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Wyl bucke his Testament, or, an Ode to Dining on Venison

By Sarah Peters Kernan

I recently stumbled upon a small print cookbook at the Newberry Library in Chicago while I was working on another project. I couldn’t help but request this 1560 volume which was supposed to have recipes, according to the catalogue entry. I was particularly intrigued given its title, Wyl bucke his Testament, which made no mention of cooking, food, or recipes. Once I began reading the book, I realized this delightful book had likely fallen through the cracks of culinary scholarship because it has been categorized as a poem rather than a cookery. The verse details a hunter’s killing of a buck and his last will and testament prior to his death. The subsequent recipes, which are in prose, coordinate with the verse, as they are entirely devoted to dishes featuring deer meat and offal. While this collection of sixteen recipes has not been listed in cookery bibliographies, it is not entirely unknown. The book was reprinted in 1827 and several literature scholars have recently, albeit briefly, discussed the introductory verse.[1] I found this unique cookbook to be very entertaining; here I hope to introduce you to recipes which may prove useful in your own academic and culinary adventures.

Richard Ansdell, “The Dying Stag,” 1871, New York Public Library Digital Collections. Source: The New York Public Library.

Wyl bucke is unlike any other medieval or early modern cookbook I have encountered. In a way, it is reminiscent of the fifteenth-century Liber cure cocorum in its literary attributes and oddity (for the entire cookbook is composed in verse), or even the famous eighteenth-century poem by Robert Burns, “Address to a Haggis.” Wyl bucke is personal; it is a voyeuristic peek into the last moments of a dying, anthromorphized deer. The recipes are a direct connection to the buck’s death and the instructions are interspersed with plain instruction for breaking down and preparing a deer for consumption. The buck bequeaths each part of his body for different purposes and people. The deer is cognizant of his destiny on the table as he bequeaths his body “to the colde seler.”[2] He feeds the royal and the ordinary, his body providing both sustenance and pleasure.

The recipes use different parts of the deer, both flesh and offal. Beginning with a menu for a three-course venison feast, the recipes are interspersed with instructions for harvesting the organs and breaking down the joints after the hunt. The recipes are not dependent upon the procuring of a male deer; the author provides options for buck and doe meat, as well as comments on cooking with the meat of a fawn or other small deer.

One of the most extraordinary attributes of this collection is that the recipes are focused on a single ingredient. The fact that the ingredient is venison is also remarkable. As a hunted ingredient, venison was typically reserved for noble households. Nevertheless, non-nobles could procure venison through both legal and illegal means as venison was available for sale and was poached. While venison recipes appear in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century cookbooks, it is usually in roasted or baked form. The recipes in Wyl bucke, however, are familiar dishes with deer meat and organs substituted for more typical meat products. One finds Ising pudding, haggis, frumenty, and chewets, as well as preparations for tripe, trotters, tongue, liver, and numbles. I was struck by the juxtaposition of high- and low-status ingredients in this cookery. Humble oatmeal appears with some regularity, and many recipes use few or no spices. Yet other recipes instruct a very liberal use of saffron, an always expensive spice, even when produced domestically.

There is a lone exception in this collection: a recipe for “tarte Barbones” excludes venison, or flesh of any variety.[3] I have not encountered this recipe in other collections. In fact, I cannot even find another reference to this dish after searching my own records as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, but it does look delicious despite its outlier nature. The tart is a low-walled cheese tart flavored with saffron and sweetened with sugar; no doubt an excellent accompaniment with or conclusion to a venison meal.

The authorship of Wyl bucke remains shrouded in mystery. The poem also appears in two sixteenth-century manuscripts (Bodleian Library, Oxford S Rawlinson C 813, fols. 30-31v and British Library MS Cotton Julius A V, fol. 131v), but the recipes only appear in the print form. The printed text credits John Lacy, but he is not otherwise known as an author.[4] I am tempted to say that the recipe author was from Northern England due to the reoccurrence of oatmeal. While this ingredient pops up in other early modern recipes, it is rare to see oatmeal multiple times in a single collection. I suspect that one could better hone in on the geographical origins of the recipes, and possibly the collection’s authorship, by delving into the provenance of two recipes in the collection: “tarte Barbones” and “Bawderikes.”[5]

A little more is known about the book’s printing than its authorship. Wyl bucke was printed by William Copeland. An active printer, Copeland produced a variety of books. Earlier in his career, he tended toward printing books with a theological bent, but by 1560 he was producing books popular in the late Middle Ages. That year he also printed A mery geste of Robyn Hoode and of hys lyfe, Syr Beuys of Hampton, and The knight of the swanne. Soon thereafter he produced several books which serve as friendly accompaniments to cookeries, like The craft of graffing and planting of trees (1563), The boke of secretes of Albartus Magnus of the vertues of herbes, stones and certaine beastes. (ca. 1565), and The first booke of the vertues of certayne herbes (ca. 1565). Wyl bucke’s account of a hunt, as well as many accompanying common medieval recipes, aligns with Copeland’s printing record. At only eight leaves, Wyl bucke is a small book which would have been priced inexpensively, and therefore available to middling and gentry consumers.

I hope that this very brief introduction has whetted your appetite and culinary scholars will remember Wyl bucke and include it in their own research. There is much more to learn about this small volume’s recipes, authorship, and connection to other contemporary texts.

 

NOTES

[1] The most extensive treatment of this book is: Edward Wilson, “The Testament of the Buck and the Sociology of the Text,” in The Review of English Studies 45, no. 178 (1994): 157–184.

[2] fol. A. ii r.

[3] fol. B. iiii.r.

[4] Wilson, “The Testament of the Buck,” 157–8.

[5] fols. B. iiii.r–v.

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Nicander’s snake repellant recipe. Part 2: pastoral horror and rustic remedies

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Today we return to Nicander’s snake repellant recipe, this time with a new focus: the dramatic setting where calm countryside hides a range of dangers, and the protagonist whose life is so full of bloodthirsty snakes that he resorts to covering himself in rose-scented snake goop.

Additionally, the rose oil of antiquity was made with a quantity of salt, which would have acted as a preservative. Source: Wikipedia
Additionally, the rose oil of antiquity was made with a quantity of salt, which would have acted as a preservative. Source: Wikipedia

There is something very odd about the world Nicander is showing us: the poetry’s style, vocabulary, and allusions to mythology are the product of elite, urban culture under Pergamene court sponsorship (see here for more on King Attalus, who was Nicander’s patron). And yet, the poet seems to be writing advice for an audience that goes on frequent walks through snake-infested paths, sleeps in snake-infested places, and threshes their own wheat frequently enough to need large batches of snake repellant. Granted, it is plausible that ancient elites could have been concerned about snake encounters while travelling, or when spending nights at rustic estates. However, the sort of person who would be looking up snake lore in Nicander’s poetry would not be doing so on his threshing break!

This is where genre comes into play: Nicander is writing a kind of poetry in which rustic protagonists in rural settings are expected. In antiquity, didactic poems concerning nature were usually written as if meant to help outdoorsy farmers, no matter how urbane the actual author and audience. But Nicander’s world comes with a key difference – a clever subversion of pastoral fantasy: Nicander’s narrator is leading us not through an orderly rustic landscape, but through a snake-infested scorpion-encrusted tour of horrors.

A rose as illustrated in the Anicia Dioscorides, a 6th century copy of an ancient pharmacy manual. Source: http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/herbs/vienna-disocorides/
A rose as illustrated in the Anicia Dioscorides, a 6th century copy of an ancient pharmacy manual.

This is where the non-snake ingredients of the recipe — the deer, wax, and rose oil — come into play. First, the roses. Theophrastus, a philosopher and botanist predating Nicander, mentions that rose oil is so useful for covering up other smells that perfume merchants on the point of losing a sale would overpower their customers’ ability to smell properly by wafting rose oil at them.[1] One can imagine that the end product of a snake-and-deer soup could benefit from the odor masking properties of rose oil! Additionally, the rose oil of antiquity was made with a quantity of salt, which would have acted as a preservative. [2] The presence of salt also accounts for the puzzling “Finely ground” grade mentioned in the recipe.

Deer marrow is also an apt addition. While not a rare species, deer are a rural creature available primarily to country folk and those in cities wealthy enough to buy game meat. Even then, getting fresh deer marrow (as Nicander specifies) would give an urban druggist difficulty.[3] Deer antler was regularly used in smoke-screens against snakes, and Dioscorides, an author of the first century CE, maintains that the marrow also can drive off wild beasts. So here too an ingredient that is in keeping with the pharmacy of the ancient world also adds a thematic touch of rustic flavor to the poem’s setting.

Nicander’s wax is almost an afterthought, a common ingredient likely added for consistency’s sake. Beeswax, then as now, could make a runny mixture (like snake-deer-rose stew) into a more workable topical lotion.

So what should we make of Nicander’s recipe?  This sort of poetry was the ‘infotainment’ of its day. He entertains and educates by making connections to stories and images that are familiar to his audience, much the same way that Neil DeGrasse Tyson uses stories, myths, and animation technology in his Cosmos series. Although not himself a scholar of toxicology, Nicander worked from texts written by the experts of his time, and natural philosophers of subsequent generations treated the Theriaca as a reliable source.[4]

As for the recipe itself, there is no way to know whether anyone actually wandered the ancient Mediterranean countryside looking for mating snakes to toss into their next batch of snake repellant, but Nicander gives clear directions that include the elements one expects from less literary recipes. There are probably traces of actual folk practice inspiring the passage, but it’s nearly impossible to say which elements those are.

Nor should one try to divorce the elements of Nicander’s recipe from each other; on the contrary, there is therapeutic value in reading a finely crafted recipe, even if you never whip up your own batch. Everything about this passage is tailor-made to grasp an elite audience’s attention, first by creating a sense of urgent horror as a familiar setting devolves into a poisonous nightmare, then provide comfort in the form of human knowledge and power.

The recipe itself is therapy via fantasy for human beings who have had it with all these snakes on their plains.

[1] Theophrastus De Odoribus 10

[2] Theophrastus De Odoribus 8.

[3] See Dalby Food in the Ancient World, p. 114.

[4] Scarborough discusses the full range of sources in “Nicander’s Toxicology