Tag Archives: poetry

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.



[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.


Scenes from an Anglo-Norman Kitchen, Part 2: Vegetables Cures and a Drunken Cook

By Winston Black, Assumption College

In my last post, I introduced the twelfth-century verse herbal of Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus (“The English Garden”). This work is mostly medical in nature, but one poem on the medicinal uses of parsley also contains two culinary recipes for savory green sauces used on mutton or pork. Such recipes are rare for the twelfth century, so I wanted to share them here at The Recipes Project. But Henry’s herbal tells us more about twelfth-century cooking than just a couple recipes; through his satirical verse, he presents amusing portraits of contemporary cooks and kitchens.

An early modern interpretation of the Roman kitchen of Apicius.
An early modern interpretation of the Roman kitchen of Apicius.

Henry wrote two poems on parsley, the first of which contains the aforementioned recipes for herby, spicy green sauces. It is near his second poem on parsley that Henry introduces the character of a belligerent cook, and through him demonstrates what may have been common stereotypes about cooks, kitchens, and vegetables. For example, cooks are frequently drunk, garrulous, and rude, and common vegetables are not useful in medicine. The cook fights back, however, and addresses Henry as a “poetling”, a plagiarizing hack, and eventually tells him simply to “go to hell, Mr. Envy”. We shouldn’t assume Henry actually felt this way about cooks in general, but was rather building on a long tradition of animosity against cooks. Satires about cooks, foodies, and kitchens have a long pedigree, appearing in the works of ancient Roman authors like Juvenal and Petronius.

Juvenal, Country Meal. CAPTION: The satirist Juvenal attacked Roman high society, including their meals and pretentious cooks. Here is a simpler country meal, in an early modern printing of Juvenal, illustrated by Wenceslaus Hollar.

In some poems of the Anglicanus Ortus Henry the author poses as Henry the narrator, a pretentious master of medicines. After he finishes five books of the herbal, this Master Henry boasts that he is a great physician and a worthy follower of Apollo:

…thus similar to Phoebus’s physicians, most pleasing to all,
I’ll be read throughout the entire world, I’ll have an eternal name!


Suddenly, the cook appears, much as Apollo had suddenly appeared in the first poem on parsley, to criticize his failure to discuss common vegetables:

While I was boasting overmuch, a certain cook smirked and said to me,
‘By Phoebus [Apollo], worthless man, you’re quiet about greater matters,
and have also kept silent about Leeks, and Onions, and Cabbage—
vulgar things, to be sure, but by all means very pleasing.’

Henry then objects:

‘We name herbs, not foods, in our writings,
and these, by Jove, aren’t herbs, since they are foods!’

Simple Roman ingredients. Here, the preparation for a Roman cheesecake.
Simple Roman ingredients. Here, the preparation for a Roman cheesecake.

Henry, as narrator, steps aside, and allows this cook to describe how the vegetables onion, leek, and cabbage can be used in medicine, then adding orache (saltbush), parsley, and garlic. Sadly, the cook does not offer any culinary recipes here, but tries to show up Henry by describing elaborate cures, and namedropping the greatest authorities in learned medicine, like Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Cato the Elder. Then, in a tour de force poem about garlic, the cook piles on cure after cure using mundane kitchen vegetables, while calling on more ancient authorities like Pythagoras, Diocles, and Macer. Seemingly out of breath, and apparently drunk, the cook finishes with a brief note of cooking advice, one that is still welcome today:

‘I say that the flavour of no spice will equal it [garlic],
if Pepper is added and ground for a long time.’

Henry the narrator uses this culinary aside as an opportunity to interrupt and take back his herbal. He sends the cook off with good wishes for more alcohol:

‘At last, brother, you’ve returned, stumbling, to your stew pots!
May the gods grant you frequent fruit of the vine as your due.’

This portrait of a cook is not meant to be realistic, since Henry is using it primarily as a tool for criticizing himself and the pretensions of learned physicians. Still, through this cook, we get a glimpse of the standard vegetables and greens in a twelfth-century English kitchen. While these vegetables were undoubtedly common, some of the herbs and spices in the sauces described in my first post were luxury items, like the pepper and costus root. These recipes are thus not peasant food, but neither do they seem intended for the lord’s high table. Rather, they represent the comfort food of a twelfth-century churchman: a dinner of hot mutton with a spicy green sauce, and cold pork the next day for lunch.

Scenes from an Anglo-Norman Kitchen, Part 1: Mutton, Parsley, and Pagan Gods

By Winston Black

In this two-part post, I will explore several aspects of recipes, cooks, and kitchens as they appear in a twelfth-century herbal. This work gives us rare and valuable evidence for cooking in Anglo-Norman England.

Anglicanus Ortus cover. Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century herbal describes 160 herbs, spices, and vegetables—with poetry!
Anglicanus Ortus cover. Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century herbal describes 160 herbs, spices, and vegetables—with poetry!

Devotees of medieval cooking have a variety of surviving cookbooks to use. Among the best known are the Forme of Cury and Liber cure cocorum from England, Le Ménagier de Paris and Le Viandier de Taillevent from France, or several versions of the Liber de coquina in Italy. Many of these can be found online, with discussions and modernized recipes, here. Yet all of these cookbooks were produced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and primarily for elite audiences, so they do not reflect cooking in most of the Middle Ages, or for most people.

It is rare indeed to find any culinary recipes before about the year 1300, outside of those in surviving copies of the late Roman cookbook Apicius. Why? To put it simply, manuscript books on parchment were expensive to produce, literacy rates were low, and scribes and authors generally did not consider cooking to be a specialized form of knowledge that needed writing down.

However, some recipes do survive from the High Middle Ages (eleventh through thirteenth centuries), although usually not in formal cookbooks. Rather, they are found in medical contexts, as part of herbals and pharmaceutical manuals, where the authors occasionally indicate which herbs are good in food and not just as medicines.

One such instance is found in the herbal Anglicanus Ortus (“The English Garden”), written by Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon in England, around the year 1135. His herbal is arranged in six books, which contain a total of 160 different herbs and spices, all described in Latin verse (usually with one poem for each herb). Didactic poetry was a popular method for teaching complex material in the twelfth century. For the most part, Henry describes only the medicinal uses of each herb, but he sometimes mentions when an herb, vegetable, or spice can be used in the kitchen—an obvious point to us, but not necessarily obvious in a medicinal herbal.

The herbal author at work. This is an image of Macer Floridus from an early printed edition of De viribus herbarum. Written around 1090, it became the most popular herbal of the later Middle Ages.
The herbal author at work. This is an image of Macer Floridus from an early printed edition of De viribus herbarum. Written around 1090, it became the most popular herbal of the later Middle Ages.

Henry differs dramatically from other herbal authors of this era (like Macer Floridus or Constantinus Africanus) by introducing fictional characters, who variously encourage him, taunt him, or challenge his knowledge of medicine. These include Apollo, as the god of medicine, a naked old man from the Far East, and a drunken cook (I’ll address him in my next post). Henry modeled this cook on the ancient Roman poet Martial, a personal favorite of his, who bore the nickname Cocus, “the cook”.

Henry’s recipes and descriptions of cooks and kitchens appear particularly in his two poems on parsley, the only plant he treats twice in the herbal, indicating the importance of this common plant to both medieval medicine and cooking. In the first poem on parsley, Henry is the narrator, speaking as an authority on herbal medicine, and he specifically says he will not address cooks, by which he means their culinary recipes. But after he dedicates thirteen lines to a standard list of parsley’s medicinal aspects, Apollo suddenly interrupts him:

I would, of course, have passed over the cooks, but Apollo cries out: ‘Thalia, fetch the cooks and order the doctors to depart!’

Nor did the cook [Martial] who wrote in epigrams spurn the cooks,

and perhaps as long as I follow him, I’ll earn the name of poet. (I.21, 14-17)

Fresco from Pompeii of Apollo as god of medicine, Chiron the Centaur, and Asclepius. Several medieval herbals invoke Apollo as the bestower of medicine on mankind, through Chiron and Asclepius.
Fresco from Pompeii of Apollo as god of medicine, Chiron the Centaur, and Asclepius. Several medieval herbals invoke Apollo as the bestower of medicine on mankind, through Chiron and Asclepius.

It is apt that Apollo invokes Thalia here, for she was the Greek Muse of comedy and bucolic poetry, both genres on view in the Anglicanus Ortus. So, at Apollo’s command and in the spirit of imitating Martial “the Cook”, Henry supplies two recipes for sauces featuring parsley:

This [parsley] is the best herb for mutton, the best for pork.

If you ask the method, I will tell you. I’ll indicate for you

the first meats in the first place, the second in the second.

Take Pennyroyal, Cress, and Parsley;

yet if that herb which the crowd is apt to call ius danna

should be present, use it and not the Cress.

Add Cost to these and mix in a bit of Pepper;

you can now mix these with the mutton drippings.

There will be no other flavor better suited to mutton,

or so they relate who are devoted to these arts.

Take Basil and Savory and Parsley

and Cress, unless ius danna is near to you.

Mix together Pepper and Cumin with these juices.

In such a way, if you are eating cold pork,

no other flavor would be made more pleasing than this.

Both recipes in this one poem are similar to many surviving later medieval recipes for sauce verte or juvert, except in those cases the sauces are thickened with bread or ground nuts, in a wine or vinegar base. Here, the herbs are simply mixed with the hot fat from the mutton, and the sauce is used more like a chimichurri.

The first recipe, employing five herbs, is complex enough that Henry attributes it to experts in cooking, those “who are devoted to these arts”. The first three ingredients (pennyroyal, cress, and parsley) are common to northern Europe and easy to identify in the Latin manuscripts. Cumin, while native to the Mediterranean can grow in southern England today, and could well have done in Henry’s day. I have not been able to identify ius danna, which if it means anything in Latin, could be a corruption of “damned juice” or “juice of the lady”. Whatever it is, Henry considered it a useful and possibly spicy herb that could be used to replace cress. The addition of pennyroyal is disturbing, since it often appears in ancient and medieval texts as an emmenagogue or abortifacient. Pennyroyal is said to have a pleasant, minty taste and does appear in early culinary recipes, but obviously, do not try this at home!

The appearance of cost and pepper suggests that these recipes are intended for a wealthier household. “Cost” is probably the Indian costus root (Saussurea costus), and in its own poem Henry calls it a “famous spice”. As a high-ranking clergyman in the English diocese of Lincoln, Henry probably could afford some exotic spices, and if these recipes are any indication, enjoyed them in his meals.

In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the character of the cook, who gives us a glimpse of medieval attitudes about common vegetables and professional cooks.


Winston Black is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles and chapters on high medieval medicine and pharmacy, scholastic theology, and the intersections between medieval science and religion. His first book, Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus Ortus: A Verse Herbal of the Twelfth Century, was published jointly in 2012 by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and the Bodleian Library. He is currently preparing a reader in ancient and medieval medicine for Broadview Press, and a new, critical edition of the herbal of Macer Floridus.

Follow him on Twitter @WinstonEBlack

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