The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

“Lusty” sack possets, fertility, and the foodways of early modern weddings

A guest post by Sasha Handley

Take ye yolks of 14 Egs & six whites & boyle them very well strain them into
a pewter Bason put a quarte of a pint of Sack to them a grated nutmeg a little
senemond [cinnamon] as much white shuger as you thinke fitt sett them upon a chafin dish
of charcoles keep it stiring till it is prety hot lett a quart of milke boyle up
upon the fier put a peece of butter and two sponefulls of shuger in
it when the egs are hott power in the milke upon them then cover
it up presently close and lett it stand a quarter of an hower then sett it
upon a cold stone

This recipe for “sack posset,” dating to c.1672, can be found in the recipe book of Constance Hall in the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Folger MS V.a.20, fol. 20r top detail

It is just one of 136 recipes for this popular milk-based beverage that survive in the Folger’s world-leading collection of manuscript recipe books that span the period c.1575-c.1787. Many of these books contain hundreds of cookery and medical recipes for regular use in the home, or to mark special occasions, and their status as treasured repositories of family history and expertise has ensured their widespread preservation.

During my 2019 fellowship at the Folger, which was part of the research programme Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I examined 80 manuscript recipe books. Of those 80 books, 59 contained at least one recipe for sack posset, whilst some contained many more, suggesting that their authors were in hot pursuit of the perfect posset. The volume and luxurious quality of ingredients used to spice sack posset, such as saffron and ambergris, shows that its preparation was very highly prized.

Sack posset seems to have been most typically consumed to close a day of wedding celebrations in early modern England. Imbibing some warm sack posset, also known colloquially as the “bride Posset” was a core part of betrothal rituals and, I suggest, a powerful prelude to the marriage’s sexual consummation. Its symbolic significance at the heart of one of the most important lifecycle rituals of the period likely explains why so much time, labour, and creativity was lavished on creating a first-rate beverage.

The vessels from which sack posset was consumed also place it at the centre of early modern wedding rituals. Elaborately decorated “posset pots” (such as those shown here) survive in large numbers in museum collections.

Posset pot with cover, early 18th century, accession no: 13.123.2a,b, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Earthenware posset pot, c.1696, accession no: 1965.116, ©Manchester City Galleries

They often feature affectionate betrothal inscriptions such as “THE BEST IS NOT TOO GOOD FOR YOU” as in the first example, or the names or initials of the newlyweds. Aside from their symbolic value, posset pots were usually capacious enough to serve the assembled wedding party and restore their strength after a day of dancing and frivolity. As I discovered during a “remaking” session of sack posset with members of the Folger’s Before ‘Farm to Table’ team, the milk, alcohol, and spiced egg mixture separates into three distinct layers once it has been carefully prepared. The newlyweds likely sucked the hottest and headiest part of the mixture through the pot’s spout that connected to the liquid at its base, whilst their guests likely used a spoon or a cup to take some of the middle-layer of spiced curd, or the “froth” of whipped egg whites and sugar on the top.

When we trace the qualities that early modern people associated with sack posset’s core ingredient of milk, the drink’s suitability for a wedding celebration becomes even clearer. Milk was judged essential for childrearing, but it was also understood to be a powerful fertility-aid—an attribute that was linked to its blood-generating qualities, its capacity to promote strength, and to its ability to arouse emotional states such as “lustfulness.” Milk was commonly referred to as “white blood” in this period, and the assumed affinities between milk and human blood were central to classical and early modern understandings of physical health and especially fertility. Consuming milk was believed to generate more blood, and thereby to increase fertility. The Folger’s recipe books also show that milk was widely used in medical recipes to support pregnancy and prevent miscarriage.

Men’s fertility could also be boosted by a heady glug of sack posset. Thomas Moffett, a physician and naturalist from London, was sure that drinking cow’s milk gave men’s faces “a lively and good colour” and “encreaseth lust.”1 Edward Topsell described the natural lustfulness of dairy cows in The history of four-footed beasts (1658).2 This idea may have strengthened the rationale for drinking cow’s milk since it was widely accepted that a cow’s traits were transferred to humans through milk-drinking.

One of Topsell’s lusty cows. Folger STC 24123 copy 2, p. 71

Sack posset also had a well-established reputation as an aphrodisiac beyond the conversations of medical practitioners, and it was commonly believed to “create desire” in husbands and to fuel the fire of more illicit sexual encounters.3 There was then a powerful association between sack posset, sexual prowess, and procreative success that assured this beverage a central place within early modern culture, and within the Folger’s outstanding collection of recipe books from this period. The history of sack posset thus offers a glimpse of the potential of early modern foodways, and of the Before ‘Farm to Table’ project, to shed new and more intimate light on the material, sexual, and marital lives of past peoples.

Sasha Handley is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Manchester. She has published widely on aspects of early modern supernatural belief, material culture and everyday life, and her most recent monograph was Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2016).

  1. Thomas Moffett, Healths improvement: or, Rules comprizing and discovering the nature, method and manner of preparing all sorts of food used in this nation (London: Printed by Tho: Newcomb for Samuel Thomson, at the sign of the white Horse in Pauls Churchyard, 1655), p.125. Folger M2382.
  2. Edward Topsell, The history of four-footed beasts and serpents (London: Printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson, 1658), p.57.
  3. The London Cuckold (Printed I. Back, on London-Bridge, near the Draw-Bridge, 1685-88)

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