Project updates

Year 1 (2021-22)

July 2021

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... 

August 2021

An ode to consulting manuscripts in person

Until last weekend, I had yet to leave Sheffield since my arrival this spring – as much as I’d like to (and need to) visit libraries and archives for my current project, it either hasn’t been possible or hasn’t seemed sensible. But now that I’m double-jabbed (thank you, NHS!), I’m hoping that (some) travel will become increasingly feasible again.

I resumed travelling with a fairly small-scale journey: I first took a train south to the Sussex countryside for a long weekend on my Godparents’ farm and then returned to Sheffield via a 48-hour stop in Cambridge. While I could happily write about farm life (see the post's header image) and long overdue reunions with friends, I’ll stick to the research portion of my past week away.

On this brief visit to Cambridge, I booked into the University Library to consult two manuscripts: Peterhouse MS 231 and CUL MS Gg.5.35, also known as the Cambridge Songs Manuscript (see Figure 1 below).

First, an immense thanks to the UL staff, especially the Special Collections team, for making my visit possible. Thanks, too, for temporarily removing MS Gg.5.35 from the current exhibition for me! (And on that note, there’s one more week to book to see 'Ghost Words' live – or you can check it out virtually.)

Since my study of these manuscripts is incomplete and I’m also writing a post for the UL’s Special Collections Blog, I’ll share a quick reflection on the importance of consulting manuscripts in person instead of highlighting the specifics of the material I was analysing. Inspired by working with a physical manuscript for the first time in months, this project update concerns the research process rather than the research itself.

While I’m beyond grateful for the many recent manuscript digitisation projects that have enabled me to continue my research throughout the pandemic, handling a manuscript provides a reader with so much more. At the most basic level (and frequently the reason given when requesting a manuscript), consulting a codex in person can often help to clarify palaeographical or codicological questions. Smudges, faint writing, or erased sections may be more possible to decipher by examining the text in person (perhaps further helped by holding the page at an angle or using a magnifying glass), and the binding, quires, missing or added leaves, and so on can be investigated more thoroughly.

Yet there’s another layer beyond these fundamental research questions: by working with a physical manuscript, a reader has a full sensory experience. Not only is it often possible to see more and from different perspectives, but a reader can hold the codex and understand its dimensions, weight, and ease (or difficulty) of use; feel the parchment and move the folia (carefully!); and even hear the sound of the pages turning, smell the codex, see how the light affects the pigments, etc. In short, a reader can use all of their senses (except taste!) in their study of the physical object; handling a manuscript opens up a world that is still impossible to recreate fully online. The insights gained from this experience might contribute to a reader’s overall understanding of the manuscript or relate to specific research questions, especially when considering how and by whom a codex was used.

Based on my own experiences, I’m always struck by dimensions and weight: despite seeing these figures listed in a manuscript catalogue, I find it hard to get an accurate sense of a manuscript’s size until I actually see it in person. The folia of MS Gg.5.35, for example, are not particularly large, but the volume is *massive* – an incredibly thick tome – something that can be difficult to appreciate online. Ultimately, no matter the research questions underpinning a manuscript study, I think it remains invaluable to interact with the codex itself.

Thanks again to everyone at the UL for making this visit possible, I hope to be back soon and to visit more libraries and archives before long...

Figure 1: CUL MS Gg.5.35 (fols 444v-445r), pages from a recipe collection

September 2021

The library of St Gall, Switzerland - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sharing the joy:
Introducing students to manuscripts, early medieval medicine, and my research 

As the new academic year begins, teaching seems to be on everyone’s mind – mine included. Although Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowships have a tight cap on teaching to ensure that research remains the primary focus (thanks LT!), I'm looking forward to spending some time over the next few years in a classroom. With that in mind, I'm grateful for the many training programmes in Sheffield designed to support those of us teaching, mentoring, and/or supervising. From Think Ahead’s SuperVisionaries seminars to official courses organised by Elevate, there is something for everyone. So, in honour of having just begun my PGCertTLHE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) with a week-long pre-term course, this month's post offers a taste of mixing research and teaching.

We ended the PGCertTLHE 'Workshop Week' with a peer teaching and evaluation session: each student gave a 15-minute lesson – that's no time at all! Adding to the challenge was the need to incorporate interactive elements, group work, and assessment…! What could I teach in this timeframe? While it certainly wouldn't be enough time to get into detailed manuscript analysis, I thought it was just enough time to introduce the topic and share the wonderful world of early medieval manuscripts. 

I began the lesson with this post’s header image, the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, or Abbey Library of St Gall, Switzerland, and told my students (the rest of my cohort and our instructors) that we were going on a field trip: today, we were going to be archaeologists – but instead of going to an excavation, we would be heading to this library. 

'What might an archaeologist do in a library?' I asked. My students had lots of correct answers ('checking references?', 'background research?', etc.) but they did not name our reason for visiting the Stiftsbibliothek…

We were here to study manuscripts as objects – the archaeology of the book.

Given our time limitations, I decided to concentrate on the new and growing subfield of biocodicology, the study of the biological information contained within manuscripts. Over the remaining minutes, I introduced my students to this area of research, distinguishing it from codicology, demonstrating the basic sampling method (see Figure 1), and delineating several ways that it can shed light on manuscripts, their uses, and users. 

Figure 1: My portable parchment sampling kit - thanks to the Beasts2Craft project for providing!

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! 

October 2021

A digression into Church history and a remedy for everything
(Even doctrinal debate?!)

Having reflected on in-person manuscript consultation and combining research with teaching in the past two project updates, this month’s post zooms in on a single manuscript, Laon, Bibliothèque municipale Suzanne Martinet, Ms. 199 (see Figure 1). 

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

While the manuscript’s main hand has been dated to the second quarter of the ninth century, this recipe appears to have been added a few generations later, between the late ninth and tenth centuries. It presents an interesting mix of ingredients, combining a few potentially locally grown herbs, such as dittany (diptamum) and fennel (feniculum) with many non-local spices and resins, including cinnamon (cinnamon), ginger (gingiber), cloves (cariofile), pepper (piper longum and piper nigrum), myrrh (mirra), frankincense (tus), etc. Of special note are zedoary (zadoar) and galangal (galenga), two plants from the far east, both in the ginger family, that were unrecorded in classical pharmaceutical writings and first appear in early medieval recipes (like this one!).

In a manuscript otherwise dedicated to conciliar material, why was this recipe added to the final page roughly 50-100 years after the main text was written? As a panacea, was it intended to be imbibed as a soothing potion to assuage theologians arguing about Christological controversies and doctrinal debates…? Or used by a reader who had developed a headache after reading an entire manuscript focused on theological dispute? Just some ideas :)

While I don’t have a real answer to the question of why this recipe appears in this particular context, I do think it’s significant that medical knowledge was recorded here – a place that we wouldn’t expect to find it. Someone thought this information was sufficiently valuable to write it down on a spare folio in a manuscript otherwise unrelated to health and medicine, expending precious time, effort, and resources. As part of my current project, I’m investigating pharmaceutical material in what we might think of as typical ‘medical manuscripts’ (i.e., those that primarily contain medical texts) and in these sorts of surprising locations. What are the implications of the diverse array of contexts in which recipes are recorded?

I hope I can begin to shed some light on this topic over the course of my project – in the meantime, stay tuned for more manuscript mysteries!

Ps – My special thanks to Rosamond McKitterick for alerting me to this recipe in Laon, BM Ms. 199 and sharing her thoughts about the manuscript.

November 2021

Time for tea?
Wintery weather, warming spices, and medieval potions

With the weather getting cooler and nights growing longer (especially up in Yorkshire!), I’m turning to my kettle increasingly frequently. To avoid caffeine overdoses, I like to mix in some herbal teas – the header image shows my current line-up: blends of cinnamon, mint, and ginger. Cinnamon and ginger feel especially warming and wintery, appearing not just in my cups of tea but also in many seasonal favourites, from gingerbread to mulled wine. In fact, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are often combined in various Christmas-related spice mixes, teas, and treats. Take a look at BBC Good Food’s ‘Festive spice recipe’ (Figure 1), a combination of cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, orange and lemon zest, sugar, and sea salt – a spice blend said to ‘bring festive cheer to many dishes and drinks. Mix into a latte, sprinkle into your biscuit dough, or stir into buttercream.’ 

But what does my tea-drinking or the BBC’s festive recipe have to do with early medieval medicine…? 

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!

December 2021

Medicinal mistletoe
Holiday-themed health advice from the ninth century

The first and most important thing to note is: 

Do NOT try the following recipes at home!

Mistletoe, the common name for a number of related hemiparasitic plants, is toxic. Indeed, in Pliny's monumental Natural History, much more space is given to remedying mistletoe poisoning than to using the plant in medicine, though we'll return to the latter. Mistletoe also continues to be used in traditional medical practices in some parts of the world, and it will be interesting to see how ethnobotanical work on this group of plants develops in the future - but, for the time being, don't be tempted to use any holiday decorations for medical treatment!

So, what does Pliny say about mistletoe? 

In addition to his comments on poisoning (noted in books 20, 23, 28, etc.), he addresses its use as birdlime (a sticky substance made from mistletoe berries used to trap birds; 16.48, 24.11), its damaging effect on trees (17.242), and its worship in the Gallic provinces (16.49-51). Its perceived medicinal uses are mentioned several times, including the following overview in Book 24:

'It is emollient, disperses tumours, and dries up scrofulous sores; with resin and wax it softens superficial abscesses of every sort. Some add galbanum also, equal in weight to each of the other ingredients, and this mixture they use also for the treatment of wounds. The lime smooths scabrous nails, but the application must be taken off every seven days and the nails washed with a solution of soda. Some superstitiously believe that the mistletoe proves more efficacious if it be gathered from the hard-wood oak at the new moon without the use of iron, and without its touching  the ground; that so it cures epilepsy, helps women to conceive if they merely carry it on their persons; that chewed and applied to sores it heals them most effectively.' (Natural History, 24.11-12)

Interestingly, many of these medical properties fit with the mistletoe-worship Pliny recorded in Book 16, and not only the elements here reported as things that 'some superstitiously believe' (i.e., its connection with hard-wood oak and the moon), but also its general healing attributes:

'[The druids] believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.' (Natural History, 16.51)

Moving to early medieval medicine, I have found mistletoe, viscum, named as an ingredient in a variety of medical recipes, many with intriguing parallels to the information presented by Pliny. In cod. sang. 44, for example, the first ingredient in a recipe titled Ad ungues scabrusas, 'for scabrous nails', is oak mistletoe (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Ad ungues scabrusas, cod. sang. 44, p. 332

Later in this manuscript, a treatment 'for lunatics and epileptics',  Ad lunaticos et cadiuos (see Figure 2), suggests the following:

'Ribwort, mistletoe from oak, agrimony, milfoil – you collect all this with the Lord’s Prayer and, for four lunar cycles, give [it] to the fasting person to drink with holy water.'

Figure 2: Ad lunaticos et cadiuos, cod. sang. 44, p. 358

A nearly identical recipe can be found in BAV pal. lat. 1088 (f. 33v) and a similar treatment also appears in Bamberg Msc.Med.1 (f. 21r). 

Notably, while the moon's involvement in the timing of this procedure has some parallels to Pliny's comments on 'superstitious' non-Christian rituals, the instructions simultaneously include multiple Christian elements, challenging any simple division of medical material into simple binaries, such as 'pre-Christian' vs. 'Christian' or 'medico-magical' vs. 'orthodox', and illustrating the complex combinations of healing practices and beliefs documented by early medieval medical writings.

Finally, given mistletoe's modern associations with a kiss at Christmas, I can't write a post about mistletoe without some comment on this angle! While I have yet to come across any mistletoe-enriched love potions, Pliny wrote, as seen above, that it 'helps women to conceive if they merely carry it on their persons' - do early medieval manuscripts have anything along these lines?

In Paris BnF lat. 11218 (see Figure 3), a recipe titled Ad conceptione mulierum recommends that a woman should drink mistletoe (specifically grown on oak) in wine. Although that may sound like it should be quite a straightforward beverage to prepare, the instructions are fairly extensive and, again, incorporate a number of Christian rituals, including making the sign of the cross, saying the Lord's Prayer, celebrating twelve (!) masses, etc. Pliny's idea of simply carrying mistletoe sounds much easier!

Figure 3: Ad conceptione mulierum, Paris BnF lat. 11218, f. 122v

So, on that jolly note, I'll wrap up this project update. While I decided to focus on mistletoe as a festive end-of-year post, I hope it also shows that tracing any ingredient can be a fruitful exercise. In this case, we've seen links between early medieval recipes and ancient practices indicative of the continuation - and evolution - of broadly shared traditions over time. The integration of explicitly Christian features with pre-Christian rituals speaks to the multifaceted healthscape of the early Middle Ages, a topic that this project is exploring further - and I look forward to sharing more in 2022!

Happy holidays to all - and, remember, don't eat the mistletoe!

Note: references to Pliny's Natural History are from the Loeb series: Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D. E. Eichholz, 10 vols (Cambridge, MA, 1938-63).

January 2022

New year, new manuscripts
A window onto some of the latest research

Happy New Year! 

To kick off 2022, it feels fitting to showcase some of the manuscripts with which I’ve begun the year: a fresh batch of early medieval codices I’ve been exploring for possible previously unrecorded pharmaceutical writings. I must first extend my thanks to a number of friends and colleagues, especially Carine van Rhijn and Bram van den Berg, for flagging certain manuscripts which, though they haven’t been recorded in the standard catalogues of early medieval medical writings, do contain texts relating to health and medicine. Let’s begin the manuscript hunt!

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?!

It must be remembered, however, that a manuscript hunt among manuscripts containing uncatalogued medical material does not necessarily lead to medical recipes.... Some manuscripts, such as Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) pal. lat. 24, turn out to be dead ends. Regardless, the process of exploring a manuscript is always fascinating. BAV pal. lat. 24, for example, presents a particularly complex manuscript puzzle: a palimpsest! Scroll through the three images above (Figure 1, a-c) for a taste of the layers of writing - and the challenge of deciphering them.

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! 

February 2022

Lions and Tigers and Remedies, Oh My!

In this month's project update, we turn to a ninth-century manuscript today held in the Bern Burgerbibliothek, the richly illustrated cod. 318. Written around the year 830 and associated with the School of Reims, this codex is perhaps best known for its partial copy of the Physiologus (fols 7r-22v), an early Christian didactic text with descriptions and allegorical anecdotes that largely focus on animals, both real and fantastic (for more on this fascinating work, see Anna Dorofeeva's recent article). As the cover image (from fol. 7r) shows, this part of the manuscript has gorgeous images accompanying the stories - scroll through its pages for unicorns, elephants, and more!

In addition to this impressive text, the codex also contains the Life of St. Simeon, the Chronicle of Fredegar, an extract from the Gospel of Matthew, a brief account of the seven wonders of the world, and two medical additions: a list of Egyptian Days (days thought to be unlucky, especially with respect to bloodletting) and two medical recipes (see Figure 1).

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:

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: 

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: 

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!

March 2022

Repeated Recipes: A Window onto Local Knowledge Networks?

Last month, we looked at the wide range of units of measurement recorded within just two recipes of Bern Burgerbibliothek cod. 318. Although this ninth-century manuscript is better known for its stunning illustrations than its diversity of units, I think its units are rather exciting, and especially the Latinised vernacular unit staupus. Yet my investigation into the appearance of this unit has not only identified its widespread diffusion in early medieval recipes: by tracing individual examples of staupus, I've also picked up the spread of individual recipes. This month's update highlights one such example.

Let's begin with Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen cod. sang. 397, a manuscript that’s regarded as the vademecum (personal handbook) of Grimald, an abbot of St. Gallen and arch-chaplain of Louis the German. As such, it can be dated to the middle of the ninth century and tied to locations where Grimald was active, such as Aachen and St. Gallen. The codex consists of a vast and varied assemblage of different texts written by a number of different scribes. The header image above offers a taste of the range of material: on the left page (p. 25), Egyptian Days (days that were said to be unlucky, especially with respect to matters of health, such as bloodletting) are listed alongside an extract from Einhard's Vita Karoli that provides vernacular names for the months and winds. 

Within this mixed textual environment, two recipes can be found on p. 22 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 397, p. 22

The first recipe is intended to combat fevers and the second haemorrhoids. My translation of the recipes is as follows:

If a tertian or quotidian fever strikes a person: collect a handful of vervain, which in another way is called isarnina, and nine grains of pepper, and mix them together with wine. Drink one cup [of this mixture] before the onset of the fever.

To help haemorrhoids: take plantain and the sour herb, which by another name is named gundereba, and tallow from mutton, this is unslit, and beat these three ingredients in a mortar and then mix in a small pan. And in this way, the fasting [patient] eats this with bread. Do not drink beer and mead but only water before you are healed. 

These recipes are striking for their use and explanation of vernacular names for several ingredients: in the first recipe isarnina is given as another name for vervain while in the second gundereba is given as alternative for ground ivy and unslit for tallow.

The recipes are also striking in that they reappear in two other slightly later manuscripts that were produced in St. Gallen: cod. sang. 752 and cod. sang. 899 (see Figures 2 and 3, respectively). The order of the recipes in cod. sang. 752 has switched, but otherwise they’re both essentially identical to the material in Grimald’s vademecum. And, at least in case of cod. sang. 899, it appears that this vademecum was, in fact, the scribe’s very source for this information: the second recipe ends with the phrase de liber grim tuli and a mark of abbreviation above the ‘m’ in grim suggests that this should be expanded to ‘Grimald’, thereby revealing that the recipes were 'taken from Grimald’s book'.

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!

April 2022

Making the most of the Easter Break:
A month on the road

Im posting this project update having just arrived in New York for the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs, the final phase of this stretch of travel. For a brief overview, my journey started in late March, when I zoomed down to London for a few days in the British Library and Wellcome Collection. I then hopped over to Switzerland, splitting my time between Einsiedeln and Bern. I briefly touched down in Sheffield last week laundry was a matter of increasing urgency! before flying over to the States this weekend. I should be returning to Sheffield on Sunday just in time to teach on Monday, no doubt aided by a lot of caffeine.

Having taken on some teaching this semester, its been necessary to organise research trips and, where possible, conferences around my teaching timetable, and especially to maximise this period over the Easter break. In this months post, Ill share three glimpses into my experiences over the past few weeks: well start with a frustration in Bern, turn to triumphs in Einsiedeln, and end with the bigger picture. Before jumping in, however, Id like to say a huge thank you to the Leverhulme Trust for providing the funding that has made these travels possible

Glimpse #1

The Bern Burgerbibliothek has an outstanding collection of early medieval manuscripts and fragments, many of which have been digitised (for the digitised material, check out e-codices). Their team of researchers and librarians have also been updating their catalogues, adding detailed entries for each item online (start exploring here), which is an enormous help, especially when trying to determine the contents of material that has yet to be digitised.

My experience in the Burgerbibliothek was outstanding and I was able to consult nearly twenty different manuscripts. Most excitingly for my current project, this included transcribing recipes from several codices that are not yet accessible online. So, what was my frustration?

I was also interested in examining a series of fragments that are, in fact, available online. In these cases, I hoped that seeing the folia in person might be able to clear up areas that were difficult to read in the digital image. Take, for example, the top half of the final folio of Cod. A 91.15 (Figure 1) the writing is so faint! By consulting the fragment in person, looking at it from different angles, adjusting the light, etc., I expected that it would be possible to get a clearer reading.

Figure 1: Bern Burgerbibliothek Cod. A 91.15, f. 6v

But I was wrong.

Although in-person examinations have helped me decipher material at other times, I wasnt able to make much progress in this case. Thats not to say, however, that consulting this fragment wasnt useful. As Ive mentioned in previous updates, there is so much to be gained from handling the physical object: it offers insights into the materiality of the manuscript/fragment and provides a much deeper understanding of so many aspects of the item and how it's been used. But Im still working on my transcription of this folio...

Glimpse #2

Working and staying in Kloster Einsiedeln was incredible! As an active monastery, it was fascinating to live on site for several days and experience the daily rhythm of monastic life indeed, although I was there for the manuscripts, I couldnt help but feel like an anthropologist at times. (This posts header image is the grand entrance to the complex.) 

But lets get back to the manuscripts: like Bern, the Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek has an impressive collection of early medieval manuscripts, a number of which contain medical writings. Similarly, many are available online, but I was particularly interested in examining several codices that are not digitally accessible at present. 

One such manuscript, Cod. 356, contains Pseudo-Democritus Liber medicinalis (plus an extra recipe added to the end of this treatise) as well as a number of non-medical writings, such as a beautifully colourful martyrology, a list of martyrs and saints ordered calendrically by their anniversary/feast days (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Einsiedeln Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 356, pp. 4-5 

After consulting the medical material listed in the catalogue, I checked the rest of the codex to see if there might be further hints of health and medicine lurking in its pages... And I found some!

The opening martyrology also transmits some astronomical information information that would have been useful for establishing the dates of moveable feasts. In several places, however, a different hand adds simple notes (i.e., not in the colourful display script of the rest of the text) that mark Egyptian Days, days thought to be unlucky, especially with respect to bloodletting (can you spot two such examples in Figure 2?). That this information was added after the completion of the rest of the text raises interesting questions about who was reading the martyrology, the information that they thought was important to add, as well as the circulation and intersection of prognostic, calendrical, medical, and liturgical knowledge.

Another joy in Einsiedeln was that I was able to give back to the library in a very small but fitting way. Pater Gregor, director of the Stiftsbibliothek, asked for my help with a few palaeographical questions in early medieval manuscripts and with transcribing a medical text in Cod. 29 in preparation for an exhibition in the monastery’s baroque library (Figure 3). I was thrilled to answer his queries and to be able to contribute in this way a tiny thank-you for Einsiedeln’s generosity in sharing their manuscripts and community with me during my visit. 

Figure 3: Einsiedelns baroque library

Glimpse #3

To wrap up, I want to turn to the bigger picture: the world outside of research. Not only am I a big believer in mens sana in corpore sano, but I think it’s so important to make the most of the unique opportunities provided by research trips in such spectacular places. In Switzerland, this means daily hikes (though skis might have been better on the first half of my trip!). I will be forever in awe of the breath-taking Swiss landscape – for me, hiking in the Alps is the best way to recharge my batteries. So, to close, the final images capture two of the scenes from my excursions around Einsiedeln and Bern a different picture of my experience on research trips...

Figure 5: Stunning scenery on a lunchtime hike

Figure 6: View of Bern whilst crossing the Aare

Year 2 (2022-23)

May 2022

Teething babies:
Ancient prescriptions in the medieval world

To kick off Year 2, this month’s post features a guest contributor, Rachael Haslam. Rachael is currently pursuing an MA in Sheffield’s Department of History and, as part of her course, has opted to do a work placement with me, learning more about manuscripts and cataloguing, palaeography and the process of transcribing texts, and medieval medical writings. Here, she shares insights into what she’s been working on this semester. 

Thanks, Rachael!

Over the past few months, I’ve been reflecting on the use of medicine in the Middle Ages and in particular the medieval reception of ancient medical writings. In this post, I’ll be comparing how a chapter from the Medicina Plinii, an influential late antique collection of medical recipes based primarily on Pliny’s Natural History, is recorded in two different medieval manuscripts, the tenth-century cod. sang. 752 held in the Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen and the twelfth-century Royal MS 12 E XX held in the British Library. Although they draw on the same material, these two medieval manuscripts are presented in different ways and make for an interesting comparison. Here, I’ll first consider textual differences between two copies of the same chapter within the Medicina Plinii and then end with a look at Yvette Hunt’s recent English translation.

Unlike modern medicine, where healthcare can be very specialised according to a patient's age, ancient and medieval medical writings do not often record distinct treatments for individuals at different life stages. The chapter analysed in this post is an exception, however, since it considers the treatment of teeth in babies (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. sang. 752, p. 22

Figure 1 shows the chapter in question in cod. sang. 752. In addition to the Medicina Plinii, this manuscript contains a number of other medical texts, such as the treatise Oxea et Chronia Passiones Yppocratis, Gallieni et Urani, and a stunning image of a Sphere of Apuleius, a diagram used for predicting life and death (see the cover image above or p. 82 online). My transcription is as follows:


Dentes equi[s] qui primi cadunt alligati . facilem dentio /

nem prestant melius si terram non tangant . Lacte capri /

no aut leporino cerbello gingiuae perfricantur . Del / 

phini dentium cinis cum melle . gingiuis inlinitur . et eius

dente gingiuae tanguntur . Eundem effectum habent

dentes caniculae. Cerebrum pecudis in cibo datur .

Figure 2: London, British Library, Royal MS 12 E XX, f. 122v

The British Library manuscript containing the Medicina Plinii (see Figure 2 for the chapter under analysis) also includes texts linked to famous names in ancient medicine, with a commentary on Hippocrates and Galen’s De Arte Curativa ad Glauconem. The script immediately stands out as being more difficult to read, as it was written in a protogothic script rather than the Caroline miniscule of the tenth-century manuscript. Here is my transcription:

Dentes equis qui primi cadunt alligati . AD DENTIONEM INFANTIUM . /

facilem dentionem prestant . Melius est si terram non tangter . Lacte caprino aut /

leporino cerebello gingiuę perfricantur . Delfini dentium cinis cum mel /

le gingiuis illintitur . et eius dente gingiuę tanguntur . Eundem effectum . /

Dentes caniculę habent .

When compared, the texts present several notable differences. Given that they were written centuries apart, it is possible that these differences reflect changes in practice, though other manuscripts would need to be consulted to explore these differences further. A very clear difference is that the final recipe of this chapter recorded in the earlier manuscript is not included in this later copy. Additionally, the earlier copy is relatively lacking in abbreviation when compared to the later manuscript. This may reflect the shift towards using abbreviations more frequently in the twelfth century or could merely point to one of the twelfth-century scribe’s space-saving techniques, since the text is also smaller and more crowded generally. 

Another difference is that the tenth-century manuscript maintains the classical ‘-ae’ ending while the twelfth-century scribe has shifted to using simply ‘-e’. This is a common difference between ancient and medieval Latin, and a change already observed in other early medieval manuscripts, so it is interesting to see that the tenth-century copy remains more faithful to the ancient Latin text. 

The final difference I’ll consider here is one I came across when attempting to locate the text in both manuscripts. The older copy includes the chapter number (14), making it much easier to identify than in the later manuscript. Perhaps another space-saving technique on the part of our twelfth century scribe? 

The content of the prescriptions is also interesting, as can be seen with Yvette Hunt’s translation: 

14. For cutting babies’ teeth 

1) The first teeth which fall from horses tied around are excellent for easy teething; it is better if they do not touch the ground. Gums are rubbed with goat milk or hare brain. 

2) Ash of a dolphin’s teeth is smeared on the gums with honey and the gums are touched with its tooth. The teeth of a canicula have the same effect. The brain of livestock is given in food.*

Hunt provides fascinating explanatory notes about these recipes in her commentary. For example, the use of horse teeth was most likely a magical amulet, with which it was common to insist they did not touch the ground. This is included in both the tenth- and twelfth-century copies, as is the reference to the teeth of a canicula, possibly referring to a dog-fish, shark, or even a small dog. Hunt notes that Pliny’s original consideration of these teeth may not have related to teething, so the author of the Medicina Plinii and its various copiers may have based their text on a misunderstanding. This is interesting as it raises questions of whether the medieval scribes had medical knowledge or were simply copying the text without considering its meaning. I find this particularly noteworthy given the most striking difference between the texts: the lack of the final recipe in the twelfth-century copy. Was this an accident or something the scribe deliberately chose to leave out? 

This investigation into the same text across different time periods raises interesting questions about knowledge transfer and the treatment of ancient texts in the medieval world. I hope it has shown the benefits of a comparative approach and I’m looking forward to continuing my research into medical manuscripts, having had my interest sparked by this project.

*Yvette Hunt, The Medicina Plinii: Latin Text, Translation, and Commentary (London, 2020), p. 31.

June 2022

Looking beyond the text:
The biography of a manuscript 

After a conference in Oslo (Oslo Fjord pictured above), I’ve been travelling around Scandinavia to consult manuscripts, visiting:

This month’s research update will focus on the Gothenburg manuscript – stay tuned for the others in future posts! – but before launching into the manuscript, I’d first like to thank a) the Leverhulme Trust for funding this manuscript adventure, and b) the many librarians, archivists, and curators who have kindly shared these manuscripts with me – and often much of their own time and expertise, too! 

Now lets turn to Gothenburg codex latinus 25 (hereafter, cod. lat. 25), the small manuscript seen in Figure 1. 

Figure 1: Gothenburg cod. lat. 25 in-person, a slim volume of just 17 folia

Although this tenth/eleventh-century manuscript is now available online, it has received relatively little attention. This lack of scholarship may be due, at least in part, to how difficult it is to read: some pages are very faint. Since the limited descriptions of this codex note that it contains some prognostic texts relating to health and medicine, and since medical recipes are frequently found alongside such writings, I wondered if an in-person inspection of the manuscript might reveal more medical texts lurking in its pages… 

Reader, I’m sorry to report that I didn’t find material of this sort.

BUT I still want to highlight this manuscript because, despite not finding recipes, I was utterly fascinated by it. And don’t let its small size fool you: the codex may have less than twenty pages, but it has many stories to tell. Let’s explore some of the ways in which this manuscript’s users have left their marks across the centuries. 

Figure 2: cod. lat. 25, f. 1v. A small diamond-shaped piece of parchment has been cut out along a fold 

The first two folia each have two small pieces of parchment cut out: one diamond is near the bottom left corner of the page (if you’re looking at 1v, as displayed in Figure 2) while the other – a triangle (half diamond) – is on the very edge of the page. As you can hopefully see in Figure 2, these pages were folded, and folded in such a way that a simple snip-snip would have produced these double cut-outs. Although this did not result in an ornamental snowflake, it follows the same process of folding and cutting to produce a repeated shape.

When and by whom these cuts were made remains unknown. As does the question of why – was this simply a bored reader? Or were these parchment cut-outs being used for something in particular? Although I don’t know what such small pieces of parchment might have been used for, it seems quite possible that they were being put to some new use given how valuable this material was.

Returning to the folds, I noticed that some folia have them but others don’t. The lack of uniformity with respect to folding suggests that individual parts of the manuscript were originally used in different contexts and then later bound together. Did some of the pages circulate as loose folia folded together? Maybe. 

Figure 3: cod. lat. 25, f. 4v. A ripped page?

Unlike the cleanly cut diamonds, f. 4 has what looks more like a rip given the rough edge (see Figure 3), while just a sliver of f. 3 survives. This manuscript has been through the ringer! Meanwhile, all pages have lots of prick-marks – little piercings around the margins, as seen in Figure 4. Based on a previous Twitter discussion concerning a manuscript I consulted in Bern, this patterning of prickings suggests that these folia were reused as part of the bindings of other manuscripts. With that in mind, I think it’s pretty amazing that these pages were eventually (re)united.

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

Next, let’s consider the array of additions on ff. 2v-6v (Figure 5). These pages contain a varied assortment of written material added by later readers/users of these pages: we can see squiggles (Figure 5a – perhaps pen trials?), calculations (or at least some numbers?), and several very bold, repeated marks (Figure 5b – is this ‘1551’? ‘ISSI’? If anyone reading this has thoughts about these additions, I’d love to hear!).

Figure 5a: cod. lat. 25, f. 5v. Squiggles as pen trials?

Figure 5b: cod. lat. 25, f. 2v. What's been written here?

All of these additions provide further evidence that this manuscript was seen as available to repurpose. Indeed, while I often see later additions in manuscripts, scribes tend to stick to blank spaces, such as margins or spaces between texts – here, in contrast, the later writings spill onto the original texts.

So, although these folia began life as pages dedicated to prognostics, the ways in which individuals used them changed over time. The texts were not simply read, re-read, copied, etc., but rather had an active, if turbulent, life: they were also written over, cut up, and possibly used to bind other manuscripts – and that’s just what my quick overview has uncovered. How many other ways have these pages been used? How many other untold stories do they hold?

Ultimately, each and every manuscript contains much more than a written record. By reading a manuscript's texts alongside the evidence presented by the physical object itself, we can explore how individuals engaged with these materials over time, opening up new questions and areas for research. Heres to more adventures with manuscripts in Year 2!

July 2022

Unusual ingredients:
Puzzles, patterns, and possibilities

This month’s research update focuses on Paris, BnF lat. 6862, a fascinating, richly illustrated manuscript (see cover  image for ff. 36v-37r) today housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I first encountered this codex during my PhD, decided that its recipes didn't quite fit that project's criteria, and parked it for future research... The broader framework of my current project means that the future is now! Yet, having only returned to this manuscript relatively recently, the following post raises more questions than it answers. In doing so, I hope it highlights some directions in which my research is moving and how I'm attempting to approach these questions. So let's meet BnF lat. 6862...

Thought to have been produced in the second quarter of the ninth century, this manuscript contains a number of different medical texts, such as a short guide to weights and measures frequently listed in recipes, a pseudo-Hippocratic letter, and two herbals (collections of simple recipes based on herbal ingredients). The cover image above illustrates two pages from the latter of these works, Pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarius - the material here concerns knot-grass and birthwort.

The image also includes a number of marginal additions, text blocks added to the left and right margins outside of the main body of writing. At this point in the manuscript, these additions typically offer titles for subsections within the text, such as individual recipes - a useful finding aid for someone consulting the manuscript. Earlier folia, however, present radically different picture, as seen in Figures 1 and 2. 

Figure 1: BnF lat. 6862, f. 11r

Figure 2: BnF lat. 6862, f. 13r

Between ff. 3r-24r, text has been added not only around the margins (Figure 1 - top, right, and bottom) but also to any blank spaces that remained after the original material was copied (Figure 2 - the additions take up significantly more space on this page than the main text!). These texts are almost all medical recipes and total over 200 (!) additional, individual entries. Intriguingly, although several different hands can be seen throughout the manuscript, the vast majority of the additions - both the several hundred recipes on ff. 3r-24r as well as the section titles that continue to the end of the manuscript - were added by a single scribe. While there is some debate regarding when this scribe was active, a date of the early tenth century is most frequently suggested.

Why did this scribe add so much, and such a range of, material at this stage? How can these additions shed light on the use of the manuscript over time and the evolution of medical knowledge? And to what extent do the added recipes relate to the rest of the medical texts recorded in the manuscript?

While I'm certainly not ready to provide answers to these questions, I think that pursuing a detailed analysis of the added recipes themselves and then comparing them to the other texts in the manuscript as well as related material in other contexts has the potential to shed light on these topics and many others. This contextualisation is particularly important and seems to have been largely overlooked: the BnF's description of these additions, for example, notes that, in general, they are not directly related to the main text ("Les additions sont la plupart du temps sans rapport direct avec le texte, mais leur contenu constitue des suppléments d’un intérêt certain (aucune source repérée)").

Although, as noted above, I'm still in the early stages of working with this manuscript, my initial investigations suggest that there may be some interesting relationships to explore between the added recipes and the herbal collections. In particular, I have encountered a number of relatively uncommon terms for ingredients in these recipes with some frequency, such as bisasa. This term is first recorded as a synonym for wild rue (ruta hortensis or peganon) by Dioscorides, who writes: 'some call this plant harmala, the Syrians bessasa, and the Cappadocians moly...' (Dioscorides, De materia medica, trans. L. Y. Beck (Hildesheim, 2020), III.46).

Figure 3: BnF lat. 6862, f. 16r - top margin

While Dioscorides only records wild rue as a treatment for dim-sightedness, the Herbarius - one of the main texts found in BnF lat. 6862 - lists fourteen recipes based on this plant, each intended to  treat a different ailment, ranging from stomachache to the bite of a rabid dog. In line with the BnF catalogue, none of the seven added recipes in BnF lat. 6862 that include bisasa directly parallels one of the recipes in these sources. That being said, some of the treatments target the same conditions, such as head pain: the final wild rue recipe in the Herbarius offers a treatment for Ad capitis dolorem, while a recipe added to the top margin of f. 16r in BnF lat. 6862 (see Figure 3) presents a more complex preparation for the same condition. A more thorough exploration of the possible connections between these texts is therefore much needed

Alongside bisasa, do any of the other unusual terms for ingredients represent alternative names listed in classical and late antique herbals? If so, can their clustering offer clues as to the sources that the glossator was using and/or the linguistic context in which the additions were copied? In the case of bisasa, though Dioscorides labels it a Syrian name, I wouldn't suggest that we have evidence for a Syriac tradition. Rather, this suggests combinations of intermediary texts descended from classical and late antique sources, resulting in a complex patchwork of herbal terminology - a patchwork further complicated by local traditions, too. By tracking the appearance of unusual terms within a single manuscript as well as across manuscripts, it might be possible to trace the spread of information and varying degrees of influence of specific sources. 

BnF lat. 6862 is thus a very useful case study that documents the evolving body of medical knowledge, offering a snapshot from the time of its original composition as well as roughly a century later when the primary glossator added the marginal material. Studying these elements together may provide insights into the changing relationships between distinct texts and traditions. Simultaneously, the identification of clusters of unusual ingredients and other recurring patterns has the potential to isolate large-scale developments in the recorded medical knowledge of this period. Ultimately, I hope the dual approach of contextualising individual recipes within their manuscript environments as well as the wider body of recipe literature will help to tease out some of our long-standing puzzles... Stay tuned for deeper analyses of the additions in BnF lat. 6862 and their implications!


Dioscorides, De materia medica, trans. L. Y. Beck (Hildesheim, 2020)

Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbarius, ed. E. Howald and H. E. Sigerist, Corpus Medicorum Latinorum IV (Berlin, 1927)

J. Stannard, 'The Plant Called Moly', Osiris 14 (1962), 254-307

August 2022

Medieval medicine meets the 21st century:
Learning from the past for a more sustainable future

With record-setting temperatures, wildfires, and floods making headline news in recent weeks, the impact of the climate crisis is increasingly impossible to ignore. So, there’s really no time like the present to explore if/how we can draw lessons from the past as we seek to tackle today’s problems. This month’s update takes inspiration from my recent talk at Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food’s Early Career Researcher Symposium. 

You might, however, be wondering how someone working on Carolingian medical recipes has anything to say about contemporary crises, whether climatic, geopolitical, or even medical – or, more to the point, how someone like me might be able offer ideas about how to address these crises. Yet, as Mateusz Fafinski recently tweeted, ‘There is much we can learn from the medieval period when it comes to re-use, sustainability and care for resources.’ Although he was talking about renewable energy and medieval innovation (and it’s a great thread, start from the top here!), I hope this post offers a glimpse into how medieval healing practices and medical knowledge may be able to help us make our modern healthscape more sustainable.

At the outset, I should note that I’m concentrating here on very small-scale changes that we can make as individuals. There are much larger issues that need to be addressed – and medieval medicine may have a role in tackling these challenges, too (especially with respect to drug discovery and the fight against antibiotic resistance) – but let’s start small and think about simple ways we can introduce more sustainable practices when it comes to health and well-being.

Although medieval medical recipes are often stereotyped as involving disgusting and/or dangerous ingredients – something along the lines of the witches of Macbeth brewing a noxious potion – most of the treatments I study involve simple herbal ingredients, many of which are still used for culinary purposes today. These include spices, such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper, as well as herbs, such as mint, sage, verbena, and chamomile.

As I’ve written about previously, many of these ingredients, including ginger, cinnamon, and mint, appear in herbal teas today and are known to have pharmacological properties. Many others, however, may be less well-known now but are similarly soothing. One of my favourite home recipes/old wives’ tales is sage tea (see Figure 1). This is a wonderfully restorative drink if you have a sore throat. Any other drinkers of sage tea won’t be surprised to hear that this plant’s name in Latin is salvia, a term derived from salvus, meaning ‘well’, ‘healthy’, or ‘wholesome’. (Quiz: can you spot salvia in any of the recipes in this post's header image? It makes two appearances on the right page, p. 347 of cod. sang. 44!)

Figure 1: Getting ready for a cup of sage tea

While I’m certainly not arguing for a full-scale return to early medieval recipe books (there are definitely some prescriptions that would have been as noxious as the witches’ brew!), I bring up humble treatments like sage tea as a reminder that there’s much to be gained from revisiting traditional knowledge – and in a number of different ways.

First, pre-modern practical medicine generally focused on treating symptoms rather than causes of disease. So, for many simple discomforts (headaches, toothaches, stomachaches, sore throats, and the like), I’d suggest considering what remedies we might have hidden in plain sight before turning to the medical cabinet. [Note: please do turn to the medical cabinet if you need to!!] What items are right in front of our noses – whether in the spice cupboard, fridge, or garden – that could be used to alleviate minor discomforts?

And speaking of the garden, that’s another aspect that I think is important to consider. Compared to modern, western medicine, premodern healthcare generally took a more holistic approach, focusing on moderation and balance. While the importance of diet, sleep, emotional and mental health, etc., to our physical health and well-being is increasingly acknowledged today, these elements, among many others, were central to the medieval healthscape.

Getting back into the garden – and thereby reconnecting with nature, getting your blood flowing, and soaking up fresh air – not only offers an opportunity to grow your own medicinal herbs and healthy veggies, but the activity itself can provide health benefits, too – a real win-win! And if anyone is seeking an early medieval endorsement of gardening, look no further than the ninth-century scholar and abbot Walahfrid Strabo, who wrote an entire poem, Hortulus, on the topic. His opening lines read:

‘A quiet life has many rewards: not least of these is…the joy that comes of devoting himself to a garden.’ [1]

I hope this month’s post highlights how medieval medicine can offer practical, sustainable ideas for the modern world. By adapting some of our basic reflexes when it comes to self-care and treating minor discomforts, we can reduce our reliance on big pharma, decrease our plastic use (think about all the packaging!), and potentially even encourage other types of activities linked to well-being, such as gardening. Let’s continue to reflect on the past as we strive to build a more sustainable future!

[1] For a full translation from the Latin, see Walahfrid Strabo, Hortulus, trans. R. Payne (Pittsburgh, 1966).

September 2022

Travel and time travel:
A few days in Prague and over 10,000 years of medicine

Last week, I was in Prague for the conference ‘Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Medicine: New Perspectives and Challenges for the Twenty-First Century’. Hosted by the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University in partnership with the universities of Oxford and Salzburg, I had the great honour of giving one of the three keynote lectures. 

This conference was remarkable for its breadth: it was interdisciplinary, international, and crossed more chronological boundaries than any other conference I’ve ever attended. In this month’s project update, I’d like to highlight the value of thinking across temporal divides and hearing from people working in vastly different time periods.

Moving backwards

As an early medievalist, I’m not used to offering one of the latest chronological perspectives but at this conference I was certainly on the late end of the chronological spectrum. Not only did papers cover history of medicine in the classical Greco-Roman world, but they also extended into the ancient Aegean and the deeper Mesopotamian past. On the final day, we went even further as Prof. Anagnostis Agelarakis shared his work on Shanidar Cave – this featured not only early humans but also Neanderthals!

While this intellectual time travel can feel dizzying, it can also lead to the discovery of unexpected areas of overlap, common research questions, and shared challenges. For example, I didn’t expect to find so many parallels between my work and Letizia Savino's on Hittite medicine. Her research into the movement of medical practitioners and transmission of medical knowledge between different cultures as well as the challenges she faces with the survival of evidence, problematic modern terminology, etc., shared much in common with my research into early medieval recipe literature. Discussing our approaches and thinking through our similarities and differences was a really useful exercise – these sorts of conversations and learning opportunities will allow me to revisit my Carolingian sources with a fresh perspective.

Moving forwards

In addition to getting into the deep past, this conference also brought us right up to the present day. Dr Jared Eddy, a practising infectious disease physician who specialises in mycobacterial and respiratory infections, contextualised his work on Roman medicine with a sobering overview of extent and impact of tuberculosis around the world today. With covid taking centre stage in recent years, it can be all too easy to ignore other, ongoing health crises – and the long-term effect that covid will have on their management. This paper was great example of how to frame research into the past alongside current health and healthcare concerns

And moving back again in the library

While in Prague, I also had the great privilege of meeting wonderful manuscripts – and, crucially, the people responsible for them! At the National Library, I met with Dr Tomáš Klimek, the director of Historical and Music Collections, and Jan Vojtíšek, a specialist in the Manuscripts and Early Books Department, to discuss the potential for biocodicological research on their collections. While their holdings are generally later than the types of manuscripts I study, it was fascinating to see later medieval and central European codices – different scripts, decorations, and materials (paper!). I look forward to exploring whether it will be possible to take samples from manuscripts in this library in the future...

It was also fantastic to meet with Dr Karel Černý, director of the First Faculty of Medicine’s Institute for History of Medicine and Foreign Languages. He gave me a tour of their collection of manuscripts and early books, showcasing some of their earliest treasures. Although, like at the National Library, these are several centuries later than my usual manuscripts, it was incredible to see these books in this collection: these late medieval medical manuscripts were used at this very institution by students in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Charles University has such a rich history, and it was so exciting to work with these materials that have been part of the Faculty for centuries.

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'

Final thoughts and thanks

While I was often out of my chronological depth, both backwards and forwards, this conference was such a great experience – a valuable reminder of how important I think it is to get outside of my comfort zone, hear from specialists working in other areas, and then reflect on my own research from the benefit of new perspectives. I’m also hopeful that the connections I’ve made with other researchers, whether at the conference or in the library, may lead to fruitful collaborations in the future.

Finally, a note of sincere thanks to everyone involved in the conference, especially the primary organiser, Dr Tomáš Alusík, and his team at Charles University (big shoutout to Lucie Burešová for taking care of much of the logistics!), as well as the co-organisers, Prof. Robert Arnott and Prof. Rupert Breitwieser. In our post-Brexit world, I also really appreciate the University’s strong commitment to fostering international partnerships and look forward to building on this moving forward. Here’s to new perspectives and new collaborations!

October 2022

Health and healing on Halloween:
Spiders, their bites, and their webs

With the final Monday of the month falling on the 31st itself, I couldn’t resist writing a Halloween-themed update. Today, we’ll concentrate on a type of ‘creepy crawly’ that is not only associated with Halloween but has also featured in writings about health and healing from antiquity to the present day: spiders. 

Having grown up in the south-eastern United States, I’m familiar with poisonous spiders. I have vivid memories of encountering a black widow in a gutter (age 9), a classroom evacuation due to a gang of wolf spiders (age 7), and – though not local – the tragic death of Rosie the tarantula, our class pet, as she was hurled across the room by a boy in our class (age 6). While poisonous spider bites are relatively uncommon, they can happen – and when they do, they can have severe consequences. Bites from black widows and brown recluses, for example, can take weeks or months to heal and, in some cases, can even be fatal. 

Understandably, in parts of the world where venomous or poisonous animals exist, such as snakes, spiders, and scorpions, medical traditions have long addressed their potential bites and stings. Medical writers in classical and late antiquity often included treatments for the bites of spiders, and especially dangerously poisonous ones, in their recipe collections. Consider, for example, the chapter from the Medicina Plinii, a late antique text largely derived from the medical sections of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, titled Contra phalangium, ‘against a poisonous spider’ (3.36). The entry first briefly describes the phalangium and its bite before offering a series of simple recipes to alleviate the symptoms of a bite, ranging from drinking wine to applying a mixture of vthe ash of livestock dung  with vinegar (don’t try this at home!). 

Many other writings also record treatments for spider bites (as well as snake bites, scorpion stings, dog bites – both normal and rabid, and sometimes even human bites!), and often these reappear across a range of different texts. The late antique Herbarius, a herbal attributed to Pseudo-Apuleius, includes a treatment for spider bites in its chapter on ivy (99.4): the patient should drink the juice of the roots of ivy (as above, don’t try this at home!). This directly parallels one of the recommendations found in the Medicina Plinii (3.36.2). 

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! 

November 2022

Correcting and decoding recipes:
How, by whom, and why?

As you might recall from other updates, I’m very interested in recording and studying medical material that has been added to manuscripts that otherwise seem disconnected from medicine. This month’s post turns to a different type of addition: corrections. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading practices, note-taking, and the processes involved in recording, preserving, and updating knowledge as I’ve been reading up on (and note-taking and hopefully preserving knowledge, too!) early modern recipes and recipe collecting, digging into works such as Elaine Leong’s magnificent Recipes and Everyday Knowledge (2018). 

** As a brief aside, these readings have been guided not only by my interest in learning from other chronological, geographical, linguistic, contextual, etc. traditions for comparative purposes but also because I've begun my background preparation for the workshop that Neha Vermani and I are organising, Decoding Recipes. And, on that note, don’t forget that there’s still time to submit a proposal! The deadline to receive abstracts is 1 December 2022, follow the link or see below for details!) **

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: in<u>ig<..e>dstate paciuntur ita<n>t... 

And now reads: 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!

December 2022

Chestnuts, change or lack thereof?
A look at the relative absence of chestnuts from early medieval medical recipes

'Tis the season to be jolly – and to eat chestnuts! 

In fact, while I don’t encounter chestnuts regularly for much of the year, I’ve had several meals featuring the starchy nut just this week. (And, as an aside, if anyone in Sheffield is looking for a chestnut fix, head over to 7 Hills/Tonco Bakery for their seasonal ‘stuffing bread’, a sourdough loaf with sage, chestnuts, onions, etc.!) All this chestnut eating got me thinking about chestnut recipes, and I quickly moved from the culinary realm to the world of pre-modern medicine


Where are the chestnuts in medical recipes?

Before tackling that question, it’s important to note that there’s been great work on chestnuts in early medieval Europe in recent years, such as Paolo Squatriti’s 2013 monograph Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy: Chestnuts, Economy, and Culture. Squatriti’s study tracks the growing popularity of and reliance on chestnuts, illustrating how they became a valuable commodity that played a vital role in subsistence farming. Alongside documenting chestnuts’ increasing importance in the post-Roman landscape and economy, Squatriti highlights ‘that a mounting interest in chestnut fruit, trees, and wood is traceable in early medieval texts’ (p. 25). 

Indeed, both the Capitulare de villis and the so-called Plan of St Gall, two sources to which I often turn when considering gardening and agriculture in the Carolingian world, include chestnuts. The former, a capitulary dated to the late eighth century, concerns the management of royal estates. Its final chapter lists nearly one hundred plants to be cultivated in these estates’ gardens and orchards, and chestnuts are among the trees named. Similarly, the Plan of St Gall, an idealised depiction of a monastic centre sent by the monks of Reichenau to Abbot Gozbert of St Gall in the early ninth century, records chestnuts in its orchard (see Figure 1 for the overall plan).

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!

January 2023

Calendrical thinking to kick off a new year:
Timing instructions in early medieval recipes

Happy New Year! 

Over the past few weeks and days, whether I've been struggling to remember to write '2023' instead of '2022' or enjoying fireworks marking the lunar new year, I've ended up thinking a lot about calendars and, as a result, the presence of calendrical information in and around early medieval recipes. Time comes up very frequently: on the one hand, the processes of preparing and administering treatments often include instructions regarding their timing. On the other hand, calendrically-centred medical texts, such as lunaria (prognostications for each day of the lunar month - see Figure 1), monthly regimina (texts listing various health-related activities, such as bloodletting, that should be performed or avoided each month), and lists of Egyptian Days (days thought to be unlucky, particularly with respect to bloodletting - see Figure 2) can often be found alongside recipes in large medical compilations. 

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)

Turning to recipes, timing instructions occur at various moments within the processes involved in producing and administering a treatment and feature a range of different types of time. To give but a few examples, recipes may:

I've been particularly interested in the diverse modes of temporal thinking seen in instructions for collecting herbal ingredients and how these instructions:

Let's consider a few examples...

Unsurprisingly, instructions for collecting herbal ingredients based on the time that a plant (or plant product) reaches maturity and is ready to be harvested appear in both the classical corpus and early medieval recipes. As seen in Figure 3, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, cod. sang. 44 offers one such example in a recipe for ‘oleum cissimum’ that uses ivy berries, ‘bacis edere’. The recipe states that these should be collected in the month of January, fitting with the time of year that ivy berries are in season.

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! 

February 2023

‘At once the fertile womb begins to swell with offspring’:
Exploring the gynaecological recipes of the Mülinen Rotulus 

This month’s post features a guest contributor, Jutta Lamminaho. Jutta is currently pursuing an RMA (Research Master's) in medieval history at Utrecht University. As part of her course, she recently completed an internship with me, analysing the gynaecological material found in an eleventh-century manuscript. Here, she shares a fascinating  glimpse into what she’s been working on over the past few months

Thanks, Jutta!

Late November last year I had the opportunity to do an internship, supervised by Claire, on the Mülinen Rotulus (Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 803), a scroll of medical recipes from around the eleventh century. My project was to look into the gynaecological recipes in the document and see what I could find out about the recipes and how they ended up in the Rotulus. Here I’ll discuss a little of what I found out. 

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.

[1] 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).

[2] Soranus, Gynecology, trans. Owsei Temkin in Soranus' Gynecology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

[3] Pseudo-Apuleius, Herbarium, ed. Ernst Howald and Henry E. Sigerist in Corpus Medicorum Latinorum (Leipzig: Teubner, 1927); Genesis 30:14-23.

March 2023

The more manuscripts, the merrier!
Introducing the Corpus of Early Medieval Latin Medicine 

Earlier this month, the ‘Beyond Beccaria’ research group – a small, international team working to revise and expand the existing catalogues of medical texts in early medieval manuscripts – received the happy news that our application to the British Academy’s Academy Research Projects scheme was successful! The Corpus of Early Medieval Latin Medicine will now officially kick off on 1 April 2023 (and, no, that is not an April Fool’s joke!). 

Given this exciting development, this month’s project update introduces the CEMLM. I’ll briefly outline why the CEMLM is working towards a) a new catalogue of early medieval manuscripts containing medical texts, b) more editions and translations of texts, and c) a more accessible introduction to the field, highlighting how this work relates to my current Crossroads project along the way.

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 heres 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.

b) Accessibility

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!

April 2023

Beans, beans, the musical fruit...
(...and Medical, too!) 

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!

It seems that Pardulus, a ninth-century bishop of Laon, would have agreed with these lines. In a letter he wrote to Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, who seems to have been suffering from some health problems (and is pictured in the opening image, Reims, Bibliothèque municipale, Ms. 7, f. 21v), he gave the following advice:

"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)

A musical fruit, indeed! 

And who would have expected that two of the leading theologians of the Carolingian world would have addressed the flatulence-inducing properties of beans in their letters?! Although the surviving medical texts do, in fact, abound with references to inflationes, I have always been surprised (and amused) to find the ecclesiastical elite discussing farts. 

While much more could be said about inflationes in the context of pharmaceutical prescriptions - how was flatulence remedied? What were its perceived causes? With what other conditions was it associated? - this month's project update isn't just about breaking wind. Rather, let's take a closer look at beans in early medieval medicine.

Figure 1: My 'local' beans (i.e., from my cupboard)

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about the intersections of diet and medicine - or the intertwining of food and pharmacy - and this month's report builds on this work. While recipes remain my focus, by considering diet and bringing in a wider range of written sources, such as Pardulus' letter, it becomes possible to contextualise 'learned medicine', such as recipe collections, within a broader framework and to examine additional evidence for practices on the ground. The humble bean offers an ideal case study that highlights the multipurpose nature of many substances as well as the varied contexts in which medical knowledge was recorded.

Although we might think of beans and other legumes as culinary ingredients today, they have a long history in pharmacy. For example, in the Medicina Plinii, a late antique collection of recipes primarily derived from Pliny's Natural History, a variety of pulses are listed as ingredients in recipes, including chickpeas, lentils, and beans. A cough is said to be 'soothed by garlic decocted in rubbed beans and those beans eaten in food, or with honey and eaten in food' (Medicina Plinii, 1.24.1; translation from Hunt (2020)). Somewhat surprisingly, a treatment for stopping diarrhoea, ventri sistendo, also recommends leguminous substances: 'bean husks decocted in water to one-third are beneficial. Lentils decocted in rain water are drunk' (Medicina Plinii, 2.6.2; translation from Hunt (2020)).

Figure 2: Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, cod. 56. 18. Aug. 8, f. 128v - the second added recipe (Ad splen) includes bean flour

Recipes with beans can be found in early medieval recipes, too. Consider the medical material in Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, cod. 56. 18. Aug. 8, a ninth-century manuscript thought to have been produced in Ferrières. While a single hand is responsible for the codex's main text (a selection of works by the fourth-century Christian author Prudentius), many medical writings were added to blank spaces throughout the manuscript shortly after its composition. Beans and other legumes are listed as ingredients in several of the added recipes; white beans, faua alba, for example, are named in a powder to help haemorrhoids (f. 82r), while in a treatment for problems with the spleen (f. 128v, see Figure 2), the flours of lilies, flax seeds, and beans are to be cooked in sharp vinegar and then the mixture is to be applied and bound over the spleen for three days.

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

Yet, in the context of medicine, beans do not appear exclusively as materia medica. Intriguingly, they are often used as a unit of measurement. The Wolfenbüttel manuscript offers several examples of beans-as-unit-of-measurement, both in recipes and in a separate text on weights and measures (Figure 3a and b). Regarding the latter, a text describing specifically medical weights and measures - it is titled Ad pondera et mensura medicinalis - was added to the empty space surrounding Prudentius' Hamartigenia on f. 115r. It covers a wide range of units of weight and volume, providing definitions and comparisons, such as 'a pound has twelve ounces' (libra habet . uncia xii). This text ends with bean-based measurements (see the Figure 3b for a close up of this section): an Egyptian bean is equivalent to two scruples, an Alexandrian bean to 1.5 scruples, and a Greek bean to 1 scruple, and a Latin bean to 0.5 scruples. A scruple is equivalent to two chickpeas, and a Greek chickpea is the same as a Latin pea. 

Still with me?

To make matters more complicated, beans and chickpeas are far from the only potential ingredients that could also be used in measurement. Nuts, and especially hazelnuts, also appear frequently, while eggshells could be used to measure volumes - but we don't have time to go into other natural units in this post! (If interested, the topic was addressed in February 2022.)

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

Finally, beans also offer a glimpse into practices on the ground and, to borrow Carine van Rhijn's phrase, 'kitchen table knowledge' (i.e., simple preparations based on ingredients that could have been sourced locally). In addition to Pardulus' comments testifying to the use of beans for medicinal purposes, other non-medical documentary evidence speaks to beans' perceived place in early medieval pharmacy. In the ninth-century Plan of St Gall, a depiction of an ideal monastery given by the monks of Reichenau to Abbot Gozbert of St Gall, multiple garden spaces are illustrated. The plants intended to be grown in these gardens are recorded on the diagram and, notably, one of the sixteen beds in the in 'physic garden' - the garden space in the top left corner of the plan, located next to the infirmary (see Figure 4b) - is labelled fasiolos, beans.

So, the next time you enjoy some beans (and perhaps experience their musical properties...), don't forget that you're also partaking in a long tradition of bean-eating - and hopefully benefitting from their medicinal qualities, too!

Year 3 (2023-24)

May 2023

Tempus fugit!
Jumping into Year 3 with a research trip to Oxford

It’s hard to believe it, but this month marked the start of my third year as a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow – time really does fly when you’re having fun with medieval medicine and manuscripts! 

While this year will focus more on analysing the recipes I’ve been transcribing as well as writing up my findings, I’ve organised a final flurry of research trips to see a few more manuscripts in person. This month’s project update shares some surprises from my quick visit to Oxford last week - though I’m cheating with the first surprise because it concerns my prep ahead of the visit.

Surprise 1

I still find it somewhat surprising that Oxford libraries barely feature in Augusto Beccaria’s 1956 catalogue of early medieval manuscripts containing medical texts, I codici di medicina del periodo presalernitano (secoli IX, X e XI). Beccaria lists just two manuscripts today housed in the Bodleian, Bodley 130 (see Figure 1) and Hatton 76, both of which were produced in England near the tail end of the period I study.

Figure 1: A selection of the folia making up Bodley 130 - these illustrations are all from the manuscript's copy of Pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarius.

Digging a bit deeper into the Bodleian’s own catalogues turns up much, much more...

To be fair to Beccaria, he didn’t have the fantastic Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries at his disposal, a website that makes it possible to do a thorough search of the Bodleian’s holdings as well as those of a number of individual colleges. By searching for key terms, such as ‘recipe’, ‘remedy’, and ‘prognostics’, as well as consulting, where possible, digitised facsimiles online that often contain medical material (e.g., calendrical and computistical miscellanies), nearly ten manuscripts missed by Beccaria have now come to light! 

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.

Surprise 2

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

Let's return to the Bodleian.

Surprise 3

In most cases, the medical material I've identified in these manuscripts is not their primary content, so it’s not surprising that they were missed by Beccaria. Instead of major medical treatises, these codices include short medical texts and diagrams like prognostic material, such as the Sphere of Apuleius in Laud Misc. 139; health-related information added to calendars, including a note about bloodletting during July in Lyell 54; or recipes inserted to blank spaces, such as the one found added to the final folio of Laud Misc. 124.

Ashmole 1431, however, is a fairly well-known and beautifully illustrated manuscript (see Figure 3) that contains two large herbals, Pseudo-Apuleius’ Herbarius and Pseudo-Dioscorides' De herbis femininis. Produced in England in the late eleventh century, Ashmole 1431 is not so unlike Bodley 130, seen above, and Hatton 76, so it is a surprise that Beccaria didn’t include it in his catalogue. 

Figure 3: Ashmole 1431, f. 18r: Peonies + peony-based recipes

Surprise 4

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.

Based on the Bodleian’s contents overview and summary catalogue (see Figure 4), I knew to expect a brief section of ‘medicinal recipes’ starting on f. 18r. Yet, since I hadn’t seen an image of the manuscript ahead of my visit, I didn't expect that this section would be quite so densely packed with material: just over 6 pages of a very small script on fairly large folia quickly became 13 typed pages of transcriptions featuring recipes (many of which focus on treatments for worms and fevers) as well as information about interpreting pulse and urine with respect to diagnosis/prognosis.

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

As a final surprise, I’ll close with this: I didn’t know I’d be enjoying quite so many meals in All Souls and I had such amazing surprises at every meal, talking at breakfast, lunch, and dinner to distinguished professors, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, and even a Nobel laureate – WOW! – what a way to kick off Year 3!

June 2023

'Holy herbs' in medical recipes
A closer look at vervain / verbena / hiera botane

We’ve now hit summer conference season! Last week, I was in St Andrews for the European Academy of Religion Annual Meeting (the header image is from a run in the Scottish countryside), I’m currently in Cambridge to see manuscripts, and next week it’s up to Leeds for the International Medieval Congress (IMC), followed immediately by a return to St Andrews for the first annual CEMLM meeting (on which, see my March project update). A bit of a whirlwind!

To help me stay on track, this month’s update draws inspiration from my EuARe and IMC papers – papers that examine early medieval approaches to healing body and soul from two different angles.

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.

This summer’s conferences have provided an opportunity to begin unpacking some of these areas in more detail and, in this month’s project update, I’ll zoom in on the appearance of vervain (see Fig. 1 for a garden varietal currently blooming in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens) in recipes with Christian rituals as an example of the types of analyses I’ve been pursuing in recent weeks.

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.

July 2023

From EuARe to the IMC to CEMLM to...
A recap of conference season (and a whirlwind of acronyms)

As I reported in last month's post, I've had a fairly conference/workshop-heavy June and July - it's featured the European Academy of Religion (EuARe) Annual Meeting, the International Medieval Congress (IMC), and the first annual CEMLM meeting (no link yet, but our website is coming soon!). While my monthly project updates tend to showcase individual findings or small case studies from 'Crossroads', this month - given all the conferencing - it feels more fitting to share a brief recap of these events, situating my work within the bigger picture.

That's not to say, however, that the past few weeks have been all conferencing with no time for new research! The week between EuARe and the IMC was punctuated with several wonderful days of manuscript work in Cambridge (see Fig. 1), and I've recently come across a few unexpected sections of recipes in Swiss manuscripts that will be keeping me busy for the foreseeable future (possibly material for next month's project update...).

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

St Andrews, seen in the header image for the second month running (!), is the first stop on our tour. As a medieval medical historian whose research intersects with archaeology, I tend to speak to one (or more) of the following three audiences at conferences/workshops: early medievalists, medical historians, and/or medieval archaeologists. The European Academy of Religion was thus a new ball game.

I was involved in sessions organised by ReMeDHe, an international working group for Religion, Medicine, Disability, Health, and Healing in Late Antiquity. Until I read EuARe's programme, I had not appreciated just how unusual our sessions would be - the conference is more focused on theology, philosophy, law, political science, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies rather than history and medical humanities. (Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised - after all, the clue is in the name!) Other than the ReMeDHe-organised sessions, the programming was, by-and-large, not directly relevant to my research, so this might not become a conference in my regular line-up - live and learn! 

That being said, meeting other members of ReMeDHe was a real highlight of this conference season. Four other members of the Board also attended (Heidi Marx, Jonathan Zecher, Susan Holman, and Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen) and, after having had many online meetings over the past few years, it was so wonderful to meet in-person.

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?!

Within about a week of EuARe, I was in Leeds for the IMC. Every year I attend, it seems to get better and better - so, first, a massive thank you to the IMC team for putting together what I think is always the best-run of the mega conferences that I've attended. Yet, it's not just a well-oiled machine: each year it feels a bit more like a reunion - it's such a great opportunity to catch up with friends, colleagues, former students, etc. However, and perhaps most importantly, it also has stellar programming, especially for my research interests. The three areas I mentioned above - medieval medicine, early medieval Europe, and medieval archaeology - collide, along with manuscript studies, the global Middle Ages, and so much more.

The only problem with this veritable feast of relevant, interesting sessions is that... there are simply too many! And this can result in very frustrating scheduling clashes. This year, for example, the four sessions I co-organised with Carine van Rhijn on late antique and early medieval cultures of healing (see Fig. 3) completely overlapped with the sessions that Monica Green and Nahyan Fancy put together on disease in the Islamicate world. Naturally, I wanted to attend all of their sessions, too - impossible, right?

Not entirely! One silver lining from the pandemic is that the IMC is now fully hybrid and sessions are, by default, recorded. These recordings are available to all delegates through the conference's online portal until the end of the summer, so you have a chance to catch up on sessions that you might have missed. That the time is limited is also a great feature - they're not online indefinitely.

For me, this has been truly invaluable. With my own research interests pulling me in many different directions, if I decide to go to a session with an early medieval focus to hear the latest research on, say, Carolingian monasticism, I might miss an equally compelling session on new results from the archaeological sciences or one on codicology or one on recipes... (The list goes on!) 

With the recordings, it's almost as good as being able to be in several places at once, and I've now had the great pleasure of catching up on some fantastic papers on all aspects of networks and entanglements (no surprise given this year's IMC theme!), from the global (such as Verena Krebs' keynote, session 699) to the local (such as within the intellectual communities of Carolingian East Francia explored in session 314); healing / health / medicine (including these three series of sessions: 'Networks of Non-Traditional Healing', 'Disease in the Medieval Islamicate World', and 'Expressive Bodies: Visible Illness, Visible Health'); and manuscripts and materials (such as sessions 731, 'Reading Texts, Reading Bodies: The Practical Literacy of Material Engagements', and 809, 'Manuscripts and Monastic Mobility in the Carolingian Period'). 

Figure 3: Our four sessions under the umbrella of  'Cultures of Healing in Late Antiquity and the (Mostly) Early Middle Ages'

As a final word on this year's IMC, I'll return more squarely to my own work and the sessions I co-organised with Carine on 'Cultures of Healing in Late Antiquity and the (Mostly) Early Middle Ages', which included the following four areas of focus:

While I may be biased (!), I thought the individual papers within each session, as well as the sessions as a whole, made for a really stimulating, thought-provoking day. We asked each of the session moderators to have a pre-IMC meeting with their speakers to discuss each others' papers, points of intersection, shared themes and questions, etc. I would heartily recommend this strategy to other session organisers because it helped to make the sessions more coherent; the day felt more like a workshop than a huge conference because the papers were directly in dialogue with each other.

All members of the Corpus of Early Medieval Latin Medicine (CEMLM) were involved in our sessions - and, indeed, along with ReMeDHe, the CEMLM was a co-sponsor of these IMC sessions - which takes us to the final stop on this tour: back to St Andrews for the first annual CEMLM meeting!

Figure 4: The CEMLM discussions continue on the beach - left: Jeff Doolittle and Carine van Rhijn; right: James Palmer and me

Dashing from the last session on the last day of the IMC to the Leeds train station, we went straight to St Andrews. Although the CEMLM project only officially began this past spring, we've been working together on cataloguing since 2020. Throughout this time, our meetings have been entirely online, and the opportunity to sit down together and discuss - to brainstorm, think out-loud, and even use a whiteboard without turning into a Zoom pumpkin after 40 minutes or getting cross-eyed from staring at the computer screen - was truly transformative. 

Even better than sitting down together, however, was being able to continue the discussions on foot! As seen in Fig. 4, we broke up our whiteboard-based planning sessions with some fresh air - why can't all meetings be like this?! 

Needless to say, this was a winning way to wrap up my summer conference season and I'm already looking forward to summer 2024!

August 2023

Surprises from Switzerland:
More medical recipes in unexpected manuscripts

Although I've been on the road for much of this summer with conferences and research trips, one place I haven't been to in recent months is Switzerland. Yet, thanks to the wonderful e-codices site (pictured in the header image), it remains possible to explore many of the incredible Swiss manuscript collections virtually. Being on the move so much this summer, systematically combing through the e-codices digital library has provided an ideal way to do pockets of research on the fly: all that I've needed is a wifi connection, making it a perfect activity when stuck in airports or, as I experienced in my recent trip to Norway, when hiding out from Storm Hans!

NB: As I've written about previously, it must be remembered that it remains critically important to consult manuscripts in-person whenever possible. That being said, the digitisation of manuscripts has revolutionised how much material can be accessed and analysed - and a significant amount of research can be pursued online alone. In my case, working with digital facsimiles can allow me to prepare a preliminary transcription of recipes and to identify manuscripts (or particular sections of manuscripts) that must be consulted in-person to answer questions of palaeography, codicology, and the like.

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.

While the title of this project update promised surprises, these findings - the dramatic increase in the number of manuscripts - is no real surprise because it parallels the numerical jump between Beccaria and Wickersheimer mentioned above. (I should also note that these numbers will be forever increasing, if at a slower pace: the CEMLM team has identified a further thirteen manuscripts in Paris that were identified by neither Beccaria nor Wickersheimer.)

So, what's the surprise?

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!

September 2023

The harvest is here!
A closer look at the seasonality of ingredients in recipes

This month’s project update takes inspiration from the natural world: the late summer/early autumn bounty has arrived! As part of the Sustainability Committee within Sheffield’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, I’m helping to put on a Faculty-wide harvest festival, so I’m very much feeling the seasonal vibes – and this got me thinking about the seasonality of ingredients...

Do you grow any of your own food? 

Or, when buying groceries, do you consider their seasonality? 

While taking account of the seasonality of produce is now encouraged as a way to be more sustainable, eating in accordance with the seasons hasn’t always been a matter of choice. Today, technological innovations that allow for vastly prolonged growing seasons and relatively rapid, large scale, climate-controlled global shipping, mean that I could, in theory, buy almost any type of fresh food at almost any time of year – from blueberries in mid-winter to oranges in mid-summer.

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!

October 2023

Getting ready to decode recipes!
A look ahead to this month's workshop

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!

Figure 1: The types of recipes that I tend to look at, such as the material on these folia near the end of cod. sang. 751 (pp. 498-9), represent just one tiny piece of an enormous recipe puzzle.

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:

To register to attend in-person, please sign up here:

To register to attend online, please sign up here:

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!

November 2023

Debriefing the decoding!
An overview of the Decoding Recipes workshop

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.

Core topics:

Core structures:

We are very much looking forward to continuing and expanding these conversations – watch this space for publication plans and other developments – a network? A podcast?! We’re currently exploring a variety of ways in which to disseminate the present decoding and to keep the momentum going. It’s clear that recipes – of all flavours – are a hot topic across many intersecting fields, and we want to contribute to these exciting new research directions. 

Stay tuned! 

December 2023

The Crossroads project reaches a crossroads...!
A final monthly update

Greetings from snowy Oslo! 

As some people may know, I'm wrapping up my Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship a few months earlier than I had initially planned. While I'm very sorry to end this project a little prematurely, I am thrilled to share that I'll be starting as a Senior Researcher at the University of Oslo on 1 January 2024 - a dream job that never would have been possible without the opportunities and experiences I've had in my current fellowship. 

December's project update will therefore recap some of the highlights of the Crossroads project, look ahead to my new position, and - most importantly - say a whole lot of thanks to everyone who has been involved along the way!

Figure 1: Einsiedeln, cod. 356, pp. 4-5: pages from the martyrology with Egyptian Days added - look for the light brown text!

Looking back and moving forward

Let's begin with the Crossroads project's foundations: manuscripts. When it comes to manuscript-based research, I think I've had the best of both worlds: on the one hand, an ever-increasing number of codices are literally at my fingertips thanks to the huge increase in digitised manuscripts, while, on the other hand, thanks to the Leverhulme Trust's generous funding, I've also been able to visit libraries and archives to work with many manuscripts in-person. My thanks go to everyone who's helped to make this research possible, from the librarians and archivists involved in digitisation projects to those with whom I've worked directly and who have opened their collections to me. [Note: for more on the individual manuscripts on which I've been working, including, where possible, links to digital facsimiles, see the Manuscripts tab above.] 

Likewise, I must extend a huge thank you to everyone behind the scenes at the Leverhulme Trust for supporting my research trips financially - trips that have been central to the success of this fellowship. While it's impossible to pick a favourite, my visit to Einsiedeln in spring 2022 remains among the most unusual and should definitely feature in this brief highlight reel. Einsiedeln Abbey, which developed into a monastic community in the tenth century on the site of St Meinrad's ninth-century hermitage, is still an active monastery. I stayed on site for several days, lodging in the Abbey's guest rooms and breakfasting with monks - not my typical routine!

Figure 2: A picture perfect lunchtime hike!

The Abbey holds a phenomenal collection of manuscripts, including quite a few early medieval manuscripts with medical texts that have yet to be digitised - hence the need to visit in-person. I ended up finding more material than I expected in some manuscripts, such as the Egyptian Days inserted into a martyrology in cod. 356 (see Figure 1) or the extra recipe that was added at the end of a copy of Pseudo-Democritus’ Liber medicinalis

However, it wasn't just the manuscripts that made my stay in Einsiedeln so memorable. The Abbey's librarian, Pater Gregor, was welcoming, generous with his time (even giving me a tour of their famous baroque library!), and allowed me to stay late in the library to make sure I could finish all my transcriptions. That being said, I wasn't entirely secluded away in the cloister during my time in Einsiedeln: I always try to intersperse intense manuscript work with fresh air, and an alpine Abbey provided a spectacular location for my leg-stretching breaks. As seen in Figure 2, lunchtime turned into glorious hikes (though given the snow, I was wishing I had skis on instead!). [Note: see the April 2022 update for more on this research trip.]

Figure 3: Hot off the press: De inventieve middeleeuwen - a beautiful, manuscript-rich volume on early medieval knowledge & practice that emerged out of long-term collaborations with colleagues in Utrecht

Moving on from research trips, I also want to highlight the fundamental role that a number of networks and collaborations have played in supporting, expanding, and transforming my research. I feel really grateful to be collaborating with quite a few different people on various publications and side projects linked to / stemming from my primary research. Each connection opens up new directions for thinking about how my work fits into the bigger picture (or rather, pictures) and allows me to hear from many different perspectives, taking on board feedback from specialists in other, related areas. A recent fruit of such collaborations can be seen in Figure 3: I'm thrilled to have contributed a chapter to De inventieve middeleeuwen: Praktische kennis en kunde van voor het jaar 1000, an edited volume on early medieval knowledge and practice co-edited by Ria Paroubek-Groenewoud and Carine van Rhijn.

The Corpus of Early Medieval Latin Medicine (CEMLM), which currently includes me, James Palmer, Carine van Rhijn, Meg Leja, and Jeff Doolittle, deserves special mention, and not least because this project also relates to my future work in Oslo. [Note: see the March 2023 update for a more extensive introduction to the CEMLM.] The CEMLM began life as 'Beyond Beccaria', a pandemic project that got underway in summer 2020 and aimed to update the existing catalogues of medical texts in early medieval manuscripts (i.e., those 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).

Figure 4: Brussels, KBR 5325-27, ff. 164v-165r: Pages from a copy of Virgil's Aeneid with some unusual glosses on the right!

The project got started because it had become clear that there were some important manuscripts that had been missed by both Beccaria and Wickersheimer. Crucially, given the central role that their catalogues continue to play in the field, such manuscripts remain understudied and generally disconnected from scholarship on the history of health and medicine in the early medieval west. Once we started actively looking for early medieval manuscripts with medical texts outside of the expected areas - namely, in manuscripts whose primary texts do not focus on topics related to health and medicine - we found pieces of medicine everywhere. That is, medical information wasn't simply limited to 'medical manuscripts'; rather, it was frequently added to manuscripts of all different genres. See Figure 4 for an example: here, Virgil's Aeneid has been glossed with the standard commentary but then... At the point in the text where Venus heals Aeneas with the herb dittany, the scribe responsible for the gloss went fairly far off piste, adding a depiction of dittany as well as several recipes that appear to stem from Pseudo-Apuleius' Herbarius, a popular, widely circulated herbal during this period.

These findings are exciting for a host of reasons. They demand, for example, that we rethink the dissemination of medical knowledge, the ways in which various fields of learning intersected, how manuscripts were read and used (and how these practices changed over time), and, of course, the individuals responsible for recording (and using?) this information. While I had initially intended that my Crossroads project would primarily concentrate on analysing lengthy, relatively understudied recipe collections, this collaborative work opened up entirely new and untapped avenues. As a result, I have increasingly focused on investigating the appearance of individual or small clusters of recipes added to non-medical manuscripts and their implications for understanding the spread of medical knowledge. With many more examples to explore in detail - and further recipes yet to be discovered - I'm very excited to see how this line of research will continue to evolve.

Figure 5: The future! 

And this leads nicely to a look ahead at my next position: I'll be joining Ildar Garipzanov's MINiTEXTS research group. The team has been recording and analysing examples of 'mini texts', i.e., short texts added to manuscripts that do not appear to relate directly to the primary text/manuscript. Their chronological focus is on early medieval material, and this is with respect to both the manuscripts themselves as well as the mini text additions, thereby fitting with my areas of research. Most excitingly for me, and corresponding to the CEMLM's findings, a significant number of the mini texts concern medicine, broadly conceived. Recipes, dietary advice, medical prognostics, and more are frequently seen as additions in non-medical manuscripts, and I can't wait to begin examining all the material the team has assembled so far. While I know I'll be familiar with some of the examples thanks to the CEMLM's research, I expect I'll be encountering many other cases for the first time - and I hope that, in turn, I might be able to contribute a few new examples to the project database, too!

Figure 6: One more round of thanks!

There are so many other highlights I'd like to mention, such as the recent Decoding Recipes workshop and the experiences I had teaching and supervising in Sheffield, but hopefully I'll have more opportunities to expand on these areas in the future. At this point, given that this has already turned into a lengthy post, I'd like to end with some final thanks: it's been such a privilege to hold a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, and, as noted above, I'm enormously grateful for the support with which the Leverhulme Trust has given me. Likewise, I owe my official mentor, Professor Charles West, a *huge* thank you for his support and guidance throughout this fellowship. He is a true role model as a mentor and colleague, and it's been a real pleasure to have had the chance to collaborate with Charles in the 'Small Worlds' network and co-supervise in Sheffield - here's to many more points of intersection ahead! 

A final note: The website's future

This site was developed as a home for the Crossroads project - a platform to share research and resources with wider audiences. I think this type of public engagement and sharing of information, manuscripts, useful links, etc., is extremely important, and I'll aim to continue this work after the project's new end date of 31 December 2023. There may be a lull over the following months as I get up to speed with my new position but, as soon as I have a chance to restructure the website, I'll get back to sharing research updates and continue to maintain the manuscript and resources tabs. If any readers have suggestions, questions, or comments, please do get in touch!

In the meantime, best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season - see you in 2024!