Manuscripts and Spiced Small Mead

I spent last week in Syracuse, NY looking about 200 years in the past (ahh, modern history), helping the family genealogist (hi, Mom). While searching for a scrapbook mentioning my 3x great-grandfather, we found ledgers and other books containing household recipes, including wines and beer (nothing using honey).

Such household manuscripts are found in many locations. The Onondaga Historical Association Research Center is similar to thousands of others in the US, and thousands more in Europe and other locations. The manuscripts I saw there were from the 19th century, but this type of document is common back into the 16th century.

National Library of Scotland

Upon returning and diving back into my research, I found a reference to manuscripts on cooking at the National Library of Scotland (see picture). Digging through their web-site led to a page titled ‘Manuscripts collections’ including ‘Food History’; a few pages later I was at “Manuscript culinary recipe books at the National Library” listing 27 documents, including 9 from the 18th century, and 6 back into the 17th (the earliest defined date being 1683). None of these are on line, and the data on each manuscript was only 1-2 lines.

But all is not lost.

In 2015 the library featured a recipe each month from these books. March was brewing and distilling, ( ) and featured a mead recipe from a “anonymous recipe book from the late 17th century”; this is likely either MS.10231, or Adv.MS.23.6.5. And so here we get our recipe for today.

To make small mead

Take 24 quarts of water set it over the fire put into it 2 quarts of honie boyle them together till there bee a quarter consumed, be sure you skym it very well, for therein consists the clearness add to it one nutmeg 3 Races of Ginger, half a dozen of Coves, and a blade or two of mace, when it is cold take two or three quarts of it and put it in a paile and put to it 3 or 4 spoonfulls of yeast and stirr it well together, and let it work as you doe beer, puting in now and then a little till it bee all gone then put it into a runlet let it stand a weeke, then bottle it put into your bottles 2 raysins of the sun, and some lemon peill.

This 1:12 honey:water ratio will end up as about 1:9 once it has boiled, which would end up at about 1.25 pounds honey per gallon, an OG of about 1.055-1.06, and a potential alcohol of 7-8% if fermented dry.

The recipe shows some interesting echoes of modern practices including use of a smaller volume of wort to start the yeast culture, and priming sugar (raisins) in the bottle.

Back to manuscripts …

In my research to date I have reviewed at least 250 manuscripts looking for mead and other drink recipes (about half contain one or more). I have at least 100 more for which I have access to scans but have not yet done a review. Finally I have identified probably another 100 manuscripts where in-person review will be required. Manuscripts rather than printed books are currently the source of 20-25% of my recipes. In the future, I expect that a larger proportion of new recipes will come from manuscripts.

Many recipe manuscripts from 3-400 years old are extant and scattered through archives (small and large; public, association, subject, and religious), library and university collections, museum archives, or in private hands (like the 17th century Washington manuscript published by K. Hess). And more recipes are certainly hidden in manuscripts with no obvious food or brewing connection, like the 14th century Tractatus recipes.

The household manuscripts are at once an incredibly fertile and frustrating source for drink recipes.

Fertile because about half of the manuscripts I have reviewed to date contain recipes for mead; perhaps ¾ or more have recipes for other fermented beverages. Fertile because the universe of manuscripts is much less well defined and explored than that of printed books.

Frustrating, because finding them is difficult on many levels, many are only available in person, dealing with manuscripts that are not in English has multiple challenges, and the complexities of dating manuscripts makes placing recipes in a timeline difficult.

Photo of National Library of Scotland courtesy of Kim Traynor / National Library of Scotland, Causewayside / CC BY-SA 2.0

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