Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Black Plague, Decameron, Wise Advice and Salmon Pie

1349 Plague scene from Tournai

Legend has it that the first pandemic, The Black Plague (also known as the Bubonic Plague or Yersinia pestis), came west from Egypt in a basket of grain in 541 AD.

Byzantine Constantinople - modern interpretation

Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire (now Istanbul in Turkey), saw the first explosion of the disease. With a population of half a million in 500AD, It killed 5,000 a day till 40% of the population of the city was dead. 

 From there it spread ferociously. It wiped out 50% of Europe’s population by 700AD. It came to be named The Plague of Justinian after the tyrannical, bellicose Byzantine Emperor. (I wrote about Justinian HERE).

You may not want to know, but plagues employ diabolical stratagems. They slumber - you think it's over, you relax. Then, without warning, WHAM - it's resurrected and comes back like a monster from nightmares and horror films.

After a 600-year nap, only interrupted by small outbreaks over the intervening centuries, the Black Plague roared back at full strength into the world in 1331 where, in 6 years, it efficiently scythed through twenty to thirty million people in Europe. There were 100 outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century and together these visits killed 75 to 200 million people.

Did you know the first use of the word quarantine came during the 14th c plague? It comes from the Italian for 40 days, quaranta giorni to quarantena to quarantine. It was the length of time a ship had to keep its crew onboard and offshore before being allowed to debark to keep the plague from spreading. Quarantines helped a little. On land, victims were boarded up in their houses to keep them from infecting others, but, as one contemporary observer noted during the 17th century outbreak, “I think the only reason why the plague is somewhat slackened is because the place is dead already, and no bodie left in it worth the killing.”

Guy de Chauliac (1300-68)

Guy de Chauliac, a wise French physician who tended to plague victims and urged his fellows to rely on science and not superstition, wrote of the plague:

“The great mortality appeared at Avignon in January 1348, when I was in the service of Pope Clement VI. It was of two kinds. The first lasted two months, with continued fever and spitting of blood, and people died of it in three days. The second was all the rest of the time, also with continuous fever and with tumors in the external parts, chiefly the armpits and groin: and people died in five days. It was so contagious, especially that accompanied by spitting of blood, that not only by staying together, but even by looking at one another, people caught it, with the result that men died without attendants and were buried without priests. The father did not visit his son, nor the son his father. Charity was dead and hope crushed.”

It was Chauliac who advised Pope Clement IV to protect himself in a novel way. Deciding that fires purified, Chauliac told the Pope to sit between 2 large fires that were never allowed to go out till the contagion passed through Avignon. One third of the Cardinals died, but Clement was spared.

Millions were not so lucky, but a good many souls that lived through the plague benefitted from it. The plague changed the way the world worked. Scholar Charles Creighton observed, “Nothing marks so definitely the emergence of Europe from the Middle Ages as the depopulation and social upheaval made by the plague. The great benefit from the carnage was that wages went up and land wealth was spread out to the underclasses at last. A more robust middle class arose from the ashes.  There was enough food to feed the people. The remaining populace was fed up with the tyranny of the church and turned away from slavish obedience and the wealth and greed and hypocrisy that the institution had come to symbolize. The church lost some of its power and a lot of its clergy. The changes brought on the Renaissance - and a new, observable 3-dimensional world less rooted in superstition. But it got very, very dark before the light.

Giovanni Boccaccio 1310-74

Giovanni Bocaccio’s  The Decameron (1348-53) is one of the few works describing this plague that is familiar today – in fact it is a best seller again during these plague times. It’s a magnificent group of tales that surely inspired Chaucer to write his own Canterbury Tales (Chaucer most likely read The Decameron on his trip to Italy in 1372 – like Boccaccio and Dante before him, Chaucer chose not to write in Latin but in the common language of the day).

The title, decameron, means 10-day period which is the time allotted for the telling of the stories of the 3 men and 7 women escaping the black death of Florence and taking up residence in a country villa. They tell stories – 100 stories in all about real people – not just the ruling class but people from all walks of life like farmers, weavers, maids and clergy. Then as now, people loved them because the telling of the stories, the singing and dancing the carola [watch it Here ] transported the travelers from the horror of Pestilencia Magna or The Great Mortality as our streaming does for us today with Covid 19.

Thanks to Patrick Lane at Medieval Death Trip, I discovered an essay by Martin Marafioti about the theory of “narrative prophylaxis” – the healing power of a story to fight disease – inspired by Decameron. A medical manual, Regime du corps, advocated “literary pleasures in the times of plague” (it also advocated fresh air, nutritious food, salubrious wines and regular bathing as well as not getting angry, fearful sad or anguished – wise words then and now). It is not a cure but it helps – then as now.

People would gather in public spaces or in the country to read The Decameron out loud. As it was in Italian and not Latin, there was a small, newly literate merchant class who could read it themselves – but everyone could understand it when it was read out loud and they loved it.

Expanded, the idea of Boccaccio’s ‘lieta brigata’ -- a cheerful company of friends sharing stories that were joyful, uplifting, pleasurable and interesting … became a thing!

According to Tommaso del Garbo [author of Consiglio contro a pistolenza, professor of medicine and friend of Petrarch, 1305-70], “Diversion and entertainment are beneficial so that the bitter reality of the plague can be forgotten: Use songs and games and other pleasant novella that do not exhaust the body, and all those delightful things that bring comfort”. Another intellectual, Cardo of Milan advises in the Regimen in pestilencia (1378), to ‘remain in good spirits and to avoid negative affective states”. He also noticed a relationship between ‘grave sadness and physical ailments …. One should choose moderate joy and make it a habit of listening with loved ones to soothing speeches and joyful and soft songs in supreme harmony.”

It’s as if the physicians of the day learned the lessons of The Decameron. The character Pampinea warns that people shouldn’t think about the plague that killed 60% of Florence – the reflection on the plague corrupts the sanctuary— -- let it go!

Nicolo de Burgo, a Florentine physician agreed:

According to one’s possibility, one should abstain from sadness, anguish, superfluous thoughts, superfluous duties, anger and from contemplated fear and suspicion, especially from every report and conversation of the pestilence and death and from the mention of ill people and people who have dies from the epidemic, unless they be of those who have recovered, or who are going to recover.” He also recommended softly sung songs (in voce remissa – cantilena like this or this), play, clean clothes and good friends – in an atmosphere of peace and harmony.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) believed it was best to avoid the news of the plague but also believed in the power of words and song – ‘the most powerful imitator of all things’ has the ability to relieve pain and cure illness. His theory is based on the idea that words and song can alter a person’s well-being especially when the content is inspired by one’s heart and imagination.

Botticelli’s Banquet of the Pine Forest from The Decameron (1482)

Yes, The Decameron was an escape from the Great Mortality. Still, it began with a bleak description of what they were escaping from – written contemporaneously. Think of it as the black and white of Kansas and the hurricane before the world of Oz. Boccaccio didn’t flinch from painting a horrific sketch of the reason the band of storytellers were escaping the city. Enjoy a few passages from the Payne translation  and be grateful that we live in 2020, not 1350.

“And there against no wisdom availing nor human foresight (whereby the city was purged of many impurities by officers deputed to that end and it was forbidden unto any sick person to enter therein and many were the counsels given for the preservation of health) nor yet humble supplications, not once but many times both in ordered processions and on other wise made unto God by devout persons,—about the coming in of the Spring of the aforesaid year, it began on horrible and miraculous wise to show forth its dolorous effects. Yet not as it had done in the East, where, if any bled at the nose, it was a manifest sign of inevitable death; nay, but in men and women alike there appeared, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, whereof some waxed of the bigness of a common apple, others like unto an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils. From these two parts the aforesaid death-bearing plague-boils proceeded, in brief space, to appear and come indifferently in every part of the body; wherefrom, after awhile, the fashion of the contagion began to change into black or livid blotches, which showed themselves in many [first] on the arms and about the thighs and [after spread to] every other part of the person, in some large and sparse and in others small and thick-sown; and like as the plague-boils had been first (and yet were) a very certain token of coming death, even so were these for everyone to whom they came.” 2

“To the cure of these maladies nor counsel of physician nor virtue of any medicine appeared to avail or profit aught; on the contrary,—whether it was that the nature of the infection suffered it not or that the ignorance of the physicians (of whom, over and above the men of art, the number, both men and women, who had never had any teaching of medicine, was become exceeding great,) availed not to know whence it arose and consequently took not due measures there against,—not only did few recover thereof, but well-nigh all died within the third day from the appearance of the aforesaid signs, this sooner and that later, and for the most part without fever or other accident. And this pestilence was the more virulent for that, by communication with those who were sick thereof, it gat hold upon the sound, no otherwise than fire upon things dry or greasy, when as they are brought very near thereunto Nay, the mischief was yet greater; for that not only did converse and consortion with the sick give to the sound infection of cause of common death, but the mere touching of the clothes or of whatsoever other thing had been touched or used of the sick appeared of itself to communicate the malady to the toucher. A marvellous thing to hear is that which I have to tell and one which, had it not been seen of many men's eyes and of mine own, I had scarce dared credit, much less set down in writing, though I had heard it from one worthy of belief. I say, then, that of such efficience was the nature of the pestilence in question in communicating itself from one to another, that, not only did it pass from man to man, but this, which is much more, it many times visibly did;—to wit, a thing which had pertained to a man sick or dead of the aforesaid sickness, being touched by an animal foreign to the human species, not only3 infected this latter with the plague, but in a very brief space of time killed it. Of this mine own eyes (as hath a little before been said) had one day, among others, experience on this wise; to wit, that the rags of a poor man, who had died of the plague, being cast out into the public way, two hogs came up to them and having first, after their wont, rooted amain among them with their snouts, took them in their mouths and tossed them about their jaws; then, in a little while, after turning round and round, they both, as if they had taken poison, fell down dead upon the rags with which they had in an ill hour intermeddled”3

“The condition of the common people (and belike, in great part, of the middle class also) was yet more pitiable to behold, for that these, for the most part retained by hope or poverty in their houses and abiding in their own quarters, sickened by the thousand daily and being altogether untended and unsuccoured, died well-nigh all without recourse. Many breathed their last in the open street, whilst other many, for all they died in their houses, made it known to the neighbors that they were dead rather by the stench of their rotting bodies than otherwise; and of these and others who died all about the whole city was full”. 6

Seven gentle women (Emilia, Elisa, Lauretta, Neifile, Pampinea Fiammeta Filomena) and 3 gentlemen (Pamfilo, Filostrato, Dioneo), decided to get out of Florence and left the next morning for their new Eden… “nor had they gone more than two short miles from the city, when they came to the place fore-appointed of them, which was situate on a little hill, somewhat withdrawn on every side from the high way and full of various shrubs and plants, all green of leafage and pleasant to behold. On the summit of this hill was a palace, with a goodly and great courtyard in its midst and galleries and saloons and bedchambers, each in itself most fair and adorned and notable with jocund paintings, with lawns and grassplots round about and wonder-goodly gardens and wells of very cold water and cellars full of wines of price, things more apt unto curious drinkers than unto sober and modest ladies. The new comers, to their no little pleasure, found the place all swept and the beds made in the chambers and everything full of such flowers as might be had at that season and strewn with rushes.”

They decide to pick a new chief for each day to decide what the subject of their entertainments will be. They broke off and returned at the appointed time to find …”entering a saloon on the ground floor, they saw there the tables laid with the whitest of cloths and beakers that seemed of silver and everything covered with the flowers of the broom; whereupon, having washed their hands, they all, by command of the queen, seated themselves according to Parmeno's [Dioneo’s manservant] ordinance. Then came viands delicately drest and choicest wines were proffered and the three serving-men, without more, quietly tended the tables. All, being gladdened by these things, for that they were fair and orderly done, ate joyously and with store of merry talk, and the tables being cleared away, the queen bade bring instruments of music, for that all the ladies knew how to dance, as also the young men, and some of them could both play and sing excellent well.” 15

After this they retired to the grass and the plan was settled. “Here is the sojourn fair and cool, and here, as you see, are chess and tables, and each can divert himself as is most to his mind. But, an my counsel be followed in this, we shall pass away this sultry part of the day, not in gaming,—wherein the mind of one of the players must of necessity be troubled, without any great pleasure of the other or of those who look on,—but in telling stories, which, one telling, may afford diversion to all the company who hearken; nor shall we have made an end of telling each his story but the sun will have declined and the heat be abated, and we can then go a-pleasuring whereas it may be most agreeable to us. Wherefore, if this that I say please you, (for I am disposed to follow your pleasure therein,) let us do it; and if it please you not, let each until the hour of vespers do what most liketh him." Ladies and men alike all approved the story-telling, whereupon, "Then," said the queen, "since this pleaseth you, I will that this first day each be free to tell of such matters as are most to his liking. Then, turning to Pamfilo, who sat on her right hand, she smilingly bade him give beginning to the story-telling with one of his; and he, hearing the commandment, forthright began thus, whilst all gave ear to him.” 15

And so the tales begin. The hundred tales are not strung together by anything other than the direction of the chief of the day. They are very bawdy, funny, sad, exciting, provoking and terribly entertaining. They are human and they are meant to take one’s mind off the world around you for a while – the perfect book for today, yes?

Also, PLEASE listen to those very wise men of medicine from the 14th century. Don’t let the crazy make you sick. Our president is a force of chaos and division. Don’t pay him attention – he thrives on chaos and hurting others while he screams ME ME ME. Change the conversation. TURN AWAY from the toxic and toward great friends and great art, literature, drama and music. Let it feed you and heal you.

Take a break. Let some light in. Cook something, take it to a shut-in – do good and be well. We will get through this.

And on a personal note, 2,500,000 people have visited Lost Past Remembered in the last 10 years -- thanks so much for joining me.

The Lutrell Salter 1330

So what did they eat?

Needless to say. They dined well at this castle. I had originally thought I was going to write about the plague in England, but then Bocaccio won the day with the excellent advice of the famous Italian physicians that I felt compelled to share. I had already decided to go with something from an English cookbook of the period and was pleased when I made the dish, so The Forme of Cury it is!! It came from Richard II’s kitchen around 1390 and its recipes have fed me well many times (I wrote about it HERE ). I have already made a 1420 Savoyard tuna pie by Chiquart, chef to the Duke of Savoy (I wrote about it here)  which had similar ingredients but also rice flour, almond milk and orange. I thought I would try something a little different and slightly earlier. Looking at Bartolomeo Scappi’s cookbook (1570), I don’t think my pie would have been alien to Florentines in the 14thcentury.

Yes, it is not your idea of a fish pie. It has raisins, dates, figs, apples, pears and prunes so it is more like a dessert before you pop the fish in – but it is delicious. Also, for those of you who are vegetarians, it is dessert again if you skip the fish – it is delicious either way.

Just a note- I didn’t cook the fish beforehand since I don’t like heavily cooked fish and I only used salmon because, in these quarantine shopping days – it’s what I had. I didn’t have fresh plums so just used prunes – I think the ‘damsyns’ would be delicious – next time

                                        Forme of Cury 


Take Fyges & Raysouns. & waisshe hem in Wyne and grinde hem smalewith apples & peres clene ypikede (picked). take hem up and cast hem in a pot wiþ wyne and sugur. take salwar Salmoun [2] ysode (boil). oþer codlyng (cod), oþer haddok, & bray hem smal. & do þerto white powdours & hool spices. &salt. and seeþ (boil-reduce) it. and whanne it is sode ynowgh. take it up and do it in a vessel and lat it kele (cool). make a Coffyn an ynche depe & do þe fars þerin (stuff). Plaunt it aboue [3] with prunes and damysyns. take þe stoneout, and wiþ dates quartereded [4] and piked clene. and couere the coffyn, and bake it well, and serve it forth
{FYI, þ (upper case Þ), is the letter thorn. it was gradually replaced by "th". so pronounce wiþ - with}

Tart de Brymlent. Take figs & raisins, & wash them in wine, and grind them small with apples & pears clean picked. Take them up and put them in a pot with wine and sugar. Take very fresh salmon boiled, or cod or haddock, and mince them small, & do there-to white powders & whole spices & salt, & boil it. And when it is cooked enough, take it up and do it in a vessel, and let it cool. Make a pie shell an inch deep & do the filling there-in. Place on top of this damson prunes: take the stones out; and with dates quartered and picked clean. And cover the pie, and bake it well, and serve it forth.

Tart de Brymlent serves 2 - 4 (thanks to Gode Cookery for the translations and help with the recipe )

2 figs, minced
¼ c Raisins
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 pear peeled, cored and chopped
½ c White wine
2 T Sugar
½ Lb fresh Salmon in small pieces
½ t White Pepper (I used a ground blend of black pepper, grains of paradise, cubeb and long pepper)
Whole spices – 1 Cinnamon Stick, 5 Cloves, 1 quarter size piece Ginger, etc. - wrapped up in cheesecloth or ½ t of cinnamon, ¼ t cloves ½ t ginger  - do it to taste before you put the fish in -- I like a little more spice)
1 t Salt
Pastry for a double crust lid
6 Pitted Prunes sliced in half
2 plums sliced in quarters (I didn’t have them so didn’t use them)
6 Dates, pitted and halved
1 T butter

Heat oven to 425º

Put the figs, raisins, apples and pears with the wine and sugar into a pot. Add spices, & salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then simmer. Cook until it has reduced and thickened (if it seems too liquid after fruits have cooked thoroughly, remove them and reduce the liquid a little. Remove the whole spices if used. Let the mixture cool.

Roll out the bottom crust and place in pan (I used a copper pan with a 4 ½ “bottom - 6” top- so smaller than a regular pie pan – a small, oven-proof skillet would do well). Add the salmon to the pie filling and put in pie crust. Put the prunes and dates on top and dot with butter. Cover with the reserve pastry and seal. Add holes for steam. Bake about 40 minutes - checking that the top doesn’t get too brown (put foil or a silicone pie rim on it if it is getting too brown). Take it out of the oven and cool a few minutes and serve. It’s good hot or at room temperature.


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.