Culinary Manuscripts, or, Deciphering the Code

Paleography refers to the situation in which an historic cookbook is studied,* and perhaps converted to script that a modern reader can understand. The process is highly complicated and experts spend years, even whole careers, devoted to just this subject. So the following discussion is more like a scratch on a grain of sand, small indeed.

Consider Samuel Pegge’s edition of the 1390 The Forme of Cury, originally written on a scroll by King Richard II’s master cooks. This version includes Old English letters such as “thorn” or Þ (“th”) or “u” for “v.” Then there’s yogh, written as Ȝ, a “gh” sound.

Page from The Forme of Cury


One of the most frankly annoying problems in reading old printing lies with the use of the long, medial, or descending “S.” Looking like a modern “f,” this “S” can be confusing.

Other letters and marks that might trip you up include the following:

ꝛ = rounded r, also called rotunda
Æ or æ = aesch or ash
¯ or ~ = macron and tilde, used to indicate a missing letter or an abbreviation

You will also likely come across situations where “u” could be “v” and vice
versa. Ditto with “i” and “j.”

And you have cases where “n” = “u,” as in the recipe for “Sawse Blaunche” in The Forme of Cury. One of the ingredients listed is “verions.” The word “verions” doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or other sources. Why not? If you take the “i” for a “j” and the “n” for a “u,” you’ll end up with “verjous,” which makes sense. Verjuice, or verjus, played an important role in many recipes of the time.


I discuss paleography and provide some references in my book, “A Hastiness of Cooks”.

*Paleography is applied to more than just historic cookbooks; all manner of writings can be subjected to such study and interpretation.

For more detail, albeit brief, on medieval manuscripts in general, see the following series from the British Library:

How to Make a Medieval Manuscript: An Introduction in 7 Videos

Note: The three-face gargoyle is the copyrighted work of Courtney Nzeribe.