Dr Laura Kalas Williams, a postdoctoral researcher from of the University of Exeter, has uncovered the ‘mystery’ of a medical recipe bound inside the cover of the only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe.
Although the manuscript has been much consulted since it resurfaced in an English country house in 1934, this recipe has never attracted much attention. Now, however, its contents have been deciphered by Laura and colleagues at Exeter and Oxford as providing some kind of medical remedy. The ingredients used for this remedy – sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, aniseed and fennel seed – are to be mixed together, heated then dried, to form a type of ‘lozenge’ for later consumption.
Laura points out that Kempe’s book documents many of the illnesses she suffered during her lifetime, including a long bout of the ‘flyx’ (excessive menstrual flow or else dysentery, documented in Chapter 56 of the book), and that the remedy may well reflect one of the cures she herself used. Cures for the ‘flyx’, however, would have involved astringent medicines and Theresa Tyers has suggested to me that the remedy in the manuscript is more likely to have been used for digestive problems. This, of course, raises another whole set of fascinating questions which Theresa and I have been mulling over this week, returning to the chapter on Margery Kempe’s eating habits by Cristina Mazzoni in The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating and Spiritual Writing (New York, London: Continuum, 2005), pp 102-113, to help us.
We’ve been discussing mainly whether the lozenge would have provided a suitable aid for those undergoing fasting, helping to maintain sugar levels etc. during the absence of food. Regular fasting was common practice during the later Middle Ages, both inside the monasteries and amongst the laity, but we have found no evidence to suggest that monasteries, at least, cut back on the consumption of sugar and luxury spices during this period. Indeed, even during the thirteenth century, the Durham Cathedral accounts show that the monks were consuming vast amounts of both sugar and saffron throughout the year!
Margery Kempe’s book is full of her own fasting anxieties (Should she? Shouldn’t she? When should she?) and, no doubt, digestive issues connected to on/off fasting were fairly common for her and for those others undergoing the practice in a somewhat haphazard way. It may even be that some of Margery’s fainting-fits were attributable to her lack of food, rather than ‘just’ her religious ecstasies. On one occasion, for example, whilst on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Margery nearly falls off the ass she is riding as she succumbs to an ecstatic faint. Concerned for her health, two fellow travelers, one of whom is a priest, ‘put spycys in hir mowth to comfort hir, wenyng sche had ben seke’ [put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to be ill] (Chapter 28). Again, Theresa has suggested that the ingestion of pure powdered spices in such an instance is unlikely because, in this form, they would have been extremely unpalatable – especially for somebody in a faint. Instead, a sugary, spicy ‘lozenge’ of the type produced by this recipe (which would also have been far more portable for a pilgrim!), washed down with wine or ale, would have done the job of reviving Margery very well.
The remedy’s ingredients also speak to us of Margery Kempe’s locale and background: far from being based on ordinary kitchen-garden ingredients, the recipe combines familiar English garden herbs (fennel seed, for example) and items of some luxury (sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon), not readily available to the ordinary person in England via her/his own gardening or foraging practices. These were imported and costly goods, although they would, no doubt, have been readily available in Bishop’s Lynn via its busy port – and even more so to Margery as part of an important mercantile family. Indeed, Theresa has identified at least one Lynn family with the patronym ‘Spicer’ (one of whom had been a former mayor of Lynn, as had Margery’s father), suggesting commercial distribution of spices from abroad and likely family involvement. She has pointed me also towards an image in one manuscript of Aldobrandino’s Regimen depicting a woman heading off to an apothecary’s shop to buy spices. The one pictured here, however is from a French translation of a medical text by Mattheus Platearius, dating from the early fourteenth century.
Margery may have been able to purchase her own spices from a shop similar to this one in Lynn, or else directly from the merchant who imported them. Whilst we have no way of proving that this particular recipe did originate from Margery Kempe herself, the manuscript association between this recipe and Margery’s book helps to augment what we already know about the type of elevated social status in Bishop’s Lynn into which she was born and the life-style she enjoyed, particularly before her conversion. And we have Laura to thank for that!
Laura’s findings have recently been published in a Guardian newspaper article (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/28/recipe-found-in-medieval-mystics-writings-was-probably-for-drugges-margery-kempe). She will also be giving a talk on Margery Kempe at this year’s King’s Lynn festival in July.