Some follow-up thoughts on Forme of Cury video

I hope you had a chance to watch my ‘In my study’ video about the John Rylands Library version of Forme of Cury. I wanted to say so much more in the video about the uniqueness of this Ricardian document (i.e., the evidence points to it being written during Richard II’s reign), but then the video would have ended up being twice as long!

So, instead, I thought I would just add a few thoughts in this post: 1) to explain why we need to treat the Rylands Forme of Cury as an essentially completed record and not simply another version or copy; and 2) to muse on the possibility that the later British Library roll version was produced during the reign of Henry V.

Designed to have 194 recipes

One of the most confusing things when you start looking into the text known as Forme of Cury (meaning, Method of Cookery) is that there are different versions, most of which are quite fragmentary (i.e., there are a large number of missing recipes), are part of compilations incorporating other recipes, and are variously ordered.

The scholars, the late Constance B. Hieatt and the late Sharon Butler, looked at eight of these versions, not including the John Rylands version, which they were unaware of at the time, and took the decision, when producing their edition in 1985, to include 205 recipes, though in fact not a single version contained all 205.

The problem with this approach, essentially an attempt to create a definitive edition of the Forme of Cury, is you end up with something that does not accurately represent any of the versions.

For example, Hieatt and Butler’s base manuscript, the aforementioned British Library roll (London, BL Add. 5016), contains 196 recipes, whereas another British Library manuscript, in the Harley collection (London, BL, Harley 1605), dated by the editors to ‘around 1400’, contains just 133, mostly because the first part of the manuscript is missing, as is also a small section toward the end, but also because the compiler chooses to leave out eleven of the recipes that appear in the roll version (i.e. this is not due to missing folios). On top of this, the Harley manuscript adds six recipes that do not appear in the roll version.

You can see how confusing this is. That’s why my own approach is to produce an edition and translation that represents just the John Rylands version, which, I pointed out in my video, is the only version we can confidently put forward as a Ricardian document.

The other important things to note about the Rylands Forme of Cury is that it is essentially a complete document (though there are now two missing leaves affecting five recipes) and it was only ever designed to have 194 recipes. How do we know this? Well, because it actually tells us!

Let’s have a look as it explains its own design:

Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 11v.

Here ends the table [of contents].

This table contains in number, of diverse potages and diverse dishes and subtleties, one hundred four score and fourteen. And, here, following, the method of each sample recipe explains how a man shall make them.

Translation by Christopher Monk © 2021

It is straightforward. This official document compiled by Richard II’s master cooks, with the assent of his physicians and philosophers at court, was designed to have 194 recipes. Therefore, in the context of discussing the official formula for Forme of Cury during Richard’s reign, it makes no sense to focus on the development of the text beyond this period. What you see in the official royal version, as represented by the Rylands book, is what was intended, no more, no less.

Whether other official copies were made at the same time (and whether these differed in some way) is a moot point, though it would be no surprise. Since Richard’s household moved around, it may have been useful to have copies of his cookery text in a handy book form, like the Rylands version, at various establishments of the king, to be consulted whenever necessary by his master cooks (or his steward in consultation with his cooks).

The only other extant version that has been dated within a range that would include the latter part of Richard’s reign is the incomplete British Library Harley manuscript, mentioned above, though the date range given by the British Library extends into the early 15th century; and as there is no preface confirming it as an official Ricardian document, it seems more cautious to view the manuscript itself as post-Ricardian which would consequently place its additions and deletions as not part of the original design.

Why copy it into a big roll?

What, then, about the British Library roll version of the text? Why would someone have the Forme of Cury copied twenty or more years after Richard II had ended his reign so ignominiously at the hands of his cousin and successor, Henry Bolingbroke/Henry IV, who deposed him, imprisoned him, and probably murdered him?

Assuming the roll is a document produced in a royal chancery (a reasonable assumption, I’d suggest), we have both a good candidate and a good motive for doing this.

Scholars date the British Library roll version to the 1420s. This is supported by the phrasing of the preface. As I pointed out in my video, this document contains a similar preface to the Rylands version but is written in the past tense: the Forme of Cury was compiled by Richard’s master cooks, Richard was the greatest gourmet/host of all Christian kings, the text was compiled by assent of his physicians and philosophers.

Thus the roll’s introduction is looking back, rather favourably it has to said, to the past, one in which Richard is acknowledged as a Christian king, and the greatest and most royal of all kingly hosts.

So who fits the bill for positing such niceties? None other than Henry IV’s successor and son, Henry V, who reigned from 1413 until 1422. What is the evidence?

For one thing, within months of his coronation, Henry V had Richard II’s body honourably re-interred. Another interesting fact is that in 1398 Richard II took the young Henry into his own charge after the king had exiled his rebellious father, Bolingbroke. Apparently, Richard treated the boy kindly and, in fact, knighted him the following year.

There are events in Henry V’s life, therefore, that may well have predisposed him to judge Richard favourably, or sufficiently so for him to let bygones be bygones.

Could it be, then, that Henry V made the decision to have the Forme of Cury copied by his court scribe, with the amendation in the preface that Richard was indeed the greatest of all Christian kings in the matter of hospitality? I think so.

To add a little more weight to my theory, we should also consider that, from 1417, Henry V promoted the use of the vernacular English in his government. He himself could both read and write English with ease and, moreover, English was adopted as the language of record within government.

Though not obviously a record of government as such, Forme of Cury was still an official record of King Richard II. And, of course, it was a document written in English. To me, it seems probable that the opportunity presented itself to Henry V to honour Richard, to return to him some of the esteem which Henry IV had so cruelly deprived him, and in doing so reinforce his own commitment to promoting the English language.

Henry V of England, r. 1413-22. Wikimedia Commons: click on image for all licencing information.

Works consulted:


Digital facsimile of Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, link: accessed 04 April, 2021.

Digital facsimile of London, British Library, Additional MS 5016, link: accessed 04 April, 2021.

Digital facsimile of London, British Library, Harley MS 1605/3, link: accessed 04 April, 2021.


C. T. Allmand, ‘Henry V’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online version, 2010), link: accessed 04 April, 2021.

Constance B. Hieatt, ‘Further Notes on The Forme of Cury et al.: Additions and Corrections, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 70 (1988), pp. 45-52.

Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler (eds.), Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth century (Including the Forme of Cury), EETS SS.8 (Oxford University Press, 1985).

G. A. Lester, The Index of Middle English Prose: Handlist II (D. S. Brewer, 1985).

C. D. Ross, ‘Henry V: king of England’, Britannica (online version, 1999), link: accessed 04 April, 2021.

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

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