Vergel de señores, en el cual se muestran a hacer con mucha excelencia todas las conservas, electuarios, confituras, turrones y otras cosas de azúcar y miel . Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, MSS 8565

Medieval Spanish Cookbooks

Medieval Spanish cookbooks witness to a diverse cultural heritage

From medieval Spain a number of different cookbooks and manuals have been preserved, witnessing to the multiple food traditions among the different religions and the different geographical and social landscapes. Roughly they fall into three different categories – Arab or Andalusian collections, Spanish or Catalan collections, and food manuals. As usual the cookbooks present themselves as collections of recipes and advice gathered together from numerous traditions in order to serve a specific community.

Andalusian Collections of Recipes.

Cover of anonymous Andalusian cookbookThe idea of writing cooking books was known in the ancient world and it is highly likely that knowledge of the haute cuisine of the Romans continued to be present in the Early Middle Ages Spain. Thus, the Visigoths continued to cultivate lentils, broad beans, chickpeas, peas, lettuce, leeks, chards, squash, and radish. The most eaten fruits were plums, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, figs and pomegranates, while hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns also made their way to the tables of the elites. At the same time spices from the east continued to be imported: pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and saffron. Staples were the local herbs gathered from the wild or grown in gardens.[1]

However, after the Muslim invasion in 711, the Arabs introduced an even more varied cuisine, inspired by the Muslim kitchen in Baghdad. Even though collections of recipes are known from the Middle east in 10th century, manuscripts have nevertheless not been preserved from Andalusia before the 13th century. However, from that period, several very large manuscripts have been preserved:

  • Fuḍālat-al-Hiwan Fi Tayyibat al-Ta‘am Wa-l-Alwan – The delicacies of the table and the finest of foods and dishes. By Ibn Razin al Tugibi 1227 – 1293 (a selection of these recipes translated into Spanish can be found here). Ibn Razin spent his childhood in Murcia and continued to live there even after it was taken by the Christians. However, in 1248 his family left for Cuerta. His work consists o 432 recipes divided into twelve sections, listing recipes for bread, meat, fowl, noodles, fish and eggs, dairy products, vegetables, legumes, sweets, pickled and preserved food and oils, locust shrimp, and snails as well as recipes for soaps and scented powders. One of the more interesting features of this cookbook are the recipes for bread as well as the spices recommended: pepper, coriander, cinnamon, saffron and ginger.
  • Kitāb al-tabīj fi l-Magrib wa-l-Andalus fi ‘asr al-muwahhudin li-mu’allif mayhul – Treatise on cooking from the Maghreb and Al-Andalus during Almohad period by an anonymous author. Ed. and translated into English by David Friedmann and republished by Candida Martinelli. (May be freely downloaded here). Somewhat larger and more sprawling, this manuscript contains over 500 recipes collected from a variety of authors. Most of the recipes are obviously derived from the Arabs, however, several are explicitly said to be Jewish. Also interesting is that the collector or author indicates specific regions as sources for some recipes. It is believed that the manuscript was collated somewhere in the region between Cordoba and Seville

These two manuscripts belong to the oldest group, reflecting the Arab tradition of cooking manuscripts, which dates back to 10th century Baghdad, but they also encompass a number of recipes, which witness to the importance and production of such ingredients as grape syrup, eggplants, artichokes, oranges, lemons, rice, spinach and sugar; their Spanish terms derive from Arab, revealing them as Middle Eastern imports.

Critics agree that the tradition revealed in these manuscripts fits an urban elite consisting of artisans, scholars and bureaucrats in Andalusia. However, some recipes are very simple, while others are obviously demanding skills and effort above and beyond. Arguably, the collections of recipes served cooks working in elite contexts at courts of high officials.

Medicinal Treatises

manuel de mugeres CoverRegimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum and the Tròtulas was written by Arnaldus de Villanova (1240 -1311) and is, as the title tells us, primarily a medicinal handbook. It was written as a guide for Peter III of Aragon (1239 – 1285) and probably stems from the period of his reign, 1276 – 1285. Arnaldus de Villanova is primarily known for introducing alcohol and medicinal wines in the health regimen of his royal patron, but he was obviously inspired by the Arab medical tradition. The affinity between this tract and the dietary prescriptions is obvious. In it, he covers a multitude of themes, humoral balance as specified by Galen but of course also specific dietary regimens concerning quantity, quality and composition of foods and drinks. This text, written in Latin, was later commissioned by Blanca d’Anjou (1280 – 1310) to be translated into Catalan. This translation was carried out by her royal surgeon, Berenguer ça Riera [2].

Of specific interest is another manual, the Tròtula, which was offered by Master Joan to an infanta of Aragon. The text was written in Catalan and exists in only one copy from a manuscript dated to the late 14th century. It has been argued by Montserrat Cabré that this treatise was commissioned by Elionor de Sicília. Her daughter had married Juan I, king of Castile at the end of the 14th century and the book was probably authored by Elionor’s physician, Joan de Foligno and intended for her daughter, queen of Castile [3].

As usual with such texts the advice is divided into three parts, the first of which covers the influence of non-natural conditions, the second discuss the appropriate diet, while the third deals with hygiene and general care of the body. The unusual characteristic of the text is that it uniquely deals with women and that the main content deals with advice concerning beauty and cosmetics.

There is a direct line between these compilations and handbooks and the later “Manual de Mugeres”, in which is “contained many, varied, and very good recipes”[4]

In this book, recipes for food and manuals for good hygiene and health are mixed together, creating a sort of handbook for what every Spanish women ought to know in order to run a household, care for the sick and cater to delicate female needs of a wide variety. Here we find recipes for filling sausages, preserving fruit, mixing toothpowder and shampoo as well as making cosmetics, skin softeners and remedies to cure tooth- and earaches. The recipes are organised into seven different categories: medicines, fragrances, facial cosmetics, mouthwashes and toothpastes, soaps, lotions, and waters for hands, and treatments for the hair. To this should be added a sprinkling of recipes for food, of which sweets are the most prominent.


Perhaps from a slightly later period than the Arab collections  – the beginning of the 14th century – is an anonymous collection of recipes generally known as the “Libre de Sent Sovi”.

Much smaller in scope than the Arab collections, the Libre de Sent Sovi, offers no more than 72 recipes, of which the core may have comprised only 58. In the prologue we learn that the book records how the recipes are intended to explain how the dishes should be prepared by the squires or cooks working in the households of great lords and gentlemen. This book is characterised by the 20 initial rcipes which outline how to prepare different sauces. Next follows soups or stews, which must be eaten from bowls with spoons. The remaining recipes outline grilled, roasted, breaded, fried and poached recipes.

Written in Catalan and probably fifty to a hundred years later than the Arab manuscripts, the book of Sent Sovi offers recipes for a somewhat different tradition. First of all, it includes recipes for dishes with meat or lard from pigs. Also, it has substituted coriander with parsley as well as introduced a number of other herbs like marjoram, sage, basil, and oregano. There is also a new recipe for a sauce made of mushrooms. Finally, it mentions the use of hazelnuts as a supplement to the recipes involving almonds. It is obvious that although this cookbook builds upon and contains Arab-inspired recipes, it also reflects the lifestyle in the mountainous and forested north. There is also a recipe, which requires that the cook dissolves mustard in vinegar as in “the French style., witnessing to the fact that Catalonia was a cultural and linguistically defined region, which reached from modern day Southern France across the Pyrenees and to Valencia.

Although the Book of Sent Sovi seems to have circulated widely in the later Middle Ages only three manuscripts have been preserved. One now resides in the Biblioteca Històrica, at the University of Valencia, while the others are preserved in Barcelona under other titles, the Llibre de totes maneres de potages de menjar (the University Library in Barcelona) and the Llibre d’aparellar de menjar (Library of Catalonia).

The book of Sent Sovi is written in Catalan. Thus it may be understood as part of the distinct Catalan culture; as such it has been tentatively proposed to be listed by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural heritage of Humanity .The fact remains, however, that a number of the recipes in the Sent Sovi manuscripts can be found in a number of other – Spanish – manuscripts, witnessing to the wide dispersal of such recipes; often referred to as the result of “pilfering” and “manuscript promiscuity”.

Thus, the Llibre de Totes Maneres de Potages de menjar and Llibre de totes maneres de confits offers both the recipes from the Book of Sent Sovi, but also other medieval recipes deriving from the rest of Spain.

The Book of Sent Sovi was later included in the Llibre del Coch [5], which was published by Robert de Nola under a pseudonym in Barcelona in 1520. In 1525 this was translated into Spanish and published in Toledo. However, the text of this cooking book is probably older as it contains advice and recipes concerning the fasting during Lent, which was given up in 1491, suggesting that it was in fact a medieval collection of recipes. As it contains recipes derived from four different Mediterranean regions – Catalonia, Italy, France and the Arab world – it offers an introduction to differences between these different culinary traditions.

How to carve and serve food

Part of the introduction of the llibre del Coch is consumed with advice on how to carve out roasted meats and steaks as well as how to serve the dishes.

However, the tradition to give advice on these matters is older. Thus, one of the more fascinating manuals from the 14th century is the Arte Cisoria or the art of carving. This is not concerned with recipes but offer instead a manual on how to serve food. It was written by Enrique de Villena (1384 – 1434) at the request of the carver at royal court in Castile in 1423 [6]. In his book he describes how to serve thirty different fowls, 24 quadrupeds, 47 fish and shellfish, 3 reptiles, 22 types of fruit and 31 types of vegetables, herbs and spices. This is considered the first Spanish cookbook (outside the Catalan and Arab traditions). Although it does not contain recipes as such, its lists of medieval foodstuff opens up a window to the traditions governing food served at the Castilian court in the late 14th century. One of the major characteristics of this is the diversity: not only does the book describe how to carve up and serve dishes made of pheasants, partridges, oxen, buffalos, deer, and gazelles. Also listed are wild goats, camels and nutrias (river rats).

Even though this treatise does not offer recipes as such, it nevertheless discusses different regional and historical traditions as well as present numerous courses and servings. As such, it presents a grid inside which it is possible to understand the social landscape as it was performed at the Castilian and Aragonese courts [LINK] through the food served and consumed.


[1] The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Translated and Edited by Stephen Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof. Cambridge Universitt Press 2006

[2] Monserrat Cabré p. 378

[3] Joan, Mestre. Tròtula. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, 3356, fols 1 r-33v. See: From a Master to a laywoman: A feminine Manual of Self-help. By Montserrat Cabré. In: Dynamis. Acta. Hisp. Med. Sci. Hist. Illus. (2000), Vol 20. Pp. 371 – 393.

[4] Manual de Mugeres en el qual se contien muchas y diversas reçeutas muy buenas – the manual for woman in which is contained many, varied, and very good recipes.

[5] Llibre del coch. Full title: Llibre de doctrina per a ben servir, de tallar y del art de coch cs (ço es) de qualsevol manera, potatges y salses compost per lo diligent mestre Robert coch del Serenissimo senyor Don Ferrando Rey de Napols. Barcelona 1520. Digital version is available in the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

[6] Numerous editions of this work have been made available since the first printed edition in 1766. The latest is: Arte Cisoria. Ed. Russell V. Brown. Biblioteca Humanitas de textos inéditos, Vol 3. (Barcelona: editorial Humanitas 1984). This edition is based on the editor’s thesis from the University of Wisconsin 1974). There is a transcription available at the Biblioteca Virtual Universal, based on the edition from 1766.


Contributions of Medieval Food Manuals to Spain’s Culinary Heritage. By Carolyn A. Nadaeau
In: Cincinatti Romance Review (2012), Vol. 33, pp. 59 -77

Medieval Spain. By Rafael Chabrán. In: Regional Cuisines of medieval Europe. A Book of Essays. ed. by Melitta Weiss Adamson. Routledge 2002, pp. 125 – 152.



From: Vergel de señores, en el cual se muestran a hacer con mucha excelencia todas las conservas, electuarios, confituras, turrones y otras cosas de azúcar y miel – “Garden of men” in which is shown how to make excellent preserves, delicacies, comfits, nougat and other treats of sugar and honey.] Manuscript 1401 – 1500. With récipes for cooking, conserving, and pickling as well as for medicinal use. Biblioteca Nacional, MSS 8565. © Biblioteca Nacional de España.