Recipes for “Natural Magick”

(This is our second blog entry in The Recipes Project’s virtual conversation, “What is a Recipe?” For a bit of background or to read the first article, on a 19th Century recipe manuscript from Lancaster, PA, click here.)

Magia Naturalis, or Natural Magick, written by Giambattista della Porta was first published in 1558 in Naples when the author was fifteen years old. Della Porta was an Italian scholar and playwright known for his expertise and knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and for having contributed many advances to the fields of agriculture, optics, pharmacology, hydraulics and more.

The edition held at The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is the first English translation published in 1658, 100 years after its initial publication. It contains some of the additions added by della Porta in subsequent editions, most notably, the first published description of the convex lens and camera obscura. Though he did not invent these, his work in perfecting and describing them, and their inclusion in Natural Magick, contributed to the dissemination of this knowledge.

But, you may be asking by now, what does this have to do with recipes? A quick look at almost any page in volume reveals the answer.


Bread recipes from Natural Magick

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Pestilential fevers, or, the Black Death

When the Black Death arrived in England in summer 1348, it had already hit China, middle Asia, the Crimea, and Sicily, and had begun moving inland to the rest of continental Europe.  The death rate varied from region to region, but it is probably fair to say that it ranged from about 12% to 66% of the population.  Some evidence points to the Black Death being the plague, a fever caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis; while other evidence suggests it was viral in origin.  Regardless of the cause, it was extremely infectious and caused upheaval for decades everywhere it hit.

Bernard de Gordon, in his Lilium medicinae, enumerates some signs of impending plague in the chapter entitled “Pestitential fevers.”  Each chapter in Lilium is divided into 6 sections: the first included the definitions, names, and types; the second, the causes; the third, the diagnosis; the fourth, the prognosis; the fifth, the treatment; and finally, the sixth – the clarification.  The following is a loose translation of a 1551 version of Lilium, from the second section of “Pestilential fevers.”


Cap[itulum] ix. De febribus pestilentialis f. 15v. Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.
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Behold the Body: Capturing the Spectacle of the Anatomy Theater

– by Jessica Sara Sternbach*


The frontispieces and title pages of early anatomical texts served as teasers for many Early Modern readers, offering the primary information necessary to engage with the text. Once the spine was cracked opened, the viewer would encounter these new medical ideas for the first time, whether it be the authority of a post-Vesalian anatomist as in the Anatomia reformata by Steven Blankaart (1695), the philosophical prowess and artistic pride of William Cheselden and Gerard van der Gucht’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1740), or the sublime awe of the embryology of Nicolaas Hoboken’s Anatomia secundinae (1675). The illustrations in these books drew upon existing visual language in order to decrypt the unfamiliar medical subject matter. Mastery was needed from both the artist and the anatomist, who were trying to comprehend and clarify what it meant to be human.

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Heart’s Ease

What is a recipe?  Is it instructions from which one can prepare a meal, a snack, a dessert?  Or is it how to mix the best cocktail?  Or how to cure acne?  Or how to care for a bee sting?  What other knowledge does one need to properly take advantage of the advice in a recipe?  Recipes found in medical books are no different than ones found in food cookbooks; it’s just that the desired outcome is different than a crowd-pleasing cake.

The Historical Medical Library holds over 20 manuscript recipe (or “receipt”) books, dating from the 17th century up through the early 20th century.  The majority of our recipe books are medical in nature, but many include food, drink, and household cleaning recipes as well.  I’ve even seen recipes for ink in a couple of our 19th century books.

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“A terrible pestilence”

Unfortunately for us, medieval manuscripts are not usually dated.  The Library is lucky to have one, Macer Floridus’ De virtutibus herbarum (1493, call no. 10a 159) in which the scribe has not only written the date it was completed, but also his name (check out this earlier blog post here).  The Library’s copy of Lilium medicinae is also dated: 20 June 1348, the day after the feast of Corpus Christi.  That’s 669 years ago, tomorrow.


Colophon, f. 256v. Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae, 1348 (Oxford?). Call no. 10a 249.

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