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The Collation

Marmalade boxes, Lenten fasts, and love

I’ve always loved Jane Skipwith’s postscript in this letter to her first cousin, Lewes Bagot, to whom she was secretly engaged:

postscript to a 1611 letter
Detail of the end of a postscript in a letter from Jane Skipwith to Lewes Bagot, March 24, [1611].

The full transcription is available through Early Modern Manuscripts Online, but the snippet here reads:

I haue sent you a lettel bockes of marmilet to brecke your fast with all.

Or, modernized:

I have sent you a little box of marmalade to break your fast withal.

Because today we think of marmalade as orange jammy yumminess spread on a piece of toast for breakfast, I was initially lulled into imagining that Jane sent Lewes a boxed sweet breakfast treat.

But in the early seventeenth century, most marmalades were made from quinces (the Portuguese word for quince is marmelo, from which they made marmelada; see Gastro Obscura for a useful short history) and were served as restorative sweet meats after a fancy evening meal. Marmalade was a sugary delight, and also a digestive aid. It was hard and sliceable, rather than soft and spready. The quince was also known as an aphrodisiac, a symbol of marriage and fertility. Jane’s gift to Lewes was both restorative and racy.

Once I got off the breakfast/break your fast idea, I realized that Jane was referring to a state-mandated fast. March 24, the date on the letter, is a Lenten/Eastery sort of date, so maybe the marmalade was a treat for the end of a long Lenten fast, after weeks of a largely vegan/pescatarian diet (see this Elizabethan proclamation, one of many issued in early modern England to curb the selling and eating of flesh during Lent).

Jane did not include the year on the letter. The Folger had previously tentatively attributed it to 1610, but a quick check of Ian’s English Calendar revealed that Easter fell on April 8 that year. However, in 1611 Easter was on March 24. This re-dating of the letter to 1611 because of the marmalade gift had the unintended consequence of making me feel very sad for Jane, because Lewes died under mysterious circumstances about 2 1/2 months later, and in that compressed time frame they called off the engagement after his father and her stepmom got wind of it and Lewes was threatened with disinheritance for gambling and other bad behavior.

I recently came across another reference to a marmalade box that got me thinking more about the affordances of such an object (thank you to Folger volunteer transcription coordinator Nicole Winard for transcribing it!).

detail from a letter from 1625
Detail from a letter from Richard Mason to Roger Townshend, 1st baronet, March 6, 1624/25.

The full transcription of this letter is here. The relevant bit reads:

I haue receaved (accordinge to Mr Palfreys direction) the dedimus and Six Subpenas, the dedimus I haue deliuered to Mr. Gaye the Examiner who wilbe with you accordinge to appointment: the Subpenas because they may happelye prove restoratiue I haue inclosed in a Marmalad boxe and sent you by this bearer.

Six subpoenas stored in a marmalade box! A subpoena is a form of writ issued by a court ordering the recipient to testify as a witness. Mason thought that these little pieces of paper or parchment would restore Townshend’s strength, just like the more traditional contents of a marmalade box. Was the box empty or were the writs placed on top of the crust of the quince marmalade? Were the subpoened witnesses going to restore justice to Townshend? What did the box look like?

This led me to search our recipe book transcriptions for clues. I found hundreds of recipes for red and white marmalades of quinces, as well as orange, cherry, lemon, plum, and pippin marmalades. Many of the recipes included instructions at the end for putting the marmalade into boxes, glasses, or pots.

Here are two typical recipes for boxed red and white marmalade from a 17th century manuscript attributed to Mrs Sarah Longe (Folger MS V.a.425, with a PDF of the full transcription):

A page showing two handwritten recipes, both for types of marmalade.

The last direction of the top recipe instructs the cook to put the marmalade “into boxes.” (The color of the marmalade depends on how you process the quinces and whether or not they are covered while boiling.)

Some recipes included incidental details which helped me visualize the boxes a bit more. Folger MS V.a.364, fol. 21v describes how to scent your marmalade box.

image of marmalade recipe
Detail from Folger MS V.a.364, fol. 21v.

If you will you maie putt some musk into it and some rose water and rub your boxe withall. It will giue a prettie sent and is a verie good waie.

Other recipes suggests that you strew “a little fine sugar in your boxes bottome” before adding the marmalade. Other recipes mentioned that if you leave your boxed marmalade uncovered for a few days, a dry crust will form on the top which will preserve it for a year (for example, V.a.562, p. 104 and V.a.630, pp. 178-9).

I hopped over to EEBO to see what the printed world had to say about marmalade boxes. A trippy romance, The extravagent shepherd (1653), included a passage about Lysis, a shepherd turned into a tree who needed a hat. His nayad friends first tried to fit him with a goblet made of China-wood, and when that proved too small, they put on his head “a great hollow box, wherein there had been marmalade, and whereof there was still a little at the bottom: … it hapned to be very fit. The bottom of it was so well pitch’d, that it clung to his hair, it needed no stay” (p. 132).

This passage implied that a marmalade box might be round, which led me to still-life portraits of sweet meats.

painting with two round marmalade boxes
Juan van der Hamen y León, Still-Life with a Basket and Sweetmeats, 1622. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado.

According to food historian Stephen Schmidt of the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, these round boxes made of thin wood are a common motif in still life paintings. This one even has a glass jar of marmalade atop the boxes to emphasize their contents!

You can still buy a version of quince marmalade in a round wooden box today — Le Cotignac d’Orléans (which appears in early modern English recipe books as quiddany).

modern quince paste in wooden boxes
Cotignac d'Orléans, similar to Jane's English quince marmalade. From, by Clelia Pinel.

I love early modern postscripts because they are often the most juicy and domestic part of a letter. Jane’s postscript is a perfect example of how reading early modern letters can leave you with a feeling of simultaneous closeness to and distance from the writer’s world — she’s in love, but what’s up with the “marmalett bockes”? As Lewes’s life was unravelling, I hope that he appreciated her flirtatious Easter gift of a round, possibly scented, wooden box of quince marmalade, accompanied by a sweet letter folded into a tiny packet wrapped with mustard yellow embroidery floss.

The outside of a letter addressed to
Detail of superscription on the outside of the letter packet of Jane Skipwith's letter to Lewes Bagot. Folger MS L.a.851.

Related blog post

Citrus and sugar: Making marmalade with Hannah Woolley
Shakespeare and Beyond

Citrus and sugar: Making marmalade with Hannah Woolley

Marissa Nicosia

Hannah Woolley’s 17-century recipe for marmalade captures the flavors of exotic citrus with the preservative power of sugar, which had only recently been made widely available to upper- and middle-class British people.

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