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.
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.
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), ‘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.