Elizabethan manuscript on cheese

An Elizabethan manuscript treatise on cheese and cheese making, £45,000 at Dominic Winter.

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Bound in contemporary gilt-tooled limp vellum, A Pamflyt Compiled of Cheese, contayninge the differences, nature, qualities, and goodnes, of the same, sold at £45,000 (plus 20% buyer’s premium) at Dominic Winter.

The ideas penned in these 112 pages draw heavily on classical writings – in particular, Galen’s work on foodstuffs De alimentorum facultatibus – with the occasional reference to contemporary practices in England and Wales. It divides the subject into topics such as Of creame and butter; Of the difference of cheeses by the age and tyme in which they are kepte and Of the vertues of cheese used as a medicine.

Under the title Of the diversitie of milke in ye cheese in this contreye, the writer passes judgment on the current state of home production. He recommends ‘the-cheeses of Chessheir and Glocetersheir’ but considers the products of Essex ‘not so good’ and is rude about Welsh cheese made with ‘mares milke’.

Dated by the secretarial hand to c.1580, the manuscript is the earliest known book about cheese making in Britain. However, it was written at a time when British cheese making was in peril.

The late Middle Ages had been something of a golden era for England’s cheesemongers. Many of the cheeses known today were first recorded in this period, including a sharp-tasting hard cheese made by monks in the caves of Cheddar Gorge. However, production seriously declined in the Tudor period – primarily because the monasteries, that for centuries had been centres of expertise, had closed under Henry VIII. It would take a century for the industry to recover.

The manuscript was first found by the owner in a family library more than 50 years ago.

Two contemporary inscriptions give clues to its early history.


The signature Walter Bailei on the final page is thought to be the Warwickshire physician Walter Bayley (1529-93), a regius professor of medicine at Oxford who worked in the service of the court favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1523-88). Bayley was either an early owner or more probably the author of the manuscript.

In his will he left two books by Galen to the New College, Oxford library as well as ‘my skeliton of bones’.

To the front flyleaf is an inscription signed Cle Fyssher, almost certainly for Clement Fisher (c.1539- 1619) of Packington in north Warwickshire. He too was part of the Dudley family circle, working first as a steward to Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick (1530-90) and then for his younger brother Robert.

The collecting of historic food-related manuscripts has, rather like the British cheesemaking itself, enjoyed a purple patch in recent years. Estimated at £1000-1500, A Pamflyt Compiled of Cheese… attracted interest from both UK and US bidders at the South Cerney auction. A British bidder now owns it at a price that, with fees, was close to £54,000.