Of dirty books and bread: a guest post from The Recipes Project

Dr Lisa Smith is a founding co-editor of The Recipes Project, a blog on the history of recipes in science, medicine, art, magic and cooking. She brought this archive post to the attention of History at Essex, which reveals a most unusual use for bread.

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There are certain things that even the most innocent manuscript scholar cannot avoid, among them dirty books. This post will discuss the traces that careless readers have left on manuscript pages since they were first filled with writing: smudges and splodges created through physical contact between books and readers. Blemishes and damaged manuscripts have occurred to me recently in different guises as I was tracing alchemy across Cambridge manuscript collections. The following three observations may amuse and inspire the current audience – not least because they connect codices with bread, cheese and other foodstuffs.

Bad And Good Dirt

Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons) Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons)

Richard de Bury, cleric, bibliophile of the early fourteenth century and author of a book-lover’s guide to books, wrote passionately about the correct handling of codices. Books were meant to be seen but not touched. In the appropriately entitled Philobiblon, de Bury exemplifies readers’ common if damaging behaviour in the figure of ‘some headstrong youth’:

He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.

Many modern users of libraries observing fellow-readers will find this scenario familiar.

But in recent years scholarship has made visible previously hidden signs of historical book usage. An excellent article of 2010 demonstrates the use of a densitometer, ‘a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface’, e.g. for revealing traces of medieval readers’ kisses of saints’ images.[1] One can only imagine, and deduce from obvious stains, what a similar analysis of recipe books would uncover.

Medieval Bread and Books

Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r. Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.

Dirt on book pages did not need to wait for modern technology to be noted. Late medieval book owners remarked upon and tried to find solutions for the appearance of unwanted substances on their manuscript pages. Recently discovered examples include paw prints and bodily fluids left by cats in manuscripts, but after the fact, at a stage when these manuscripts were beyond hope of cleaning.[2]

I was, therefore, delighted to find the following instruction for cleaning books in a manuscript at Cambridge University Library (CUL MS Ee.1.13, f. 141r).

ffor to make clene thy boke yf yt be defouled or squaged[3]

Take a schevyr of old broun bred of þe crummys and rub thy boke þerwith sore vp and downe and yt shal clense yt

Formally a recipe text, this advice relies on just a single ‘ingredient’: bread. And while bread features widely in culinary and religious texts, in the proverbial diet of prisons (bread and water) and the pairing of ‘bread and salt’, this early mention of bread in cleaning instructions deserves more consideration. It bridges the recipe genre, bread as a culinary product of the kitchens and its alienated, secondary use that relies on its texture and other material qualities. Moreover, this text draws silent parallels with contemporary instructions for the cleaning of pots and pans, tools and instruments. I wonder whether the abovementioned technology might discover trails of bread across manuscript pages?

Modern Books and Wonder Bread

An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement MuseumAn early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum

Bread as a cleaning device for books continues until today, and may be familiar to some readers of this blog, especially those dealing with books or paintings in a professional or otherwise intense capacity. The American loaf known by the modest name of Wonder Bread is said to have particularly good cleansing power. Pertinently, the V&A, however, includes this practice in its category ‘What not to do…’:

Don’t use old fashioned cleaning remedies

Bread is a traditional dry cleaning material used to remove dirt from paper. If you rub a piece of fresh white bread between your fingers, you will see that it is quite effective in picking up dirt. The slight stickiness of bread is the reason why it works and also why it can be a problem. It can leave a sticky residue behind that will attract more dirt. Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth and encourage pest attack.[4]

This piece of advice forms the antidote to the abovementioned instruction for cleaning books: conflicting advice across the centuries.

Undecided on the issue I will, however, continue to make sure my hands are clean as I continue through manuscripts with recipes, especially the alchemical ones. You never know what may have left that stain in the margin.

By Anke Timmermann

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I would like to extend my thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for the kind permission to use an image from their collections in this blog post.

The Tenement Museum’s blog post on the history of bread (whence the second image above originates) is not directly connected to this particular post’s themes but an interesting read for different reasons: Judy Levin, ‘From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread’ (19 Jan 2012).

 


[1] Kathryn M. Rudy, ‘Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer’, Journal of Historians of Netherlendish Art 2:1-2 (2010).

[2] See this guest post by Thijs Porck at medievalfragments: ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’.

[3] ‘squagen (v.) [Origin unknown; ?= squachen v.] To make a stain, smudge; also, dirty (sth.), smudge, stain.’ MED.

[4] V&A, ‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’ (accessed 25/11/2013).

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Anke Timmermann is a former academic, is an antiquarian book specialist and historian of science, with a scholarly focus on the history of alchemy and medicine. She recently set up as an independent bookseller as A T Scriptorium in London, and is an Associate Member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association as well as a Fellow of the Linnaean Society.

 

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Stress Management

Exams are nearly upon us and everyone is feeling the pressure. Months of lessons, coursework and revision have built up and this is the final push before the summer. I’m going to provide you with a few ways to help you to retain your sanity.

If you are a student you are most likely familiar with all of the following worries, but if you’re not then before you read this post and get the impression that university is terrifying let me clarify; it isn’t. 99% of the time it is the most fun and enjoyable time of your life, but like anything worth doing, it isn’t always easy. So here’s how to make that other 1% a little easier.

Don’t Stress…

…Just kidding. It’s perfectly OK to be stressed out sometimes by coursework or exams. Just remember that even though at times it doesn’t seem like it, everyone is in the same boat. You should also keep in mind that people deal with their stress in different ways. Just because someones seems chilled to you, they could still be secretly terrified of their coming exams. But even though it’s alright to worry, it isn’t pleasant. So just remember that everyone at your university wants you to succeed and will help in any way they can, and try the following to help you keep calm and carry on revising.

S1030056Breathe 

Sounds pretty straightforward doesn’t it? But sometimes it’s not that easy. After spending six hours straight in the library and draining your fourth cup of coffee, things can start getting to you. Just stop, take a few deep breaths, and look away from the books. It’s no good trying to power through your nerves, you’re not concentrating and can’t take in any information. Give yourself some time. Take a five minute break every half hour or so to keep your composure, check facebook, grab some food… It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you give yourself a few minutes to wind down.

Exercise

Probably one you’ve heard before, but it works. Can’t be bothered to go to the gym or for a jog? That’s fine. A walk will do. Put your headphones in and drain out your fears with your favourite songs. Or visit the ducks, they’re always happy to see you (if you bring them food). Getting some fresh air is good for you and the little bit of exercise will help tire you out so you can get to sleep easier, however worried you are. S1030075

Plan

By planning out your time for revision you can know exactly where you are and how much work is ahead of you. That way you won’t end up in a panic a few days before the exam feeling totally unprepared. Also plan out some down time around your revision so you can relax.

Eat well

Think you don’t have time for good food? Think again. It’s important to keep your body working to the best of its ability. Any lack of decent food, water or sleep will affect you badly. Even more so when you’re worried. If you’re having some revision sessions, take some lunch, or schedule time to visit a restaurant.

Think Ahead 

It’s good to remember that this is only one step in getting your degree. You’re going to put in a lot of work to reach your end goal and every piece of work you do gets you one step closer. You will get there!

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Summer Time!

It’s coming towards the end of the academic year and if you really want to make your degree stand out, doing something during the summer is a must. Whether its paid work for a little more experience (and a little spending money for your summer) or volunteering. There are so many options available to you. But how do you get organised?

wp2First, you need to decide what you want to do, paid work, volunteer, apprenticeship?

Think about your priorities. If you are going to need money this summer, paid work is necessary, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else. Take a week out to do a placement that will add to your work experience in your future career. And volunteering is highly flexible, you may be able to work something into your busy schedule.

Find your placement.

Next you need to do some research. Have a look yourself for options that are available in the area you will be living in over the summer, or if you’re having trouble, visit the employability and careers centre. Alternatively, take a look at What’s On? There you can find employment opportunities and free workshops on how to make an impression on an employer.

Tips

Even though its good to get experience, don’t spread yourself too thinly. Allow yourself some time to do some Uni work, as well as relax and enjoy your summer!

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Spring Cleaning

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The sun is shining- sort of- and it’s feeling a little more like spring. So maybe now’s a good time to have a clear out. One of the major problems faced by students when it comes to organisation is a lack of space, so here’s a few tips to help you clean up and also to maximize the space in your room so you don’t end up living in a pile of laundry and books.

First, the clean-up.

-Clean together

If you and your housemates all do the cleaning at the same time it will go much quicker, and a little music on in the background will make it much less of a chore. Also it’s easy to see if someone’s slacking on their cleaning duties. You can try a cleaning rota but having learnt from experience, this doesn’t guarantee it will be followed, nevertheless it could work for you.

-Cleaning wet wipes

These are your new best friend. Instead of taking forever to clean up the surfaces, a quick wipe and you’re done; great for kitchen, bathroom and bedroom surfaces (just make sure you buy them when they’re on sale).

-preventing mess

Although it may not be top on your list of priorities when you’re at Uni, a laundry bag hung on the back of your door means your room won’t be covered in unwashed clothes and that you can easily take your stuff to be cleaned.

Collapsible boxes are also useful, not only for books but for electricals that would otherwise be laying around all tangled up. They’re easy to store when not in use and really helpful when you move too.

Organising

laundry-443505 (1).jpg-wardrobe space

Shoe organisers can be bought fairly cheaply and just hang in your wardrobe out of sight. They make it easier to find shoes and free up the space that would otherwise be used for them.

Roll instead of fold. If you roll your clothes into small bundles not only are they less likely to crease, but take up less space and can be arranged on shelf space so you can see all of your clothes.

-wall/door organisers

These are made to either hang from the wall or over the door (but could easily go over the edge of a shelf) and are particularly useful for books.

You can also get small jewelry organisers that attach to the wall on hooks with stickers that are strong but easily removed (don’t want to lose any of our deposits!) and available in most department stores and decorating shops.

-desk space

Small desk organisers to keep all of your materials together instead of scattered over your work space are useful to have.

No desk? No problem. Lap trays are cheap and great for doing your work in bed on those days when you don’t feel like moving, or for doing some late night revision. It also means desk space could have other uses (like for a place to put those used cups you really need to wash instead of ignoring).

 

What to do with your degree

It’s a common misconception that the subject of your degree will limit you in your career choice. This may be true for some subjects, but not history.

A history degree is one of the most versatile. The analytical skills that you gain in history, as well as the project management skills you learn doing your final year dissertation are sought after by employers. We’re also great at arguing (but we knew that already), which is a necessary quality in many jobs; the ability to effectively put your point across, or deal calmly with a difficult customer are what will set you apart. On top of this is the problem solving, time management, and independent research skills gained in any good degree.

So what jobs can you get?

Retail, analysis, accountancy, banking, law, publishing, writing… there are so many possibilities.

Take a look at the Prospects website to give you an idea.

And to the people who don’t know yet, no problem! Take the quiz on their website to find out the perfect career for you.

University is also the time to gain valuable work experience in the field you are interested in. Take your degree and tailor it, and your experiences at Essex to the life you want to lead.

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To take away from the stress of considering your future, here’s a picture of the campus ducks!

 

Procrastination

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As you sit here knowing you have a hundred and one things you need to do, but just haven’t got around to yet, lets consider procrastination.

We’ve all been there. The deadlines are piling up, but so are the module readings, the clothes washing, the dishes, the amount of new films out that you want to watch… and somehow you never get around to doing what needs to be done- until the last minute.

Everyone does it, but we don’t have to. There are ways to stop those ‘just one more episode’ moments, and get your work done. You know that as much as you’d like to have one more scroll through twitter, that feeling of accomplishment when you know your work is done far outweighs it. Also it’s definitely not worth the stress when you have one week left to do 4 assignments.  So what do you do?

  1. attend the Overcoming Procrastination seminar on the 3rd February in the TBC at 2pm (and if you don’t go to Essex yet, see points 2+3)
  2. Plan, plan, plan! By designating a certain amount of time a project you are much more likely to get it done, and hopefully avoid procrastination. A way to make this even more effective is to plan study times with others, once you’ve set a date, you’re obligated to go.
  3. Also set out breaks. You need time to chill and let your mind recover from all of the work you’re doing. A recommended 10-15 minute break for every hour of work helps you to regain focus, as well as preventing eye strain and headaches if you’re staring at a computer screen. If you know you’re working towards a break hopefully you won’t put off doing your work.

Good luck!

History Department Tips

History, Blackboard, Chalk, Chalkboard, Teacher, School

Our history department has a few hidden gems that can help make your life a lot easier, and your time at Essex even better.  So instead of letting you slowly discover them over a few years (it took me two to find the department library) here they are:

  1. The History Department library

I know it looks small but don’t judge a book by its cover, this place is a Tardis of useful materials for your modules. The chances are that for any reading you have to do, for any history course, there will be a copy of it filed under the course title. You don’t even have to spend ages sorting through material, our wonderful volunteer librarians will help you find what you’re looking for.

  1. The History common room

If you’ve been to the History Department you may have noticed the first room on your left as you walk in, with a coffee machine and some chairs and tables, that’s it! And if you’re new and a little shy there’s no need to avoid it if there’s people already there, they’re actually very friendly. It’s a good place to go if you’d like to do some work, either alone or with some friends, or to just hang around for a bit.

  1. Department Office

I’m about to save you some time, check the opening hours before you walk all the way to campus to hand something in, only to realise its closed (While we’re on topic the same goes for the campus post office and post room). But the office is only closed for an hour for lunch (between 1-2pm) and anyone there will be more than happy to help you with any problems or questions you may have about your course.