One of the most spectacular “finds” related to English medieval history, The Household Book of Dame Alice de Bryene (1931 edition) provides a detailed glimpse into the daily life of an English gentry household over the period 1412 – 1413, down to the exact food purchases and the price paid.
It tells of widowed Dame Alice de Bryene during one of her seventy-five years.
That year Easter fell on April 23, a late date, and Dame Alice served the following provisions to the “bailiff of the manor with the harvest-reeve, 19 of the household of the manor”:
Pantry — 56 white, and 8 blacks loaves, whereof newly baked 22 white, and 3 black loaves ; wine from supply ; ale from stock. Kitchen — one quarter of beef, 1 ½ quarters of bacon, one capon, 20 pigeons. Purchases — beef and pork 4s. 2d., veal 20 d., eggs 15d.
At the end of the book, Dame Alice’s steward included an inventory of food and other supplies, including the cache of spices remaining in the lady’s pantry at the end of the year:
And for 3 lb. pepper, ½ lb. saffron, 2 lb. ginger, 2 lb. cinnamon, 1 ¼ lb. cloves, 1 ¼ lb. mace, 1 ½ lb. soda ash, 40 lbs. almonds, 5 lb. rice, 1 ½ bush. seed-mustard, and one gall. 2 ½ quarts honey remaining. … And for one frail*, 4 lb. figs, 6 lb. dates, one frail, 2 lb. raisins, and 8 lb. raisins of Corinth, bought of the lady’s providing, and 1 lb. white sugar bought by the said steward.
One thing that stands out is the steward’s comment that the over the year, the household consumed exactly 152 chickens and 38 capons. Putting that figure together with the list of spices, it’s not hard to imagine that Alice’s cooks might have served the following, from Curye on Inglish: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth-Century (Including the Forme of Cury):
Take fressh porke, and sethe hit, and hew hit smal, and grinde hit wel; and put therto harde (y)olkes of egges, and medel hom wel togedur, and do therto raisynges of corance, and pouder of canel, and maces, and quibiz, and of clowes al hole; and colour hit with saffron, and do hit into the chekyns; and then parboyle hom, and roste, and endore hom with raw (y)olkes of egges, and flaume hom if hit be nede, and serve hit forthe.
Notice the spices — cinnamon, mace, allspice, whole cloves, saffron, black pepper (quibiz or cubebs) — and raisins of Corinth, a veritable spice bazaar …
Ffiona Swabey** calculates that Dame Alice spent 52s per year, and that meant about ½ ounce of spice per day.
The editor, Vincent B. Redstone, writes about Dame Alice’s Household Book:
Taken together, these accounts show the whole management of the household of a great Suffolk lady in the time of Agincourt. The da-book gives in detail the numbers who were fed at her table, and exactly what they ate down to the last pigeon or herring. It gives a complete picture of the loaves, white or black, baked by the hundred at frequent intervals, and sometimes on a Sunday ; how they were stored in the pantry ; and how many were issued for each day’s consumption. It shows the amount of malt used on each brewing day and records how much of the ale was drunk daily, and how the wine was brought into store in the pantry and issued thence. It shows the small purchases made day by day for for the kitchen, and how the horses of the household of the guests were fed and bedded. It records the arrival of the fishmonger, and enters the date at which each cade*** of red herrings was begun. The lady not only took her meals with her household and her guests ; she also demanded a strict account of all they ate.
Her household book proves Alice’s commitment to accountability in all things monetary.
Yet, as Swabey attempts to do in her rendition of Alice’s daily life and of the lives of other women like her of the day, with the account book in hand, perusing the lists of foods and other items, it’s not hard to see the flesh-and-blood Alice behind the brass in the church where she is buried near her Acton manor house:
Here lies Alice de Bures, daughter and heir of Sir Robert de Bures, who was the wife of Sir Guy de Bryene …
Cuius anima propicietur Deus
*A basket for fruit, especially dried fruit.
** Ffiona Swabey, in her Medieval Gentlewoman: Life in a Gentry Household in the late Middle Ages (1999), analyzes the details listed in the household book through an engaging narrative that fleshes out the matter-of-fact account book. (Calculations suggest a hypothetical value in today’s money of $2,496.00 per annum spent on spices.)
***A jar or cask, in this case a cask or barrel used for herring or other fish, a measure of volume or number.
Another interpretation of Dame Alice’s book:
The way it was. [The Middle Ages]. Dame Alice de Bryene : life in a medieval household, by Brian Chaplin and J. M. Rigard (1977)
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