In my irritated previous post about Doomsday Book, I failed to mention that one of the things I’m very much enjoying about the book is the lovingly detailed picture of life in medieval England, which at one point involves a concept entirely new to me (and a new sense of a familiar word). The domineering mother-in-law sends out for sugar, saying “We have none for the subtlety nor the sweetmeats.” Subtlety? Turns out that’s a term the OED defines thus: “5. Cookery. A highly ornamental device, wholly or chiefly made of sugar, sometimes eaten, sometimes used as a table decoration. Obs. exc. Hist.” (The first citation is from The Form of Cury, the early cookbook I wrote about back in 2003: “It techiþ for to make curious potages & meetes and sotiltees.”) Wikipedia tells us it’s the older English term for what is more commonly known as an entremet. And there’s a detailed description in The Penguin Companion to Food (see this post):

While medieval diners ate, at formal meals, they observed the spectacle that was performed between courses. The course was called a met; the activities between courses were therefore the entremets.[…] The contemporary English term was ‘soteltie’. (The subjects, however, were not always subtle, as when a woman in childbirth was depicted as a soteltie for a wedding.)
There were two basic types: the plainer was a setpiece, made of anything from pastry or butter to wood and canvas; the more elaborate ones (entremets mouvants) included automatons or live participants. They were amalgams of song, theatre, mechanics, and carpentry, combined to convey an allegorical fantasy or even a political message.
The execution of a series of entremets for important festivities occupied large numbers of people. The preparations for the entertainments at the wedding of Charles the Bold brought craftsmen to Bruges for weeks at a time—painters, sculptors, carpenters, and wax modellers by the dozens. The banquet entremets displayed the ducal wealth; their imaginativeness revealed the mentality of a culture. At the Feast of the Pheasant, for example, Philip the Fair was trying, at least ostensibly, to induce his guests to join him on a crusade to rescue Constantinople from the infidel. Assuming leadership of a crusade, traditionally the role of the Holy Roman emperor, would have enhanced Burgundy’s claims to higher political status. A programmatic entremet was enacted to stimulate enthusiasm. A giant Saracen entered, leading an elephant (the chronicle unfortunately does not tell how it was contrived). Seated on the elephant was that excellent knight, co-organizer, and later chronicler of the feast Olivier de La Marche, playing the role of the captive Eastern Church. He wore a long white gown and sang, in a falsetto voice, a moving plea to Duke Philip.
The line between entremets made to be eaten and for allegorical purposes was not strictly observed. At Charles the Bold’s festivities a course at one meal consisted of some 30 pies, each enclosed in a silk pavilion and each bearing the name of a walled town under Charles’s rule. The visual effect was that of a military encampment; the message was clearly a statement of Charles’s military strength. A more pastoral, poetic conception appeared at the last of these wedding feasts. Thirty platters were made up to look like gardens, each with a golden hedge surrounding a different kind of fruit tree; each tree bore the name of a ducal abbey. Around the trees were figures of peasants harvesting the fruit while others held baskets with candied spices and fruit for the guests to eat. Other entremets at these festivities were more fantastic: a court dwarf rode in on the back of a lion and was given to the bride, Margaret of York, to whom he sang a song and presented a daisy (in French marguerite); they were followed by a dromedary ridden by Indians who released live birds to fly around the hall. There were also automatons and a whale containing musicians.

I had no idea dinners were so exciting in days of yore.


  1. marie-lucie says

    In France a couple of years ago I saw a TV program about people recreating medieval banquets in old châteaux, with as-authentic-as-possible cooking and presentation, but nothing so elaborate as what is described here! Of course, such pageantry was hardly within the reach of ordinary people.
    Would “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” be a satire of this kind of pageantry?

  2. marie-lucie says

    The words mets and entremets are still ordinary French words. The first one is a high-register term for “dish” (the food, not the container), and the second one has come down in the world. A few centuries ago (but later than in the meals described above) it referred to something light eaten between heavy main dishes, but nowadays it is used mostly for a type of light dessert such as custard (that is, not for a cake or one-crust pie).

  3. From entremets to trou normand, that would be a gustatory tale worth reading.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye,
    Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
    When the pie was opened the birds began to sing!
    Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before a king?

    Perhaps this describes (satirically) a “poor man’s soteltie”?

  5. The WiPe article on this song suggests that on certain special occasions there really were pies containing live birds.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Ah, I hadn’t thought of consulting Wipe here. I suppose that if you baked the two crusts separately, you could emprison live birds between the two crusts after they were baked, so the birds would not be harmed. Blackbirds though do not seem to be such a treat, either musically or at meals.
    update: this is WiPe under Entremet:
    The “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”, in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, has its genesis in a entremet presented to amuse banquet guests in the 14th century. This extravaganza of hospitality was detailed by an Italian cook of the era.[9] “Live birds were slipped into a baked pie shell through a hole cut in its bottom.” The unwary guest would release the flapping birds once the upper crust was cut into.

  7. This takes about 20 mins, but it’s worth it. Also it isn’t medieval it’s Victorian: a pie from the Lake District. What an appetite. It’s done by someone called Ivan Day, the historical pie-making genius.

  8. The live blackbirds in a pie is a sort of joke, because people really did eat blackbird pie up through the 19th century in England. It was frequently cooked with the feet sticking up through the crust.
    Here is one recipe.
    Blackbird pie was considered the sort of thing poor people would eat at Christmas. There’s not much meat on a blackbird, but you can go out and catch them yourself, so the cost of ingredients is low.

  9. dearieme says

    We once went on a walking tour in Brussels. The guide said, unselfconsciously, “In our Golden Age under the Dukes of Burgundy…..”.

  10. There’s not much meat on a blackbird, but you can go out and catch them yourself
    But it cant be any harder to catch a bird that does have meat – a woodpigeon for example or a duck if you were in a duck neighbourhood, and there was nothing to stop them from rearing their own poultry.
    It was frequently cooked with the feet sticking up through the crust.
    How about the beak & feathers?

  11. here’s how you catch them. (1880)
    – the one on the right hand side (– how do I do links in Comments?)

  12. marie-lucie says

    maidhc: Blackbird pie was considered the sort of thing poor people would eat at Christmas. There’s not much meat on a blackbird, but you can go out and catch them yourself, so the cost of ingredients is low.
    That’s why I think the song is satirical: live blackbirds in a pie shell – “a dainty dish to set before a king”, indeed!
    AJP How about the beak and feathers?
    For an actual pie, meant to be eaten (unlike one with live birds introduced into an already baked shell), the birds were of course plucked and cleaned, and the head probably removed.

  13. They’re lovely illustrations those Randolph Caldecott drawings. I think that trap would have worked just as well with more meaty birds. Is Sing a Song Of 6d really based on the Cato Street conspiracy, or is that just apocryphal?

  14. I shared this post with a writer I know, because of the automatons. She is working on a novel for teenagers that involves both time travel and a character who is researching the history of robots. Now she says that in her next draft there will be a “medieval dinner automaton”, named after me.

  15. That was an empty gesture.

  16. A couple of generations ago I knew a woman who claimed she made that very pie from the nursery rhyme, but “black birds” she used were starlings, which “needed” culling to protect her husband’s commercial berry crops.
    Are we sure “blackbirds” and “black birds” are the same thing?
    If you find even blackbirds too lean, what do you make of the eating of larks? (With a cloth over your head so as not to offend your fellow diners with the crunching…)
    I suppose I must do a search on this. Perhaps it is all (but my aquaintance) apocryphal.

  17. Is Sing a Song Of 6d really based on the Cato Street conspiracy, or is that just apocryphal?
    Just apocryphal, apparently. Byron’s dedication to Don Juan, below, was written in 1818, before Cato Street (though not published till later), and the rhyme had already been used to be nasty about Southey’s predecessor as poet laureate, Henry James Pye (1745-1813). The first of his birthday odes (‘a continual source of contempt’ according to wikipedia) referred to ‘vocal groves and feathered choir.’
    Bob Southey! You’re a poet, poet laureate,
    And representative of all the race.
    Although ’tis true that you turn’d out a Tory at
    Last–yours has lately been a common case;
    And now, my Epic Renegade! what are ye at?
    With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
    A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
    Like “four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye;
    “Which pye being open’d they began to sing”
    (This old song and new simile holds good),
    “A dainty dish to set before the King,”
    Or Regent, who admires such kind of food;
    And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
    But like a hawk encumber’d with his hood,
    Explaining Metaphysics to the nation—
    I wish he would explain his Explanation.
    You, Bob, are rather insolent, you know,
    At being disappointed in your wish
    To supersede all warblers here below,
    And be the only Blackbird in the dish;
    And then you overstrain yourself, or so,
    And tumble downward like the flying fish
    Gasping on deck, because you soar too high, Bob,
    And fall, for lack of moisture quite a dry Bob.

  18. In reading books about the American Civil War I’ve come across the military term sutler, meaning a provisioner for troops in the field. Wiki gives the definition and derivation as: “The word, like numerous other naval and military terms, came into English from Dutch, where it appears as soetelaar or zoetelaar. It meant originally “one who does dirty work, a drudge, a scullion”, and derives from zoetelen (to foul, sully), a word cognate with “suds” (hot soapy water), “seethe” (to boil) and “sodden”.’ “Sutler” must be a cognate of “subtlety,” in there somewhere, traveling quite a bit of European history to get to American shores.

  19. ? The link seems unrelated to the post ?

  20. marie-lucie says

    AJP, I agree with you about the drawings (a big thank you to Michael).
    Is Sing a Song Of 6d really based on the Cato Street conspiracy, or is that just apocryphal?
    I had never heard of this conspiracy until reading the comment to Caldicott’s picture for the song, but the dates don’t correspond. The conspiracy is dated around 1820, but the versions with “baked in a pie” are from the previous century.
    For a popular song like this one, which has gone through several versions, the first date of printing is unlikely to reflect the date of composition. The earliest version, dated 1744, has “naughty boys baked in a pie”, which makes no sense unless it is a take-off on an already well-known phrase “blackbirds baked in a pie”. My guess is that the “blackbird” song was already well-known, although never yet considered worthy of printing, then some event, perhaps with political significance, occurred in which some conspirators were arrested, like birds caught in a snare. Someone took this opportunity to print the song with the changed words, which were understood to refer to this then well-known event. But the “naughty boys” affair was forgotten as the event receded in people’s memories, while the “blackbird” song (perhaps itself boosted by the “naughty boys” interpretation) grew in popularity and additional verses were added later. A vague memory that the song referred to a conspiracy must have made some people link it to the (to them) more recent Cato conspiracy.
    About the snare: there seems to be a kind of bag or pocket, probably containing food for the birds. Could that be what “a pocketful” or “a bag” of rye refers to? literally for snaring the birds, or some kind of a bait or bribe to lead one of the “naughty boys” to “sing” and so betray his co-conspirators?

  21. Yes, a big thank you to Michael – also for Cato St. and the Byron. Normally a “dry bob” in England is someone who plays cricket in the summer term at school, whereas a “wet bob” is one who rows instead. I don’t know why “bob”, though.
    Could that be what “a pocketful” or “a bag” of rye refers to? literally for snaring the birds, or some kind of a bait or bribe to lead one of the “naughty boys” to “sing”
    Brilliant, m-l. Of course that’s it.

  22. It might be the case that poor people were free to catch blackbirds because they were considered an agricultural pest, but they weren’t allowed to catch meatier birds because they were subject to the Game Laws. But I’m speculating.

  23. Trond Engen says

    Aren’t poor people still considered an agricultural pest?

  24. They’re no longer subject to the Game Laws. Eat whomever, these days.

  25. I’m glad you liked the drawings, M-L and AJP. I now see the boy in Caldecott’s illustration really does have a pocketful of rye.
    And the Etonian rowing thing too, in a different world. Or the same world of the Game Laws. Did the bob have the sense of bobbing up and down, like a rubber duck? Jonathon Green has ‘dry-bob’ down as ‘sex without ejaculation by the man (cf. DRY FUCK n.’), making poor Southey by implication futile and juiceless and sad and self defeating.
    In England it’s hard not to associate all those metaphors of singing and twittering with the meaty creatures now appearing in front of Leveson.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Michael, AJP: I see that I misunderstood which object was the “bag” or “pocketful” of rye. I thought it was the roundish thing in the middle of the field, but that must be the trap that will fall on the bird when the boy pulls the string. Instead the boy has a large pocket-like bag hanging on his left side, and that must be where he keeps the rye with which he baits the trap. I did not notice the boy’s bag at first because it is the same colour as his clothes.
    The song:
    In Byron’s poem the wording of the song (identified as “this old song”) is slightly different, with a different meter:
    Like “four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye;
    “Which pye being open’d they began to sing”

    (This old song and new simile holds good),
    “A dainty dish to set before the King,”
    It is probable then that this little song, whenever it was composed, was well-known, went through several oral versions and was used for satirical purposes (with “new similes”) long before it was printed with the change of “blackbirds” to “naughty boys” in 1744.

  27. m-l, I agree about the song. I think the trap is one of these:

  28. marie-lucie says

    Very interesting, Michael! I enjoyed watching it. The things we discover that we never wondered about! I did not know this meaning of “riddle”, let alone thought about how the thing is made.

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