Monthly Archives: July 2014

Jumbles: experimenting with eighteenth-century recipes

I have been working my way through the fascinating collection of digitised receipt books at the Wellcome Library. As keeper, feeder and walker of two children, a shift-working husband and a dog, archive days are pretty hard to come by and I therefore feel utterly justified in doing a little victory dance when such rich and personal sources are made available to me through the magic of the internet. There is, however, a downside. I am an information magpie – I am easily distracted by sparkly little nuggets of information that are utterly unrelated to my thesis. These trinkets are distracting enough when I am holed up in archives, often with shaky internet access due to the ailing capabilities of my well used netbook. When I am at home, however, they have the capacity to subsume an entire afternoon that had been allocated for ‘proper’ work.  So it was with the ‘Jumbles’!

I was electronically leafing through Elizabeth Sleigh and Felicia Whitfield’s collection of medical receipts (Wellcome reference MS.751) dated 1647-1722 when I came across a note at the bottom of one of the pages.


“Take a pound of fine flower & rub it into 3oz of fresh butter very well, then put in one pound of sugar, beat 3 eggs, strew in half an oz of Coriander seed, then put in your eggs & a little rose water, no more than will make it pretty stiff paste, then butter the paper & make your jumbles of what fashion you please.”

Why this caught my eye I do not know, but catch my eye it did. After a bit of research on the internet, I found that Jumbles are essentially a type of hard biscuit. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were boiled before being baked to make them shiny. These Jumbles were often knotted to produce pretzel type biscuits.

Jumbles 1 Jumbles 2

By the eighteenth century, however, they were usually just baked in a hot oven until they were hard. Dr Annie Gray (food historian and generous tweeter) noted that the ingredients in ‘my’ recipe were very similar to one held in the Essex archives ( though the method was different. All early recipes for Jumbles that I have since come across involve some form of spice or seed such as caraway or coriander. These ingredients also had medicinal uses, specifically in the treatment of wind or cholic. This overlap between food and medicine is a common one and raises all sorts of interesting questions about where one stops and the other begins. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about this in a bit more detail in a later blog post.  From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, recipes were less likely to include spices and eventually evolved into sweet biscuits (Queen Victoria was rumoured to enjoy lemony Jumbles).

Anyway, back to my procrastination. Off I went to purchase the necessary ingredients. I used plain flour and (in a half-hearted attempt to be authentic) the least refined sugar that I had in the cupboard. I also bashed up the coriander seeds as I didn’t really fancy encountering one whole once baked. The result was a dark brown sticky gloop. I think I probably added slightly too much rose water (though I was very careful). I decided to bake them anyway. Because the mixture was quite wet, I baked them for about 45 minutes in a medium oven (180 degrees). The result was a decidedly odd, but not unpleasant, biscuit that resembled amaretti in texture but tasted of roses. The coriander gave it a slightly spicy kick. Tests (not on animals but on fellow PhDers) concluded that the flavour was unusual but strangely moreish.

Further tweet exchanges with Dr Gray suggested that a fully authentic experience would require the Jumbles to be dipped in gin or madeira to soften them. As a natural side-effect of my PhD I have drunk the house dry of alcohol so this remains untested…as yet.


Bracelets, books and terracotta babies: my review of the Objects and Remembering Conference (Manchester, 2014)

Given how long it is since I updated this blog, it is fitting that the subject of this post is ‘remembering’ – specifically the ‘Objects and Remembering’ Conference that was held at the University of Manchester on the 20th June 2014. This was the first conference of my academic career that was not dominated by historians and it was a bit of a revelation to be honest. It really highlighted to me how insignificant my attempts at interdisciplinarity have been so far, and gave me some ideas of new ways to approach my sources.

Despite my (admittedly insufficient) research on the historiography of material culture, I was really struck by the extent to which objects can enhance our understanding of ‘traditional’ (by which I mean text-based) history. The range of objects that were discussed during this conference was quite phenomenal, yet all of them created a beguiling sense of intimacy between those in the room and their previous owners despite a distance of (in some cases) thousands of years.

Here’s a list of the papers:

Holding the Baby: embodied memory and the ambiguities of Roman votive objects
Emma-Jayne Graham (Open University)

Memorialising Destruction: empty space as a reminder of past events
Emilie Hayter (University of Manchester)

The Silbury Hill Bracelet: an early heirloom artefact? (or, ‘What’s a Bronze Age bracelet like you doing in a Roman context like this?’)
Nicola Hembrey (English Heritage)

Dolls and Ephemera: Memory and Imagination in the Objects of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
Jenna Ashton (University of Manchester)

Public Images and Effigy: The Enduring Nature of the Human Effigy throughout European History
Natalie Armitage (University of Manchester)

Books, Libraries and the Material Memory of Twentieth-Century British Marxism
Cath Feely (University of Derby)

Sensory Conversation Partners: Objects to think, feel and remember with
Bruce Davenport (Newcastle University)

“A History of the World Imperfectly Kept”: earth science objects and remembering
Hannah-Lee Chalk (Manchester Museum)

Whitworth Park community dig: conducting and displaying
Melanie Giles (University of Manchester)

“Relics” and remembering the First World War: the memorial significance of objects in the Imperial War Museum, 1918-1939
Alys Cundy (Bristol University)

Out of the Ordinary: Exhibiting Objects of Migration
Susannah Eckersley (Newcastle University)

What was apparent in every single one of the papers was the importance of objects as a means of engaging the interest of non-academics (or even non-specialists in that field!). Jenna Ashton, Melanie Giles and Alys Cundy explicitly engaged with this in their papers and there followed some stimulating discussions about the use of facsimiles in heritage settings. Plastic dinosaur skeletons and incorrectly identified artillery have, in the right setting, the ability to stimulate emotional reactions amongst the general public as long as they are believed to be real. Nicola Hembrey and Susannah Eckersley’s papers showed that this tendency to invest value in objects beyond or above their financial worth is neither new nor a product of Western consumerism.

We are culturally conditioned to value objects for their history, be it a short personal one or a longer communal one. Objects can embody touch and ownership and, as such, can take on meanings far beyond their physical appearance. For me, in my research, this is most evident in the gifting and sharing of textiles between women through which quilts and linens come to represent lineage, community and status.

Priscilla Redding's Cot Quilt, V&A
Priscilla Redding’s Cot Quilt, V&A

For those of us that are looking to access moments of history through objects, they create a sense of intimacy through the projection of a shared experience. Nicola Hembrey, for example, spoke of being compelled to touch and wear the Silbury Hill bracelet and of feeling some connection to the person that had valued it enough to keep it before it was placed in the infill ditch from which it was excavated. Yet as an historian I feel that I should repress my own instinctive reactions to objects – partly to maintain a professional distance between myself and my subjects (something with which I often struggle as my long-suffering supervisors will no doubt agree!) but also to avoid making cultural assumptions about my subjects that are simply inaccurate. Imagine, then, how excited I was by Emma-Jayne Graham’s multi-sensory approach to lifesize terracotta babies!

terracotta baby  Terracotta baby 2

Emma-Jayne spoke of how, whilst studying these life-sized models of swaddled infants that had been dedicated at sanctuaries in central Italy during the Roman Republic, she realised that handling them closely replicated the care of a real infant due to similarities in size, weight and fragility. Her paper explored the way in which this replication may have been deliberate, heightening the emotions and impact of this act of ritual deposition. She speculated on other ways in which this multi-sensory assault may have been intensified (such as wrapping the infant’s swaddling bands around the votive to recreate smell and touch). During the ensuing discussion there was a particularly interesting divide in the room between parents and non-parents – with parents expressing an emotional reaction to both the images and the ideas in Emma-Jayne’s paper. This underlined her argument that these votives were designed to demand a strong emotive reaction. For me, it highlighted the fact that, whilst our cultural understanding of what we experience has changed, the sensations of touch, smell, sight and sound have not.

I really enjoy conferencing, especially when I am attending ones on subjects that I know little about. I always come away feeling energised and buzzing with new ideas. As I continue to thrash away at my chapter on the materiality of childbirth, I am going to resist the urge to dismiss my own emotional reaction to objects as unprofessional. I shall instead explore them within the context of the rest of my research and analyse them for what they can usefully add to my conclusions.