fifteenth century

Growing for Gold: the Enduring Appeal of Saffron

‘Saffron Walden’ – a name forrmalised by Henry VIII in a charter granted in 1514.

It’s one of those things people seem to know about the past  (like Henry VIII had six wives and that spices were used to disguise rotten meat – more on that later): saffron, they say, was worth its weight in gold. It was so valuable that they even renamed a village – Saffron Walden – after it. However, two of those three statements are incorrect. In growing for gold, what is the enduring appeal of saffron from antiquity to the modern era? But first a recap on the fate of my own modest project.

Saffron corms ready to split and replant.

Having enriched the soil first, I replanted the saffron in the original position. I’ve selected the fattest corms for this bed and will nurture the smaller ones into productivity elsewhere. It’s not a crop for the impatient: I might get a few flowers later this year, but the corms will not produce their best for at least another year after that. 

Trial and error, dearth and glut is precisely what our Medieval forebears would have encountered as they attempted to establish new crops on a commercial scale. Too little rain, too much, low temperatures, mice – all affected productivity as much as they do now. With the initial outlay on corms and limited harvests in the first year, saffron was a risky business. Labour-intensive husbandry – both to keep the fields weed free and in the delicate, time-critical harvesting of the fragile stigma – raised costs even further. But the potential rewards were great.

Wild Saffron fields in Gran Sasso National Park

Recorded in antiquity in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Crete, as well as in Persia and Alexander’s Greece, saffron had a global appeal. It was used variably as a dye for cloth, a pigment in art works, and for a wide range of medical conditions including a cure for headaches and heart problems and a salve for wounds. It was thought to have mood-altering qualities and indeed can produce a sense of euphoria due to its compounds (safranal and crocin might have an anti-depressant effect by maintaining the balance of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (Hosseinzadeh et al., 2004)). Studies in humans show there can be a benefit to patients with anxiety and depression, so perhaps it is then not surprising that it was also an ingredient in some forms of incense and used in both civic and religious ceremony. 

In cuisine, we think of saffron as a flavouring and colourant in dishes requiring an exotic touch. English cookery books from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century show an extensive use of saffron despite its exorbitant cost, appearing in almost a half of the recipes in the compilation from Harleian MSS. 279 & 4016, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (Thomas Austin) (1430 – 1450) and over a third in Forme of Cury (c1390). Demand remained high with production in England peaking in the Sixteenth-century, before a slow decline and the eventual cessation of production in England altogether.

Crocus sativus – the saffron crocus

It takes upwards of 150 flowers (roughly 450 stigma) to produce one gram of saffron. I won’t be growing enough saffron to sell, but the few delicate strands added flavour to the Medieval dishes I’ve tried (see below).  

Saffron is now grown in other regions, including in Iran and Afghanistan, Greece and France and remains as valuable today as it was in the later Medieval and Early Modern periods. Its high value perhaps accounting more for its  intoxicating appeal than its slightly bitter flavour and hay-like aroma, saffron nonetheless offers a link to the past and a tantalising glimpse of its potential for the future.

 

And the odd ones out of the three statements I mentioned at the beginning of this blog?

  1. Henry VIII did indeed have six wives.
  2. Saffron was worth far more than its weight in gold.
  3. Spices were not – I repeat not – used to disguise rotten meat. But more on that in a future blog

This is basically rice pudding. I tried it because it uses almond milk and is therefore suitable for those with a dairy or lactose intolerance. I added saffron, which turned the  pudding a glorious golden yellow and imparted a subtle flavour.

Rys. Take a porcyoun of rys, & pyke hem clene, & sethe hem welle, & late hem kele; þen take gode mylke of almaundys & do þer-to, & seþe & stere hem wyl; & do þer-to sugre and hony, & serue forth.

Take a portion of rice, and pick it clean, and boil it well, and let it cool; then take good milk of almonds and thereto, and boil and stir it well; and do thereto sugar and honey, and serve forth. 

 

Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books  (Thomas Austin, comp.)

 

Up For Auction: A Once-Lost Medieval Manuscript Witnesses History

St. Catherine of Siena, as Christ and a host of saints appears to her, and offers her a bejewelle
St. Catherine of Siena. Illuminated manuscript on parchment c.1475 Image: Bloomsbury Auctions

Sometimes you come across an item that represents more than the sum of its parts – such as this single exquisite leaf of medieval manuscript from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Once lost, this extremely rare piece is due to be auctioned on 6th July, 2021 by Bloomsbury Auctions, London. It is certain to attract attention from those interested in the work of one of the finest illustrators from a country  renowned for its illuminated manuscripts. It also resonates with the history of those with whom it is associated.

Attributed to the Master of Margaret of York, the miniture shows St. Catherine of Siena in an illustration typical of the period and region from which the book originated. And therein lies the significance for me, for the manuscript had been commissioned by Louis de Gruuthuse (Lodewijk van Brugge) in about 1475.

Born into a wealthy family c1422 in Bruges (now Belgium), Louis became a notable patron of the arts and collector of books. His collection was second to that of the Dukes of Burgundy at whose Court he served. It is this connection that, for me, makes Louis de Gruuthuse a person of interest, for he played an important role in the political and personal lives of the members of the House of York.

Louis de Gruuthuse (Lodewijk van Brugge) 1427 – 24 November 1492 Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1468, Louis helped oversee the marriage celebrations of Charles de Charolais, son of Philip, Duke of Burgundy (the Good) to Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. The significance of such an alliance between the two countries went beyond cementing a political connection that was instrumental to Edward’s continued survival, but also helped establish commercial links and cultural exchanges that influenced the English Court in following years.

The connection proved beneficial when, in 1479, Edward IV found himself in exile after the rebellion of Richard, Earl of Warwick who, in the Readeption, restored Henry VI to the English throne. Louis de Gruuthaus ensured safe passage for the beleaguered Edward and it was as his host during the winter of 1472 that Louis reaffirmed his partiality for the House of York, for which Edward subsequently rewarded him with the earldom of Winchester.

As a councillor to both Duke Philip and his son, Charles (who succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy in 1467), Gruuthaus found himself in a position of influence. This continued after the death of Charles at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, serving the Duke’s heiress, Mary of Burgundy and her step-mother, Margaret of York.

Margaret of York - Wikipedia
Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy

Now widowed, Margaret continued to influence Anglo-Burgundian relationships, something she had endeavoured to do throughout her husband’s rule despite his wavering commitment to his brother-in law’s campaigns.

Like Gruuthaus, Margaret also acquired  books, those associated with her numbering about twenty-nine – a significant collection for a woman at the time.(1) It is likely that Gruuthaus’s own extensive collection inspired Edward IV’s acquisition of works for his Royal library, including a copy of Josephus, commissioned by Louis.(2)

While I won’t be bidding on the 6th June, I will await the outcome of the auction with interest as this remarkable witness to history begins the next stage of its long journey .

 

 

 

(1) Kurtis A. Bartow, “Appendix: the Library of Margaret of York and Some Related books,” in Thomas Kren, ed., Margaret of York, Simon Marmion and the Visions of Tondal (Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992), 257–262. For the complete list of books associated with the duchess.

(2) T Kren & S McKendrick (eds), Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, p.224, Getty Museum/Royal Academy of Arts.

 

 

Details of the manuscript and its provenance (below) have been taken from the Bloomsbury Auction website.

‘St. Catherine of Siena, as Christ and a host of saints appears to her, and offers her a bejewelled wedding ring, miniature on a leaf from a copy of the French translation of the Legenda Maior of Raymond of Capua, this leaf from a illuminated manuscript on parchment made for the grand Burgundian patron, Louis de Gruuthuse [French Flanders (doubtless Bruges), c. 1475]

Single leaf, with half page gold framed miniature attributed to the Master of Margaret of York or his workshop (see below), above a single pale pink initial containing coloured foliage, and 6 lines of elegant Burgundian lettre bâtarde by a professional scribe as yet unidentified but close to that of Colard Mansion, all within gold text frame and full border of acanthus leaves and other foliage, reverse with single word from previous chapter (‘personnes’: see below) at head, followed by line-filler in gold, blue and pink, above 5 lines of rubric opening with large and fine calligraphic initial (with human face poking out it’s tongue picked out in brown ink at its edge), some flaking and scuffing to gold, brown stains to upper margin, else fine condition, 276 by 197mm.

This leaf has a sublime provenance from Louis de Gruuthuse, the greatest art patron of the Burgundian Netherlands aside from the ducal family, to two kings of France, including François I, the father of the French Renaissance

Provenance:

1. This is a long-lost leaf from BnF MS. fr. 1048 (olim Regius 7336; on the manuscript see I. Hans-Collas & P. Schandel, Manuscrits enluminés des anciens Pays-Bas méridionaux. I. Manuscrits de Louis de Bruges, Paris, 2009, no. 36, pp. 144-45), a copy of the anonymous Légende de la Vie de Sainte Catherine de Sienne, made for Louis de Gruuthuse (1422-92; also known as Louis de Bruges), courtier to Philip the Good and the wealthiest and most important art patron in the Burgundian Low Countries outside the reigning ducal family. The loss of leaves from the parent volume removed the frontispiece with his armorial devices, but an offset of them can be seen on fol. 4v there. The present leaf contains the last word of book I, ch. 7, and the opening of book II, ch. 1, and once sat before fol. 35 in the parent manuscript (see the gallica.bnf.fr website for a black-and-white facsimile).

2. Louis XII (1462-1515, king of France from 1498), who was given the entire Gruuthuse library c. 1500, most probably by Jean V de Gruuthuse, the son and heir of Louis de Gruuthuse, as well as Louis XII’s chamberlain.

3. François I (1494-1547, king of France from 1515), the father of the Renaissance in France and one of that nation’s most important bibliophiles. He had the Gruuthuse arms overpainted in many of the volumes from that library and moved them along with the rest of the royal library into the treasury of the château of Blois (note the parent manuscript has the sixteenth-century note ‘Bloys’ at the head of its first original flyleaf above a description of its contents, doubtless from this move). There the royal chaplain, Guillaume Petit, recorded them in an inventory of 1518, and again in 1544, with the present leaf part of no. 1510, described as ‘Ung autre livre, en parchemyn, intitule: Vye de saincte Catherine de Sennes; couvert de veloux incarnat’ (see H. Omont, Anciens inventaires et catalogues de la Bibliothèque nationale, I, 1908, p. 235). These then passed to the royal library in Fontainebleau, and after the Revolution and foundation of the First Republic in 1792 to the Bibliothèque nationale. Depredations were made early into the Gruuthuse sections of the royal library, and in fact only 155 volumes of the 180 extant from this library now remain in the Bibliothèque nationale. All bar one of the leaves with miniatures were abstracted from the volume in question here before 1831, when the first comprehensive inventories of the Bibliothèque nationale were made (where the parent manuscript is no. 1683: see Omont, Anciens inventaires, p. 344). Where such miniatures were on a recto, a French hand of the eighteenth century added the preceding rubric in the parent volume (this is the case with the leaf in Dartmouth College and the leaf now in a European private collection), indicating that these leaves were removed while the collection was in Blois, and probably before the French Revolution.

4. Three leaves from the parent manuscript (most probably including this one) appeared for sale in a Philip C. Duschnes catalogue of May 1970, with one of these reappearing in Sotheby’s, 21 June 1994, lot 33 (but with the parent manuscript misidentified, and thus Gruuthuse provenance obscured), and another now in an important European private collection. Two further leaves with miniatures are now in Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, North Hampshire, USA (Rauner Library, 470940, gift of Madelyn C. Hickmott [1897-1988], both reproduced online).

5. The present leaf owned by a private North American collector, their sale in Cowen’s Auctions of Cincinnati, in March 2013, lot 51; acquired there by Roger Martin.

Text:

Raymond of Capua (c. 1330-99) served as spiritual director and confessor to St. Catherine of Siena, and thus his account is of paramount importance as an eye-witness record of her life. After her death, he undertook the restoration of the Dominican Order, and was named its second founder. This translation was made by an anonymous Dominican friar, sometime immediately after the canonisation of St. Catherine of Sienna in 1461. It had a short and closely focussed distribution as a text, and may well have been produced under the patronage of the Burgundian court as all five extant witnesses are associated with members of that court or their highest followers. See J.F. Hamburger & G. Signori, ‘The Making of a Saint: Catherine of Siena, Thomas Caffarini, and the Others’, in Catherine of Siena: The Creation of a Cult, 2013, pp. 8-10.

Artist and patron:

The identification of the artist as the Master of Margaret of York or a member of his workshop was made by the authors of the Manuscrits de Louis de Bruges volume published in 2009 (working from the single miniature remaining in BnF. fr. 1048 and those in Dartmouth College). The artist was active in Bruges from about 1470 to 1480, and takes his name from a book produced for Margaret of York, wife of Charles the Bold (now Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, nos. 9305-06). However, his surviving works indicate that his principal patron was Louis de Gruuthuse, with some fifteen extant works produced for Louis’ apparent personal reading (mostly French translations of Latin works, as here). See S. McKendrick & T. Kren, Illuminating the Renaissance, 2003, p. 217-18.

Items from this illustrious library, quintessentially of the late Middle Ages and made to inspire secular piety and demonstrate bourgeois opulence in equal measure, are of enormous rarity on the market. The last significant codex was that of a manuscript from Chatsworth, containing the Deeds of Sir Gillion de Trazegnies, and dated 1464, sold at Sotheby’s, 5 December 2012, to the Getty Museum, for £3,849,250. Otherwise a somewhat battered copy of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, with three miniatures, from the final remnant of the Thomas Phillipps collection, appeared at Christie’s, 7 June 2006, lot 19, and realised £45,600. Perhaps the closest comparables to that here are a series of three grisaille miniatures produced by the Burgundian artist Lievan van Lathem for a grand manuscript made for Duke Philip the Good, Louis de Gruuthuse’s …(for full text, see catalogue PDF)’

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There’s A Storm Coming: Writing Weather

Bank Holiday Monday and it’s brewing a storm. Visitors to this dramatic part of South-West England will be hunkering down on the beaches with BBQs and brollies. Others will escape into Bridport or Weymouth to explore the myriad shops and alleyways, restaurants and antiquities hidden there. Some will brave Portland Bill for a bit of wave-watching. This is where the Portland Race – a stretch of rough and treacherous water – helped the English fleet defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Despite the range of lighthouses on the rocky promontory the seas here are no less dangerous for the unwary. Tucked into the lee of the striking red and white striped Portland lighthouse, however, those who relish the thrill can watch the roiling seas in relative safety. Wind-lashed and chilled, it’s all but a quick dash across exposed grass to the warmth and comfort of the nearby cafe.

I’m not going anywhere today. I’m back in the C15th brewing a storm for my protagonist and her family. Consciously or not, I will write the storm into my story, a character in its own right.

All my life I have been fascinated by the changing moods of the weather.  It surrounds us, affecting everything from the clothes we wear to the language we speak. So, do you find the same? Does sea-mist or thunder, thick frost or deep snow inspire you? Make you want to write, paint, sing? Because I know that I could no more neglect the weather in my writing as I can the call of spring in my garden. Today, as the wind thrashes the trees outside, I’ll listen from the tranquility of my room. I’ll watch over the edge of my laptop as the tempest rages hoping, for everyone’s sake, that this one doesn’t make it into the history books. BBQ weather this isn’t.

Following Breadcrumbs: Tracing Historical People

 

Tickhill Castle, print

 Sir Hugh Hastings, de jure 10th baron Hastings, (c1447 – 7th June, 1488) is one of those tantalising figures that populates C15th English history. We have scant information about the man and I have been unable to trace an image of him. The little we do have leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to notable people and events. We know he was knighted and acted as Sheriff of Yorkshire (1479 – 1480), and that he was also steward of Tickhill castle, near Doncaster, Yorkshire. This is where he enters my orbit of interest.

 
Elsing Hall, Norfolk, built C1470
Son of Sir John Hastings (of Elsing Hall, Norfolk) and Anne Morley, Hugh married Anne Gascoigne (before 12 April 1455). Together they had five sons and six daughters who survived long enough to be named and noted.
 
From the Patent Rolls we gain a little more insight:
On 20th June, 1482, Hugh made a will. Given the date this, presumably, was before leaving with the invasion force to Scotland under the leadership of Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
On 25 May, 1484, Richard of Gloucester – now Richard III – rewarded Hugh Hastings for his services against the rebels in Buckingham’s rebellion. He granted him ‘the manors of Wells, Warham, Sheringham, and Wiveton, Norfolk, worth £101 6s. 7d. a year, to hold, in tail male, by military service, at a rent of £8 16s. 7d. a year.’ (Complete Peerage) What role he played is unknown. 
 
Hugh survived the change of regime in 1485 long enough to die where he was born, in Fenwick, West Yorkshire, on 7th June, 1488.
If time were not an issue, if I had lifetimes to spend on research, it is people such as Hugh Hastings I might choose to study. Theirs is a voice seldom heard.
I am currently working on The Tarnished Crown trilogy, a historical suspense set during the turbulent years of the 15th century in the period we now call The Wars of the Roses. Blood will out.