Tag Archives: The Recipes Project

Response to The Mystery of the Elf Hoof

So, we’ve come to the end of our university project. Our website is finished, and we are almost ready to graduate – scary stuff. If you haven’t seen the website yet, you really should, it’s awesome (no bias here at all). My section was dealing with the weird and wonderful that can be found in Baker’s recipes, and talking about whether she meant what we thought, whether she was actually trying these recipes and if people were using supernatural style ingredients in their cooking.

On the initial draft I got a bit carried away, and ended up being far too specific about an individual ingredient. It was largely a response to Lisa Smith’s post, discussing whether or not Baker was using elves feet in her recipes.

On page 102 recto of Baker’s book she provides a recipe to help convulsive fits in children, which featured the ingredients a dead mans skull and elves feet. Specifically the hoof of an elf that lives in the mountains, preferably with ten claws on one of his feet.

While not completely impossible, it is unfortunately unlikely that Baker’s recipe originally called for actual elves hooves. Historian Lisa Smith wrote a blog post about what she thinks Baker may have been eluding to with this mysterious ingredient. Her theory concludes that Baker was referring to a type of herb – suggesting that elecampane or mandrake are the most likely culprits.

Courtesy of Wellcome Images

Elecampane can also go by the name of elf dock, or elf wort, which already suggests a connection between the plant and elves hooves. The plant was used for a lot of medical recipes, and there is even a variety that grows specifically in the mountains. The roots even (supposedly) look a little like claws. The problem with this is that elecampane is generally used for whooping cough, and to soothe colds rather than being associated with epilepsy or convulsions. In Culpeper’s Complete Herbal & English Physician (originally published in 1653) he describes the uses of elecampane as:

“The fresh roots of Elcampane preserved with sugar, or made into a syrup or conserve, are very effectual to warm a cold windy stomach, or the pricking therein, and stitches in the sides caused by the spleen; and to help the cough, shortness of breath, and weezing in the lungs. The dried root made into powder and mixed with sugar, and taken, serves to the same purpose, and is also profitable for those who have their urine stopped, or the stopping of women’s courses, the pains of the mother, and the stone in the reins, kidneys, or bladder; it resists poison, and stays the spreading of the venom of serpents, as also putrid and pestilential fevers, and the plague itself.”

Well the uses are certainly varied, however do not mention being useful for seizures or the falling sickness. Judging by Baker’s many recipes for convulsive fits we can guess that it was quite prominent at the time, so if elecampane was being used to help seizures it likely would be mentioned here. Baker’s recipes are generally fairly typical for the time so it is unlikely that she would be using this herb in a way no one else was. So what about mandrakes?

Mandrakes have a long history of being associated with magic, even today they appear in the Harry Potter franchise. Sorry, J.K. Rowling did not come up with the idea that mandrakes scream when they are pulled from the soil, the idea of the mandrakes curse has existed for hundreds of years. Because of their human-like shape people believed that when they were pulled from the ground mandrakes would scream and kill whoever was near. There were some ways around this, strangely featuring hungry dogs.

Credit: Wellcome Library

Mandrakes were used in herbal remedies, including to help epilepsy so it already seems more convincing than elecampane. However mandrakes tend to grow in swampy areas with rich soils, rather than in mountains as instructed by Bakers recipe. They were also viewed as dangerous, and gave quite powerful hallucinations. Bearing in mind that this is a recipe intended for children would a mother be inclined to use a root that is known to be dangerous even in the 17th century? While people were known to use opium to calm children at this time, the dangerous effects of this were not as widely known.

One of the problems with assuming that Baker was referring to a herb is that way the instructions are phrased it makes it sound like some sort of animal. The main reason for this is because it refers to the ‘elves’ living in the mountain – not growing. While this may seem pedantic, when you are trying to work out what exactly someone who lived 400 years ago is thinking sometimes pedantry is necessary. When referring to where you can find plants elsewhere in the book Baker always seems to say grow, so why the sudden change to lives? Lives suggests some kind of animal rather than a plant.

For me was what pushed me to eliminate elcampane from the possibilities. But why does it not completely eliminate mandrakes as a possibility? Well, this is because of the myths surrounding the mandrakes. As stated earlier, mandrakes bear resemblance to human figures, and because people believed that they screamed when pulled up it is likely they thought mandrakes were living creatures rather than plants. Looking at old images and diagrams of mandrakes seemed to confirm this, as they are generally drawn as human with extra planty bits. This could explain why it is described as having lived on a mountain, rather than grown. The claws would be parts of the root.

But if mandrakes are meant to be humanoid, then that fits in with the foote and perhaps the clawes, but what makes less sense if the houfe. One comment on Lisa’s blog posts points to the fact that elks were often used to help seizures.

In A Compleat History of Druggs, on the section on elks it reads:

“he is very subject to the Falling-Sickness; and as soon as he is attack’d with this disease, he fails not to put his left foot to his left Ear, to cure himself thereof; which has given Occasion to the antients to believe that the Elk’s claw, or the Horn upon the left Foot, was a specific for the Epilepsy.”

Now we have a living creature, with hooves and claws which were used as medicine to help cure epilepsy. While Elks generally live in woods and forests they are found on mountains, which again fits in with the description given by Baker. The only thing that gives cause for concern is that she states the best kind have ten claws, and even if you count split hooves as two claws it still doesn’t quite match the description. There were also no Elks found in Britain at this time, and the Eurasian variety tended to live in forest areas rather than in the mountains.

However, because elks have such a strong association with curing epilepsy and they are sometimes described as having claws it seems most likely to me that this is what the recipe originally called for. I think she was given this recipe by someone who had connections to the continent, and unfortunately mistranslated one word.

Recipe’s for Life

As you may have read in previous blog posts on this page, recipes are a much broader  concept than simply instructions for cooking. One thing that this can include is a recipe for trying to have children. Today there is all sorts of information available to couples trying to conceive. In the 21st Century it is more likely that couples trying to have children would go to a doctor and find out all sorts of sciencey ways that will improve their chances. But what about in the 17th Century – what did people then do to help them improve their chances? Without a secure knowledge of how reproduction worked and what roles the woman and men’s bodies played, you might think that couples simply played the odds. Enter Recipe Books. Aristotle’s Master-piece (probably not actually written by Aristotle himself) is one such book that gives advice for these couples.

To understand the thinking behind her advice (which I will go onto in a second – fear not), it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the humoral system. This theory was originally made by Hippocrates and expanded upon by Galen, and essentially argues that the body is made of the four ‘humors’; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. When these liquids were balanced you would be in perfect health, both physically and mentally. These humors had different qualities composed of; cold, hot, moist, and dry.

4-humors
Diagram of the Four Humors

If you want more information on how this would affect people’s moods in a general way look here. What is important here for us is how people viewed women and men to help us understand why Aristotle’s Master-piece suggests certain methods for conception. The general consensus in Early Modern Europe was that women’s bodies are naturally cold and wet, whereas men’s bodies are naturally hot and dry.

And now we come toman the advice. It is interesting to see how people thought certain things would help conceive a child. For instance Aristotle’s Masterpiece has some methods about the act to encourage procreation.

One of the things that has not gone out of fashion is the concept of “Generous Restoratives”. In the 17th century this would consist of herbs that would help relax you and warm the body up, and ‘hot’ spices which would help the latter. This is where we see the idea of the humoral system come into play. Because the cold, wet body of a woman was not seen as the best way to conceive and keep a baby healthy. This means that in order to make a baby, ideally the woman would need to make herself warmer. This could be done through the restoratives, having a hot bath or even drinking wine. Although the reasons behind it have largely changed, there are still websites promoting the use of natural herbs to promote fertility. This is not because people still buy in to the humoral theory, but because it is believed to help with hormone balance and help relax the couple. This means that the “generous restoratives” Aristotle’s Masterpiece refers to may have actually had a positive effect on fertility, despite a misunderstanding of how human bodies worked.

The text also shows an importance of the humors after sex has occurred. Aristotle’s Masterpiece states that “when they’ve done what Nature does require, the Man must have a care he does not part too soon from the Embraces of his wife, lest some sudden interposing Cold should strike into the womb, and occasion a miscarriage1”. The thinking here is that because the man is naturally hot, whereas the woman is naturally cold, not cuddling after sex would cause the baby to miscarry. This means that cuddling after sex in the Early Modern Period was not just a show of affection, but also necessary to help you have a child.

What is really interesting is another piece of advice the masterpiece gives us is that in order to help conceive, sex should be “brisk and vigorous2”. This is interesting because it shows that people believed that the emotional state was very important to the conception of a child. What did this mean for arranged marriages where there was no love? The masterpiece states that “Sadness, trouble and Sorrow, are enemies to the delights of Venus” and should you try to conceive during this time it would have a “malevolent effect upon the Children3”, so it may be that you could have a child but that child would probably not turn out well. This could be signs of an early understanding of modern psychology. While they believe it is the mood during conception that would have a negative effect, growing up in a household where your parents are always fighting or sad may have negative consequences for the child.enhanced-buzz-24936-1372182219-1

The reason I found this manual so interesting was because a lot of the ideas used in it we still hold today. People will still use natural herbs to promote fertility, although not because they think it wi
ll warm up the naturally cold female body. People still like to cuddle after sex, again not because of the warmth for conception but because it is affectionate. Just because people in the Early Modern period did not have a firm grasp on how reproduction and the human bodies functioned, or differed with regards to sex, it did not mean that all the ideas were completely unfounded. Specifically regarding the restoratives, people would have experimented with different herbs and spices until they found something that seemed to work for them. This would be passed on to friends and family until a fairly well established and thoroughly tested method would become more prominent than others that only worked for a couple of people. Considering they were working off the humoral system it may seem bizarre that we are still using a few of their methods, but it does make sense. And hey, at least it’s an excuse for a nice hot bath.

 

[1] Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed, in Two Parts (London, 1697), pp. 91-94.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

Historians Can’t Code

On the third of November our class decided to attempt coding our transcription work. Being a history student I can’t say my knowledge of coding is anything more than minimal. Friends that do maths have often been on the receiving end of blank stares as they try to explain exactly what it is that they are doing, or how it all works. So when our teacher announced we were going to try our hand at it, naturally I was a bit concerned. Looking over the notes for the class did nothing to calm my nerves. A sea of dots and slashes made no sense to me, but even so I went to class with the determination to crack this. By the end of our lesson I definitely had, at the least, a shaky understanding of how to use it.

We were coding on the same website we transcribe on, Dromio, a Folger Shakespeare Library platform. The type of code we learnt is called XML, which is an extensible mark-up language. It essentially helps us describe a document which has been electronically converted. It makes it easy to import and export the document, as the code will always stay the same if you are moving it somewhere new. The coding means you can trace information easily, so for historians we can find things like amounts or ingredients. I’m sure you will find a lot more coherent instructions and explanations of what XML is and how you use it on any number of websites so instead this blog will write about why we used it and how I found the experience.

So why is XML coding helpful to historians? Essentially it is for ease of searching these documents. If you decided to transcribe a document into say, Microsoft Word there would be lots of details in the text that you would not be able to communicate that may be interesting to a historian looking into a document. XML allows us to make easy notes on things such as whether there are things crossed out, if there are things written in the margin, or if a word is written in shorthand. It also allows us to note things like amounts used in a recipe. This is essentially so the computer knows what kind of thing you have put in and, as Lisa put it, the document can ‘communicate’ with other documents by looking for common themes or structures.

Another benefit is that those poor suffering historians who are working on a field that is nowhere near where they live can now access the documents from the comfort of their own home. Lots of archives and libraries, such as The Wellcome Library, are now very helpfully digitizing their documents. This means a wider range of people can access this information. However without the coding involved in transcribing a document it may be hard to find the documents you need without manually searching through records that may or may not have the information you need. Transcribing with XML means lots of key information will be tagged for you, saving hours of work – Huzzah!

coding
A very rough start to coding. My attempt at XML coding on V.a.619 Receipt book of Margaret Baker’s page 101 and 102

It was interesting, coming from a background with no knowledge of doing any actual coding. Admittedly we had a lot of help from our teacher, but I still felt like if needed I could do it myself and it definitely left me eager to try more. Leaving the lesson I decided to see if I could try and finish the coding of the transcription myself and managed to do a half decent job. There were some mistakes, for instance line breaks where there should not be line breaks, but I definitely benefited from it and actually found it surprisingly fun.

In a way it made it easier to acknowledge what the notes I was putting my transcription did. By coding in that I needed to put <amount> I knew that people would be able to search for that, rather than pressing a button and hoping I remembered to put it in. Although the system is primarily to help search and compare digitized texts in my view it actually helped me look closer at the text I was transcribing. This is actually fairly vital to a history student as many essays involve looking closely at primary sources and trying to understand them. For example, when transcribing the page there is a rather interesting ingredient involving a dead mans head. At first look it seems as though it is saying a pound of a dead mans head, but on closer inspection it says pouder (powder). This suggests all sorts of interesting things about what people did with the dead and how they were preserved, which could have been easily overlooked.

coding-3
An interesting ingredient found in V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker page 101 and 102

However I am very glad that Dromio has a system in place to do this work for me. At the click of a button you can go from coding the XML yourself to a HTML, where the writing is presented without the code. This is definitely an awful lot easier to read.  While I know that I could do the coding if necessary it is an awful lot easier to let Dromio do the hard work for you. It did help me look more carefully at the things I was deliberately noting, but often the actual transcribing took a back bench to the coding. Hopefully with practice this won’t happen but for now, thank god for Dromio.

coding-2
The end result of my coding. V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker page 101 and 102

The Stories in the Recipe Book

By Lisa Smith

Some time ago, Carla Nappi posed an intriguing series of questions over at The Recipes Project :

Reading through this text, I began to think deeply about these recipes as literary objects. What if we understand a recipe not just as a kind of text, but also as a form of storytelling? If a recipe does tell a story, what kind of story might that be? And how might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them?

Her questions came to mind after our seminar on ‘What is a Recipe?’–a seemingly simple question with a vastly difficult answer. Recipes were more than a set of instructions. They were forms of narration, at their most authoritative within the context of experience or case histories (Gianna Pomata), and a space for translation between people and cultures (Carla Nappi). Recipes included implied knowledge; not everything was written down. When transmitted, words, ingredients and measurements might gain or lose meanings. Expertise came from the ability to interpret recipes for specific situations, not simply to reproduce an outcome.

woolley-supplement-titleThe excerpts from Hannah Woolley’s A Supplement to the Queen-like Closet (1674) further complicated our answer. Alongside recipes for food, medicine and beauty, Woolley included detailed instructions for cleaning chimneys, examples of letter-writing, and an account of how to make a ‘pretty toy’ to catch flies (complete with ingredients, process and usage). The line between recipes and other didactic writing was clearly blurred. They share, after all, a common function of providing instructions.

But… if you took a step back from the individual parts, could you read the whole recipe book as a story—or, maybe even a recipe—in itself? Rachel Rich, for example, suggests that nineteenth-century print recipe books drew readers into narratives by casting them in the role of heroine. Dramatic tension came from the endless potential for the reader’s failure.

The Queen-like Closet also reveals tensions between the recipe’s narrative and instructional functions. Woolley framed her expertise—particularly her medical know-how—in terms of experience. In the foreword, she emphasised that she only included ‘such things as I have had many years Experience of, with good success’. She also provided cases of successful cures, demonstrating her authority and efficacious remedies.

Woolley also put herself in the role of heroine. For example, one case entailed her raising the dead.

A man taken suddenly with an Apoplexy, as he walked the Street, his Neighbours taking him into a house, and as they thought he was quite dead, I being called until him, chanced to come just when they had taken the Pillow from his Head, and were going to strip him.

She forced him to drink a remedy, rubbed and chafed him, opened the window and ‘in a little time he came to himself and knew every one.’ Although he only lived ten hours more, he had enough time to prepare for a good death by making peace with God and putting his affairs in order (14).

Heroism appears in other ways in the Queen-like Closet. Julia Lupton, for example, interprets the book in terms of being a form of ‘shelter writing’—the discourse of housekeeping, particularly in the face of hardships. Many of Woolley’s cases or examples referred to the daily hardships visited upon women: from medical assistance for an abused woman to a sample letter breaking the news of a child’s death. Woolley’s urban middling-sort audience could aspire to becoming heroines—or, at least, excellent, upwardly-mobile housewives… if they followed her instructions.

Therein lies the rub; where judgment was required in more complicated cases, Woolley ‘dare not therefore adventure to teach, but only those things wherein People cannot easily Erre.’ If successful outcomes in using Woolley’s book came purely from reproducing what was written down, rather than exercising good judgment in the interpretion of what was written, were these recipes merely a set of instructions? And to what exactly were the readers aspiring?

Considering the whole, we might read A Supplement to the Queen-like Closet in three ways.

  1. A collection of useful knowledge that could teach women how to keep house. Good judgment was not necessary for success, as each section should be easily reproduced. (Or, according to ‘An Advertisement’ in the book, Woolley’s remedies could even be purchased directly from her!)
  2. One large recipe for the life success of aspirational housewives, in which each ‘recipe’ or recipe-like entry is only one step. In this way, it wouldn’t matter if the individual parts were merely reproducible instructions, as the end goal was to become a housewife who had learned good judgment through her own practice of Woolley’s advice.
  3. A story in which heroines—Woolley, suffering women, or the reader—attained success in re-establishing domestic harmony. Within the story, each recipe performed a particular function: offering the perfect dish, healing neighbours, cleaning dark chimney corners, or putting one’s best cosmetically-enhanced face forward.

woolley-addressPerhaps recognising the tension in her text, Wolley added that ‘for many other things which I cannot in few words relate, if any Person will come to me, I will satisfie them to their content’. Those who wanted a deeper knowledge than instructions could seek it out; their story did not have to end with this book.

Knowledge dispensed, Woolley wished her readers ‘all the happiness I may’ (200). She was clear, though, that the success or failure was entirely up to the reader:

Ladies, I hope your pleas’d, and so shall I be,

If what I’ve Writ, you may be gainers by:

If not, it is your fault, it is not mine,

Your benefit in this I do design.

A fourth narrative, then: the expert passing on her knowledge step-by-step, with the potential for the recipient’s failure. Rachel Rich concludes that recipe books did not always have a happy ending, but at least with the Queen-like Closet, there were a range of possible endings–from the merely useful to the expert with good judgment.