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What distilled spirit might perk up a 14th-century English prince? Was the hard stuff even around then…?

 

Edward of Woodstock, the “Black Prince”
taken from https://davedoeshistory.wordpress.com/2018/08/09/the-first-duke-of-cornwall-edward-the-black-prince/

Rightly or wrongly, when someone has had a shock, it’s often the impulse of those around him/her to offer a “stiff drink”. This usually means spirits, although I admit that in Britain a cup of tea is as likely “to do the trick”! The spirits thing appears in novels and films, and is well known. But what happened back in 14th-century England? Did they even have distilled spirits? For drinking, that is, because maybe such things were indeed available for medicinal use. At what point did medicinal become recreational? When was it realized that if handled with care, spirit could be a very pleasing and restorative tipple?

As a writer, I wanted to find a suitable pick-me-up that might have been administered to the Black Prince toward the end of his life, when after many years of debilitating illness he became prone to fainting. The search was on. What was available as a quick restorative?

I started by asking the following question on the excellent British Medieval History group on Facebook:- “Does anyone know of a distilled spirit that was available in 14th-century England? All the ones that are common now—whisky/whiskey, brandy, vodka, rum, gin, etc. etc.—seem to be much later. At least, they do according to Merriam-Webster. Did they simply have different names? Or is M-W wrong? So, any ideas, ladies and gentlemen?”

Well, the members of the group were extremely helpful, full of suggestions, in fact, and I thank them, most sincerely. They’re stars, each and every one. But so many of them responded that I can’t possibly credit them all by name, so what follows now is a sort-of compilation of these suggestions and my own additions. And the images are my choice, of course, and may not fully indicate the type of drink referred to in the text.

To begin with, mead cropped up a lot in the answers, and yes, it was certainly around then, but it’s made by fermenting honey and water, so isn’t distilled. Therefore it doesn’t have the kick of spirits. Other common drinks were ale and wine. But nothing distilled.

Something called aqua vitae (which is usually taken to mean whiskey/whisky) was around in Ireland in 1405, but had a very detrimental effect at Christmas that year.  The 17th-century Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise record that the death of a chieftain was blamed on “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae”. That must have put a damper on the proceedings. The use of “taking” rather confirms that the aqua vitae was drunk and not applied in some other way—but only for the good of his health of course. Well, one supposes it was for the good of his health.

Merriam-Webster defines “aqua vitae” as follows:- (1) Alcohol, especially alcohol obtained by distilling vinous liquids, and (2) A strong liquor (such as brandy or whiskey).  The name derives from the Middle English aqua vite, from Medieval Latin aqua vitae, literally, water of life; probably from the use of brandy as a medicine. First Known Use: 15th century – sense (1). (So it was brandy as well?)

However, undeterred by that unfortunate death at Christmas, the Irish seem to have persevered, because we now have their superb whiskey. Practice does indeed make perfect, although I can’t say how many other casualties there may have been along the way.

Whisky was apparently distilled in Scotland as early as 1495, because a Friar John Cor of Elgin received a payment for aqua vitae, which is recorded in the Exchequer Rolls. This doesn’t mean whisky wasn’t around a lot earlier, of course, just that this seems to be the first recorded mention. Nor, I suppose, does it mean that the aqua vitae in question was necessarily whisky.

It seems that Armagnac, the French brandy, was first written of in the early 14th century. It’s made from distilled wine. Did it cross the Channel/La Manche to delight the nasty roast-beefs? The Hundred Years War won’t have stopped it, that’s for sure.

Armagnac
taken from https://www.visitfrenchwine.com/en/vineyard/visit-the-vineyards-of-armagnac-wine-tourism

Next we come to gin. Someone else wrote: “When analysing a clay pot that was part of a Beaker Culture burial in Scotland (Ava) they found it contained meadowsweet. Their best guess is it came from a distilled Gin like drink. This was obviously long before the Medieval period, but everything available to them was available in the medieval period.”

Meadowsweet? I hadn’t heard of it being used in this way. I suppose the scent isn’t unlike elderflower, which is definitely put in drinks. So I searched for using meadowsweet to make gin, and find that it’s still used for this! See https://theginisin.com/botanicals-list/meadowsweet/ As you will have gathered, I’m not a gin afficionado.

taken from https://www.aroma-academy.co.uk/blogs/news/aroma-of-the-week-gin-aroma-kit-meadowsweet

Some highly respected novelists have referred to a form of gin. Elizabeth Chadwick mentions “ginevra” in her C12th and C13th books, which is a word for gin and refers to juniper, from which that spirit is distilled.  Ellis Peters, in her Cadfael novel St Peter’s Fair, refers to a “strong geneva liquor” and “juniper liquor”.  I would have every faith in these writers knowing what’s correct for their period. So I think some form of gin was available in England by the 14thcentury.

Alchemists and apothecaries may have produced spirits for medicinal purposes, using an apparatus known as an alembic to distill alcohol. See this article I quote one member of the BMH group: “Alembics made of pottery were at least known in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), who described “an erthen pot…ycovered with a lampe of glas” in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales, but medieval references remain sparse. The earliest archaeological evidence of distilling equipment in England dates back to the late thirteenth century.” But again, whether the resulting spirits were actually drunk is another matter. Use as a medicinal cure-all seems to have been the general idea, so whether it was taken internally or externally I really can’t say.

taken from https://wellcomecollection.org/works/byc35rfx

Another possibility is freeze “distillation”, which seems to have been known in England at that time. “Not a true distillation process, more like freeze concentrating where drinks like mead and cider were left outside in winter and the water was taken out of them as it froze.” This may indeed have been current in the 14th century, but this present winter of 2019/2020, where I live in the Vale of the River Severn, I’d have been hard put to have the temperatures drop enough to freeze anything! Frost has been thin on the ground, so to speak.

taken from http://www.castlesandmanorhouses.com/life_05_drink.htm

And finally rum, which, of course is usually associated with a pirates and navy men. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum… But how old is it? I resorted to Wikipedia, which may not always be carved in stone but is nevertheless extremely useful, and found the following:-

“….Vagbhata, an Indian ayurvedic physician (7th century AD) “[advised] a man to drink unvitiated liquor like rum and wine, and mead mixed with mango juice ‘together with friends.’” Shidhu, a drink produced by fermentation and distillation of sugarcane juice, is mentioned in other Sanskrit texts.[13]

“….According to Maria Dembinska, the King of Cyprus, Peter I of Cyprus or Pierre I de Lusignan (9 October 1328 – 17 January 1369), brought rum with him as a gift for the other royal dignitaries at the Congress of Kraków, held in 1364.[14] This is feasible given the position of Cyprus as a significant producer of sugar in the Middle Ages,[15] although the alcoholic sugar drink named rum by Dembinska might not have resembled modern distilled rums very closely. Dembinska also suggests Cyprus rum was often drunk mixed with an almond milk drink, also produced in Cyprus, called soumada.[16]….”

So… ”It’s rum, Jim, but not as we know it.” (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

This is an interesting article about the history of distilling and if you go to the links in the captions of the above images, you will find some of them take you to more sites about medieval drinking habits. Cheers.

Medieval food that looks awful but apparently tastes divine…!

 

Well, we know that the people of the medieval period loved their colours. The brighter the better, it seems. But, it also seems that this liking didn’t extend to their food. I found this wonderful article on the British Medieval History Facebook group, and just had to share it here.

However, it has to be said that the dishes mentioned (and illustrated, see above and below) were rather…ugh! when actually on the plate. Not the fault of the cook. Oh, no. It was just impossible to make these things look even vaguely appetising. Not even for a monarch as picky as King Richard II, from whose book of recipes—Forme of Cury—they have been taken. I mean, the gruel in the illustration looks like, well, a pile of sick. The mounchelet below looks even worse. All both lack are the proverbial bits of carrot, which we always seem to find in such deposits.

But, in this instance appearances are very deceptive, and the dish itself is apparently delicious. Hard to imagine when the article also contains a comment that some things are probably better eaten by candlelight! Looking at it, I have to agree, but reading the recipe and so on, I’m more than prepared to believe it tasted delicious. Mind you, vegetarians and vegans won’t agree!

Anyway, do read the article, and if you attempt to produce the same dishes…bon appetit!

Mounchelet, served with, bottom right, ultra-colourful carrot purée. The creamy mash is hidden, but was delicious, too. Picture by Christopher Monk © 2020.

 

 

The Devonshire Tapestries showing scenes of medieval hunting….

 

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt, 1425-1430,
probably made in Arras, France. Museum no. T.204-1957.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The four 15th-century Devonshire Tapestries, which depict a Boar and Bear Hunt, a Swan and Otter Hunt, a Deer Hunt and a Falconry Hunt, were accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax payable on the estate of the 10th Duke of Devonshire and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

To see the Boar and Bear Hunt, go to https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-devonshire-hunting-tapestries-boar-and-bear-hunt/hwFmCcIwXAxYCw

For the Swan and Otter Hunt, go to https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-devonshire-hunting-tapestries-swan-and-otter-hunt/XgGfQdqOEsjN1A?hl=en

For the Deer Hunt, go to https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Deer_Hunt,_V%26A_Museum.jpg

For the Falconry tapestry, go to http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O94142/falconry-tapestry-unknown/

So wrong he may be right (2) – William Cowper

Here we have the poet and hymnwright William Cowper (left), who we referred to in our previous article but couldn’t find the evidence for the Essex anniversary in February. The usual sources have been a little troublesome but we know from Lord David Cecil’s The Stricken Deer that he was the great-nephew of an Earl and that his mother was a Donne from Norfolk. From this clue, further research revealed a direct female line to Mary Boleyn, giving Cowper the same mtDNA as Elizabeth I.

Among Anne Donne’s more distant relatives was another poet and Dean of St. Paul’s, the great John Dunne (right) from a Welsh Catholic background. Donne, although married with many children, seems to have had no grandchildren or uncles on either side so this descent couldn’t be direct or immediately collateral.

A French Medieval Lenten Repast

the good man of ParisGood Friday falls today and in commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ we offer several meat free loosely-based receipts from the medieval manuscript Le Menagier de Paris or The Goodman of Paris.  First published anonymously in 1391, it is amusingly similar to Mrs. Beeton’s famous 19th century book of household tips covering diverse subjects such as food, medicine, herbs, gardening, marital accord and its corollary of good wifely behavior.

For those who follow food trends across the globe, it is always amazing and perhaps comforting to find that the French, whether living in medieval times or soaking up rays in Southern California, tend to stick to the tried and true products and gustatory formulas of their beloved patrie.  Looking through Raymond Oliver’s excellent history “The Gastronomy of France” one realizes that most medieval recipes can still be found in Jacques Pepin’s newest cookbook or on a menu at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire.

The following receipts are adapted from a menu in the 1540 Le Menagier de Paris:

First Dish and Plate

sorrel

Sorrel is an easily grown herb.  Its name simply means “sour” and it is often used in a cream-based soup.

 

Cress and Sorrel with Vinegar

1 bunch of Watercress, 1 bunch of Sorrel, several handfuls of peas and Arugula (Rocket).  Layer the ingredients on a large white plate or bowl.  Dress with:  Olive oil, Red Wine Vinegar, Dijon Mustard, Salt & Pepper.  If dressing is too bitter, a hint of sugar is appropriate.

***

The French consider figs and bay leaves a match made in heaven in much the way we might pair chicken with tarragon, fish with fennel and seafood with bacon or ham.

 

bay

Fig Crostata with Bay

1 1/2 cups of flour (approx. 200 grams), 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 stick of cold butter (110 grams), ice cold water.   Dice cold butter.  In a food processor, pulse flour and salt.  Add the diced butter and mix until it has a mealy appearance.  Add small amounts of water until it binds.  Place dough on a cold surface and knead with a bit of flour until it forms a ball  – don’t over knead!  Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or overnight.  When ready to use, roll out to a nine inch circle.  Add:

Figs cut into quarters, several teaspoons of honey, lemon juice and a pinch of salt.  Mix and add to the crostata.  Place two bay leaves on top.  Fold over the edges of the crostata so that the pie mixture won’t spill out while baking.  Use an egg wash if you wish to have an attractive appearance.  Place in an oven heated to 375F (approx. 190 Celsius).  Bake for approximately 35 minutes.  While the bay leaves will perfume the crostata, they should be not be eaten.

Second Dish

Most of the French Lenten dishes that are included in medieval texts appear to be freshwater fish:  Trout, Eel, Perch, Pike, Carp with the occasional Cod, Sole or crustacean thrown in for variety sake.  But in looking for a dish that would satisfy a hungry penitent but not overtax one’s culinary ability, let’s turn to the New World for a receipt.   The classic “Charleston Receipts,” first published in 1950 by the Junior League, showcases the overlapping ethnic influences of anyone who ever passed through this romantic coastal city.  That would include the Creeks to the Spanish, French, British and Africans.  This receipt comes straight from Paris:

Fillet of Sole Marguery as submitted by Mrs. Robert Small

1 large sole or flounder, 2/3 cups of white wine, 1 tablespoon of flour, 2 cups of heavy cream, cooked shrimp, fresh sliced mushrooms, butter and salt.  Place filleted sole or flounder in a buttered pan and sprinkle with salt.  Pour a portion of white over the fish.  Bake twenty minutes, basting often.  Remove fillets to platter.  Thicken stock in which the fish has been baking with flour.  When well blended, add cream, shrimp, mushrooms (that have been sautéed in butter).  Now add remaining wine.  Pour this over fillets; garnish with parsley and serve piping hot.

fish

It would seem sinful to offer a dessert on Good Friday given that the recipes above feature wine, butter, heavy cream, honey and sugar.  So let’s wait until Sunday when the Easter Bunny will deliver his chocolate eggs and candy-laden baskets.

Notes:

Watercress, pea, sorrel salad by Darren Robertson and Mark Labrooy

Fig Crostata, Melissa Rubel Jacobson, Food and Wine Magazine

Sole Marguerey, Charleston Receipts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Symbolism of the Wild Boar

For many people, seeing a picture of a boar means just seeing a wild animal or a very good meat to eat but for Ricardians it is totally different. The white boar is the emblem of King Richard III, who chose it at some point after he became Duke of Gloucester, when he was able to retain men and array troops. This happened when he was 17, so it is plausible that the choice was made around 1469. What inspired his choice is hard to say. There are many theories around this subject including the word “boar” in itself. In medieval times, the term “boar was spelt “bore” and there is a theory that it could be the anagram of “ebor”, the Roman name of the City of York. It is arguable but as a symbol, what does the boar represent? My personal curiosity pushed me to investigate further and what I have discovered is incredibly fascinating.

The symbolism of the boar changes depending on cultures and countries but many characteristics are common to them and unchanged in time. The boar is an animal that fights till its last breath when hunted, especially if she is a mother. Boars never give up, even if the enemy is clearly more powerful than they are. Fearless and hard to kill, they challenge predators and humans who hunt them. Because of this characteristic, they represent bravery, command, control and fighting spirit. As the meat of the boar is of very high quality, they also represent gatherings and generosity but abundance, courage, stubbornness and power too. It is interesting that the remains of boars have been found in tribal leaders’ burial places to symbolize heroes and warriors.

Many warriors chose the boar as their emblem, especially Anglo-Saxons and Norse leaders. For these cultures and especially in Beowulf, the boar represented ferocity in battle and loyalty to the king. It is possible that the story of Beowulf inspired Richard to choose the boar and his motto to express loyalty to his brother, Edward. Beowulf himself went into battle with a boar-head standard as the symbol of his power as a leader and as a sign of courage.

In Celtic and Arthurian myths, the boar is again the main character in many stories about boar hunting. Twch Trywth was a king who turned into a wild boar. King Arthur started chasing him across the Celtic lands but he went missing into the sea. For this reason, in a Welsh legend, the boar is seen as the antagonist of Arthur himself. Celts also consider the boar as a symbol of the marriage bed because they are believed to bring fertility and to represent virility and great sexual power, in this case a night of love and passion that led to pregnancy. As they protect their offspring to the death, they symbolize good mothering and defenders of honour, righteousness and justice. Celts also thought that the boar was a holy, mystical and mysterious creature and Druids associated him with the incarnation of spiritual power. Its head represents good health and incredible strength. Their flesh is the food of gods and warriors and it is a sacrificial animal. Many are the tales about this aspect of the boar. In the Philippines, eating boar’s meat means replenishment of life.

In Northern mythology, it is said that a wild boar was sacrificed to Freya, the goddess of earth and fertility. The sacrifice took place in midwinter so it is likely that the boar represented the sun and the sacrifice, the rebirth of the sun. Being a symbol of truth, it had a role in the swearing of sacred oaths. On Yule Eve, people put their hands on the boar to swear oaths to the king. After this, it was sacrificed to Freya and its flesh eaten to absorb its power. Today, for Yule Eve, people cook bread in the shape of a boar.

In Indian mythology, the boar is once again seen as the symbol of life and fertility but also as a saviour. Brahmin Vishnu saved the earth in the form of a wild boar. The demon, Hiranyaksha, the enemy of the gods, had sunk the earth into the ocean . The wild boar, Varaha, killed the demon and lifted the earth from the water with his tusks.

Indian tribes see the boar as an example of bravery, honesty, self-confidence and the ability to face problems. They also consider him as an emblem of assertiveness and confrontation, a way to face and overcome fears.

Many crests have the boar as a symbol. Apart from Richard III (the best known leader who adopted the boar as his own symbol) a boar’s head appears in the crest of the clan Mackinnon.

Boars are social animals but they don’t trust strangers. All their actions aim at success and they pursue their goal even at the cost of their life. Notwithstanding their poor eyesight, they have a powerful sense of smell and hearing. The symbology of this is that we should look beneath the surface at all those things that can trouble us and push ourselves to uncover the truth hidden by lies.

 

 

Clothes lines fluttering in 14th century Moorfields? I fear not….

 

from Splendor Solis, 1531
Clothes lines of some sort are visible on the left

Writing historical fiction involves a lot of research…well, it does if the resultant book is to be taken seriously. So when it came to describing medieval Moorfields, just north of London’s city wall, I came upon the inevitable mention of drying grounds for washing. Yes, I knew all about them, because they turn up in all sorts of ways. Washerwomen cleaned the clothes, sheets or whatever, and then spread them on the ground or over bushes. Dry weather was therefore somewhat essential…as it was over the centuries until the invention of dryers of various kinds.

I remember that when my Welsh grandmother was robbed of a suitably dry Monday (always washing day) she would arrange the well wrung washing on the rack that was then hauled up on a rope to hang over our heads in the always warm kitchen. But, if the Monday weather was good, out it all went on the clothes line, pegged up to catch the breeze on a Welsh hillside.

So there you have the relevant words: pegs and line. Such things seem so very obvious that it’s tempting to imagine they’ve always been around, but no. Inventive as the medieval mind was, it didn’t dream up such a novel way to do the business of dry what had been washed. Well, it did from around the 16th century onward (see image above), but still most washing was dried in the time-honoured way, on the ground or in bushes. The object, too, was to let the sun bleach materials that were off-white.

detail from Woman and Child in a Bleaching Ground by Pieter de Hooch, 1650s

If you go to this piece about the clothes peg and this piece about laundry, you’ll read all about this.

So, much as I’d like to describe the clothes lines fluttering in 14th-century Moorfields, I can’t. Everything would have been on the ground or draped over suitable bushes. Or, I suppose, hanging over low tree branches? Whatever, no medieval CleverClogs seems to have come up with the idea of suspending a line between those branches and then hanging out the washing with a little peg of split wood! It would apparently be well over a century before such inspiration came. And even then the ground and bushes remained the overwhelming preference.

A tale of monarchs and national anthems

Anyone who has watched a Scottish rugby or association football match will be familiar with the Corries’ folk song O Flower of Scotland, which is played before their matches. The second line of the chorus (“Proud Edward’s army”) refers to Edward II, defeated at Bannockburn so that he never actually ruled Scotland although he may have technically been their King by marriage. I have chosen Barbara Dickson’s version.

The Netherlands’ national anthem, the Wilhelminus, is named after William the Silent, a Protestant monarch assassinated in 1584 during an ongoing independence war against the Spanish forces. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is sung lustily among a sea of orange flags at football internationals.

Can you think of any other monarchs mentioned in anthems?

EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT MEDIEVAL BEDS..

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Opulent beds could be used to entertain friends and even shared with  guests staying overnight.  Well at least you would be warm..

A very interesting article here on medieval beds including a glossary …

 

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I haven’t a clue as to what is going on with this lady and gentleman  but, as it shows a medieval bed  I thought  I would just leave it here…

 

THE MEDIEVAL DOGGIE AND EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THEM….

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It’s obvious from the amount of depictions of dogs from the medieval period they were highly prized by our ancestors, both for work and play. They are everywhere! Their delightful little figures pop up on tombs, heraldry and manuscripts regularly.

Some think, when depicted on a tomb effigy of a lady especially, they represent fidelity.  Of course..that figures..but casting that aside I believe that actual pets were being represented unlike the lions, representing strength,  that were found at the feet of the effigies of males.  Indeed some of their names are on the tombs.  Lady Cassy’s little dog, ‘Terri’ was shown and named on her brass at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire and since the brass was commissioned by Lady Cassy after the death of her husband ‘it is likely that the name of the dog represents personal initiative on her part'( 1 ).  Another dog named on an effigy at Ingham was “Jakke”.

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Lady Cassy’s little dog, Terri, wearing a collar of bells.  Deerhurst, Gloucestershire.

Many wore collars festooned with bells such as the dogs on Bishop Langham tomb instead of the usual lions found on a male’s tomb.  Richard Willoughly specifically requested that bells adorn the collar of the dog at the bottom of his wife’s effigy.

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Richard Willoughby specifically requested the dog on his wife’s effigy to be adorned with bells.  Wollaton, Notts.

Blanche Mortimer’s effigy has a little dog, now sadly headless, peeping out of her spread skirts on her tomb at Much Marcle, Herefordshire.

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Blanche Mortimer‘s little dog, still with her on her monument.  Much Marcle, Herefordshire.  

And there they are, for all posterity at their mistresses and masters feet, looking for all the world as if they are about to roll over for a belly scratch at any time.

The dogs that lived in upper class households undoubtedly were extremely lucky and led pampered lives but hopefully even the poorest households valued their dogs or ‘mungrell curres’  as a 13th century writer put it.  For the many other aspects of medieval doggies  lives see this article, covering everything you ever wanted to know about our canine friends…. I must say I feel for the poor  ‘dog boy’ who had to be in the kennels at all times, even nights, to prevent the dogs fighting –  Good luck with that! – to monks complaining that dogs and puppies ‘oftentimes trouble the service by their barkings, and sometimes tear the church books’..

image.pngPiero della Francesca – detail of the dogs from St Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatestaimage.png

Dogge eyeing up a cat…14th century manuscript..

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Alaunt with a posh collar…

  1. English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages p307 Nigel Saul

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