Inside a 17th-century pirate’s cookbook

Dr Joe Moshenska is a Fellow in English at Trinity, where he mostly teaches Renaissance literature. He is interested in the connections between literature, science and theology. This has opened up some unusual avenues of research – and gained a wider audience.

Dr Joe Moshenska
Dr Joe Moshenska

As one of ten BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers, Dr Moshenska is presenting various aspects of his work on Radio 3 during 2015-16, with the first, Inside a Pirate’s Cookbook – a Culinary Journey through the 17th Century, broadcast at 22.45 on 17 November.

Feeling Pleasures - Dr Joe Moshenska
Feeling Pleasures – Dr Joe Moshenska

Dr Moshenska’s first book, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England, explored the meaning of touch in numerous contexts. Touch and taste – of the culinary sort – are under-explored areas of sixteenth and seventeenth century life. By their nature, sensory experiences are momentary. How can we understand what someone felt or thought when they touched or tasted something centuries ago?

Dr Moshenska explains:

Exploring these questions led me back into the long and complex poems like Paradise Lost that I love to read and to teach, but also into more unusual areas of early modern culture – such as the philosophical history of tickling, and the early reception of Chinese medicine among English scientists.

Sir Kenelm Digby
Sir Kenelm Digby

While canonical figures such as Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton offer valuable insights, there are lesser-known figures who left revealing documents and correspondence. One such is Sir Kenelm Digby, a seventeenth-century adventurer, polymath – and cook.

His explorations – geographic and culinary – are described by Dr Moshenska in his first Radio 3 essay, which was recorded at the 2015 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead.

Digby is not widely remembered today but in his lifetime he was lauded for his learning and appetite for knowledge, which encompassed philosophy, theology, literature, science and mathematics, as well as astrology and alchemy.

Fortunately, some of Digby’s own papers survive, as well as revealing papers by others – including an inventory of his Covent Garden dwelling compiled after his death in 1665. In examining these, Dr Moshenska became fascinated by his passion for food and cooking.

I increasingly realised that his dedication to cookery was not a distraction from his loftier philosophical pursuits, but the richest expression of his complex character, and the age in which he lived.

Closet_of_Sir_Kenelme_DigbieDigby lived in Paris and spent time in Florence, Rome and Madrid. In 1628, aged 24, he sailed around the Mediterranean, an adventure that encompassed sea-battles, freeing slaves from North Africa and stealing statues from Greek islands, all of which he recorded in his journal in detail and with evident delight. Digby sampled local delicacies, described cooking methods and detailed exotic ingredients. In later life, he became a confidant of the Queen, Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, who was also a keen cook.

A book of Digby’s recipes – published posthumously – contained courtly as well as ordinary dishes, from England and far beyond. How to make tea in China and bread soup in Italy; what Turks ate for supper around the campfire and the feasting habits of Algerian pirates are just some of the rich pickings contained in Digby’s papers.

His research into Digby has transformed how Dr Moshenska views the seventeenth century, which from a modern vantage point is often seen as an age of entrenched divisions.

Digby’s life, and his love of cooking, has given me a very different sense of the period, as a time in which people, recipes, and ingredients could drift across national, linguistic, and religious boundaries, forming new and startling combinations and hybrid forms.

Dr Moshenska’s book, A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby, will be published in 2016 by William Heinemann.

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