The Forme of Cury: A Medieval Cookbook
One of the oldest surviving English-language cookbooks, this fascinating work was originally compiled in the late fourteenth century by the master cooks at the court of Richard II. It contains nearly 200 recipes for the preparation of everyday dishes as well as elaborate banquets.
The Revd Samuel Pegge (1709–96) was one of those pluralistic and partly non-residential clergymen which the reformist wing of the Church of England was so ready to deplore. From Chesterfield in Derbyshire, he was a student and later fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and was also a member of the Zodiac Club, founded in 1725: members took the names of zodiacal signs or of the six then known planets, and Pegge was Mars.
Independently wealthy, he was ordained a priest in 1730 (and in the same year demonstrated his antiquarian interests by joining the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society). His first clerical post was as a curate in Kent; as his rector, Dr John Lynch, rose up the ladder of preferment, he hauled Pegge up with him, and the latter became vicar of Godmersham in 1732 – two generations before Godmersham Manor House, built in the same year, was inherited by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight and may or may not have become a model for Mansfield Park. Also in this year, he married, but on his wife’s death in 1746, he decided to return with his two surviving children to Derbyshire.
His first attempt to do so – by accepting the living of Brampton near Chesterfield from its patron, the dean of Lincoln, in 1747 – was frustrated by the inhabitants, who (according to John Nichols’ Literary Anecdotes) prevented him by violence from entering the church. In 1751, he became rector of Whittington, near Chesterfield, exchanged his Godmersham living for that of Brindle in Lancashire, and later obtained both an additional living and a perpetual curacy (presumably worth rather more than the perpetual curacy of Hogglestock in the diocese of Barchester) in Derbyshire, as well as prebends from Lincoln and Lichfield cathedrals.
Also in 1751, he was elected as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, in token of the flow of articles he contributed to the journal Archaeologia (one of the earliest instances of the usage of the word in its modern sense, by the way). He covered a huge range of topics from archaeology to local history, and wrote for many other antiquarian journals, usually under a pseudonym.
However, he is probably best remembered for this edition of a cookery book from the end of the fourteenth century. The manuscript of ‘The Forme of Cury’ had been acquired by one Gustavus Brander (1720–87), a wealthy merchant of Swedish descent and a governor of the Bank of England, who was also an Antiquary, a trustee of the British Museum, a fellow of the Royal Society, and one of the founders of the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1754. (Incidentally, he bought the priory ruins at Christchurch in Hampshire (now, worryingly, a part of Dorset), built himself a house there in 1766 and willed the priory church money to purchase a pipe organ. He also published a book on the fossils of Hampshire, with scientific descriptions in Latin by Daniel Solander.)
Pegge edited the manuscript and published it in 1780: it was printed by Nichols in his role as printer to the Society of Antiquaries. (The frontispiece is an engraving of Pegge commissioned by Brander, but it is not thought to be a very good likeness.)
His ‘Preface to the Curious Antiquarian Reader’ describes the development of cookery from the Creation (which, having taken place in autumn, ‘when the fruits of the earth were both plentiful and in the highest perfection’, did not place too many culinary demands on Adam and Eve), through the classical and early medieval periods, to the date at which Pegge places this work: the reign of Richard II.
I always think of Richard II in a golden glow not unconnected with the Wilton Diptych and the Westminster Abbey portrait.
My knowledge of his turbulent and ultimately tragic reign is, however, limited to the Peasants’ Revolt, and my role as John of Gaunt in my (all girls) school production of Josephine Tey’s Richard of Bordeaux. My friend Jane played my boorish, uncouth and violent son Henry so effectively that my sympathies were all with Richard, whose court was certainly a hub of European culture (think Chaucer, Gower, the roof of Westminster Hall), and the cooking was – on the evidence of this book – equally sophisticated.
The recipes (as Pegge observes) do not deal in weights and measures: it is the cooking processes that are described, as in: ‘Take beans and seethe them and grind them in a mortar and mix them up with good broth and ditto onions in the broth roughly chopped, and colour it with saffron and serve it forth.’ (This is my transcription based on Pegge’s notes: the quantities and the time allowed for seething were presumably up to the number of people the cook had to feed, and the dryness/hardness of the beans.)
Pegge makes the interesting point that most of the recipes are for broths, stews, soups – things that could be eaten with a spoon, which was the one utensil every person was expected to own (they were popular christening gifts). Roasted meat was carved into small portions, and there are many practical and etiquette-related guides on how to carve, with specific verbs for each species. ‘Embrasing’ (or ‘unbracing’) a mallard was a #WordOfTheDay on our Twitter feed recently, and you needed to know how to ‘break’ a joint of beef, lamb, or venison, and ‘barb’ a lobster, ‘splat’ a pike, ‘tame’ a crab and (literally) ‘disfigure’ a peacock – shades of Henry Husk’s Christmas pie. Wynken de Worde produced A Book of Kervinge in 1508: it is noted in Ames’ Typographical Antiquities, coming soon!
As well as notes on the page, Pegge provides an index and glossary (though beware, inside each letter he does not alphabetise), revealing that ‘caboches’ are cabbages, ‘porpays’ is porpoise (two recipes are given), and a ‘pasternak’ is a fruit pastry, rather than a Nobel-Prize-winning Russian author.
As well as the ‘Forme of Cury’, the book contains a work of ‘Ancient Cookery’ of 1381, which Pegge himself had acquired, and, after the glossary, a manuscript account book from the time of Henry VIII, showing the Nevile family’s costs for the weddings of two daughters (the clothes as well as the food are listed) and the expenses incurred by Sir John Nevile as Sheriff of Yorkshire when he had to host the judges on circuit for the Lammas and Lent assizes. These glimpses of upper-class Tudor social life are at least as fascinating as the cookery books themselves – and easier to understand.