University of Leicester
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Italian Book of Secrets Database.

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posted on 2009-03-24, 15:21 authored by Tessa Storey
As a genre, 'Books of Secrets' (Libri di Secreti or, more generically, ricettari) first flourished during the middle ages. They were technical, crafts-based 'how-to-do it' manuals, 'secret' because they were written in Latin and available only to the privileged few. With the advent of the printing press, vernacular editions started to appear—the first in Italian was the Opera Nuova intitolata Dificio di ricette in 15271 —and by the mid-sixteenth century secrets books were flooding off the presses. They tended to contain instructions for the making of medicines, recipes for preserving food, recipes pertaining to domestic management (such as making inks and removing stains), some for cosmetics and some 'alchemical' recipes, for refining chemicals. This mix was to remain characteristic of the genre, (although some dispensed with cookery and others with household management), which persisted well into the nineteenth century. The importance of the genre lies in the fact that, as manuals for 'domestic' medicine with a huge circulation, they are central to the history of medicine and health. They reveal much about the kind of medical practices, approaches and ingredients adopted in the home amongst the general population, which may well have been quite different to those taught in Latin, at the university, or advocated by official pharmacopoeias. Closer study will enable us to track the dissemination of key developments in medical history, such as the shift from herbal to chemical medicine and from the 'humoral' to the 'modern' body. Italy was at the vanguard of medical developments during the Renaissance and although the genre soon became popular in other European countries, many of these were Italian texts in translation. Despite this, there has been little research on Italian recipes and 'secrets' themselves, particularly in English, a state which this project was devised to rectify. Given the thousands of 'books of secrets' and ricettari which appeared in print and manuscript between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, this database cannot claim to be representative of the genre as a whole. We have nonetheless sought to include representative samples of different kinds of texts across the period so as to enable us to consider chronological changes and developments within the genre as a whole, as well as to compare the various kinds of text, such as the printed pamphlets, and manuscripts with the larger printed books. The 'Italian Books of Secrets Database' project was initiated and overseen by Professor David Gentilcore (School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester) as a pilot study based on sources held in London libraries, mainly the Wellcome Library and British Library. It was carried out and funded within the auspices of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award in the 'Cultures and Practices of Health', which was based at the Universities of Warwick and Leicester, during the period 2003-8. The construction of the database and data entry were carried out by Dr Tessa Storey, whilst a research assistant in the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester. Sandy Pearson, senior computer officer in the Faculty of Social Sciences, has provided invaluable advice and assistance throughout the preparation of the database. We would like to take this opportunity to thank both the Wellcome Trust and the University of Leicester for providing funds and infrastructural support in the realisation of this project.



School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester.

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Gentilcore, David; Pearson, Sandy



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