Tag Archives: Tovah Bender

Creatively Interpreting the Ménagier de Paris

By Tovah Bender

When I was handed an upper-level undergraduate course called Medieval Culture at Florida International University, I decided to push the concept of “culture.” I wanted to showcase all of medieval culture, high and low, ideals and practice. I wanted students to appreciate the richness of the cultures and to experience the period—both major events and daily life—through the eyes of those who lived in the period. I also wanted to make the society tangible to modern students, to whom the premodern past is often a very foreign place.


Andres Del Haya cooks chicken according to a medieval recipe.  Photo courtesy of Andres Del Haya.
Andres Del Haya cooks chicken according to a medieval recipe. Photo courtesy of Andres Del Haya.

This resulted in a course devoted entirely to the study of medieval primary sources in all their variety. When I teach the class, I emphasize sources that can be experienced through the senses; polyphonic music, recordings of texts in the original, and images of cathedral windows, in addition to imagining the smoke that filled a peasant’s hut, the cool quiet of a church interior, or the stench of a siege camp. All of these things help students to experience the time as their historical subjects would have done. This sensory experience also helps students bridge this divide with the past and see history through the eyes of their subjects. Taste is certainly a part of this.

One of the final texts that we read in this course is the Ménagier de Paris, a Parisian guide to housekeeping from the early 1390s, ostensibly written by a wealthy bourgeois husband for his much younger wife but likely intended for a larger audience.[1]  The first section of the book consists of advice on the comportment of the wife, including widely told parables such as the stories of Suzanne, Lucretia, and Griselda. The second section is a how-to guide on running one’s urban bourgeois home, including—in the Greco and Rose edition I used in class—nearly 20 pages of menus and 75 pages of recipes.

Yannine Gonzalez's interpretation of "Emplumeus (Baked Apples)" from the Menagier de Paris.  Photo courtesy of Yannine Gonzalez.
Yannine Gonzalez’s interpretation of “Emplumeus (Baked Apples)” from the Menagier de Paris. Photo courtesy of Yannine Gonzalez.

Students are fascinated by this text. The ingredients and the combinations of ingredients are all different from what they have experienced. They are also frustrated by what is left unstated. How long does one cook a swan? What is verjuice? Class discussion can wander from ideas about the ways that different foods function in conspicuous consumption, to food preservation, to local and international trade, and to the division of labor. All of this discussion ties together some of the major themes of the semester, and—really—of any history class. But the recipes also make the Middle Ages incredibly tangible as students think of the tastes of the ingredients and the physical challenges of creating some of these recipes.

I know that the Ménagier de Paris makes a big impression because two weeks later students are asked to submit a final project creatively reinterpreting one medieval source or source-type that they have encountered during the semester, and many students choose to work on the Ménagier. The assignment asks that they interpret the material of any source in a different genre or tell a modern story according to the rules of a medieval sourcetype. The projects are always fantastic and creative, and they always involve a lot of cooking.

Thomas Cartaya's Marinated Chicken.  Photo courtesy of Thomas Cartaya.
Thomas Cartaya’s Marinated Chicken. Photo courtesy of Thomas Cartaya.

These cooking projects vary greatly but all involve a good deal of thought in comparing medieval and modern tastes and cooking experiences. A student prepared Hippocras, and described it as what would happen “if a pumpkin latte and wine had a baby.” Another made a pottage, the cooking of which—the student admitted—was greatly aided by the well-stocked local grocery store. A different student described the local grocery store as a limiting factor; falcon and wood pigeon were nowhere to be found. The students all eagerly sampled medieval pottage, which the chef brought to class, while the graduate students to whom I gave a medieval sampler platter were a little less convinced by the merits of medieval cooking, despite enthusiastically polishing it off.

Yanist Ontivero's interpretation of poached pears from the Menagier de Paris.  Photo courtesy of Yanist Ontivero.
Yanist Ontivero’s interpretation of poached pears from the Menagier de Paris. Photo courtesy of Yanist Ontivero.

For many of the students, I believe the appeal of such a project was the chance to experience through their senses what they could only imagine when reading. Even as they might have been familiar with many of the ingredients, the combinations are sufficiently unfamiliar to most modern palates that it is difficult to imagine the outcomes of the recipes. As one student noted in his project report

“any contemporaneous reproduction of medieval art and writing, as a rule, would be but a facsimile of the original […] By exploring the realm of cooking and recipes, however, one may truly strive towards an accurate and tangible glimpse of at least one facet of medieval life.”

Even if modern interpretations are no more “accurate” than readings or musical interpretations, there is something decidedly tangible and truly enjoyable about them to students of the Middle Ages.

[1] The book is available in two inexpensive English editions, The Goodman of Paris by Eileen Power and The Good Wife’s Guide by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose.


Tovah Bender is a permanent instructor of Medieval and Early Modern European History at Florida International University.

Teaching Recipes: A September Series

By Amanda E. Herbert

Classrooms in 1897 at the Francis M. Drexel School.
Classrooms in 1897 at the Francis M. Drexel School. Courtesy of Wikipedia Images.

In January of 2014, I wrote a post called “Chocolate in the Classroom,” which described a special lesson that I’d designed for my undergraduate Tudor and Stuart Britain course: to learn about the aesthetic and cultural changes accompanying the “Consumer Revolution” of the seventeenth century, students taste-tested chocolate that had been made according to an early modern recipe.  Most of the students really disliked the flavor of the chocolate – which featured spices such as chili, cinnamon, and nutmeg – but the response to my post on The Recipes Project was enthusiastic, with teachers from around the world writing in to talk about the ways that they used recipes in their own classes, seminars, and tutorials.

Recipes are wonderful pedagogical tools.  Deceptively simple, they encourage students to dig beneath and around a seemingly straightforward list of ingredients and directions, provoking conversations about historic foodways, linguistics, conceptions of race, socioeconomics, praxis, and religious and cultural prohibitions.  They require students to become close readers and sensitive, careful thinkers.  And they enliven discussion, as students and teachers alike imagine how a food or medicine might smell, look, taste, or feel.

During the month of September, The Recipes Project will feature a special series of posts on teaching recipes.  Our contributors will demonstrate the many excellent ways that recipes can be used in a variety of classrooms – from university lectures to elementary school classrooms – and in a range of disciplines, including classical studies, composition, history, literature, and the histories of medicine and science.  A particular strength of the series will be the use of recipes in the digital humanities, as several of our contributors are teaching students about web-based transcription via manuscript recipe collections and household account books.  Look for posts by Rebecca Laroche, Jennifer Munroe, Amy Tigner, and Hillary Nunn on the many exciting ways that students are digitizing and analyzing recipes for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC).  But the series will also feature the work of those who have taken a more “practical” approach to teaching recipes, as Amanda Moniz, Valerie Korinek, Laurence Totelin, and Tovah Bender talk about their efforts to recreate and remake historic foods, medicines, and supplies, and how modern students experience the sensory worlds of the past.

We hope that our readers will be both impressed by the work of this group of scholar-teachers, and inspired to incorporate recipes into their own syllabi and lesson plans.  Please let us know how you’re using recipes in the classroom!  To contribute to the discussion, just hit the “comments” button below.  We look forward to hearing from you.