Tag Archives: myths & legends

Cauldron Cooking

The Three Witches as depicted in a 19th Century woodcut

Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ in the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!

William Shakespeare Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

As it’s Hallowe’en I thought that I’d write a little post all about cauldrons, because of course along with a broomstick, pointy hat, black cat and warts it is a must-have for any witch worth their salt at this time of year.

The Battersea Cauldron (pic: British Museum)

Let’s start off with what a cauldron is, just on case you are unfamiliar with them. They are large, rounded cooking pots that are suspended over a fire by a chain or on support legs in the centre of the fire, and they have been used all across Europe since the first millennium BCE. One of the oldest ever found was excavated in Battersea and is therefore known as the Battersea Cauldron. It made up of bronze sheets melded together and is huge. It has been described as “one of the largest and most sophisticated metal objects of the day” and is estimated to be 3000 years old, and it obviously got some use judging by the number of reparation patches it has covering its surface. Whatever size your cauldron was, it was an expensive bit of kit and built to last, so it is more unusual to find out without patches. Precious items such as this were passed down through the generations and the “man who owned an iron cauldron” says Dorothy Hartley, “had a definite standing above those who cooked only in small pots and pans.”

You may be thinking that a selection of pots and pans might be preferable to a massive cooking pot because they give you more options and you don’t have to make giant vats of food all the time, but a cauldron is surprisingly versatile and was rarely used for just cooking great big broths with bones bobbing about the surface. No, the cauldron was in fact the complete cooking and hot water system; take a look at this wonderful illustration from Ms Hartley’s excellent books Food in England:

The mediaeval cauldron, from Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

You can see here how the cauldron was actually compartmentalised and filled with a whole variety of foods. At the base is a large joint of meat that required long cooking, usually wrapped in a flour paste and the tied up with cloth, then sat on that were wooden slats upon which all sorts of things were sat. There would have been some suet puddings wrapped in cloth simmering away, as well as bag puddings made up of peas, beans or cereal grains such as the classic pease pudding. If you did want to make some hearty stew, you placed your ingredients in earthenware jars, filled them with stock or water, covered them tightly and poached it in the cauldron water. This gentle way of poaching meat produced deliciously juicy cuts of meat; in fact, one cauldron found in Warwick Castle bore the legend: “I give meat good savour.” Often the meat was jointed and sat in a large jug, to produce old British classics such as jugged hare (or rabbit, I’ve also seen recipes for jugged kippers and jugged peas). Dorothy illustrates some beef tea being made where the meat is sat in its jar on top of some birch twigs, preventing the meat from sticking to the bottom. I love little details like those. You had to be very careful cooking like this though because those sealed pots acted like pressure cookers and were prone to exploding!


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Aside from all of this, the cauldron also provided the washing water and bathwater. “I hope” says Hartley, “you now understand that because there was only one cauldron on the fire there was not one thing for dinner.”

Jugged hare

Cauldrons were such important and precious items that they were even found in burial sites such as the Baldock Burial, a Bronze Age burial site in Hertfordshire, where a whole plethora of things were found including  a cauldron complete with joints of meat, ready to sustain the dead as they journeyed to the Afterlife. Pagans revered them and they became symbolic of death and resurrection, often being buried in near or bogs and rivers, locations they considered to be domains of both the living and the dead.

Because they were imbibed with magic, they appear in several myths and legends; for example, the Irish god Dagda owned a cauldron that did not just magically produce food but also cured disease, healed wounds and brought the dead back to life. There was also a Cauldron of Knowledge that told you everything you wanted (and did not want) to know. There are plenty of Welsh and English stories that involve cauldrons too (though I haven’t come across any Scottish ones for some reason).

St John the Apostle boiled in oil from The Hours of Henry VIII, (C) The Morgan Library & Museum

Cauldrons of course sat upon flames and were extensively found in medieval and Tudor Christian art to depict what might happen to you if you went to Hell. One example depicts Dives – a rich man Jesus tells us of in the New Testament, who was very rich but would not share his food with a poor beggar. He is shown “tormented with thirst stewing forever in one of Hell’s capacious cauldrons.” Another manuscript knows as the Hours of Henry VIII clearly shows St. John the Evangelist sat in cauldron of boiling oil looking pretty chilled out and happily preaching whilst being tormentind by his captors. He would be later be miraculously preserved in the oil rather like, one supposes, like some nice comfit duck legs.

So there we go, I hope you have enjoyed my brief history of cauldrons and appreciate that they are not just for witches…or Hallowe’en!

References

‘Cauldrons and flesh-hooks: between the living and the dead in ancient Britain and Ireland’ by Jennifer Wexler & Neil Wilkin, The British Museum Blog https://blog.britishmuseum.org/cauldrons-and-flesh-hooks-between-the-living-and-the-dead-in-ancient-britain-and-ireland/

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley

Hours of Henry VIII, MS H.8 fol.7 (c.1500) The Morgan Library & Museum http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/13/77089

The Medieval Cook (2009) by Bridget Henisch

‘Vessels of Death: Sacred Cauldrons in Archaeology and Myth’ (1998) by Miranda J Green, The Antiquaries Journal, vol 78, pp. 63-84

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Mediaeval Age, Uncategorized

How to Kill a Dragon with Pudding (or Parkin)

I was supposed have written and posted this for Hallowe’en, but then life got in the way. Hey-ho.

I found an excellent old story that goes right back to Anglo-Saxon times and I thought would recount it for you.

Gather round for…

The Tale of The Dragon of Knucker Hole

The Knucker – a type of water-dragon – sat in its bottomless pool in Lyminster, Sussex. It had been terrorising the village for weeks by eating its cattle, men and fair maidens. The townspeople were terrified of the beast and they hardly dared leave their homes.

Lyminster, Sussex (westsussex.info)

King of Sussex one day declared, “Whoever can rid us of this Knucker, shall be greatly rewarded.”

The only person brave – or perhaps foolish – enough to take the King up on his offer was one Jim Pattock who, one day, made the biggest Sussex pudding you have ever seen. It was so huge that he had to heave it into his cart so his horse could pull it the dragon’s pool.

The Knucker was snoozing, heard a distant rumbling sound and opened one eye only to see some idiot walking right into his lair. He rose.

“What you got there?” boomed the Knucker.

A rather cute looking Knucker for the Dragonology book Series

“Pudden”, said Jim.

The Knucker looked over the pudding, gave it a sniff and promptly devoured the pudding, cart and horse in one single bite!

“Bring me more!” demanded the Knucker.

Off home he trotted; he knew the dragon would ask for more Sussex pudding because it is so delicious. He made another pudding just as big as the last one and dragged it over to the Knucker hole.

The dragon licked his lips and devoured it, but then the dragon suddenly came over with the collywobbles.

“I don’t feel so good”, the Knucker grumbled and slumped forward.

Jim Pattock rushed in as though he was going to help the terrible creature, but that is not what he was doing it all. Instead, he pulled out his axe from behind his back and cleaved the water dragon’s head clean from its body.

Jim returned to the town of Lyminster triumphantly holding the Knucker’s head high and was hailed a hero by the townspeople and richly rewarded by the King.

Now you know what to do should you live near a pool should a Knucker make its home there.

So there you go: I would tread carefully if you live near a lake or pond because it might be a Knucker hole too! The moral, I suppose, is beware that second helping of pud.

In another version of this story, Jim laces the second pudding (or pie in some versions) with poison, killing the dragon. When he gets back to the town, he is bought a huge flagon of ale, but has some of the poison on his hands and dies! Poor old Jim.

The word knucker, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word nicor, which means water dragon, and there were many similar stories told around the country. In Yorkshire for example, the dragon is fed by Billy Bite when the dragon steals his delicious parkin. The Knucker demands more and his rather belligerent wife is so angry with him she brings the parkin to the dragon who promptly eats both gingerbread and wife.

The parkin is very sticky and gets it all over his teeth “clinging so lovely like ivy-bine”, the Knucker is distracted and is quickly done away with by some of the townspeople.

The moral here is beware of sticky gingerbread, I suppose.

I quite like this version as it subverts the usual tale of the hero saving the townspeople; poor old hen-pecked Billy is completely passive in the story, yet is responsible – albeit indirectly – for the riddance of the foul beast.


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References:

Folklore of Yorkshire, Kai Roberts, 2013

Knucker Hole, the Home of An Ancient Sussex Dragon, 2019, Odd Days Out website, https://odddaysout.co.uk/knuckerhole

Supernatural Stories: 9 amazing British Folktales, 2016, History Extra

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Filed under baking, Britain, General, history, Puddings