May 23, 2018

A Medieval Emperor's Natural Language Experiment

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as depicted in the Shrine of Charlemagne, which he commissioned, c. 1215.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was known as the stupor mundi ("the astonishment of the world") among his European contemporaries. But he did not cut an impressive physical figure, at least according to the Baghdad-born chronicler Sibt ibn al-Jawzi.

"The Emperor was covered with red hair, bald, and myopic," al-Jawzi recorded. "Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market."

The quip didn't reflect any particular animus on the part of al-Jawzi. In fact, Emperor Frederick was well-regarded by many in the Muslim world. Dante, that most judgmental of all medieval writers, placed Frederick in the sixth level of his Inferno: the region reserved for heretics. The emperor was by all accounts deeply religiously heterodox, and was famous for feuding with the Pope and enlisting Muslim soldiers in his personal bodyguard.

The same unorthodox manner that had repelled Dante seems to have endeared Frederick to his rival Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt. A strikingly good-natured exchange took place during the two rulers' parlay over the fate of Jerusalem. Al-Kamil's muezzin, out of respect for the presence of a Christian king, had refrained from the morning call to prayer. Emperor Frederick supposedly rebuked him, saying: "I stayed overnight in Jerusalem in order to overhear the prayer call of the Muslims and their worthy God." Frederick's ability to maintain respectful relations with the Sultan resulted in a bloodless transfer of Jerusalem to the Emperor's rule, in stark contrast to previous crusades which had typically resulted in massive amounts of senseless violence.

Emperor Frederick II and Sultan Al-Kamil clasping hands at the gates of Jerusalem, from Giovanni Villani's Nuova Cronica, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 14th century. 
Frederick's most recent biographer, David Abulafia, calls Frederick a "scientific" emperor, noting his deep-seated interest in the natural world, his rejection of religious orthodoxy, and his support for astronomical research.

But a closer look into the Emperor's own "experiments" yields some surprises.

Frederick's interests are emblematic of the difference between medieval investigations of nature and those that we today associate with modern science. For one thing, they were insanely unethical by modern standards. According to the Franciscan monk Salimbene (who we should take with a grain of salt - Abulafia calls him a "shameless gossip"), these experiments included dissections of two men who had been fed meals hours earlier, to see how vigorous exercise influenced digestion. Salimbene also mentions a dubious-sounding incident in which Frederick compelled a man known as "Nicholas the Fish" (who was said to have been "condemned to an amphibious life" by his mother's curse!) to continually dive and fetch an underwater golden cup until he drowned.

Children playing, from a 1338 Alexander Romance (Bodleian, Oxford, MS Bodley 264).
According to Salimbene, Frederick was also perhaps the first figure in recorded history to conduct a language deprivation experiment.

What happens to infants who are deprived of all language? It's a question with profound implications, because it potentially sheds light on long-standing debates over the degree to which the human brain has a "language instinct," as Steven Pinker put it in his book of the same name. But it's an experiment so deeply cruel that it has only been entertained as an option by a handful of medieval and early modern rulers (a category of human beings for whom harshness and violence were sometimes lauded as a virtue).

Here's my attempt at translating from Salimbene's Latin, which you can read here in full here:

The second of [Frederick's] superstitions is that he wished to discover what sort of language and speech children developed, when growing up, if they were spoken to by no one. And so he ordered nurses to give milk to the infants, and for their breasts to be suckled, and for them to be bathed and cared for, but that they should be in no ways be played with or spoken to. The emperor wanted to know whether these infants would begin to speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or the Greek, Latin, or Arabic tongues, or whichever language had been spoken by the parents from which they were born. However, he labored in vain. Whether children or infants, they all perished. For it was not possible to live without the rejoicing and games and happy faces and blandishments of their caregivers and nurses. 
This inhumane episode, if it was actually ever carried out, is oddly reminiscent of some of the work of mid-20th century behavioralists, like B. F. Skinner, and their critics, like Harry Harlow. Harlow's interest in what he called the "pit of despair" afflicting isolated infants (which the psychologist apparently originally wanted to refer to with the even more medieval-sounding phrase "dungeon of despair") led him to conduct a now-infamous series of experiments involving the total isolation of baby rhesus monkeys.

Harlow found that even providing access to an inanimate "surrogate" mother (if the surrogate was soft to the touch) could provide what he called a "psychological base of operations" that increased survival rates and improved the baby's ability to cope with stressors. Monkeys with no such comfort quickly succumbed to profound psychological distress; some even died.

A Life Magazine photograph of one of the unfortunate infant monkeys involved in Harlow's infamous monkey experiments, circa 1959.
Without wading too much into psychological explanations, it may be worth pointing out at this juncture that Frederick II lost his own mother at the age of three. Medieval lives tended to be harsh, and perhaps his own experience of traumatic loss of a loving parent inspired Frederick's supposed dabbling in the dark side of behavioralist psychology.

Or maybe Salimbene, the monk on whom so much of what we supposedly know of Frederick depends, was simply slandering the emperor. It's hard to know at this point. But the episode does serve as a good reminder that many ideas and practices we associate with "modern science" often have much older (and stranger) antecedents than we realize.

Incidentally, the obsession with seeing Hebrew as the "natural language" of humankind would stick around for a very long time. As late as 1760, the author of A New Complete English Dictionary speculated that Hebrew was the "language which God taught Adam." However, he noted that "others hold for the Syriac, Childee, Ethiopian, or Armenian" as potential first languages.

What I find most interesting, though, about Frederick's cruel experiment is not the speculation about some hypothetical "first" language, but the question of whether infants are somehow naturally able to speak the language of their parents, even without exposure to them.

The idea seems to me tantalizingly similar to the theory of inheritance popularized by Jean-Bapistque Lamarck centuries later, toward the end of the eighteenth century.



November 12, 2017

What Did 17th Century Food Taste Like?

Diego Velázquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs, c. 1618, National Gallery of Scotland.
As the official portraitist for the Spanish monarchy at the height of its glory, Diego Velázquez painted queens, emperors, and gods. But one of his most famous paintings is a window into a much humbler world. A woman is frying eggs in hot oil, ready to scoop them out with a simple wooden spoon. Behind her, a servant boy carries a half-full jug of wine and a melon tied up in a loop of twine.

This painting is the type of thing historians love. A profoundly talented artist with a knack for realism, choosing the type of subject matter that is so normal that it rarely gets preserved (the same is true today—how many contemporary painters choose to depict taquerias or bagel shops?) Scholars suspect that Velazquez's own family members may have served as models in his early paintings. It's possible that the woman in this painting numbered among them, since she also appears in a religious painting he produced in the same year.

Diego Velázquez,  Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, 1618, National Gallery, UK.
But this post is not about Velazquez. It's not even about art history. It's about food.

What can we learn about how people ate in the seventeenth century? And even if we can piece together historical recipes, can we ever really know what their food tasted like?

This might seem like a relatively unimportant question. For one thing, the senses of other people are always going to be, at some level, unknowable, because they are so deeply subjective. Not only can I not know what Velázquez's fried eggs tasted like three hundred years ago, I arguably can't know what my neighbor's taste like. And why does the question matter, anyway? A very clear case can be made for the importance of the history of medicine and disease, or the histories of slavery, global commerce, warfare, and social change.

By comparison, the taste of food doesn't seem to have the same stature. Fried eggs don't change the course of history.

But taste does change history.

One example, chosen at random: the Mexican chili peppers hiding in the bottom edges of both paintings.


The pepper family (genus Capsicum) is native to the Americas, and it was still a relatively new arrival in the cuisines of Asia, Africa, and Europe when Velazquez was alive. As a non-elite person born in 1599, we can guess that his grandparents would not have been familiar with the taste of peppers and that his parents still thought of them as an exotic plant from across the seas. Even the name he, and we, apply to the plant was a foreign import: the word 'chili' is from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. So is 'avocado' (Nahuatl ahuacatl), 'tomato' (tomatl) and chocolate (chocolatl).

The taste for these foods was a significant factor in the series of global ecological movements between the Old and New Worlds that historians call the Columbian Exchange. Any time we eat kimchi, or kung pao chicken, or pasta with red sauce, we are eating foods that are direct results of the Columbian Exchange.

Someone really needs to make a better map of the Columbian Exchange. This one, from a public-domain resource for teachers from UT Austin, is one of the best I could find, but it doesn't come close to capturing the full range of exchanges.

But we're also eating modern foods. That's not to say that there aren't older correlates to these dishes—there undoubtedly are. But food has changed since the early modern period. Globalization of food crops has transformed the flavors of regional cuisines. Meanwhile, factory farming has led to a homogenization of some of the varietals available to us, while also creating a huge variety of new strains and hybrids.

One example: I didn't realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori "as the Italians call it" was "still rather rare in France." Likewise, Brussels sprouts don't appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.

A woman with Brassica oleracea in Pieter Aertsen, Market Scene, 1569.
One example of the substantial changes produced by the artificial selection of premodern farmers actually made the news a couple years back. In 2015, there was a wave of reporting about early modern watermelons. The watermelon is native to Africa and has a substantial amount of range in terms of color and taste. Seventeenth-century still life paintings record a substantially different phase in the artificial selection of watermelons toward the bright red, seedless varietal familiar in Western grocery stores.

Giovanni Stanchi, Watermelons and other fruits in a landscape, c. 1645, Christie's.
But focusing on unusual varietals and exotic imports can be misleading. Most people in the early modern world—not just in Europe, but everywhere—were illiterate farmers and pastoralists whose diet was hyper-minimalist by contemporary standards.

This is not to say that their food tasted bad, necessarily. But it was clearly very simple, and very starch-heavy. From China to Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, gruels and stews made out of staple grains or legumes were the daily fare. Italian farmers weren't eating eggplant parmesan or spaghetti with meatballs. They were typically eating either boiled beans or grains, day after day after day.

The Beaneater by Annibale Carracci, 1580-90.

The acute eyes of Bruegel the Elder captured one example of this universal food of the premodern peasantry. In Bruegel's The Harvesters, a team of peasants is taking a break for a mid-day meal which seems to consist entirely of bread and bowls of what I am guessing is a wheat-based gruel, something akin to Cream of Wheat. The jugs they're drinking out of probably contain small beer.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (detail), Antwerp, 1525-1530.

But paintings like these can only get us so far. A more promising approach, perhaps, would be to go directly to the textual sources and take a close look at early modern recipes. I spend a lot of time recording 'receipts' (an archaic form of the word recipe, but also a broader one, since it included drug prescriptions). Several actually look pretty tasty (like eighteenth-century "Maccarony cheese"), and I hope to cook a few one day, taking a page from my friend Marissa Nicosia's reconstructions of early modern food at Cooking the Archives.

But there are many others that I have no desire to make anytime soon. One example that stands out in my mind is this recipe for snail water from a circa 1700 English manuscript at Penn.
To make Snaill water, for a consumption, or anny weakness in old or young persons, and for the ricketts
take a quart of snails, wash them twince in stronge-stale-beere and dry them well in a cloth, then bruse them shels and all, put to them 3 quarts of red cows-milk 4 ounces, red rose leaves, Rosemary, sweet-marjoram, Ivery, of each a good handfull, distill altogether and sweeten your water with surrop of violets, and sugar candy lickerish sorrop, put in 6 penny-worth of naturall-ballsom, drink a quarter of a pint of this every night and morning. 
Snails, stale beer and ivory shavings certainly sounds like a challenging flavor combo to me, despite the addition of the fragrant herbs and sugar. But this is a medicine, not a food, and it wasn't intended to taste good. Another early modern manuscript owned by Penn (this one from 1655, and more inclined toward food recipes than drug recipes) contains a far more relatable dish:

To fricasie a chicken or rabbitt.
Take a chicking and scald it or Case it, and put it into a frying pan with halfe a pint of strong broth, a peace of buter with a little whole pepper and mace, and boyle them well upon the fire till yr  Chickin be tender then make a [illegible: looks like 'leare' or 'leane of uiriayce'?] and minced peaches* and ye yolkes of 2 eggs and a little drawne butter then put it into the frying pan keeping yr pan with shaking over the fyre till it bee thick, then dish it up strewing thereon a little minced parsley. 
* 11/19/17 update: a reader named Dev Gualtieri wrote to offer the suggestion that this word might be 'parsley' instead of 'peaches.' I think 'parsley' is a reasonable reading of the word, but hesitate to change it from 'peaches' because you can see at the bottom of the recipe that the author writes 'parsley' very differently there. I've added a link to the original manuscript page so the reader can judge.

Even this relatively simple recipe for pan-fried chicken has some surprises, however. One is the addition of mace, a fairly obscure spice that comes from the same plant as nutmeg (nutmeg's the actual seed, and mace is the covering). It's a highly potent spice that numbs the tastebuds and imparts a strong aroma to food. And it's combined here with stewed peaches and egg yolks—not a flavor combination that has survived into the cuisines of the modern era, so far as I know.

Guessing the true flavors of these ingredients—the taste of premodern chicken, or mace carried in a ship's hold from Indonesia to Europe, or butter that was churned by hand—is at some level impossible. Certainly, we can make some educated guesses. In the case of late medieval cooking, one scholar has looked at the transformations of recipes as they crossed cultural zones (such as the medieval Arabic sweet porridge called ma'muniya, which evolved into Anglo-Norman maumenee) and concluded that "as time went by, a dish tended to become sweeter, spicer, and more complicated." But so much has changed between the worlds of the past and the present when it comes to cultivars, modes of preparation and preservation, and, perhaps, an overall sense of what tastes good and bad. I often wonder what someone from the thirteenth or seventeenth century might make of a Snickers bar, for instance. I suspect they'd find it disgustingly cloying. But then again, maybe not.

Thinking about historical tastes reminds me of the French expression for words that seem to be analogous across two languages, but actually have totally different meanings: faux amis. (For instance, English-speakers in Spanish-speaking countries often say that they are embarazada—they intend to say they're 'embarrassed,' but they're actually saying they're 'pregnant.')

These early modern foods are culinary false friends. They seem like they'd be the same as our familiar correlates. But we can't be sure that they tasted the same.

Like so much in history, they're so close, yet just out of reach.


Further reading online:

The Recipes Project
Cooking the Archives
What did Byzantine food taste like?

Further reading in print:


 (Note: These are Amazon affiliate links, so if you buy one, a small percentage of the purchase goes to support this blog).  .