Ask the Past

Pertinent and Impertinent Advice from Yesteryear


By Elizabeth P. Archibald

Read by Graeme Malcolm

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Want to know how to garden with lobsters? How to sober up? Grow a beard? Or simply how to make a perfect omelet? Look no further. Rather, look backward.

Based on the popular blog, Ask the Past is full of the wisdom of the ages–as well as the fad diets, zany pickup lines, and bacon Band-Aids of the ages. Drawn from centuries of antique texts by historian and bibliophile Elizabeth P. Archibald, Ask the Past offers a delightful array of advice both wise and weird.

Whether it’s eighteenth-century bedbug advice (sprinkle bed with gunpowder and let smolder), budget fashion tips of the Middle Ages (save on the clothes, splurge on the purse) or a sixteenth-century primer on seduction (hint: do no pass gas), Ask the Past is a wildly entertaining guide to life from the people who lived it first.


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Table of Contents


Copyright Page

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"Find a way to steal bees" was not on my to-do list, but sometimes the bee-stealing technique finds you. Seeking materials for a new seminar I was teaching at Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute on the history of how-to manuals, I found myself turning pages in the rare books collection at the George Peabody Library.

My investigations yielded some remarkable finds: locally printed nineteenth-century palmistry manuals, a vermin-destroying compendium authored by a royal ratcatcher, an 1884 book called How to Get Strong whose merits were advertised by the disembodied biceps on the book's spine. And nestled between techniques for salvaging tainted venison and drunk-proofing yourself by sipping salad oil, there it was: "How to steal bees." By then I knew that these instructions deserved a wider audience.

I began posting morsels of historical advice on a blog for the amusement of my friends and colleagues. Soon inquiries began to arrive from around the world. "Dear Past," they said. "How should I wash my hair?" "How can I remove a stain?" "What should I pack for my vacation?" (The answers, in no particular order: cured tongue, mushrooms, and lizards.1)

The advice contained in this book is a rowdy assortment, preserved in libraries, curated by whimsy. Yet the landscape of instruction that comes into view has some surprisingly clear features, and, as keeper of serendipitous advice, I want to outline them here. Most fundamentally, the fact that all of these suggestions survive in books means that authors thought they were worth recording and scribes or printers thought they were worth transmitting. Thus, for the historian, sixteenth-century advice about belching is valuable data about the history of civility, but also about the history of books and written instruction.

These texts also share certain goals. A how-to text is a kind of contract between author and reader. The author gives instructions, and the reader follows them. The author emerges from this contract with esteem and royalties, and the reader emerges with devastating abs, a cake in the shape of a wombat, and a flawlessly constructed IKEA dresser, or so goes the theory. This contract is implied in the preface to one collection of clever tips from 1579: the author promises readers that "their money is not lost," for they will save twenty times the book's price through its thrifty tips; as he puts it, "The paines and trauell hethertoo is mine:/the gaine and pleasure hence forth will be thine."2

How-to manuals offer possibility. They assure readers that overcoming a limitation of nature or society does not require divine intervention, inborn privilege, or years of practice—just a clever technique, and perhaps the gall of a weasel. Consider Antonius Arena's 1530 dance manual, which cautions that "the ladies… ridicule and make great sport of those who do not dance well and who do not know the steps, and say, 'Those people are yokels'… Kings, queens, counts and barons all dance themselves and command others to dance."3 Be honest: you are a yokel. But read on, and you will become suave and even "learn the dances in which you may bestow prolonged kisses."4

This is part of a long and helpful tradition of texts that aim to make you courteous, urbane, and civil—all of which mean, essentially, "not a yokel." (Curialitas is the attribute of someone at home in a curia, a court, and thus courteous; urbanitas is the quality of an urban dweller; and civilitas is associated with the civitas, or city.) Medieval texts like Daniel of Beccles's Urbanus magnus or Liber urbani (The Book of the Civilized Man) were already noting important principles of courtesy, such as not attacking an enemy who is squatting to defecate.

By the sixteenth century, courtesy advice was all around, aided by the rise in literacy and circulation of texts that came with the printing press. The great Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam composed his De civilitate morum puerilium (On Civility of Children's Manners) in 1530 on the brilliant premise that schoolboys could learn farting protocol and Latin from a single book.5 In Italy, where court culture flourished, Baldassare Castiglione's 1528 Il cortegiano (The Courtier) emerged as one of the most influential Italian literary texts; the dialogue explores qualities of the ideal courtier (for instance his tasteful clothing). And Giovanni della Casa's Galateo cautions that a badly told joke gives the impression that "someone very fat with an enormous butt is dancing and hopping about in a tight-fitting vest."6 Courtesy manuals (in particular those of Erasmus and Della Casa) were widely imitated, offering the promise of civility to a newly expanded reading public.

If such texts held out the possibility of self-fashioning—that is, of transforming from a yokel into a sophisticated and urbane courtier—another type of popular how-to manual promised to help fashion the world around you. The collections of "secrets of nature," "conceits," and "marvels" that captivated early modern European readers emerged from a much older tradition of arcane Hellenistic alchemical lore, although one would not guess it from their preoccupation with bedbug destruction and pranks involving meat. One of the earliest surviving European books of "secrets," attested from the ninth century but with a core of ancient material, includes techniques for coloring glass, hides, and ink; cleaning silver; and constructing a battering ram. One suspects "The Recipe for the Most Gold" was a selling point: "it will cause wonder," promises the text.7 Even if that wonder was only of the "I wonder where my Most Gold is" variety, a failed alchemist could keep reading and console himself by mixing up a nice batch of French soap or sesame candy.

Even more recent collections dressed themselves up with a little Eau de Antiquity. When medieval European scholars began to seek ancient scientific and medical knowledge in Arabic texts, Aristotle (known simply as "The Philosopher") was on the agenda. Hitching a ride among the Aristotelian works was an encyclopedic patchwork of Arabic political, medical, and astrological lore known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrār (Book of the Secret of Secrets, or Secretum secretorum in its Latin translation). Paradoxically but predictably, the top-secret secrets of "Aristotle" became a European best-seller, overshadowing Aristotle's actual works by a long shot. The practice of name-dropping The Philosopher in order to legitimize a text continued for centuries, as illustrated by the wildly popular 1684 sex manual known as Aristotle's Masterpiece or The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher. (One imagines the conversations: "What's that you're reading?" "Oh, just the works of Aristotle, the famous philosopher.")

Were medieval and early modern readers suspicious of the fact that the ancient philosophers peddled tips for tooth whitening and stain removal rather than transcendence and aurifaction? Undoubtedly—but the mundane orientation of these texts hardly detracted from their appeal. And as the printing industry developed, a new group of professionals—printers and professional writers—began to market books to the newly expanded reading public. Little pamphlets of everyday advice proliferated, like the Dificio di ricette, a 1525 collection of secrets assembled by an Italian printer who correctly assessed the reading public's desire to know how to grow a beard and burn candles underwater.

The mania for advice also promoted the success of "Alessio Piemontese" (often identified with the humanist Girolamo Ruscelli), whose book of secrets was first published in 1555.8 Less than fifty years later, it had seen seventy editions in eight languages. The preface reads a bit like an infomercial:

I have wandered and trauailed abroad in the world the space of xxvii yeares, to the intent to acquaint my self with al sortes of learned and discret men. By the which diligence and curiositie, I haue learned many goodly secretes, not alonely of men of great knowledge and profound learning, & noble men, but also of poore women artificers, peysantes, and al sortes of men.9

The promotion of "poore women artificers" as sources for secrets creates quite a different effect than name-dropping Aristotle for legitimacy, highlighting a general trend away from reliance on ancient authority and toward interest in experimentation. Collections of secrets often append the word Probatus ("tested" or "proven") to their techniques, or explain with a brief anecdote how effective they know the technique to be. ("I knewe a man that was marueilous grosse… that with this medicine tooke away his grosnes," says Thomas Lupton of a slim-fast regimen.10)

The popular appetite for secrets gave rise to a category of experimenters known as "professors of secrets," a title that evokes Hogwarts glamor but belies a reality of Counter-Reformation persecution. Among them was Giambattista della Porta, whose fascination with natural magic was not applauded by the Church. While his fascination with oddities of nature perhaps verged on the unhealthy, Della Porta's "natural magic" is more mundane than it sounds: growing a peach in the shape of a human head by slipping it inside a mold, for instance, counts as natural magic. (It also counts as creepy, in case you were wondering.)

Growing a face on a peach may not be the pinnacle of intellectual inquiry or experimental science, but it is a good illustration of the significance of "books of secrets" and the flourishing of how-to manuals in general. Just as courtesy manuals made the rules of courtly life available for anyone with access to their advice, books of secrets offered control over nature to any and all readers.

If the advice worked, that is. Did readers believe in the efficacy of remedies and techniques that appear highly doubtful to modern eyes? Consider, for instance, a 1581 method for walking on water. With two little plates attached to his feet, the walker is instructed to stride across the water "with a certaine boldnesse and lightnesse of the body." If the technique does not win your confidence, you are not alone: a snarky contemporary reader noted in the margin of one copy of the book that "if you do sink you shall be sure to doe soe upon the water."11

This little jibe might suggest that the manuals deliver less than they promise, but they also deliver more. How-to books do not simply outline the easiest path to a desired result. Some advice is really the occasion for a literary romp; this is the case for poetic extravaganzas like Ovid's Ars amatoria (although its smooth pickup moves—pretend to brush some dust off her garment!—might still play well). But even texts of humbler literary pretensions could serve purposes other than serious transmission of a toothpaste recipe. Authors of how-to manuals recognized the sometimes ridiculous conventions of their form and played with them: consider, for instance, a parody recipe included in a medieval cookbook promising "a good dish for somebody who likes to eat it" that includes pints of sweat, pebble grease, goldfinch heels, and flies' feet.12 Admittedly, historical distance makes it more difficult to distinguish between parody and sincerity when earwax is prescribed for eye problems and the gall of an eel is a typical ingredient. Still, how-to manuals contain a healthy dose of practical jokes (the notorious fart candle) and silly anecdotes ("to make a cat piss out a fire"), suggesting that they were as much pleasure reading as reference manual.

In that spirit, I offer you these pieces of instruction. Although I still expect you to try them all.

A Note about the Texts

The texts collected here were inspired by my own interests in medieval and early modern European education and the history of the book, and this has determined their chronological and geographical scope (from late antiquity through the early modern period, with a few diverting excursions beyond, and almost entirely European). The Past is, of course, much more expansive than what appears here, and I encourage all initiatives to Ask It.

By presenting the texts without a rigid chronological or topical structure, I am following the example of many of their sources. For one thing, it is difficult to assign material to a single time period when useful advice simply stayed around: Pliny the Elder proposed a garland of violets as a hangover remedy, and the recommendation still pops up now and again, probably to remain in circulation until the blessed day when mankind discovers a truly effective hangover cure. The excerpts here do not represent the first time their advice appeared in print (or in a manuscript), but they do represent a time when readers encountered it; by the same logic, the dates provided are those of the editions I consulted and not necessarily first editions (although their dates, along with information about translations, are provided in the notes).

The miscellaneous nature of the material, too, follows the example of its sources. A topical arrangement of material would be anachronistic, reflecting current divisions of knowledge rather than periods when music was a branch of math, say, and cookbooks told you how to condition your hair. And consider Thomas Lupton's A Thousand Notable Things (1579), which gathers ancient and recent lore on all subjects, offering it up in delightful disarray. In the space of a page, a reader can marvel at:

• a technique to heal a wound with sugar and a pat of butter

• a story about a child the author met in June 1577 who "dyd eate the woollen sleeues that were on her armes, besydes that she dyd eate a gloue"

• a remedy for baldness (mouse dung, burned wasps, hazelnuts, vinegar)

• a foolproof way to make frogs stop croaking with a candle

As justification for my own jumbled organization, I cannot improve on Lupton's own preface to his thousand notable things:

Perhappes you will meruell, that I haue not placed them in better order, and that thinges of like matter are not ioygned together. Truely there are so many of so diuerse and sundry sortes and contrary effectes, that it could not be altogether obserued. And in my iudgement through the straungenesse and varietie of matter, it will be more desirously and delightfully read: knowing we are made of such a moulde, that delicate Daintinesse delightes vs much: but we loathe to bee fed too long with one foode: And that long wandring in straunge, peasant and contrary places, will lesse wery vs, then short trauell in often troden ground.1

Happy wandring.

How to Impress Girls at a Dance


"Friend, when you are dancing, be careful not to belch, for if you belch then you will be a real pig. Furthermore never fart when you are dancing; grit your teeth and compel your arse to hold back the fart… Do not have a dripping nose and do not dribble at the mouth. No woman desires a man with rabies. And refrain from spitting before the maidens, because that makes one sick and even revolts the stomach. If you spit or blow your nose or sneeze, remember to turn your head away after the spasm; and remember not to wipe your nose with your fingers; do it properly with a white handkerchief. Do not eat either leeks or onions because they leave an unpleasant odour in the mouth."

Antonius Arena, Leges dansandi

The female heart is an enigma, but let's just say that rabies and intestinal gas aren't doing you any favors on the dance floor.

How to Kill Bedbugs


"Spread Gun-powder, beaten small, about the crevices of your bedstead; fire it with a match, and keep the smoak in; do this for an hour or more, and keep the room close several hours."

The Complete Vermin-Killer

Oh, you want to kill the bedbugs without reducing your bed to a smoking pile of debris? Clearly you have never had bedbugs.

How to Tell If Someone Is or Is Not Dead

c. 1380

"Moreover, if there is any doubt as to whether a person is or is not dead, apply lightly roasted onion to his nostrils, and if he be alive, he will immediately scratch his nose."

Johannes de Mirfield, Breviarium Bartholomei

Don't bother checking for a pulse—the onion reflex is the only reliable sign of life.

How to Treat Freshmen


"Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Beani [Freshmen]. Each and every one attached to this university is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at them with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever physically or severely, any, who are called beani, in the market, streets, courts, colleges and living houses, or any place whatsoever, and particularly in the present college, when they have entered in order to matriculate or are leaving after matriculation."

Leipzig University Statute

Note that duly injuring the freshmen is still an option.

How to Chat with a Woman

c. 1180s

"After greeting the lady, the man should allow a moment or two to elapse to permit the woman to speak first, should she so desire. If the woman herself starts the conversation, you will have good cause for satisfaction, assuming that you are not a fluent conversationalist, because her comment will give you plenty of topics for discussion… But if the woman delays too long before beginning to speak, you must after a short pause cleverly break into conversation. First make some casual observation with an amusing point, or praise her native region or her family or her person."

Andreas Capellanus, De amore

Man: Hello.

Woman: Hi.



Man: You're from Aquitaine, right? Aquitaine is so great.


Man: I like your tunic.


How to Sweet-Talk Your Lady, 1656, here.

How to Fart


"Some teach that a boy should keep in the gas of his belly by compressing his buttocks. But it is not civil to become ill while you are trying to seem polite. If it is possible to leave, let him do it alone, but if not, follow the ancient proverb: Hide the fart with a cough."

Desiderius Erasmus, De civilitate morum puerilium

Erasmus, Prince of Humanists: author of groundbreaking scholarship and incisive social criticism. Oh, and master of the ancient art of fart concealment.

How to Sit at the Table, 1530, here.

How to Attack an Enemy Ship


"When there is fighting, then it is good [to use] jars full of soap and to throw them onto the ship, at the enemies. When the jars break, the soap runs out all over the ship, the warriors slip and fall to the ground… Better than a jar full of soap is one full of hog's fat also called grease. If and when you wish to burn your enemy's ship, hurl there a jar of hog's fat. It works two ways: [men] on the ship cannot hold their feet steady; later, if you throw a small sack or tube full of powder, it burns the ship."

Mariano Taccola, De ingeneis

This technique will ensure that your naval battle has all the dignity and gravity of Jell-O wrestling.

How to Talk about Your Kids


"Those who are constantly talking about their children, their wives or their nursemaids, are equally at fault. 'Yesterday my boy made me laugh so much. Listen to this… You have never seen a more lovable son than my Momo…' No-one has so little to do that he has the time to answer or even to listen to such nonsense, and so it irritates everyone."

Giovanni della Casa, Il Galateo overo de' costumi

History teaches us many timeless and important lessons. Chief among them: no one wants to hear about Momo.

How to Look Good on a Budget

c. 1280


On Sale
May 5, 2015
Hachette Audio

Elizabeth P. Archibald

About the Author

Yale-educated historian Elizabeth P. Archibald is an instructor at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins. Her research focuses on the history of education from antiquity to the Renaissance, as well as the history of books. She launched the blog Ask the Past in 2013.

Learn more about this author