Every year, the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) holds a virtual Transcribathon event. This year, I finally took the plunge and joined EMROC’s army of transcribers. Some participants, like me, took part from the comfort of our kitchen tables. Others joined pods of transcribers on college campuses, working from classrooms or common rooms. I enjoyed the freedom of transcribing in my pajamas, with a bowl of matcha beside me, but I envied the camaraderie of those little pods. For me, transcribing solo from my kitchen table, the Transcribathon ended up feeling like just another work day, except on this day, instead of transcribing Italian medieval or Renaissance documents, I was transcribing a 17th-century English one. If I participate in next year’s Transcribathon, I will try to either join or organize a pod of transcribers, and we’ll transcribe together, and then break for coffee and cake.
For the 2022 Transcribathon, I worked on two very different documents: a page from a collection of medical receipts and prescriptions (c. 1650, Royal College of Physicians, London, MS 502), and a page from Mary Hawker’s recipe book (c. 1691, Wellcome Collection, London, MS.9304). Maybe it was because I spent so much time deciphering mercantesca script, or maybe it was just easier for me to decipher English than Italian, the handwriting in these 17th-century manuscripts felt relatively easy to read. The cursive hand that Hawker used is not too different from the cursive that I learned as a child. Hawker’s recipes were short and concise, her language lively and precise. This was the recipe she gave to make scotch collops (a dish that was also served at George Washington’s table):
It is instantly recognizable as a veal schnitzel (or scallopine) recipe, and in Austria and southern Germany, you can order it with similar sauces (or gravies) and garnishes. I think I’ve had all of her variants except the one garnished with meatballs and sausages. Add some marsala to the mushroom gravy and you have Veal Marsala.
If Mary Hawker’s Veal Collops telescoped time, bringing the past very close, the “Ginger Breade” recipe in the Royal College of Physicians recipe book, MS502, made the past feel quite foreign.
The recipe for gingerbread begins, “Take some good Manchett…”
“Manchett” is not a word in my vocabulary. At first I thought I misread the letters. Could it be something else? But no, it was indeed “manchett.”
Sometimes, when I stumble on a word in my transcriptions, I simply note it in my draft, and move on, trusting that the sense will become clear when I have more of the context at hand. So I pressed on. As the recipe took shape, I began to understand.
To make ginger breadeFrom A collection of medical receipts and prescriptions, MS502, Handwritten recipe book from the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, London.
Take some good manchett and grate and sifte itt and to 3 load of Crums take 2 load pint 1/4 of sugar putt ye Suger into a pann with soe much Rosewater as will dissolve itt, then boyle itt upp and scum itt, then a lay a little on your finger, and iff itt drawe betweene your finger and your thumbe itt is enough, then take itt off from your fire, and stirre your Crumbs in as fast as you can, and work itt very well with a slice together, then take 1/2 ounce of your powder of Sanders finely searced, and mixe itt well with 3 or 4 spoonfull of Rosewater, warme itt, and mixe itt well with ye paste and lay itt on a cleane Table and worke into itt ye powders of pure liquorice Ginger Anisseeds of each 2 ounce and of Cinnamon 1 ounce all finely [s?]earced and wellmixed together, iff your paste bee too thicke putt in a little Rosewater and Orangeflowerwater, you should strew on ye Table and ye print some powdered licquorice and Ginger mixt together, Roll itt and print itt and Lag itt on papers, and sett itt in a Roome where fire is for 3 dayes. Iff you would make Almond Ginger breade then adde to ye quantity of this before sett downe, 1 [??unclear??] of Almonds blancht and beaten fine with Rose or Orange flower Water and mixe them well with ye other things.
This is not a recipe for gingerbread as we know it–the gingerbread of gingerbread houses or gingerbread men. It is more like a confection, or candy, than a modern-day cake, with breadcrumbs for body and a sugar syrup for the binder. As Joyce White noted in her history of gingerbread, “Early English gingerbreads were essentially a mixture of boiled honey, breadcrumbs (hence the name ‘gingerBREAD’), ginger (and often other spices), and sometimes red sanders (ground sandalwood chips) added for color.”
The writer of our recipe recommended that we use crumbs of manchett bread. Manchett, sometimes spelled “manchet,” is a type of bread leavened with the yeast from beer barm (also known as beer mash), a byproduct of the beer-making process. Manchett, made with white flour, is described as a light and sweet bread, properties rendering it suitable for making cake. The cake can be enriched with blanched and ground almonds, which would make it taste like a highly-spiced relative of a modern Spanish marzipan loaf.
In our recipe, the crumbs are bound with a sugar syrup (perfumed with rosewater), and flavored with a rich and fragrant mix of spices (our recipe includes Sanders in a spice mix that has some familiar ones like ginger, cinnamon, and anise, and some unfamiliar ones, such as liquorice) and rose- and orange-flower waters. The dough (really more like a paste or maybe a moist graham cracker crust) is rolled flat and then ‘printed’ with a mold that imprinted the dough with a decorative design.
“Hornbook mould ,” Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions, accessed November 21, 2022, https://exhibitions.library.columbia.edu/exhibits/show/jewels/item/162.
These gingerbreads, lavish in their use of sugar, spices, and aromatics like rosewater and orange-flower water, display the influence of Islamic cuisines. In his essay on the influence of medieval Islamic cuisine on medieval English cookery, Stephen Schmidt noted, “In the medieval Islamic world sugar was not only a food but also the most potent and most used drug in the Islamic formulary. Thus many conceits that we today would define as confections or preserves were drugs or something close to drugs—we might call them nutraceuticals—in the medieval Islamic world. These conceits entered the Christian West through Arabic-language drug formularies and health handbooks (essentially herbals or books of simples) that were translated in Spain and Sicily. In the West, these conceits straddled the same odd conceptual fence that they did in the East, being both prescribed by physicians as well as eaten, particularly after meals, when they were believed to speed the digestion.” This helps explain why a recipe for gingerbread appears in a collection of “medical receipts” or medical recipes.
These gingerbreads would have been served as part of a banquet’s “voidee” course. They may have accompanied sweet wines, as suggested in these still-life paintings by Clara Peeters.
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers, a Silver-gilt Goblet, Dried Fruit, Sweetmeats, Bread sticks, Wine and a Pewter Pitcher, 1611. Collection of the Prado Museum, Madrid.
Clara Peeters, A glass of red wine, a sprig of rosemary, and sweetmeats on a pewter platter (also known as Allegory of Marriage), c. 1607. Current whereabouts unknown.
On further reflection, perhaps my present is not so distant from that of the writer of this 17th-century gingerbread recipe. When the days get shorter and the weather turns cold, I, too, turn to the ‘warming’ spices. Last night, for dessert, I served ginger molasses cookies with salted caramel ice cream. It might not have been “medicine,” but it made us feel briefly like all was right in the world.
1. Here is a modernized recipe for almond ginger bread. Her results really look like marzipan – not the type of marzipan sold in shelf-stable form at your local grocer, but more like Mazapán de Toledo (without the toasted brown tops).
2. The British Library has a 15th-century recipe for gingerbread that uses saffron, cinnamon, and pepper (but no ginger!), and also includes sanders for red coloring. Today, we think of spice mixtures featuring notes of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, as “warming” or “winter” spices. The concept is a holdover from medieval theories of health and medicine, which held that certain combinations of spices should be consumed in winter to help balance the body’s humors.
3. Gingerbread molds came in a variety of forms (like this fifteenth-century mold featuring an erotic image of lovers, in the collection of the Walters Art Museum!). My favorite description of a gingerbread mold, from an essay on gingerbread by Karen Cottingham: “Gingerbread hornbooks were very popular because when the student learned a letter, he was allowed to eat it as a reward. Not surprisingly, this was a very effective and pleasant method of instruction, as captured later in Matthew Prior’s charming poem, Alma (Canto II), from 1718:
To Master John the English Maid
A Horn Book gives of Ginger-Bread:
And that the Child may learn the Better,
As he can name, he eats the Letter;
Proceeding thus with Vast Delight,
He spells, and gnaws from Left to Right.”
4. For an interesting meditation on the influence of the cuisines of the Islamic lands on medieval Western cooking, see Stephen Schmidt’s essay, “Medieval Islamic Cooking: When the West First Tasted the Cuisines of the East.” Rachel Lauden’s Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History provides a concise overview of this history, and is also a good introduction to the recent historiography on this topic.
5. Schmidt writes, “Recipes for some of these nutraceuticals, including quince paste, fruits in sugar syrups, halva (made with starch or nuts, not sesame seeds), and marzipan (in Italian manuscripts), can be found in medieval European manuscripts primarily given over to food recipes. Most, though, are outlined in medical recipe books, including sugar work (fondant, taffy, and hard candy), gingerbread (nothing like today’s gingerbread), gum paste, dragées, candied citrus peel, and crystallized flower petals and herb leaves.”
6. “A favorite banqueting stuff “used at the Court and in all Gentlemen’s houses at festival times,” as Hugh Plat wrote in Delights for Ladies, his banqueting cookbook of 1609, was gingerbread. The common sort, called colored gingerbread (because it was typically tinted rusty-red with ground sandalwood), was made by boiling bread crumbs, wine or ale, sugar and/or honey, and an enormous quantity of diverse spices into a thick paste, which was then printed in elaborate molds and dried to a chalky-chewy consistency. Colored gingerbread originated as a medicine, and it tastes like one: its spicing is almost caustic. In the late seventeenth century, as the banquet petered out, colored gingerbread waned, its name assumed by early forms of today’s baked molasses gingerbread, which came to England from the Netherlands or France.” From Stephen Schmidt’s essay on the Sweets Banquet. What might have been served at a French banquet? Here’s one possible menu, with modernized recipes for the 21st-century home cook.