Category Archives: Environment

Fueling Beer Breweries in Early Modern London

By William M. Cavert

Detail from the panorama of London by Claes Visscher, 1616. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Detail from the panorama of London by Claes Visscher (1616). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The shop down the road that sells alcoholic drinks offers such a variety of beers and ales that while shopping I sometimes imagine myself newly arrived from a communist planned economy into some bewilderingly choice-laden consumer paradise. Beer made in ever-so-small batches by Belgian monks, or by siblings in post-industrial Chicago, or wacky young guys working out of a garage in rural Oregon – all compete to position themselves as small-scale and artisanal, sharing nothing with the huge conglomerates that offer cheap prices but little taste. Such producers, as well as the growing numbers of home brewers, suggest that drinkers increasingly value the idea that beer should be a carefully-crafted product, something that connects us to a bygone (and yet recoverable) age of natural foods and careful cooking. As much as I applaud this shift in taste and values, as a historian I smile at the association between beer brewing and simpler modes of making food and drink.

This is because four hundred years ago in England the beer brewers of London operated businesses that helped inaugurate a modern world of environmentally-damaging industrial production. London, already during the reign of Elizabeth I and the career of Shakespeare, burned huge amounts of polluting mineral coal, and no one burned more of it than brewers. Hell, according to 17th-century English authors, was like the smoke emitted from a brewhouse chimney.[1]

But exactly how much Newcastle coal would be required to brew varied enormously, according to factors including the brewer’s preferred recipe and method, the kind of drink being prepared, and, in all likelihood, the brewer’s skill in conserving expensive fuel. One 18th-century expert on brewing, Michael Combrune, explained that brewers disagreed regarding how long to boil the wort, with preferences ranging from 5 minutes to 2 hours, concluding that experience and careful observation were the best guides. Once the hops were added, a further boil of 2-3 times the first was necessary. In general, he found, 6-7 hours of boiling was typical, but the entire discussion seems to be as much prescriptive and descriptive, a guide to what brewers ought to do.[2]

Jacob Adriaensz Matham, "View of the De Drie Leliën Brewery at Haarlem and of Velserend Manor, Owned by Johan Claesz van Loo" (1627), Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.
Jacob Adriaensz Matham, “View of the De Drie Leliën Brewery at Haarlem and of Velserend Manor, Owned by Johan Claesz van Loo” (1627).  Image courtesy of the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.

Given this variety, it is no wonder that different brewers required different inputs of energy. The detailed records of the brewery within Westminster College, part of the complex surrounding Westminster Abbey, shows that in the decades around 1600 they were able to brew about 30 barrels of beer per ton of coal.[3] But in 1592 when the Brewers Company explained to the crown how much grain and fuel they required, their numbers suggest a ratio of about 3 times as much.[4] In the mid-18th century the brewhouse for Corpus Christi College in Cambridge made only about 25 barrels per ton, while at the end of the century the huge commercial brewhouse of Truman and Hanbury in London made almost 80.[5] Economies of scale must have mattered a great deal here; Truman’s produced more than 1000 times more beer than Corpus, and spent around £2000 per year on 1400 tons of coal during the 1790s. A business like that would have had both the experience and a powerful motivation to economize on fuel consumption. But even 200 years earlier some London brewers used around 500 tons per year, or 1-2 cubic meters of coal burned in a day’s brewing. Brewing, already in the 16th century, was undertaken by ambitious business people who employed dozens of workers and used a great deal of energy.

[1] This is explored in my new book, The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). For detailed calculations on industrial burning, see also William M. Cavert, “Industrial Fuel Consumption in Early Modern London” Urban History (2016), available here on FirstView.

[2] Michael Combrune, The Theory and Practice of Brewing (London, 1762), 186-88.

[3] Westminster Abbey Muniments 33,906-33,063, Abbey Stewards’ Accounts.

[4] Guildhall Library MS 5445/9.

[5] Corpus Christi College Cambridge Archives CCCC/O2/2/71; London Metropolitan Archives B/THB/B/150-1.

*****

William M. Cavert teaches early modern English, environmental, and world history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. He is the author of The Smoke of London: Energy and Environment in the Early Modern City (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Besides urban and environmental history, he has recently turned his attention toward England during the Little Ice Age.

Springtime in Recipe Books

By: Katherine Allen

Spring has sprung and I can’t help but ponder the significance of spring for recipe collectors in the late 17th and 18th century. Citations of spring in recipes highlight the importance of changing seasons and new growth, in terms of both health and productivity in the household. As Melissa Schultheis recently explored, temporality was closely connected to understanding the body. Here I consider two aspects of springtime: the prominence of spring and changes in climate for humoral-based regimens, and spring as the season for gathering (or purchasing) medical ingredients.

In recipe collections, we often find information on what time of year and for how long a person should take a remedy, and the two seasons most often cited are spring and fall. In 18th-century recipe books, remedies for the king’s evil, scurvy, rickets, dropsy, and gout were often recommended with this temporal remit. Springtime regimens were used to treat and prevent ailments arising from shifts in temperature and climate, changes in activities, and diet modifications with seasonal food availability (and potentially allergens).

Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64: Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).
Vegetable Syrup advertisement from the Whitehall Evening Post in Anna Maria Reeve’s collection (MS.2363, f. 64. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London).

Galenic medicine, and with it the concept of balancing the four humors, remained fundamental in medical practice into the 18th century. Spring was a warm and moist time of year, meaning that its favoured constitutions were more sanguine and less melancholic. It was a time of rejuvenation, longer daylight, and individuals were encouraged to avoid napping and to exercise in the morning. Bleeding and purging in spring were also believed to be preventative measures for avoiding ailments like fevers.

Sister Arscott’s ‘Collick Drops’ remedy was said to cure the ‘Morbus Galicus’ (syphilis), among other ailments, when taking in two ounce doses three days a week in spring and fall.[1] Sometimes recipes indicate specific months. The Trumbull family’s collection has a remedy for a rupture approved by an Aunt Barker, which included wearing a plaster and a truss while anointing it with amber oil twice a day, ‘especially [in] ye monthes of February March & April’.[2]

Even commercial medicines specified spring as an ideal time to purchase and take a remedy. For treating scurvy, the well-known patent cure ‘Vegetable Syrup’ advertisement noted that a T. Huckings felt it was necessary to take ‘a quantity every spring and autumn’. Huckings claimed that he intended to begin a course ‘on the first of March next’.[3] This testimony served as a marketing technique for promoting the remedy’s repeated use.

Spring was also an important season for making medicine. Previous posts on gathering ingredients have discussed the significance of gathering herbal ingredients in spring or early summer when they are available, and also while they are young and have stronger medicinal properties.

Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Pilewort. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe ‘to make Green oyntment’ for conditions like burns used pilewort which, ‘in A forward Spring’ you can ‘get it ye end of April wn ye Green leafe is Something like A Scurvy Grass leaf & bares A yallow flower like A Crasie’.[4] The Tyrrell family’s collection similarly has a wound drink listing 23 herbs to be ‘gathered in May to keep all the year’. The herbs were ‘not good after they are a yeare old, & after two yeares stark nought’.[5] One eye remedy even went as far as specifying that the ‘briony [bryony] must be taken up ye 10th of march’.[6]

Animals too were collected in spring. This is likely because animals were more active in spring, and juveniles (with their stronger medicinal properties) were also available. To make worm powder for treating colic and convulsions 14-15 worms were to be collected, and April and May were ‘the best time for making this’.[7] Another remedy for convulsions was a powder made of moles, ‘to be made only in March & September’.[8] Indicating that ‘a dead Mole is good for nothing, you must cut the throat alive’, suggests that this remedy was best prepared in the months when the moles were most active and also medicinally efficacious.

Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).
Mole Powder for Convulsion Fits in an anonymous collection (D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Image Credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies).

Spring was an industrious time in 18th century English households. It was a time to be pro-active in preventing illness through regimens of medicine, exercise and diet, particularly as the social and agricultural seasons approached. The environment’s influence on the body was a feature of 18th century healthcare, and remedies both made and purchased were tied to the centrality of self-management in changing seasons. Forward planning was also clearly necessary to source plant and animal-based ingredients and to create medicines. Recipe books hence usefully document spring as a productive time for household and health management.

[1] MS.981, f. 138. Wellcome Library, London.
[2] Add.72619, f. 114. British Library.
[3] MS.2363, f. 64. Wellcome Library, London.
[4] MS.3029, f. 50. Wellcome Library, London.
[5] MS.7822, f. 11r.-11v. Wellcome Library, London.
[6] MS.27466, f. 85. British Library.
[7] Add.72619, f. 115v. British Library.
[8] D-LO/6/17/112, f. 2. Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.

Reading the Landscape and a Dish of Weeds

By Theresa Tyers

Landscapes and weeds take centre stage in Honey from a Weed, the work of one of my favourite authors Patience Gray. This is much more than a cookery book as it records the way of life in the landscapes of the Mediterranean during the 1960s and 1970s. It gives details of how those landscapes provided plants for food and medicine that had not changed for centuries–if not millennia!

Carrara, Nikolai Ge. Courtesy of Taganrog Museum of Art. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Carrara, Nikolai Ge. Courtesy of Taganrog Museum of Art. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Gray embarked on a Mediterranean odyssey that took her to Carrara, Catalonia, the Greek island of Naxos and, finally, to southern Italy. She immersed herself in the landscapes she travelled as she moved from place to place noting that at that time that she “was reading the landscape and its flora with as much attention as one gives to an absorbing book”.

Her comments on Edwardian Englishmen laughing at French governesses picking wild chervil, dandelions and sorrel in Spring for salads, and for cutting nettle heads for soup is a fascinating insight into how knowledge such as this passed through generations. The Englishmen who found the governesses’ practice strange and were eating rhubarb, were themselves continuing a long tradition of purging.

Gray also notes that “Everyone in Apollona (on Naxos) but more especially women and children, wandered about in February and March before Spring declared itself, in search of weeds”. While in the Carrara she was shown how to collect a wide range of edible plants from a vineyard. Her guide, a little girl, had an amazing, yet simple weed vocabulary, which was “culled from the vineyard where her father worked”: as she picked her plants and stashed them away to take home she simply said “this is for cooking” or “this is for salad”.

Around seven centuries earlier an Anglo-Norman writer in England was in the process of translating a Latin work, for those who had no Latin, and in doing so he also recorded the virtues of plants to sustain life and heal. In reading his landscape the compiler of this thirteenth-century recipe and remedy collection known as the Physique rimee (MS Cambridge Trinity College O.1.20) notes that herbs and plants grew ‘everywhere’.

Like the small girl in Tuscany, he didn’t differentiate between what was good to eat and what was medicinal: all came under the portmanteau term of ‘erbes’. For him these plants were to be found flourishing throughout the landscape for all to collect and use: women, children and men. “Herbes ont mult tresgrant virtue, De Bois, de pré, et de palu”; they were found in “the woods, the meadows, and in the marshes”. He points out that the seeds, flowers, leaves and roots were all invaluable and even goes as far as to remind his readers, or perhaps listeners, that “you might know of these plants, their leaves, their seeds and their flowers” but not know (my emphasis) of their qualities, their virtues or that they are “a gift which is freely given”.

Encouraging his audience he asks them “Why not benefit from these when it is so expensive to go and buy them? Pointing out also that, should his reader not have need of them, they should share this knowledge with their good friends or, for that matter, anyone else.

The variety of plants and herbs cited throughout the manuscript is vast and the remedies can only be described as eclectic. For giddiness, dizziness, or vertigo he suggests a simple kitchen remedy to wash the sufferer’s head containing rue and common ivy, oil and vinegar mixed together. There are numerous recipes to staunch blood where pretty purple periwinkle, wood betony, or yellow cinquefoil, are cited.

There is also a recipe to increase lactation that calls for fennel and verveine, lettuce (lactuca–wild lettuce), pungent rue (probably goat’s rue) and the pretty flower of white hawthorn: “Si ele use c’est beivre et fait, Mult graunt plenté avra de lait”. (If she takes the drink that is made, she will have great quantities of milk). In Tuscany Gray notes that wild forms of lettuce Eruca were so valued that it was also grown in gardens, along with borage (with its fresh cucumber taste), peppery rocket, and pimpernel.

Miniature of a lactuca, or lettuce plant; miniature of a lupinus, or lupin plant. From Egerton 747, f. 53v.  Image Credit: British Library.
Miniature of a lactuca, or lettuce plant; miniature of a lupinus, or lupin plant. From Egerton 747, f. 53v. Image Credit: British Library.

The advice for using milky-sap producing lettuce for lactation is also found in a number of herbals such as the well known late thirteenth-century manuscript MS British Library, Egerton 747 and copies of the widely disseminated herbal known as Macer floribus. The earliest known verse vernacular copy dates to the second half of the thirteenth-century and is notable for its comment that no physician “should scorn the plants brought by the local ‘wise woman’ in good faith. For her faith and the patient’s hope are powerful factors in the healing process”.(1)

The edible contents of the foragers’ baskets on Naxos and in Tuscany, as noted by Patience Gray as she walked the ancient landscapes, are the same as many of those that appear in the Physique rime: the knowledge of their uses crossing time and geographical boundaries. All that it took was a simple wash under the nearest fountain followed by boiling in water, then the water was drained off and the harvested weeds eaten with olive oil and wine vinegar–a tradition and a dish that defies both time and place.

(1) Tony Hunt, An Old French Herbal (2008), p. 13.