Salat, an Aromatic Medieval Salad

It may or may not surprise you to learn that people in the Middle Ages ate salad. And they ate it often.

Unlike today, salads weren’t for calorie-conscious women on diets. Salads were very common meal starters and were loaded full of herbs and aromatic vegetables found in every household garden.

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Alsace Gardens, Jardin medieval. Photo by daniel70mi

Salads were not only genuinely enjoyed by people of all social classes, but were also considered important dishes that served a very functional medicinal purpose. A typical salad included leafy greens, a variety of herbs, loads of allium vegetables (leeks, onions, garlic, etc.), an occasional fruit like wild strawberries, and edible flowers.

Today’s recipe comes from a manuscript called The Forme of Cury, which is a collection of recipes written by King Richard II’s Master chef in 1390. Most of the ingredients will be familiar to you, but others will probably only be accessible if you grow them yourself.


The Recipe

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The Forme of Curye. Recipe begins at the bottom left.

Salat

Take parsel, sawge, garlec, chybollus, oynons, lek, borage, myntes, porrettes, fenels and towne cressis, rewe, rosmarye, purslary, lauen and waische hem clene pyke hem  pluk hem small with thyne hond and mynge hem wel with rawe oyle. lay on vyneger and salt and surve hem forth.

Translation:

Take parsley, sage, garlic, chives, onions, leek, borage, mint, scallions, fennel, garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, rinse and wash them clean, pick them pluck them small with thine hand and mix them well with raw oil. Lay on vinegar and salt and serve them forth.

As is usually the case with 14th century recipes, there are no measurements. Because these ingredients will be eaten raw we can safely assume that “garlic” means garlic greens and “fennel” is referring to the bulb and not the seeds. It is also worth mentioning that there is another version of this same recipe in the manuscript that also calls for spinoches, violettes, and prymos (spinach, violets and primrose). My replication of this recipe will be a combination of the two.

Ingredients

  • Arugula or Spring Mix
  • Parsley
  • 1 small onion or 2-3 shallots
  • 1 scallion/green onion
  • 1 fennel bulb
  • 1 leek
  • Garden cress or watercress
  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Chives
  • Mint
  • Edible flowers
  • Vinegar or verjuice
  • Olive oil
  • Salt to taste

*Additional ingredients for the avid gardener/advanced forager:

  • Borage
  • Rue
  • Garlic scapes
  • Purslane

*These ingredients are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find in U.S. grocery stores. Out of necessity I substituted arugula for purslane (a similar leafy green) and chose shallots over onions to make up for the missing garlic scapes. Borage and rue were left out, which most likely had little to no effect on the flavor.

Step ONE: Rinse and Prep

“Take parsley, sage, garlic, chives, onions, leek, borage, mint, scallions, fennel, garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, rinse and wash them clean…”

I started by rinsing all of the ingredients and patting them dry. If you’re like me and you have never worked with leek or fennel before now, check out the following links: 

How to Clean and Slice Leeks
How to Cut Fennel

I thinly sliced all of the alliums- leek, shallots, scallions and fennel- and set them aside.

 

“Pick them pluck them small with thine hand…”

I then chopped up a few sprigs of the rosemary and chives and a generous bunch of parsley. As for the sage and mint, I just plucked a handful of leaves and removed the stems. I strongly suggest chopping these up as well. Only use fresh herbs.

  • If you have managed to find borage (also sometimes called Bugloss or Starflower) or you grow it in your garden, you can use the leaves or the flowers. Borage was used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory, among other things. Its seeds are still used to make borage oil, which is found in health food stores.
  • Rue is probably better left out even if you do know where to find it. It was used medicinally for stomach problems, flatulence and coughs. Rue is actually a very effective bug repellant and has also been known to induce labor so it is probably best to avoid ingesting it entirely.

For the greens I used a package of arugula and a bag of “Cress,” which is a combination of garden cress and watercress or other closely related plant. “Towne Cressis” in the recipe is likely referring specifically to garden cress, but watercress is so similar that it won’t make much of a difference flavor-wise. Spinach would also be an acceptable addition.

 

Step TWO: Mix

I started by mixing the arugula, watercress and parsley in a big bowl. Once thoroughly combined, I added the vegetables and herbs. Mix them well to distribute the flavors evenly.

Finally, I topped the salad with some beautiful little edible flowers.

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Flowers were a very common salad ingredient in the Middle Ages. The flowers suggested by the Master chefs for this particular salad are primrose and violets. Many grocery stores do sell packs of edible flowers alongside packs of fresh herbs. The box I found was a blend of nasturtium, pansies, marigolds and hibiscus. Nasturtiums and marigolds were actually very popular salad flowers.

 

Step THREE: The Dressing

“Mix them well with raw oil. Lay on vinegar and salt and serve them forth.”

Once everything seemed pretty evenly distributed, I drizzled some olive oil over the top and tossed it all together. “Raw oil” refers to an oil that hasn’t yet been used for cooking. It was common practice to save and re-use cooking oil, especially for those without extra money to burn.

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For the dressing I poured some verjuice into the bowl, being very mindful of just how much I was using. It took tossing and tasting the salad to get the right amount of acidity without making the flavor too strong. Wine vinegar is also acceptable here; verjuice and vinegar were used pretty interchangeably back in the 14th century.

Finally, season with salt to bring out all those flavors!


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This salad was surprisingly refreshing and would have paired perfectly with Egredouncye! The pot-herbs and vegetables really blended well with the peppery flavor of the greens. The fennel, in my opinion, was the highlight of the dish. I will definitely be eating more raw fennel! My biggest regret was not chopping everything into smaller pieces, particularly the sage and mint. It is a necessary step to ensure all those strong herbs are distributed evenly.

If you want to make your own simplified, medieval-inspired salad at home, don’t be intimidated by the long list of ingredients written above! All you really need at the end of the day is a peppery green, some vegetables from the allium family, some chopped fresh herbs, an optional fruit (apple or strawberry) and/or edible flowers. Never use Iceburg lettuce, sweet peppers, potatoes or tomatoes- they did not exist in Europe until after the 16th century. Top it with salt, oil and vinegar and…voila!

Enjoy!


Photography by Nathan Berry

Death and the Plague Doctor

The year is 1630.

You live with your family in Milan, Italy, where you were born and raised. You grew up hearing tales of the Black Death wiping out entire towns in the late 1300’s. It was said that the world had lost a third of its population by the year 1400. And there you were, centuries later, feeling just as helpless as your ancestors had.

You are still in mourning for the recent loss of two of your cousins who probably were exposed to the Black Death at Carnivale in February. They died within a week of the celebrations. Rumor has it the baker and his family are in mandatory quarantine. Your friends and neighbors are disappearing one by one and it is anyone’s guess as to where they fled or if they are even still alive. Shops are closed, the churches are empty and food supplies are starting to run low. You are terrified.

The sun is starting to set and movement outside the window catches your eye. Walking slowly down the street is a foreboding figure dressed in all black, the coat or gown nearly reaching the ground. A wide-brimmed hat, also black, rests on his hooded head. In his gloved hands is a wooden stick. But the most frightening feature of all is the terrible face. His eyes are large glass domes and his nose is long and pointed, like a raven’s beak.

The plague doctor. His arrival could only mean one thing: the Black Death is nearby.

Little do you know that by the end of the next year, over 60,000 Milanese will perish. Nearly half of the city’s population in 1631 will be gone, including a good portion of your family. Venice will lose 30% of its people. Nearby Verona will lose 60%. 

The very sight of the “beak doctor” chills you to the core. Unfortunately the cloaked figure, a frightening symbol of Death itself, might be your only hope of survival.


The Plague Doctor

1656 Copper Engraving of a "Beak Doctor."  Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom: Paul Fuerst

1656 Copper Engraving
Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom (The Beak Doctor from Rome): Paul Fuerst

Plague doctors have existed as long as plague, long before the Black Death tore through Europe in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, doctors were so valuable that they were paid handsomely and given special privileges. Even though they had little to no scientific understanding of diseases like bubonic or pneumonic plague, they did what they could to prevent its spread and were desperate to find a cure. They were not only responsible for caring for patients during epidemics, but they were also required to keep meticulous public records of deaths and occasionally became witnesses to wills.

Plague doctors were also given permission to conduct experiments and research that would normally be banned under any other circumstances. Autopsies were one form of research that was strictly forbidden for religious reasons. During the Black Death epidemic the ban on autopsies was lifted for a select few physicians who showed some promise in understanding and treating the disease. These were desperate times.

Still, very little headway was made treating the plague. Doctors often contracted the disease despite their best efforts, and were required to quarantine themselves when they were off-duty. Many would abandon their posts, presumed to have fled. During the worst of the epidemics it was so difficult in some towns to find enough plague-specific doctors willing to step up that government and clerical officials were left with no choice but to hire people with no formal medical training. More than a few plague victims were treated by a former builder or fruit salesman. It is doubtful the patient would have been very comforted by that fact, assuming he or she even knew.

Second-rate doctors were abundant and practiced methods that included the use of frogs and leeches to get the evil out. Quackery was definitely not unheard of and there are records of some pretty bizarre types of cures promoted by some of the less desirable “doctors”, typically those with very little actual medical knowledge and training. But there were also very gifted physicians out there, such as Nostradamus and Niall O’Glacian, who were widely respected and made huge strides in medicine.


Miasma and the Spread of Disease

For centuries humans have blamed the spread of disease directly on bad air. This theory of bad or corrupt air causing disease is now referred to as miasma, a term coined in the early 18th century. Miasma was the predominant theory to explain the cause of disease until germ theory began to take over gradually and was solidified in the 19th century with the actual discovery of the germ. Scientific proof supporting germ theory came in the 1860’s and 1870’s with discoveries by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates wrote that bad air was basically the same as pestilence and disease. In 1348, Master Jacme d’Agramont (a well-known physician in Spain) wrote that most known diseases were caused by corrupt air. The idea that a nasty stench alone could cause disease began to take hold in Medieval Europe, but how this actually happened physiologically was still pretty fuzzy.

In 1450, Alberti (a famous Renaissance architect) specifically mentioned the importance of sewers in his writings. The purpose of sewers was obviously to keep poo out of the streets, but perhaps more importantly to preserve the overall quality of the air to avoid spreading disease. Physicians were generally in agreement that bad, corrupted air caused disease, but they disagreed when it came to the actual cause of the corruption. Explanations varied from decaying corpses to earthquakes to planetary alignment and the wrath of God. Miasma was the go-to theory in the medical world for the next couple of centuries.

When it came to the Black Death, the miasmic theory stated that not breathing the corrupted air would prevent the plague from affecting you. To learn more about the Black Death’s symptoms and how it actually spread (hint: not via “miasma”) click here. Until recently, the Black Death was assumed to be the bubonic plague, which was probably spread by fleas. However, new evidence points to the Black Death actually being a pneumonic plague, an extremely contagious viral disease, meaning it was actually airborne! Maybe the medieval doctors were on to something? Read about it HERE.


The Birth of the Biohazard Suit

Charles De l’Orme was an extremely charismatic, intelligent and influential physician who served as the family doctor to French and Italian royalty. He lived to the ripe old age of 94, an incredible feat in the 17th century. His age gave him the appearance of being wise and his apparent good health instilled much confidence in his patients.

In 1619, a 35 year-old Charles wrote about a costume meant to protect doctors (himself, specifically) from contracting the plague on patient visits. Because no other previously written mention of the costume has been found, Charles is credited with its design.

The costume consisted of a long overcoat or gown (neck to ankles), breeches, leather gloves, boots and a hat, all waxed and water-resistant. The overcoat was tucked under a mask that had glass domes for eyes and a long beak-like cone. If worn correctly, not a sliver of the doctor’s skin would be exposed.

The overall look of the costume was perhaps a bit on the dramatic side, but that didn’t stop it from quickly gaining a place in Italian culture. Mask designs could vary depending on the location and doctors’ resources.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Coat

The long black overcoat, or gown, was made of leather and covered with wax or suet (a hard, white animal fat). The purpose of waxing the coat was most likely to prevent bodily fluids from sticking to it. The neck of the coat was tucked into the mask to cover up the bit of skin showing between the mask straps and the doctor’s undershirt.

The Breeches

A doctor needs to wear pants! The breeches were vital to preventing exposure to the lymph nodes around the legs and groin area. Lymph nodes were often the first to become infected with the plague, so doctors took care to keep them covered. Like the coat, breeches were also made of waxed leather.

Leather Gloves and Boots

Hands and ankles were required to be covered. These items were usually waxed as well.

The Hat

Doctors at the time typically wore wide-brimmed hats. It was a sort of uniform, like a chef’s hat, which was more symbolic than functional in nature. Plague doctors also wore the hats to identify themselves as doctors. If a hat was not worn, the doctor instead wore just the hood to be sure there was no skin or hair exposed around the mask.

The Mask

The most important piece of the costume is also by far the creepiest. The mask was held tightly against the black hood with leather straps to keep any bad air from sneaking in and poisoning the doctor. The eye holes were cut into the leather and filled with glass domes.

17th Century plague mask.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

17th Century plague mask.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The beak was filled with a variety of herbs, incense and other scents to fight against the corrupt air. Some of the concoctions included myrrh, camphor, rose or other flower petals, amber, mint, cloves and storax. Sponges soaked in vinegar were also popular. Anything that smelled strong was considered a viable option to protect against the plague’s miasma. Since miasma was still a pretty elusive and unscientific theory, the herbs and other aromatic items in the beak were also believed to drive away evil spirits. For some, corrupt air was an evil spirit.

The Stick

Contrary to common belief, doctors did not carry sticks around to beat away the rats. The wooden stick (or cane) was there to examine the patient without touching them. It was used to lift bed sheets and direct other members of the household, among other things.


So did the costume actually work?

Who knows? It’s still unclear how many doctors actually wore this costume and how many of them, if any, became ill or died after wearing it. Based on what we know about both the bubonic and pneumonic plagues, it is doubtful the mask helped all that much.

Regardless, the idea behind it certainly influenced future medical practice in Italy and throughout Europe. The plague doctor costume lives on not only as a precursor to the modern biohazard suit, but also as a terrifying symbol of death in the 17th century.


Sources

Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and moved to the United States in probably 1884, if what she told her friends was true. Like many other Irish immigrants, she paid the bills as a domestic servant to wealthy families in New York. Eventually she discovered that cooking was her thing and settled into a nice career as a cook, which paid pretty well compared to other service positions. She was known in particular for her incredible peach ice cream.

Between 1900 and 1907 Mary had worked 7 different jobs as a cook. Oddly, members of each household would come down with Typhoid shortly after her arrival. 22 people had become ill with Typhoid fever, including a young girl who died. Mary was perfectly healthy and she left each job for fear that she might contract the illness too. Nobody knows whether she suspected she had anything to do with its spread or if she, like everyone else, simply thought it was a coincidence.

It wasn’t until Mary was hired by New York banker Charles Henry Warren that Mary was suspected of having any connection to the spread of typhoid. In 1906, Mr. Warren took his family to Oyster Bay, Long Island to stay in a summer home he had rented from his friend George Thompson. Mary Mallon was hired to be their cook for the summer.

In August, Mr. Warren’s daughter was the first to come down with typhoid. Second was his wife, followed by 3 members of the staff and another daughter. 6 of the 11 people in the house had come down with typhoid. Three weeks later, Mary quit.

Typhoid is a bacterial disease that is spread through contaminated food and water. The contamination usually came from feces, human feces. It can also be spread by insects feeding on infected feces, but that is far less common. At the turn of the 20th century, society had made great strides in general public sanitation and hygiene. Immunization against typhoid was not available until 1911 and antibiotic treatment wouldn’t be developed until 1948. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the chlorination of drinking water has contributed to the dramatic decrease in the spread of typhoid in the United States. Prevention is as simple as washing your hands after you use the toilet and always before handling food. In Mary’s time, 10%-30% of typhoid fever cases were fatal. Today, typhoid can be fatal, but generally only if it is left untreated. Only about 1% of patients with typhoid will die from the disease.

It was well-known in 1906 that typhoid was only spread through contamination of food and water sources. The owners of the home were worried and knew they would have to investigate and find the source of the contamination before they could rent out the summer house to anyone else. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson hired investigators who found absolutely nothing within the house to explain the contamination. But it wasn’t until they hired George Soper, a sanitation engineer, that the investigation turned up anything useful.

George suspected Mary, who as the cook, had had direct contact with the food. But since she hadn’t ever become ill with typhoid it seemed unlikely that she could be the source of its spread. However, after looking into her employment history he decided that her connection to each sudden outbreak of the disease was hardly a coincidence. But there was no way of knowing for sure until he had stool samples and blood tests. As it turned out, getting Mary’s cooperation proved to be a challenge.

George managed to track Mary down in March, 1907. She was working as a cook for the Bowen family. He approached her at the Bowen house, asking for “specimens of feces, urine and blood.” Mary didn’t take kindly to being accused of spreading a disease she didn’t have and she attacked Mr. Soper with a fork. He ran off feeling “rather lucky to escape.”

But George’s sense of duty to public health proved strong. He tracked Mary down again at her home, this time bringing a friend for support. She again resisted, yelled and swore at them as they beat a hasty retreat. He decided to instead give his research and reports to Hermann Biggs of the New York City Health Department. Mr. Biggs then sent over Dr. Josephine Baker and police officers to retrieve Mary.

By now Mary was more than suspicious. She attacked Dr. Baker with a fork, who “recoiled on the policeman,” which caused confusion. In the confusion Mary was able to escape and eluded the authorities for 5 hours. When they did find her (thanks to a bit of Mary’s dress getting caught in a closet door), she continued to resist. Yelling, swearing, kicking and fighting, she would not listen to Dr. Baker or anyone else. According to Dr. Baker, there was nothing left to do but take her by force and get those stool samples with or without her permission.

Mary was taken to Willard Parker Hospital where blood and stool samples were collected and tested. She tested positive for typhoid. It was determined that Mary was only a carrier of typhoid and never actually came down with the disease. But because of her contact with food and her somewhat lacking personal hygiene habits she was able to easily spread the disease to others. That year, over 3,000 New Yorkers had contracted typhoid and Mary was most likely the original source of the outbreak (NCBI: Annals of Gastroentorology). She was deemed a public health threat and sent to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island and quarantined to a cottage there.

By Lupo 09:59, 24 March 2006 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Lupo 09:59, 24 March 2006 (UTC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two years later, in 1909, Mary Mallon attempted to sue the health department, which proved unsuccessful. She said she was being held unfairly. Mary didn’t really understand how she could be a carrier of a disease and never get ill and it seemed as if nobody at the hospital had explained it to her. However, she had been offered a surgery to remove her gallbladder (which might have cured her), which she declined. By 1910 the new health commissioner decided to let her go as long as she vowed to never work in food service again. She willingly accepted the conditions and was released from solitary quarantine. People were generally sympathetic to her plight and she was assisted in finding domestic work doing laundry. It was agreed by many that it was unethical to imprison a healthy person.

In 1915 a sudden typhoid outbreak occurred at the Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan. 25 people came down with typhoid and 2 of them died. All the evidence pointed to a new cook, a Mrs. Brown. Turns out, Mrs. Brown was actually Mrs. Mallon. Mary Mallon.

Mary was recaptured and sent back to the cottage at Riverside Hospital.  She lived there until her death 23 years later in 1938. During her time there it is said she became a nurse or a hospital helper, even working in the lab during the 1920’s. The fact that she had broken the agreement she had made with the health commissioner upon her release as well as used a false identity destroyed any sympathy the public had for her. At that point she had consciously put others at risk, whether she believed she was a typhoid carrier or not. She was directly responsible for at least 122 becoming ill with typhoid, including 5 dead.

There is much controversy over Mary’s treatment by the state of New York, the Health Department, the media and the general public. She had broken no laws. There have been other people in the past who have been carriers of disease, some directly responsible for more deaths and illnesses than Mary was, and none were held in quarantine nearly as long. Some say she was targeted because she was an Irish woman or because she didn’t have a family. More than likely it had to do with the fact that she was employed as a domestic servant and refused to do domestic work that wasn’t cooking (which also meant she would be paid less). Her temper and refusal to accept the fact that she was a carrier certainly didn’t help her case.

What do you think? Was Mary treated unfairly? Or did her threat to public safety and health override her personal liberty?

Sources:

Annals of Gastroenterology, Mary Mallon
Who Was Typhoid Mary?
Typhoid Fever