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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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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Location, Location, Location: Finding the Daunteseys of Agecroft Hall

-by Wood Institute travel grantee Melissa Schultheis*


Recipe books are of particular importance to research of seventeenth-century medicine and literature. These texts provide a glimpse of early modern healthcare, both the roles of lay and professional medical providers and the principles that are foundational to the period’s understanding and treatment of the body. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia houses several seventeenth-century medical texts, including MS 10a 214, which is part of ongoing work by Rebecca Laroche and Hillary Nunn. Central to this post, however, is a recipe book signed and presumably owned by John Dauntesey (1529-1694). The Recipe book or MSS 2/070-01 contains an almanac, a transcription of “An hundred and fourteene Experiments and cures of Phillip Theophrastus Paracelsus,” several gynecological recipes, and numerous other recipes in nearly half a dozen hands in both Latin and English.[i] Signed in 1652, the manuscript, as I have discussed elsewhere, seems to represent the seventeenth-century medical community’s transition from traditional to contemporary practices. For example, MSS 2/070-01 frequently relies on Galenic medicine; however, several recipes are attributed to practitioners who work against Galenic tradition, including Paracelsus and Martinus Rulandus. This text’s amalgamation of medical trends seems indicative of the medical community’s shifting views, and with more study I hope this amalgamation can tell us more about those who used and were treated by recipes contained in MSS 2/070-01.

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