Today is the feast day of St Thomas More (1478 – 1535), perhaps more widely known (outside the Catholic church) as Sir Thomas More, English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an adviser to Henry VIII, until things went south between them, and was Lord Chancellor from October 1529 to 16 May 1532. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935 as one of the early martyrs of the schism that separated the Church of England from Rome in the 16th century.
More was the son of a prestigious London lawyer and went to the best schools. Because of his father’s influence he became a page in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury who nominated him for a place at Oxford University. He excelled at the classics there before going to the Inns of Court to train as a lawyer. His rise in politics and the royal court was meteoric, eventually becoming a close personal adviser to the king, along with holding high positions. Were it not for Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent split with the Catholic church, life would have been rosy for More. But More was an ardent supporter of the papacy and, though he tried to walk the razor’s edge with the king, found his personal faith at odds with royal politics. He did acquiesce to the divorce and subsequent remarriage of the king to Anne Boleyn (although his absence from the wedding, on the flimsy excuse of ill health, was not taken lightly). Eventually he fell from grace and was executed for treason for refusing to accept that Henry was the head of the church, rather than the pope.
The contemporary opinion of More by historians is sharply divided. There is no question that he was a man of his convictions and was willing to die for them rather than recant. But it is not always obvious what those convictions were, and some of them do not sit well with modern scholars. In his early years he was a noted humanist and close friend of Erasmus, arguably the greatest humanist of his day. More believed in equal education for men and women, and under his teaching his eldest daughter, Margaret, became a very proficient scholar of Greek and Latin, noted by many for her erudition. More’s most famous work, Utopia, seems to be full of progressive ideas. The book describes a fictional island where everyone is happy (Utopia is Greek for “happy place” but can also be translated as “nowhere”). Jewels are considered worthless and are used only as children’s toys; everyone works equally and there are no positions of power; all property is held in common; men and women are equals; and, all religious ideas are tolerated. It is not entirely clear whether the work is meant to be taken seriously as an ideal, or as a parody of these ideals. Hints that it is a parody are sprinkled around. For example, the narrator is called Hythlodaeus (Greek for “dispenser of nonsense”).
Counter to the views expressed in Utopia, More was far from tolerant of religious differences in his professional life. As Lord Chancellor he ordered the works of Martin Luther, as well as William Tyndale’s English Bible, burnt, and condemned at least six men to be burnt at the stake as heretics for espousing Protestant views. He saw Protestant theology as destructive to social order and unity, and wrote a number of vitriolic works condemning them. No one is quite sure what happened to his former allegiance to humanism. The best I can muster is that, like all thoughtful people, he was a complex man. These days many people tend to write off his religious intolerance as the product of his times, and praise him for holding to his convictions, though they cost him his life. After his death Erasmus wrote that More was a man “whose soul was more pure than any snow, whose genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like”. Noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1977 that More was “the first great Englishman whom we feel that we know, the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints, the universal man of our cool northern renaissance.”
For recipes to honor Thomas More I thought I would change gears a little and dip into a cookbook that was published shortly after More’s death, and which certainly reflects recipes of his day: A Propre new booke of Cokery. The recipes are all pretty basic and easy to follow if you are an experienced cook. I present them here in their original form. You should be able to interpret them easily enough if you sound the words out loud. I was rather surprised to note the heavy use of saffron for flavoring in all manner of dishes. Obviously oriental spices were prohibitively expensive for most cooks on an everyday basis, so locally grown seasonings played a significant role, including some that are not so common any more, such as bergamot, rue, and borage. Verjuice, was also a common ingredient; not much used in modern cookery until a recent renewed interest. Verjuice (“vergis”) is made by pressing sour juices from unripe grapes or apples. Some modern cooks use it in salad dressings to replace the vinegar because it is milder and does not clash with wines as much. It is readily available online. I tend to use lemon or lime juice as a substitute. The beans in the recipe here would have been fresh broad beans (fava beans). Sopps are slices of old bread used to mop up broths and sauces. The recipe for vautes is quite typical in its combination of meat, fruit, and spices. In case it is not clear, these are omelets stuffed with a meat/fruit mixture bound with egg yolk.
Recipes from A Propre new booke of Cokery (1545)
To make a stewed brothe for Capons / mutton / biefe / or any other hote meate / and also a brothe for all manar of freshe fisshe
Take halfe a handfull of rosemary and as muche of tyme / and bynde it on a bundell with threde after it is washen / and put it in the pot / after that the pot is clene skynned / and lette it boile a while / then cut soppes of white bread and put them in a great charger and put on the same skaldynge broth / and whan it is soken ynough / strayne it through a strayner with a quantitie of wyne or good Ale / so that it be not to tarte / and when it is strayned / poure it in a pot and than put in your raysons and prunes and so let them boyle tyll the meate be inough. If the broath be to sweete / put in the more wyne / orels a lytell vyneger.
To frye Beanes
Take your Beanes and boyle them and put them into a fryenge pan with a disshe of butter & one or two onyons and so let them fry tyll they be browne all together / than cast a lytell salt upon them / & than serue them forth.
To make Vautes
Take the kidney of veale and perboile it till it be tender / then take and chop it smal with the yolkes of thre or four egges then ceason it with dates small cutte / small reysons / gynger suger synamon / saffron and a little salte / and for the paest to laye it in / take a dozen of egges bothe the white and the yolkes / and beate theim well all togyther then take butter and put it into a fryyng panne and frye theim as thyn as a pancake then laie your stuffe there in and so frye them togyther in a pan and cast suger and gynger vpon it and so serue it forth.