Author Archives: Carmen Urbita Ibarreta

Xabón almizcado

I decided to take the recipe assignment as an opportunity to explore how early modern women engaged with materials around them, and the ways in which they transmitted and preserved the knowledge acquired in their domestic labor. I started by looking for Spanish domestic recipe books of the period, and what I first found were manuscripts authored by men addressing a female public, like the Flor del Tesoro de la Belleza. Tratado de muchas medicinas o curiosidades de las mujeres by the veterinarian (!) Manuel Díaz de Calatayud, where the transcription of health and beauty recipes is often interrupted by moralizing sections. In fact, there is a sense that the recipes are just an excuse for the moralizing, because the author himself admits in his dedication that “vosotras sabéis ya la manera de hacer estas cosas” (“you already know how to do these things”). Calatayud is perfectly aware that he is only putting in writing the knowledge that they already have.

I was still curious to find written traces of these recipes learnt and practiced by women, and I found that four manuscripts of this kind are preserved from the early modern period in Spain, all of them belonging to the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: Livro de receptas de pivetes, pastilhas e uvas perfumadas y conserbas (manuscript 1462 in the Spanish National Library), Recetas y memorias para guisados, confituras, olores, aguas, afeites, adobos de guantes, ungüentos y medicinas para muchas enfermedades (manuscript 6058 in the SNL), Receptas experimentadas para diversas cosas (manuscript 2019 in the SNL), and Manual de mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçetas muy buenas (this is the only manuscript that has been published) [Edited by Alicia Martínez Crespo. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1995].

All these books included a mixture of cooking, medicinal, hygienic and cosmetic recipes without any separation, both in terms of their display on the page and in terms of the ingredients used for all these different areas, which often coincided. My impression is that, although at first sight they seem to be written without any clear order in mind, if there is a criteria to be found behind this order it seems to have more to do with groups of materials than with the uses and applications of the final products.

The authorship of all these manuscripts is unknown, but there are at least three different handwritings in each of them (in manuscript 1462 there are even two languages, Portuguese and Spanish), as if they were passed on from generation to generation. Some pages are left blank in between recipes, as if to encourage further annotations prompted by the experience of each new practitioner. While most recipes involve the manipulation of a list of ingredients, there are also some “oration recipes”, like this “Prayer to St. Anthony of Padua against worms”:

I also found some small pieces written in between recipes referring to domestic events, like this note detailing the date and cause of death of a female family member or friend. For these women, sharing these recipes in written form seems inseparable from memory and affect.  

The recipe

My first intention was to reconstruct the recipe for a xabón almizcado, which I believe could be translated as “musk soap”. I chose this recipe because it includes a set of materials that are very often used in many of these recipes, but also because the same recipe can be found in two of these books (manuscript 2019 and Manual de mugeres), which makes me think that it was widely known. The recipe reads:

Tomá media onça d’estoraque calamita, y una onça de menjuí, y un quarto de onça d’estoraque líquido e un quarto de onça de sándalos cetrinos. Todo esto polvorizado y muy remojado en agua almizcada, juntadlo con media libra de xabón blanco y con una onça de tuétanos de ciervo. E picadlo todo muy bien roçiándolo con agua almizcada, e picarlo heis hasta que aya bebido una onça de agua almizcada. Y luego juntaréis con esto peso de un dinero de ámbar, y un grano de almizque destemplado con un poco de la dicha agua. Y mezclarlo heis todo muy bien en un mortero de piedra con la mano de fusta.

The first challenge was to find out the names by which all these materials are actually known today. I then had to translate the ingredients I thought the recipe was referring to into English, so that I could actually find them here in Providence. Although I cannot avoid the compromises of these three-stage process, I feel that probably too many things are lost, or at least changed, in translation. My English translation of the recipe is:

Take half an ounze of storax, and an ounze of liquid benzoin and one quarter of an ounze of green sandalwood. All of this pulverized and very wet with deer-musk water; put it together with half a pound of white soap and with one ounze of deer marrow. Chop it very well while spraying it with deer-musk water, and you will chop it until it has absorbed an ounze of deer-musk water. And then you will put this together with twelve grams of amber, and a grain of deer-musk water. And you should mix this very well in a stone mortar with a wooden pestle.

As careful as I have tried to be with my translation, I feel that, even if linguistically this is the most approximate version, the triple textual translation has probably entailed a material distortion. Are the “sándalos cetrinos” accessed by these women the same as the green sandalwood I have been able to find here? It probably is something quite different. Also, the recipe does not specify the state in which some of these products should be used. Should they be liquid, solid, powder? Will these materials behave in different ways when they are in different states?

The ingredients

I was able to get most of these ingredients thanks to Amazon, and I am planning to get what I still need this weekend in New York (even the deer marrow). However, I realize that what I am going to do is probably not a reconstruction but an interpretation. These ingredients seem to be materials that these women used precisely because they were readily available: they explored their environment and learnt to use the properties and behaviour of quotidian materials. Making this recipe from Providence with materials brought from California by Amazon or acquired in New York obviously involves an approach completely distant from both the proximity to materials and the affective process involved in these recipes.

White soap and my grandmother

One of the ingredients listed in this recipe is white soap. I feel that just buying the soap would be a further betrayal, so I have decided to fabricate my own. Also, in an attempt to bring this reconstruction / reinterpretation closer to the initial spirit of these recipe books, I decided to ask my own grandmother to give me her recipe for white soap. I have grown up seeing her fabricate her own white soap, which she learnt from her mother, and her mother form hers. She does not keep a written recipe, however. Also, she has memory issues and she does not remember all the steps. However, when I was trying to make her remember, she said that the only way for her to remember it is to actually do it. She is going to make it again today, and my hope is that her embodied knowledge will be stronger than her memory.






Why Making Meaning

Since I couldn’t attend our session last week I thought it’d be a good idea to upload a brief entry about how ‘Making Meaning’ intersects with my research interests, how the activities and readings we have done have helped me so far and about possible (and very tentative) ideas for a final project.

My interest in early modern ideas about the relationship between matter and manual labor arises in part from my interest in Madrid’s material culture during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in relation to the construction and development of the city. Since Philip II of Spain moved the court to Madrid in 1561, all sorts of artistic productions were commissioned to promote a monumental, orderly and symbolic image of the new capital, but I am more interested in the frenzied process of construction that was behind that image.

The establishment of the court attracted a wave of architects, plotters, quarry workers, joiners, bricklayers, sculptors and many other laborers involved in a process of accumulation, demolition and assemblage. I’m generally interested in looking at how this reality of the city as a sort of construction site where matter was continually being manually manipulated was experienced and re-imagined by its inhabitants.

Precisely during the reign of Philip II there began the process of canonization for San Isidro Labrador (Isidore the Laborer). A farmer and miraculous water diviner from the XI century, Isidro had been for centuries the object of a small popular cult in Madrid, but it was during the establishment of the court capital that his figure was transformed into a city emblem, and into a patron for its peasants and artisans (an interesting fact about Madrid’s manual laborers, I think, is that most of them worked both in the fields as farmers and in the city as craftsmen, depending on the season).


I’m also intrigued by how the iconography of San Isidro during this time always tries to mark a distinction between two kinds of labor. On the one hand there’s the technical expertise, the correct handling of instruments and the natural knowledge that supposedly allowed the Saint to find water in the dry surroundings of Madrid. On the other hand, always in the background or in a secondary image, there is also the allusion to some sort of miraculous, contemplative labor: San Isidro’s pious reflection on labor allowed for the angels to come and perform the actual ploughing while he prayed.





What I’m trying to research (generally, for my Hispanic Studies major paper) is the different ways in which literary writers of the period took their fascination with the manual labor they saw being performed around them into their texts, often wrestling to incorporate into language precisely that “embodied knowledge” to which Pamela H. Smith and Thijs Hagendijk refer to. When this sense of embodied expertise and “manual choreography” is brought into texts that, unlike manuals or recipe books, are not necessarily trying to help in producing a final and successful result, there arises an emphasis on process that could maybe deviate in other directions.

Even technical manuals sometimes seem to depart from an instrumental aim, forgetting for a while about results and fixating on the act of manipulation itself. I have come across writings by three artisans who worked closely with Philip II’s architects: Juan de Arphe y Villafañe’s writings about sculpture and silversmithing include a chapter on anatomy in which the only parts of the body showcased are those involved in the “manual choreography” of the craft; Juan de Herrera’s writings on architecture seem to connect sculpting with magical ritual, and the writings about the functioning of the instruments created by Jacopo da Trezzo to cut marble and other materials in all sorts of concave, convex and spherical shapes seem to talk more about the delights of the act of molding than about the possible application of the technology. Thinking of a final project for this class, I think I would probably like to work with some of these texts, in comparison to the objects produced by their authors, to think about what the experience of manual labor could entail beyond the struggle for results.

Looking and moving

I decided to put under the microscope a mixed set of objects, some of them as unrelated as I could imagine, some natural and some manufactured: a one-dollar bill (painted with blue ink), one quarter, a red flower recently picked from its plant, a lock of my own hair (not cut – I just contorted my head somehow), and a leaf from an unknown tree from Westminster Street.

The first thing that I noticed was how unsettling the experience could be in terms of trying to grasp the “real” image. On the one hand I saw with my eyes the one-dollar bill, exposed under the microscope; on the other I saw its augmented image through the instrument; but there was also the image seen through the computer screen, which was always somehow different. I tried capturing with my phone camera what my eyes could “really” see through the microscope (but mostly failed).

I also noticed how what was artificial could look natural under the microscope, while natural objects gained some sort of artificial quality once they were augmented to the point of total decontextualization. At maximum close-up, the red flower looked kind of glassy to me, or almost like a sequin textile.

My lock of hair looked like wires, or dark spaghetti.

Comparing my experience of observing through the microscope both the dollar bill and the leaf, I realize how putting these two objects out of context in such a way and magnifying their smallest detail have such a similar effect on me as an observer. While obviously they are very different objects, they both present some sort of geography, as if I was staring at two tortuous (natural and artificial) landscapes from above. While staring statically as these objects, I experience a sense of movement as I adjust each object to discover new landscapes and pathways. The act of observing these magnified miniatures seems to have a performative effect, like a thrust felt on the body, even when it never actually moves out of its stool at the Nature Lab.


Exaggerating Vesalius

Wrestling with the unmanageable size and considerable weight of De humani corporis fabrica and dealing with the apprehension of handling an object I could never afford to replace proves worth the effort/risk once I open the book and discover the scene unfolding in its frontispiece. Dissection is no longer the dismissed and subordinate labor of barber surgeons – it is the center of a spectacle orchestrated by Vesalius: his right hand maneuvering the uterus of a female cadaver, his left-hand index finger pointing like a manuscript manicule. Spectatorship is also depicted as a full physical endeavor, with the attendants to Vesalius’s demonstration crowded around the corpse, twisting their own bodies to catch a sight of the action (not unlike a Hot Night at the Glass Hot Shop!).

I notice that while they are contemplating Vesalius’ masterful manipulation many spectators are also using their own hands, busy with touching each other, pointing at something, using them as a means of expression, restraining animals or handling carefully depicted instruments. I wonder about the relationship between contemplation and ‘deviated’ labor or manipulation. What happens when the observation of and the reflection upon some sort of craft is accompanied by the undertaking of an unrelated manual labor? Where do both intersect? Does this simultaneity of contemplation and labor matter?

At this point I think that to exaggerate the Vesalius is to read the corporis fabrica as a book about hands, forgetting about the rest of the anatomy. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be such a big exaggeration when I get to Vesalius’ portrait, right after the frontispiece. On a table crowded with writing and dissecting utensils, Vesalius holds the arm of a corpse as the entrypoint to his anatomical study, with his left hand firmly grasping the elbow and his right hand holding the falling veins (I think), which uncannily blurs the limit between the instrumental hand and the studied one. I wonder if this emphasis on the hand is exclusively a Vesalius thing or a common obsession in anatomical books, so I try google and soon find the portrait of the anatomist Giulio Casserio (1561-1616), also stressing his own dexterous manipulation of bodily matter by posing rummaging under the skin of a disembodied hand.

I do some more research and find that, apparently, the flexor-muscle dissection developed into a whole motif, used emblematically in early seventeenth-century anatomy portraits, making the hand agent, instrument and patient of the demonstratio. In this way, the hand became a symbolic unit signifying both the perfection of God’s creation and agency, and the almost divine intervention of the dissector’s hand (Katherine Rowe, ‘Divine Complicity: “God’s Handy Worke” and the Anatomist’s Touch’). Vesalius’ and Casserio’s almost defiant gaze seem to turn the celebration of their craft into an invitation for us readers to involve our own hands in the handling of matter. I use mine to carefully turn the pages and compulsively scan all the hands in the book.

Taken out of context, these hands are not so much passive objects of study as they are extremely busy instruments. Even when their skin, veins, and muscle are collapsing they seem to be actively engaging with the mess – exposing, grabbing, stretching or holding it. Sometimes they point at the blank space in the page. I put them all together and their expressiveness immediately makes me think of some sort of sign language. I find online some early modern texts about systems of representing numbers and words with hand gestures, and their illustrations look strangely similar to my own hand accumulation.

From “Finger Gestures for 1-5,000” (1532) and “The Old System of Finger-Reckoning” (1725)

What message, if any, are the hands of the Fabrica trying to convey? I take them as emissaries of Vesalius’ message, little reminders populating the text with the same defiant and enticing attitude. Are they asking me to engage with this book in the same way they engage with all that crumbling bodily matter? My hands do feel restless as they touch the surface of these black and white pages – they would like to slowly color all these illustrations, or annotate its huge, inviting margins right next to its own printed guiding notes.

And yet this book is also intimidating, its size and luxuriousness able to freeze any hand. I can’t find any handwritten note in this book, so I wonder if past readers did also feel divided between the impulse to manipulate matter and a wondrous restraint. I type some keywords on Google Books and soon find a whole book devoted to the De corporis contemporary readership (The Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius: A Worldwide Descriptive Census, Ownership and Annotations of the 1543 and 1555 editions). It was a luxurious item from the beginning, acquired by the highest echelons of society and wealthy private physicians who did use the book for studying and made some annotations, but mainly focused on the more theoretical aspects of Vesalius’ book while apparently ignoring its dissection description and instructions. Surgeons, less highly ranked on the social ladder, generally acquired the Epitome, a book produced by the same publisher with summary information and only some illustrations, for a lower price. However, if these private physicians were merely interested in musing about the coincidences and disparities between Vesalius and Galen and were not at all concerned with the instructions on how to guide dissection tools along an open corpse, why did this information stay in every edition? I read that some parts of the book were shortened while others were expanded, depending on the interest of their readers. The sections about dissection and its instruments never disappeared from the Fabrica.  

I look at this illustration exhibiting the abundance of dissection instruments and my hand instinctively moves as if ready to grab one of them, but all I have with me is my reading weight. How did physicians, who were not dissectors, react to these instruments and the instructions on how to use them? Did they read these sections with embarrassment, avoiding to annotate their pages in the way they proudly and heavily did annotate the theoretical pages? Did they read them just out of curiosity or did these pages have some other effect on them?

After our last class I read a little bit more about the controversy between Hooke and Cavendish. While the Royal Society privileged sensory experimentation, Cavendish warned that “our exterior senses can go no further than the exterior figures of Creatures, and their exterior actions, but our reason may pierce deeper, and consider their inherent natures and interior actions”. But Cavendish’s use of the metaphor pierce seems to distance her from a rationalist like Hobbes and the way in which he despised experimentalists: “[they] can get Engines made, and apply them to Stars; Recipients made…but they are never more Philosophers…For if you reckon that way, not only Apothecaries and Gardeners, but many other sorts of Workmen, will put in for, and get the Prize”. Is Cavendish’s ‘piercing’ just a metaphorical leap or was she imagining some sort of active contemplation? If I were to continue exploring this reflection based on exaggerating Vesalius I would want to explore further the strange simultaneity of contemplation and labor. What happens when a book on crafts or recipes is not used to replicate them? Does reading about one manual labor help in developing a completely different occupation? What relationship is established with matter when one reads about its handling, or is the spectator of its handling, but never actually manipulates it?