The Natural History of Serpents

In honour of World Snake Day (celebrated every July 16th) we take a look at an interesting natural history book in our collection: An Essay towards a Natural History of Serpents, by Charles Owen, published in 1742. [1]

Title page of Owen's book An Essay on the Natural History of Serpents

Owen was one of a number of clergymen in the 18th century who wrote books on natural history, which are strange mixture of fact and fable as much symbolic as scientific. He was not a scientist so he draws on classical, biblical and mythological sources for his information on ‘serpents’. These include not only snakes, but frogs, scorpions and spiders, as well as mythical creatures such as basilisks and dragons. His aim was not just to inform and entertain, but to share his belief that the natural world, as created by God, had moral qualities, which could guide people as to how to live their lives.

So how useful today is Owen’s book to anyone looking for scientific information on reptiles? Trinity Hall student Alex Howard, who is writing her PhD on snakes takes a closer look!

Woman holding a snake in her hand
Alex with her snake, Ada

Snakes: Fact or fiction

Although almost 280 years have passed since the publication of this book, and our knowledge of the natural world has increased considerably since then, there are some great passages that show an 18th Century view on one of the world’s most enigmatic reptiles.

The Adder

The first passage that caught my eye was a section referring to one of the UK’s native species, the only venomous snake found in Great Britain. The European adder, Vipera berus, is a small, secretive viper that is usually found in heathlands and woods. While the bite can be painful, the venom this animal produces is not dangerous to most humans. Preferring instead to hunt lizards and small mammals, adders can grow to a length of 80cm and live up to 15 years.

A viper next to an engraving from the book of a viper
The Adder

The passage in Owen’s book makes mention of the striking orange eyes of this species:

The Viper or Adder, a subtle and poisonous Creature, slender in Body, about a Foot and a half long, with fiery and flaming Eyes.” p. 51

Owen also notes the presence of the incredible way that Adders reproduce. While many snakes lay eggs from which the babies hatch (known as being oviparous) and mammals give live birth (known as being viviparous), the Adder incubates it’s young internally. These offspring are still technically within separate ‘eggs’, although the shell is reduced to just a membrane that the babies break out with after being born. This process is known as being ovoviviparous and Owen notes as follows:

Snakes lay their Eggs, twenty, thirty, fifty, and a hundred sometimes, in one Nest […] whereas Vipers make use of their own Matrix, and bring forth live Vipers: Their young ones come forth wrapt in thin Skins, which break on the third day, and set the little venemous Creatures at liberty, therefore rank’d among the viviparous Animals.” p. 52


A blindsnake
A blindsnake

Another section that brought me particular joy is one that mentions a group of snakes that take the focus of a part of my PhD, the blindsnakes. These snakes, the scientific name for which are Scolecophidia (which literally translates to worm snake, another common name for this species), are found primarily underground, where they hunt the larvae of social insects such as ants and termites. When most people come across one of these, they usually consider it to be a particularly large worm, unless they see the characteristic forked snake tongue.

Owen remarks on their incredibly small eyes that give them their ‘blind’ moniker:

“The Caecilia or Typhlinus, the blind Worm, as the Greek word imports; not that it wants Eyes, but because they are so little, that he must be furnish’d with good Optics that can discern them.” p. 80

He also notes the presence of viviparity:

“Conradus Gefner tells us, his Wife struct one of these Serpents on the Head, when ‘twas pregnant, and it immediately cast forth its young”.

I find it interesting that he refers to blindsnakes also as “The Caecilian Serpent”. Caecilians as described today are a group of legless amphibians that also spend the majority of their lives underground. Superficially they are very similar to blindsnakes, so it is likely that these two groups of animals were often confused with one another.

Text from page 80 of Owen's book
Owen on the blindsnake, p. 80


Two engraved drawings of dragons, one with legs and the other with a body like a snake
Two dragons

Finally, it appears that also included in the 18th Century categorization of snakes, were the mythical dragons. There is a surprising amount of biological information for these animals, given that they don’t exist:

“Among Serpents, Authors place Dragons; Creatures terrible and fierce in Aspect and Nature. They are divided into Apodes and Pedates, some with Feet, and some without them…” .

“Some have observed, that about the Ganges, are Dragons whose Eyes sparkle like precious stones”.

“Dragons are Inhabitants of Africa and Asia; those of India exceed most in Largeness and Longitude: In the Tower of London, is the Skin of one, which is of vast Bulk”. p. 74

While dragons don’t exist, it is possible that these reports are sightings of the large snakes that inhabit these areas. Burmese pythons and reticulated pythons are found across South East Asia, and African rock pythons in Africa. These species are the giants of the snake world, with reticulated pythons reaching over seven and a half metres.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down snake history as much as I did. I’ll leave you with a quote from Charles Owen:

“The Knowledge of mere Animals (who have no School for Arts and Sciences) is most surprising; these, without visible Instructors, know how to perpetuate their Species to the End of the World.” p. 4

"The knowledge of mere animals (who have no school for arts and sciences) is most surprising"
How do snakes know things without going to school?!


 [1] Owen, Charles, An Essay towards a Natural History of Serpents : In Two Parts : I. The First Exhibits a General View of Serpents, in Their Various Aspects; … II. The Second Gives a View of Most Serpents That Are Known in the Several Parts of the World; … III. To Which Is Added a Third Part; Containing Six Dissertations … : The Whole Intermix’d with Variety of Entertaining Digressions, Philosophical and Historical. London: Printed for the Author, Sold by John Gray, at the Cross-Keys in the Poultry, near Cheapside, 1742. Online at:

Plum porridge anyone? Christmas recipes from the past

Frans Snyders – Cook with Food. Wikimedia Commons

Food is an important part of Christmas festivities and many of our present day gastronomic traditions have their origins in centuries old recipes. These recipes were shared by word-of-mouth or passed down in private notes or journals, but from the 17th century the first printed cook books began to appear. These provide a fascinating insight into past traditions and how culinary tastes have changed over time.  At Trinity Hall we have two cook books in our collection, which were both best-sellers that revolutionised cooking in the 17th and 18th centuries. This post will look at some of the festive treats contained within them.

The French Cook

One of the most important cook books of the 17th century was The French Cook,  first published in Paris in 1651 [1]. It was written by François Pierre de la Varenne (c1615–1678)  chef to the Marquis d’Uxelles, so as such, he was tasked with producing food to impress the crème de la crème of  French society.

La Varenne’s cook book was intended for a professional audience rather than home cooks as he says in his preface it was written for: “my fellows in the profession… of whom some, lacking experience or a ready memory, are unwilling or too timid to become involved in learning what they do not know…”The French Cook was a best-seller and enormously influential across Europe.  In 1652, a year after its first publication, it became the first French cook book to be translated into English by “IDG”. [2] It was to influence cookery across Europe, leading to a move away from highly spiced sweet and sour dishes towards a more natural savoury cuisine.

The recipes in La Varenne’s book do not contain any detailed instructions or helpful measurements for the cook. The modern reader would find many of the dishes suitable for a food trial on the television show I’m a Celebrity, in particular cow udder, pottage of tortoise, head of wild boar, and ‘calfes feet fried’.

Of the more palatable recipes is the familiar festive favourite turkey, which was a popular meat for Christmas in France as early as the 16th century. The French Cook contains a basic recipe for roast turkey: “It must likewise be plumed dry, whiten it on the fire, rost it, and serve.” For the more adventurous chef there is also a more avant garde recipe for turkey with raspberries, which you could imagine in the cookery books of celebrity chefs today:

Turkie with Raspis

When it is dressed, take up the brisket, and take out the flesh, which you shall mince with suet and some little of Veal-flesh, which you shall mix together with yolks of Eggs & young Pigeons, & all being well seasoned, you shall fill your Turkie with it, and shall season it with Salt, Peper, beaten Cloves and Capers, then you shall spit it, and turn it very softly; When it is almost rosted, take it up, and put it into an Earthen pan with good Broath, Mushrums, and a bundle of Herbs, which you shall make with Parsley, thime, and Chibols tied together; for to thicken the sauce, take a little Lard sliced, pass it in the pan, and when it is melted, take it out, and mix a little flower with it, which you shall make very brown, and shall allay it with a little Broath and some Vinegar; then put it into your Earthen pan with some Lemon-juice, and serve.

If it be in the Raspis season, you shall put a handfull of them over it, if not, some Pomgranate.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

At the start of the 18th century the French courtly way of cooking still predominated in refined households. Cook books were usually written by male chefs who offered complicated recipes, designed for professional cooks and without any detailed or practical instructions.

In Georgian England the aspiring home cook’s prayers would be answered by the Delia Smith of the day, with the publication of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by ‘A lady’. [3]. This cook book, first published in 1747, was in fact, written by Hannah Glasse (1708–1770). When her husband got into financial difficulties, she wrote the book as a means of raising money to support the family. The recipes were extensively ‘borrowed’ from earlier books by other writers.

Glasse’s book became the most popular cook book of its time going through twenty editions in the 18th century. A key reason for its popularity was that it was intended for the everyday cook and so it contained simple, detailed instructions on how to make dishes. In the introduction she states: “I believe I have attempted a Branch of Cookery which Nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon”. Glasse was a severe critic of the French influence of British cuisine, although she does include simpler versions of French recipes in her cook book.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy contains several recipes for Christmas favourites including mince pies. Although unlike the modern version, they include meat (usually mutton, beef or pork) as an ingredient. Glasse’s recipe contains neat’s (beef) tongue, sirloin of beef and three pounds of suet; along with sugar, the spice mace, cloves, and nutmeg, currants, raisins, apples, brandy, red wine and lemon juice.

These were used to produce a single large pie, which must have been substantial enough to serve many people at once. The idea of sweet, spiced minced beef sounds quite unpalatable to modern tastes, but it was not until the late Victorian period that mince pies became meat-free. It appears that they weren’t just eaten at Christmas either there is also a recipe for Lent mince pies (chopped eggs replaces the meat).

If this hasn’t whetted your appetite, consider her recipe for ‘Plumb porridge for Christmas’. This delicious gem contains a whole leg and shin of beef, which was boiled into a stock, thickened with bread, spiced, and mixed with dried currants and raisins, plums, sugar and wine. The quantities of meat and dried fruit are enormous!

Although families were generally much larger in Georgian times, it is evident that this recipe would have produced a vast quantity of porridge that would last for weeks. It could be prepared ahead of Christmas, and then perhaps heated up in smaller amounts to give to guests during social visits.

By the end of the 18th century the tradition of eating plum porridge had vanished. If you are inspired to make this dish yourself or are wondering whether it tasted as revolting as it sounds, you can read about Allegra McEvedy’s attempt to recreate it using a recipe from Martha Bradley’s 1756 cook book The British Housewife, or the Cook’s, Housekeeper’s and Gardiner’s Companion. [4]

Inscriptions inside the book show that our copy had two women former owners: Sarah Ann Parsons who owned it in 1841 and Mrs S. Wal[she?], 1850. It is in rather poor condition, and there is some staining to indicate that it was used for cooking. Although strangely not on the pages of these festive recipes. Personally, I will be sticking with my usual nut roast this year.

Jenni Lecky-Thompson


[1] La Varenne, François Pierre De, Le Cuisinier François Paris, 1651.

[2] La Varenne, François Pierre De, The French cook: Prescribing the way of making ready of all sorts of meats, fish and flesh, with the proper sauces, either to procure appetite, or to advance the power of digestion. Also the preparation of all herbs and fruits, so as their naturall crudities are by art opposed; with the whole skil of pastry-work. Together with a treatise of conserves, both dry and liquid, a la mode de France. With an alphabeticall table explaining the hard words, and other usefull tables. / Written in French by Monsieur De La Varenne, clerk of the kitchin to the Lord Marquesse of Uxelles, and now Englished by I.D.G. London: Printed for Charls Adams, and Are to Be Sold at His Shop, at the Sign of the Talbot Neere St. Dunstans Church in Fleetstreet, 1653. Trinity Hall   Strangman Collection   641.59 VAR.  Available online at

[3] Glasse, Hannah, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. The eighth ed., Printed for A. Millar, J. and R. Tonson, W. Strahan, T. Caslon, B. Law, and A. Hamilton, 1763. Available online at:

[4] McEvedy, Allegra and Martha Bradley, ‘How about Christmas ‘plumb porridge’?’ The Guardian Tue 15 Dec 2009. Accessed 11/12/20 at:

Lessons in law from the 18th century to today

There is in the Old Library of Trinity Hall a manuscript (Trinity Hall, Ms. 48) dating from the eighteenth century which has advice about studying law.  Books about how to study law are a well-established feature of modern legal educational literature.  With Glanville Williams (whose landmark Learning the Law (1945) is due in 2020 to go into its 17th edition), Cambridge has played its part in this, as has Trinity Hall in the development of legal education over the centuries, not least by initiating nineteenth-century reforms to test the fruits of legal study which became the modern Law Tripos.  The presence of a manuscript at Trinity Hall on how to study law is, therefore, not surprising.  The directions in it were written by Sir Thomas Reeve [1], when he was Lord Chief Justice (1736-7), for his nephew, who is not named in the manuscript.


Sir Thomas Reeve, in a portrait by Jacopo Amigoni

The Reeve directions were valued by his near contemporaries – the great Sir William Blackstone acknowledged how he was inspired by them; they were used by Josiah Quincy, the celebrated American lawyer, in 1763; and English lawyer, Francis Hargrave printed an edition of them in 1792.  However, we do not know who transcribed them in Trinity Hall’s manuscript, nor precisely when this was done.  The nephew for whom Reeve wrote the directions was either Edward Place or Thomas Reeve, both of whom were admitted to the Middle Temple in 1730 and 1740 respectively.

The Reeve directions [2] are in the form of numerous principles, for example:

(1) Do not rely blindly on secondary literature as authority for legal propositions

(2) Observe the latitude or restrictions implicit in legal terms

(3) Draw on the experience of practitioners

(4) Use the latest editions of law books

(5) Be attentive to detail, ‘sentence by sentence’, reading a text more than once

(6) Use statutes and cases for the proof of an opinion which alone is not authority

(7) Ensure commentators ‘quote very fair’

(8) Learn the general reasons on which the law is founded

(9) Regulate your study; and

(10) Make notes ‘your own’ and render things noted easy for the memory.

Page from MS 48

MS 48 fol 25

Reeve also sets out recommended reading – the sixteen works he cites include, from his own lifetime, Matthew Hale, History of the Common Law (1713), William Salkeld, Reports of Cases in the Court of King’s Bench (1718), Thomas Wood, An Institute of the Laws of England (1720); and, from an earlier age, Thomas Littleton, Tenures (1481), Christopher St. German, Dialogue Between a Doctor of Divinity and a Student of the Common Law (1528-31), and Edward Coke, Institutes of the Laws of England (1628-1644).

The Reeve principles for the study of law are still worthy of consideration today.  Dr Rachel Clement Tolley, law Fellow at Trinity Hall, says: ‘Many of the Reeve directions echo the advice I give my undergraduate students today: provide authority for propositions of law, but make sure you reference cases and statutes, rather than the textbook…However, whilst I advise my students to be attentive to detail, the modern law student certainly does not have time to read everything “sentence by sentence” and “more than once”! Today’s students must learn which texts to read carefully and repeatedly, and which texts to skim read, picking out only one or two key points’. And: ‘The Reeve instructions are also notable for what they omit. I expect my students to adopt a critical distance from the law as it stands and evaluate those aspects of the law which might be described as deficient, in some way’.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales 2013-17, and a Trinity Hall alumnus, also recognises the value of Reeve’s advice, including ‘finding the time to read and read again important passages in seminal texts and cases’ and ‘never relying blindly on secondary sources’ – but he also recommends ‘a critical approach to established law and opinions on that law’, studying ‘other contemporary systems of law’, understanding ‘the digital revolution, its effect on the law and the way in which existing principles of black letter law can be developed to underpin it’, and having ‘a grounding in the application of ‘the rule of law and in ethics’.

A fuller study of the Trinity Hall manuscript, also placing it in its wider historical context, is to be printed for use in the Library in 2020.

This is a guest post by Professor Norman Doe, Cardiff University.


[1] Baker, J.H. ‘Reeve, Sir Thomas (1672/3–1737)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online:

[2] Trinity Hall,  MS 48 fols. 25-28.

“Exiled infamous creature:” The Case of Philip Nichols


THHR/2/4/3/81 Letter of Philip Nichols to Sir Nathaniel Lloyd, Oct 1731

On August 4th 1731, Philip Nichols was expelled from the fellowship of Trinity Hall. What was his crime, you ask? He was found guilty of stealing books not only from Trinity Hall, but also from the University Library, St John’s, and Trinity College. His treachery was discovered after the Librarian of St John’s College began to realise certain books were missing from his library.

In January 1730/1, the St John’s College Governing Body ordered the lock on their library door to be changed and entrusted one of their fellows, James Tunstall, with the task of hunting down the missing books. Tunstall enlisted William Thurlbourn, a local bookseller who also noticed there were books missing from his shop. Together they made inquiries with London booksellers, watched out for books going up for sale, and looked through past issues of the Daily Post which advertised notices of book sales. Eventually Thurlbourn found an advertisement for a sale in November 1730 of 5 books that matched books missing from St John’s. Nichols made the mistake of giving his real name to the book agent, so when Thurlbourn found the book agent, he was easily able to trace the thefts back to Nichols. On June 14th Thurlbourn confronted Nichols. At first Nichols denied stealing the books, instead saying they were given to him by someone. When Thurlbourn pressed him further, he finally confessed.

Philip Nichols was educated at the ‘other place.’ He matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford in 1715 at the age of 16 and got his MA in 1722. He was made a fellow of Trinity Hall in 1723, but he was not elected a fellow in the normal way. He was nominated by the Master, Sir Nathaniel Lloyd, who exercised the right of devolution (which was the right of the master to make someone a fellow without the approval of the fellows). After Nichols was found out, Lloyd stated in a letter that Nichols came highly recommended by Dr Irish, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, but that “from the very minute [he] first saw him [he] said [he] did not like his look.”[1] Appointing Nichols was a decision he would bitterly regret.

Nichols keys

THGB/4/1/8/2/1: Affidavit of Samuel Hadderton, clerk, Fellow of Trinity College, and Keeper of the University Library, Aug 1731

How he stole the books

When Nichols’ room was searched, in addition to a number of books, they also found fourteen keys of various sizes, a pair of pincers, four screws, and a steel file. He used a variety of methods to obtain the books. In some cases he broke into the libraries using the aforementioned tools and in others he used keys that he had copied. One of the College’s cooks testified that Nichols would come to him asking for paste, which he then used to make impressions of the keys. In his letter of apology to the Master of St John’s, he states that he got into the St John’s library using a key he had found and entered the library under the cover of night. One of the keys found in his room did fit the old lock of the St John’s Library.

Some books weren’t even technically stolen because he had legitimately checked them out. Another one of the keys found in his room fit into the University Librarian’s desk, where the notes on borrowed books were kept. It was suggested that instead of stealing books from the University Library, Nichols had borrowed the books normally and then used his key to remove the borrowing records from the Librarian’s desk.


Why he stole the books

It would appear that Nichols had been living a dissolute life for years before he began stealing books. His profligate lifestyle was well known to his peers at Trinity Hall. Nathaniel Lloyd was ashamed of his behavior and he “long blushed for him.”[1] Lloyd gently admonished him, but Nichols lamented:

“happy had it been for [him] if [he] had then taken the right method, and had put on courage – honestly to confess [his] shame; possibly [he] might then have stopt there, and so have escaped the great load of guilt arising from the several Robberies, wch [he] afterwards most wickedly committed.”[2]

The best explanation for how he came to be in such a desperate situation comes from a letter he wrote to Dr Chetwode in October 19th 1731:

“Tis hard & to you I am sure it wd be tedious to tell by wt insensible degrees I arriv’d to such a height of villany as I did, you are no stranger to the scandalous debauch’d life I had led for some years before, indeed I had extricated my self from that affair & my debts were not so great but that I might have retrieved my self by honest means, but the silly shame of poverty it was that was the cause of my ruin, & push’d me on to all the robberies I afterward committed.”[3]

Once he was found out, he did not linger long. Instead of appearing before the Master of St John’s to beg for forgiveness and plead his case to the Governing Body of Trinity Hall, he first fled to Holland and then to another undisclosed location.

Nicols expulsion

THGB/4/1/8/4: Order of Expulsion of Philip Nichols, Aug 1731

His expulsion from college

Two days after Thurlbourn met with Nichols, the fellows of Trinity Hall and the other librarians involved gathered evidence. By the end of the day, there was little doubt of his guilt. The following day, William Warren, a fellow of the College, wrote a letter to Lloyd describing the situation. On June 22nd, the fellows issued a formal summons to Nichols to attend a meeting of the Governing Body on July 7th to make a case for himself. The citation stated they would proceed even if he did not show up. The citation was repeated two more times, with the last meeting being held on August 3rd. In the final meeting, the witnesses swore to their depositions before the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the evidence was recorded in the presence of a Notary Public. On August 4th, the official expulsion ceremony was performed.

The ceremony of expulsion was quite elaborate. All of the fellows and scholars gathered in the hall and the Master sat at the high table. The bell was tolled and the Master asked each fellow what ought to be done. They all said Nichols should be expelled. The sentence of expulsion was written in Latin and sealed with the College’s seal. Then a card, pasted on the table with Nichols’ name written on it, was to be cut off the table by the College Butler. Apparently this was quite a difficult task, and the Butler wasn’t able to remove the card from the table. Had the card been removed, it would have then been kicked out of the hall. The sentence was also put on the College gates for everyone to see. In addition, Nichols was expelled from the University and deprived of all his degrees.

Although this case was quite the scandal at the time, Trinity Hall and, arguably, the University Library benefited far more than they suffered from the incident. Nathaniel Lloyd felt so guilty about appointing Nichols that he swore to never use the right of devolution again and he gave a considerable amount of money to the College to make amends. That money was used to do substantial building work that transformed the College into what it looks like today. At the University Library, the incident spurred on much needed reform to their borrowing practices. Before, borrowers were not compelled to return their books and could keep them for years at a time. One book found in Nichols’ room had been borrowed seven years before.

Nichols did make his way back to England eventually. He moved to London and began writing for the Biographia Britannica in 1752. In 1763 he was embroiled in another controversy regarding the publication of Bishop Warburton’s letters, and he openly admitted his scandalous past. Nothing else is known about Philip Nichols, the “poor penitent thief.”

[1] Letter from Nathaniel Lloyd to Dr William Warren, June 19th 1731, THHR/2/4/3, p. 70c.

[2] Letter from Nathaniel Lloyd to Dr William Warren, June 19th 1731, THHR/2/4/3, p. 70c.

[3] Letter from Philip Nichols to Nathaniel Lloyd, October 17th 1731, THHR/2/4/3, p. 81.

[4] Letter from Philip Nicholls to Dr Chetwode, October 19th1731, THHR/2/4/3, p. 79b.


Chadwick, Owen. “The Case of Philip Nichols.” The Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 1, no. 5 (1953): pp. 422-431.

Miscellaneous Documents, THHR/2/4/3. Trinity Hall Archive, Cambridge.

Trinity Hall v. Philip Nichols, THGB/4/1/8. Trinity Hall Archive, Cambridge.