Language of Cookery 9: From brawn to brains

Did King Richard II have a recipe for pig’s brain in his cookery treatise, Fourme of Cury?*

Image at top: ‘Cervel de pork’ ‘Brain of pork’, from London, British Library, Cotton Junius D. viii, folio 92+ (15th-century). Image is a personal photograph; the manuscript has not been digitised by the British Library. Permission has been given by the British Library to use the image.

‘Carnel of pork’, from Fourme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 23v, c.1390. Click on the image to go to the digital facsimile.

This dish, meaning ‘Flesh/Meat of pork’, becomes ‘Cervel de pork’, meaning ‘Brain of pork’, in the later, 15th-century manuscript, above.

Carnel of pork

Tak þe brawne of swyne, perboyle hit & grynd it smal & lay it vp with ȝolkes of ayroun, set it ouer þe fyre wiþ white grece & lat it not seeþ to fast, do þerinne safroun & poudour fort & messe it forth, & cast þerinne poudour douce & serue hit forth.

Text edited directly from the Rylands manuscript.

Pork brains. Two words guaranteed to send sensitive souls into paroxysms of puerile disgust – though there are those calmer, more adventurous types who will tell us how delicious brains are. And within those food cultures where there is a respectful wish to use all parts of an animal, I’m sure those who consume brains would wonder what all the fuss is about.

But from my British perspective, where the likelihood of seeing pig’s, or any other animal’s, brain in a supermarket is on a par with that of witnessing a Zombie apocalypse – please note my allusion to brain-eating there – it holds a certain fascination.

It’s true that other offal meats, such as liver and kidneys, occasionally make a showing in supermarket fridges, but I think the aisles would soon be cluttered with post-swooning bodies should brains be placed on our shelves.

So, yes or no?

Well, to address the question of whether Richard II’s cooks included pig’s brains in his late-14th-century cookery book, the quick answer is no. But it’s more complicated than that.

It’s complicated because the 1985 edition of Forme of Cury, by Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler, leads us to think that pork brains were most definitely on the menu of the royal household, for the editors identify the dish ‘Caruel of pork’ as ‘pork brains, parboiled, ground, mixed with egg yolk, and fried’ (Hieatt & Butler, p. 176).

However, their interpretation is based on a misreading of their base manuscript, as I hope to show in more detail below. But to summarise, they misread the word ‘carnel’, meaning ‘flesh’, as ‘caruel’ and make a misjudged case for reading the latter as meaning ‘brain’.

It is not that they were without a basis for interpreting it this way. Indeed, there is a later copy of this Fourme of Cury recipe in a 15th-century manuscript that has a different spelling of the recipe’s name: ‘ceruel de pork’, which does mean, in Old French, ‘brain of pork’.

Moreover, the opening instruction of this later copy has changed the earlier ‘Tak þe brawne of swyne’ ‘take the brawn (i.e. muscle meat) of swine’ to ‘Tac brayn of swyn’ ‘take brain of swine’.

It is these changes in this later manuscript that unduly influenced Hieatt and Butler’s interpretation; I will go into more detail about this later.

‘Ceruel de pork’, from the British Library manuscript Junius D. viii, folio 92+. The manuscript is a miscellany of texts in Latin and Middle English, written at different times. The part that contains the recipes from Fourme of Cury (it doesn’t have them all) has been dated by Hieatt and Butler to approximately the first half of the fifteenth century (Hieatt & Butler, p. 16).

What I think we are witnessing here is how the recipe changed over time. There is little doubt that originally there is no recipe for pig’s brain in Richard II’s book, written about 1390. At some point, though, as the recipes of the king’s master cooks were copied and then compiled into other books, someone either misunderstood the meaning of the recipe and thus made a couple of changes to ‘clarify’ it; or they deliberately modified it, perhaps because they preferred brain rather than brawn!

Now, if you want the more in depth understanding of how the modern editorial mistake confuses the story, please read on. Otherwise, why not check out this video by the renowned French chef Pierre Koffmann? It’s about veal brains, not pork brains, but it is really informative:

How did this mistake happen?

Well, first I want to emphasise that my critique here is not a disparagement of the scholarship of the late Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler, pioneers in the editing of medieval cookery texts. In the case of Hieatt, in particular, I can only say that she was a giant in the field, and I wish I had known her.

However, we all make mistakes, and I think it’s quite important to correct this particular mistake as it has the potential to lead to a misunderstanding of dietary and culinary culture in fourteenth-century England.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

First let me quote in full what Hieatt and Butler state in their glossary regarding this recipe’s title:

CARUEL OF PORK IV 34, pork brains, parboiled, ground, mixed with egg yolk, and fried. The word ‘caruel’ (J ‘cervel’), OF cervel ‘brain’, was mistranscribed as carnel by Pegge. Brains, which are frequently called for in the recipes of Apicius – usually boiled or ground, as one of many ingredients – are relatively rare in medieval recipes. An exceptional one is boiled brains as a sort of meatball, in a recipe not unlike some of those of Apicius, found in the 14th-century German Bůch von gůter spise.

Hieatt & Butler, p. 176.

It’s important to note that the base manuscript for the edition of the text by Hieatt and Butler was not the John Rylands Library manuscript, the only surviving copy of Fourme of Cury that can be securely dated to Richard II’s time, as I’ve explained before in this video:

So when they write of Pegge, a nineteenth-century editor of Fourme of Cury, mistranscribing ‘caruel’ as ‘carnel’, they are referring to Pegge’s transcription of a different manuscript, namely, the British Library roll version of the text (Additional MS 5016), which was their base manuscript, and which you can see in digitised format here.

Now, I will be frank at this point: Mr Pegge was right on this occasion and Hieatt and Butler, for some reason, were not looking carefully enough. Here’s the image of the recipe’s title from the British Library roll:

‘Carnel of pork’. London, British Library, Additional MS 5016, f.3r. Screenshot from British Library website. Click on image to take you to the digital facsimile.

To me, it is very clear that this reads ‘Carnel’, not ‘Caruel.’ Notice how there is a diagonal stroke of the pen connecting the tops of the two minims (i.e. the vertical strokes), thus closing the top of the letter to form n.

To compare, let’s look at how the rubricator (the scribe using the red ink) writes a u, here, on another recipe title on the same folio:

‘… grauey’. London, British Library, Additional MS 5016, 3r. Screenshot from the British Library website. Click on image to take you to the difital facsimile.

The u in the third word ‘grauey’ (from which we get modern gravy) is noticeably different from the n in ‘Carnel’. Here, there is no diagonal stroke at the top connecting the minims.

We can also see that the n of the middle word ‘in’ does have that connecting stroke. And, though a little worn, we can see how this is also the case in the first word, ‘Connyng’ (meaning ‘rabbit’). The differences are subtle but they are there. To me, it seems strange that Hieatt and Butler made the mistake, but they did.

I hope it is also clear to everyone that the image from the Rylands manuscript of the recipe shows ‘Carnel of pork’, not ‘Caruel of pork’. Here it is again:

Click on image to go to the digital facsimile

We can see how the diagonal stroke connects the tops of the minims of the n. We can also see that the flicked ‘foot’ of the first minim finishes short of the second minim, avoiding any confusion with a letter u (admittedly, this isn’t the case with the British Library roll, which perhaps goes some way to explaining Hieatt and Butler’s mistake).

By comparison, on the same page, in the following recipe, we see the word ‘caudel’ (a kind of sauce) which clearly doesn’t have an upper diagonal stroke on the u.

Click on image to go to the digital facsimile.

Of course, as already pointed out, Hieatt and Butler hadn’t seen this Rylands manuscript. Had they, then perhaps they would have looked closer at the British Library scroll manuscript and avoided their error.

Why though did Hieatt and Butler interpret what they saw as ‘caruel’ as meaning ‘brain’? Well, I have to say I think they were unduly influenced by what they saw in the other British Library manuscript, the codex Julius D. viii, which is manuscript ‘J’ in the quote from their glossary.

I was able recently to physically check this copy at the British Library and there is no doubt it says ‘Ceruel’. Of note, I’d suggest, is that the name of the dish has a fuller Old French look than the earlier version: ‘Ceruel de pork’, rather than ‘Carnel of pork’. This may be significant, as I shall explain in a moment.

Now, dictionaries transliterate ceruel as cervel. And if we look up cervel in the Old French-English Dictionary (Hindley, Langley & Levy) it, of course, means ‘brain’. I say ‘of course’ because the modern French word which derives from this, cervelle, still means ‘brain’ today, and is used in a culinary context, too. If you want to hear a sexy pronunciation of the modern word, check out the online Collins Dictionary.

It’s also important to check cervel in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary as Anglo-Norman was the dialect of Old French that evolved in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The definition is the same: ‘brain’.

Of note is that neither of these two Old French dictionaries gives carvel as a variant spelling of cervel, which may suggest that Hieatt and Butler made an assumption that what they saw as ‘caruel’ was a variant of cervel.

A scribal error?

So, are we actually witnessing a copying mistake by the scribe of the J manuscript? It’s possible, or if he did not make the mistake himself, he was copying from an exemplar which already had this error.

It may not, though, have been a copying error as such. Perhaps the scribe (or the scribe of the exemplar) decided to Frenchify the title – remember that ‘de’ replaces ‘of’ – and he thought ‘carnel’ actually meant ‘brain’. Middle English carnel is an Anglo-Norman/Old French loan word, so perhaps this encouraged him. I must say that this scenario paints the scribe as a bit of an ignoramus, but so be it, or should I say c’est la vie?

An alternative idea is that at some point the dish actually became pork brains, that someone – a cook, perhaps, or the lady or lord of the cook’s household – simply fancied having pig’s brain, and this recipe looked as good as any to adapt. All it needed was the small manipulation of the recipe title and the altering of ‘brawne’ to ‘brayn’ – muscle meat to brain meat – and Bob’s your uncle, or whatever phrase was de rigueur back then.

Admittedly, there is a good deal of conjecture here, and we may never know what prompted the changes in the recipe.

But did they eat brains in England?

The curious thing about the consumption of brains in England is that, as Hieatt and Butler intimate, it is not well documented. I have checked Hieatt’s concordance of English recipes for the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (and its supplement) and I can’t find a single dish with a word meaning brain in the title, other than the misunderstood ‘Carvel of Pork’ (Hieatt, 2006, p.17). UPDATE (26 Oct 2022): Oddly, I missed the dish ‘Cenellis’ in Hieatt’s Concordance (p.17). This dish, which does use brains, is found in a fifteenth-century manuscript. I will report on this in due course.

I probably need to read through every English medieval recipe that’s going to be absolutely sure that brains are not an ingredient listed in a recipe, but for now that’s not a task I have the time to perform, so I will go along with Hieatt and Butler’s statement that brain recipes are ‘relatively rare’.

We might turn to hunting literature for enlightenment. So far I’ve checked The Master of Game, the 14th-century hunting treatise by Edward, 2nd Duke of York, and it shows that in the case of hunting the hart, the animal’s brain was fed to the dogs (York, p. 176), and there is no mention of what is done with the brain of either the hart or the boar in the famous scenes of hunting and field butchery in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawain, pp. 102-3 and pp. 116-17).

This isn’t to say that brains were not consumed elsewhere in medieval Europe. Hieatt and Butler make mention of the brain ‘meatball’ recipe in the 14th-century German recipe Bůch von gůter spise. And the 15th-century French culinary treatise by Chiquart has the recipe ‘Glazed Kid Heads’ in which the brains of young goats appear to form part of the finished dish (Scully, pp. 91-2).

Brains as medicine?

There is a case to be made for the English consuming brains in a medical context. There are Middle English translations of continental medical texts that refer to the eating of brains.

For example, the translation of Lanfranc of Milan’s late-13th-century treatise on surgery refers to Lanfranc’s directive for the frequent eating of ‘þe braynes of briddis heedis, & of hennys…& kedis’ ‘the brains of birds’ heads, and of hens’ and kids’.

A similar injunction for consuming hens’ brains is found in the Middle English version of Guy de Chauliac’s 14th-century work Chirurgia Magna. And the translation of John of Burgundy’s Practica Phisicalia goes as far as to recommend ‘þe brayne of a fox’ ‘the brain of a fox’ for one particular sickness. (These citations are from the Middle English Dictionary; see brain, 2(a).)

Of course, the translating into English of continental medical texts containing a few instructions to consume brains is not proof of English medical practitioners advocating the same cures. I have to confess, however, that this is not something I have researched in any depth, so there may be other evidence out there that confirms that brains were indeed consumed in medieval England for medical reasons.


In the end, the evidence for the folk of medieval England tucking into pigs’ brains, or the brains of any other animal, is rather thin. And the evidence that Richard II had pig’s brain on the royal household menu does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Of course, if you know of any medieval English pork brain recipes or allusions to brain consumption in English medieval literature, do let me know in the comments, or contact me directly. I’m very happy to listen.

If you would like to support my independent research and creative work, please head over to the Buy me a coffee tab.

Photo by Rodolfo Quiru00f3s on

*I prefer to use the title Fourme of Cury rather than the more typical Forme of Cury, as the former is the spelling in the John Rylands Library manuscript, the earliest version of the text. However, when specifically referring to the edition of the text by Hieatt and Butler, I use Forme rather than Fourme.


Hieatt. Constance B. Hieatt, ‘Further notes on The Forme of Cury et al.: additions and corrections’, Bulletin of John Rylands Library 70 (1988), pp. 46-52.

Hieatt, 2006. Constance B. Hieatt and Terry Nutter with Johnna H. Holloway, Concordance of English Recipes: Thirteenth through Fifteenth Centuries (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006).

Hieatt & Butler. Constance B. Hieatt & Sharon Butler (eds.), Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (Including The Forme of Cury) (London: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Hindley, Langley & Levy. Old French-English Dictionary, ed. Alan Hindley, Frederick W. Langley and Brian J. Levy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Scully. Terence Scully (ed. & trans.), Chiquart’s ‘On Cookery’ (New York, Berne, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986).

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

York. Edward, 2nd Duke of York, 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.

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

17 thoughts on “Language of Cookery 9: From brawn to brains

  1. It has been more than 20 years, but I do remember seeing brains for sale in a grocery in the US. They were in a little plastic tub. As I was not interested at the time, I don’t remember reading the source, pig, cow or some other animal.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It was in a midwestern community where the major employer was a meat processing plant. It wasn’t until I moved to the southeast that I saw hog jowls or pig’s feet for sale. In other words, time and place.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a difference a single stroke of a pen can make.

    Now I’m wondering about the brawn I ate as a child. If the whole pig’s head went into the pot, what happened to the brains? We had a dog, so perhaps she got to eat them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At the risk of going too far astray, I wonder if there might be some cultural antipathy about eating brains in general. While it’s not a pig, and it’s not in England, the 1520 “Libre del Coch” (Catalonia) warns about eating the brains of a roast cat. “And after it is dead, cut off the head and throw it away because it is not for eating, for they say that eating the brains will cause him who eats them to lose his senses and judgment.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very interesting! I have thought about this. What came to my mind was the Old English text The Wonders of the East, in which there is a monster who eats people but refuses to eat their heads. I’ve argued in an article I published that these stories of monsters reflected concerns that people had about themselves. Perhaps to some people there is something “wrong” about eating the head of an animal, or particularly its brain. Just conjecture really, but worth pondering on.


      1. Having said all that, eating boar’s head must have been seen by elites of the medieval period as something grand, perhaps sophisticated or even an act of taking on the boar’s might and ferocity. Though, there’s no evidence (so far) that the English ate the boar’s brain.


  4. I grew up in rural Illinois, and one could buy brains in butcher shops that actually butchered their own steers. Think back to as late as the 1970s. My grandfather liked them. They were cooked with scrambled eggs and served I think on toast. This was long before prion diseases, Mad Cow, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Diseases had been heard about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those butchers back then wouldn’t have wanted to waste anything. Notwithstanding the problems of prion diseases, offal generally has largely become stigmatised as poor quality food, which makes little sense.


  5. There is a rather infamous article which appeared in the New Yorker on eating squirrel brains in rural Kentucky. “Squirrel and Man” The New Yorker, July 17, 2000 P. 58 “the furor over the announcement of several cases of a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in Appalachia that was dubbed mad-squirrel disease in reference to England’s problem with mad-cow disease… “

    Liked by 1 person

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