Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare's England

September 10, through December 30, 1999


Miniatures from time of James I


Shakespeare and his contemporaries were familiar with a wide range of foodstuffs and seasonings and had strong opinions about the flavor and quality of what they ate. The changing seasons gave them greens, roots, herbs, fruits, and nuts, many of which were gathered in hedgerows, fields, and forests, as well as in kitchen gardens. People enjoyed breads made from a variety of flours, ate every part of the animals that came their way, and used clever tricks to trap birds, feeding them with aromatic herbs to flavor their meat. The diet of sixteenth-century English men and women varied with the seasons, and their foods provided medicine as well as sustenance. While some foods were imported from the Continent, the average diet was biased towad local specialties.

By the end of the seventeenth century, new developments in agriculture, imported foods, beverages, and seasonings, and a palate that had shifted from sweet to salty had changed the way the English ate. Books on herbs and medicine, laws governing the baking of bread and the importing of spices, household accounts, gardening journals, and even student plays, as well as printed and manuscript recipe books, permit us to see into the gardens, kitchens, butteries, and cellars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to experience some of the food grown, prepared, and stored there.

"What Diet is."


Thomas Moffett, Healths improvement; or rules comprizing
and discovering the nature, method, and manner of preparing
all sorts of food used in this nation.
London, 1655.


The large number of health manuals published for home use by 1675 suggests the complex relationship that was perceived to exist between foods and medicine. The humoral theory, based on the writings of Hippocrates (c. 460-377 BC), was used throughout the seventeenth century and later to explain and to treat illness. In each person's character, one of four humors was believed to dominate: Bile, Blood, Choler, or Melancholy. Just as individuals were characterized by one temperament, so too were individual meats, spices, wines, and other foods. Illness, therefore, resulted from unbalanced humors, and home remedies used garden herbs, vegetables, and spices to restore balance. Diet, according to Thomas Moffett, ought to be an orderly course of nourishment "for the preservation recovery or continuance of the health of mankind."


The assise of bread, newly corrected and
enlarged, from twelve pence the quarter of wheat,
unto three pound and sixpence the quarter.
London, 1600.


Pottage and bread formed the core of the Tudor diet for all classes of society. Many printed menus include dishes of buttered loaves, while pottage recipes call for bread as a thickener and as an accompaniment. Bread flours milled from wheat, rye, or barley were baked into loaves whose weight and appearance were regulated by the Assise of Bread. The type of bread consumed reflected the social position of the consumer. At the main midday meal, pottage might be flavored with bacon, thickened with jelly or eggs, and served with buttered loaves. Many pottage recipes used peas, spinach, and sorrel to give green color and nutritive value to the soup.

Many flours were known to Shakespeare's contemporaries. In lean times, flours of beans, peas, oats, and even acorns and lentils were used. The Assise specified the weights and types of bread that could be made: simnel (a bread first boiled then baked), white, wheaten, household (brown), and horsebread (from bean and bran flour and fed to horses). It also required each baker to mark his loaves with a seal. Spice breads and other special breads could be made only for funerals, on Good Friday, and at Christmas.


Sarah Longe, Mrs. Sarah Longe her Receipt
Manuscript, c. 1610.


Imported sugar and spices, especially pepper, cloves, and cinnamon, accounted for the sweet/spicy flavor of much English and European cookery before 1700. A legacy of the Crusaders' exposure to Near Eastern cookery, combinations of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, raisins, and sugar were a preference rather than a disguise for spoiled foods. The spicy/sweet palate that was used to flavor meats, vegetables, and even green "sallets" was gradually replaced by 1700 with a preference for salty/tangy foods familiar to modern diners. Despite the preference for sweet flavors, salt was used as a seasoning in pottages and in tarts and was used to preserve a variety of foods. Salted meats and fish were generally rinsed in several changes of liquid before they were added to a dish.

Like many recipe books compiled for home use, Sarah Longe's manuscript combines three types of recipes: "preserves & conserves," "Cokery," and "Physicke & Chirurgery." Her recipes make it clear that sugar was a favored ingredient. Marmalade probably came to England as a quince preserve (from the Portuguese marmelo) in the early sixteenth century. Such brightly colored sweets provided visual appeal to a winter meal.

Letters written to Lady Mary (Vanlore) Powell and her husband, Sir Edward Powell, bart., by their stewards in 1630 indicate that a great deal of time was spent procuring food for the Powells' country household in Weston Zoyland, Somersetshire. Thomas Crompton complains in one written in November that "sault is exceeding deere at Bridgewater [Market]." He sent a man to Bristol where salt could be purchased at a lower price. Freshly butchered meat was salted in late fall for winter consumption, so Crompton needed large amounts of good-quality salt to insure that cured meats would not spoil.

Hannah Woolley, The queen-like closet, or rich cabinet
stored with all manner of rare receipts . . . third edition
London, 1675.

As with all foods, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were valued for their medicinal properties as well as for their pleasant taste. Many wines and beers had a very low alcohol content and were consumed at each meal. Dairy products added protein to the diet on fasting days. For household distilling and brewing, good water supplies were important. William Harrison's wife preferred Thames river water. Increased cultivation of fruit trees and bee hives provided farmers with the raw materials for cider, perry (from pears), and honey-based drinks such as mead, and according to authors like John Worlidge, made land more productive.

Most households quenched their thirsts with ale or beer. Ales were brewed with malt and water, while beer contained hops that imparted a bitter flavor. Many housewives added other flavors as well, such as bayberries, orris, or long pepper. Consumption of weak, low-alcohol drinks at this time has been estimated at around one gallon per person per day.



Drinking a hot liquid was a new experience for most Englishmen. Coffee, tea, and chocolate were imported luxuries and, unlike ale and beer, were prepared with specialized equipment and consumed at leisure. First introduced into England as medicines, coffee and chocolate were thought to have dry humors and were recommended as stimulants, especially for those studying or working long hours. Tea was introduced by Jesuit missionaries who had served in the Far East and who attributed the health and long lives of the Chinese to their drinking of tea. While the coffee-house became a fixture in towns all over England, home consumption was limited to the well-to-do until the late eighteenth century.

Coffee had a reputation in medical circles for preventing drowsiness, but it was also considered so drying that the result was impotence. Other grievances outlined by the author of The Women's Petition against Coffee include the worry that men "like so many frogs in a puddle, . . . sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a cozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping." In response, The mens answer to the womens petition, London, 1674, defends the coffee-house as "the Citizens Academy," where coffee "both keeps us sober and can make us so." Like coffee, chocolate was considered cold and dry. To make it cacao-nut paste, sugar, and pepper were mixed, then heated in water and drunk.


William Lawson, A new orchard and garden: or the
best way for planting, grafting, and to make any ground good,
for a rich orchard
. London, 1623.

Improvements in the care of plants, animals, and soil meant more varieties of produce and more efficient use of lands. Planting new vegetable crops (such as cabbage and carrots) introduced into England by Dutch farmers, cultivating fruit and nut orchards, and using improved plows were a few of the techniques that farmers employed to increase their yield. Revived interest in classical as well as contemporary works on farming was strong among rural gentry who sought not only to improve their lands but also to maintain the social order: "Whosoever does not maintain the Plough destroys this Kingdom," proclaimed Robert Cecil before the House of Commons in 1601.

In the early seventeenth century, serious gentlemen farmers turned to fruit orchards to improve their lands and took great pride in what they produced. Following strategies established by classical authors and herbalists, William Lawson wrote guides for effective fruit, garden, and bee cultivation. Numerous varieties of apples, pears, cherries, as well as strawberries, cucumbers, and melons were among the fruitage planted in the gardens of country estates. Whether conserved or candied, eaten as table fruit, or distilled into medicinal waters, these fruits became a larger part of the English diet after mid-century.



Nicholas de Bonnefons, The French gardiner,
instructing how to cultivate all sorts of fruit-trees.

London, 1658.

Combining techniques for conserving and drying with instructions on cultivation of garden tillage proved to be a successful formula. Bonnefons's book was printed in one Dutch, one English, and six French editions by 1658.







Gallen, 1666. A new almanack. London, 1666,
Tixall Library-Fairfax of Cameron copy.

The owner of this almanac must have adopted the advice of the herbalist John Gerard, who wrote that apples vary "infinitely according to the soil and climate." The almanac is interleaved with notes about the orchard at Tixall Hall, Staffordshire. The orchard was laid out in four groups of ten trees of each variety: Holland pippin, Great Bury pear, Flanders cherry.







In 1600 approximately 800 markets in England gave rural and urban inhabitants access to a variety of foods. Country residents regularly purchased food at small markets and fairs. City residents, on the other hand, usually shopped for food at markets held once a week. Account books kept for a London household in 1612 record weekly purchases of meats, poultry, wines, cooking fats, and flour and spices. In London, as in other cities, each market sold particular goods such as herbs, cheese, or freshwater fish. Other items were bought from large regional fairs where vendors sold dry goods, livestock, and grains.

Provisioning London's residents required a network of sixteen markets. Billingsgate sold grain transported from Thames Valley river ports and from the Baltic, salt from France, onions and roots, imported oranges and fruit, and fresh- and saltwater fish and shellfish. By 1546, Leadenhall vendors included crops from Essex, Middlesex (corn, cattle), and Kent (fruit, vegetables, hops) although most sellers also displayed boars' heads and other cuts of meat and live poultry.


The fables of Aesop paraphras'd
Second edition, by John Ogilby
London, 1668

Storing provisions required dry space that was rodent-proof. In this illustration for "The City Mouse and the Country Mouse," Wenceslaus Hollar shows commonly-used strategies: egg baskets, barrels, covered earthenware jugs, hanging meats on nails, and placing pies on shelves. The round pie behind the mouse is called a coffin. Coffins were an economical alternative to ceramic pie dishes. The hard rye crust was not eaten and could be re-used. The top crust was removed and portions were scooped out and served to the diners.





Bartolomeo Scappi, Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi,
cuoco secreto di Papa Pio Quinto.
Venice, 1605

In the seventeenth century, English cooks relied on a variety of methods for preparing and preserving foods. Knowledge of cookery was often recorded by women in their own "receipt books," but printed collections of recipes gradually became available as well. Published cookery books by professional male chefs like Robert May included elaborate desserts as well as everyday staples such as pottage. Women often copied from printed recipes finding new ways to use the local produce available to them. The large number of dishes that relied on dairy products prompted one person to comment, "my cow is a commonwealth."

In the large kitchen above, used by the Pope's cook, there are several pieces of cooking equipment that were basic to a well-provisioned household kitchen in England. The low wall ovens are topped by clay kettles for simmering and boiling. The hearth is equipped with spits and hanging cranes for large pots. The mortar and pestle in the foreground were essential to any cook preparing sauces or using nuts as thickening or ground spices for flavor. The pasta table, however, marks this kitchen as an Italian one.


François Pierre de La Varenne, The French Cook . . .
the second edition.
London, 1654

When François Pierre de La Varenne's cookbook was published in the 1650s, it transformed both French and English cooking. In England, La Varenne's book helped to bring about a transition from medieval-style recipes to more recognizably modern preparations in which the use of flour-based roûx, or sauces, was particularly important. While the English took up French cooking methods, even anglicizing French terms, they continued traditional practices as well. Roasting meat, beef in particular, was central to English cooking, and the roast became renowned as a symbol of English culture.

"Kickshaw" and "hash" are anglicized words adopted from French cooking in the mid-seventeenth century. From quelquechose (something), kickshaw refers to a puff paste dough filled with berries, marrow, kidney, "or any other thing what you like best" (Woolley). Hash describes a common cooking technique (hacher, to hack or slice) for sliced meats, as well as the resulting dish of meat in a sauce.


Georg Philipp Harsdoerffer, Vollständiges Trincir-
Büchlein handlend.
Nuremberg, 1640?

Appropriate behavior in both cooking and eating was of great concern in Shakespeare's England and was addressed in numerous published volumes. Not only was the treatment of servants dictated but also rules for the proper serving and consuming of food. For example, in a guide to "ladies, gentlewomen, and maids" published in 1668, Hannah Woolley commanded her readers, "Put not your Knife to your mouth unless it be to eat an Egge." Good table manners were crucial to maintaining social relations since they were thought to express respect for hosts and others worthy of esteem.

While bills of fare in cookbooks note the proper order for serving each course, carving manuals like Harsdoerffer's give instruction to servants on how to carve in public. Here the housewife employs the basic tools necessary: a napkin to cover her arm, a broad carving knife to present food on, and a two-tined fork to hold the meat in place. Presentation of dishes in the correct order by the server was a part of the dining ceremony. The butler dispensed drinks from the tiered cupboard at the rear and served sauces. The basin and ewer was used by each person to wash his hands between the first and second courses.

The counterpart of the modern dessert, the banquet or sweetmeat course that followed an elaborate meal was a combination of both food and entertainment. Sweet foods were often prepared from published recipes: for example sugar paste or marmalade: and were sometimes believed to act as aphrodisiacs. Elaborate vessels made from expensive materials appeared on the banquet tables of the wealthy and enhanced the appearance of the sweets. Trenchers decorated with verses to be read aloud made the tablewares part of the banquet entertainment.


Josiah King, The examination and tryal of old Father
Christmas together with his clearing by the jury.

London, 1687

Food and drink played important roles in Christmas celebrations during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Christmas festivities often ended with a Twelfth Night banquet on the sixth of January, and the Christmas season was the time when the yeomanry and apprentices demanded finer quality bread and ale than they ordinarily received. This tradition, called "wassailing," provided an important opportunity for the gentry to demonstrate their hospitality. As Thomas Tusser counseled his readers, "At Christmas be merye, & thankful withall/& feast thy poore neighbors ye gret with ye small."

Religious aspects of keeping Christmas changed during the seventeenth century, although many social customs like wassailing remained intact. Josiah King's book mocks those who would suppress Christmas. The Puritan jury members are all mean, among them Mr. Eat-alone, Mr. Hoord-corne, and Mr. Cold-kitchin, and they are replaced by Mr. Warm-gut, Mr. Neighbour-hood, and Mr. Open-house, who acquit Father Christmas.

Brawn, made from force-fed boar meat and served with mustard sauce, is traditionally associated with Christmas in England. The plot of A Christmas messe involves a battle between the forces of King Brawn and King Beef for the place of first setting at the Christmas meal. The cook resolves the debate, and Brawn, assisted by Mustard, is sent in first, followed by Queen Mincepie. This play may well have been performed at a Cambridge college as an after-dinner lesson in debating.

December's good cheer for Thomas Tusser's family included brawn pudding along with freshly killed beef, mutton, pork, veal, goose, capon, and turkey. Apples, cheese, and nuts with jolly carols end the "christmas husbandly fare." Tusser's plea for year-round hospitality makes sense in a world where fresh food was available only seasonally and enough to eat depended on a good harvest.