Interpreting the Manuscripts - My Process

It has been quite a while since I have posted anything or done any period cooking. It's summer and that means lots of time out of doors with the family before school starts. However, I have been asked to teach a class on my method of interpreting period recipes at a meeting or a future event. In lieu of a post on cooking, I thought I would create a post regarding the steps that I take when I do an interpretation. Any feedback is welcome.

The first step is to locate a recipe that you are interested in interpreting. For me, many of those are the recipes from Two fifteenth-century cookery-books : Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430), & Harl. MS. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1439, Laud MS. 553, & Douce MS. 55 Thomas Austin published by Oxford University Press, London 1888. I am blessed with having a copy of this book in hardback, one of the very last gifts my mother gave to me prior to getting ill with congestive heart disease and passing twelve years ago. This book is very special to me and each recipe that I interpret is a memory of cooking with my mom from the time I was old enough to stand at the stove and stir a spoon. At the time I received this edition I didn't know *how* to interpret these recipes. What took me many years to teach myself I am hoping to pass on to you in a few paragraphs.

When I first started interpreting recipes I gave myself some ground rules.

  • The first is not to interpret based on what others have written. This is easier said than done, as I have discovered several times that what I have read and interpreted is vastly different from what others have done. 
  •  The second rule is to find ingredients which can be purchased locally and would fall within a reasonable budget should the recipe be created for a large (100+) feast. Oftentimes, when an ingredient is difficult (or impossible) to locate or is prohibitively expensive to purchase for me, and/or ultimately for a large group of 100 diners, I will research a suitable substitute for that product. This has the benefit of creating a "mostly" period recipe but substitutions can change the final product. 
  • The third rule I adopted was to make "sample" sizes of recipes that could be easily adapted to feed a larger dining crowd. This meant that I had to spend some time in researching typical portion sizes for catered, large group events. 
  • My last rule is to use sources as close to the primary source as I could find. Most of the sources I use are secondary sources because obtaining primary documentation, that is, original works that have not been interpreted, analyzed or evaluated by another person is impossible for me.  However, secondary resources can be found relatively easily nowadays and when I use a secondary resource I tend to bolster that information from multiple secondary resources. 

What are primary, secondary and tertiary sources for research? Primary sources of information for research are most often the original documentation often times associated with the time period you are researching.  These documents or artifacts have not been analyzed, evaluated or interpreted.  An example of a primary document would be an original manuscript.

Courtesy of the British Library

Secondary sources used for research are primary documents or artifacts which have been analysed, evaluated amd/or translated. They have been created after the creation of the primary source they are based upon.

Example: The Forme of Cury, by Samuel Pegge Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

TARTLETTES. XX.II. X. Take pork ysode and grynde it small with safroun, medle it with ayrenn and raisons of coraunce and powdour fort and salt, and make a foile of dowhz  and close the fars þerinne. cast þe Tartletes in a Panne with faire water boillyng and salt, take of the clene Flessh withoute ayren & bolle it in gode broth. cast þerto powdour douce and salt, and messe the tartletes in disshes & helde the sewe þeronne.

Tertiary sources consist of information which has been collected from primary and secondary sources and is subject to further analysis, interpretation or evaluation.  Sometimes secondary sources can also be categorized as tertiary.  

Example: Cunnan - Tartletes Recipe Courtesy of Gwynfor Lwyd and the Cunnan Wiki

Modern Recipe

Take veal, boiled and grind it small. Take hard boiled eggs and grind it with whole prunes, dates cored, pinenuts, raisins, whole spices and powdered, sugar and salt. Make a little coffin, fill them and bake and serve it forth.


500g veal
6 whole pitted prunes
8-10 whole pitted dates
100g raisins
50g pine nuts
2 hard boiled eggs
1/2 tsp mace
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp nutmeg
6 whole cloves


Slice the veal into strips and boil it with a dash of vinegar and a pinch of salt. Hard boil and cool two eggs. While they boil, mince the prunes, dates, raisins and pine nuts and mix in a bowl. Mince the veal and mash the eggs when they are done, and add them to the bowl. Then add the spices and mix the lot thoroughly.

Using your favorite short crust pastry, after first greasing the muffin tray, line the molds with the pastry. Spoon in the filling, and cover with more pastry.

Cook in a medium oven for 25 minutes (fan forced convection) or a bit longer in a conventional oven. When the pastry is golden brown it is done. Serve it first (not fourth, that's too long to wait!).

Once I have located a recipe that I am interested in interpreting I read it several times before I begin the process of breaking it down. I want to make sure that I have a good understanding of what I have read.  I think this is where many cooks begin to start to assume that a set of instructions on a medieval document will have a specific end result. I have been surprised several times that my final interpretation was not what I assumed the end product would be like.  This is part of the reason I do not research other interpretations at this point.  Just like I did with locating a recipe I set up some ground rules and assumptions for myself in regards to how to interpret a recipe.

Cooks of the time period that I am researching may not have been be able to or did not have time to write down their own sets of instructions.  Instead what is written in any documentation from the period are a set of instructions as witnessed by or spoken to the author of the manuscript.   This theory is based on my assumption that before everyone was required to learn how to read or write, many specializations (cooking for example) were passed from a Master, to a Journeyman, to an Apprentice either orally or through example--the actual work.  In order to become specialized you devoted your educational experiences to that specialty. It is my assumption that medieval cooks most likely had only rudimentary experience with writing but were by no means "illiterate" in their vocation.

It is also an assumption that the amount of work required to run a larger household where such instructions might have been written and were necessary was time consuming and that there would not have been enough time for an individual to do their daily tasks and write a manuscript.

Lastly, there is the assumption that much like today, a medieval cook's recipes and techniques were considered "trade secrets" and that they would not have been readily written down for fear of sharing those secrets. Who does not have a grandmother who won't give you an entire recipe but always leaves a little something out??? Mine did and to this day I am unable to find that ingredient in my grandmother's lemon cake that made it so special to me.

I do my very best to make absolutely no assumptions on what the final product will be, but instead will cook the instructions that I have interpreted as they have been written in order to best replicate the dish that the original author may have intended.  Also, if I have run across another reconstruction of the recipe I will not allow that preconception to influence my understanding of what I am interpreting.

Part of the difficulty that I had interpreting recipes from the books was a lack of understanding what I read. In almost every recipe that you will run across from period you will find a word or two that you do not understand.   Fortunately, the internet which I use extensively in my research has opened up a world of understanding for me. Our example recipe today is Tartelettes from The Forme of Cury, which we are fortunate enough to have a copy provided by the British Library of the original manuscript (above).   In the event that I would have been unable to locate this copy of the manuscript, there are also multiple secondary sources available online or in printed form as well.

Here are some links to some of my favorite sites for period sources. Please note that there is a lot of crossover between sites and that some links may be broken or no longer viable.  This is certainly not the be all and end all of the list, nor is it in any particular order for me. These are the sites I find myself most frequently visiting when researching.

My Interpretation: 

 - Take pork y-sode and grynde it small with saffron, medle it with ayren and raisons of coraunce and powdre fort and salt and make a foile of dowgh and close the fars (the)einne. Cast (the) tartlette in a panne with fair (broth?) boillyng and salt take of the clene flesh with oute eyren and boile it in gode broth cast (the) powder douce and salt and messe the tartlet  in dishes and helde the the (broth?) thereone

This interpretation contains several terms I am unsure of; y-sode, ayren, raisons of coraunce, powdre fort, foile of dowgh, fars, a word I think might be broth but these old eyes can't make it out clearly enough to determine what it is. This is when it is time to turn to other resources for help.  In this case, I know of at least two other interpretations of the above recipe.  The first is located at project Gutenberg. 

 The Forme of Cury, by Samuel Pegge Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

TARTLETTES. XX.II. X. Take pork ysode and grynde it small with safroun, medle it with ayrenn and raisons of coraunce and powdour fort and salt, and make a foile of dowhz  and close the fars þerinne. cast þe Tartletes in a Panne with faire water boillyng and salt, take of the clene Flessh withoute ayren & bolle it in gode broth. cast þerto powdour douce and salt, and messe the tartletes in disshes & helde the sewe þeronne.

The second is located at Daniel Myers Medieval Cookery. 

This is an excerpt from Fourme of Curye [Rylands MS 7] (England, 1390) The original source can be found at

.xlix. Tartlettes. Tak pork y sode & grynde hit smal with safroun, medle hit with ayroun & raysouns of coraunce & poudour fort & salt, make a foyle of dowh & close the fars therinne, cast the tartlettes in a panne with fayre watur boillyng & salt, tak of the clene flesche withoute ayroun & boyle it in gode broth cast therinne poudour douce and salt & messe the tartlettes in in dysches & held the sew theron.

While I am left with some confusion about a few of the culinary terms, I have at least one question answered--the unknown word that I was unsure of and thought might be broth is water; "Cast (the) tartlette in a panne with fair (broth?) boillyng".  The next step is to define the words I don't understand. You will note that I have (the) in parenthesis several times in my interpretation.  This is because Middle English the.svg   is the middle English abbreviation for the word "the" something I learned in earlier research and it appears several times in the manuscript instructions for tartlettes.

I have my favorite locations for researching medieval culinary terms I may not understand.  These include in no particular order the following sites, which have proven to be immensely helpful. As part of my interpretive process I will research the culinary terms, etymology of a word, and cooking techniques if I am unsure of them.


y-sode - boiled
ayren - eggs
raisons of coraunce - currants
powdre fort - strong powder - ?? Recipe?
foile of dowgh - a thin leaf or sheath of dough -- ?? Recipe?
fars - to stuff
pouder douce - sweet spice powder
sew - a Middle English word referring to a broth or liquid ranging from juice through gravy to stew

Researching the definitions lead to two more areas to research before I can start on interpreting the recipe.  The first area is powder  fort, a strong spice powder which will play a large part in the final outcome of the dish in regards to the flavor of it.  The second is the "foile of dowgh", which will also play a part in the dishes final outcome. The best location to look for this information is in the Forme of Cury, so that is where I will start.

Neither Powder-forte nor the dough instructions are included in the Forme of Cury. They are referenced several times, however in the manuscript and the recipe reference below for Loseyns gives the clue to how to make the dough.  Loseyns are dough that is boiled in broth and served with cheese. Because it is similar to the dough used in the tartlettes I am assuming that the dough that is required in this recipe is similar to the dough used in the recipe I am researching.

Loseyns. XX.II. IX. Take gode broth and do in an erthen pot, take flour of payndemayn and make þerof past with water. and make þerof thynne foyles as paper with a roller, drye it harde and seeþ it in broth take Chese ruayn grated and lay it in disshes with powdour douce. and lay þeron loseyns isode as hoole as þou mizt. and above powdour and chese, and so twyse or thryse, & serue it forth. Forme of Cury (England, 1390)

Loseyns. XX.II.IX Take good broth and do in an earthen pot, take bread flour and make thereof paste with water, and make thin foils as paper with a roller, dry it hard and boil it in broth take  ruayn cheese (most likely a semi-soft cheese made in the autumn from cow's milk) grated and lay it in disshes with powder douce and lay theron loseyns boiled as whole as you may and above powder and cheese, and so two or three and serve it forth.

The next step is to find out what powder-forte is.  It is commonly believed to be a blend of spices which include strongly flavored spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cubebs, galingale, ginger, grains of paradise, long pepper, mace and nutmeg.  The recipe that I found which I liked best is LXXIII. Specie fine a tute cosse. from Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco (14th/15th c.)

LXXIII. Specie fine a tute cosse. Toi una onza de pevere e una de cinamo e una de zenzevro e mezo quarto de garofali e uno quarto de zaferanno.

Black and strong spices for many sauces. Translated recipe by Louise Smithson (known in the SCA as Mistess Helewyse de Birkestad, OL) Black and strong spices to make sauces. Take half a quarter (of an ounce) of cloves, two ounces of pepper and an (equal) quantity of long pepper and nutmeg and do as all spices (grind).

The next step is to create my interpretation of the recipe and to create the ingredient list.  If you have difficulty with the Roman numeral conversion (I know I did) the site I use is found here. When I do my interpretations I try to create a recipe that is easy to understand, so I write it in modern English keeping the original interpretation above it.  When I create the ingredient list I am only doing so for a serving for two as if it were a main dish served in any meal. I want the recipes to be easily scale-able so that they can be increased from 2 to 4 to 8 to however many servings are needed. In order to do this I needed to research quantity calculations for catering large groups.  From the research that I did I have come up with this plan that I use when creating large scale feasts: 1/4 to 1/2 cup starch, 1/2 to 1 cup of pottage, 1/2 cup simmered, boiled or stewed, vegetables and approximately 1/4 pound of meat per dish per person.  This is the plan I use for any succeeding courses.  Remember-we are eating medieval serving up several dishes per course, and several courses in a meal.  Your diners can pick and choose what they wish to eat, and how much they wish to eat of it, but for serving these are the portions that go out to the table.  Approximate serving sizes per table of 8 would be 2-4 cups of grain or grain based dish (eisands or guissell), approximately 2 pounds of meat, and 2-4 cups of vegetables and 1 1/2 loaves of bread.  Some excellent websites to get you started on researching for quantity cooking are listed below.

Knowing how much to serve for a table of eight diners is how I determine what the quantities of my ingredients are going to be.  

My interpretation: 

.xlix. Tartlettes. 
Tak pork y sode & grynde hit smal with safroun, medle hit with ayroun & raysouns of coraunce & poudour fort & salt, make a foyle of dowh & close the fars therinne, cast the tartlettes in a panne with fayre watur boillyng & salt, tak of the clene flesche withoute ayroun & boyle it in gode broth cast therinne poudour douce and salt & messe the tartlettes in dysches & held the sew theron.

49. Tartlettes - Take pork boiled and grind it small with saffron, mix it with eggs and currants and powder forte and salt, make a thin sheet of dough and close the stuffing there in, cast the tartlettes in a pan with fair water boiling and salt, take of the clean flesh without eggs and boil it in good broth, caste therein pouder douce and salt and mess the tartlettes in dishes and held the sauce there on.

Ingredients List

Boiled Pork - ground
strong spice powder
dough - flour, water
sweet spice powder

Fortunately this recipe doesn't contain any difficult to find or impossible to get items, however, if it did the resource that I would use to locate an acceptable alternative would be the Cook's Thesaurus. This resource has been invaluable to me especially when looking for alternatives to fish! Fresh fish is difficult to locate where I live and some ingredients which were commonly enjoyed, such as porpoise, are illegal where I live.  Alternatively, some items such as quail, squab or pheasant would be prohibitively expensive to purchase even for a smaller event.  Whenever I substitute a medieval ingredient for something easier to obtain or more cost effective I make sure to explain the reasoning behind it in my blog post.

Once I have created my interpretation and have a list of ingredients that I am going to use I start creating the modern recipe.  Remember-I'm only cooking for two people, despite the fact that I usually use my family and friends and their friends as guinea pigs to taste test and could be taste testing up to seven or eight people ;-) This is why we often have spoon wars and arguments over who gets the last bite.  I only need a small amount.


1/2 pound ground pork - remember the recipe calls for pork that has first been boiled and then minced (ground small).  Assuming a quarter pound of meat per person two people would be 1/2 pound of ground pork.  Half of which (1/4) will be made into the stuffing and the other half will be cooked in the broth ( take of the clean flesh without eggs and boil it in good broth). To make the broth that is needed, boil the pork in 1 cup water or stock.  I would use chicken or a mix of 50/50 beef and chicken because I do not normally have pork stock on hand.

Pinch of saffron - for two people you probably only need two or three strands, because you do not want the saffron flavor to overpower your stock.

3/8 egg beaten - the reality is that an entire egg is going to be too much egg for the small amount of stuffing we are making. So what I would do is beat the egg and add just enough of it to the mixture to make a good stuffing making note of it in the interpretation, or, I might separate the yolk from the white and use the yolk only.

1 tsp. currants - 1 tsp. of Currants for a quarter pound would mean a little over a tablespoon of currants for a full pound of meat.   This is where I use the phrase "or to taste" because some folks might like a little more currant with their pork and others (like me) would like less-wayyyy less--as in half that amount for me thank you very much!

1/8th tsp. Powder Forte - another "or to taste" area.  Usually for a quarter pound of meat, 1/4th of a tsp. of spice is too much, but you still need some flavor, so an 1/8th of a tsp. would work here, and if it is expanded out that would 1/2 tsp. of spice for 1 pound of meat.

1/4 tsp. salt - Salt is flavor, and this might seem like a lot of salt to add to 1/4 pound of meat, however, if you were to scale this up, that would be 1 tsp. to 1 pound and that is the amount of salt that most people are used to adding to their meat.

1 cup broth - if you have boiled the pork in water you have already created a flavorful broth. On average, 1 cup of soup is the amount served at a large catered event, hence 1 cup of broth. If you are using store purchased broth you may not need additional salt, however, if you have made your own stock or are using the broth made by boiling the pork you might need to add salt to taste.

1/8 tsp. sweet spice powder - again, this is "to taste".

For the dough - we are looking to make basic eggless pasta or noodle dough.  Use your favorite recipe or you can use the one below

1 cup flour
1/4 cup water
1/4 tsp. salt

Boil the pork in the water until thoroughly cooked, drain the pork reserving the broth.  Take half of the pork and add eggs, currants, salt and powder forte.  Please note, I beat the whole egg and then added enough egg to the pork to make the stuffing stick together easily.  I do you get 3/8th s of an egg??? Set the stuffing aside and mix flour with water and salt to create your dough. As an alternative, you could substitute won ton wrappers for the dough. I did!

To create your dough mix together flour and salt and add water until it forms stiff dough.  Turn the dough onto a lightly floured countertop and knead for approximately 10 minutes, cover and then allow it to rest for 20 minutes. After the dough has rested, roll it out to approximately 1/16th of an inch thick and then cut into large squares or circles as you desire.

Stuff the dough with the filling being careful not to overfill and then seal the dough tightly.  I used the tines of a fork to make a pretty crimp on the edges. Drop into the broth; add additional salt and the pouder douce and serve once they are completely cooked.

Converting recipe quantities seems like a mystery but once you know the number of servings you wish to serve, and you know how many servings the recipe you are using serves the conversion is quite simple.  To find your conversion factor (the number that you are going to multiply or divide to scale up or scale down) simply divide the desired number of servings by the original number of servings. 

For example, this recipe was created to make two servings as a main meal or up to four as a side dish.  The number of servings is 2, but I want to serve 8.  I would simply divide 8 by 2 and my conversion factor is 4.  The converted recipe would then be:

2 pounds ground pork
Pinch of saffron 
1-2 eggs beaten
1 tbsp. or more of currants
1/2 tsp. powder forte
1 tsp. salt
4 cups broth
4 cups flour
1 cup water
1/2 tsp. powder douce

If I have the recipe for 8 and I want to serve six, I would divide 6 by 8 and the conversion factor would be 0.75.  I would then multiply each of the ingredients by the conversion factor of 0.75 to get the correct scale for six servings. The new recipe would look like this.

1 1/2 pounds ground pork 
Pinch of saffron 
1-2 eggs beaten 
3/4 tbsp. or more of currants 
1/3 tsp. powder forte 
3/4 tsp. salt 
3 cups broth 
3 cups flour 
3/4 cup water 

1/3 tsp. powder douce 

For a quick conversion of any recipe you wish to try use the Recipe Converter Calculator.  

Once I have created a recipe that follows the instructions I cook up my sample batch and taste test it.  I have hijacked people working around the house, my kids, their friends, unsuspecting family members and the neighbors.  If the recipe can pass a modern taste test then I did well.  I request commentary and watch reactions. There have been a few times I have made something that I or one of the taste testers did not enjoy.  I make sure to include that in my blog posts.  

Sometimes I have to go back and tweak something based on commentary, which I will do, making note of the changes. Once the interpretation has been finalized, and *before* creating a blog post I compare with my peers.  This recipe is a great example of the reason to compare.  The instructions as interpreted create a broth with meat and meat filled dumplings. One of my peers created a meat filled tart, while another created a dish of dumplings with meat sauce. 

When I am checking my work against my peers and I find that I have done something vastly different from what they have created I ask myself several questions.  Where did I deviate from their interpretation? Why did I deviate? How does the deviation impact the final interpretation? What was the deviation? Do I need to research this further?  

A good example of this process is my interpretation of Arbolettys, which created a cheese "soup" instead of the more often found scrambled eggs with herbs. Since I found the recipe in the pottages section of 
 Two fifteenth-century cookery-books : Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430), & Harl. MS. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1439, Laud MS. 553, & Douce MS. 55 by Thomas Austin amidst a selection of recipes that create custard or pudding like dishes I believe that the deviation is cooking the eggs till they form a curd similar to scrambled eggs rather then forming a smooth dish.  Further research is needed to determine what the final outcome of this recipe should be.

Finally having come to the end of the process I create a blog post. In creating the post I attempt to include a little bit of history relating to one of the primary ingredients as well as including the interpreted instructions into a modern day recipe.

I hope that this post has given you some ideas on directions that you can go to start interpreting your own recipes. I would love to hear your thoughts, suggestions or ideas. Feel free to comment below.