Previous Posts

Sunday, 23 March 2014

A Snapshot of Working Life in a
Fifteenth-Century French Duke's Kitchen ...


The type of spoon you would not want to get hit by! From BL MS Bodl/264 (c. 1340), The Romance of Alexander.

   The famous chronicler, poet, and autobiographer, Olivier de La Marche (1425–1502), left us with some interesting observations of kitchen operations in the household of the Dukes of Burgundy during the mid- to late-fifteenth century. No one is exactly sure of La Marche's occupation within the household, but some speculate that he was engaged as some sort of overseer related to food, beverage, or budgetary offices. Much of this speculation stems from the extremely thorough descriptions he offered of the kitchens and catering operations that fed the duke's household.

   There is much to say about La Marche's observations, and future blog posts may explore his Mémoires in more detail, but for now I am posting a short, poignant quote that offers a quintessentially medieval perspective of work in great household kitchens:
 
"The cook orders, regulates, and is obeyed in his kitchen; he should have a chair between the buffet and the hearth to sit on and rest if necessary; the chair should be so placed that he can see everything that is being done in the kitchen; he should have in his hand a large wooden spoon that has a double function: first, to test soups and stews, and secondly, to chase children of the kitchen back to their work, beating them when necessary."


Quote taken from: H. Beaune & J. d'Arbaumont, Mémoires de Messire Olivier de La Marche (1425–1502), T. IV (Paris: Renouard, 1888) 50.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Castle Kitchen Recordkeeping:
1400-1600



   For the chefs out there who feel like they do nothing but paperwork, take comfort in the thought that most of our work today is computer generated! Six-hundred years ago, the task of kitchen recordkeeping was much more complicated than it is today. In this post we will look at "diet accounts" - manuscripts created by kitchen workers of large households in order to account for incoming and outgoing food - in order to get a sense of their utility as sources of information on diet habits and cookery routines. The most popular sources for information about historic cooking is always cookbooks, but diet accounts take us into the kitchens of specific households, on specific days, and allow us to explore aspects of ingredient procurement, ingredient combination, and serving arrangements that otherwise escape mention in period cookbooks. 

   Diet accounts are not the beautiful manuscripts that one would typically see displayed in large libraries, museums, and archives. Instead, these were the working documents of noble and royal kitchens, designed to allow servants to track costs associated with daily kitchen expenses. Who created them? The rank of "kitchen clerk" (clerc de cuisine) was one that existed in French and English great households, and was always filled by a literate individual who had been schooled in Latin, mathematics, accountancy conventions and who would have been familiar with other "office" tasks such as cutting and preparing quills, preparing ink, sewing parchment into scrolls etc. More importantly, the kitchen clerk always attended meetings of senior officers, or sometimes even met with the lady of the household herself, in order to decide on appropriate menus for the day and for upcoming events. According to the sixteenth-century clergyman, William Harrison (1534-1593), "some [English noblewomen] are most commonly with the clerk of the kitchen, who useth, by a trick taken up of late, to give in a brief rehearsal of such and so many dishes as are to come in at every course throughout the whole service in the dinner or supper."

Before we go any further, one very interesting point should be made: today the job of menu planning and overseeing the kitchen is vested in the executive chef; this was not so in history. Cook shops that catered to the public in cities like Paris and London were bound by guild rules that specified which types of foods masters could prepare: rotisseurs prepared roasts and full meals, charcutiers prepared take-away meats, white-bakers made white bread, brown-bakers made brown and other dark breads, and so on (see earlier posts for translations of medieval cooks' guild charters). Within these boundaries, public cook shop cooks could essentially decide how to season and prepare their wares autonomously. Household cooks were free of guild restrictions, but still had to please the masters and the household officers that sat above them. Therefore, through the kitchen clerk, masters conveyed their wishes to the kitchen and directly influenced the types of menus that were served. Whereas today, executive chefs take charge of these tasks, in the past master cooks organized the work of cookery, while kitchen clerks were more instrumental in establishing the menu. 

   That said, on to the accounts! Each of the pictures presented below were taken by me during various trips to the archives (pardon the fingers in some of them). All of these pages would have been written by kitchen clerks, although almost no information survives about the authors. I will not give full transcriptions of these documents (they have all been used in my forthcoming thesis), but I will highlight important elements and background info. 


Account of Dame Alice de Bryene, 1412-1413, National Archives (Richmond, U.K.) C 47/4/8/b. This parchment page, originally stitched into a scroll, has been mounted by archivists into the more protected format of a book.


  Our first account was produced between 1412-1413 in the household of a noblewoman named Dame Alice de Bryene of Acton Hall, Suffolk. Alice's former manor, now a town called "Acton", is located close to the east coast of England, and has a current population of around 1,700. No one knows when Alice died or where she is buried (this account is the last time she appears in the historical record), but we do know her husband was Guy Brian and was likely already dead at the time of this account's production.

   The style of entry use here is known as "cursive chancery style", a form of writing that was developed specifically for making quick records. The language is Latin, but as with many chancery-fashion texts, abbreviations are often used to save space and time. On the page above, eight days are listed with the central portion of the page being taken up with each day's ingredient list and expenses. A sum of daily expenses for each department was listed to the left--side of the page ("Pan[try]" or bread department, "Co[qui]na" or kitchen, and "but[elleria]" or drink department), and a sum total of the days food and drink expenses beneath each day ("s[u]ma emp[toris]" or "sum spent"). 

  What were they ordering? If we take the second-last paragraph as an example, the entry states the date, Tuesday May 16th ("Die mar[tis] xvi die may"), After listing the three guests for the day ("ex[terni] iii"), the entry lists bread used in the pantry: 



Pantry

46 white loaves, 6 brown loaves
"xlvi pan alb vi pan nig"
Buttlery

Wine and ale from the cellars
"vinum do. p. starum cervisia do. st."
Kitchen

1 quarter beef, 1 quarter pig, 2 hens,  16 pigeon
"coqin: i qtr. carn. bov. i qtr. bacon ii pulel. e. xvi colub."
Purchases:

1 calf
"emp: i vit."



  The entry ends with a list of expenses for the stables. In total, Alice's household officers spent 1 shilling 10 pence ("sum: xxiid") procuring food that day, not counting the ingredients that arrived from the stores.

   The beautiful chancery-fashion scroll was not to last. By the sixteenth century, paper was becoming more prevalent as the medium of kitchen recordkeeping, and the highly identifiable scrolls of closely packed characters gave way to a freer, still beautiful, form of recordkeeping that used the vernacular instead of Latin.



Account book of the (Privy) Council under Henry VIII, 1545, National Archives, U.K., E/101/96/31. Entry for Friday, 18th October, 1545.


   In the diet account above, held in the National Archives, U.K., we can see the list of provisions ordered by the royal household in preparation for a meeting day of Henry VIII's Council. The Council, later known as the "Privy Council", was the body of nobles responsible for direct advisory of the monarch. The Council usually numbered about 20 persons, although the amount of food listed in the account above indicates that Council members brought a good number of retainers with them to each meeting . This account book is associated with the Palace of Westminster, back when the palace still acted as a royal residence. 

The old Palace of Westminster, London. Today the palace acts as the U.K. Houses of Parliament, but when our account was made in 1545 it was a royal residence and meeting place of the Council. The account page pictured above this image was produced in the Palace of Westminster, likely in the portions of the palace toward the left-hand side of the image where the kitchens and service quarters were located. The Council met in the Star Chamber which was located in the right-hand portion of the Palace. 

   This account was made in 1545. We can see that the habit of listing many days on each page is gone, replaced by the use of one page per daily entry. The language is mostly English, with some Latin. I will transcribe the ingredient list below. Although the costs associated with each item are also included in the entry, I have not included it here. On Friday 18 October 1545, a typical meeting day, the following provisions were required for the evening supper (in the order that they appear):

Bread, ale, beer, flour, ling, cod, salmon, smoked herring, plaice, large eels, large and small pikes, oysters, eels for roasting, eels for baking (into pie), butter, eggs, quinces, trout, peaches, queen apples, pears, spices, onions, herbs, salt. 

We can see that, even though it was a fasting day (Yes! The English still fasted after the Reformation), the list of ingredients is varied and would have been combined into a tasty meal by the cook, whose wages also appear at the end of the entry: 2s.4d..


Diet Account of the Kitchen Clerk at Bolton Abbey, household of the 3rd Earl of Cumberland, currently held in the archives of His Grace the Duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, U.K. CH/BA/13. Entry for Sunday, 30th October 1575.

   In our final example, we can see a diet account from 1575. This account comes from the collection of the 3rd Earl of Cumberland whose primary residences were Skipton Castle and Bolton Abbey, both located in North Yorkshire. The account is currently held in the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth House. 

   The text itself is absent of Latin and of the concise format of the diet accounts of previous centuries. Instead, the Earl's kitchen clerk listed the major departments down the right-hand-side of the page, leaving the central portion of the page for the daily expenses. On this day, the foodstuffs ordered in the Earl's household consisted of: white and brown bread, beer, beef, mutton, goose, pheasant, snipe and red deer.  Certainly the Earl would consume a diet comprised of a larger portion of fowl, but mutton and beef were the stuff of servants' diets (not too shabby!). 

   So, despite the frustration of completing an order and then accidentally deleting it, or searching for products that seem to be hiding in ordering software, modern chefs should be thankful that their first steps in ordering don't begin with learning Latin and trimming quills. For our predecessors, the jobs of cooking and recordkeeping were so complex that they were divided among servants: cooks managed the work of cooking, clerks decided on menus and kept accountancy records. Together with dozens of other workers, or even hundreds in royal households, the kitchen clerks and master cooks worked together to perform functions that today can be combined in a skilled executive chef.   

Thursday, 13 February 2014


What did Medieval and Early Modern Cooks 
Wear on the Job?


   Something we rarely discuss in medieval and early modern food history are the types of clothing and uniforms that cooks wore while on the job. Was it anything similar to our modern chef whites? Not a chance.  In fact, the English royal household's "Eltham Ordinance" of 1526 (under Henry VIII) noted that scullions and children of the kitchen "shall not go naked or in garments of such vileness as they now do, and have been accustomed to do". So yes, standards of uniformity in dress were far different from what they are today.

   In general, when household servants were given clothing by their employer, it was usually referred to as "livery". Livery could vary a great deal depending on the status of the servant and the status of the household itself. In the royal household many different varieties of livery existed for different grades of officer. Sometimes this simply consisted of a doublet, or waistcoat, with the servant supplying shirt, breeches, and stockings. Other times, the entire uniform would be given to the servant. Usually, cooks and senior kitchen servants would be given full attire to wear while working, but lower-status scullions and the children of the kitchen (used for scaling fish, plucking poultry, laying fires etc.) may have been given much simpler, cheaper livery. Standards from household to household, and also within individual households, varied depending on numerous considerations.

   One of my favourite things to examine when I see images of historic kitchens is the clothing that workers are wearing. In this post I have gathered a few images from various sources that show cooks working in kitchens. The images come from tapestries, books of psalms, and even a few of the paintings of David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690). They reveal that there was not a standard uniform for cooks, although the apron seems to be one of the first element of cooks' clothing that was nearly universal. Lets have a look at the images:

Duke William's cooks preparing a feast, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th Cent.

   Here we can see cooks preparing a meal for Duke William the Conqueror upon landing in England at Pevensey in 1066 (from the Bayeux Tapestry). Cooking outdoors, or in an extra-domiciliary kitchen, was normal for Norman lords (the reasons for which might be explored in a future post). The three cooks depicted here (two boiling; one grilling, note the flames under the grill) wear tunics gathered together at the waist, as well as stockings. Two wear tunics of similar colour while the cook at the grill is wearing a tunic of different colour. The two cooks working at the boiling station are beardless, while the grill cook has a beard and is closer to the room where the food is being served; it is possible that he was an overseer of some sort. The text above is partially obscured but reads Hic coquitur caro ("Here meat is cooked") and Et hic ministraverunt ministri  ("Here servers serve").
Cooks preparing pork and chicken while a butler pours drink, from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1340). If you look closely, you can see hair follicles in the bottom left corner of this image. During the fourteenth century, most manuscripts were written on specially-prepared animal skins, cleaned of fat and hair, stretched and dried (called "vellum"). Vellum is different from leather because it is not tanned, allowing the skins to receive and hold wet inks. Over the centuries, follicles trap oil and dust, becoming discoloured as we see here. Still, the pages are in remarkable condition; much better condition than many books published during the 1960's!
   Above and below we see two images from a book of psalms completed around 1340 known as the Luttrell Psalter. The source itself is not directly related to cooking, but the clerk who decorated it certainly took an interest in cooks. In this case, it seems that the cooks depicted were wearing some sort of formalized livery: the cook (chopping a surprised-looking pig) and butler (pouring drinks to the right) both wear yellow tunics. Since master cooks and butlers were usually given equal managerial status in their respective departments, it seems that they share the same style of livery. Additionally, the cook wears an apron and a hat. The two rotisseurs below both wear orange tunics, like the cook's assistant depicted above, while one also sports an apron.


Cooks roasting pork and hens, from the Luttrell Psalter (c.1340).




Illustration from an edition of The Decameron, Flanders, 1432.


   In this image from a fifteenth-century Flemish copy of the Decameron, we can see a cook holding a knife and a leg of poultry, with a female assistant-cook helping to turn the spit. Here the cook wears a heavy tunic, indicating that it is winter or he is working in a large, cold castle, or both, with a hat and apron. We can just glimpse a dark-coloured shirt protruding from underneath the arms of the tunic. The assistant-cook wears a long blue tunic, and a white headpiece.


A baker with his apprentice, reproduced from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, c. 1450.
   The image above, taken from an unknown (to me) manuscript in the possession of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, depicts two bakers removing loaves from an oven. As they do so, they are placing the loaves on a table we can see in the background to cool. Just like the cooks we have met already, bakers here wore short-sleeve tunics, stockings, hats, shirts, and aprons. The aprons seem to have been added last since they are semi transparent and we can see the bakers' tunics and stockings underneath. 


Marten van Cleve, Köksinteriör, 1565.

   In this lively scene, painted by Martin van Cleve, the artist depicted nine kitchen workers, none of whom seem to be wearing a formalized livery. Their clothing may still have been paid for by the employer but, it seems, that some choice in attire was left up to the workers themselves. All of the male workers wear the tunics, stockings, and aprons we are now familiar with, while women wore dresses, bodices, head pieces, and aprons.



David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690) , The Kitchen, 1646.

   Finally, in our last two paintings, both by David Teniers the Younger, we again see the tunic, stocking, apron, and hat. In the image below, there seems not to be a uniform livery; in the painting above, The Kitchen, there seems to be some sort of uniform livery being worn. Two cooks that are directing operations - the workers wearing red tunics, one in the foreground and one near the hearth - are both wearing similar clothing. Again, this could be due to the fact that they were employed in a managerial role and were given more in the way of livery. Children of the kitchen seem to be wearing non-uniform liveries. One female is pictured, similarly to the other females depicted here, she wears a long dress, apron, and head covering. In the painting below, the two females assisting the cook also wear dresses, aprons, and head coverings.

David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690), Kitchen Interior, after 1650.
    The images we have examined stretch from between 1100AD-1650AD, and yet they show very little in the way of change and modification in kitchen workers' liveries. First and foremost, they were the working clothes of the day: labouring poor of all industries could be found wearing similar clothes to the kitchen workers depicted here. They were made from relatively cheap fabrics, unembellished, and seem to have made much allowance for ease of movement at leg level, and coolness where the short-sleeve, open-top tunics were concerned. It is also certain that chefs' whites of today have little relation to liveries of cooks from hundreds of years ago, except where the apron is concerned. I am not certain when the cooks' whites of the twentieth century began to appear (possibly during the eighteenth century), but it was not during the period we have examined here. 



 (Image credits: all images uploaded from Wikimedia Commons)