Saturday 24 May 2014

The culinary recipes of medieval England

Last week, my new cookbook, 'The culinary recipes of medieval England', arrived by post. The book, published in December 2013, is written by the late Constance B. Hieatt (died 2011), well-known for her other medieval culinary books and recipes, such as 'Pleyn Delit', a book I frequently use in making medieval dishes.

While 'Pleyn Delit' is a modern cookbook with precise instructions and amounts of ingredients, this cookbook is a 'true' medieval one with only general directions and no amounts of the ingredients. The recipes are, however, translated into modern English. To use this book you have to be an experienced (medieval) cook, and having an grasp of what amounts to use to make such dishes. For me, it will be challenging, but not too difficult. I already have some experience cooking from a Dutch late medieval cookbook [De keuken van de late middeleeuwen, UB Gent 476] without any amounts of ingredients given...

Constance Hieatt is clear why no modern adaptations are given: there is no room for that in the 216 pages of the book (though I would not have minded a twice as voluminous cookbook). She also states that many recipes are of dubious appeal or practicality for modern cooks:"those who think they want to try one of the versions of 'haggis' would first have to possess themselves of a sheep's stomach to cook it in, for example". Personally, I like haggis (while I find that neeps give me the creeps). I also think a medieval recipe for haggis would certainly appeal to the Scottish re-enactors, and they likely have a brave heart to try to make it. Therefore I have taken this recipe (2 versions) out of this book, and reproduced below. Perhaps I will once try it as well.


Take eggs with all the white and mince bread and sheep's tallow as great as dice. grind pepper and saffron and add them, and put this in the sheep's belly. boil it well and serve it in broad thin slices.
MS Bodleian Douce 257, dated around 1381. recipe 15.

Note: Some later recipes add various embellishments, such as milk or cream; one in the H279 adds chopped guts, while another there adds roasted pullets, pork, cheese, and spices to the stuffing; but perhaps for good reason doesn't label this one haggis. 'Fronchemoyle' (variously spelled) is another word for haggis.

Take the guts with the tallow and parboil them; then chop them small. grind pepper and saffron and bread, and [add] yolks of eggs and raw cream of fresh milk; put it all together and put in the belly of the sheep, that is, the stomach. Then boil and serve it forth.
MS B.L. Harleian 279, dated about 1435. 'Leche Vyaundez' recipe 25

 Detail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century  
London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, folio 137r.

The recipes in 'the culinary recipes of medieval England' are a compilation of the recipes of 36 original English medieval cookbooks. When multiple variations of the same recipe exist in the cookbooks, the most complete, or the oldest version is given. Unfortunately, the discovery of an English cookbook from the 14th century of Geoffrey Fule, cook of Queen Phillipa (Ms Additional 142012), in the British library in 2012 was to late to be included. The recipes for roast unicorn or hedgehogs are therefore sorely missed.
etail of a unicorn on the grill in Geoffrey Fule's cookbook, England, mid-14th century (London, British Library, MS Additional 142012, f. 137r). - See more at:
The culinary recipes of medieval England is a 216 page hardcover book published by Prosper books (ISBN-13 978-1-909248-30-4) and will cost around 30 pounds, though bargain examples can be found on internet for less money.

Monday 19 May 2014

Emeles (almond cakes)

I have mentioned 'Emeles' in the comments of the recipe for Torta in Balconata. Emeles, or almond cakes are a great way to use the left-over ground almonds from making almond milk. My first try making Emeles, however, was a failure, but this was probably because I did not pay enough attention to the recipe. The second try was a success, so I can recommend anyone making these almond cakes or cookies.


Take sugar, salt, almonds, and white bread, and grind them together; then add eggs; then grease oil or butter, and take a spoon and brush them [i.e. frying them] and then remove them and sprinkle them with dry sugar.

British Library, manuscript Additional 32085, folio 117v-119v, and manuscript Royal 12 C.xii folio 11-13, dated around 1320-1340.

A labyrinth capital from folio 11r of ms Add. 32085.
British Library, London, UK.


1 cup of breadcrumbs (or more). I used commercial breadcrumbs.
120 gram ground almonds
1/4 cup sugar + 2 table spoons
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
oil and/or fat for frying

Left: the non-sticky batter made into small balls. Right: the sticky batter for the emeles.

Blend the breadcrumbs, sugar (without the 2 extra spoons) and the ground almonds (they are still a bit wet) with the eggs. This will give you a sticky batter. I thought the batter was too wet so I added more breadcrumbs. Then I changed my mind, and made a new sticky batter according to the recipe. Now I had two types of batter, a sticky and a non-sticky, which I both tested. From the non-sticky batter it was possible to turn them into nice ball shapes.

 The emeles from the sticky batter. They look a bit like small 'oliebollen', a traditional Dutch new years treat.

Heat the oil or fat in a frying pan and drop in the batter in small spoonfuls, or alternatively drop in the balls. Remove from the fat, when lightly browned and drain on paper. Sprinkle with the reserved sugar. Constance Hieatt recommends serving them warm, but I found that they were tastier cold, the next day. I also think that the amount of sugar in the recipe can be increased a bit, perhaps to 1/3 cup,. I dipped my half-eaten almond cake again in the sugar to get some more sweetness. The difference in taste between the emeles 'balls' and the emeles from the sticky batter is negligible (according to the 8 people who tested both types of emeles). Therefore, it  will solely be an aesthetic matter which type of emeles you prefer.

The emeles balls from the non-sticky batter with a sugar layer. They taste just as good.


  • Hieatt, C.B. and Jones, R.F., 1986. Two Anglo-Norman culinary collections edited from British library manuscripts Additional 32085 and Royal 12.C.xii. Speculum volume 61, issue 4, page 859-882. (can be read through JSTOR).
  • Hieatt, C.B., Hosington, B. and Butler, S., 1996. Pleyn Delit. medieval cooking for modern cooks. second edition. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. ISBN 9780802076328.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Another game to play with your medieval chess board

The start of a (fake) game of jeu de dames. A composition of margin illuminations of the 14th century manuscript Bodleian 264. Made by St. Thomasguild in 2014 using Photoshop. 

There is another medieval game that can be played on the medieval chess board which is called jeu de dames, but also known as draughts or checkers. The game borrows the game pieces from tables (i.e. backgammon / tric-trac) and uses the chequered board (hence the name checkers) from chess. It is believed to be derived from the game of Alquerque (described in the Libre de Los Juegos of Alphonso X the Wise in 1283), as the method of the jump-capture is identical. De game became known as the 'jeu de dames' in France, and checkers or draughts (from 'to draw' or to move) in England. The first mention of the name of the game is in the late 14th century in an English poem 'Sir Ferumbras'. The game is believed to be common in medieval times and widely played.

& ioustes and tornyment: wel mo per wendep ofte pare.
do pat williep to leue at hame: pleyep to pe eschekkere,
& summe of hem to iew-de-dame; and summe to tablere.

(from 'Sir Ferumbras', 1380 Bodleian ASHMOLE Ms. 33)

A game of Alquerque as played in 1283, depicted in the Libre de los Juegos, folio 91v. 
Note that Alquerque is played with pawns, not the flat backgammon pieces.

But ....

There is a peculiarity about draughts. There are many other medieval board games, popular such as chess, or more obscure such as the game of the four seasons called the world or rithmomachia, but for all of these the rules are described in some medieval book. Not for draughts. The first rule book for draughts dates from the 16th century (Lorenzo Valls, 1597). Neither are there clear images of people playing draughts (see the post faulty medieval chess boards for some possible boards), i.e. an 8x8 board using two colours of tablemen on only one colour of the chequered board. When an incorrect draughts board is shown, the surrounding text usually mentions the play of chess.

Another tricky thing is that archaeological evidence is biased against draughts. A chequered board - that must be a chess board; a table men - that must be a backgammon piece. Perhaps if both were found at the same place it could count as proof for draughts. But then there are game boxes which often present both chess and backgammon boards at opposite sites. Thus archaeology can not provide solid proof, with chess pieces or backgammon boards lying around.

 Alquerque is still being played as a separate game in the 14th century. Margin illumination of Bodleian MS 264, folio 76r, Romance of Alexander, 1338-1344.

The same manuscript (Bodleian MS 264, folio 60r) has an illumination which - with much fantasy and adaptation - could be seen as medieval draughts. The board size is wrong, the game pieces look more or less the same as identical dots. All game pieces, with one exception, are on the same chequered (black) colour. This image was used as basis for the fake medieval draughts image at the top of this blogpost.

Thus the only 'proof' for the existence of medieval draughts is based on the etymology of the names of the game and the gaming pieces, and the scanty mention of the game in medieval books. One draughts historian uses the etymological study of Dutch medieval terms, where 97% of the words kept the same meaning throughout history as proof that the jeu de dames is draughts, while on the other hand he off-handedly regards the differently named foreign terms 'marro, merelles, alquerque' as identical to draughts. In my eyes this is a weak proof. Especially, since the 'jeu de dames' is also used for hunting with female company during medieval times ('Cy commence jeu de dames', in the Taymouth Hours (1325-1340)). A fact that the advocates of the medieval draughts theory seem to have overlooked. This makes me sceptical whether medieval draughts existed, and if, on the (lack of) popularity of it.

An (fake) end situation of medieval draughts. A promoted white 'dame' can be seen on the second row below, being able to capture two opponents pieces. Photoshop alteration of the 11th century chess mosaic in the Basilica San Savino in Piacenza, Italy by St. Thomasguild 2014.

Playing medieval 'jeu de dames'

The start position of a game of medieval draughts. It can be played on the black or the white squares. The chess board is from four season chess, described in 1283.

As mentioned above, no contemporary medieval rules for draughts exist. What follows is what is thought to be the medieval rules for playing.

  • Each player has 12 game pieces, put in three rows onto one (the same) colour of the 8x8 chequered board. This can be either the white or the black squares.
  • Capture is by leaping over a piece of an opponent to a vacant place. Multiple captures, when possible, are allowed.
  • Capture can only be diagonally forward.
  • Capture is not compulsory.
  • Movement is only diagonally forward.
  • Players roll a dice to decide who start the game.
  • When a game piece reaches the other side of the board it is promoted to a queen (dame).
  • The queen (or dame) moves like the medieval chess queen: only one place, diagonally forward or backward. 
  • The game is lost when a player cannot move or has no more game pieces on the board.

Some changes are thought to appear at the end of the 15th century in Spain: the introduction of the long move of the queen (i.e. like the modern chess bishop) as well as compulsory capture (of the most) on penalty of the huff. When a player forgot to capture a piece, his game piece could be 'huffed' (taken from the board by blowing to it). In England, draughts became known as the game with the huff, and checkers the same game without the huff. The latter was seen as a children's game. A few centuries later, the huff was again abolished. In the 16th century backward capture by the single pieces became possible. The 10x10 chequered board for draughts also appeared for the first time during this century (it already existed several centuries for decimal chess).

Arabic (medieval) draughts on an unchequered board uses 16 game pieces,
 which move forward and side-ways.

Sources used:

  • A. van der Stoep, 2001. Middeleeuws damspel, volgens de oude en volgens een nieuwe versie. In: Spelen in the Middeleeuwen. Edited by W.S. van Egmond and M. Mostert  Uitgeverij verloren, Hilversum, the Netherlands.
  • H.J. Murray, 1952. The history of board games other than chess. Oxford University Press.
  • A. van der Stoep. Webpage on the history of draughts.

Friday 2 May 2014

Gilding the sella curulis

The sella curulis is a luxury folding chair, intended as a seat of authority. Therefore, I wanted to have the seat to have an appearance of importance, and impress by having gilded the eagle heads and claws. Gilding is 'common' during medieval times (but not cheap - for the ordinary man). Think of the gold leaf applied to illuminations in medieval manuscripts, or on altars and reliquaries in churches, on panels in palaces. The medieval method of gilding is described in the 15th century book 'Il libro dell'Arte' by the Italian painter Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, but also earlier wrote Theophilus (around 1120) notes on making and applying gold leaf to wood panels, as well as on how to gild metal, in his 'On divers Arts' . The gilding process is a laborious process that takes quite some time. The part that has to be gilded has to be prepared  first with several layers of gesso and bole, before gold leaf can be applied. As I had no experience in gilding, I first tried it out on the test head and claw feet. 

The test pieces. The eagle head is gilded with imitation gold, while the claw feet are gilded with real gold leaf. The test pieces also served to see whether a black and gold eagle head was better than a linseed oil and gold one.

The gilded Shrine of the Virgin, made ca. 1300 in Rhine valley in Germany, and now on display in  the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. Closed, it is a statuette of the enthroned Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child. Opened, the shrine shows a representation of the Trinity (the figure of Christ and the dove of the Holy Spirit are lost). The wings show painted scenes of the Nativity. The shrine is made from oak with linen covering, paint, gilding, and gesso. The size is 36.8 x 12.7 cm (closed) and 36.8 x 34.6 cm (open). The most right image shows a detail of the medieval gilding. The images are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Preparing the work

I used the online course on water gilding (actually the water is water with hare glue) for the preparation of the wood. Basically, it consists of three steps: a glue layer, a gesso layer and a bole layer with some polishing in between. 

 The sella curulis after applying four layers of gesso.

In the first step, the wood has to be covered with a layer of hare glue in order to close all the pores. If this is not done, the gesso and as well as the bole will impregnate the wood and make it too wet inside, while drying to quick on the outside. However this only applies when using old-fashioned chalk-based gesso. Modern acrylic gesso does not need the glue layer, as it also closes the pores of the wood. I used the acrylic gesso, so I skipped the glue layer. Four layers of gesso need to be applied quickly one after another, when the previous layer has not completely dried, but has a half-dry matted glare. I was able to work two leg parts of the chair at the same time. When the second leg was painted with gesso, the first leg had dried enough to receive another layer of gesso. The application of the third and fourth layers is faster than the first ones. After drying the gesso can be sanded smoothly with 240 grid paper followed by polishing with a whetted cottoncloth. This way the gesso slurry will fill the small holes left during the application of the gesso layers. The sanding/polishing step is an impossible thing to do with all the feathers of the eagles head and was left out.

Left: the red bole clay (or fond) used. Middle and right: the sella curulis after three layers of bole.

The third step is applying the bole or fond. This is a clay-based layers and available in three (clay) colours: red, yellow and black. Red is the most commonly used and used by me as well. When cracks appear in the gold leave, the red will shine through giving it and 'antique looking' patina. Red bole can be bought ready to use, but needs some thinning with water (drops) to be able to apply it easily with a brush. Three to four layers of bole need to be applied, and each layer has to be completely dry  before a new layer can be added. I waited at least a day between two layers. Also here a very light sanding of bole layer 2 (600+ grid) can take place and polishing with 4/0 steel wool at the final layer. Also here, polishing feathers was not feasible. At this stage it is important (at least for water gilding) not to touch the bole layer with your fingers as they will leave fatty/oily fingerprints where the water/glue will not adhere to.

Gold leaf

 On the left side the larger sheet of imitation gold leaf, on the right the smaller 23.75 carat gold leaf.

 Theophilus describes the making of gold leaf as follows:

Take some Byzantine parchment, which is made from flax fiber, and rub it on both sides with the red pigment that is made by burning very finely ground and dried ocher. Then polish it very carefully with the tooth of a beaver, or a boar, until it becomes bright and the parchment sticks fast as a result of the friction. Then cut this parchment with scissors into square pieces, four fingers wide and equally long.
After this make a sort of pouch of the same size out of calf vellum and sew it together firmly. Make it large enough to be able to put a lot of pieces of the reddened parchment in it. After doing this take pure gold and thin it out with a hammer on a smooth anvil, very carefully, so as not to let any break occur in it. Then cut it into square pieces, two fingers in size. Then put a piece of the reddened parchment into the pouch and in the middle on top of it a piece of gold, then another piece of perchment and again a piece of gold, and continue doing so until the pouch is filled and there is always a piece of gold interleaved in the center. Then you should have a hammer cast from brass, narrow near the handle and broad at the face. Hammer the pouch with it on a large flat smooth stone, lightly, not heavily. After frequent inspection you will decide whether you want to make the gold completely thin or moderately thick. If the gold spreads too much as it is thinned and projects out of the pouch, cut it of with small light scissors made for this purpose alone.
This is the recipe for making gold leaf. And when you have thinned it out according to your liking, with the scissors cut as many pieces of it as you want, and with them ornament the halos around the heads of figures, stoles, hems of robes, etc. as you like.

Cennini just buys his gold leaf (just like me)

Let me tell you that for the gold which is laid on flats they ought not to get more than a hundred leaves out of a ducat, whereas they do get a hundred and forty-five; because the gold for the flat wants to be rather dull. if you want to be sure of the gold, when you buy it, get it from someone who is a good goldbeater; and examine the gold; and if you find it rippling and mat, like goat parchment, then consider it good. On moldings or foliage ornaments you will make out better with thinner gold; but for the delicate ornaments of the embellshment with mordants it ought to be very thin gold; and cobweb like.

Left: the booklets of imitation and real gold. Right: some pieces of gold leaf on transfer their transfer tissue.

One might think that gilding is expensive. This is only relatively so. As seen from the quote above a gold coin can produce almost 150 gold leaves - during medieval times. Gold leaf is beaten very, very thin, and nowadays gold leaf has a thinness of 0.0007 mm. Therefore, a booklet with 25 leaves of gold (8 by 8 cm) costs only around 45 Euro. I used 23.75 carat gold leaf (Rosenobel Double Gold extra strong) from the German gold-beater factory Norris for gilding. This gold leaf has been pressed on on a tissue, which enables easy transfer to the surface and makes it possible to cut the gold with a scissor into smaller parts. One entire book was enough to gild all the eagles heads, the claw feet and some test parts. 

The gilding process

In laying on [the gold] take glair, which is beaten out of the white of an egg without water, and with it lightly cover with a brush where the gold is to be laid. Whet the point of the handle of the brush in your mouth, touch a corner of the leaf that you have cut, ans so lift it up and apply it with the greatest speed. Then smooth it with the brush. At this moment you should guard against drafts and hold your breath because, if you breathe, you will lose the leaf and find it again only with difficulty. When the piece has been laid on and has dried, lay another piece over it in the same way, if you wish, and also a third, if necessary, so that you can polish it all the more brightly with tooth or a stone. if you wish, you can also lay this leaf in the same way on a wall or a ceiling panel [Theophilus].

The test pieces gilded using the water/hare glue mixture. You can see that the beak of the eagle head (with imitation gold) is better gilded than the claws and rings (with real gold leaf). There are many cracks and holes in the leaf gold of the claws and rings, seen by the patches of red bole.

I started, however, my tests with the much cheaper imitation gold or brass leaf. I did not use 'glair' or 'size' made out of egg white, but a hare-glue/water mixture. This easily glued the imitation gold, but the transfer of the real gold leaf did not go well. Therefore I looked for another adhesive and turned to the more modern (linseed) oil-based mixtion by LeFranc/Charbonnel. This went rather well, although a waiting time of 3 hours was necessary between the application of the glue and the gold leaf. 

The gilding equipment: the oil-mixtion, scissors for cutting the gold leaf, cotton gloves, 
an assortment of brushes and a gold duster to remove small bits of gold leaf.

As mentioned above, the bole must not be touched with the fingers. Therefore cotton gloves were worn during the actual gilding.  When the glue or mixtion was applied to the bole layer (and for the mixtion dried for 3 hours) the cut pieces of leave gold were pressed to the sticky glue with the fingertips in gloves and the transfer tissue removed. A soft brush was the used to flatten and smooth the gold leaf over the surface. The following gold leaf was applied overlapping the previous leaf. If cracks appeared in the gold leaf, a second layer of gold leaf was applied. Adding extra mixtion for the extra layers is unnecessary. A soft brush with a stronger tip was used to apply small pieces of gold leaf in corners, such as the eagles eyes).

First the mixtion has to be applied, this gives the wet look on the beak. After drying small squares of gold leaf are pressed with the glove on the mixtion, and smoothed with the brush. During the gilding many small bits of leave gold can be found on the table (and your clothes).

A detailed look of gold leaf application. The piece of gold with the transfer tissue can be seen at the corner of the beak. The right photo shows that another gold leaf needs to be added to cover the cracks between the upper and lower beak.

After applying gold leaf it is possible to polish the gold leaf. The gold glue must not be dry to do this. As my gold leaf was very thin and the oil-mixtion is very sticky, I did not try this. Polishing was done in the past with a tooth ('of any animals which feeds decently upon flesh' according to Cennini) or semi-precious stones like hematite or agate. Cennini mentions that winter is best for burnishing gold leaf, as the weather is damp and mild. If it is too dry, the gilded object must be kept in a damp place, like a celler at the foot of the wine casks. If the time after applying gold leaf is longer than a week or month, the object can be 'reset' for burnishing by applying a towel over the object and use another napkin, soaked in clear water and wrung out, laid on top of the first towel. The gold will then soon be ready for burnishing. 

The finished gilding of the sella curulis.

Painting the remainder of the eagles head

The golden beak, eyes and claws have a greater contrast and a more stunning effect when the remained of the head  (and feet) is black. I did not want to paint the complete chair as I like the 'pink' colour of the pear wood and the chip carvings will look better without paint. I made the black paint as previously described for the chess game boards: bone black powder with added linseed oil. Drying of the paint takes a long time, between one and two weeks time for the black paint, as Theophilus already remarked:

All the kinds of pigments can be ground with this same [linseed] oil and laid on woodwork, but only on things that can be dried in the sun, because, whenever you have laid on one pigment, you cannot lay a second over it until the first has dried out. this process is an excessively long and tedious one in the case of figures ..... On wood you should apply all pigments, whether ground with oil or with gum resin, three times. When the painting is finished and dried, carry the work into the sun and carefully coat it with the gluten varnish. When the heat makes it begin to flow, rub it lightly with your hand. Do this three times and leave it until it is thoroughly dried out.

Painting the head with linseed oil paint. First the edges with the gold leaf were painted, followed by the remaining part. The white gesso serves as a primer for the black paint. 

The finished feet and eagle heads of the sella curulis. Also the underside of the feet are painted.

The gilded and painted sella curulis. The remained of the wood will receive a linseed oil finish.


  • The craftsman's handbook 'Il Libro dell'Arte. Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, translated by D.V. Thompson. Dover publication. ISBN 978-0-486-20054-5.
  • On divers arts. The foremost medieval treatise on painting, glassmaking and metalwork. Theophilus, translated from Latin by J.G. Hawthorne and C. Stanley Smith. Dover publication. ISBN 0-486-23784-2.
  • The complete watergilding course by on YouTube: Complete water gilding course