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[Ed. Note: Today’s post comes from Alex Devine, a Ph.D. Candidate in Penn’s English Department]

This is a story about merchants and menus in medieval England. Two manuscripts in the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection at Penn, LJS 238, The Statute of Wynchestre, a record of the regulations for breadmaking in 16th-century England and LJS 61, a Register of Writs and Formulary from 28 January of the 13th year of the reign of Richard II (1390) to 28 April in the 8th year of the reign of Henry IV (1407), a legal register of royal chancery writs, seem at first to be unlikely bedfellows. But taken together, these two documents offer rich insight into the diet of late medieval England and its relationship to larger issues of social and legal practice [1].

Let us begin by considering LJS 238. This chart, written in English on a large single folio of parchment was produced in Winchester, near London, during the 16th century. The document gives the prescribed weights for five varieties of loaves of different grades of wheat in an attempt to standardize local policies and regulations for bakers in England [2].

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At the top of the folio, the chart’s contents are described as an “Assise of all man[n]er of breade of what grayne of corne soeuer yt be”. The final three lines of this block of text affirm the baker’s right to payment for costs incurred during the baking process “to his aduan[n]tage.”

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The table’s six columns are topped by headings illustrating each type of loaf in simple the fine-lined images: a bag of grain atop the first, followed by five varieties of loaves in descending order of value – a symnel, a wastel and three other kinds of everyday loaves.

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Reading from left to right, their costs range from 4 shillings to 20 shillings a quarter; the loaves are quarter [i.e. farthing] “symnell”, “farthing wastel”, “ob. [halfpenny] white lofe”, “d. [penny] wheten lof” and “d. [penny] houshold lof”. Thus the finer the quality of the grain, the more expensive the loaf. The first two varieties, more like fine cakes than bread, typically graced only the tables of the nobility. The symnel loaf in particular was considered the very finest bread in medieval England. This desirable bread was also known as “paynedemayn”, a name attributable to the image of the Savior and the Virgin Mary impressed upon each loaf (demesne/demeine bread/Panis Dominicus/ “paynedemayn”). Chaucer himself attests the whiteness – and thus luxury status – of this bread when he jokingly says of the pasty complexion of that “doghty swayn” Sir Thopas: “Whit was his face as payndemayn”[3].

LJS 238 shows not only the variety of breads being produced in 16th-century England but also its social and economic importance. The bread business was big business in medieval England: long before the days of the pre-packaged sandwich and the imported delights of the Italian ciabatta or crusty French baguette, simple loaves played a dual role at the mealtimes of medieval England, functioning both as foodstuff and utensil – being used in lieu of tableware as trenchers. Needless to say, there was big dough in the bread market, and by the 16th-century the English government felt the need to standardize and regulate the legal standards governing bread’s production. LJS 238 speaks to just how important the practices of commerce and trade governing bread’s production and sale were to the country’s economy.

If LJS 238 emphasizes the importance of mundane foodstuffs, LJS 61 fascinates in its glimpse of more elite edibles. Produced in London in 1407, LJS 61 is also concerned with the organization of information into a regimented schema, though in a textual rather than tabular format, taking the form of a parchment codex in 231 folios [4]. Near the end of the codex, we suddenly find ourselves relocated from Chancery hall to the dining hall: on f. 214v there appears a trio of menus recording three feasts held at Oxford in 1427 and 1428. Unlike the more workaday  LJS 238, LJS 61’s menus are written in all three of medieval England’s languages, Middle French, Middle English and Latin.

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The first menu itemizes the dishes served at a celebration marking the commencement/graduation of Robert Nevill(e): “Le Fest de la comensement  M’   Robert Nevill  Epi.  S’lez.”  This gastronomic extravaganza featured over 75 dishes, including some truly exotic meats in the form of “signets rostez” [roasted cygnets (young swans)], “pecok ove la cove roiall” [peacock from the royal brood??] and “swanne henarmez” [larded swans] [5]. The second menu commemorates a dinner given for Robert (or Richard?) Babthorpe: “le   dyner   monsire   Robert   Gab[  ]” at which diners were served a similarly eclectic range of dishes ranging from the solidly British “Grete ribbes de beef” and the aristocratic “Fesant” [pheasant] to a dubious-sounding miscellaneous “jely.”  The third menu was written for “Le dyner de sergeantz”, likely a meal celebrating the sergeants-­at­-law or king’s sergeants. Again, some dishes overlap with the fare served at the other two feasts – “Capon”, “Fesant” and “Rabete” feature on all three menus, but a far greater portion of the items on the sergeants’ menu are described as “rostez” (roasted), including “Crane”, “Kidde” [goat], “Venieson” and misc. “Viande” [meats].They do, however, seem to have been served a dish that looks intriguingly like “Pufin yk Chikyn blanc vendorrez” [puffin and chicken in white wine] Hopefully the wine flowed freely in the banquet hall that night.

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Pufin yk Chikyn blanc vendorrez (Puffin and Chicken in white wine). LJS 61, f.214v.

Below the third menu’s heading is a note in English: “A heraud to proclayme the worshipe of the fest”.  Several “subleties” were to be paraded, elaborate ceremonial showpiece dishes made to represent a theme relevant to the feast: included on the list are dishes featuring the seven liberal arts, the Emperor Theodosius conferring laws to the Romans, Perseus on horseback, and a sea-­battle of fishes. The sergeants were thus treated to dinner and a show all in one.

In addition to their value as cultural curiosities, the menus in LJS 61 offer vital clues to the book’s provenance. The volume first belonged either to the Robert Nevill whose feast dinner menu is recorded on f. 214v, or to one of his legal officers. Nevill was born in 1404, the fifth son of Ralph, earl of Westmoreland and Joan Beaufort, daughter of  John  of  Gaunt.  He was the brother of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, and uncle to George Neville, archbishop of York. After he studied at Oxford, Robert became Bishop of Salisbury (1427-37/8), and later Bishop of Durham, a position he occupied until his death in 1457. Thus the feast whose menu is recorded in LJS 61 celebrated the career of one of 15th-century England’s more illustrious men.

As noted above, these hidden gems are tucked away in a manuscript whose main text comprises a register of royal chancery writs from 1390 to 1407. These were important legal texts: royal writs form the basis of English Common Law and registries of writs such as this were intended for distribution among feudal manors, bishoprics, monasteries, or other authorities. The subjects of the writs contained in LJS 61 vary, including lands and manors held by various men from the King, instructions to the King’s bailiffs, tenancies and inheritances, and ecclesiastical holdings and prebendaries, proving itself a rich source of information on daily life in medieval England. The register itself is preceded and followed by alphabetical indexes (ff. i-xvi, ff. 207-214) facilitating readers’ navigation of the history of English law during the reigns of Richard II – Henry IV (ff. 1r-151v) and followed by a subject index treating the remainder of the register devoted solely to the rest of Henry IV’s reign (f. 152v-204r). In the 16th century, the blank pages following the indexes were filled by the addition of six further writs from the reign of Mary I (ff. 204v-205v). Thus, while LJS 238 makes apparent how legal practice shaped the business of daily living vis-a-vis England’s most common foodstuff, LJS 61 records the texts that shaped the matter of English Law itself. Together, these manuscripts enhance our knowledge of medieval cuisine from field to table and from the kitchen to the banquet hall.

Both LJS 238 and 61 are currently on display in the new exhibition “A Legacy Inscribed: The Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection of Manuscripts”, on exhibit through August 16th in Van Pelt Library’s new Special Collections Center (6th Floor, The Goldstein Family Gallery): http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/legacy.html

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[1] For full descriptions of these manuscripts and additional information see Lisa Fagin-Davis’ excellent entries here: LJS 61, LJS 238.

[2] Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania MS LJS 238: The statute of Wynchestre (regulations for breadmaking), in English, manuscript on parchment scroll (flattened). Winchester, England, 16th century (437 x 338 mm).

[3] The Canterbury Tales, “Sir Thopas”: Fragment VII: B2, lines 1914-15.

[4] Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania MS LJS 61: Register of Writs and Formulary from 28 January of the 13th year of the reign of Richard II (1390) to 28 April in the 8th year of the reign of Henry IV (1407), in Latin and French, manuscript on parchment. London, England, 1407 (231 fols., 260 x 173 mm).

[5] Recipes for some of these dishes may be found in Maggie Black’s The Medieval Cookbook [London, 1992].