“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.

 

From the Archives: Springtime in Recipe Books

As spring is on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, this post from our archives presents a wonderful reminder of the ways that seasonality figured into early modern remedies and recipes. This piece originally appeared on March 17, 2016. Just as spring was thought to be an industrious time in 18th century England, let us all hope for vernal productivity in 2022! – R.A. Kashanipour


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.


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)

A Black Rooster and the Angel of Dread: Jewish Magical Recipes Against Fear

By Andrea Gondos

Illness and a desperate longing for wellness and healing defined Jewish magical recipes books, written in a thriving manuscript culture of practical Kabbalah that existed alongside printed works in Jewish communities of East-Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[i] These manuscripts, many of them cherished by their compilers, played an important role in recording, accumulating, and subsequently transmitting knowledge about the natural and the supernatural worlds. As recipe compilations, they include lists of ingredients that are accompanied by detailed instructions directed at a practical goal, which in this case aimed to improve a person’s material and spiritual wellbeing. The writers of these amulets were collectively called ba’alei shem[ii] or masters of the (divine) name who deployed experiential types of knowledge in combination with traditions of angelic and divine names. These expose a holistic outlook based on the careful alignment and calibration of three interrelated spheres of human existence: the religious, derived from prayer and proper conduct; artisanal knowledge of the natural world, the unique qualities of herbs, plants, and animal substances; and the mastery of supernatural forces and processes by wielding power over demons, forces of impurity, and astrological influences.  The acquisition of this unique type of expertise, enumerated in these magical recipe books, bequeathed upon its master extraordinary powers and charisma. Here, I will survey three visually interesting amulets designed to counteract demonic forces that were believed to cause negative mental and emotional states such as fear.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel, MS 38 3279, fol. 109v: an amulet against fear for a child.

 

“[An] amulet for a child gripped by terror. It should be hung on the child and her/his name should be written on it; he can also hang on the child the foot of a black rooster.”

A curious ingredient and technique presented in this recipe is the use of charaktêres, or angelic alphabet, that was meant to directly command and address specific angelic interlocutors to produce a desired outcome.[iii] Defined as “an alphabetic sign or a simple ideogram which does not belong to any of the alphabets used in that specific magical text, or to any known system of meaningful symbols,”[iv] charaktêres constituted a form of linguistic magic and were frequently deployed through cross-cultural borrowing and adaptation in a variety of cultural settings, including Judaism, from Antiquity to modern times.

Another recipe that addresses fear was supposed to be written on parchment made from a kosher animal, one that was considered in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. Here the visual element is the formation of a square from the angelic name PAHAD’EL, which is a composite of the words ‘fear’ (pahad) and God (‘El). At the upper corners of the recipe, on the left and right sides, two additional angelic names are indicated: Hasadi’el (left), and Rahami’el (right). Both names are cognates of mercy, thus visually these two merciful angels flank the Angel of Dread (Pahad’el) overpowering and diminishing its negative effect on the person, who is gripped by fear. When confronted by the debilitating effects of mental distress, such as fear or dread, the Jewish shaman thus had recourse to a cache of magical modalities to affect healing. Ingredients here are comprised of a magic square, letter mysticism, alongside theoretical elements of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, which invokes the mystical principle of containment. Accordingly, the demonic powers of the left side of the divinity need to be included, encompassed, and subsumed in the right, the sacred aspect of God. Kabbalistic theosophy places great emphasis on the idea of tricks and ruse to co-opt the dark forces of the left, instead of confronting them directly; this conceptualization is visually demarcated in the diagrammatic features of this recipe formula.

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 31r

 

In the final recipe for fear, food and plant substances, bread and garlic, are promoted as effective therapeutic ingredients to overcome this negative emotional state. This particular compilation does not contain any distinctly Jewish elements. Rather, it draws on more common cross-cultural practices, which are adopted and offered as part of a ba’alei shem’s stock of natural remedies:

“For one who goes out at night so he would not fear evil spirits even in a place of danger: He should take a loaf of bread in his right hand and in his left hand some garlic, and no harm will come to him, God willing, who saves and protects.”

Image courtesy of The National Library of Israel. MS 8 1070, fol. 11v

 

The above recipes which were offered as panacea against fear, a form of mental distress, highlight the multiplicity of approaches that ba’alei shem in East-Central Europe took to alleviate the debilitating grip of negative states of the mind. While some recipes display theoretical, particularistic, and more elite forms of knowledge, other variants for the same illness exhibit a more universal, folkloristic, and popular stance.

 

[i] See Agata Paluch, “Practical Kabbalah and Practical Knowledge: Kabbalistic Manuals and Natural Knowledge in Early Modern East-Central Europe,” History of Knowledge, April 11, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/04/11/practical-kabbalah-and-practical-knowledge-kabbalistic-manuals-and-natural-knowledge-in-early-modern-east-central-europe/.

[ii] On ba’alei shem, see Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba’al Shem and His Sefer ḥa-Heshek,”AJS Review 28.2 (2004): 217–248; and Immanuel Etkes. The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, translated by Saadya Sternberg (Hanover and London: Brandeis University, 2005).

[iii] Gideon Bohak, “The Charaktêres in Ancient and Medieval Jewish Magic,” Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 47 (2011): 25-44.

[iv] Ibid., p. 25.

 

 


About

Andrea Gondos’s scholarship has focused on knowledge organization and transmission reflected in early modern study guides in the field of Kabbalah. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group “Patterns of Knowledge Circulation” at the Institute of Jewish Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, where she examines the conceptualization of the female body, gender, and reproductive health as expressed by Jewish male healers in early modern manuscripts of magic in East-Central Europe.