The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie, Kt., Opened (1669)


ISBN-13 978-1-903018-70-5

Published Oct 2010

368 pages; 187×137 mm; paperback; 2 b&w illustrations



Sir Kenelm Digby

Edited by:

Peter Davidson and Jane Stevenson

A paperback edition of a classic of 17th-century English writing about food and drink. There is perhaps none that is more frequently quoted than this, no title more familiar. Its reappearance, therefore, will be very welcome to both the academic market, and the general reader. Digby was also a European figure of some renown in scientific, philosophical and mathematical circles (besides being a military man, a pirate and a womaniser). This recipe collection made by him (in line with similar collections made by male enthusiasts and intellectuals of the time, for example the diarist John Evelyn) was published after his death by his former assistant George Hartman. It is perhaps the most literate of such cookery books. Digby was a natural writer, as entertaining as instructive. Many of the recipes are for drinks, particularly of meads or metheglins, but the culinary material provides a remarkable conspectus of accepted practice among court circles in Restoration England, with extra details supplied from Digby’s European travels. The editors also include the inventory of Digby’s own kitchen in his London house, discovered amongst papers now deposited in the British Library; and they have provided a few modern interpretations of Digby’s recipes. The work was last printed in 1910, in a sound edition that is no longer easily available. This new version has several improvements. The editors discuss the role of George Hartman in the compilation of the book, and relate its contents to the work that went out in 1682 over Hartman’s own name, The True Preserver and Restorer of Health. There is a full glossary and the reader will be helped by the extensive biographical notes about people named in the text as the source of recipes. Sir Kenelm Digby (1611–1665) was born of gentry stock, but his family’s adherence to Roman Catholicism coloured his career. His father, Sir Everard, was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. He went to Gloucester Hall, Oxford in 1618. He spent three years in Europe between 1620 and 1623. Around 1625, he married Venetia Stanley. He had also become a member of the Privy Council. In 1628, Digby became a privateer in the Mediterranean. He returned to become a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House. His wife died suddenly in 1633. Digby, stricken with grief and the object of enough suspicion that the Crown had ordered an autopsy (rare at the time) on Venetia’s body, secluded himself in Gresham College and attempted to forget his personal woes through scientific experimentation. Digby received the regional monopoly of sealing wax in Wales and the Welsh Borders and monopolies of trade with the Gulf of Guinea and with Canada. In the Civil War he went into exile in Paris, where he spent most of his time until 1660. He became Chancellor to Queen Henrietta Maria. Digby was regarded as an eccentric by contemporaries, partly because of his effusive personality, and partly because of his interests in scientific matters. Notable among his pursuits was the concept of the Powder of Sympathy. This was a kind of sympathetic magic to cure injuries. His book on this salve went through 29 editions. He was a founding member of the Royal Society. His correspondence with Fermat contains the only extant mathematical proof by Fermat. His Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants (1661) proved controversial. He is credited with being the first person to note the importance of “vital air,” or oxygen, to the sustenance of plants. Digby is also considered the father of the modern wine bottle. During the 1630s, Digby owned a glassworks and manufactured wine bottles which were globular in shape with a high, tapered neck, a collar, and a punt. The editors: Peter Davidson is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen University, and has written extensively on 17th-century European culture and history, as well as a book on The Idea of the North. Jane Stevenson is Regius Professor of Humanity at Aberdeen University and not only writes novels and short stories, but also reviews widely for the quality press. She recently published a biography of the painter Edward Burra. Together, they edited Early Modern Women Poets for Oxford University Press.

A PDF of the preliminary matter and see below: A review in The Tablet of Prospect’s hard cover edition of Digby

A review in The Tablet of Prospect’s hard cover edition of Digby

A profound discourser upon the “bodies and soules of men“, Sir Kenelm Digby (sic) would not have been pleased to know that this collection of recipes, published posthumously by his steward, is his most lasting monument. This is the unpredictable consequence of having a finger in every pie. Not only a handsome cavalier with six languages, but also a successful pirate, lover, scientist and bibliophile, his store-cupboard exhibited none of that manly austerity you might expect of his modern counterpart. On the contrary, it is a treasure trove of meath, metheglyn, sweet-meats, “flomerty-caudle“, “harts-horn gelly“, “marmulate of pipping“, conserve of roses, “sucket of mallow-stalks“, musk and ambergris. He was the first to hit upon the happy combination of eggs and bacon for breakfast, and for that alone deserves his place among England’s Great Men. Even if you have no desire to make pith puddings of plague water, the most perfunctory dip into these pages will have you reeling with the sheer poetry of the ingredients and instructions. There is such relish in the sheets of lard, the decoctions of herbs, and the sweetness of a mutton leg hung till it’s nearly ready to stink. Sir Kenelm sets about a fat capon with a lover’s rapacity. It is an orgy of guts, bladders, bellies, crackling bones, swelling and fermenting flesh, savoury juices and nourishing liquors. There is such finesse too in the measurements: when the honey-water ratio is just right in meath-making, a “henne’s egg will sail gallantly upon its surface to the breadth of a groat“. In the recipe for tea with eggs and sugar (brought by a Jesuit from China) the tea leaves are allowed to infuse for as long as it takes to “say the Miserere Psalm very leisurely“. Where precision is lacking, “Discretion and Experience” are expected to take their place. Homer’s famous list of ships almost pales in comparison with the table of contents: “sweet-meats of My Lady Windebanks“, “My Lord Hollis Hydromel“, “My Lady Diana Porter’s Scotch Collops” are just a few examples. The description of “how to fatten young chickens in a wonderful degree’ gives one an insight into the Brobdingnagian zest of an aristocracy that had no misgivings about its place at the top of the food chain. The pap of pulped raisins, bread and milk lit up by candles to ensure round-the-clock guzzling makes the chicks so fat that “they will not be able to stand, but lie down upon their bellies to eat“. This delicious book comes with a witty introduction, a glossary, several useful appendices, including biographical sketches of the aristocratic contributors, and some modernised versions of Sir Kenelm’s more access ible recipes. There can be no better way to get inside the skin of a seventeenth-century gentleman, to feel at first hand the “rawness and indigence of the stomach“, the pains of “Gravel“, stone, and “colick” and the virtue of fierce herbs coursing through the veins. Sir Kenelm was very much interested in the medicinal side of cooking. The sudden death of his wife Venetia was put down to the drinking of “Viper wine” and one can only suppose that this was one of his less successful recipes.