My Charming Ancestor: Lost Spells and Sick Cattle

By Catherine Flood

My 6x great grandfather, Timothy Butt, was a charmer. I discovered this recently when I came across a copy of a manuscript he wrote in a box of family papers.[i] Mostly a day book of accounts for his farm in Tillington, Sussex, it also contains a collection of thirty veterinary recipes, dated 1768.[ii] Amongst these, are two verbal charms, one for restoring a bullock that is ‘sprung’ (meaning poisoned in Sussex dialect) and the other for a bullock bitten by an adder.

Searching for some local context to this find brought me to an account of charmers and charming in the village of Fittleworth – just five miles from where Timothy Butt farmed – published by the folklorist Charlotte Latham in 1878. This includes a description of “an ancient dame” who had inherited a verbal charm for snakebite and another for curing giddiness in cattle from her mother, but had lost them both in later years when she moved houses (presumably they were written down). “Much did she grieve,” we are told, “over the loss of her viper charm; it had done such a power of good.”[iii]

Charm ‘For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder’ in Timothy Butt’s book, 1768. Reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.

It is not impossible that this lost charm was one and the same as my ancestor’s spell for snakebite, or a version of it. If this ancient dame was born around 1800, her mother could easily have known him.[iv] More pertinently, the old woman’s regret at losing it demonstrates that charms were important possessions. While they were commonly practiced for the benefit of the community as a whole, only a few knew and performed the words and restrictions applied to how they were transmitted.[v] It also demonstrates the ease with which such folk texts, carried in the memory or written on ephemeral materials, could disappear. According to Jonathan Roper, Timothy Butt’s book is one of only five known examples of a charmer’s book in English to survive, making it a significant document for the study of English verbal charms.[vi]

The snakebite charm itself appears to be a highly abbreviated, perhaps corrupted, example of a narrative charm that relates a micro-story (or ‘historiola’) in which a powerful protagonist confronts a snake that has bitten his servant and obtains a cure.[vii] The flesh and blood patient is healed by implication. While there is no space in this post to analyse the texts in detail, I reproduce them here in full since neither charm has been published in the last hundred years.[viii] I recommend muttering them aloud to appreciate their ‘incantatory force’ achieved through alliteration and repetition (especially the sibilant s’s used for addressing the snake).[ix]

For a Bulluck that is Sprung say these Words
Our Blesed Saviour for his Sons Sake Pray Down the Bladder
Blow that he may break In the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Blessed Trinetey Saved may this Black
Bulluck be— or let the Coller be what it will, Name it
Then say the Lords Prayer and so Say it three times

For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder
take Salt and fresh Grees & anoint the Beast from the heart
then say these Words — Simon Joan Hunt Why Wouldest
Thou thy Sarvant thou Stungest thou my man. I wish it
was thy man. Take Salt and Smare and lay to the Speer
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Gost. Amen

As well as being a rare example of a charmer’s book, Timothy Butt’s manuscript is also notable for its veterinary focus.[x] Only one recipe for ‘eye water’ is noted as being adaptable for ‘a Christian.’ The charms are interspersed with the physical remedies and, on the basis of the collection as a whole, we should probably consider Timothy Butt as much a cow doctor as charmer; one whose medical arsenal evidently included powerful words together with kitchen physic, exotic spices, and strong chemicals.

The charm for a ‘sprung’ bullock is probably intended for curing ‘the blain,’ an often fatal cattle disease in which small black blisters or ‘bladders’ appeared at the root of the animal’s tongue. Early modern veterinary books are ambivalent about the cause of this disorder, but it was generally thought to be the result of ingesting ‘some poisonous thing.’[xi] The remedy they recommend is to ‘break’ the bladders between finger and thumb, or lance them with a sharp knife. This was a risky operation and the charm offered a less invasive method of ‘praying down’ the dangerous blisters.

Two of the recipes are attributed to neighbours, which suggests the others probably derived from family tradition. Timothy Butt hailed from a long line of yeoman farmers. Born in 1743, he was 25 years old and establishing a family of his own at the time he wrote down the recipes (he and his wife Jane went on to have at least 19 children). It seems likely that the creation of this collection represents a passing on of knowledge from one generation of animal caretakers to the next.

Inula Helenium, Elecampane, paper collage by Mary Delany, 1778. Elecampane, also known as horse-heal, was a herb widely grown in Sussex gardens for medicinal and veterinary purposes. Following the logic that like cures like, it appears in one of Timothy Butt’s recipes for the ‘yellows’ (jaundice) along with other yellow flowers and spices (celandine, turmeric, and saffron).
British Museum (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-466). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Furthermore, the recipes are concerned entirely with the larger and more valuable farm animals: oxen (or ‘bullocks’), horses and occasionally pigs. This probably reflects a gendered division of labour whereby the farmer’s wife would have been responsible for the medical care of the family, the dairy cows and the smaller animals around the farmyard, while the farmer tended to the animals who worked alongside him in the fields and forests in plough teams and timber tugs.[xii] Oxen remained the most important source of draught power in Sussex in the late 18th century and are named in over half of Timothy Butt’s recipes. The fact that one third of the recipes are also for strains and injuries is suggestive of the physical toll this labour could exact.

Sussex Oxen, hand coloured etching, 1808. Oxen often worked in the same pair for life. A team of six to eight pairs was used to pull a plough in Sussex. 
Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/uztak924)

The animals themselves remain mute in these recipes. Only in one instruction to apply a plaster of pitch, tar, and clay ‘hot as the bullock can abide,’ do we get a hint of the animal as a responsive agent in the healing process. When it comes to charming, it can be even trickier to account for the animal, since the verbal nature of the medium tends to focus attention on the thought-world of the human participants. And yet the performance of a charm could involve sounds, substances, and touch, becoming an embodied experience for both charmer and non-human charmee. The snakebite charm, for instance, calls for ritually anointing the beast ‘from the heart’ with salt and fat. It is not impossible to imagine that intentional touch and the whispering of words may have comforted both the charmer and his beast during a medical crisis. Charming, indeed, could provide rich ground for the study of human-animal relations in the early modern period.


Notes:

[i] The original is held in West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 1593.

[ii] Timothy Butt was the tenant farmer at Grittenham Farm, just over a mile to the west of Tillington village.

[iii] Charlotte Latham, ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868,’ Folk-Lore Record,1 1878: pp. 36-37.

[iv] Jonathan Roper notes that charms in the English cultural tradition sometimes show a greater continuity over the years than from place to place in the same period of time; Jonathan Roper, ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms,’ Folkore, 24, 2003: pp. 27.

[v] See for example Owen Davies, ‘Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,’ Folklore, 109, 1998: pp. 42-43.

[vi] Jonathan Roper, English Verbal Charms, Helsinki, 2005: pp. 174.

[vii] I have found two other variations of this charm-type, both recorded in the nineteenth century, which shed more light on the narrative. See Henry George Nicholls, The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863. The Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, 17, 1885: pp. 121. The cryptic words ‘Simon Joan Hunt’ in Timothy Butt’s charm may represent an extreme abbreviation/corruption of the scenario of the historiola in which someone goes hunting/into the woods.

[viii] Timothy Butts charms were published in Sussex Archeological Collections, 52, 1908: pp. 187-9, and Notes and Queries, 1922 twelfth series, 11: pp. 147.

[ix] ‘Incantatory force’ is a phrase used by John Miles Foley in ‘Epic and Charm in Old English and Serbo-Croatian Oral Tradition,’ Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 2. Cambridge: 1980: pp. 82.  

[x] In a study of seventy-five seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Collection, Louse Hill Curth found only 11 containing veterinary recipes. Louise Hill Curth A Plaine and Easie Waie to Remedie a Horse: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, pp. 191.

[xi] Michael Harward, The Herdsman’s Mate, Dublin, 1673: pp. 33-4.

[xii] See for example Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden, 2009, pp. 69.

 

Rice Bread in Sixteenth-Century Italy

By Lena Breda

While scholars are broadening our understanding of food in early modern Italy, one curiously absent ingredient from such pictures is rice. Rice (or oryza sativa) is hypothesized to have been brought to Europe as early as 400 BCE [1], used more as medicine than as a culinary ingredient. The European consumption and cultivation of rice, however, increased rapidly in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as eastern trade networks faltered following the Ottoman Empire’s capture of Constantinople in 1453 [2]. Aided by contemporary improvements in irrigation, sixteenth-century Italian farmers from across the peninsula took to their soils to grow this increasingly popular grain.

Although there is much to be uncovered regarding the ‘Rice Renaissance’ of the sixteenth-century, one area for further research is its cause. While there may have been the necessary land and technology for rice cultivation, such features do not explain why Italians decided to start cultivating rice as opposed to any other crop.

One possible motivation yet unexplored by historians is the contemporary lack of wheat. Wheat—specifically wheat bread—was the cornerstone of pre-modern Italian diets; its absence was detrimental for urban society. Sixteenth-century Italy suffered a series of wheat shortages as a result of inclimate weather, forcing many to find suitable alternatives. Contemporary accounts praising the abundant harvest and agricultural fortitude of rice suggest these were considered important benefits, possibly indicating why rice’s cultivation grew in this period. Rice, resistant to soil erosion and cold weather, may have proved an appealing and reliable alternative to wheat during harvest crises.

Relatedly, grain fraud petrified sixteenth-century Italians during famines. As bread prices surged, fears that bakers substituted wheat with alternatives (but charged the same price) verged on paranoia. Many sixteenth-century Italians recount how contemporaries would make hybrid loaves during famines, combining numerous grains together including beans, millet, oats—and rice. Given the simultaneous shortage of wheat and increasing cultivation of rice, is it possible bakers made rice breads that would have passed as wheat?

Reading numerous such mentions of rice bread, I asked myself: is this even feasible? Would rice bread be a presentable or edible product? Could these accounts be merely impracticable exaggerations? Therefore, I conducted an experiment to see if rice bread could be crafted, and whether it would be aesthetically pleasing, delicious, and mistakable for a pure-wheat bread.

As other contributors have noted, it is impossible to recreate a historical recipe exactly given the difference in ingredients, tools, and training. Despite these deviations, my experiment would still allow me to observe whether rice bread could be executed in practice or whether such accounts were myth.

For this experiment, I based my recipe off of Giovanni Battista Segni’s Discorso sopra la carestia e fame (1591). In this text, Segni recounts famine in his life and in history, and describes various ingredients in terms of their role during food shortages. While he does not include a classic ‘recipe’ for rice bread, Segni describes the proportions people would use to increase the size of their bread loaves without more wheat flour. Segni writes that for every 30 pounds of “grain” (presumably wheat) flour, they would add three pounds of rice flour with hot water (41).

Based on this proportion, I modified a bread recipe to substitute 10% of the wheat flour with rice flour and see if that modified the final size, taste, and appearance of the bread loaf. For comparison, I also created a 100% wheat and 100% rice flour loaf.

Control Recipe

Segni-Hybrid Loaf

Pure Rice Loaf

      ●         200 g wheat

      ●         4 g salt (2%)

      ●         7 g yeast (2.5%)

      ●         120 g water (60%)

      ●         5 g sugar (.005)

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         181 g wheat flour

      ●         18 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

      ●         200 g rice flour

      ●         4 g salt

      ●         7 g yeast

      ●         120 g water

      ●         5 g sugar

      ●         Drizzle of oil

 

While creating the loaves, I was forced to modify the base recipes due to the nature of the ingredients. While the control and hybrid loaves followed the planned recipes, the pure rice dough needed much more water. Likely due to the lack of gluten, the pure rice mixture was oilier and crumblier, creating a mass that felt more like wet sand than supple bread dough.

After letting the loaves rest, the two wheaten ones had risen nicely (the pure wheat somewhat more than the hybrid) while the rice loaf appeared the same after forty minutes. Once baked, the rice loaf was very white but very wrinkled, and had barely grown in size. The other two loaves, however, had risen, browned, and were nearly identical.

Upon tasting, it was clear that a 100% pure rice loaf would be unable to pass as wheat bread. The flavor was very bland, but the clearest problem was the texture. Incredibly hard and crumbly, the rice loaf was nearly impossible to slice. This result corroborates some sixteenth-century authors who remark on the heaviness of rice bread. Indeed, the rice bread was substantially heavier than the others: 318 grams while the wheat loaf was 306g and the hybrid was 304g. Its greater weight was likely caused by the additional water I added to form a workable dough. On the other hand, the hybrid was a near doppelganger of the wheat loaf. In fact, both were so identical I had to be attentive to not confuse them. Their interchangeability was underscored by the fact that there was no rice flavor in the hybrid loaf.

While my experiment was unable to corroborate Segni’s assertion that a 10% rice flour loaf would be larger or heavier, it did confirm that it would be possible to substitute without detection some rice flour for wheat in grain scarcity. This experiment also demonstrates that rice substitutions could not occur in a complete absence of wheat given the inability to create a successful 100% rice loaf. While these results do not prove conclusively that famines contributed to the rise in rice cultivation during the sixteenth-century, they do suggest that rice would have been an appealing alternative to wheat during such shortages. My experiment also confirms that rice flour substitutions could occur unbeknownst to the buyer, given that the hybrid and wheat loaves were near identical. Moreover, both findings present the value of remaking as a mode of historical analysis.


[1]: For more on rice’s history before its arrival to Europe, read: Chang, Te-Tzu, “Rice,” The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), 132-149.

[2]: For more on Italy’s historical relationship and cultivation of rice, consult: Bevilacqua, Piero, Tra natura e storia: ambiente, economie, risorse in Italia (Rome: Donzelli, 1996), 39-48.

Tales from the Archives: Around the Table: Research Technologies

In 2019, I spoke with Helen Davies and Alexander Zawacki, Program Coordinators of the Lazarus Project. Since that time, the project has continued to thrive and multispectral imaging has become an increasingly popular methodology for examining manuscripts and a particularly useful one when dealing with the stains, erasures, and other common marks found in recipe texts. The Rare Book School now offers a course on multispectral imaging and other scientific methods of book analysis, and the Coding Codices podcast recently highlighted the Lazarus Project in a conversation with Helen, now an assistant professor of English at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Alex, still serving as a Program Coordinator, and Katie Albers-Morris, also a current Program Coordinator. Today we revisit this Around the Table chat for a helpful explanation of imaging and the Lazarus project. -Sarah Kernan

This month on Around the Table, I am speaking with Helen Davies and Alexander Zawacki, Program Coordinators of the Lazarus Project and PhD students in English at the University of Rochester. This month on the Recipes Project, we’ve explored all kinds of ideas about texture. Now, we’ll get a chance to learn about digital textures, and how technologies like multispectral imaging can help scholars unearth new information about manuscripts. Those of us dealing with manuscript recipes from any time period are accustomed to erasures, stains, and layers of writing. Helen and Alex provide information about the ways in which multispectral imaging can help us interpret these elements of our sources.

Tell us a bit about the Lazarus Project. Do you work with materials from a specific time or place? With what sorts of projects and partnerships has your lab been involved?

The Lazarus Project is a multispectral imaging endeavor located at the University of Rochester. We’re a mix of professors, graduate students, and undergraduates from a range of different fields all working to use cutting-edge technology to digitally recover lost texts and images. Many of us — Helen, Alex, PhD Candidate Kyle Huskin, and our advisor (and the director of the project) Gregory Heyworth — are medievalists, and so many of projects tend to focus on objects from that time period in Western Europe, but we’ve also worked on Biblical manuscripts from Egypt, pre-Columbian material from the Americas, postcards sent from concentration camps and censored by the Nazis, and eighteenth-century musical scores from Germany. We’ve partnered in the past with (to name just a few) the United States Holocaust Museum, the Folger Library, the Beinecke Library, the Saxon State and University Library Dresden, the Vercelli Chapter Library in Italy, and the Bodleian Library.

How does your lab select items to analyze? Do libraries and organizations reach out to you, or do you seek out specific items and projects?

A bit of both. Sometimes we’ll find objects that we particularly want to work on, and set about applying for grants and searching for funding to make that happen. Other times institutions or even private individuals will reach out to us about an object in their care that they would like to have imaged.

Could you explain how multispectral imaging works? Can you provide a few examples of what scholars can learn about books with this technology?

We take an object — a manuscript, for example — and photograph it first under discrete wavelengths of light, moving from the ultraviolet through to the infrared. Then we take another series of images under only ultraviolet, violet, and blue light, which induces fluorescence in the object, like when you wear a white t-shirt under a blacklight. We use filters to separate out different wavelengths from the fluorescence that the object emits, trying to squeeze as much data out of it as possible. Lastly, we take a final group of photographs while shining light upwards through the manuscript, which has the potential to reveal “ghost letters” — places where the ink has been removed, but the parchment has thinned enough to reveal where it used to be.

Photographing the object is only the very tip of the iceberg, though — almost never do any of the images reveal all or even much of what we’re looking for. Next, we process the images using software originally designed to analyze satellite and aerial imagery. This can be a very laborious and time-consuming process.

Our goal is to recover texts and images that have been lost to time and damage. Palimpsests are a great example of the kind of thing that scholars can learn using this technology. In the medieval period, people would sometimes erase entire manuscripts by scraping or washing the parchment clean, and then re-use the pages to make a new book. The “undertext” — the book that was erased — is often illegible, far too faint and obscured by overwriting to read. We try to make that undertext visible again, usually for the first time in centuries. Other times we work on objects that have been damaged by fire, water, chemical staining, or simple fading, all with the goal of bringing scholars new texts to work on and study.

During a July 2019 workshop on Spectral Imaging in Cultural Heritage, the Lazarus Project team shared information about imaging methods with a group of participants. Participants at the workshop could see how chemical reagents are used on palimpsested manuscripts. Pictured here: pumice is used to palimpsest parchment, and then a reagent reveals the erased writing.

As you know, our readers deal with recipes of all kinds (medical, household, culinary, alchemical, etc.) We encounter strange marks and stains all the time in our books! What can multispectral imaging tell us about those marks and stains?

Multispectral imaging can help readers work with a variety of stains and marks in a variety of ways. Firstly, we can help you see through them. MSI can help readers see underneath the stains. This can be very important in manuscripts whatever been treated in chemical reagents. As you and your readers likely know, chemical reagents were widely used for a time in order to bring out ink that had faded. Yet this momentary gain in legibility was frequently followed by long term damage to the manuscript. MSI can help digitally reverse these stains. Hyperspectral and other imaging modalities can be leveraged to look at material composition of stains. Multispectral, however, mostly helps with legibility rather than material analysis. A group of scholars has recently tried to push the material analysis capabilities in new directions through the Library of Stains project.

At the workshop, an image of the Rotovap system distilling the wine + oak gall solution.

What kind of training or partnerships might be necessary for a humanities scholar without a digital background to incorporate imaging into their research?

An interested humanities scholar would first need to either purchase a multispectral imaging system or partner with a group or institution that owns one. This partnership could take the form of receiving some training in operating the technology (unless the group would be doing both the imaging and the processing, as we often do) or being lead scholar on the project.  Training could incorporate learning more about MSI on site or image processing training. There is a range of software available for processing including ENVI (which we use), Matlab, Python or Image J (for which imaging professionals built various custom toolkits). A lead scholar partnership involves a humanities scholar reaching out to us for imaging, working with us to secure funding for the project, and then this individual driving the research. We will work with them to ensure we get as much data as possible from an item, but they lead the transcription, translation and examination of the document. This gives non-digitally inclined scholars the opportunity to work with multispectral images and recovered texts.

How did you become interested and involved in digital humanities and the Lazarus Project?

All of our team members have come to the Lazarus Project through different routes.

Helen: I had the opportunity to photograph early print books in the York Minster Library while working on my MA in Medieval Studies. This led to me pursuing a digital humanities MA and further imaging jobs. Eventually, a friend of a friend asked me to do some work for Lazarus and then Greg encouraged me to apply for a PhD to continue learning from and working with the project.

Also at the workshop, Alex Zawacki transfers the reagent.

Alex: I found out about the project as a first year PhD student at the University of Rochester. I was fascinated by the idea of recovering lost texts. I started working with the project to see what we could find, and I am now cultivating my own projects to search for lost material in my own field.

Do you have any favorite Lazarus Project items you’ve worked with, so far?

We all have our own individual favorites we have worked on in the past.

Helen: My all-time favorite is the damaged medieval world map in Vercelli, Italy. There are only a handful of large scale medieval wall maps to survive (others have fallen victim to bombs, binders and other forms of destruction). The map in Vercelli survives, but has been largely unreadable. We have imaged it, recovered it, and, I am happy to report, as of last week I have created an entirely new digital facsimile of the document. However, I have loved getting the chance to work on a variety of objects from ancient coins to Old English poems to early modern globes.

Alex: I’m torn between the Codex Boenerianus, the Black Book of Camarthen, and a single manuscript fragment from the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collections department. The latter had been used as a binding fragment and was terribly faded and stained. No one had been able to read any of it in the 50 years that it had been in the university’s care. That one was particularly rewarding, as not only were we able to recover nearly the whole text, identify the work to which it belonged (Richard FitzRalph’s Summa Questionibus Armenorum), and trace some of its provenance and history as an object, we also found that it was the only witness to that text in a non-European library — and very possibly the oldest extant witness.

Thanks, Helen and Alex, for chatting with me about multispectral imaging! You can follow the Lazarus Project on Twitter @Lazarus_Imaging, Facebook @LazarusProjectImaging, and Instagram @lazarusprojectimaging. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.

“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.