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Renaissance Goo

Renaissance Goo

A historian of the body and a soft matter scientist experiment with Renaissance personal care recipes

Radical goo

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I was talking about the Goo project to A Publisher the other day. It was one of those conversations that you wish you could revise and resubmit. They (understandably) wanted to know what kind of audience I’d expect for a book of renaissance skincare recipes that also taught the reader about the fundamentals of soft matter science. Isn’t making historical recipes the kind of thing parents get kids to do in a desperate bid to get them off their screens to do something more ‘educational’?

It was a good question. It’s hardly appropriate for kids to make skincare recipes, and soft matter science does not feature on the primary curriculum (at least under that moniker). Despite wishing I were more articulate, it was a useful discussion, that left me thinking about the word ‘goo’, its inherent childishness, and why this – in fact – is a good and important thing.

Goo can make us squeamish. It’s the nauseating ooze of bodily fluids – congealing blood, viscous snot, weeping sores. It can also make our mouths water – chocolate melting on the tongue, the stringy pleasure of mozzarella on a pizza, the comforting stodge of custard. Most of us voluntarily cover our bodies with goo on a daily basis – transforming shampoo or shower gel from viscous gloop to cleansing bubbles, smoothing conditioner into our hair to prevent frizz, calming our cleansed skin with moisturising lotion. It’s this last type of goo that our project focuses on. Everything I have mentioned here, though, falls under the purview of soft matter science , a relatively new intellectual field that brings together a range of disciplines to investigate (amongst other things) these not-quite-solid, not-quite-liquid substances. The study of flow, rheology, is central to the field. It’s all about stuff that moves, squishes, oozes, readily changes state.


I wish I’d have shared with The Publisher the sense of childish wonder I felt when, following a sixteenth-century recipe for hair conditioner, this unpromising mash of greens and roots that I’d dug up from my mother-in-law’s garden was transformed into a gummy gloop that – astoundingly – actually softened hair. I’d never thought of making my own conditioner before. I’d never really realised that conditioner, shampoo, moisturiser – all those humdrum substances – could be made in a domestic kitchen, let alone about how and why these substances work. It made me realise how distanced I’d been from the materiality of these hygiene products, how careless about their ingredients, how disengaged from the processes that transform them into the stuff I use in the shower.

This hands-on encounter with goo leads to questions – why do some materials have these properties? How do they work? Soft matter science can explain the reasons behind this kind of transformation, and also make things that flow move better in myriad commercial applications. The answers to these simple questions are (of course) sophisticated, related not just to the molecules that make up a substance, but how they form larger, repeating structures, how they fit and move together.

Renaissance drawing of woman preparing ingredients in pestle and mortar

Giovanni Manozzo, Woman at a window with pestle and mortr. Red and black chalk, c. 1621. Paris, Louvre, Département des arts graphiques, INV1296.

The lessons of goo have not just introduced me to an previously unknown field of science, but have brought me face to face with some historical assumptions I didn’t realise I had. It’s curious to acknowledge that Renaissance men and women possessed skills and insight largely foreign to me – the ability to recognise and evaluate raw ingredients from nature, the understanding of how to combine them to make basic hygiene products, perfumes, home remedies, that tactile experiential knowledge that seems so fugitive in our screen-dominated age. My intellectual development, such as it is, was forged in the 1990s crucible of  New Historicism and the Period Eye. The idea that the past was a foreign country whose language can be gleaned through careful juxtaposition of primary sources is profoundly undermined when you bodily re-enact a 500-year-old recipe. Those willow leaves, mallow, psyllium, boiled in water don’t care what year it is, they still respond by making gloop. The physics of the reaction that makes plants into conditioner is the same, ever reproducible. It’s not surprising that historical experimentation – recently brought together under the rubric of ‘RRR’  (reconstruction, replication and re-enactment) has been described as radical, disruptive of traditional disciplinary divisions and academic/lay hierarchies.

There are other things I’m learning too. Art history has always been a profoundly literary discipline, concerned with giving words to wordless things. I’m used to talking about images. But this turn in my intellectual path has suddenly made intriguing demands on my writing – how to describe the sensations of renaissance body scrub (fragrantly bracing?) or moisturiser (pine-scented and greasy?) or toothpaste (worryingly sweet and delicious!); how to pinpoint smells and taste; how to cross the writing divide between the arts and the sciences; how to hop over the fences of our respective fields?

We’ll be investigating these ideas, sticky issues and sore points more over the months of the project. I’ll probably return to my publisher when I’ve thought these things through better, and have a snappy sentence to sell the book to a clearly delineated audience (childishly curious adults?). In the meantime, if you’re intrigued about history, and science, and how to make mallow conditioner, do follow this blog to come along with us on our rather uncertain, perhaps radical, journey.


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