Historic Cookbooks, Development and Technology

In The Beginning

Examples of proto cookbooks, or any books actually, that existed before 1500 appear as fascinating antiquities when you compare them with the hardbound, two-sided, numbered, indexed, printed paper editions that we’re all familiar with. But in fact the standardized easy to understand modern written languages that you and I take for granted have actually only existed for a few centuries and I’ll address that later in this paper.  Before we discuss how a common language, or the lack of one, affects a culture’s cuisine let’s make a brief survey of book technology and its development over the last few millennia.

The first bound pages are thought to have originated in India where palm leaves were tied together between a front and back cover of wood using some form of cordage that was then wrapper around these boards to secure the contents.

Palm leaves strung with cord

A palm leaf book strung with cord

In the West clay tablets served the same purpose and many, thanks to the properties of sun-baked clay, remain as historical artifacts. These clay tablets went through a number of manifestations that included wax, lead, bronze, papyrus, parchment, paper and finally the screen you’re reading this on. In antiquity the first three of these materials were framed in wooded covers and acted as ancient notepads to spontaneously record data. This information would then be transcribed to other materials more suited for record preservation and the slates processed by melting, abrasion or recasting so they could be reused. These wood framed slates could be stacked one on top of the other or connected by metal or leather hinges to form a two page rigid document but obviously the device limited the amount of information stored.

Early manuscripts were actually continuous scrolls of papyrus or parchment that had to be unrolled to read. And since there were no page numbers, chapter headings, table of contents or even  titles they were very hard to access and use.  These scrolls where later cut into the more manageable, transportable and easier to store units we know as pages. The earliest books, know as codices or a codex, were simply individual leaves stacked one on top of another wrapped in a simple leather folder. Early papyrus books were sandwiched together by crude boards, wound with cordage to keep the pages flat and in order, and then slipped in the first book bags for storage and transport. Scribes next stabbed two holes through the sides of the folder and the enclosed pages which were then threaded and joined with a length of cordage.

The next phase folded larger pieces of parchment, called signature pages, into double-sided leaves whose inner crease formed a supportive spine, known as a signature, for that group of pages.  Then the folded edges of the signature or page bundle were trimmed so that the still connected pages were freed.  This bundle of folded pages is called a quire, historically four leaves or sixteen two-sided pages, and many early books were only one signature/quire in length.  A simple outer leather covering with straps was used to secure this bundle of pages and this type of binding was prevalent through the fourth century. Myth tells us that early Christians were the first to adopt this codex format because it allowed for the different “books” of the bible to be combined and visibly separated their holy text from that of other religions and the information technology of the oppressive Roman power structure. Between the fourth and the eighth centuries book binders began stitching groups of signatures or quires together across the spine of the book. The new application meant that the number of pages had to be predetermined before the fold and cut were made instead of just randomly writing until you finished your tome. This evolution, known as Coptic binding, made it easier to record, access, store and transport information since both sides of the page were inscribed keeping the codex within manageable dimensions for travel and spreading the gospels of Christianity. Larger texts no longer needed a hundred foot roll of papyrus or parchments while wood covers and leather wrappers extended the usable life of the codex.

Soon leather supports for the stitching of the signatures were added which gave the book more heft and stability. Some of these designs approximated today books while others might only have enclosed a small portion of the book’s spine to protect the exposed stitching. Clasps were next added to hold the book shut and prevent the parchment pages from curling and warping. Wooden covers were enhanced with devices called bosses; small metal or wood studs that were attached to the corners and the middle of the outside covers.  These spacers raised the text off the storage shelve to protect them because books of the period were stored flat on their sides not on standing on their ends.  Titles were also added during this stage of development but they were written on the forefront of the pages not on the covered spines as they are today.

Girdle books were a popular fashion statement of the literate European nobility between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.  This application placed a small book into a soft leather bag with elongated straps that could be knotted around the waist or over a belt …  something like a Medieval fanny pack or Renaissance cutlery holder.  At first girdle books were just ornate prayer books carried by wealthy status conscious noble women for their daily personal absolution’s but as reading became more popular the elite soon began carrying around copies of their favorite novel or poetry collections. From the sixteenth century on regional and national differences in book production and choice of materials evolved.  Wooden boards are being covered in goat, sheep, calf or pig skin leathers and as book technology spread around the Western world manufacturing processes evolved to help satisfy the increased demand for printed books. During this period paste boards, a kind of pressure laminated cardboard, replaced wooded book covers because they required no wood working skills or tools other than a low tech punch and hammer to fabricate a covered text.

Between the seventh and thirtieth centuries books and thought were pretty much limited to points on the spiritual plane and as such the act of fabricating, scribing or illustrating a text was considered one of the most worthy acts of devotion a cleric could muster.  During the early centuries of this period the first exquisite illuminated manuscripts were created in monastic enclosures that preserved and copied current and earlier Greek and Roman texts for posterity. Over one-third of all incunabula {printed manuscripts before 1500} had woodblock prints or illustrations and of course this feature continued for centuries after print technology arrived since there were no cameras.  Many of these books were written in verse form and a majority were just compilations of others writers work that appeared under the compilers name.  Little actual thought was done in these scriptoriums although many of the classic Greek and Latin works we know today were copied and preserved. Errors were rarely corrected by the scribes in the enforced silence of the monastery copying rooms where artificial-ungodly light was forbidden and misinformation, much like today’s web, was the norm.

From the thirtieth to the fiftieth centuries Europe was inundated with information, manuscripts and cultivars brought home by the crusaders from the holy land along with the intellectual and social inoculations that were fermenting in Renaissance Italy.  Pursuit of humanistic enlightenment spurred the demand for books amongst the literate and the students of the new European universities that were being established. This new interest in science and literature was the antecedent for the innovative combination of existing technologies that created movable type and the printing press. From the fiftieth to the sixtieth centuries print shops cranked out copies of the classics, the vulgar bible, personal prayer books and the histories of the saints. From the sixtieth to the seventieth centuries new thoughts were being put into books that made their way into the lives and the thoughts of Europe’s cognoscenti.  These new thoughts and concepts  gradually filtered down to the illiterate urban classes who were often “read to” by the text’s authors in the streets of the larger cities; a common feature and event of the period.

The new literacy led to an increased demand for books that were cheaper than those laboriously cranked out by hand on animal skins. Luckily paper, one of the technologies brought home by the returning Crusaders, sold for about a fifth the price of parchment.  Even though paper was making inroads in Europe in the eyes of many Christians it was a barbarian device of devil worshipers and non believers. But eventually monastic scribes adopted the Arabic paper technology and devised a book production method that utilized various specialists. One station would make covers, one would do binding, one sewing, one scribing, one illustrating and one rubinating until a finished text emerged. The Irish scribes of the middle ages were not as well-educated as their predecessors and in fact many were illiterate. These under educated monks began separating words, instead of running them together in scriptura continua without punctuation, in the seventh century. This effort to make the written word more understandable wouldn’t be widely adopted until the thirteenth century, or later, when the literate elite of the period had begun reading to themselves rather than out loud to a group of enraptured listeners.

Pre Gutenberg stationers and copyist rarely proofread their products and students often copied their own textbooks for a fee passing along, and contributing to, any inherent mistakes or bits of misinformation much like the what the internet faces today. There was no standard page size so books were produced in many different configurations and calligraphic fonts. These “type styles” were often modeled on the local hand written font that incorporated regional abbreviations and that made them almost impossible for outsiders to comprehend.  Three quarters of all books written before Gutenberg were in Latin and any national written languages, meaning French, German, Italian or Spanish, didn’t really appear until well after Martin Luther’s 95 in 1517 except in small regional pamphlets and chap books. Estimates place the total number of European books in 1440 at thirty thousand and speculate that this number grew to eleven million within 50 years. Books before 1530 usually didn’t provide their author, title, date of publication or even any page numbers. When page numbers were first adopted they were  displayed in Roman numerals but by 1550 their replacement by Arabic numerals had begun although it didn’t dominate until the eighteenth century. Of course there are many more innovations in the history of the book but I think the above survey illustrates that the simple tome we all take for granted wasn’t always quite so simple.


Up until the middle of the sixteenth century Latin was the written language of Europe no matter what region or country a given text was written in. The spoken language was a colloquial patois from the locality or “nation” it was being spoken in. These local derivatives, recognized only by those people who spoke them, were to later become the written/vulgar French, German, Italian and Spanish tongues we recognized and used today. Classic written Latin and even Greek, garnered renewed interest during the renaissance but neither could serve the mundane needs of the growing middle class of merchants, artisans and others. The quest for enlightenment required languages that were more relevant to regional and nationalistic cultures. The Catholic Church continued to publish in Latin, and the language in its arcane form is still the idiom of law, medicine and science. Literacy rates for both clergy and the general population took a nose dive after 450 and did not begin to rise again until the latter part of the middle ages and the increasing availability of print technology. Martin Luther’s 95, the first viral post, in 1517 brought about the commonality of the vulgar bible, printed in languages other than Latin, and helped to define nations, their semantics and new religious offshoots.

A bible in your own tongue was a spiritual necessity if you could afford it. Once purchased it was also your duty to spread it’s gospel to any of your illiterate vassals, neighbors and house hold staff by reading out loud to them daily when possible in the local [vulgar] language so they could understand what you were saying … none spoke Latin. The vernacular bible became a late medieval teaching device used to instruct the reader or listener not only in his or her daily absolutions but also the fundamentals of reading. For the first time people had a written work in their own tongue in their own homes thanks to the technology of printing and soon smaller cheaper segments of the bible and other religious texts could be bought by even the most humble semi-literate households. The common language bible stimulated the European quest for the new literacy and printers quickly devised numerous ways to stimulate and fulfill that demand. Soon small, books and pamphlets, usually just a few pages that included AU COURANT RECIPES, began to find their way to both isolated rural communities and urban locations. These historical magazines were usually sold by street vendors and traveling peddlers for a few “cents” and helped to formalize and standardize the languages and establish the cuisines of medieval European countries.

Written accounts of explorations and adventures in the vernacular thrilled a word hungry public as did wood block illustrations of faraway places, peoples, saints, demons and monsters. Newly monied social classes sent their children to school and wanted all the trendy recipes, clothes and styles that became popular amongst the nobility and wealthy through the publications of the period. Scientific knowledge was now a social pursuit as astronomy, botany, geography, agriculture, cuisine, medicine and the arts became the topic of conversation in village squares and on city street corners.  Those who could began building their own personal libraries that allowed them to compare and search for their own truths … not just those presented by the church or its pontificating clerics. DIY books appeared about agriculture and gardening and Columbus’s new world discovery changed the long-held concepts of the world and the foodstuffs Europe was putting in its braziers and on its tables.  Freshly printed volumes gushed on about courtly adventures, exotic travel, great love stories and wondrous meals, and medicinal and scientific tomes affected and enriched the newly codified national languages.  The distinction between a language with printed literature and one without became much sharper, and those with extensive libraries became national languages; not just local dialects, accents or patois. Once this happened, the geographical borders between nations, such as that between France and Germany or France and Spain, became sharper and more pronounced. Once national languages were printed, people began to call for purifying and codifying both semantics and cuisine, and for the first time readers became concerned with punctuation, spelling irregularities and grammar.  Printing also inhibited languages from undergoing local and inconsequential changes since words were now codified, defined and protected. It took the printed cookbook to create a cuisine.

The texts cited here that were produced before Gutenberg were not cookbooks in the sense we think of today. Instead they were hand written personal recipes copied by monastic or public scribes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Many of these copiers were illiterate and the “books” might have just been a collection of recipes much like your grandmother may have had; a folio or folder of loose pages bundled with a rubber band and tucked into a kitchen drawer. Books printed before 1500 are known as incunabula and their type font often resembled the period handwriting of their respective region.  Many of these remained in the kitchens of the nobility after their originators/cooks moved on and therefore found their way into numerous later compilations.  In 2007 some  3,300 new cookbook were published in the US out of  the total 270,000 printed titles. Although the numbers seem quite formidable they pale in comparison to the 400 thousand recipes and 57 million “food” pages available on the web and in 08 the food network had reached 96 million homes with a mainly male audience so who needs a cookbook?


There are about 100 known historic “Cookbooks”, all hand written before Gutenberg as well as numerous one page medical and health-manners works that include a recipe or two. Both the Greeks and the Romans long respected the connection between diet and health and therefore included many recipes in the medical writings of their time and the tradition continues today. The several hundred print shops in existence between 1453 and 1501 are thought to have produced some 35,000 titles for a total of about 8 million volumes; more than had been published from 330 till Gutenberg. By the beginning of the eighteenth century over 200,000 title had been pressed in runs of 100 volumes each; the same number of copies usually published for a scholarly work today.  By the end of the eighteenth century more than 100 cookbook titles, in fourteen languages with a total of 650 editions had been published including almanacs and small pamphlets with recipes.  In comparison 2.3 billion books were sold in 2006 represented by over 300,000 titles that included 27,000 cookbooks. Most of the early culinary works described here were written in languages and dialects that are unknown to most of us except period scholars. Many of these recipes made their way from kitchen to kitchen and manuscript to manuscript and that in itself makes dating and attributing them to any one specific author difficult and conjectural at best.

Even though historically the publication numbers pale in comparison to those of our millennia the earlier industry had no distribution system, no catalogue, no best sellers list, and no access through public libraries so even in this limited output distribution was iffy. Furthermore even if the distribution technology had existed there would have been a prohibitive shortage of material, meaning rags to make paper, on which to print since wood paper had yet to utilized.  Some historical theorist propose that the Italian renaissance was stymied due to the lack of affordable texts, caused by a shortage of rag paper to print on, for the literate middle and barely literate lower classes. Soon the erudite elite became voracious readers and the number of personal/household libraries began to increase as the price of books declined. The classics and new releases were read and discussed over and over again by both the learned and the dilettante. Printed books could now be produced hundreds of time faster than hand written ones and they allowed writers to publish in their own language for the growing market of common readers who knew nothing of the elitist Latin used in the previous centuries. The new codified languages of print technology helped to define countries and regions and was of singular importance in establishing both the various national and provincial cuisines of Europe.

A printed book, although still exclusive, was 80% cheaper to produce then one written on parchment especially in light of the decreasing cost of paper. Granted a 200 page work was still well beyond that of the average citizen but a sixteen page Bibliotheque Bleue, Flugschriften, Opuscolo or an even smaller 4 to 12 page pamphlet became affordable to almost everyone. Not only were these small books inexpensive but they were also easy to obtain through peddlers, chapmen and colporteurs who hawked these little books alone with other wares in village squares and city streets. In the rural areas these peddlers often offered credit terms ranging from several months to a full year which put the purchase of larger texts, like the bible and almanacs, within the reach of almost any family who had the aspirations and desire to do so.

These little blue books often printed in the tens of thousands were published for the median and neophyte reader. They featured collections of proverbs and devotionals, wife’s tales and superstitions, medical, health, beauty and sex tips delivered in the argot of both the streets and the country side.  The colporteurs of Paris often delivered a portion of them orally in allegorical rhyme as a sales technique to the ever-increasing numbers of barely literate who were migrating to the city. These smaller issues usually displayed poorly rendered prurient wood block prints that may or may not have any relevance to the printed stories they accompanied.  Saints and sinners, kings and queens, elephants and sea monsters were popular illustrations along with witches, two-headed livestock and curiosities from the new world. Think of the National Inquirer or some of today’s graphic comic book novels printed on really rough paper and you have a approximation of how these issues might look and feel.

In the rural French departments these colporteurs often used broadside posters to explain and advertise the stories, events, recipes, and cures featured in their library.  Their sales pitch, often taken from the promoted texts, was presented in verse or song which was the public speaking manner of the period and helped inform, indoctrinate and titillate those in the audience who were illiterate.  In learning centers, universities, courts and other official assemblies information was read out loud and the listener, student, or official would take notes in his own hand. In the case of the Greek and Latin classics studied in the university instructors would help in translating the selection into the local patois after he had read them out loud since many of the terms were new or did not exist in the students dialect.

The elite who could read and write were usually not concerned with the peasant literature of the street and only purchased these despicable examples of check-out line trash when no one was looking. Content was tailored to attract new readers and DIY books for the craftsman, farmer, mason and landowner were written in the regional dialects of France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Historical examinations, expositions on science and medicine along with recipes for cosmetic and culinary applications were now readily available for the functionally literate and status climbing middle class who could now read the bible and the classics in their native tongue. Another tangible ‘”just got to have” feature of the new technology were the actual volumes themselves whose covers, bindings, pages, and illustrations soon became prestige markers amongst those who could afford to show them off. Numeracy did not necessarily accompany literacy and that explains the lack of finite measurements in early cookbooks an issue that survived well into the nineteenth century.  Through the centuries content was controlled or influenced by monarchs and the various religious power structures.  There were book bonfires in virtually every country in Europe until the separation between church and state evolved and “freedom of the press” became an adopted virtue.



The next two topics are especially hard to discuss without any finite and accurate statistics. Unfortunately those available require a leap of faith since there really are no concrete records for reading, writing and eating that don’t require specialized algebraic formulas with lots of weird little symbols that most of us don’t understand. So I’m going to provide a broad survey of the information out there not to confuse, but to illustrate that being able to purchase and read a cookbook, over and above having something to cook, impacted the development and codification of national and regional cuisines. The whole issue is further compounded by the shifting boarders of the European entities that took place over almost four centuries before they congealed into the countries we know today.  Even though this paper has a decidedly Gallic focus we’ll still look at some guesstimates for Europe as a geography that was in flux until the beginnings of the twentieth century. You need a choice of foods to create a recipe and develop a national or regional cuisine but generally most of Europe’s medieval inhabitants were mal/undernourished throughout their entire lives. This condition was intergenerational and persisted, depending on the country you lived in, well into modern age. But first let’s try to define the term literacy and what it meant in different  periods which is no easy task since the determinates are nebulous and differ from survey to survey. Our purpose is to conjecture whether or not a cookbook would have an effect on the cuisine of a country or a province before a certain date.

When the Renaissance was at its zenith about one in four male urban children attended school in Italy’s largest cities while most females would be lucky if they receive instruction in literacy and numeracy at their mother’s knee. By the end of the sixteenth century it has been postured that most of the Italian urban working class may have been literate in the most fundamental and practical sense. Records do not show an increase in school enrolment so it is likely that the appearance of low-priced broadsides, pamphlets and almanacs written for the barely literate played an important role in the everyday home education of the urban masses no matter which nation they lived. Italy had the highest literacy levels in the 1500’s but when the Renaissance took a dive so did the literacy rates which continued to flounder well into the modern era.

The average size of a Venetian’s personal library, for those who could afford one, grew from six volumes in 1450 to forty by the end of the sixteenth century.  In the seventeenth century fifteen percent of Venice’s households had at least one book although the number would be lower for regions and countries outside the Renaissance epicenter.  The adoption of vernacular languages made books easier to read and print technology decreased their formats from huge table model tomes to ones that could be tucked into a sleeve or at least carried for easy transportation. Comprehension was further enhanced when words were separated, punctuated, embellished with accent marks and printed on numbered pages that could be easily located and referenced using an index. All these new paleographic applications made it easy to read texts out loud to an audience by indicating when to breathe, when to end a sentences, or when to add exclamation as was the custom when books were notably rare and expensive.

The purpose in this paper is to raise the question of whether or not there was a “French” cuisine before 1850. I think this answer is applicable to almost any of the national foodways of Europe up to the period   IMHO … NO. Without a common language how can you hope to have a common cuisine, literature or national identity? My take is that all cuisines, with perhaps the anal Francophil post modern one, are constantly evolving especially with today’s globally connected supermarket and culture. In any case the next short segment examines who could read a cookbook before 1800 and the following chart is the best I’ve found in my research.Defining the term literacy in the historic period is compounded because it had different meanings, in different areas, at different times so any survey, and the method of compiling the data, is at best a questionable estimate. But I’ll just present some broadly illustrative data to substantiate my “no cuisine before its time” hypothesis.

There were huge difference between the departments or regions of the area we now call France that existed for centuries. In 1790 … 71% of the countries literate lived in the North while the South had only 27% of the total this obviously disparity between rural and urban locales was further compounded by the economic differences between the elite, merchant, artisan, farmer and laborer classes. Furthermore you were considered literate if you could sign your name instead or making your mark {OR} read something in you local patois {OR} read a pre-selected passage from the vulgar bible. Except for the elites the literate average citizen knew just enough to function in his or her specific universe. Being able to sign your name didn’t mean you could read even though for most surveys you were considered literate, and being “literate” didn’t mean you could do simple arithmetic equations, and numeracy didn’t mean you could read and …. and … and; you get the idea.

Literacy Rates % Europe

University of Tübingen, Germany

COUNTRY 1500  1800
Austria 6 21
Belgium 10 49
France 3 37
Germany 6 35
Italy 12 22
Netherlands 10 68
Sweden 10 85
Portugal 1 3
Spain 1 2
Eastern Europe 1 4
Russia 1 4
USA 0 50
UK 10 52
China 7 20
India 2 3
Japan 7 25
Other Asia     3 3
Africa 0 2

Not only was Paris the epicenter of Western haute cuisine, until the food of the provinces was taken back into the fold, but it was also the nexus of Gallic learning and culture;  in fact the city of Paris was France for all practical purposes.  The provincial lexicon and its related recipes were researched and compiled by the more literate Paris foodies and intellectuals since the literacy rates of the countryside prevented assembling and archiving the local recipes and patois in situ.  But this lack of literacy in the provinces help to perpetuate local recipes and insure the concept of terrior that has become the one of the major rallying points for Francophile foodies in the latter part of the twentieth century.  Furthermore Paris was the largest city in Europe until 1800 and that’s where Western cuisine matured and held sway until the latter part of the twentieth century when global cuisine arrived.


  • Europe had 12 universities
  • 30% of all Europeans lived in the cities and these people were, and would continue to be, the most literate for the next seven centuries. The newly barely literate of the urban areas would continue to learn through an osmotic information flow from above.


  • Europe has only 125 cities populated by ten thousand inhabitants or more
  • Europe is controlled by more than 1000 self-governing political units
  • Higher education is supplied by a mere 100 universities in Europe


  • When Venice was rocking 33% of the men and 12% of the women were thought to be literate and amazingly enough this estimate later declined precipitously as Italian fortunes waned


  • There were eight articulations for yes and six for no in the patois of the different French departments
  • Control of Europe has been consolidated into only 500 governing bodies


  • French homes with at least one book; Paris 22%. Lyon 33%, Rouen 63%


  • 50% of the Gallic population did not speak or understand the “French” of Paris


  • 3% of the world population is urban


  • Only 5% of “Italians” speak a common language and the country has yet to be unified.


  • 30% of all French peasants are illiterate


  • 95% national literacy is achieved in France
  • Now there are only 25 different nations controlling Europe


  • Total literacy in France was achieved 


  • Of the 600 million speakers of French only 65 million live in France and 50% are African. It’s highly unlikely that these non-resident speakers promote culinary terrior or French culture

The Hungary  ….  Europe on a Thousand Calories a Day

Coming Soon

Dragons, witches, devils and saints:  “Must of  been that ergot infected bread I ate three days ago but I was so hungry”