Medieval Cookery Rolls as Practical Kitchen Texts

By Sarah Peters Kernan

A cookery copied on a roll might seem unwieldy and impractical to the modern mind. Who would record lists of recipes on a long strip of parchment, only to roll it up again for storage? Not to mention if one needed to quickly reference a single item… Would the entire roll be stretched out twenty feet just to doublecheck the ingredients necessary for a dish of blanc manger? The roll, however, was still a format in wide use in the fourteenth century–and not just for legal records, genealogies, and the like. Practical and oft-used texts such as verse and prose prayers, charms, and medical recipes were also recorded on rolls. Smaller rolls were practical, portable, and easy to use: all necessary characteristics of a used cookbook.

Three medieval French and English cookeries survive as rolls: Sion, Archives cantonales du Valais, MS Supersaxo 108; New York, Morgan Library, MS Bühler 36; and London, British Library, MS Additional 5016. Displaying the most famous and iconic medieval cookbooks, Bühler 36 and Additional 5016 are copies of the English Forme of Cury, while S 108 is a copy of the French Viandier of Taillevent.

These three undecorated cookery rolls are heavily worn, with sections of text rubbed off or bits of brittle parchment crumbled away. The earliest of the three rolls, S 108, which is dated to the second half of the thirteenth century, exhibits signs of regular use.

Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque du Valais, S 108, f. verso – Viandier (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/mvs/viandier)
Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque du Valais, S 108, f. verso – Viandier (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/mvs/viandier)

Although the edges are relatively unscathed, the width of the parchment shows creases where the parchment looks like it was purposely folded to better see a recipe, a preparation for conger eel (located under line 400 on the verso side). Other creases are visible throughout the bottom third of the roll. The regularity of these creases suggests that pressure was applied to the roll of parchment, slightly flattening the roll. Stains of unidentifiable substances adhere to both sides of the roll. Finally, some ink has worn away on the roll.

Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque du Valais, S 108, f. recto – Viandier (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/mvs/viandier)
Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque du Valais, S 108, f. recto – Viandier (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/mvs/viandier)

The worst wear can be found around line 90 on the recto side. This is a part of the text which should have been safely rolled between several layers of parchment, protecting it from any significant wear. The appearance of such significant wear in a concentrated area suggests the roll was regularly opened to that particular spot, causing a gradual disintegration of the ink.

The two roll copies of the Forme of Cury also show signs of significant use. Additional 5016 contains innumerable tears and the ink and parchment are faded throughout. The fifteenth-century roll Bühler 36 is in the worst condition of the lot. Chunks of parchment are missing from the edges of the first leaves of the roll. Although the stability of the parchment improves the farther inside the roll, there are stains in the interior of the roll. Additionally, the red ink is in such unstable condition that the library issues a warning with the roll to use caution since the ink flakes off the parchment.

A reader, such as a household steward, head chef, or even a literate cook, could insert the lightweight and flexible roll into a pocket or hold it open on a table with heavier objects. The extensive wear on the rolls certainly supports this type of use. Bruno Laurioux has also suggested that cookery rolls were a practical format which could be held in the hand or placed in the belt, or even hung on the wall. While other cookeries lacked manageability in an active kitchen, the roll was an attractive and versatile alternative. Moreover, its ease of use was further enhanced by the addition of introductory tables, as in Additional 5016 and S 108, and rubrication, which appears in each extant roll.[1]

One of several roll maps with mounting and hanging mechanisms on exhibit at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Photo: Sarah Kernan, October 2012.
One of several roll maps with mounting and hanging mechanisms on exhibit at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Photo: Sarah Kernan, October 2012.

The very factors of rolls’ practicality—the aspects that provided for their benefit in the kitchen—remain the form’s assets well into the twentieth century. For example, the roll navigational map used by French, English, and American World War I fighter pilots in combat, provided a large volume of material contained in a small space. Like the cook seeking a reminder of a few measurements, the pilot simply rolled the map to the required portion, while keeping the rest conveniently stored. And as the cook could unfold a portion of a roll on his work space or stuff it in a pocket or belt, the pilot’s map could be mounted in the cockpit or hung around his neck.

Despite the dramatic differences in time and place, the advantages of the roll’s flexibility and use draw together settings such as the medieval kitchen and the wartime cockpit. The roll provides a helpful reminder that in understanding medieval cookery, the practical requirements of the cook and kitchen are of paramount importance.

[1] Bruno Laurioux, Les règne de Taillevent. Livres et pratiques culinaires à la fin du Moyen Âge (Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997), 332 and 343.


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