The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened is well-known in the realms or reenacting. It is the earliest publication of its kind to present such a wealth of different recipes and almost seems too good to be true for the medieval reenactor. It includes over 100 mead and metheglin recipes and has become the go-to source for many a beginner brewer. Unfortunately, Digby really is too good to be true for the brewer looking for pre-1600 recipes and techniques, especially in context of reenacting Arts & Sciences competitions. Let's take a closer look at the man himself.
The general image of Sir Kenelm Digby is that of a great gentleman, a romantic Royalist, a somewhat out-of-date philosopher, as well as an accomplished cook and social brewer. In his own day he was befriended with Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Harvey, Ben Jonson, Cromwell - the famous people of his time - was the intimate of kings, and the special friend of queens. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the publication he is most know for displays his remarkable skill in making drinks, and his interest in the skills of cooking.
For such an intriguing life's journey, living close to the stars of his day, Sir Kenelm Digby came from somewhat humble beginnings. Born July 11, 1603, Kenelm was barely three years old when his father, part of the Gunpowder Plotters, died on the scaffold. Fortunately, James I acceded to the wife's appeal that his widow and children should not be reduced to beggary. While Kenelm received an estate income during his active career, it was not enough to furbish a student of such diverse ambitions. His mother was in deep depression and her demeanor, and her faith, kept her on the sidelines of high society. Her son Kenelm would seem to be destined for obscurity, were it not for his unusual intelligence and his restless mind. King James was so enamored by Kenelm Digby that he turned a blind eye to his father's offense and enjoyed his company.
Perhaps to get the younger Kenelm away from the dark influence of his mother, and her catholic friends, Sir John invited fourteen Kenelm was invited to stay with him in Spain. A year in Spain, in Court and diplomatic circles, was followed by a year at Oxford, where Thomas Allen, the mathematician and occultist, looked after his studies. Thomas Allen was his friend and admirer until death, and he bequeathed his valuable library to Digby, kick starting Digby's own collection. Kenelm was restlessly longing to taste life outside academic circles, and already was hotly in love with his old playmate, now grown into a great beauty, Venetia Anastasia Stanley, the granddaughter of the Earl of Northumberland. Venetia was above Kenelm in station but as she was mother-less, and her father a recluse, she was left to bring herself up, and bestow her affections as she pleased. Kelemn and Venetia were together for a year or two, but Kenelm's mother would hear nothing of the couple and at seventeen sent him away on his grand tour, hoping to put an end to it. Unfortunately for his mother's wishes, the more Kenelm travelled the more he admired Venetia. Kenelm Digby stayed away from England for three years. The plague drove him from Paris to Angers, where the appearance of the handsome English youth caused such commotion in the heart of the Queen Mother, Marie de Médicis, that she evidently lost her head. When Sir Kenelm Digby's Memoirs were published in 1827, his narrative of her behavior was purged before publication! Kenelm ended up fleeing the royal attentions by faking his death, and moved to Italy.
When he moved back to England he found his great love had not waited for him. Venetia had believed in his death. It seems that in Kenelm's absence she had been the mistress of Sir Edward Sackville, afterwards the fourth Earl of Dorset. On Digby's return she was happy to return to her old love. But, alas! Sackville had her picture, which seemed to her compromising. Digby, therefore, having accepted her apologies and circumstances, challenged Sackville to a duel. Fortunately, Sackville refused to fight, gave up the picture, and swore that Venetia was as blameless as she was fair. A private marriage between Kenelm and Venetia followed. Only on the birth of his second son John (the first son having died) acknowledged Kenelm their marriage to the world. His Memoirs might give the impression that he looked on his wife as a wronged innocent, but when read closely it seems he knew the truth and took the risk. Perhaps not such a great risk after all, for the lady of many suitors and several adventures settled down to domesticity.
Sir Kenelm Digby was seen as an amateur, not as a scholar. One reason for this was how he presented himself - he talked endlessly. He had to share, explain, illustrate his ideas, whether or no they were ripe, and this was seen as a sign of the sincere amateur. His books are probably a distillation of his conversation. He was not a literary person, his style could be seen as self-aggrandizing. His scientific and controversial treatises, quite pleasurable to read and full of strange old lore, survive as singular curiosities. With an itch to use his pen as well as his tongue, he had none of the patience, the hankering after perfection of form, of the professional man of letters. Unlike his writing, his way of work was distinctly scientific, and he is known for observing the effect of oxygen on plant-life, and his invention particularly strong glass bottle in 1633. It was this glass making technology that let to the creation of vintage port, champagne, and wine meant for keeping as before the glass was too fragile for storage and aging purposes (indeed, bottling brews is post-period). According to bibliographer Anne MacDonell (1910): "There is no one like such amateurs for bridging two ages; and Digby, with one hand in Lilly's and the other in Bacon's, joins the mediæval to the modern world."
In the end, as is often the case with tinkerers, Sir Kenelm Digby died poor. Of his five children, by the time of his death three were already dead. Kenelm, his eldest son, had fallen at St. Neot's, in 1648, fighting for the King. His surviving son John, with whom he had been on bad terms, did not initially accept his father's estates. He regained some part of the estates later, perhaps it was separated from the main estates to pay off debts. Sir Kenelm Digby's library was still in Paris at the time of his passing, and was claimed by the French king to be sold for 10,000 crowns for similar reasons.
It was his remaining son John who sanctioned the publication of his father's receipts but it is not clear if he, John, or Hartman, Sir Kenelm's steward, compiled the publication. Hartman, Sir Kenelm's steward, made an excellent project out of Digby's recipes. His "Choice and Experimented Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery" had already appeared in 1668, suggesting that John Digby's consent might be obtained for printing both of Sir Kenelm's culinary as well as his medical note-books. The 1669 edition of The Closet Opened is evidently the first printing of these notebooks. The title of the book is lilely borrowed from The Queen's Closet Opened, Incomparable Secrets which were presented unto the Queen by the most Experienced Persons of the Times, many wherof were had in Esteem when she pleased to descend to Private Recreation (1655). The Queen in question is Henrietta Maria, and chief among the "Experienced Persons" referred to was certainly her Chancellor, Kenelm Digby. In 1682, George Hartman published "for the Publike Good," The True Preserver and Restorer of Health. It is dedicated to the Countess of Sunderland, and is described as "the collection for the most part (which I had hitherto reserved) of your incomparable kinsman and my truly Honourable Master, Sir Kenelm Digby, whom I had the Honour to serve for many years beyond the Seas, as well as in England; and so continued with him till his dying Day, and of whose Generosity and Bounty I have sufficiently tasted, and no less of your illustrious Fathers, both before and Page xlv after my Glorious Masters Decease."
Perhaps reading this short summary of his life helps illuminate why Digby is problematic as an easy resource for reenactment brewing. Not only did Sir Kenelm Digby live out of our period of reenacting, we saw he was born in 1603 and died in 1665, he also did not write The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby. This is problematic: officially the publication is post-period as it was first published in 1669. Then why is it often accepted as a credible source for plausible pre-1600 recipes? One prevailing thought is that Sir Digby collected the recipes in his notebooks during his lifetime including from sources older than himself, like his mother, which could plausibly be from before 1600. But here we run into another problem: the publication was compiled either by his son or by his steward, not by Digby himself. This means the publication itself is a secondary source.
Of course, this only matters from a reenacting arts & sciences point of view. Anyone interested in brewing historic recipes would do well to take heed of The Closed Opened! But for those looking to emulate medieval and renaissance times should dig a little deeper. From comparing the style and ingredients of the recipes included in Digby to similar recipes it becomes clear that most are written in an elaborate style, using ingredients and techniques much more common to the 17th century than before. It is not unthinkable that the compiler updated many of the recipes to reflect contemporary practices and tastes – the publication was meant to sell after all. Unfortunately, these issues mean Digby's The Closet Opened is not a beginner’s source for reenacting competitions. To be successful there, the artisan would need to prove the recipe they chose to emulate is more akin to recipes of the past, than those contemporary to the publication. There are a few early recipes hiding in between the sparkling citrus flavored meads, and those would make quite a nice research project - but not one ideal for beginners.
This does not mean The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby has no place in pre-1600 reenacting. Because of its cornucopia of recipes and ingredients it can be a valuable starting point, or a help shed light on a technique too briefly mentioned elsewhere. Like its contemporary publications Martha Washington and Ladie Elynor Fettiplace, The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby is wonderfully verbose. Most medieval recipes tend to be brief, to the point of obscure – not all that unexpected for handwritten manuscripts using precious resources. The invention of the printing press and the resulting popularity of book printing changed this approach to sharing information, and by the 17th century recipes flourished into the detailed, sometimes even overwhelming, guidelines we are used to today.
Therefore: if one takes Sir Digby as the original source and assumes the recipes are mostly period, then the work is a secondary source as the book was compiled by his son or steward. And if one wants to reference to the publication as primary source, then it is out of the scope of medieval reenacting, as it was published in 1669. Unfortunately, with this fabulous resource you can only have one out of two.
- Digby, Kenelme. The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Knight Opened, 1669.
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Anne MacDonell (ed.), 2005 https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16441
- Susan Verberg. Of Hony - A collection of Mediaeval brewing recipes. 2017-2020.
- Henry Jeffreys. Sir Kenelm Digby – the man who made wine possible. Dabbler Heroes. Sep, 18 2013