Medieval and Early Modern Cookies: A Tasty Dalliance

by Heather R Darsie, JD

Dear Reader, I thought I would share with you a couple historical cookie recipes that I make for my family. They come from 12th and 16th century recipes. Our first recipe comes from St Hildegard von Bingen, with recipe following the image of Hildegard. Our second cookie recipe comes from a 16th century English manuscript, and can be found after the image of Anna of Cleves.

Hildegard von Bingen was born around 1098, the last of ten children. Following the Christian tradition of giving a tenth of one’s belongings to God, and also the fact that her noble parents likely did not have enough money to put up for yet another daughter’s dowry, Hildegard was destined for a religious life. When she was eight years old, Hildegard and another girl, Juliana, were sealed into a small room on the exterior of a church, and lived the next several years as anchorites. Hildegard learned to read and write during this time, also having visions from God. After her time as an anchorite, Hildegard entered a Benedictine abbey, eventual rising to Abbess. She kept up correspondence with a wide range of important persons, wrote books, and either painted or dictated images from visions which her nuns then painted. Hildegard was long-lived, not passing away until 1179. She was roughly eighty-one years old.

Hildegard took a special interest in making medicine. Remember that, way back in the 12th century, the idea of the Four Humors and keeping them in balance was basic medicine. Blood had the characteristics of being hot and wet, plus was associated with springtime; Yellow Bile had the characteristics of heing hot and dry, and was associated with the summer; Black Bile had cold and dry characteristics, and was connected to the autumn; Phlegm was cold and wet, with it being related to winter. Keeping these humors balanaced was of prime importance, especially the biles and phlegm because those three were found in blood. With this knowledge of medicine, Hildegard made innumerable recipes to treat all sorts of maladies. Once such recipe was for Cookies of Joy, thought to relieve depression and warm someone suffering from too much Black Bile.

For my interpretation of Cookies of Joy, I used ingredients which I think would have been available to Hildegard. The most unfamiliar, spelt, is a predecessor of wheat. You should be able to find that at your local grocery store in either the baking or healthfood aisle. I put in parentheses modern ingredients. The cookies themselves are not terribly sweet, allowing for the spice flavor to really come through. I used three tablespoons of honey and like them just fine. The cookies went well with coffee and I imagine would go well with tea.

Hildegard von Bingen with her nuns, 13th century, unknown artist.

Cookies of Joy

Ingredients

2 cups of spelt flour (all-purpose flour)

3 or 4 tablespoons of honey (granulated sugar)

1 stick of butter at room-temperature

2 teaspoons nutmeg

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

3 to 5 tablespoons of water

Execution

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 300F. Put spices and flour in a bowl and blend with a fork. Put in 3 or 4 tablespoons of honey in the dry ingredients, and mix with fork. Cut up and add the stick of butter. Mix with a fork, gradually moving to using your hand to blend the fat with the flour and honey. Add 3 to 5 tablespoons of water, a little at a time, until a dough is formed.
  2. Grease a cookie sheet. Roll the dough into a dozen little balls. I had some dough left over after this, so made a giant thirteenth cookie. I probably had enough dough for fourteen cookies. I digress. Put the twelve balls of dough on the cookie sheet, then use a fork to slightly flatten the cookies. Press the fork again in a perpendicular direction, creating an attractive cross-hatch pattern.
  3. Bake cookies for 15 to 17 minutes. Consider putting on the kettle or brewing coffee, so you can enjoy your fresh cookies with extra refreshment.
  4. Once baked, remove cookies and let cool for a few minutes.
  5. Eat, and feel your humors become balanced.

A second recipe I like to make was transcribed and published here: Instructiones to make Cakes, with the recipe coming from UPenn Ms. Codex 823 (22V). I slightly changed the recipe. In my house, we call these either Cloves Cookies or Anna Cookies, after Anna of Cleves. Affectionately known by the children in my house as “the lady Heather writes about”, I explained to them that Anna of Cleves may have eaten cookies like these when she was living in England, and the name stuck. With a whopping four ingredients, these cookies are very easy to make.

Anna of Cleves by Wenceslaus Hollar, after a lost sketch or portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 17th century

Anna Cookies

Ingredients

1 teaspoon cloves (original recipe calls for 1/8 teaspoon)

1 cup flour (I use all-purpose flour, although spelt would work)

1 stick room-temperature butter

1/2 cup of granulated sugar

Execution

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 275F. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl with a fork.
  2. Cut the butter into pieces and place in bowl with dry ingredients, and begin mixing with fork. After initial mixing, use your hand to finish blending butterfat with the dry ingredients. The dough will be crumbly, but your cookies will hold together so long as you blended the fat with your hand (the heat from your hands softens the butter further).
  3. Grease a baking sheet. Make twelve dough balls and place on greased cookie sheet. Put in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until just set. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. The cookies are very delicate whilst still warm, so allowing them to cool a bit and set is necessary.
  4. Eat and think about your favorite Tudor queen consort or regnant.

Need something to read whilst enjoying your cookies? Below find links for the nonfiction, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister, and the fictional, Diary of a Plague Doctor’s Wife: A Novella set in 1720s Marseille!

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment or drop me a line!

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