Robert Herrick’s penchant for (feminine) almonds

By Colleen Kennedy

 THE BRIDE-CAKE.
by Robert Herrick
THIS day, my Julia, thou must make
For Mistress Bride the wedding-cake :
Knead but the dough, and it will be
To paste of almonds turn’d by thee :
Or kiss it thou but once or twice,
And for the bride-cake there’ll be spice.
(from Hesperides, 1648)

In this sweet trifle of a lyric, Robert Herrick does not actually dispense any practical cooking advice, but the poet notes that the flavor of Julia’s hands as she kneads the dough will impart the savor of “paste of Almonds” and that by kissing the dough, her sweet breath will give it the needed “spice.” Herrick, marrying together some of the aesthetic and feminine associations with almonds found in recipe books and medicinal manuals, alongside his larger appreciation of Classical sources, creates a gendered poetics of almond. In Herrick’s poem, as his own sweet mistress bakes almond-flavored bridal-cakes, we can sniff out that the almond was perhaps still thought to be under Venus’ influence in seventeenth-century England, associated with the erotic, the fertile, the beautiful, and the marital.

(Detail) Almond Tree from Gerard's "Herball"
(Detail) Almond Tree from Gerard’s “Herball” (via www.BioLib.de)

As Laurence Totelin suggests in a recent post on the aromas of garlic, almonds, and ancient fertility testing, “The smells used here were not chosen at random. Perfumes, such as that of bitter almond, were associated with Aphrodite, love making and marriage ceremonies.” Herrick’s corpus The Hesperides refers to an ancient garden of the Classical gods, and in his many poems he emulates the styles, forms, themes, and subjects of his many Greco-Roman poetic ancestors. Herrick’s Julia is a fictionalized and idealized ‘nymph,’ and her role in making bridal-cakes is especially fitting for an acolyte of Venus.

Bitter almonds (and their related products, such as almond milk) are lauded for their obstetric properties in Gerard’s Herball, such as helping alleviate the after pains of birth: “It is good for women newly delivered; for it quickly removeth the throwes which remain after delivery.” John Pechey’s The Compleat Midwife’s Practice (1698) lists the proscriptions and allowances on “How to Govern Women in Child-bed,” and suggests that along with a careful diet (and lots of claret), “She may also take at the discretion of those about her, Almond-milk now and then.”

While Julia must indulge in some domestic labor, Herrick displaces much of the drudgery onto Julia’s sweet essence. A contemporary almond paste recipe in The French Perfumer (1646) demonstrates that this is a multistep process including scalding the almonds, peeling, air-drying, beating, running through a sieve, layering with flowers, mixing frequently, and pressing for the oil. This last step alone is time consuming: “Observe that in the Composition of Essences … the… Paste must be in the Press three hours at least to draw the Oyl.”

Yet, Herrick’s Julia does not need to toil or press or scald because (in his fantasy) her skin exudes essence of almond as she prepares the bridal-cakes. Almond, due to the moisturizing qualities of its natural fats and oils, and also the exfoliating properties of its shell, is a common recipe in soaps.[1] In The Queens closet opened (1659), offers a delectable and highly fragrant soap recipe (“To make an Ipswich Water”) with white Castile (vegetable fats) Soap, rose-water, marjoram, savory, oil of cloves and spike(nard), musk and ambergreece, “work all these together in a fair Mortar, with the powder of an Almond Cake dried, and beaten as small as fine Flower, so roll it round in your hands in Rosewater.”

Hannah Wooley offers an aromatic and flavorsome almond milk recipe in The Queen-Like Closet (1670).

To make good Almond-Milk.

 Take Jordan Almonds blanched and beaten with Rosewater, then strain them often with fair water, wherein hath been boiled Violet Leaves and sliced Dates; when your Almonds are strained, take the Dates and put to it some Mace, Sugar, and a little Salt, warm it a little, and so drink it.[2]

a grove of almond trees in California (March 2009) (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Herrick’s Julia is not his only mistress associated with the aromatic, sensuous and aphrodisiacal almond. In his epigram “Upon Sibilla,” he conflates overtones of the occasional erotics of almonds, domestic labor, the beautiful and fertile housewife, and the recipes that blur lines between edible and topical concoctions. This results in a poem that hyperbolically celebrates Sibilla’s desirability and her homely, domestic attributes:

 With paste of almonds, Syb her hands doth scour;
Then gives it to the children to devour.
In cream she bathes her thighs, more soft than silk;
Then to the poor she freely gives the milk.

In these recipes, but especially Herrick’s poetic appropriations, we learn that almond-products might be gendered feminine, whether through the associations with Aphrodite/Venus, as an obstetric remedy, a beautifying elixir, sweetly scented hand soaps, or even in a perfumed drink. All were appropriate not only for bridal-cakes, but also for Herrick’s idealized mistress.

 [1] See my earlier post on Renaissance scented bath waters and soaps, including another almond recipe: “A Sweet Bath and Sweating: Renaissance Ladies and Bathing.”

[2] See my previous posts on early modern violet and civet and rosewater.

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.