Medieval culinary glossary: numbles

Image: ‘New noumbles of dere’, Fourme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 31v.

We arrive at the letter n in the excerpts from my glossary of ingredients, equipment and culinary terms found in Richard II’s Fourme of Cury, written about 1390.

I must say that this particular entry took days of research, but then I do quite often end up down all sorts of rabbit holes in order to make sure I get things as accurate as possible. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The good thing is that this research on numbles has fed into my commentary on recipes in the chapters on meat and offal and fish in my forthcoming book, How to Cook in the Fourteenth Century. But for now, here is the glossary entry:

numbles noumbles. Certain cuts of offal from a pig, calf, sheep or deer, though Fourme of Cury, as with almost all other medieval English recipe collections, does not specify which types of offal are meant. Heart, kidney and diaphragm – called midriff (‘mydruv’) – are specified components of numbles in a collection from about 1440 (see the commentary in the introduction of ch. 2). Porpoise numbles are also alluded to in the dish ‘Porpoise in broth’ (recipe no. 106, ch. 4), but what they were exactly is subject to conjecture. The stomachs (‘paunches’) of pike, conger eel and codling make up the numbles for Lent, a time when meat numbles were forbidden for faithful Christians (no. 112, ch. 4). Numbles is also the name given to some of the pottages containing this ingredient.

The term ‘new noumbles of dere’ (no. 53, ch. 2) probably refers to venison sweetbreads, ‘new’ evidently deriving from (and approximating the sound of) Old French no, meaning ‘nut’. A comparison with the sixteenth-century work, The Arte of Venerie or Hunting, specifies that three ‘knots or nuts’ are to be taken from the ‘Noombles’ (Gascoigne, p. 129). These three ‘nuts’ seem to correspond to the three different tissues that make up sweetbreads, that is, the two parts of the thymus and the pancreas (see Ockerman et al, 22.2).

Though intestines were eaten in medieval England – there are recipes for such in collections other than Fourme of Cury – the evidence points away from intestines being considered as numbles.

The Master of Game, written by Richard II’s cousin, Edward, 2nd Duke of York, specifies that the hunting dogs are to be rewarded with a cooked mixture of the hart’s ‘paunch’ – the stomach – the ‘small guts’, blood, lungs and bread (York, p. 177). Thus it seems that deer intestines were unlikely to have been served in noble households of the fourteenth century.

The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, composed during Richard II’s reign, famously includes two vividly detailed scenes of the breaking down of a hart and a boar during the hunt. With the hart, the guts (‘þe gutteȝ’) are tossed out but the numbles are identified as discrete and are cut out as one piece that hangs together (Gawain, pp. 102-3, lines 1333 and 1344-47). The section on the boar is more explicit about the intestines, stating that the bowels (‘þe boweles’) are pulled out and cooked on red-hot embers and fed to the hounds, whereas the haslets (‘þe hastletteȝ’) – evidently other edible offal – are cut out after this and apparently kept for the lord’s household (Gawain, pp. 116-17, lines 1609-12).

‘Noumbles’, Fourme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 16r.

‘Take noumbles of deer or of oþer best [another beast], perboyle hem & kerue hem to dyce [cut them as dice].’

We can probably discount intestines as part of deer numbles since they are said to be diced or cubed, a method of cutting more readily associated with organs such as the heart and kidneys.

Previous: mulberries

Next: oblées

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Cited works

Gascoigne, George, The Noble Arte of Venerie, etc. (London: Henry Bynneman, for Christopher Barker, 1575), online edition by Early English Books Text Creation Partnership via The University of Michigan Library; the relevant chapter is here.

Ockerman, Herbert W., Lopa Basu, and Fidel Toldrá, ‘Edible By-Products’, Lawrie’s Meat Science, 8th Edition, ed. Fidel Toldrá (Woodhead Publishing, 2017), chapter 22.2. You can find the relevant section here:

York, Edward, 2nd Duke of, The Master of Game: The Oldest English Book on Hunting, ed. W. M. Baillie-Grohman and F. Baillie-Grohman (London: Chatto & Windus, 1909), online edition by Project Gutenberg, available here.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, revised edition, ed. and trans. W. R. J. Barron (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

3 thoughts on “Medieval culinary glossary: numbles

  1. The Middle English Dictionary offers: ?a1475 Noble Bk.Cook.(Hlk 674)103 : To mak nombles tak hert, middrif, and kidney, and hew them smalle. And a1475 Liber Cocorum (Sln 1986)p.10 : Nombuls. Take þo hert and þo mydruv and þe kydnere, And hew hom smalle. So most often probably organ meats.

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    1. Thank you for commenting . Yes these are the only two references in medieval English cookery texts that specify the cuts of offal for numbles. The second of these may date a little earlier than the Dictionary gives, c. 1440 according to Constance Hieatt. The Noble Book of Cookery is an almost identical recipe; it’s essentially the same dish. We can’t of course base the identity of numbles on this single dish, especially when about a dozen other recipes fail to spell out which offal is meant. I do believe though that the evidence does point more towards organ meat, and in the case of ‘new noumbles’, sweetbreads, and away from intestines.

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