Monday, December 28, 2009

The Little Book on Culinary Art

One of my Christmas presents this year is a translation of a peculiar medieval recipe book, Libellus de arte coquinaria, which the editors translate as "The Little Book on Culinary Art." 

This work is an interesting curiosity in more ways than one.  First, it's the earliest known surviving medieval [Christian] cookery book; the existing manuscripts appear to be no later than the end of the 13th century C.E. (and may be derived from a lost original that goes back at least to the 12th century). 

The provenance of the text is also intriguing.  The translation I am reading is based on four surviving manuscripts, known as Codex K, Codex Q, Codex D, and Codex W.  Codices K and Q are written in Danish, Codex D in Icelandic, and Codex W in Middle Low German.  The first three codices track fairly closely in terms of number and ordering of recipes, while Codex W, though containing a similar list, includes a significant number of recipes that do not appear in the other codices.  The editors explain the issues at some length, and provide transcriptions of each codex in its original language, in addition to translating each codex and providing their proposed composite translation.

The final intriguing aspect of Libellus is the content of the recipes themselves.  Though they use a similar collection of spices to later medieval recipes, they fall into only three categories:  1)  condiments, including recipes for making oils from nuts, and sauce recipes, especially vinegar or wine-based sauces to use with roast meats;  2)  pudding or porridge-like mushes made primarily from milk, bread, and eggs to be fed to invalids and sick people; and 3) chicken dishes.  The editors state that the presence of chicken dishes is particularly indicative of the book being written for the use of a high-class audience, because chicken meat was then considered a delicacy  "for people who do not do physical labor" and thus was eaten mostly by the rich.  This impression is confirmed by the use of sugar and other expensive spices and by the presence of sauce recipes for roast meats. 

To give the flavor of the type of foods in question, I will provide some sample recipes from each category of the composite translation section:
Take mint, parsley, cinnamon, and pepper, in equal amounts, and grind them all together with vinegar.  This sauce is good for three days. 

* * * *
Next grind mustard seeds with one-third as much of honey, a tenth part of anise and twice as much cinnamon, and blend it with good vinegar and put it in a cask.  It is good for three months.

* * * *
Take fresh milk and crushed wheat bread, beaten egg, and well-ground saffron, and cook until it is thickened.  Then put it in a dish and add butter, and sprinkle on powdered cinnamon.  This is called "White Mush."

* * * *
Take fresh milk and add to it finely diced crusts of wheat bread, simmer it in a pan, and add well-beaten egg yolks to it.  This is called "Kaliis."

* * * *
Take a young hen and boil it with bacon.  Cool it, then tear it apart and cook it in a pan with lard, pepper, wine, and salt.  These hens are good to eat while they are warm.

* * * *
Take mature hens and cut them in two; heat them in a pot without water on the coals.  Add to their broth parsley, mint, pepper, lard, vinegar, and salt, and cook it in this.  These are "Chickens in Brueth."
Amazon has the book, and you can probably order it through any major bookstore, but it may also be possible to obtain it through inter-library loan if your library doesn't have it.  Here is the identifying information:

Libellus De Arte Coquinaria: An Early Northern Cookery Book. (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Vol. 222). Edited and translated by Rudolf Grewe and Constance B. Hieatt. (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe, Arizona, July 2001). ISBN-10: 0866982647. ISBN-13: 978-0866982641.

EDIT:  (10/9) Adding the correction specified by David Friedman in the comments, below.


  1. Some of those recipes are making me downright hungry. Especially the bacon-and-hen one.

  2. There were several recipes involving adding diced bacon to various things; it almost qualifies as a minor theme.

    There were a few other recipes I really liked. Several were for mustard sauces. Several others involve garlic--which the editors said was interesting because high medieval cookery books don't usually contain recipes that use garlic. One of the chicken recipes, for example, suggests cooking the cut-up bird in a salted mixture of lard, broth, wine, eggs, and the gizzards and livers of the chicken; garlic is the only spice other than salt in that one. Yum.

  3. " First, it's the earliest known surviving medieval cookery book"

    Medieval Christian cookery book. There are two Andalusian cookbooks from the 13th c., and a middle eastern one (by al-Warraq, available in English translation and great fun) from the 10th century.

    One of our family favorites, from the Icelandic manuscript that's one of the daughter manuscript you mention, is what we call "Icelandic Chicken." A half chicken wrapped in bacon wrapped in sage wrapped in dough and baked in the oven like bread. It's also our source for "The Lord's Salt," a spice and vinegar mixture that can preserve cooked meat at room temperature for weeks.

  4. Hi, David! Welcome to my blog. And thanks for the friendly amendment to my generalization about the earliness of Libellus.

    Your comments also make me want to lay my hands on a translation of the Icelandic manuscript. Do either of the recipes you mention appear in your Miscellany?