“Astonishable composed posset”: Comestible, Curative, and Poison

By Bethan Davies

We might think of posset as an early ancestor of eggnog. Posset was made by pouring hot and spiced cream over eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707), well known for containing an early recipe for hot chocolate, contains many variant recipes for possets. One recipe for ‘sack posset’ was judged by her to be ‘the best that is’. It calls for ‘12 eggs…half a pound of sugar’ and ‘a pint of sack’ heated until it is ‘bloud warme’, before ‘a quart of creame’ is added. As Ann’s recipe demonstrates, given posset’s staggering fat content, the mixture was likely to curdle. In fact, well-made posset was defined by its many layers. The strong and syrupy alcoholic liquid settled at the bottom. In the middle was a smooth and spicy custard. The upper layer, known as ‘the grace’, formed an airy crust. Special posset pots were made for this sweet treat. The upper two layers were consumed as a spoon-meat, and the rich liquid was drunk through the spout of the posset pot.

A receipt ‘Mrs Fanshaw of Jenkins, her receipt to make a sack posset. the best that is,’ from the receipt book of Ann Fanshawe (1651-1707). Image © Wellcome Library, London, MS.7113, p.320.

Many recipes for possets survive in both manuscript and print, and there are many references to the drink in diaries, letters, poetry, and plays. These textual sources give us an insight both into posset’s many uses and its material imaginative life in the early modern period. Possets were a part of everyday life, with ingredients varying depending on individual budgets and tastes. While the poor made possets with local English produce such as ale and bread, the wealthy perfumed their possets with exotic and expensive ingredients such as musk, nutmeg, and ambergris. Katherine Palmer’s ‘A Poetical Receipt to Make a Sack Posset’ (1699) playfully signals her awareness of the posset’s outlandish ingredients: ‘From fam’d Barbadoes only Western Main / Fetch Sugar half a pound, fetch Sack from Spain / A pint and from the Eastern India Coast / Nutmeg the glory of our Northern Tost’. Even as the posset was defined as a distinctively English culinary creation, Palmer signals to the global trading networks supporting the posset’s concoction in this playful reworking of the recipe form.

Posset pot, with a spout for drinking the syrupy liquid (c.1650-1655). Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Given that possets often contained costly ingredients, it is no surprise that they were consumed as a post-prandial treat, especially during celebrations such as weddings and christenings. The diarist Samuel Pepys fondly recalls drinking possets during festive periods of the year such as Twelfth Night. In 1625 Katherine Paston wrote to her son, a student at Cambridge: ‘I hope thou dost not eat of those possety curdy drinks, which howsoever pleasing to the palate it may be for a time, yet I am persuaded are most unwholesome and very clogging to the stomach’.  Despite Katherine Paston’s reservations, possets were viewed by many physicians as a medicinal curative for many ailments.  Invalids could conveniently sip posset lying down in bed from the specially designed spout. Shakespeare’s son in law, the physician John Hall, recommended posset drinks in Select Observations on English bodies (1657). Hall believed possets could cure ‘Wind and Phlegm in the Stomach’ (9),[1] ‘a Feaver with an extraordinary heat’ (26), and ‘Torment of the Belly and Head’ during and after ‘child-bearing’ (138).

Possets were also touted as a miraculous aphrodisiac. It is little surprise that possets were often served on wedding nights to the bridegroom. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), Maquerelle, the old procuress of the Italian court, provides young wives with a ‘miraculously, admirably, astonishable composed posset with three curds’ (II.ii.28-9). The wise woman claims that this posset, ‘according to art compos’d’ (II.ii.2), contains ingredients which surpass Katherine Palmer’s posset in terms of their outlandishness. Maquerelle promises that her posset, made with ‘seven and thirty yolks’, ‘the syrup of Ethiopian dates’, and ‘amber of Cataia’ (II.ii.8-13) will help them deal with their impotent husbands.

However, its miraculous medicinal profile also had a darker side, often being used as a sweet carrier for bitter poison. A new ballad, declaring the great treason conspired against the young King of Scots (1581) recalls an apparent attempt to poison the young James VI: ‘a posset was made to giue the Kinge…it was a poisoned thing’. Regardless of whether this report is factually true, it does indicate posset’s imaginative associations with noxious dealings and underhand plotting. We might recall another Scottish king who is brought down with the aid of possets in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Lady Macbeth ‘drugged [her] possets’ to give to the ‘surfeited grooms’ (II.ii.6-7), thereby enabling Duncan’s murder. In Macbeth, posset is simultaneously a comestible customarily given to guests by an attentive host before bedtime, a medicine to aid digestion, and a fatal poison. Home-made foodstuffs often blurred the lines between comestible, curative, and toxin. In many ways, possets crystallized latent anxieties around the ‘arts’ of women’s domestic knowledge, and their supposed predisposition to occult practices and witchcraft.

We might think how Ann Fanshawe’s recommendation to heat the sack for posset ‘till it be bloud-warm’ could take on a strange and darker connotative meaning in the context of domestic esoteric bodies of knowledge which carry the potential to heal or harm. Perhaps Shakespeare consciously echoes the recipe form as the female witches in Macbeth add ingredients to their cauldron: ‘Fillet on a fenny snake / In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog’ (IV.i.12-5).  The language of housewifery and culinary art is here repurposed to serve diabolical ends. We can think of posset as a particular delicacy which possessed an ambiguous imaginative life in the early modern period as a miraculous foodstuff potentially concealing darker and dangerous secrets. Many layered indeed.

Bethan Davies is a second year PhD student at the University of Roehampton, funded by the Techne AHRC consortium. Her research explores the role of metaphorical and material dimensions of sugar and sweetness in the early modern period, and how they intersect, complicate, and ratify contemporary cultural constructions of femininity in dramatic performance, c.1590-1642.


Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!


Of Wine and Chocolate in Anne Dormer’s Letters

By Daphna Oren-Magidor

“I drink chocolate when my soul is sad to death.”

This statement echoes through time – who among us has not used chocolate as a temporary cure for the blues? –  but it was written in 1687 by Anne Dormer (c. 1648–1695), in a letter to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull.

Dormer had every reason to feel “sad to death.” Her husband was extremely abusive and controlling, her beloved sister had left England to travel with her diplomat husband, and she suffered from insomnia and melancholy. She described her use of medicinals to treat these conditions throughout her correspondence, including multiple mentions of her use of chocolate and its beneficial impact on her health and her mood.

Painting representing a woman in 18th-century dress sat at a small table. On the table there is a tray with a chocolate pot, a cup and other implements used in the consumption of hot chocolate.
A Lady Pouring Chocolate by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1744). Wikimedia.

In September 1687 she wrote: “when I have great want of sleepe and no company but a sick maide and a most preverss unreasonable Husband, I then divert myself with my two sweete children, think of all my kind friends and take a dish of chocolate which I find the greatest cordiall and reviveing in the world.” Six months later, in April 1688, she even went as far as claiming that she drank chocolate every day during the winter, which she credited with the substantial improvement in her health.[1]

By the late seventeenth-century, chocolate was fairly well established in England. It had first been introduced around 1640, with efforts made to promote its medical benefits. By 1652 it was possible for a writer to claim (albeit with some exaggeration) that chocolate was “thirsted after by people of all Degrees (especially those of the Female sex) either for the Pleasure therein naturally Residing, to Cure, and divert Diseases.”[2] Initially, chocolate’s medicinal properties were questioned, as it didn’t fit well into the categories of Galenic medicine. By the late seventeenth-century, however, it was often described as a type of panacea.[3]

So it’s not very surprising that Anne Dormer, a gentlewoman with some ties to the Continent (where chocolate consumption had begun earlier), was drinking chocolate on a regular basis in the 1680s. What is more interesting is her juxtaposition of chocolate to another substance which was consumed for both medicine and pleasure: wine.

Photo of a silver wine cup.
A silver wine cup, ca. 1660, made in Boston. Currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image on Open Access.

Wine was considered a standard medical substance in the early modern period, and while it was to be consumed in moderation, it was a part of most diets, certainly for the upper classes, and was also a key ingredient in many medical recipes. Even at the height of Puritan fervor in the mid-seventeenth-century, drunkenness was criticized but the moderate consumption of wine was not seen as moral problem and was taken for granted. Movements calling for complete abstinence from alcohol emerged much later. Yet for Dormer wine appeared to be a risk, and she used it with extreme caution.

Part of Dormer’s concern was the strength of the wine and its impact on her body, which had never properly recovered from childbirth. In the letter from September she noted that she was “weary of sack [cheaper wine from Spain, Portugal, and their Atlantic colonies]”, but she found French wine was “too rakeing for my carcase which grows still leaner.” Dormer rarely drank wine, and when she did the quantity “never exceeds six spoonfulls.” In a later letter she even mentioned that she had “a little dish” for the purpose of measuring drink, which “holds just three spoonfulls which is my usuall dosse”.

Photo of an elaborate silver cholocate pot.
Silver chocolate pot made in 1697-98 by Isaac Dighton, London. Currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image on Open Access.

Beyond her concern about wine’s physical affects, however, Dormer was preoccupied with wine’s potential for addiction, and perhaps even for moral corruption. While not avoiding wine altogether, she felt wine drinking was risky, especially if done in solitude. “I am sure there is no danger I should ever love wine to sitt and sip by my self,” she wrote, “…w[h]ich is a greate content to my mind, for did I love it, I would never touch a dropp.” She also noted that she consumed her medicinal sherry in the presence of her husband, after dinner, echoing the advice that appeared much later in Benjamin Rush’s exploration of liquor and its effects published in 1790. Rush suggested that wine gave “cheerfulness and strength”, but only when consumed in moderation during mealtimes. Chocolate, on the other hand, was a safe alternative. It gave her “spirits and strength”, which she would never have gotten successfully from wine, since consuming it in any large quantities would have been “a continuall torment to my mind.”

It is unclear why Dormer was concerned about “loving” wine. It’s possible she had previous episodes of drunkenness, as she noted that drinking wine in front of her husband might lead to him almost believing “I may be trusted with it.” Given her husband’s general abusive control of her, however, it’s quite possible that he claimed he couldn’t trust her around wine with no relation to her own actions.  Whatever the reason for her worries about wine, Dormer’s letters offer an interesting example of the everyday use of chocolate as a medication, as well as of the suggestion that chocolate might be a better alternative – morally as well as medically – to the consumption of alcohol.

[1] BL Add MS 72516, ff. 163-163v., 167v., 177-177v.

[2] Quoted in Kate Loveman, “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730,” Journal of Social History 47:1 (2013): 27-46.

[3] Ken Albala, “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory,” Food and Foodways, 15:1-2 (2007): 53-74.


Imperfect practice: a case for making early modern recipes badly

By Kate Owen

I used to think “what’s the point of recipe making if you know you will not be making them with the diligence and expertise needed for practice based research?”

Recreating early modern recipes is not part of my academic work and the thought of making them from the manuscripts I work with was initially quite intimidating, especially when the threat of failure is ever present. That
failure is also highly visible, material, and sometimes requires a time consuming clean up. Making an early modern recipe requires the maker to confront the gaps and absences which are created in the process of translating physical acts into written recipes. This empty space reflects the difficulty of translating action and experience into the written word, or the inability of transferring a ‘knack’ for something from one person’s muscle memory to another’s brain. Some of the pitfalls I encountered when recreating early modern recipes in the 21st century were also present 250 or
more years ago, but have become almost impossible to avoid as time stretches away from these moments. The most obvious differences observed were the working environment, cooking equipment and tools, and variations in the production, look, and taste of ingredients. However, the most striking is assumed knowledge: the things that the recipe author had deemed so elementary to everyday cookery that there was no point wasting ink on their description. When so much amazing work is being done on recreating early modern recipes, is there any purpose of trying it at home when those results are (mostly) unachievable?

My first successful attempt at recipe making was born out of necessity when I needed to make a dessert for my partner’s visiting parents. It was a very busy week and by picking a simple early modern recipe, I could introduce my partner’s parents to my research and avoid any cake rising disasters. I baked some rosewater biscuits from Frances Springatt’s receipt book. [1] This triggered a madeleine moment for my partner’s mother, who suddenly remembered a similar biscuit she loved as a child, but had long forgotten. The act of making this recipe had produced a non-physical gift along with the physical product, and created a special moment between me and my partner’s parents . Since that first biscuit I have made early modern recipes frequently, still without the conscientiousness of faithful recreation, and have learned the ways in which the making process operates in the life of the maker in addition to producing the product. I realised that the social and bonding functions of recipe making that I had read about academically in Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge and Leong and Sara Pennell’s ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace”‘ were just as relevant to my recipe recreation.[2] Like early modern recipe book users I have made recipes for social reasons and gifted them to potential friends, to ease the stress of fellow students during our dissertation presentations, and to show solidarity with striking staff.

Photograph of a plate with biscuits. The biscuits are pale in colour and covered with rose petals.
Kate Owen’s version of Springatt’s biscuits, made without ‘the herb coffins’ and gluten free (c) Kate Owen

The ways early modern recipes have acted in my own life have made me more appreciative of the invisible impact of recipe compiling and testing in the early modern period. What did people gain from making recipes that could not be
quantified by a usable (or unusable) product or a new addition or annotation in a manuscript recipe book? I began to wonder about the less tangible, often emotional, by-products of recipe making that left no material trace, such as
satisfaction, relief, frustration, or an altering of a sense of identity. Scholarship on recipe book compilation has described how the organisation and upkeep of these manuscripts created a place for self construction and expression
in a society where a successful household had social, religious, and political implications. Since starting recipe making myself I am interested in how the individual testing process can equally feed into the maker’s sense of self.[3]  By attempting to create the physical product, rather than just reading recipe books, one can gain insight to the emotional impact of recipe making that is often not captured on the page.

Looking back, it was rather naive of me to believe that you had to begin recreating a recipe with the guarantee of a perfect end product. In actuality, recipes are written to inspire action and I have gained so much appreciation into the manuscripts I work with through making them. Recreating these recipes can be both an insightful and emotional experience for the modern maker.

Kate Owen is a second year PhD student at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, University College London. Her project looks at knowledge organisation in early modern manuscript recipe books.

[1] Wellcome MS.4683

[2] Elaine Leong, Recipe and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Elaine Leong and Sara Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Market Place”‘ in Medicine and the Market in England and its Colonies c. 1450-c.1850, ed. By Mark S.R. Jenner and Patrick Wallis (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[3] Catherine Field, ‘“Many hands hands”: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books’ in Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England, ed. by Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)