There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts.
—Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5
This blog post, exploring the themes of memory loss and preservation, is the first in the three-part series “Mixology and Memorie,” presented as part of Searching for Shakespeare. Join the Folger in celebrating the 400th anniversary of the printing of the First Folio, in partnership with DC Public Library, throughout the month of April.
On learning of her father’s death, Ophelia, the heartbroken heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, falls into a “weeping brook” and slowly allows herself to drown (4.7). Since the Victorian era, the figure of Ophelia has been construed by scholars as the prototypical ‘mad-woman.’ Not only has she lost her father and her lover but she has also lost her mind. In the words of Hamlet’s mother, she is “incapable of her own distress” which is to say: she has forgotten her “self” (4.7). It is curious, then, that the “sweet flowers” – pansies, forget-me-nots, rosemary sprigs – which surround her in the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, and which are frequently referenced in the play, should have a long history as symbols not of loss, but of memory.
The term pansy comes from the French pensée, meaning “thought” or “remembrance”. Legend has it that forget-me-nots are named after a medieval knight who died while picking the delicate flower for his lover and spent his last breath calling out, “Forget me not!” In Ancient Greece, students wore circlets of rosemary to school to increase their capacity to remember their lessons.
While memory-enhancing herbs and spices have a rich legacy in symbolism, the evidence of their consumption – though less studied – enjoys an equal legacy in the historical record. Recipes for memory boosters surface in early modern manuscripts in the form of charms, spells, and medical treatises. Hundreds of these recipe books – digitized and transcribed into Modern English – can be found here.
The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619), compiled in 1675, contains a recipe for a memory-potion called “Confect of Coriander Seed” and provides step-by-step instructions for a brew to “helpe the memorie … by comforting of the braine.”
The main ingredient in Mrs. Baker’s memory-potion is notably coriander. It is not by accident that coriander is today studied for its neuroprotective effects in conditions that affect memory, such as Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.
The alchemist’s recipe
A closer look at the last line in Margaret Baker’s “Confect of Coriander Seed” reveals that the recipe is drawn from the “dispensawrie” of “Cornelius”. The cited dispensary did, in fact, belong to the German Renaissance polymath, physician, and philosopher of the occult, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, who kept a scrupulously organized pharmacy, dubbed a “memory palace,” full of specimens.
The German apothecary ran a sideline business in alchemy (a profession that depends on memory-tricks), and his “secret recipes” continued to hold sway in the medical and imaginative literature of pre-19th-century England. Robert Burton’s epic Anatomy of Melancholy (c. 1621) grapples with Agrippa’s proposition that melancholy “cometh by the outward, by sense or memory” and “flock[s] from the brain to the heart, by certain secret channels” (III.6). The young Victor Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel chances upon the teachings of Agrippa one rainy weekend and later condemns the “memory of these evils” for the “fatal impulse“ that leads to his ruin (Chapter 2, 1818 Text). Recent scholarship re-casts the whole of Agrippa’s works as a single manifesto instructing readers to forget the “super-natural” philosophy of medieval science.
Lost in translation
Agrippa-the-apothecary may have been forgotten by modern audiences, but the hierarchical syntax of the classification scheme he applied to his specimen-collection has not. Recipes are hierarchically structured by heading, procedure, application, and efficacy. The “procedure” is framed by imperative clauses given in a temporal sequence that begins with “Take” and ends with “Serve forth.” This sort of language-pattern is known to linguists as text-type. Because recipes are believed to stem from an oral tradition, the text-type would have been familiar to scribes and practitioners alike. By contrast, the seemingly familiar ingredients of early English recipes like the ones listed in Mrs. Baker’s memory-remedy (marjoram, sugar, pepper, coriander), would have been altogether unrecognizable to scribes and practitioners of the time.
In the Middle Ages, Istanbul was the hub of a busy spice trade, and the Crusades (as much a commercial as a spiritual war) were fought in part to secure a profitable portal onto the spice routes of the east for the European west. The greater the European appetite for imported spices, however, the less visible the origins of spices became. Source languages were lost; the “tastes” of ethno-national communities erased. Gallyngale, an ingredient that appears in numerous early English recipes, comes from khalanjan, a type of ginger root described in the 13th-century North African cookbook Al-Andalus. Khalanjan is, in turn, an adaptation of the Chinese gao liang jiang (a spice described as falling between pepper and ginger on the flavor spectrum). The term was so corrupted in transmission that the original sense eluded English philologists, and “gallyngale” entered the lexicon glossed simply as “an ingredient in recipes,” with Chaucer’s short poem The Former Age as its cited source.
Current scholarship on the vexed history of recipe-transmission approaches the recipe from two distinct angles: 1) as textual “time capsule” and 2) as “memory capsule” containing a wide spectrum of ancient practices and techniques. Textual criticism, historical investigation, and the replication of inherited recipes are central to the recovery of the silenced voices of Babylonian tablets and of Greek, Syriac, and Arabic manuscripts.
Performance as remembrance
Premiering this month at the DC Public Library as part of the Folger’s Searching for Shakespeare festival, Our Verse in Time to Come (directed by the Jamaica-born artist Vernice Miller) adopts Shakespearean words and works to bridge past and present.
The play’s protagonist, SOS, a former emcee recently released from prison, is losing his memory to dementia. Without spoiling the plot, it’s safe to say that his predicament culminates in a situation that poses salient questions about whose stories remain, and whose role it is to ensure that they survive.
Like plays, recipes are capable of performance. The medieval and early modern manuscripts that contain them are correspondingly “performance-texts,” filled with “the residue of social occasions, in which unknown numbers of … redactors have participated” (D. Pearsall, ‘Theory and Practice in Middle English Editing’ (Text 7, 1994)). Searching for coriander seeds among recipes of the past sets the stage for the future analysis of the recipe as a text-type no longer confined by syntax but bound to rescue stories that must be told to be remembered.
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