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The Manciple's purchases

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Monday, January 1, 2018

Document of the month - January 2018

Christ Church Archives, Battels 1577 - 1580, x(1).c.19

The manciple was the provisioner of meat for a college or an inn of court. Several Oxford and Cambridge colleges still employ manciples, although the role varies from one place to another. Perhaps the most famous is the manciple in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is renowned for his sharp purchasing practices, his wit, and his ability to run rings around his employers.

During his time in the office of manciple at Christ Church, John Furnivall, kept particularly close records of the purchases he made. Each day he recorded exactly what was bought and how much it had cost.

Detail from Christ Church Archives, Battels 1577 - 1580, x(1).c.19The open pages show his entries for 27 December 1577 to 6 January 1578.
Click the small image on the right to view a large version

With today’s frantic rush to buy everything we need for Christmas before the shops close for the holiday, it is surprising to see that the kitchen received goods right through the twelve days of Christmas.

The entry for New Year’s Day, a Wednesday, at the top of the right hand page, begins with the purchase of 3lbs of butter at 10½d and 6 loins, 6 shoulders, and 4 necks of mutton for which Furnivall paid the princely sum of 11s.

The list continues half a hog, several joints of veal, two capons, two woodcocks, and seven larks. During Elizabeth’s reign, Wednesdays were fish days as well as the traditional Friday (in order to boost the ship-building trade and the training of sailors), but it would seem that the season was celebrated with meat on this occasion.

The following day was equally meat-laden but some butter, spices, and red herrings were also on the shopping list. A bottle of sack was sent to the Treasury, presumably to keep the clerk happy if he had to work at New Year, and some black pears were bought for the lame cook. 

But, by Friday 3 January, the holiday season was beginning to run down, and fish became the order of the day again. The entry records the purchase of ling, whiting, thornbacks (skate), fresh cod, haddock, with a bit of cheese on the side. On the previous Friday, the diet had included oysters and, once or twice in Furnivall’s accounts, lobsters make an appearance.

Vegetables rarely appear in the accounts; on these two pages only onions appear. They were unpopular in Tudor England but it is very likely that there was a kitchen garden which provided all the greens that were needed. But one thing was for certain, the food was designed to be filling. Scattered throughout most of the entries are eggs, cream, butter, oatmeal, barley, and suet. The men of Christ Church had no reason to go hungry!