Regulations and Realities: Standardizing Diets in British Prisons

By Jess Clark

“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain
“The Penitentiary, Millbank” from The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862). Image courtesy of British Library, Shelfmark 6057.i.7, Public Domain

I was recently in the British Library, and among the sources that came across my desk was a small, thin text published in 1902: Manual of Cooking & Baking for the Use of Prison Officers. Compiled by Britain’s Prison Commission (est. 1877), it offered suggestions on selecting ingredients, preparing food, and serving different classes of inmates. As the preface noted, the text served to meet recommendations of the Departmental Committee on Prison Dietaries of 1899, stating that all prisons should receive the same guide “for everyday reference for the Cook and Baker.”

 

Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.
Four cooks in prison uniform standing in a line in front of buckets and baskets, at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, London. After P. Renouard, 1889. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collections.

 

The text aligns with moves, from the early nineteenth century, to reform prison conditions in Britain in both local and convict institutions. As many historians have noted, institutional reform was a key focus of the period, with a broad range of writers and observers weighing in on optimal conditions of inmates. This led to increasing regulation and overseeing of Britain’s prison system, albeit in ways that didn’t necessarily guarantee prisoner comforts so much as set increasingly stringent policies. These attempts at uniformity extended to food, and directives in 1843, 1864, and 1878 recommended standardized prison diets comprised of “bread, gruel, potatoes, meat, soup and cocoa.” However, this was enforced in a piecemeal fashion, and not all local and convict prison officials abided by dietary suggestions.[i] By the late nineteenth century, reform initiatives like the Gladstone Committee of 1894-1895 continued to scrutinize British inmate diets. Members offered a number of suggestions, including revised recipes for dishes like “stirabout,” a gruel-like concoction of Indian meal (or maize), oatmeal, and salt that was reportedly refused by three-quarters of inmates.[ii] 

It was in this spirit, then, that Manual of Cooking & Baking appeared, in yet another effort to uniformly administer prison diets across Britain. The 1902 text outlines a relatively robust set of instructions on the selecting, cooking, and serving of food. First, cooks and bakers were responsible for attaining and inspecting ingredients. Beef, fish, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, bacon, fowl, vegetables, peas, beans, ice, sugar, tea, wheat, and oatmeal were to be examined and carefully measured for freshness, size or weight, and overall quality. Readers were then instructed on the official methods of cooking in H.M. Prisons, which consisted of “boiling, steaming, baking, roasting, stewing, broiling, and frying,” the latter three primarily confined to “Hospital or Sick-room Cookery” (45).

Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.
Female convicts at work in Brixton Women’s Prison. From Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (London: Griffin, Bohn & Co, 1862), page after 196. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Having procured desirable ingredients and employed various cooking methods, what did prison cooks serve for inmates’ daily meals? From 1899, local and convict prison diets were divided into five categories – Diets A, B, C, D, and E – with food diversity and allowance increasing with each letter. The meanest of diets, Diet A, consisted of bread and either gruel, porridge, potatoes, or suet pudding.[iii] Diet B added cooked meat to the mix, as well as beans and soup. Diet C received tea instead of gruel, with breakfast and cocoa for supper. Finally, Diets D and E received similar foodstuffs but in greater quantities, as they applied to male convicts assigned to labour details.

The designation of diets depended on the length of stay of inmates: the longer the stay, the richer and more diverse the diet.[iv] The lack of variety and quality of food for short-term inmates was to dissuade “temptation to the loafer or mendicant,” who reportedly got themselves thrown in prison for the steady meals.[v] Meanwhile, long-stay male labourers received a seemingly varied diet: bread and butter, potatoes, fat bacon, cooked mutton, pea soup with pork, cocoa, and cheese. If we are to believe the cooking instructions, these dishes were prepared in sanitary conditions with acceptable cuts and ingredients, under the careful watch of a state-appointed cook or baker.

However, as we know, what’s written in guidebooks and prescriptive literature doesn’t always reflect the realities of life on the ground. Food functioned in the institutional setting as a mode of control and bodily regulation of incarcerated subjects, a trend that is clear in alternate accounts of prison life. For example, the anonymous author of 1877’s Five Years Penal Servitude by One who has Endured it described a common punishment for unruly behavior—“smashing the teapot”—in which an inmate’s tea was traded out for gruel until he regained his standing.[vi] During the Gladstone Committee, inmates complained of the nauseating quality of foods, which caused diarrhea and other digestive ailments. Meanwhile, following his release from Reading Gaol in 1897, Oscar Wilde described the systematic underfeeding of child prisoners. Such trends were supposed to diminish following the circulation of texts like Manual on Cooking & Baking, yet no doubt endured in some institutions.[vii] In this way, prison dietary guides speak to objectives rather than material conditions, laying bare potential disjunctures between recipes and realities.

 

[i] See, for example, Michelle Higgs, Prison Life in Victorian England (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), Chapter 7; and Sean McConville, A History of English Prison Administration (New York: Routledge, 2016) 303-305.

[ii] Higgs, Chapter 7; McConville, 313.

[iii] This diet replaced the “No. 1 Diet,” a category dating from the mid-century. It was a restrictive diet of gruel which, as historians note, could result in death if misapplied to short-term inmates doing labor. McConville, 306-307, 310-313.

[iv] Diet A applied to those serving seven days and under; Diet B came into effect after seven days; and Diet C came into effect after four months stay, for the remainder of an inmate’s term.

[v] Quoted in McConville, 690. Men, women, and minors received the same diets, albeit in different quantities with women receiving less food overall (save for Diets F and G, designed for female convicts and allowing two ounces of golden syrup with suet pudding for “those female convicts who desire it”).

[vi] Five Years’ Penal Servitude by One Who Has Endured it (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878), 86.

[vii] Higgs, Chapter 7.

Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.

Renewing Old Text: A Recipe in The Art of Limming (1573)

By Carrie Griffin

The anonymously-authored treatise entitled The Art of Limming (STC 24252), first printed in London in 1573 (‘In Flete strete … at the signe of the Hande & starre by Richard Tottill’)[1] is comprised of just twelve leaves. It purports to appeal specifically to the gentrified reader: the title-page advertises the book and its contents as ‘verye meete and necessary to be knowne to all such all gentlemen, and other persons as doe delight in limming, painting or in tricking of armes in their colours, and therefore a woorke very meete to be adioyning to the bookes of armes’. The Art of Limming, then, identifies its target audience as the gentleman reader, or all those who ‘delight’ in the arts of book-decoration or colouration, specifically mentioning those readers who wish to trick, or tint, their own heraldic devices; indeed the treatise self-advertises as a companion volume to book of arms. The preface also points to the creation of books (or, at least, retains that as a possibility) rather than the decoration of existing books that may or may not be printed, stating that the work to follow on the mixing of colours and metals ‘to write or to limme withall vppon velym, parchment or paper, and how to lay them vppon the worke which thou intendest to make’.

My interest in the treatise is connected to its retrospective quality: how it imagines the manuscript text or book, or features of the manuscript book or document. Books, and in particular well-thumbed household volumes, miscellanies and commonplace books, must have been particularly in need of restoration and care, or renewal. Several of the recipes in this treatise facilitate not just the creation of new books in the old style, but they acknowledge the practice of renewing and regeneration of older books and aspects of manuscript books and documents that may have been more susceptible to the ravages of time. One recipe promises ‘To renew olde and worne letters’:

Take of [th]e best galles[2] you can get & bruse them grosly then lay them to steepe one day in good whyte wine. This done distill them with the wyne, and with the distilled water that commeth of them, you shal wet handsomly the olde letters with a little cotton or a small pencel, & they will shewe freshe & newe again in suche wyse as you may easely reade them [Sig. C3].

some gall nuts ...
some gall nuts …

The rendering of this type of instruction in print and, more specifically, in blackletter, indicates a material interest in the preservation of the methods by which manuscript books are newly-created but also conserved and recovered. It also indicates the debt owed by the printed book to the text in manuscript: in the relatively early days of this new technology, the older material that circulated in manuscript was the bread and butter of the print trade. Printed texts depended on texts in manuscript, and this reality finds wonderful expression in tracts like The Art of Limming. The recipe quoted here is evocative not just of the stresses to which some material in manuscript was subject (we know that pages or text – especially in devotional MSS – were sometimes rubbed, stroked or kissed, but also that everyday use led to wear and fading) but concerns for the stability and integrity of the handwritten text.

Worn Text from London, BL Add. 39636, f. 1v (www.bl.uk). Used under creative commons licence.
Worn Text from London, BL Add. 39636, f. 1v (www.bl.uk).

Manuscript conservation methods have undoubtedly moved on in leaps and bounds since the 1500s; I would be keen to hear from anyone who is brave enough to try this recipe on a manuscript … !

Carrie Griffin, Univeristy of Bristol. Carrie is currently collaborating with Dr Michael Johnston, Purdue University, on a project to catalogue codicological recipes in manuscript. See her last post for the Recipes Project, which was on ink, here

 


[1] The text went through at least five editions, being reprinted in 1581, 1583, 1588 and 1596.

[2] Probably gall-nuts, which were commonly used in the production of ink.

First Monday Library Chat: British Library

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! We’ve been talking to libraries in the USA and Canada, but today we jump across the pond to the British Library in London, England. The British Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, with around 14 million books and a grand total of over 150 million items, print and digital.

Today I’m chatting with Dr. Arnold Hunt, Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, about some of the manuscript recipe books in their collection.

The British Library has an impressive assortment of bound manuscript recipe books, and some loose recipe collections. Can you give us an idea of the scope of the library’s holdings?

Our subject-index of manuscripts lists over 300 items under the heading ‘Recipes’ or ‘Receipts’, ranging in date from medieval to nineteenth century, but chiefly from the early modern period.Some could be categorized as ‘cookery’ or ‘medicine’, but others are just listed in our catalogue as ‘miscellaneous receipts’ with no clear indication of their contents, so there’s still a lot of work to be done in describing and cataloguing them all properly.This is definitely one of the more neglected areas of our manuscript collections – partly, I suspect, because until recently these manuscripts would have been regarded as women’s work and therefore not very important.

I have a particular love for Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of manuscripts, which includes several early modern medical and scientific recipe books. Can you tell us a bit more about why the Sloane collection is important, and when and how the British Library acquired these works?

Sloane specialized in medicine and botany, though he collected very widely in other areas as well.For the first half of the eighteenth century, right up to his death in 1753, he was the pre-eminent English collector in these fields, so he had the pick of everything that came onto the market.One reason why his collections are important, though, is that he wasn’t fussy about what he acquired – he just collected everything he could lay his hands on – so his library is full of manuscript recipe books, including a lot of those ‘miscellaneous receipts’ that I mentioned just now, that a more fastidious collector might have discarded.After his death his collections were bought by Parliament and became the foundation of the newly-formed British Museum, later sub-divided to create the National History Museum and the British Library.

The Sloane collection includes some manuscript recipe books by both well-known and lesser-known figures. Why do you think Sloane was interested in collecting these? How do they fit into his book collection as a whole, or what can they tell us about Sloane?

Sloane’s motives for collecting aren’t always clear.But as a good Baconian, he wanted to get rid of the medieval tradition of ‘books of secrets’ and bring science and medicine into the realm of public knowledge.By acquiring these recipe books, he was bringing their contents into the public domain where they could be empirically tested by enlightened physicians like himself.The good recipes could be adopted, the bad ones could be discredited, and medical knowledge would thus be advanced.In other words, he seems to have looked on these manuscripts as potentially valuable resources for his own clinical practice.

I’ve noticed that many of the British Library’s recipe books, in the Sloane collection and in others, have been rebound. The new bindings are far less fragile and easier to use, but without the original bindings we lose some clues to the original composition process and use. Can you talk a bit more about conservation decisions? How do modern conservation practices differ from older ones?

Many of Sloane’s manuscripts were rebound in the nineteenth century.This was done for what at the time seemed to be perfectly good reasons, but it had some unfortunate results.I particularly regret the loss of some of Sloane’s notes on the flyleaves of his manuscripts, as well as notes by previous owners which might have told us something about their earlier provenance.Conservation nowadays is carried out with a lighter touch, and when manuscripts are rebound we generally preserve the covers of the old binding.  Our Collection Care blog explains the reasoning behind some of our conservation decisions.

Can you describe a couple of interesting recipe-related manuscripts in the Sloane collection that could inform us a bit about the scope of Sloane’s collecting practices?

Sloane MS 703 is a volume of household receipts, very neatly copied in a late seventeenth-century hand, which Sloane’s librarian Humfrey Wanley described as ‘A great Collection of Receits in Cookery, Physick, and other matters Relating to Women’.

Sloane MS 703, f. 43. Credit: British Library, London.
‘To make Oring Marmelett’. British Library, Sloane MS 703, f. 43v.

Sloane MS 1000 is a more miscellaneous collection, copied in a variety of different hands, often on small scraps of paper, which Sloane listed in his catalogue as ‘Processes and receits’ collected by ‘Mr Bonivert’ (i.e. Gideon Bonivert, one of Sloane’s correspondents).

Sloane MS 1000, f. 195. Credit: British Library, London.
‘A water for the head’. British Library, Sloane MS 1000, f. 195r.

What these two manuscripts show is that there’s very little distinction, in the early modern period, between receipts collected for domestic and household use and those collected for professional or medical use.Bonivert’s collection includes examples of both, and Sloane himself collected right across the spectrum.

Do these recipe books factor into any institutional digitization priority lists that might eventually provide free access?

For many of Sloane’s manuscripts we’re still reliant on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century catalogue descriptions, so at the moment I feel the priority is to get the collection properly catalogued to modern standards.Ideally this would include digitization as well, but the scale of Sloane’s collection makes this a dauntingly large task.However, we’ve been working with the British Museum and the Natural History Museum on a project called Sloane’s Treasures, which has the ultimate aim of bringing together all Sloane’s collections – books and manuscripts, prints and drawings, artifacts and specimens – into a single database where they can be studied as a unified whole.

Can anyone visit the collections in the Manuscript Reading Room?

Most of our manuscripts are available for consultation by anyone with a BL reader’s pass, though for some manuscripts we ask readers to supply a letter of introduction from an academic colleague or tutor.  If you’re planning a visit to the BL, and you already know what you want to see, you can order items in advance.  If you have a question about a particular manuscript in our collection, you can contact us at mss@bl.uk.

If you would like to suggest a library for the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.