Is Honey Butter Period?

by THL Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

In 15-something years of being in the SCA, I can count on one hand the number of times I HAVEN'T seen it on the table of any given event feast I’ve attended. I myself have served it at every feast I’ve prepared – for fear, jokingly, of being lynched by angry diners who would consider bread without it to be heresy. In feasts throughout the Known World, honey butter is pretty much ubiquitous.

But is it period?

Not really. Not as such. I’ve so far never seen a recipe in a period cookbook -– of any century or country within our period of study -– for combining honey and butter to be used as a spread on bread. In all the lengthy menus and inventories of dishes for grand English and French feasts I’ve seen in mid- and late-period household manuals and cookbooks, none suggest this combination.

Actually, that’s not completely true. I have found a description of honey butter within our period of study, but it’s for use as a MEDICINE rather than as a bread spread; Anthimus, a 6th Century Greek doctor who described in great detail the Frankish diet in De Obseruatione Ciborium (On the Observance of Food), suggested the combination as a treatment for tuberculosis. Obviously, it was not meant to be a tasty condiment!

77. The same is true if anyone suffering from consumption eats fresh butter. However, the butter should be unsalted, because it does a great deal of harm if salted. The butter should be blended with a little honey, and the patient should lie on his back and slowly lick this mixture. For those afflicted with consumption I stress that this mixture is fine for those are not seized by the condition for any length of time…” (1996 Mark Grant translation)

The documentation I’ve used for honey butter in my feasts is a cheat on two counts, I’ll admit. It’s from Hugh
Plat’s Delightes for Ladies, which is dated 1609 and is thus, according to the arbitrary cut-off date set by Corpora, just past our period of study. In addition, the recipe calls for butter and oil flavored with spice or herb extracts, not honey. I’ve mixed butter with honey and Vietnamese cinnamon, and kicked myself repeatedly for using lame “documentation.” Well, at least it WAS intended as a condiment!

Most Dainte Butter. This is done by mixing a few dropps of the extracted oyle of sage, cinamon, nutmegs, mace, etc. in the making vp of your butter: for oyle and butter will incorporate and agree verie kindely and naturally together.

Oh, spiff! While digging through my period sources, I just found a reference to another Plat source, Jewel-house of Arte & Nature, dated 1594. In this earlier -– and MUCH longer version of his butter recipe -– Plat adds sugar. Well, it’s still not honey, but at least it’s documentably a sweetened butter spread…

2. How to make sundry sorts of most dainty butter with the saide oils. In the month of May, it is very usuall with us to eat some of the smallest, and youngest sage leaves with butter in a morning, and I think the common use thereof doth sufficiently commende the same to be wholsome, in stead whereof all those which delighte in this heabe may cause a few droppes of the oile of sage to be well wrought, or tempered with the butter when it is new taken out of the cherne, until they find the same strong enough in taste to their owne liking; and this way I accoumpt much more wholsomer then the first, wherin you will finde a far more lively and penetrative tast then can be presently had out of the greene herbe. This laste Sommer I did entertaine divers of my friends with this kinde of butter amongst other country dishes, as also with cinnamon, mace, and clove butter (which are all made in one selfe same manner) and I knew not whether I did please them more with this new found dish, or offend them by denying the secret unto them, who thought it very strange to find the naturall taste of herbs, and spices coueied into butter without any apparent touch of color. But I hope I have at this time satisfied their longings. Ore, if by som means or other you may not give a tincture to your creme before you chearne it, either with roseleaves, cowslep leaves, violet or marigold leaves, &c. And thereby chaunge the color of your butter. And it may be that if you wash your butter throughly wel with rose water before you dish it, and work up some fine sugar in it, that the Country people will go neere to robbe all Cocknies of their breakfasts, unlesse the dairie be well looked unto. If you would keepe butter sweete, and fresh a long time to make sops, broth or cawdle, or to butter any kinde of fishe withall in a better sorte then I have seene in the best houses where I have come, then dissolve your butter in a clean galsed, or silver vessell & in a pan, or kettle of water with a slow and gentle fire, and powre the same so dissolved, into a bason that hath some faire Water therein, and when it is cold, take away the soote, not suffering any of the curds, or whey to remain in the bottome: and if you regarde not the charge thereof, you may either the first or the second time, dissolve your Butter in Rosewater as before, working them well together, and so Clarifie it, and this butter so clarified, wil bee as sweet in tast, as the Marrow of any beast, by reason of, the great impuritie that is remooved by this manner of handeling:

Are there any other references to honey butter in period? The 13th Century Arabo-Andalusian Manuscrito Anonimo mentions butter as a spread on bread: “Many people eat butter, and add it to bread, while others cannot bear to smell it, much less to eat it...” but that doesn’t mean it was mixed with honey.

John Russell’s The Boke of Nurture (The Babees Book), dated 1460, says
"Butter is a wholesome food, first and last for it soothes the stomach and helps one to get rid of poisons also it helps a man as an aperient and so gets rid of ill humors and with white bread, it has a lingering flavor." Okay, again we see documentation that butter was spread on bread, but again no evidence of it being honey butter.

C. Anne Willan, a noted food historian, claims to document honey butter to the Renaissance in her book Great Cooks and Their Recipes from Taillevent to Escoffier. There’s a drawing in the book, of a scullion at a churn, apparently taken directly from Bartolomeno Scappi’s 1570 cookbook, Opera. There is great sturm und drang amongst the SCA-Cooks list as to whether the medieval Italian in the caption truly does translate as “honey butter” or whether it’s just “sweet milk” being churned into butter.

….So, if there’s no solid, easily supported evidence for honey butter being slathered on Good Queen Bess’ morning slab of bread, why do we serve it at SCA feasts? (Okay, besides the fact that it’s really yummy…) How did it become a mainstay at our feasts?

Well, several of our oldest Society customs were not strongly based in historical medieval fact. Early SCAdians were heavily influenced by the romanticized Victorian view of the Middle Ages, and that’s why, among other things, we eat feast by flickering candlelight in early evening… even though true medieval meals were served at noon in full sunlight or by blaring torches. Read Terence Scully’s The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages; it’s a Victorian convention to eat dimly-lit meals, not a medieval one. Kings did not eat their feasts in the dark!

Stepping off the soapbox, I assumed that honey butter was another early SCAdian Victorian snafu. So, to write this article, I grabbed my cookbooks of that era to document honey butter to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. I skimmed Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book and Escoffier’s Larousse Gastronomique. No honey butter. Plenty of mustard butters, marrow butters, fruit butters, herb butters, horseradish butters, etc. but no honey butter.


Maybe it’s earlier? I flipped through cookbooks dating from the 1700s -- the Williamsburg Art of Cookery, The South American Gentleman’s Companion, etc.

Again, no honey butter.

Puzzled, I searched C. Anne Wilson’s Food and Drink in Britain and Reay Tannahill’s Food In History. No descriptions of honey butter. The Horizon Cookbook and History of Dining and Eating cops out and cites Hugh Plat for its redaction of cinnamon butter (no honey). Hmmm. I even looked in M.F.K. Fisher’s books to see if she ever wrote a column on the subject. (Hey, she did garum in one!) Still, no honey butter. Nothing in Elizabeth David’s books either.

Did the recipe for honey butter materialize out of thin air when the SCA formed?

Ah! Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1896) listed “Butter Preserved with Honey,” which instructs the cook to wash and press fresh butter, boil it in a jar to clarify it, scum it, and add honey as a preservative. It did note that “
This mode of preparation will be found very convenient where butter is eaten with sweet dishes.

Okay, that’s honey combined with butter and it’s meant to be used as a condiment. Yippee! It’s a Victorian-era cookbook, so that supports my theory that early SCAdians used a 19th Century dish rather than finding a true medieval one. A little thin for documentation, but I’m tired and I’m trying to learn how to write (ahem) somewhat SHORT articles.

But how would the early SCAdians have gotten a Victorian recipe? Turn-of-the-century cookbooks in a bookstore or even library would have been considered hideously old and backward in an era dominated by Betty Crocker and Julia Child; Escoffier and Beeton, that would have been about it for historical cookbooks, I'm betting, and the recipe wasn’t in either of them.


A-ha! There’s an honest-to-goodness actual recipe for honey butter in the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, dated 1966, which calls for blending a half-cup each of honey and butter together… and that’s the year the SCA started. And… there! It shows up in Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks of the same time period.

So, I hazard an educated guess that honey butter, like banana-honey-peanut butter or marshmallow spread, was a popular and contemporary condiment at the time of the SCA’s founding that has stuck with us over the years despite cooks improving their research and learning to serve more period dishes.

Does this mean we should stop serving honey butter at feasts? If we want to eat food which is as accurate as possible to the period of time we study, yes, I think we should. Will we cooks stop serving honey butter at events? Probably not – not if we don’t want to be lynched!

©2001 Chris P. Adler
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