proved very useful in performing all kinds of chemical experiments. Take rosemary, for example, the evergreen aromatic shrub. Distilled atop a “violent fire”, it would have been turned to flame, smoke, and ashes. But when rosemary instead was distilled at “summer-heat” (approx. 85º F), the mild operation would instead reveal the most volatile, fragrant and aromatic part of the plant ordinarily exhaled in summer. The same process could be applied to Angelica, basil, and all other aromatic plants.

Students in the Leiden laboratory, in Herman Boerhaave, Institutiones et experimenta chemiae (‘Paris’, 1724). Ghent University Library.

Boerhaave, in other words, attributed the success of his device to one’s control over gentle heat. Whenever the wooden oven was filled with hot pieces of coal or Dutch turf that was no longer smoking, it established a constant and moderate heat that could be kept up to 24 hours. As such, the instrument was perfect for students to perform all kinds of heating processes and distillations. In fact, he was so excited about this apparatus, that he claimed that “I believe eggs may be hatched by it”.[5]

Was Boerhaave’s little furnace really that user-friendly and effective as he claimed it was? We checked it out by recreating Boerhaave’s stove and performing experiments with it. Check out our next blog to entry to find out whether we succeeded!

Creating an oven from two old stoves… to be continued!

References:

[1] More on Boerhaave, see Marieke Hendriksen, “Boerhaave’s Mineral Chemistry and Its Influence on Eighteenth-Century Pharmacy in the Netherlands and England”, Ambix(2018) and Ruben Verwaal, “The Nature of Blood: Debating Haematology and Blood Chemistry in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic”, Early Science and Medicine(2017).

[2] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae (Leiden:  Isaac Severinus, 1732), vol 2, experiment 1.

[3] Ibid., vol 1.

[4] Le Francq van Berkhey,Natuurlyke historie van Holland (Amsterdam: Yntema and Tieboel, 1769–1778), vol. 3, 706-707, 1200.

[5] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, vol 1.