Well, if it’s fish Friday, the menu consisted of… fish! Fish, glorious fish. Thirty or more courses of fish, including oysters, ling, green fish, salt white herring, salt salmon, salmon, great pike, smaller pike, crayfish, roach, great carp, smaller carp, roasting eel, stock fish, chub, tench, chevin, perch, bream, salt eel, loach, flounder, smelt, gurnard, shrimp, whiting, plaice, trout, lamprey, lobster, crab, knobbard, turbot, fresh cod, haddock, barbel!
Here’s a sample menu from a Star Chamber dinner on a so-called fish, or “fasting” day, from Friday, April 30, 1591. 1
When Star Chamber was in session, the judges and privy councillors who heard and debated cases evidently worked up quite an appetite. It was traditional for them to have an extravagant feast in the court’s inner chamber, just after the morning session. They averaged about 35 of these dinners a year, with twelve to eighteen people in attendance for each one. The dinners generally took place on Wednesdays and Fridays during each of the four legal terms: Michaelmas, Hillary, Easter, and Trinity. Wednesdays were all about meat: beef, mutton, veal, pork, rabbits, and all variety of wild and domestic fowl, while Friday was a designated fish day in early modern England (mostly to boost the fish industry in England). Both the Wednesday and Friday meals also had beer, ale, wine, bread, butter, eggs, salad, vegetables, and fruit for dessert.
Here’s a typical meat dinner, from Wednesday, January 26, 1591/92:
One of the things I love about my job is that questions from researchers and colleagues at the Folger and other institutions frequently take me to manuscripts I haven’t yet had an opportunity to meet. This summer I received an email query from Kristin Leaman, Special Collections Cataloger at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. She was transcribing a manuscript at the Lilly in order to keep up with her recent training in secretary hand at the Mellon Summer Institute in English Paleography at the Folger, and had a question about a Latin abbreviation. The abbreviation led me to a manuscript we had at the Folger, and we quickly discovered that the Folger and the Lilly had parts of a series of manuscript booklets with the same provenance: “The expenses of the diet provided for the council in the Star Chamber.”
The paper wrappers of most of the booklets look like these two:
The Folger has the Star Chamber dinner accounts for six terms: Easter term 1591 (Hamnet record for X.d.98), Hilary term 1591/92, Easter term 1597, Trinity term 1597, Michaelmas term 1599, and Hilary term 1604/5 (Hamnet record for Folger MS V.b.105 [1-5]) . 2
The Lilly has the dinner accounts for two terms: Hilary term 1590/91 and Hilary term 1594/95 (IUCAT record for TX360.G8 S58 Lilly mss.). 3 They have been fully digitized, and you can contact Kristin Leaman (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are interested in seeing them.
Another group of late Elizabethan/early Jacobean dinner accounts, from Michaelmas term 1590, Trinity term 1602, and Michaelmas 1605, was edited by the bibliophile and founder of the Wine and Food Society André L. Simon (1877-1970) from manuscripts in his own collection. 5
Between these accounts of 12 terms between 1590 and 1605, we have a fairly good idea of who was in attendance, what they ate and drank, how much it cost, and the wages and payments for all other services, people, and goods associated with these meals.
The attendees are often listed on both sides of the itemized list/menu/invoice, as in the case of this account from Friday, February 6, 1594/95, from the Lilly Library.
In the foreword to his edition, Simon describes his collection of Star Chamber accounts as extending to 250 dinners between 1519 and 1639, including the fifty dinners over three terms from 1567 to 1605 that he edited. He writes: “How it happened that these royal household’s documents came to be offered at public auctions when private libraries were being sold I cannot say” (p. vii). Good question! My follow-up question to Collation readers is: Does anyone know where Simon’s accounts ended up, or at what auctions he purchased them? Simon’s collection was joined with the collection of another gastronome, Eleanor Lowenstein, and sold to the American Institute of Wine and Food. The collection was then split up between UC-San Diego and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe in the 1980s, but neither online catalog includes the Star Chamber diets.
We will be transcribing our accounts as part of the EMMO project: stay tuned.
- Star Chamber was the highest and most powerful law court in Tudor-Stuart England, consisting of members of the Privy Council and common law judges. Controlled by the monarch and with a vague jurisdiction and mandate, it was abolished in 1641.
- Mr. and Mrs. Folger acquired X.d.98 in 1923 from the catalog of S.J. Davey, and V.b.505 from a Sotheby’s auction of a portion of the collection of Rev. Francis Hopkinson (1810-1890), on July 17, 1916 (no. 138).
- These are a relatively new acquisition, purchased in 2009 from Ars Libri.
- Cora L. Scofield, “Accounts of Star Chamber Dinners, 1593-4,” The American Historical Review, vol. 5, no. 1 (October 1899), pp. 83-95 (available through JSTOR).
- The Star Chamber Dinner Accounts, being some hitherto unpublished Accounts of Dinners provided for the Lords of the Privy Council in the Star Chamber, Westminster, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I of England with a Foreword and Commentary (London: George Rainbird for The Wine and Food Society, 1959).