Tuesday, April 16, 2013

12th Century Recipe Discovery

Thanks to the 12th Century Workshops Facebook page, I learned that some 12th century recipes have been newly discovered in a manuscript originally written at the Durham Cathedral Priory in Durham, England.  An article describing the find may be found here.  The manuscript itself is now housed at the Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University.

According to the article, the manuscript, which was written around 1140 CE, consists primarily of medical recipes.  That makes these recipes about 150 years older than the recorded recipes previously considered the oldest recipes in the "western medieval culinary tradition" (whatever that means).  The newly discovered recipes are for a variety of sauces to be eaten with mutton, chicken, duck, pork and beef.

The most interesting part, to me, is the list of herbs and spices featured in the sauces:   parsley, sage, pepper, garlic, mustard and coriander.  The author of the article thinks this assortment may give the sauces a "Middle Eastern" flavor, to a modern palate.  That may depend on whether the recipes require fresh coriander or the dried "fruits" (also called "seeds"), which are used with cumin in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. 

Durham University is planning a workshop and related luncheon at the end of this month in which students, under the guidance of a food historian, will make sauces based on their understanding of the recipes.  That's an event I would love to attend.  Hopefully, the event will generate further news articles with more information about this find. 


  1. The style of writing, ligatures and contractions used in this manuscript date it to the 1160-1180 period rather than 1140 as at first thought.This makes it just 10 or 20 years older (not 150 years older) than recipes recorded by the scholar and observer Alexander Neckham in his text "De nominibus utensilium" and recipes recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis on the occasion of his visit to Canterbury cathedral priory in 1179.

    It is not at all certain that this manuscript was written at Durham cathedral priory; it may have been the work of two physician/surgeons who passed it to the monks of Durham - hence its strongly medicinal content.

    The text for the food recipes starts with "Here begin several kinds of Poitevin sauces", meaning that the recipes originated in the Duchy of Poitou, at that time an independent state in what is now France. Poitou is not Mediterranean or Middle Eastern; the recipes simply reflect the kinds of high-status meals which spread into Anglo-Norman England from continental Europe, almost certainly as a direct result of the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II in 1152.

    These sauces and meat dishes would have been served to important guests (meaning aristocrats and visiting clergy)at Durham cathedral priory's guesthouse; the monks themselves ate much more simple and plain food with no meat other than fish and fowl.

  2. Hi, Dave! Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments.

    I don't know enough about 12th century MSs to know whether the manuscript in question was actually *written* at Durham Cathedral Priory or not; I was simply quoting the news article, which could have gotten all kinds of details wrong. I do agree that the sauces were likely served to visiting dignitaries and were not standard monastic fare.

  3. Cathy,

    Regarding the use of coriander in the recipes, the section of the original text I have seen makes it clear that fresh herbs were intended, not dried or parts such as seeds which would have been mentioned specifically.

    You may be interested to hear that a cook book is currently being produced with these recipes as the basis; it may be titled "Zingiber" (ginger - the spelling is variable in 12th century Latin), but there is no confirmation of the title at present. I will let you know if I hear any more on this project.

    You are right to be wary of press releases and what the media do with them. I have been challenging much of what has been reported (or misreported) on this story since it first appeared earlier this year. I wonder if even the "experts" at Cambridge have a firm grasp on the facts, since they appear to be unaware of other 12th century sources that include food recipes. Alexander Neckham, for example, goes into great detail with various sauces used on meats and fish in about 1180, using much the same ingredients as in the Durham manuscript - his work has been widely available in translation for at least 50 years.

    His fish recipe is worth repeating:

    "Let fish that have been cleaned be cooked in a mixture of wine and water; afterwards they should be eaten with green savoury which is made from sage, parsley, dittany, thyme, cost(mary), garlic and pepper - do not omit salt."

    1. Dave: Thanks for your comments on the actual text, which I have not seen; they are extremely interesting, and shed light on the few details provided by the news articles I had seen.

      I would indeed be interested in the cookbook being prepared based on the Durham manuscript (though I probably won't be able to afford it either given the current state of my finances); please do let me know if you hear more details about it.

      Re: your comment on what the Cambridge "experts" do or don't know. I have found that (probably because of the present structure of academe) the knowledge base of most "experts" in any field tends to be very deep and very narrow. Consequently, when an "expert" is making an assertion about any fact that falls outside his knowledge base (even if the fact is not very far outside of it) the expert may often quote a source without being aware that it may be wrong, or at best dubious. See the following post from my historical costuming blog for an example. http://cathyscostumeblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/rome-and-feminine-adornment-some-things.html

      P.S. Neckham's fish recipe sounds tasty.

  4. Hi Cathy,

    I've been looking for an online version of Neckham's manuscript and can't seem to find it. I stumbled upon your blog here. It seems we both have a passion for historic food. I'm currently writing a book about some parts of British food history and also write a blog.

  5. As I said to Dave (in the comments above), what I wrote is based upon the news stories about the dinner based upon the Durham Cathedral priory manuscript. I don't *have* a copy of that manuscript, nor do I have a copy of the Neckham manuscript Dave referred to in his comments. I also don't have any idea whether the Neckham manuscript is on line (though Dave might). Dave, if you read this, could you answer Regula's question? Thanks.

  6. This isn't as straightforward as it may seem. Neckham's manuscript De nominibus utensilium ("Regarding the names of utensils") survives today in more than seventeen different copies - it was normal practice for an original to be passed around and copied with varying degrees of accuracy over a very long period.

    In his book "Daily Living in the Twelfth Century based on the observations of Alexander Neckham in London and Paris", Urban Tigner Holmes, Jnr relies heavily on the manuscript Worcester Q.50, ff 1 to 18, translated by Marion Greene, with some reference to the manuscript Bruges MS 536 transcribed by A. Scheler. As far as I can find neither of these, nor any other copies of Neckham's text, are currently available online.

    This is not uncommon with medieval manuscripts and there are many thousands housed in university and museum library collections in England and the rest of Europe that are impossible to access without the necessary academic credentials.

    I would recommend Urban Tigner Holmes' book, however, as it includes most of the translated text and the recipes (sadly only a very short section) can be found in chapter iv of the University of Wisconsin edition published in 2000.

  7. After a further search I came up with the original 12th century Latin text in a 13th century manuscript copy, which may be of little use if you are unfamiliar with medieval Latin. It appears in a preview version of "Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth Century England: Texts" at

    The section on food recipes is on preview page 183, folio 107 versa, starting "Assa carnis suille assata diligenti tractu . . . ).

    If Cathy thinks it appropriate I could provide a full translation of that section here, or alternatively I could send it to Regula if she provides her email address.

  8. The text of Neckam's De nominibus utensilium is available online in two versions:

    1. Thomas Wright's 1857 transcription of the 13th-century MS BL Cotton Titus D xx (with some variants from the 15th-century MS Paris BN Lat. 7679 and the later MS Paris BN Lat. 217).

    2. August(e) Scheler's 1866 transcription of the 13th/14th-century MS Bruges 536.

    There is also a third transcription that's not available online:

    3. Tony Hunt's 1991 transcription of the 13th-century MS Wellcome 801A, in his Teaching and Learning Latin in 13th-Century England, vol. I pp. 181–90.

    Finally, you can preview the translation that Dave quotes from Holmes's 1952 book here.

  9. Dave, Brunellus, thanks so much for the information! I will message Regula and, if she is interested, find a way to put you in touch with her. I can at least point her to your comments.

  10. Thank you all very much for your comments and links. Cathy, thank you so much for emailing me today and you may give out my email address no problem. It's on my blog for all to see anyway www.missfoodwise.com. Dave, I've been reading your comments on blog posts on this matter with interest on several websites. I have -after leaving this comment- found two online versions of Wrights transcription of De utensilibus.
    I was looking for 3 particular words for my research: Aundulyes - saucistres - puddingis. For what I know today, these are the first mentions of these kind of 'dishes' since Apicius. I am writing a book on the history of pudding in Britain you see. I have however a hole between Neckam's text and the Forme of Cury and later Liber Cure Cocorum. The two last do give recipes for the dishes but they do not use the terms Aundulyes - saucistres - puddingis or anything sounding like it. In later cookery books we do se those terms coming up again.
    Anyway I'm off topic now!
    Brunellus thank you for the links, it was good to check if these words appear in the books in your links as well.
    All the best

    1. If you're talking about food, Regula, you're on topic, as far as this blog is concerned. Good luck with your book!

  11. Dave and Brunellus: Regula is interested in hearing from you. You can reach her at regula at missfoodwise.com

  12. Glad to be of service! Though I'm kicking myself for not having checked Google Books for the transcription of MS Wellcome 801A.

    I expect Regula would be better off discussing this with Dave, as I don't know anything about medieval food – I just happen to work on the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, which makes good use of Neckam (and which, incidentally, has just been completed!). If there are any questions about the Latin, though, I'm not hard to find.

  13. I have indeed been in touch with Regula and it seems she was looking at the section of De nominibus dealing with the stores for a castle, so foods that could be preserved - in particular she was looking at sausages as these are effectively "puddings" in the historic sense. I forgot to mention to her that the recently-announced discovery of recipes in Sidney Sussex MS 51 include one for a sauce to accompany sausages, made with "parsley and sage tempered with vinegar, along with pepper and finely-crushed garlic" - all ingredients familiar to Neckham.

  14. Dave, is there any news of the publication of the manuscript as was previously announced? Is it still to be called Zingiber? I would certainly buy a copy...

    Thank you!


  15. I have been regularly checking for press releases on this but no word so far. Last April there was a flurry of information (and misinformation) that included such statements as:

    "we will be publishing the recipes as a cookbook, as well as a study of the manuscript context and the historical significance of the works included."

    I would guess that the text of the recipes was quite straightforward, but that the additional content may be what is holding things up - there may be moral issues regarding certain aspects of the medicinal text which may cause some delay. Often 12th century medicinal manuscripts include abortifacients and the use of very dangerous plants and highly toxic metals (such as white lead) used commonly for a range of treatments. While these are interesting from an academic viewpoint they are not things to be treated lightly - I have given talks on 12th century manuscript pigments and emphasised that many of them are likely to kill a human being fairly quickly if not treated very carefully. Both pigments and medicines are very dangerous ground.

    1. Thanks for the information.

      There is no reason to believe that publication of the recipes will necessarily be anytime soon, not just because of the issues regarding the unsafe recipes, but because it can take longer than anticipated to prepare such a work for publication. NESAT XI, for example (symposium papers on archaeological textiles) was published over a year late.

  16. Interesting to read and I know Regula's blog very well. My blog is msmarmitelover.com, also on food.
    The link between sausages and puddings is easy to understand when you know that the french for a certain kind of sausage is boudin...similar to pudding... steamed ingredients mashed together.

  17. The latest news is that the book, entitled "Zinziber - Sauces from Poitou: Twelfth Century Recipes from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, MS 51" is currently available for pre-order on Amazon both in the USA and UK. Its publication date is 1 September 2014 and the UK price is a reasonable £12. I will certainly be ordering a copy.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on the book and it's publication date; I'm definitely interested.

  18. I believe this is the book of redacted recipes:

    It isn't out yet - publication has been pushed back several times. I've been waiting on it for about two years now. ;)

  19. I first want to thank you all for the information presented here, it was very useful. Has anyone heard any more about the Zinziber book? I have been checking for years and all sources say it is still on preorder and every month or so they change the release date yet again.

    thank you, Jim