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Friday, 21 March 2014

Castle Kitchen Recordkeeping:

   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: 


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

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

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

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.    

By: Ryan Whibbs 

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