Around the Table: Chat with a Scholar

This month on Around the Table, I have the pleasure of sharing a conversation with architectural historian Sarah Milne. She was introduced to an early modern English manuscript in the archives while researching another project. That text, the Dinner Book of the London Drapers’ Company, grew into a project of its own, and her newly-published edition is sure to be of great interest to historians of architecture, civic life, and food. In April, her research came full circle as she publicly launched her book at the site of the dining in the manuscript: Drapers’ Hall in London. Following my conversation below, Recipes Project editor Lisa Smith, who was able to attend the book launch, shares some comments about the presentation.

Sarah Milne speaking in Drapers’ Hall, where the dinners take place. Photo courtesy of Sarah Milne.

Could you describe the Dinner Book and how you found it? On what type of project were you working?

Rather unusually, I first came across the Dinner Book as a postgraduate architecture student trying to get to grips with the City of London as a place, so that I could design for it effectively. Walking around its streets, I identified the livery company (guild) halls as important footholds, entry points into the guilds themselves, and I set myself the task of designing a new livery hall for recently formed guilds. It did not take me long to figure out that one of the focal-points of company life was the annual ‘Election Dinner’, when new leaders of the companies were invested in their new roles at grand dinners held in the halls. For me, in representing guild hierarchies structured within the hall, this was a critical moment to design for, and I was keen to research the history of dinners as much as I could in order to uncover the meaning and cultural context of these long-standing events. To be honest, my design project was over and done with far too quickly, but I was able to develop my interest through a written dissertation. Influenced by Carolyn Steele’s writing on how food shapes cities, I wrote to a number of guild archivists enquiring records which would give me insight into the sorts of foods presented at the dining tables of the Election Dinners. I was intrigued by the mercantile guilds’ attitudes to ‘new world’ products, and the extent to which dinners were experimental or conservative. Penny Fussell at the Drapers’ Company invited me to visit Drapers’ Hall to see a document she thought I might be interested in. That was the Dinner Book.

At the time I encountered it, I didn’t really have the skillset to deal with it effectively, I was not trained in palaeography for a start, but I knew that this account book seemed rare and important. Spanning from 1564–1602, though mostly weighted towards the 1560s and 1570s, it listed the foods, drinks, suppliers, servants, attendees and their positions within Drapers’ Hall at a series of Election Dinners. For me at that time, the potential of the document was to ground City sociability in a place, a space and a time, allowing for present-day dinners to be read through the lens of the past. Slowly but surely I made progress in making sense of the document.

It was only many years afterwards during my PhD, and several drafts of transcriptions of the Dinner Book later, that I was able to say with more certainty why this book was important for early modern historians, and suggest its significance for food historians. The period covered by the Dinner Book was one of particular instability and change in the City. The Drapers’ dinner records for the closing decades of the sixteenth century indicate that livery companies recognised the potential of their annual Election Dinners to reinforce the antiquity of corporate authority, inferring a mythical past as a means of legitimizing their stake in the future. Naturally, the food presented was implicated in this endeavour, and mostly tended towards traditionally high-status meats such as venison.

Sarah Milne showing the Dinner Book to a Draper. Photo courtesy of Sarah Milne.

It is interesting how such a beautiful space (Drapers’ Hall) has such a rich accompanying textual history; that is not always the case! Is this kind of menu book unique to the Drapers? Do you know of other examples of similar guild records (in London or elsewhere), particularly ones accompanying an existing architectural space?

Though the Great Twelve Companies shared a common culture of dining and a concern for their orchestration, it does appear that The Dinner Book is the only coherently detailed document which accounts for a series of these sorts of dinners. It seems to have been produced as a sort of aide memoire to inform the planning of future dinners as well as giving an account of what was spent year by year. There may well have been other Dinner Books, but they have not survived, excepting one very partial record from the late seventeenth century. In individual guild archives and at the Guildhall, the odd account of comparable Election Dinners of other companies can be found, but nothing quite matches the Dinner Book.

I am very thankful for the ways in which the Drapers’ Company accommodated me in their Hall over many years. To be able to research the Dinner Book in near enough the same location as it was produced, and the kitchens where the dinners actually prepared, was quite special. Indeed, though Drapers’ Hall has been rebuilt many times, the memory of the sixteenth-century Hall persists in the arrangement of interior spaces, so that the present-day main hall where the dinners were eaten is effectively in the same location, and of a similar scale, as it was at the time the Dinner Book was written-up. Other companies too retain Halls, though none survive from the sixteenth century (excepting the fifteenth-century kitchens of the Merchant Taylors’ Hall).

Has working with the Dinner Book influenced your other research interests and recent projects?

My encounter with the Dinner Book affected the trajectory of my working life quite significantly. From a focus on architectural design, I shifted to focus on architectural history, understanding that the two need to be held in tension, especially when the complexity of a city like London is in view. If it is not already apparent, I should clarify that I take architecture to be a broad discipline concerned with how space is produced by many hands over time. Architecture is always relational, contingent, and, at its heart, it is really about people. In this way, the study of food exchanges and dining practices can be very relevant to urban and architectural historians interested in working from the inside out of buildings, or thinking about flows of traded goods in the city more generally. Indeed, I feel strongly that the link between designers, urbanists and architects on the one hand, and historians on the other, needs to be cultivated so that cities can be acted within and planned for with sensitivity and wisdom. Spatial ‘micro-histories’ can be very effective in engaging a broad-range of people in deep conversations about the way cities change over the long-term.

Now I work for the Survey of London, a group of historians who write histories of London’s built environment, paying attention to all sorts of stories of the capital city and addressing a huge range of buildings past and present. We tend to work parish by parish, and currently I am working on an especially experimental project centred on Whitechapel in East London. We have taken a participatory approach to this project, inviting the public and professionals to enter into dialogue with us and each other about the area, sharing their research, memories and archives, as we share our findings, all framed within the context of a digitally accessible online map. Speaking to people, it is amazing to see how often food or dining comes up, especially in relation to migrant experiences of settlement and inter-cultural exchanges. We have been especially excited to commission a film about the local South Asian restaurant trade – Changing Tastes.

Thanks, Sarah, for chatting with me about such an interesting project! You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahannmilne.

And now, Lisa Smith’s comments on the book launch.

On April 8, I had the pleasure visiting the Drapers’ Hall in London to celebrate a book launch for Sarah Milne’s edited volume of The Dinner Book of the London Drapers’ Company 1564-1602. Although I’ve visited a range of splendid medical buildings, from the Royal College of Surgeons (London) to the Académie Nationale de Médecine (Paris), this was my first experience of an actual London guild hall. To say that the Drapers’ Hall is very grand would be an understatement; the marks of power, pomp, and ceremony remain visible to historians, even if the main hall is now bookable for wedding receptions.

In the introduction to The Dinner Book, Dr Milne describes the ‘theatre of hospitality’; beyond the grandeur of a hall, the guild displayed its wealth through elaborate feasts. At the Election Dinner of 1564, for example, the first course included foods like swans, pikes, venison pasties, and custards; the second course included lighter foods, from quails to marchipane; and the banquet course was comprised of sweet items, like spicebread, wafers, fruits, and hippocras. The necessity of luxury was so important that the guild hall even had a separate space for preparing the banquet course—the hippocras house, which was staffed by three servants during the 1564 dinner.

“Interior of Drapers’ Hall” From Old and New London, Volume I, by Walter Thornbury (1897). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

There is no modern-day hippocras house, but the book launch took place in the same room as the early modern great hall. A modern chef attempted to recapture some of the early modern flavours for us, too, with treats such as venison pasties and pottage…

In her talk, Dr Milne discussed the complicated nature of space and public activities in early modern London; the domestic, social, and business worlds co-existed behind the guild hall gates. The great hall may have been used for corporate assemblies, but the courtyard house was the Master’s residence. The parlour was the site of the guild’s day-to-day business. Corporate celebrations, such as Election Dinners, included entire families: widows, wives, and occasionally young children. And the garden provided the fruits, nuts, and herbs used in creating grand dinners.

The Dinner Book is a wonderful window into the food, people, and activities of an early modern guild hall, listing as it does the foods served, the people paid, and the activities undertaken. In preparation for the feast dinner of 6 August 1571, for example, we learn that Treacle the Cook spent two days preparing the meal; that Mr Crowley preached for two days; that the Master Wardens’ wives sold the hall comfits and biscuits; that the grocer Henry Falks provided a substantial amount of luxury spices and dried fruit; and that the hall bought eighty pounds of butter from the market.

Thanks, Lisa! If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.


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