Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Shakespeare, Plague, Painted Cloths and Oleopotrige -17th c Stew

William Shakespeare, Chandos portrait 1610

“Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind.” King Lear

In the time of plague, let me share with you some things you may not know--  about a life-long love - Shakespeare, a newer, decade old passion –Tudor painted walls, and my latest discovery of painted wall-cloths (waterwork). All of them intersect with an added treat of a 17th century recipe here at Lost Past, Plague Version!

Shakespeare was born 26 April 1564 only a few months into an outbreak of the bubonic plague that took a quarter of the population of his hometown and his own sister. The plague-hound would breath down his neck for most of his life.

He was born and grew up on Henley Street in Stratford on Avon. Two of the rooms are seen below with modern wall-cloths painted by the fabulously talented Melissa White - I learned a lot from her site. The black and white room is in the style of period wall paintings from Glouster Folk Museum and Harvington Hall and a Sandwich inn, the second room uses researched millefleurs decoration as inspiration (I felt immediately connected to White – I painted Tudor designs on my closet doors in my first apartment and loved their undulating patterns - do visit her site and see her other work).

Stratford Bedroom
Stratford Bedroom
Glouster Folk Museum 
Harvington Hall. 
 Sandwich inn
 Sandwich inn
Stratford Bedroom
Stratford Bedroom
Original Oxford Millefleur from collection of Melissa White 

The water-work paintings were aspirational and meant to reflect the ruling classes’ rich and costly tapestries but affordable for the homes of the middle classes. We know Shakeseare’s grandfather had 11 of them, as they were listed in his possessions (it was the custom for valuables to be recorded in the estate of the deceased and the water-work was valuable). Shakespeare even wrote of them through Falstaff in Henry IV, part 2:

“And for thy walls, a pretty slight drollery, or the story of the Prodigal or the German hunting in waterwork is worth a thousand of these bed-hangers and these fly-bitten tapestries.”

These water-works and wall paintings were mostly done by members of a painter’s guild. Centered in London, the Painter’s and Stainer’s Guild  members would often have their own pattern books which might explain the similarity of designs. They would mix dry pigment with animal glue-size and apply it to lime-washed walls directly or to linen cloths (the lime in the walls limited the colors that could be used as the lime changed any plant-based colors – lamp black from soot was very popular because it was very stable). The art could be geometric, done in knots or grids or free-flowing with grotesque work, vines and flowers. Some were portraits, or told a story or illustrated a moral with visual fables, written phrases and elaborate borders.

Sadly, few originals of these cloths have survived (the finest examples are in Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire). Many of the painted walls have survived, having had the good fortune to be hidden beneath new walls in renovations to modernize the ancient rooms or merely painted over and only recently discovered and painstakingly restored. Although they fell out of fashion, the techniques for making wall cloths translated well to the new idea of stage backdrops (the stage in Shakespeare’s day had no scenery – only relevant furniture and props).

Little Moreton
Ledbury Painted room

A Description of England, written by William Harrison in 1577 described the fashion,

“The walls of our houses on the inner sides in like sort be either hanged with tapestry, arras work, or painted cloths, wherein either divers histories, or herbs, beasts, knots, and such like are stained, or else they are ceiled with oak of our own, or wainscot brought hither out of the east countries, whereby the rooms are not a little commended, made warm, and much more close than otherwise they would be.”

Elizabethan Gloves

Shakespeare’s father would have had a wetwork or 2. He was a prosperous glove maker to wealthy clients in Stratford on Avon with a shop next door to the house where his father conducted his business – a common practice in the 16th century that gave young William an intimate view of the upper stratosphere of society as he saw them or heard the gossip about them. His observations of their world would not be wasted – they were fodder for the playwright’s keen eye and ear. He noticed everything.

1708 drawing of the John Shakespeare’s house and shop
The house before restoration (brick work was added on the inn to the right of the house where 
Shakespeare’s shop had been, Shakespeare’s house had become a butcher shop.
After the 1858 restoration, buildings were removed on either side to prevent fires 

Shakespeare left the family house and got married to Anne Hathaway in 1582, had 3 children (His son, Hamnet, died in 1596 at age 11 - there's a lovely new book out  called Hamnet byMaggie O'Farrell.) and then disappeared from the records from 1585 – 1592. He showed up on the London theater scene by way of a decidedly bad review for writing above his poorly educated station and talent level.

New Place, Shakespeare’s capacious family house in Stratford 

Hollar Drawing of Globe, 1647

His theater, the Globe on Maiden Lane, existed from 1599 to 1642 (although it burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII and had to be rebuilt).

This is the Swan Theatre – drawn while Shakespeare was alive and showing

the probable interior conformation of the Globe
Shakespeare continued to write and thrive as an artist through the plague years. Soon he had the Globe Theater and a theatre company (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men) and commuted to his family and their home in Stratford during off season come July, (Shakespeare probably spent summers in Stratford at New Place, a trek of 100 miles from London or on tour in the provinces when courts were closed in the city and the royals went to the country – the summer season ended on Michaelmas (Sept 29th ) and the new theater season began in October).

We know that he rented rooms in various areas around his theater in London during this period  (first Bishopsgate in 1596, then Liberty of the Clink) , but he spent a good deal of his time in London in a household on Silver Street.

Silver Street and Muggle

The house on Silver Street must have felt familiar to him. The merchant landlords had their shop on the street level – living above the store. It was not unlike Shakespeare’s own household growing up with his father the glovemaker – catering to wealthy clients that made the Shakespeare’s well-to-do themselves (Silver Street was a good neighborhood with prosperous tradespeople living and working there).

St Olaf's church

The French Huguenot Montjoy household worked in tiremaking – making wigs and fancy hairpieces, tire short for attire. Shakespear even mentioned the profession in Winter’s Tale. “Any silk, any thread, Any toys for your head."

Hair-tires of the period 
Hair-tires of the period 
Hair-tires of the period 

He rented a room there from around 1602 till perhaps 1606. He never stayed there there continuously – it was a pied-á-terre (foot on the ground).

In 1606 Shakespeare, with supernatural good fortune, once again eluded the plague that killed his landlady while he was living on Silver Street and Muggle in the Cripplegate Ward by St Olafs church (the house disappeared during the fire of 1666 along with 13,000 other buildings – a German air raid in 1940 destroyed the rest of Silver Street).

A charming book, The Lodger Shakespeare, by master researcher Charles Nicholl, chronicles Shakespeare’s time in London on Silver street with the Mountjoy family (he left after landlady Marie Mountjoy died of the plague). It is rich with period details from documents, letters and literature of the day (including a discovery in the 1920's of a court case involving his landlord Mountjoy in 1612 that gave us the only transcription of Shakespeare's own voice we know of - he testified for Montjoy).

During the age of Shakespeare’s creative explosion in the late 16th and early 17th century, the plague was not idle – it erupted in 1593- early in Shakespeare’s time in London and it throttled his livelihood with great frequency thereafter.

When the plague came, theatres were shut down since they were judged prime breeding grounds for the disease. Whenever the disease killed thirty people or more a week, the theatres were closed by the King’s Privy Council. Between 1603-13, theaters were closed 60% of the time with the largest outbreaks in 1601, 1603-4, 1606 and 1609-10 (the plague's last hurrah of 1666 which killed 100,000 in London is said to have been started in a basket of flea-infested laundry brought from the country).

An outbreak of the plague in 1601 claimed the lives of 30,000 Londoners. For many years Silver Street had escaped the contagion until the plague of 1603 killed 125 of Shakespeare’s neighbors in St Olaf’s parish and the death bells tolled relentlessly. Shakespeare had dodged the bullet so many times with the plague but was surrounded by death and dying.

So what occupied Shakespeare when the plague kept him from work? Many people these days are looking at what has been written during times like ours – in a world of death and contagion and fear.

Sometimes, Shakespeare wrote poems instead of plays. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were done when the theater’s closed in 1593. Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609 (but had probably been written over a dozen years).

There is a theory going around that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the London plague of 1606 -- great art made in times of great pain. The work is dark and unrelenting, and plague is an ugly thread in the tapestry of the play – it does reflect the bitter air of the time.

To be honest, we can never know why he wrote King Lear or any other play because there are no diaries – no letters to help divine Shakespeare’s state of mind. He wrote and wrote and wrote some more and he wrote very well. Perhaps it eased the pain of all the death and suffering around him (he lost his own son in 1596 when he wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream –a charming idyll to ease the painful loss?). What is true is that the greatest plays of all time were written during this decade of the plague – from Hamlet to Macbeth, The Tempest, Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra – and King Lear. Whether they happened precisely during plague breaks in the theater season we cannot know. Shakespeare the artist survived and soared. What he left behind can get us through our own plague years. I know his words have soothed and strengthened me so very many times.

I will share with you one of my favorite lines of poetry cut from a magazine - through 4 homes and 30 years it has always been with me, displayed quietly where I can see it – now on my bedroom mirror. It is by William Carlos Williams.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

We will come out of this stronger than before if we feed our hearts, I believe that.  Feast on some Shakespeare or what you will.

Here is a fine short monologue from a play about being brave during the 17thc plague read by Robert Lindsay - The Roses of Eyam 

How about that 17th century meal I promised you?? Was there comfort food for Shakespeare?

Well, they loved meat and sugar and spice for sure and the combination is comforting. For the right food I looked to a cookbook of the day, Country Contentments, OR The approued Booke called the English Hous-wife, by Gervase Markam. It was written in 1615 but would have had food Shakespeare was familiar with.

I chose to make Oleopotrige, an English version of a Spanish stew -- Olla podrida (it means rotten pot). I believe the reason for the name is that you cook it for a long time and the vegetables dissolve into the liquid as do the meats. It is unusual if you think of it as an English stew. Consider it more like something from the Middle East and India and it makes more sense with the prunes and raisins and oranges and lemons and tons of spices. It’s quite delicious.

I browned the meat and didn’t cook the greens or the chicken to death but did cook the root vegetables well and let them dissolve to thicken the broth. The violet, marigold and strawberry leaves are odd but worth hunting down – they are a wonderous delicacy - lightly flavored and mildly fragrant.  The stew is delicious the next day, too -- I made papadam with the leftovers - excellent on the side).

Oleopotrige – 17th Century meat stew with Fruit

1-pound top sirloin (you can add pieces of pork, veal and or lamb as well – ¼ lb each or so -it scales up easily)
1 -2 T oil
10 prunes, soaked in warm water
¼ c raisins, soaked in warm water
¼ c currants, soaked in warm water
1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1 turnip peeled and cubed
1 rutabaga or 2 parsnips peeled and cubed
1 russet potato cubed
1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
½ t cloves
1 t mace
1 t ginger
1 T sugar (demerara or sugar-in-the-raw is good for this)
Mixed greens (lettuce, endive, spinach, dandelion, marigold, violet leaves, strawberry leaves, marigold leaves and flowers
2 chicken breasts or 4 boneless thighs
2 T verjuice (optional – add 1TWhite Wine vinegar and 1 T White Wine or better still, 1 T green grape juice)
4-6 slices Toasted bread
Thinly sliced orange and lemon
¼ c sliced almonds
1 T sugar

Brown the meat. Cover with water and cook on a very low temperature for 1 hour ( I would imagine a crock pot would be great for this).

Peel the vegetables and cut into cubes. Add to the stock and cook for 1/2 hour at a low temperature. Add the spices (I used more - this is a starting off point – taste and decide)

Brown the chicken and add to the pot, cook another ½ hour at a very low simmer.

Place the toasted bread on the platter. Remove the meat from the pot. Slice and keep warm on the platter. Put the greens into the liquid for a few moments until softened slightly, remove and keep warm (in the original recipe – they are cooked till they disintegrate – I choose a more modern light touch to keep texture and color). Mash the vegetables a little and reduce the liquid. Add the verjuice

Strain the vegetables and put on the platter. Sprinkle with the drained prunes, raisins and currants. Place the green vegetables over the root vegetables and pour the liquid over the dish - sprinkle with sugar and almonds.

1 comment:

Parnassus said...

Hello Deana, It was interesting to learn about the sophisticated elements that were part of life in Elizabethan times. The richness and complexity of the clothing and decoration is matched in the preparation of the food, complex with spices and rich with macerated vegetables and sugar. The Elizabethans similarly loved a rich and complex use of the English language. Shakespeare was the ultimate example, but the style was also used by other authors of the period, such as your namesake Sir Philip Sidney. By the way, the name of Wesleyan University's yearbook was the Olla Podrida.