Year 1 (2021-22)
The project website is born!
I intend to use this page to as an academic blog: I'll post research highlights and exciting finds, announcements of CfPs and publications, share my visits to libraries and archives (travel restrictions permitting), etc. Naturally, 'Crossroads' will be at the centre of these posts, though I may also occasionally offer more general comments on life as an early career researcher, balancing research and teaching, and the like. On that note, if anyone has any questions about applying to the Leverhulme Trust and my experiences as an ECF, please get in touch!
So, watch this space for more project updates soon...
Figure 1: CUL MS Gg.5.35 (fols 444v-445r), pages from a recipe collection
Regarding the applications of biocodicology, the final example I gave connects directly to my own research. As Sarah Fiddyment has recently shown in her study of an early modern birthing girdle, the analysis of proteins on the surface of parchment has major implications for understanding the relationship between medical texts and practice. The identification of substances that came into contact with the surface of a folio may provide insights into the contexts in which the manuscript was read and used. The early medieval medical writings that I study often exhibit stains (see Figures 2 and 3) – could these have been caused by substances related to the texts on these pages? Could the red streaks in Figure 2, located near a text on bloodletting, be blood? [I know it's probably ink, but work with me here!] Could the green stain in the corner of the page in Figure 3 be a splash from an ingredient listed in one of the medical recipes on that very page?
Figure 2: Cod. sang. 44, p. 226 - what are those streaks...?
Figure 3: Cod. sang. 44, p. 239 - what is the green spill...?
While I do not (yet) have the answers to these questions, it was such a thrill to be able to share one branch of my research with the students and immensely rewarding to see their excitement and interest in the topic. I'm happy to report that they all aced the worksheet I prepared as the assessment!
Looking ahead, although my teaching will be fairly limited for the time being, I can definitely see the potential for integrating my research into teaching. Here's to getting a new generation excited about manuscripts!
Figure 1: Laon, BM Ms. 199, fols. 1v-2r
Before we consider early medieval medicine, let’s take a closer look at this fascinating manuscript. Produced at Saint-Amand Abbey (present day northern France), this ninth-century codex contains the earliest surviving Latin version of the text of the Lateran Council of 649, a council convened by Pope Martin I in Rome to condemn the eastern Christological belief known as Monothelitism (the doctrine that Christ has only one will). Its conciliar decrees appear to have been widely disseminated, with a Greek version sent to the eastern Mediterranean while a Latin version circulated in the west. For example, a letter records that Pope Martin sent the council’s canons to Amandus, Bishop of Maastricht and the founder of Saint-Amand Abbey, and asked him to convene a Frankish council. A copy of this letter can be found near the end of Laon, BM Ms. 199, our manuscript that was, intriguingly, produced at Saint-Amand roughly two centuries later… For more on the significance of these texts in relation to this manuscript, tune into Prof. Rosamond McKitterick’s lecture at the British School at Rome on 10 November.
So, what does doctrinal drama have to do with medicine?
As far as I can tell, not much. And that's exactly the point: when we're least expecting it, we encounter a medical recipe! After 137 folia of Church council-related content, the final folio contains the Potio pigmentaria ad omnes infirmitates, a ‘potion of spices for all infirmities’ (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Laon, BM Ms. 199, fol. 138r
Figure 1: BBC Good Food's festive spice recipe
Well, it turns out that our winter associations with these spices aren’t simply a modern phenomenon. While it might be hard to imagine that today’s seasonal love-affair with these flavours, especially given their mass-commercialisation (just think of the many festive menus pushing items with these spices – did someone say gingerbread latte?!), has any parallels in earlier culinary and medical practices, the manuscript evidence suggests otherwise.
Let’s consider cod. sang. 124, a manuscript thought to have been produced at the Abbey of St Amand in the early ninth century. Consisting primarily of exegetical and liturgical works, such as writings by Augustine, Isidore, and Bede, this manuscript also contains a number of other texts, including an abridged version of the Annals of St Gall, a letter from Charlemagne to Alcuin, and, crucially for today’s post, a single page with calendrical health advice (Figure 2). (Note: the manuscript also contains some stunning images – do check it out!)
Figure 2: Cod. sang. 124, p. 309
The first half of the page pictured above lists a set of Egyptian Days (days that were said to be unlucky, especially with respect to matters of health, such as bloodletting) while the second half recommends potions to be drunk over the course of the year. For each month, one or two plant-based ingredients are named. Although some months involve potentially locally available herbal products, such as rue and lovage (March) or pennyroyal (August), others recommend exotic ingredients, including many that feature in our modern festive spice blends. Notably, cloves are listed for October, cinnamon for November (aligning nicely with my current choice of tea!), and ginger (alongside rhubarb) for January.
This is not to say that today’s gingerbread lattes are direct descendants of early medieval monthly regimina! But it is striking that certain products are associated with winter consumption in both modern and medieval contexts. Indeed, given the known medicinal and pharmacological properties of many of these ingredients (see, for example, a recent overview of ginger’s health benefits), that their use is – and was – encouraged during cold and flu season probably comes as no surprise. So, the next time you’re sipping on mulled wine or eating a slice of seasonal cake with a spiced buttercream, you can think about all the health benefits you’re reaping...
Returning to early medieval medicine, calendrical guides to diet, health, and medical practices occur with some frequency. While this type of information can often be found alongside other medical writings and within manuscripts primarily focused on medicine, they also, as in the case of cod. sang. 124, appear in other contexts. In particular, monthly regimina recommending foods and drinks to either consume or avoid as well as records of unlucky days, such as the Egyptian Days, are frequently found with computistical material, that is, texts and calendars related to calculating the date of Easter. Just as last month’s post demonstrated, such examples indicate that it’s crucial for historians of health and medicine to look beyond the ‘typical’ medical manuscripts that have traditionally been studied.
Moving forward, collaboration with scholars working on other types of texts and in other fields will be increasingly necessary – both to find previously unexplored medical texts and to analyse them in context. And on that note, I’d like to a) thank Carine van Rhijn for sharing cod. sang. 124 with me, and b) remind any readers to please let me know if you ever come across medical material in an unexpected context – the more finds, the merrier!
While there’s much more to say about dietary calendars, the intersections between food and medicine, and the medical uses of the plants named in the above calendar, I’ll save these topics for a future post because the kettle is calling!
Figure 1, a-c: These three images capture the same folio from BAV pal. lat. 24 (f. 100r) using different imaging techniques. In this case, a late antique copy of Cicero's Pro Fronteio was written over in the seventh or eighth century – tricky to read, no?!
Made up of ten distinct units, this 177-folio manuscript was produced in the seventh or eighth centuries by recycling pages from manuscripts originally written in the third (!) through sixth centuries. Biblical texts were copied on top of the earlier material, classical texts, such as works by Cicero, Seneca, and Fronto. The manuscript was restored in Lorsch not long after its seventh- or eighth-century creation, and missing texts were added on new parchment. Several more folia appear to have been added in the middle of the ninth century.
So, where’s the medicine? Of the ten late antique codicological units that were reused to produce the present manuscript, nine are in Latin and one is in Greek. Unfortunately, the only medical writings within the manuscript are found in this Greek section and are thus beyond the scope of my project and, crucially, my linguistic skillset. Alas! Although I’m sorry not to be able to analyse these writings as part of my current research, it’s been thrilling to investigate such an ancient, complex manuscript and to think about its evolving use(s) and the many individuals who must have worked with it over the centuries… (For more information about this codex, check out the Vatican's spotlight on palimpsests in its collections.)
On the other hand, two manuscripts from Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 751 and cod. 1761, have provided interesting material with direct relevance to the present project: medical recipes and charms. While I’ll save the second of these codices for a future post, let’s take a closer look at cod. 751 (see Figure 2 below).
Figure 2: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 751, f. 188v
Another composite manuscript (though not a palimpsest!), cod. 751 is made up of five different units, three of which have been dated to the ninth century and two to the tenth century, with Mainz as a probable site of production (at least for the earlier material). The codex is best known for the contents of its first unit, ff. 1-77, which consists of one of the earliest surviving collections of the letters of Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz (745-54). Other sections include texts from the New Testament, a glossary for the Old and New Testaments, sermons, and collections of canon law.
Not unlike the manuscript I highlighted in the October project update, the final folio of this manuscript, f. 188v, contains a surprise: a full page of medical material! Though difficult to read in places, the page records several recipes and charms. Perhaps most intriguingly, this material is written in a mixture of Latin and Old High German. The penultimate entry, for instance, Tribus uicibus de hoc quod spurihaz dicunt, represents an early example of a charm from the ‘Three Good Brothers’ family of charms and has many parallels in later, vernacular manuscripts (on this family of charms and its later dissemination, see, for example, Eleonora Cianci, The German Tradition of the 'Three Good Brothers' Charm (Göppingen, 2013)).
This curious combination of Latin and Germanic medical writings – as well as the location of the medical material in an otherwise non-medical context – raises countless questions. When was this added? And why? Who was the intended audience? What do the internal language changes tell us about the scribe responsible for this folio and the scribal environment in which it was produced? How was this blend of charms, recipes, and bloodletting instructions perceived? And the list goes on…
These questions provide exciting directions for future work and underline the importance of hunting for medical material in unexpected places. Expanding the number of manuscripts under analysis makes it possible to dive deeper into these (and many other) questions, offering new perspectives on the evolution of early medieval medical knowledge.
Here’s to many more manuscripts in 2022!
Figure 1: the medical recipes of Bern Cod. 318 (fol. 130v)
In past project updates, I've highlighted the question of context: why, in a manuscript otherwise unrelated to health and medicine, have medical texts been added? What can this tell us about the ways in which the manuscript was used and by whom it was read? And, conversely, can the appearance of medical texts, and especially recipes, shed light on how this information was used, perceived, and transmitted? Naturally, Bern Cod. 318 raises all of these questions, but I'll save an exploration of its manuscript context and production environment for a future discussion. Today, let's focus instead on the two recipes: a treatment for head pain and a potion for 'paralysis' (note: this should not be understood as directly equivalent to a modern medical definition of paralysis).
A lightly edited transcription of the two recipes listed on fol. 130v is as follows:
Ad capitis dolorem . Ruta manipulum . i . Uetonica manipulum . i . Musica manipulum . i . Abrotanum manipulum . <i>i . Migraneam manipulum . i . Ex his omnibus fac potionem . siue coctam . siue crudam . et bibe .
POTIO AD PARALISIN . Piretrum . untia . i . Saluia . manipulum . i . Puleium . manipulum . i . Iuiricum . manipulum . i . Urtica grecanica . manipulum . i . Corticis tremuli . manipulum . i . Persici folia . manipulum . i . Cerasia folia . manipulum . i . Salicis folia . manipulum . i . Agrimonia . manipulum . i . Rutam . manipulum . i . Pionia radice . manipulum . i . Uermiculum unde tingitur . denariis decem . Piper . grana centum . Uinum . staupos sex . aqua staupos tres . Mel staupum . i . Per tres menses bibat . luna crescente nouem dies . et decrescente nouem dies . et utatur balneis decoctis herbis . uetonica . iuniperum . edere . sauina . agrimonia . sal sextarium unum . coquat omnia simul et balneat se in eo . et sanguinem minuat de alia parte .
While the textual environment in which these two recipes are located has already raised many questions, the content of the prescriptions themselves introduces an entirely new set of topics and queries to investigate. Consider, for example, the various units of measurement the recipes employ. The first, Ad capitis dolorem, only uses manipulum, or 'handful', a very practical, if somewhat imprecise, unit. In contrast, the Potio ad paralisin draws on a much wider range of terms, as highlighted below:
POTIO AD PARALISIN . Piretrum . untia . i . Saluia . manipulum . i . Puleium . manipulum . i . Iuiricum . manipulum . i . Urtica grecanica . manipulum . i . Corticis tremuli . manipulum . i . Persici folia . manipulum . i . Cerasia folia . manipulum . i . Salicis folia . manipulum . i . Agrimonia . manipulum . i . Rutam . manipulum . i . Pionia radice . manipulum . i . Uermiculum unde tingitur . denariis decem . Piper . grana centum . Uinum . staupos sex . aqua staupos tres . Mel staupum . i . Per tres menses bibat . luna crescente nouem dies . et decrescente nouem dies . et utatur balneis decoctis herbis . uetonica . iuniperum . edere . sauina . agrimonia . sal sextarium unum . coquat omnia simul et balneat se in eo . et sanguinem minuat de alia parte .
Measurements are named eighteen times in this recipe and include six different units:
untia - ounce (a loose translation, not identical to the modern definition of an 'ounce')
manipulum - handful
denariis - denarius, a Roman coin
grana - grains
staupus - a Latinised vernacular unit of volume, roughly a cup
sextarium - a unit of volume, approximately a pint
Three of these units, untia, denariis, and sextarium, are fairly technical measurements also seen in classical texts, bearing witness to the strong influence of (late) ancient medical writings in early medieval recipe literature - even when, as in this case, individual recipes are recorded in unexpected locations and detached from a wider medical context, such as a recipe collection. Intriguingly, however, each of these classical Latin units only appears once, representing just a sixth of the total number of times that units are used in the recipe.
The remaining units, manipulum, grana, and staupus, have a more 'everyday' feel. While there's nothing to suggest that the classical Latin terms recorded in this recipe caused confusion here, that's not always the case. In the changing linguistic world of early medieval Europe, it's perhaps not so surprising to see a greater reliance on more easily accessible terminology - handfuls of sage and grains of pepper - rather than on a highly technical vocabulary. The unit staupus, as a Latinised vernacular unit meaning 'cup' or 'beaker' (and related to the modern, if archaic, German 'Stauf' and English 'stoup') fits into this user-friendly mix: like 'handful', a 'cup' offers a practical, rough measurement rather than a precise unit of volume. Moreover, it may have been more readily understood by individuals for whom Latin/Romance was not their first language.
This brief overview of the units used in a single recipe raises important questions regarding the evolution of medical knowledge as well as the intended use(s) of these recipes: are there parallel treatments recorded in other medical writings? And if so, what units are listed? Given the practical features highlighted above, were these recipes recorded with the intention of being used in therapy? Or were they recorded and read for other purposes? To pursue these questions further, it is essential to consider other aspects of these treatments, such as:
Their ingredients, which range from potentially local herbs (sage, pennyroyal, agrimony, rue, betony, etc.) to non-local imports (certainly pepper, though other ingredients, such as peach leaves, are less clear-cut - see, for example, Noah Blan's recent article on peaches);
The full treatment processes they describe - the second recipe not only provides instructions for preparing a potion to drink but also for bathing and bloodletting;
Parallel treatments in other writings, both ancient and medieval - the bathing advice, for example, has some overlap with comments in the Medicina Plinii (3.31.1), Celsus' De Medicina (3.27.1E), and Paul of Aegina's Epitomae medicae libri septem (3.18.2-3);
And, bringing us full circle, the wider manuscript context - how should these recipes be understood against this backdrop? Crucial to explore are also questions relating to when the recipes were added, by whom, and whether the School of Reims offers clues as to the environment in which this manuscript was read and information about the other texts to which these readers and scribes had access.
In short, this two-recipe addition presents myriad routes into exploring early medieval medical knowledge and its transmission, adaptation, and evolution. Stay tuned for future project updates tackling some of these other topics and watch this space for more on the unit staupus!
Figure 1: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 397, p. 22
Figure 2: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 752, p. 158
Figure 3: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 899, p. 131
Notably, the two recipes in both later manuscripts, though situated alongside other medical material, appear as distinct units. In other words, they're not simply listed as two recipes within collections of recipes; rather, they are set off from their neighbouring texts and presented as separate information clusters. And it’s this aspect, combined with their shared origins in St. Gallen and use of vernacular terms, that I think marks them as particularly interesting examples of the movement of knowledge at a very local level. Indeed, I have yet to find any additional examples of these recipes, i.e., listed individually or within larger recipe collections – or in manuscripts produced outside St. Gallen.
The investigation of such localised knowledge flows is central to my current project, helping to uncover the movement of information, the spread and reach of communication networks, and, ultimately, the evolution of medicine during this period. I'm excited by the prospect of following this particular recipe cluster further – how many other examples survive? And how are they connected? – and more generally I'm looking forward to digging deeper into local networks and the diffusion of pharmaceutical knowledge. Stay tuned!
Figure 1: Bern Burgerbibliothek Cod. A 91.15, f. 6v
Figure 2: Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 356, pp. 4-5
Figure 3: Einsiedeln’s baroque library
Figure 5: Stunning scenery on a lunchtime hike
Figure 6: View of Bern whilst crossing the Aare
Year 2 (2022-23)
Figure 1: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 752, p. 22
Figure 2: London, British Library, Royal MS 12 E XX, f. 122v
Figure 1: Gothenburg cod. lat. 25 in-person, a slim volume of just 17 folia
Figure 2: cod. lat. 25, f. 1v. A small diamond-shaped piece of parchment has been cut out along a fold
Figure 3: cod. lat. 25, f. 4v. A ripped page?
Figure 4a (top): cod. lat. 25, ff. 11v-12r. Prickings cover the margins
Figure 4b (right): cod. lat. 25, f. 12r. A closer view of prickings down the edge of the page
Figure 5a: cod. lat. 25, f. 5v. Squiggles as pen trials?
Figure 5b: cod. lat. 25, f. 2v. What's been written here?
Figure 1: BnF lat. 6862, f. 11r
Figure 2: BnF lat. 6862, f. 13r
Figure 3: BnF lat. 6862, f. 16r - top margin
Figure 1: Getting ready for a cup of sage tea
Dr Tomáš Alusík on 'Asklepieion of Paros Re-Study Project 2018-2022'
Mark Beumer on 'From Asklepieion to Kosmidion? Temple sleep: A dynamic ritual in Late Antiquity'
Opening slide from my keynote lecture on 'Books and Bodies'
Figure 1: A frozen spider web in Freiburg (my photo)
Ancient authorities, however, were not simply interested in treating spider bites. Spiders could also be useful as part of a treatment: occasionally, there are references to using spiders themselves as an ingredient but, more frequently, it is their webs that are recommended in recipes. Turning again to the Medicina Plinii, spider webs are named as ingredients in a variety of topical applications, including in treatments for fractured skulls (1.1.6), injured joints (3.1.3), and tertian fevers (3.16.6).
Fast-forwarding by nearly two millennia, researchers today are again interested in the potential medical applications of spider silk, and especially with respect topical applications related to wound healing. Studies have shown that compounds in spider silk may be useful in wound dressings and that artificially produced silk can be ‘chemically functionalised’ in order to attach particular molecules, such as antibiotics, in order to control treatments more effectively. On the other hand, some claims about the benefits of spider webs, including their alleged antimicrobial properties, have been questioned. In short, while spider silk may have a future in modern medicine, much work still needs to be done.
With these ancient traditions and modern studies in mind, what was the situation in the early Middle Ages? Intriguingly, in the recipes I have consulted, I find many more references to treatments for spider bites rather than treatments involving either spiders or their webs. I intend to analyse this pattern further and explore whether it could be linked to the specific texts that early medieval scribes were studying and how these writings presented spiders, their bites, and their webs.
Relatedly, the contexts in which spider bites are mentioned also suggest a shift in the recording of medical knowledge, though, as above, further analyses are needed. In particular, while ancient treatments for spider bites were often listed as an individual recipe (i.e., the recipe’s title indicated that it was intended for this purpose alone), the early medieval recipe collections I have studied so far reflect a different practice. Instead, spider bite treatments are often covered within general antidotes – that is, they appear as one of a host of wide-ranging ailments that an antidote was intended to treat.
Figure 2: cod. sang. 44, pp. 230-231: a lengthy antidote that includes, among its many target ailments, that it was intended to treat percussuri spalangionis (an alternate spelling of phalangium as seen in the Medicina Plinii).
Consider, for example, the Antidotum Adrianum recorded in one of the recipe collections of cod. sang. 44 (Figure 2). The antidote opens with specific instructions regarding how to administer the treatment depending on what the patient was suffering from: paralytics should take it in hot water, while those with spleen problems should take it in pusca (a mix of vinegar and water), and so on. Over a dozen different conditions and injuries are named – the phalangium, the infamous poisonous spider mentioned in the Medicina Plinii, appears at the top of p. 231.
Although this project update began life as a frivolous Halloween-themed post, I quickly realised that it could open a highly productive door onto the identification of important patterns and trends in my data – a new and unexpected window onto changing traditions in the recording of medical knowledge. I now plan to pursue a deeper analysis of the ways in which spiders (whether as elements within a treatment or as the cause of the need for a treatment) appear in early medieval recipes since these initial findings point to specific examples of how medical learning was evolving.
I look forward to exploring this web of recipes further and, in the meantime, happy Halloween!
But let's get back to early medieval recipes. Today, we're visiting the Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen and considering one of my favourite manuscripts in their collection, cod. sang. 751, a ninth-century medical compendium. This enormous codex of 500 folia contains many different medical writings, such as hermeneumata (medical glossaries addressing Latin-Latinised Greek vocabulary), the Liber esculapii, prognostic and calendrical texts, excerpts from Pliny’s Natural History, and much, much more. Of relevance today is a massive collection of recipes and related material on pp. 355-414.
While there are scattered corrections and annotations throughout this text, we do not encounter such signs of engagement with and revision to the information presented over these pages with much frequency - which is all the more noticeable given its complex and somewhat confusing composition. On pp. 408-9 (Figure 2), for example, nearly twenty recipes appear to derive from the late antique herbal De herba vettonica liber, a short treatise that offers several dozen simple recipes all based on the herb betony. More specifically, the recipes stemming from this text are grouped into two clusters: the first covers the first two-thirds of p. 408 and the second, the second half of p. 409 (the recipes dividing these two units all recommend various body parts from vultures, which seem to be part of the ancient tradition of 'vulture medicine', maybe a topic for a future post!).
Figure 2: Cod. sang. 751, pp. 408-9
In many cases, the recipes on these pages that derive from De herba vettonica liber parallel the information presented in the original text more-or-less perfectly, providing, for example, even the same units of measurement and quantities of betony (e.g., '4 drachmas' of betony are recommended in the second recipe on p. 408). There is no doubt, then, that the recipes in cod. sang. 751 and the betony herbal tradition are related. Yet, this is a complicated relationship.
In other recipes, while there are clear similarities in the content, it is less exact, and, in a number of places, there are fairly significant differences between the material presented in the manuscript and that seen in the standard edition of De herba vettonica liber, including the movement of titles, such that they no longer correspond to the same recipe. On the one hand, this could suggest that the early medieval scribe responsible for this passage was actively revising their inherited texts, making changes to the recorded recipe knowledge according to their own experiences. On the other hand, the indirect, convoluted process by which the late ancient textual tradition was transmitted over time and space may have resulted in some changes to the material, such as mismatched titles, reordering of information, and even the insertion of an excerpt of recipes from another tradition (the vulture section). In this case, the latter seems more likely.
There are no signs of attempts at correcting these 'mistakes' or cross-checking and updating this selection of recipes by comparing them with a more standard copy of the De herba vettonica liber tradition, a text that circulated widely in this period. This is particularly striking given the signs of revision seen in other parts of this very same collection of recipes - some just a few pages away! Consider, for example, p. 414 (Figures 3 and 4).
Figure 3: Cod. sang. 751, p. 414 - full page
Figure 4: Cod. sang. 751, p. 414 - a close up of the middle of the page
A quick glance at the full page (Figure 3) might not suggest that this is a heavily marked up folio but, if we zoom in (Figure 4), it becomes clear that this has been rigorously corrected. In the top line of the selection of text shown in Figure 4, 'dum' has been inserted to make 'dumtaxat', while an 'l' has been supplied to correct 'spene' to 'splene' (spleen). The following lines all have major corrections in which words have been added or altered - and, in some cases, quite radically! While the original fourth line is hard to decipher, it would have been along the lines of:
...et in<u>ig<..e>dstate paciuntur ita<n>t...
And now reads:
...et inbecillitate totius corporis paciuntur ita ut...
That a later reader, who, based on the script, seems to have been active relatively soon after the original text was copied, made such significant changes to the text is fascinating for a host of reasons. First, it certainly confirms that this manuscript was being actively read. While such active correcting practices might lend weight to the idea that these texts were being read for the purpose of therapeutic applications, I find it interesting that the majority of the corrections do not relate to the specifics of the preparation (i.e., the ingredients, their quantities, or instructions for preparing the recipe), but rather to the information surrounding it. These corrections still would have been important for someone intending to use the recipe in practice - e.g., the correction of 'contractionem' to 'constrictionem' near the bottom of Figure 4 - but, given the sheer volume of corrections in this section of the collection, it is notable that they concentrate on textual features rather than recipe details.
While this distinction may offer clues as to why this particular reader was consulting the text (by suggesting less of an interest in the practical elements within these recipes), it remains surprising that the preceding pages, such as pp. 408-9, were not similarly edited and revised. That this surprised me, however, perhaps speaks more to my own biases: unlike an early medieval scribe, I use the modern, edited version of De herba vettonica liber, an artificial construction based on compiling and comparing many different surviving witnesses of this text. Perhaps the original scribe responsible for this section of the text flawlessly copied an already complicated and mixed exemplar. Perhaps they intentionally introduced changes to an exemplar and/or brought together material from a variety of traditions to create this new composition. Perhaps the later editor only had access to content related to some sections of the entire recipe collection and thus could not complete revisions throughout.
Ultimately, this collection presents many intriguing features and raises a host of questions regarding who was copying and editing the text and why. This specific example of selective correcting combined with a complicated process of transmission should remind us that a) early medieval recipe collections were dynamic, evolving works, and b) their readers didn't operate with the same 'correct text' that we have today. Throughout the rest of my project, I plan to continue examining scribal practices, such as the addition of corrections and annotations, to explore how, by whom, and why these texts were read, hopefully contributing another angle to the wider project of 'decoding' recipes!
Figure 1: The Plan of St Gall, cod. sang. 1092
With that background in mind, one might expect that chestnuts – like many of the other common herbs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts listed in our surviving sources and known through archaeobotanical remains – would appear with some frequency in contemporary recipes. And yet… their appearance is really quite rare!
Cod. sang. 44, a composite manuscript, the second half of which focuses on medical texts, contains one of these relatively few examples: on p. 362, chestnuts are recommended as a treatment for those spitting/coughing up blood (see Figure 2).
Item: Castaneas quam plurimum manducet certum prodest.
Earlier in the manuscript, chestnuts are also named as a food from which to abstain in a version of the ‘Antidotum Filonium’ (see Figure 3). Other foods mentioned include cheese, olives, mustard, and various legumes.
Figure 2: A recipe with chestnuts (castaneas - line 6), cod. sang. 44 (p. 362)
Figure 3: Dietary instructions naming chestnuts (castaneis - line 4), cod. sang. 44 (p. 233)
The relative lack of chestnuts within medical literature is striking when compared to the rich bodies of evidence testifying to their growing popularity in the early Middle Ages. While I’d like to explore the topic further, it seems possible that the infrequent inclusion of chestnuts as ingredients in medical recipes may reflect classical influences. As Squatriti demonstrates, ‘the Latin literary record gives an image of chestnuts as marginal to mainstream agricultural and cultural concerns’ (p. 104). When they do appear, it is more often in the context of viticulture since chestnuts were used as trellises for the vines.
There are, however, a handful of references to the nuts' culinary and medical uses, and these seem to gradually increase in Late Antiquity. In fact, the recipe from cod. sang. 44 noted above looks quite similar to a treatment for spitting up blood recorded by Marcellus of Bordeaux, the late fourth/early fifth-century Gallo-Roman statesman and medical author. Following a recipe involving coral, De medicamentis liber continues with:
Cui rei et castaneae medentur, si coctae quam plurimae. (16.99)
This fairly close parallel further supports the idea that the use of chestnuts – and, as a corollary, their relative absence - in medicine can be related to classical and late antique medical traditions. In terms of my research, chestnuts thus offer an intriguing counterbalance to many of my findings: while I have tended to concentrate on examples of change and adaptation in the written record that parallel developments on the ground, chestnuts may point instead to the continuity of classical traditions despite changing local conditions. I’m looking forward to investigating this puzzle further but first I’m off to stock up on stuffing bread before the bakery sells out…!
In the meantime, best wishes to all for a happy, healthy, and chestnut-filled holiday season!
Figure 1: An example of an illness lunary in Bern, Burgerbibliothek, cod. 236 B (f. 2r)
Figure 2: A faint list of Egyptian Days in Bern, Burgerbibliothek, cod. 318 (f. 41r)
Figure 3: The start of the recipe for 'Oleum cissimum' at the bottom of p. 259 in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, cod. sang. 44 - 'ianuario mense' appears in the second line
In ancient traditions as well as early medieval texts, natural rhythms that seem unrelated to seasonality, such as the lunar cycle, also appear with some frequency. Sticking with cod. sang. 44, nine entries within a recipe collection on pp. 337-54 specify that ingredients should be gathered on a Thursday with an old (waning) moon: 'die iouis luna uetere'. In another recipe from cod. sang. 44, a complex potion intended to expel worms both broadens and restricts the temporal window for ingredient collection. As Figure 4 shows, the instructions state that ‘herba basilerica’ can be collected on Tuesdays, Thursdays, or Saturdays but only in the month of September and with the setting moon (note that 'decurrente' is used to describe the moon rather than the usual 'descrescente' (waning), so I have interpreted it as 'setting').
Figure 4: Complex timing instructions in a potion against worms in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, cod. sang. 44 (p. 350)
By naming certain days of the week as the proper time to gather ingredients, these recipes introduce an element of arbitrary, calendrical time alongside the rhythms of the natural world. While days of the week appear in recipes with some frequency, other types of calendrical time can also be found on occasion. Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, reg. lat. 1143, for example, includes a recipe that specifies that squill should be collected the day before the kalends of July (see Figure 5). Among the recipes I have examined, this level of exactitude regarding ingredients' date of collection is very rare, though there is one other particularly significant instance that must also be mentioned.
Figure 5: The lengthy recipe involving squill, 'Confectio aceti iscilletici', Vatican City, BAV, reg. lat. 1143 (ff. 254v-256r)
As a final example and one which, unlike the recipes shared above, has no direct classical or late antique parallels, let's turn to another treatment in cod. sang. 44 (see Figure 6). In this case, in a treatment for demon possession, it is stated that the ‘herb that is called paniscardi’ should be gathered on Easter and then put on the altar where mass is said that day. While this recipe remains the only one I have encountered in which Easter (or any Christian date) is named in relation to ingredient collection, it fits within wider trends I have identified regarding the introduction of Christian elements in early medieval recipes (see Burridge, 2022).
Figure 6: 'Remedium ad inmissiones diaboli', located at the bottom of p. 346 and top of p. 347 in cod. sang. 44
Ultimately, the existence of pre-Christian timing rituals alongside those with Christian influences reminds us of the complex and evolving cultures of healing in which these recipes were recorded and helped to reinforce. As I continue to explore more manuscripts and transcribe additional recipes, I am keeping an eye on timing information and especially the diversity of instructions they include, their links to earlier sources, their developments in new directions, and their possible relationships to other rituals described as part of the ingredient collection process (e.g., saying the Lord's Prayer or making the sign of the cross). I'm excited by the potential implications this body of material has for understanding the contexts in which medical knowledge was recorded and aim to situate it within broader discourses on temporality, calendrical manuscripts, and early medieval medicine.
Stay tuned for more research into this topic in 2023 and beyond!
Figure 1: The Mülinen Rotulus rolled up
The Rotulus is a fascinating document for both its form and content. Unusually, the Rotulus was written as a continuous scroll (Fig.1), with new pieces of parchment added to it as more space was needed for new recipes. This makes it a bit unwieldy to work with, but it also allowed it to be expanded with time in a way that a regular manuscript could not have been. The Rotulus has over four hundred recipes, as well as a glossary of Latin and Old High German herbs. Of these, a bit over fifty are related to women’s health. Making sense of such a large number of recipes was definitely one of the most challenging parts of the internship for me and led to multiple colour-coded spreadsheets, as the cover photo illustrates. Overall, I concluded that the gynaecological recipes were not particularly differentiated from other types of recipes in the Rotulus, appearing throughout the scroll and, in most cases, forming small clusters not set apart from the other recipes in any way.
Like many other early medieval recipe compilations, the recipes in the Rotulus do not come from one clear source. I was not able to find any manuscripts where the recipes could have been copied directly and the transmission process of the recipes was evidently long and complex. Thus, it is not surprising that I found parallels to the recipes from some thirty texts dating all the way from ancient Greece and Late Antiquity to manuscripts almost contemporary with the Rotulus. The vast web of influences, some more direct than others, and the layers of transmission apparent in the Rotulus make it a fascinating example of the active interest shown towards medical knowledge during the early Middle Ages.
Figure 2: Vt cognoscas utrum masculum an feminam portet, entries 177 and 178 on the recto side of the Rotulus
The Rotulus also demonstrates the breadth of early medieval healthcare beyond herbal remedies, including charms and prognostic texts, both related to gynaecological and other ailments. Indeed, the entries for which I found the most parallels are for using a woman’s colour and breast size to determine if she is pregnant with a boy or a girl. First appearing in Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, the colour is used to tell the sex of the fetus, but the deflation of the right breast is taken to indicate the death of a male child in the uterus in the case of a twin pregnancy, while the left breast indicated the same for a girl. This was already reinterpreted in antiquity by Soranus, who followed Hippocrates in saying that good colour meant a boy, but also taking a larger right breast to mean the same. In the early Middle Ages, Soranus’ interpretation was copied into several manuscripts and this is the form that also appears in the Rotulus, perhaps indicating the significance accorded to being able to determine the baby’s sex before birth.
Figure 3: Ad sterilitatem mulieris, entry 187 on the recto side of the Rotulus
Another recipe I found fascinating, and indeed I ended up falling into a bit of a rabbit hole, is a recipe using mandrake bark to cure sterility. Initially this recipe caused me quite a headache: the language of the recipe is more elaborate than in most other recipes in the Rotulus and at first glance didn’t seem to make much sense. In the beginning of the recipe, the mandrake addresses the reader in the first person, followed by quite vague instructions for the proper way to dig up mandrakes and ending with a description of how a sterile woman eating the plant’s bark will have her womb swelling with children. The reasons for the unusual structure appear to come from the blending of influences from several different types of texts. The reference to the proper manner of digging up mandrake roots seems to draw from the late antique Herbarium by Pseudo Apuleius, while the use of mandrake to cure fertility seems to stem from the Bible and appears more prominently in biblical commentaries and non-Christian medical texts. Thus, I think this recipe offers a possible glimpse into the blending of Christian and non-Christian traditions in early medieval medicine.
Figure 4: Illustration of a mandrake and description of the proper way to dig up mandrake roots from Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarium, Kassel, Universitätsbibliothek Kassel, 2° Ms. phys. et hist. nat. 10 fol. 34v
My research into the gynaecological recipes of the Rotulus is undeniably incomplete and many questions were left unanswered due to the constraints of time, but having the opportunity to look into such a rich and complex document has left me thoroughly impressed with the centuries of work and ingenuity in collecting, adapting and copying that has evidently gone into the making of the Rotulus and its recipes.
 Hippocrates, Aphorisms, trans. W. H. S. Jones in Nature of Man. Regimen in Health. Humours. Aphorisms. Regimen 1-3. Dreams. Heracleitus: On the Universe. Loeb Classical Library 150 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931).
 Soranus, Gynecology, trans. Owsei Temkin in Soranus' Gynecology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
 Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbarium, ed. Ernst Howald and Henry E. Sigerist in Corpus Medicorum Latinorum (Leipzig: Teubner, 1927); Genesis 30:14-23.
Figure 1: the British Academy's description of their Academy Research Projects scheme
As anyone working directly with early medieval medical texts will appreciate, the catalogues produced by Augusto Beccaria and Ernest Wickersheimer in the middle of the twentieth century, I codici di medicina del periodo presalernitano (secoli IX, X e XI) (Rome, 1956) and Les manuscrits latins de médecine du Haut Moyen Âge dans les bibliothèques de France (Paris, 1966), respectively, remain the bibles of the field. While these are incredibly valuable volumes (and I will be forever in awe of catalogues created in an age before excel spreadsheets), they are in need of revision and expansion.
Beccaria catalogued 158 manuscripts produced between the ninth and eleventh centuries based on the manuscript collections of libraries and archives around Europe. Wickersheimer, in contrast, focused only on manuscripts held in French collections, recording 119 manuscripts for the same period. That Wickersheimer’s total is not far off Beccaria’s – yet concentrates on a significantly more limited geographical area – indicates that more in-depth studies of the manuscript holdings of other countries are vital. Did Beccaria miss any manuscripts in major libraries such as the Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen or Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana? Or overlook codices in smaller, less well-known libraries, including the Biblioteca Città of Arezzo or the Benediktinerstift of Melk?
Yes! (See, for example, Figure 2)
Figure 2: Melk, Benediktinerstift, Cod. 412 (370, G 32), a manuscript not catalogued by Beccaria though it contains several sections of added medical material, including the final five lines on this folio (p. 29)
Indeed, as the study of early medieval medical knowledge has expanded (and is now routinely analysed in relation to wider cultural and intellectual developments of the period, moving far beyond traditional negative stereotypes and isolated studies) - and yet has remained fundamentally defined by the corpus of 225 early medieval manuscripts described in these earlier catalogues - it is becoming all the more urgent to provide an updated, comprehensive, and accessible catalogue.
And this is where the CEMLM comes in.
You may be thinking, however, ‘of course the earlier catalogues missed a few manuscripts – but do we really need a new cataloguing initiative...?’
Yes! And here’s why:
a) The sheer volume of manuscripts to be added
Since 2020, the Beyond Beccaria project has recorded approximately 250 additional manuscripts from the period containing medical texts. Notably, many of the examples of medical texts we have identified are located in ‘non-medical’ manuscripts, i.e., the medical material in question, such as recipes or information about bloodletting, was added to margins, fly leaves, and other available spaces in manuscripts whose contents are otherwise unrelated to medicine (see again Figure 2 with Melk 412). While the largely non-medical nature of these manuscripts helps to explain why they were missed in previous cataloguing initiatives, it is now essential to bring them into the study of medicine in the early Middle Ages: these findings open new perspectives which will transform our understanding of the evolution of medical knowledge, the spread of medical learning, and the contexts in which it was recorded.
In fact, many of the manuscripts I have highlighted in past project updates were unrecorded in the catalogues of Beccaria and Wickersheimer. To give just a few examples, consider Laon, Bibliothèque municipale Ms. 199 (Oct 2021); Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, codd. 751 and 1761 (Jan 2022); Bern, Burgerbibliothek cod. 318 (Feb 2022); Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, codd. 397 and 899 (Mar 2022); Stiftsbibliothek Einsiedeln, cod. 29(878) (Apr 2022); or Gothenburg, University Library, cod. lat. 25 (Jun 2022). The recipes and related material contained in these manuscripts have been critically important to my work on the movement of medical knowledge as they document the dissemination of information in unexpected contexts and provide insights into the transmission of recipes.
Early medieval medicine can be a tough field to get into given the nature of the sources and lack of general introductions, yet it is an area with boundless possibilities for future research and great potential for student involvement. CEMLM’s primary aim, therefore, is to produce first an online handlist to share our additional manuscripts followed by a new, comprehensive manuscript catalogue (both in print and online) to widen access to this material and lay the groundwork for future research. Building on these primary outputs, we intend to publish editions and translations of previously unpublished and understudied collections of recipes and a ‘minigraph’ to provide an introduction to the field and the manuscript contexts of early medieval medical knowledge. We hope these initiatives will open up the rich, exciting field of early medieval medicine to many more researchers (including those working in parallel fields), students, and interested members of the public.
To close this brief introduction to CEMLM, I want to express an enormous thank you to everyone who has been involved. First, I must thank those members of Beyond Beccaria (past and present – and students, too!) who set this cataloguing project in motion as well as all of our colleagues working on non-medical manuscripts who have shared with us their unexpected encounters with medical material in margins, flyleaves, etc. Next, while I remain hugely indebted to the Leverhulme Trust for supporting my individual research into many of the manuscripts involved in our cataloguing work (thank you!), as a group, the CEMLM is now immensely grateful to the British Academy for funding this initiative. Finally, a massive thanks to the core CEMLM team, including James Palmer, Carine van Rhijn, Meg Leja, and Jeff Doolittle, for joining forces and tackling this manuscript adventure together – onwards!
Beans, beans, the musical fruit,
The more you eat, the more you toot,
The more you toot, the better you feel.
So let's have beans with every meal!
"When rising from table, one should take a measure of beans that have been thoroughly purged and cooked with very clear fat. Although according to the philosophers this is said to dull the senses, it is nevertheless believed to evacuate and dry out phlegm. It stirs up the rest of the food, which is, as it were, sleeping; and it teaches it the way it should go – and not silently!"
(Translation from F. Wallis, Medieval Medicine: A Reader (Toronto, 2010), p. 112)
Figure 1: My 'local' beans (i.e., from my cupboard)
Figure 2: Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, cod. 56. 18. Aug. 8, f. 128v - the second added recipe (Ad splen) includes bean flour
Figure 3a and b: Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, cod. 56. 18. Aug. 8, f. 115r
Left (a): full folio, with a section of Prudentius' Hamartigenia in the darker ink on the left and an added treatise on medical weights and measures on the right (and bottom line)
Below (b): a close-up of the final lines of Ad pondera et mensura medicinalis featuring various legumes
Figure 4a and b: Plan of St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 1092
Left (a): Full plan
Above (b): The medical area of the plan (top left section of (a)); the 'physic garden' is located in the top left of this zoomed-in section
Year 3 (2023-24)
Figure 1: A selection of the folia making up Bodley 130 - these illustrations are all from the manuscript's copy of Pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarius.
This big jump in the number of manuscripts containing medical texts parallels what members of the CEMLM group have been encountering in other major libraries - i.e., finding lots of material unknown to Beccaria - so perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised to have roughly quintupled Beccaria’s manuscript count for Oxford.
I was, however, genuinely surprised that Oxford college libraries didn’t turn up more early medieval medical material: I haven’t identified a single codex with Latin medical writings that predates the twelfth century. [Note: if you know of any, please do share!] That being said, some manuscripts in college libraries, such as the incredible St John’s College MS 17 (see Figure 2), fall just beyond my temporal range. For more on this early twelfth-century computistical miscellany, check out Faith Wallis' extensive, ground-breaking work on the manuscript.
Figure 2: St John's College, MS 17, f. 40v
Figure 3: Ashmole 1431, f. 18r: Peonies + peony-based recipes
Having read the online catalogues and/or seen as much as possible via digitised facsimiles, I arrived at the Bodleian with a fairly good sense of the material I was going to encounter. Or so I thought… But one of the few manuscripts that’s not currently available online, Bodley 232, had some more surprises in store.
Figure 4: Summary Catalogue, vol. 3 (1895), p. 13: entry for Bodley 232
While this was already considerably more material than I had bargained for (meaning that I barely had enough time to finish transcribing it!), the extra surprise was that the final folio, described in the catalogue as a lectionary that is ‘almost illegible’, contained even more recipes! The recto side of the folio (f. 25r) does indeed have a lectionary but the very difficult to read verso side (f. 25v) is another full page of recipes, ranging from treatments for cough and chest complaints to toothache. What a find!
Figure 5: View of the Radcliffe Camera from inside All Souls
Before wrapping up this project update, I must add a note of thanks to the many people and institutions who made this research trip possible: to the Leverhulme Trust for supporting my research, to the library staff at both the Bodleian and St John’s College for facilitating my work with their manuscripts, and, finally, to Peregrine Horden for hosting me at All Souls as well as to the Oxford medievalists for including me in the research seminar and dinner that happily coincided with my visit!
Bonus surprise 5
Since surveying the appearance of Christian elements in medical recipes, such as the use of sacred substances (e.g., holy water) and the integration of Christian rituals within recipe instructions (e.g., saying the Lord’s Prayer when collecting herbs), I’ve wanted to dig deeper into a number of linked topics. In particular, I’ve been interested in exploring the rituals involved in recipes: more in-depth investigations into their codicological contexts, the types of ingredients with which they are associated, and the ways in which they involve people and places (priests saying mass, altars in Churches, etc.) are much needed.
Figure 1: Vervain (I think!) growing in the Sheffield Botanical Gardens
While a wide range of different plants are linked with Christian rituals in recipes, a handful are named repeatedly. These include agrimony, milfoil, mistletoe, mugwort, ribwort, and – as you might expect given this post’s focus – vervain. Let’s take a look at a few examples of recipes that involve Christian rituals featuring vervain:
Figure 2: A treatment for bloodshot eyes - vervain to be collected with the sign of the cross (BAV, reg. lat. 1143, f. 101v)
Fig. 2 presents a fairly straightforward treatment for bloodshot eyes in which vervain, herba beruena, is the only ingredient used: both its juice and then the plant itself are applied to the eyes. Before the treatment is prepared, there is a crucial first step: the vervain should be collected with the sign of the cross, cum simbulo collegere.
Figure 3: A treatment for fevers in which several ingredients, including vervain, are to be collected with the Lord's Prayer (BAV, pal. lat. 1088, f. 61r)
In Fig. 3, we have a rather lengthy treatment intended to alleviate all kinds of fevers, Ad omnem febrem tollendam. As with the first example, the initial step involves collecting plant-based ingredients with the Lord’s Prayer, cum oratione dominica colligatur. In this case, however, the recipe lists a series of five different ingredients to be collected in this manner, specifying a handful of each – the plants are: vervain (berbena), plantain (plantagine), nettle (urtica gragantia), ribwort (lanceolada), and what I think is an unusual spelling of the word for either blackberries or mulberries (modrone).
Figure 4: A treatment for fevers in which vervain is to be collected with the Lord's Prayer and combined with incense (BAV, pal. lat. 1088, f. 47v)
Finally, Fig. 4 shows another recipe intended to treat all types of fevers, Ad omnes typos. While the roots of vervain, herba ueruena, are the only products to be collected with the Lord’s Prayer, incense (incensum) is to be added to them, perhaps adding a further layer of Christian symbolism to the treatment.
While there are many additional examples of vervain and other herbal ingredients that I’d like to share, a proper analysis of all this material looks more like the size of a future book project than a brief project update (…watch this space?!). So, with that in mind, I’ll just share a quick reflection on what I’m finding and how vervain fits into the picture.
Although modern binaries might make us expect to see ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ medicine as distinct approaches to healing or that the addition of Christian elements to medical recipes was intended to sacralise potentially controversial, pre-Christian traditions, there is little evidence to support these assumptions on the ground. Rather, my analyses have highlighted the complex entanglements of the early medieval healthscape: cures for body and soul sat side-by-side and could be one and the same. The recipe collections I study bear witness to the blending and layering of different traditions that worked together in practice.
The idea of layering seems particularly significant and is exemplified by vervain. Many of the plants linked to Christian rituals in recipes have long been associated with ancient rituals and practices, healing or otherwise. While mistletoe is perhaps one of the best examples of a plant that has retained some ancient symbolism in modern pop culture – even if this symbolism has been reinterpreted and recast over time and in response to changing beliefs – vervain’s ancient connections to pre-Christian religious rituals is noteworthy.
Indeed, vervain, which is typically written as verbena (or a similar orthographic variant) in Latin was also known as hiera botane, the sacred herb, given its longstanding association with religious ceremonies. As a corollary, in Pliny’s Natural History, the word verbena is used to refer not only to the plant known as vervain/verbena* today but also more broadly to the foliage used in ceremonies and rituals.
Vervain’s long-standing associations with various pre-Christian rituals thus appear to have acquired a gravitational pull: the examples shared in this update highlight how the plant’s symbolism was augmented over time. In these recipes, we see the addition of more layers of meaning rather than a conflict between ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ traditions – we see the multifaceted, dynamic cultures of healing at work in the early Middle Ages.
Stay tuned for more research into these entanglements!
*Note: in contemporary usage, 'vervain'/'verbena' can be used to describe both the genus Verbena as well as the species common vervain, Verbena officinalis.
Figure 1: Fun to be back in the UL! Pictured is a manuscript from St John's College (Ms D 4), which is currently in the UL for conservation and digitisation
Figure 2: Amazingly lush lavender at the IMC. I was kicking myself for not including a recipe using lavender as an ingredient in my paper - it would have made a great prop, right?!
Figure 3: Our four sessions under the umbrella of 'Cultures of Healing in Late Antiquity and the (Mostly) Early Middle Ages'
Figure 4: The CEMLM discussions continue on the beach - left: Jeff Doolittle and Carine van Rhijn; right: James Palmer and me
Figure 1: The start of the section on manuscripts today located in Switzerland in Augusto Beccaria’s catalogue, I codici di medicina del periodo presalernitano (secoli IX, X e XI) (Rome, 1956)
Let’s start with the basics: how many early medieval manuscripts housed in Swiss libraries and archives have pharmaceutical recipes? According to I codici di medicina del periodo presalernitano (secoli IX, X e XI), Augusto Beccaria’s catalogue of early medieval manuscripts containing medical texts, twenty-eight manuscripts include medical writings (see Fig. 1 for the start of the Swiss section). This is an impressive total for a single country, representing roughly one-fifth of the total number of manuscripts covered by Beccaria. These twenty-eight codices are found in six libraries: a) Basel, Universitätsbibliothek; b) Bern, Burgerbibliothek; c) Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer; d) Einsiedeln, Stiftsbibliothek, e) St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek; and f) Zurich, Zentralbibliothek. While these twenty-eight do not all have recipes, many do, including some of the largest recipe collections with which I have worked (e.g., codd. sang. 44, 217, and 751).
However, remembering that Ernest Wickersheimer’s catalogue of manuscripts with medicine held in French collections - a catalogue that, given its narrower geographic focus, took a deeper dive into libraries and archives - greatly expanded the number of early medieval manuscripts known to contain medical writings within France, we should not be surprised that more in-depth research into Swiss collections has turned up more material. To give but one example, while Beccaria identified twenty-six manuscripts in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, Wickersheimer catalogued sixty-three from this same library!
Table 1: A comparison of Beccaria’s findings in Swiss collections and the growing CEMLM record
As seen in Table 1, the CEMLM team - with much help, too, from friends, colleagues, and librarians - has identified seventy-one Latin manuscripts produced in the early Middle Ages with medical texts now located in Swiss collections. As above, although they do not all contain recipes, many of them do. This is in no small part because, in numerous cases, the previously overlooked manuscripts that our team has now identified include ‘marginal medicine’, i.e., short medical texts, such as individual recipes, added to margins, flyleaves, and other blank spaces within a manuscript that otherwise seems unrelated to medicine. Another significant proportion of the manuscripts we have added are focused on fields adjacent to / interwoven with medicine, such as computus and calendrical science. In these cases, small medical additions are easy to group with the computistical and calendrical material, especially if they, too, relate to these themes (e.g., lunaries, lists of Egyptian Days, or dietary calendars), though recipes, again, appear with some frequency in these contexts, seeming to feel the gravitational pull of health and medicine.
Figure 2: Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Lat. 50, f. 6v - the Venerable Bede shows a little leg whilst performing calendrical calculations
My recent, more systematic investigations via e-codices have turned up a number of new manuscripts, contributing to that total of seventy-one manuscripts. Among this handful, two stood out as surprises: a) Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Lat. 50 (pictured in Fig. 2-3) and b) Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 569 (pictured in Fig. 4-5).
The first manuscript, Geneva, Ms. Lat. 50, is thought to have been written at the Abbey of Massay in the early ninth century. It mostly consists of texts by Bede, many of which concern the calculation of time - which is precisely what Bede is doing in the drawing seen in Fig. 2 (the image is captioned by the partially visible Digerit venerabilis Beda numeros sic tempora monstrans). As noted above, medical additions occur with some frequency in manuscripts focused on time, calendars, and computus; my happy surprise was discovering a previously undescribed recipe jotted down at the very end of the final folio (see Fig. 3).
Figure 3a and b: Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Lat. 50, f. 174v - a new find!
3a (left): the full folio
3b (below): a magnification of final lines with the recipe
This added recipe is very difficult to make out, but a number of ingredients can be identified, such as cassia, leeks, and pepper. That being said, I’m still working on my transcription and hope I’ll be able to consult the manuscript in-person before long!
Figure 4: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 569, p. 3 - an impressive initial (it’s the ‘A’ in ‘Ad’, reading Ad laudem et gloriam saluatoris mundi de vita et) to start the volume
The second manuscript, St. Gallen, cod. sang. 569, is a composite manuscript made up of several individual parts written between the ninth and eleventh centuries that were later bound together to produce the present codex. It features an interesting mix of writings, ranging from saints’ lives (see Fig. 4 for the opening folio of the Life of St Ambrose) to Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, a satirical text about the Roman emperor Claudius. Near the start of the final section, and just before Seneca’s satire, there are several brief excerpts from Bede (though no images of the venerable man himself!) and, within this assemblage, a series of recipes (see Fig. 5).
Figure 5: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 569, pp. 241-2 - medical recipes! (Mostly)
For me, finding this grouping of recipes - including another variant of my favourite family of incense recipes! - was a real surprise since I’ve worked with St Gall manuscripts many times before and have discussed unexpected medical additions with St Gall librarians on past visits and yet had not, until a few weeks ago, come across this cluster. It was such a fun reminder that there is always more material to be found…
So, on that note, it’s time for me to get back to transcribing - the recipes are calling!
Figure 1: A nice salad mix on display in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1431, ff. 27v-28r
Needless to say, individuals living in ninth-century Francia were not eating oranges and blueberries out of season (or even at all – but that’s a topic for another day). While the impact of seasonality might be obvious for questions of diet, it may be less so for matters of health and medicine (not least because modern, western biomedicine is even further removed from the idea of seasonality than the modern, western diet!). However, in a world where the lines between foods and drugs were often blurred, the seasonality of natural substances would have been centrally important to pharmacy – and sometimes this is even made clear in the recipes themselves.
One of the ways in which seasonality appears in recipes concerns the right time to collect – or harvest – ingredients. If you read my project update from January 2023, you may recall that the ‘best’ times to collect herbal ingredients were not simply based on seasonality, but also took into account rhythms of the natural world (the lunar cycle, tides, etc.), calendrical time (such as specific days of the week), and Christian time (e.g., the recipe that named Easter as the day to collect the herb called ‘paniscardi’ and prepare the treatment). Timing instructions that seem linked to seasonality, however, appear with some frequency within this mix.
More specifically, recipes occasionally provide instructions for collecting herbal ingredients tied to the time that a plant (or plant product) reaches maturity and would be ready for harvesting. As I mentioned in January’s update, a preparation involving ivy berries, bacis edere, notes that they should be collected in January, fitting with period in which ivy berries mature. These berries, however, are a bit of an exception, and most instructions that name a month for collecting, perhaps not surprisingly, list June, July, August, or September.
Figure 2: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 9332, f. 233v: Ad idropicis
As seen in Figure 2, a recipe for dropsy (Ad idropicis) in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 9332 begins with centaury (centauria), specifying that it should be collected in July. In Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 44, a treatment to get rid of worms involves a plant called herba basilerica (see Figure 3). In this case, several different temporal layers intersect: the herb must be collected a) in September, b) with a waning moon, and c) only a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday – good luck finding the right time!
Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 44, p. 350: Potio bibenda contra ipsos uermes eiciendos aut quacumque maleficio in se habuerit
In fact, September is named fairly frequently as a month within the sample of recipes I have analysed, and not only because it’s the right time of year for harvesting many plants. Two recipes within a small cluster of recipes that appear to have circulated widely (nearly identical copies of this recipe group occur in several different manuscripts, including cod. sang. 751, cod. sang. 759, and Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, reg. lat. 1143) name September as the month to collect their primary ingredients, caprifolium and acacia, respectively, thereby inflating the month’s total numbers. While traditionally these terms are translated as ‘honeysuckle’ and ‘acacia’, it seems that, in these recipes, ‘dyer’s buckthorn’ and ‘blackthorn’ may be meant instead.
So, if a recipe’s instructions dictate when its ingredients ought to be collected, what would happen if the recipe was needed outside of the right time of year? ... Just try not to get sick?!
This is actually a serious question – not for my own personal experimentation, of course, but rather because it raises many other important, practical questions regarding ingredient storage and longevity as well as the storage of prepared recipes. That some materia medica are recorded as 'fresh' or 'dried' in recipes provide clues in some cases. Similarly, the inclusion of instructions for how to dry an ingredient before it can be used in a recipe indicates that some items needed to be in a dried form.
I’ll save the topics of ingredient storage and fresh vs. dried materia medica for a future update – in the meantime, I have to make preparations using caprifolium and acacia before the end of the month!
After last month's project update, I originally intended October's post to follow up with a deeper dive into questions of ingredient storage, fresh vs. dry plant products, and related topics. That write-up, however, will be temporarily parked. Instead, since we're only a few weeks away from the concluding workshop of my fellowship, let's talk about Decoding Recipes! This will likely be the first in a series of project updates, with this initial instalment focused on how the workshop came about and some of the themes and topics that are already emerging. I'll aim to offer reflections on the workshop and the plans moving forward in November, so watch this space if you want to keep up-to-date with the decoding!
Let's start at the beginning...
Over three years ago (!), when I applied for my current Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, I proposed that I would hold a workshop in my final year, bringing together a small group of colleagues and collaborators working on similar material to discuss, debate, and share their latest research. In the years since that proposal, the plans for this workshop have evolved quite radically, expanding in exciting directions that I never could have predicted.
The biggest game-changer was the arrival of British Academy Newton International fellow Dr Neha Vermani in Sheffield's Department of History roughly one year after I began my fellowship. Neha also works on premodern recipes but of a very different type, concentrating instead on culinary recipes, consumption practices, and botanical knowledge in early modern South Asia. Yet, although we work on recipes from different places, periods, linguistic traditions, and genres of knowledge, we have discovered that our research has many points of intersection and shared (or at least parallel) questions and interests.
To give but one example, we both encounter challenges with translation and interpretation at several levels: in addition to navigating premodern texts written in a variety of languages, we also grapple with questions regarding the translation of knowledge into practice. What information is unsaid? Can we attempt to understand the tacit knowledge passed down alongside - yet absent - from the texts themselves? Or, in some cases, would the lack of detailed instructions suggest that certain recipes were unusable in practice?
For a simple modern parallel, consider a cookbook filled with recipes. Although the instructions may seem obvious and easy to follow, you need some basic understanding of a kitchen and its equipment, as well as a command of the individual tasks involved, in order to follow a recipe. A recipe for making, say, an omelette, isn't going to include the 'obvious' instructions, such as 'turn on the stove', 'crack open the eggs', etc. Now think about that example in the context of a culinary recipe from Mughal India or Carolingian Europe - what information was deemed unnecessary to include because anyone familiar with cooking or pharmacy would have known what was meant or needed?
All this is to say that Neha and I quickly discovered not only how many questions we shared but also how useful it was to think about them together given that we each brought different areas of expertise and training to the conversations. Since we both included plans for a workshop in our original proposals, we thought that teaming up to co-organise a bigger workshop would provide the perfect opportunity to broaden these conversations even more. And so 'Decoding Recipes: Histories of Knowledge and Practice Across Time and Space' was born!
Figure 2: The Call for Papers circulated in October 2022
The response to our Call for Papers (see Figure 2 above) last autumn was staggering. We expected a handful of proposals - maybe a dozen? Twenty? Instead, we were inundated with nearly one hundred! While it was wonderful to see the sheer volume of exciting, innovative work focused on premodern recipes (and especially to see how many students are working on recipes), it made our task of selection impossibly difficult. We sincerely wished we could have made the workshop a week-long affair to include all these great proposals. (As it was, we ended up increasing the workshop to three days!)
As you can see in Figure 2, we explained that our workshop would have a somewhat unusual format (inspired by the fantastic Ecologies of Healing workshop in which I participated the year before): the event itself will only feature brief presentations from the participants and dedicates much more time to discussion. This has required participants to a) pre-circulate their papers, and b) to do some homework (we hope!) ahead of the workshop by reading each others' pieces. We think that this format provides greater opportunities to foster dialogue, and especially to cross typical scholarly boundaries, such as the divisions of periodisation, geographic borders, language barriers, distinct genres/fields of knowledge, etc.
It's been such a joy to read the participants' contributions in recent weeks as I prepare for the workshop. While I won't mention any individual papers here since they are all works-in-progress and thus not to be shared at this stage (but stay tuned for publication plans!), there are a number of core themes and topics that are emerging and that I expect will be central to the conversations later this month.
Questions of definition, for example, keep coming up. How do you define a recipe? Is it necessarily text-based? How do we factor in the oral transmission of 'recipe knowledge'? How does a definition need to be shaped/coded in order to work with new digital tools? Do different cultural and linguistic traditions have different definitions of recipes? Do definitions change over time or vary according to genre? Some papers provide explicit definitions, others work with an implicit understanding of what a recipe means in their own context, and reading through this variety has been very thought-provoking to say the least.
Periodisation, the crossing of traditional chronological boundaries (such as the medieval-early modern divide), and the long-term transmission and evolution of knowledge are linked themes that have also appeared frequently. As an early medievalist, these topics are often on my mind, not least because this period has traditionally been overlooked or seen as a 'refrigerator' of classical and late antique knowledge - the early medieval west has been considered a mere stepping stone in medical history and not worthy of study in its own right. I'm really looking forward to discussing other participants' perspectives on and experiences with questions of chronological frameworks, their utility, and their limitations.
The relationship between knowledge and practice, a topic I mentioned above, will certainly be at the forefront of many participants' mind. In part, this is because we have several 'recipe practitioners', such as herbalists and ink-makers, participating the workshop and I am very excited to learn from them directly. They bring a wealth of hands-on experience to their study of the texts. And, on that note, I'll wrap up by sharing details about a public event we're hosting as part of the workshop that features one of our practitioners, Joumana Medlej.
We are thrilled that Joumana - artist, author, and educator - will share a demonstration of ink-making based on traditional recipes at the conclusion of the first day of the workshop. Although Joumana might be best known for her stunning works involving early Arabic calligraphy, she has also studied and translated Abbasid-era Arabic manuals and, using these medieval texts, now makes her own inks. The demo/talk will focus on the challenges that come up in the process of translation and how actually making the inks can help to understand and translate the texts.
This event (Friday 26 Oct at 5:30pm) is free and open to the public! You can register to attend either in-person or online by following these links:
We hope to see you there!
Finally, I can't provide this introduction to Decoding Recipes without expressing my *immense* thanks to the support we have received from our respective funding bodies, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. This workshop certainly would not have been possible without the funding they have provided. We should also like to thank the Department of History for their additional funding support as well as everyone we have worked with to organise the event, from departmental staff who have helped with all the logistics (big shout out to Riley!) to local partners and suppliers, such as the Sheffield Botanical Gardens and Tonco Bakery. I look forward to sharing a report about the workshop next month!
Last month looked ahead to the Decoding Recipes workshop and this month, as forecasted, I offer a brief summary of the wonderful conversations and connections that emerged from this three-day event (26-28 Oct). Such was the enthusiasm for all-things-premodern-recipes that not even Sheffield’s persistent, chilly drizzle could dampen the workshop’s positive, collaborative, thought-provoking atmosphere.
(Note that, given the rain and that I forgot to take photos during the workshop (!), all images in this month’s update are from sunnier autumnal days…! The header image is of Mappin Hall, the site of most sessions on Days 1 and 2.)
First, I want to reiterate the massive rounds of thanks that are due to everyone who was involved, including:
Figure 1: Brilliant autumn colours in the Sheffield Botanical Gardens!
Let’s first recap the structure of Decoding Recipes. Having asked participants to pre-circulate papers over the summer, the focus of the workshop was to facilitate discussion, move beyond the typical barriers and dichotomies imposed by disciplines and institutions, and dig deeper into recipes – and especially the shared questions with which so many of are grappling, such as the complex relationship(s) between knowledge and practice and the us dynamics of knowledge transmission.
In each session, which featured two or three participants, the speakers would first share a brief summary of their paper, then respond to each other’s papers (commenting on shared themes and topics, asking questions, suggesting further prompts for discussion, etc.), and then the session’s chair would lead a group discussion, opening up the conversation to the rest of the participants.
In addition to these academic sessions, Decoding Recipes featured two additional components on Day 1 to help ground our exploration of recipes, bringing in the expertise of 'recipe practitioners'. We opened the workshop at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, taking a tour of the gardens that focused on plants used in traditional dye-making practices. This aligned with the final part of Day 1, a talk and demonstration of traditional ink-making from Joumana Medlej. Joumana produces her stunning artworks with the inks she prepares based on Abbasid-era recipes. (To see Joumana’s work, as well as to check out her published translations, do check out her website!)
Each and every contribution to the workshop made for a stimulating, generative three days of discussion. By bringing people from different backgrounds and who are working in different periods and places and across varying genres and linguistic traditions, we traversed a host of standard disciplinary boundaries, breaking free of these constraints. In other words, the focus was squarely on recipes, rather than on recipes as defined (or limited) by a certain geography, particular tradition, or other restriction.
Figure 2: Another gorgeous specimen in the Sheffield Botanical Gardens!
Within the varied array of papers, a number of core themes emerged, as outlined below. While these throughlines are inherently interrelated and overlapping, I’ve grouped them into 'topical' and 'structural' themes, all of which we hope to continue exploring in the future.