Wednesday, February 24, 2010

1658 English Almanac with Manuscript Recipes

George Wharton’s Calendarium Ecclesiasticum: or, A New Almanack after the Old Fashion (1658) is in many ways a typical seventeenth-century almanac, containing conventional information on meteorological phenomena, tidal activity, market dates, English history, and law terms. But there are many features of Wharton’s book, published from 1657-1660, which set it apart from other printed almanacs. Wharton omits the woodcut of the “zodiac man,” a feature of virtually every almanac published in England in the early modern period, instead incorporating a humoural interpretation of the human body into the calendars themselves. There are also large sections on religious festivals (“a summary account of the Festivals and Fasts, as well Jewish as Christian, with the original end of their institution”) and seventeenth-century English historical events (“Gesta Britannorum, or a Brief Chronologie...from the year 1600...untill the present 1658”).

Wharton himself was well known earlier in the century for his politically charged and Royalist-leaning prognostications and almanacs. He used the pages of his works to engage in fierce verbal exchanges with Parliamentary almanac writers such as William Lilly, especially concerning astrological predictions of battles during the Civil War. Wharton found himself in a lot of trouble with the authorities as a result of his politicized almanacs, especially after the execution of King Charles I in 1649. After brief periods of imprisonment in the late 1640s and early 1650s, Wharton finally agreed to omit political prognostications from his almanacs, although his “Gesta Britannorum” delivers a largely partisan view on seventeenth-century English history. He continued to publish almanacs into the Restoration, switching to the title Calendarium Carolinum after 1660.

Although Wharton’s almanac is an interesting example of the genre and a very rare book (the ESTC lists eight other copies), our copy is much more interesting for its unique manuscript content. It is now widely known that early modern book buyers could purchase almanacs either as printed or interleaved with “blanks,” i.e. blank pages of paper. Many almanac owners filled these blanks with writing, typically that associated with the activities of daily life. Therefore we see annotated almanacs filled with notes of local travel, household accounts, and even medicinal or culinary recipes.

A former owner of the Wharton almanac purchased the book interleaved with four blanks, in addition to an additional nine leaves at the end of the printed text. Written on these blanks in a large, italic hand (probably belonging to a woman) are dozens of recipes for a range of medicines, drinks, and food items. As is the case with many MS receipt books of this period, this MS compendia lists a recipe for ink first, underscoring the importance of writing technologies in producing the book’s handwritten notes. The remaining notes list recipes for a variety of concoctions, including medicines for pregnant women and equine illness, a “diett drink for scurvy,” and “Metheglean,” a “spiced or medicated variety of mead, esp. popular in Wales” (OED metheglin). Most of the recipes provide instructions for cooking a variety of food items, particularly cakes, creams, and “jumballs,” “a kind of fine sweet cake or biscuit” (OED jumbal). Here is a transcribed recipe for “shropsheer cake”:

Take a l [pound] of sugar: halfe an ounce of

sinnomen: 2 nutmegs a letle cloves &

mace: finly beaten: then break in 2

pounds & a halfe of butter: & 4 or 5

eggs: into your sugar & spice: & mixe

them with a gallon of flower: so mould

it together: as you doe, for past [paste?]: mak

it into letle round bals: waighing 3

ounces a pece so pating it into thin

cakes bake them

Not all of the recipes sound as appetizing as this one. While modern eaters may be able to stomach early modern recipes for pickled mushrooms and cucumbers, others containing ingredients such as “the spawn of toads” gathered “at the later end of February” and a recipe for preserving a side of venison for an entire year stretch even the most adventurous of modern palates.

Besides being an almanac and recipe collection, the book is also a wonderful example of early modern women’s writing. Further research into the almanac could reveal what (if any) recipes the annotator copied out of printed books. In a few cases, the writer identifies a particular individual with whom a recipe originated, suggesting the existence of a socialized textual network of local information exchange. In studying the social practices and quotidian uses underpinning an annotated almanac such as this, we can take a glimpse into the forgotten histories of average people in seventeenth-century England.

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