By Alys Katharine, O.L., O.P. (Elise Fleming)


Humans have always had a sweet tooth. Until sugar-making spread from the Orient to Arab lands sometime around the 8th century honey was the principal sweetener. Through their conquests, the Arabs brough sugar into their Mediterranean territories of Syria, Cyprus, Crete, Egypt, Morocco, Sicily and Spain.(1) By the middle of the 8th century, Egypt was regularly producing sugar, a favorite food of the rich and the poor, eaten in large amounts.(2) Even then, sugar was sometimes molded and made into statues. The crusaders were introduced to sugar during their fight for the Holy Land. Sugar was used as a novel Christmas gift by Christian Sicilians to Norman friends.(3) At the siege of Acre, sugar was used as an emergency ration by the hungry inhabitants. In 1099, the Crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem supported sugar cane cultivation, and in 1187, a large amount of sugar was part of Saladin's booty when he recaptured Jerusalem.(4)

From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Egyptian sugar was the preferred kind with Venice serving as the middleman. Common in Italy and Spain, sugar remained a luxury in the more northern European countries for many years. Henry the Navigator had sugar cane sent to Madeira Island in the early 15th century from Sicily. Madeiran sugar arrived in Bristol, England, in 1456 and for more than the next 100 years, the Portuguese dominated the sugar market.

Bristol remained the port of entry from the Canary Islands through Henry VIII's reign. By the 16th century, Antwerp became a major refining center, importing crude sugar from Lisbon. After Antwerp was captured by the Duke of Alva in 1567, the refining switched to Amsterdam.

The price of English sugar reflected this growing availability as sugar moved from the Arabian countries to Portuguese control and into the Netherlands. From 1259 to 1470, the average retail price was about 17 pence per pound. Around 1480 the price dropped to 8 pence; in 1490 it went down to 6 pence; in 1500 to 4 pence; and in 1510 to around 3 pence.(5) One can see in cookbooks of the period the increasing use of sugar, especially for sotelties and confections.

Besides its role as a sweetener sugar was treated as a medicine. It "...increases semen, purges intestines, promotes nutrition and corpulency and exites the phlegm."(6) English cooks listed its purchase with the spices. Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and wife of Simon de Montfort, listed sugar in her household accounts, purchasing loaves of sugar as well as flavored sugars. Spices such as mace were added, with the most expensive flavors being rose and violet.(7)

Because of the pattern of sugar's availability from Arab lands to Italy to France and England, it is understandable why Arab cookery books have recipesfor sugary pastries earlier than, for example, English cookery books. The Manuscrito Anonimo, a 13th century Andalusian cookbook originally written in Arabic, contains a recipe to boil sugar to a candying height and pour it into moulds. The recipe suggests that one can make a tree, a castle, and/or its furnishings from this sugar syrup.(8) Italian cooks were also farther ahead of their English counterparts in the use of sugar paste and other confections. They had developed "spun sugar" prior to the 1600s. and even had an academy prior to 1615 dedicated to the art of freezing and making sugary ices.(9)

Confections and the Banquet

Household accounts from the medieval period list the amounts of sugar as well as the kinds of sugar that were purchased. For one year, the household of King Edward I used only 677 lbs. of sugar in food dishes, but used 1900 lbs. of rose sugar and 300 lbs. of violet sugar for other purposes.(10) Comfits (candied spices) were taken to war by Edward, Duke of Guelders (1369), as well as Count William IV (1345) in his battle with the Bishop of Utrecht.(11) A recipe to make your own comfits is in an accompanying article.

As mentioned in the article, "Some Sweet Terms," England gradually developed the practice of a "banquet," a separate, sweet, course that followed the main meal. While guests might simply retire to another room for the banquet, wealthier landowners constructed a separate "banquetting house." Also called "prospecting" rooms or a "pleasure house," they could be tiny (fitting only six or seven people) to grandiose, such as one made for a hoped-for visit by Queen Elizabeth. Constructed around 1580, it was three stories high with six rooms on each floor.(12) Some were made of living plants, a sort of bower in a garden. Others were placed in park-like settings or on an island, a feast for the eyes while the stomach was being sated on sugar. A number of cookbooks from the late 1500s on include a list of items necessary for a "banquet." This could serve as a checklist to see if one had everything. It also made sure that banquets continued to include more and more items, as hosts attempted to outdo one another!

What follows now is a partial list of the types of confections, sweets, pastries, and "desserts" that were available from the 14th century on. The list is partial in that learning about period confection is an ongoing process. You will find a summary of cookery books containing many of these recipes at the end of this article. Those whose interest in confections is still unsatisfied are welcome to contact me for additional sources!

Items Used in a "Banquet"

Gervase Markham (The English Huswife, 1615) wrote a brief section on "The Ordering of Banquets" wherein he describes an ideal dessert course. "...I will now proceed to the ordering or setting forth of a banquet; wherein you shall observe that the marchpanes have the first place, the middle place, and the last place; your preserved fruits shall be dished up first, your pastes next, your wet suckets after them, then your dried suckets, then your marmalades and goodinyakes, then your comfits of all kinds; next, your pears, apples, wardens baked, raw or roasted, and your oranges and lemons slices; and lastly your wafer cakes."(13) He continues by saying that this is the order in which to organize them prior to sending them out to the dining hall. When the diners are ready, "dish made for show only" preceeds everything. The following is a compilation of a number of "dessert" items listed in a variety of cookery books as proper for a "banquet."

fruit pastes: quince, peach, green pippins pomegranate seeds
fruit, fresh prunes
preserves, dry and liquid barberries
succade (suckets): orange peel, lemon peel lemons
sitrenade sweet oranges
marmalade cherries conserved
pears in syrup raisins
dates in composte orengat (orange peel candied in honey)
dates in confit chitron (candied citron)

Nuts, seeds, and spices  
nuts, sugared coliander (coriander)
marzipan (ground almonds mixed with sugar, rosewater, and egg whites) nutmegs
marchpane (marzipan baked) licoras
pepper, white and brown ginger
saffron anis vermeil (red-colored anise)
aniseeds noisette confites (candied filberts)
cinnamon pine nut comfits
ginger comfits cubeb comfits
cumin comfits coriander comfits

Sugar Items  
Sugar paste (see an accompanying article) rose sugar (sucre rosat)
sugar "reliefs," sculptures violet sugar
sugar, melted and moulded dragees, large and small (round drops of sugar)
sugar, spun candich (crystalized sugar gobbets)
comfets (see specific listing above)  
Manus Christi (boiled sugar gobbets with gold leaf added)  
rusen, red and white (poured into moulds, usually fruit shaped)  

Baked goods, cookies, pies, cakes  
biscuits: there were a number of varieties
  • light, dry biscuits, biscuit breads, diet breads. Some had egg, others did not.
  • rich short cakes, the paste being mixed with butter or cream
  • raised with ale yeast; usually spiced with aniseeds, caraway, coriander.
  • "biskatello"
almond macaroon jumballs (a kind of cookie twisted into fanciful knots
shortcakes: Shropshire, Shrewsbury wafers
payne puff corneseli
gingerbread: red (dried bread crumbs, red wine) white (gum tragacanth, ginger, sometimes almonds)
marchpanes (baked marzipan, set on a wafer, frequently decorated with comfits, or a shiny white icing)  

Custards, milks, miscellaneous  
doucettes leach (milk and gelatine)
dariols (custard tarts) jellies
leach (egg and milk custard) cheese
leach Lombard (dates, breadcrumbs, cream or almond milk) creams


1. Strong. L.A.G. The Story of Sugar. London: George Weudenfield and Nicholson, 1954, page 47.

2. Strong, page 50.

3. Strong, page 63.

4. Aykroyd, W.R. The Story of Sugar, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967, page 12.

5. Strong, page 59.

6. Strong, page 48.

7. Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.

8. Huici Miranda, Ambrosio. Traducción española de un manuscrito anónimo del siglo XIII sobre la cocina hispano-magribi. Madrid: Editorial Maestre, 1966

9. David, Elizabeth. "The Harvest of Cold Months, Petits Propos Culinaires, #3

10. Witteveen, Joop. "Rose Sugar and Other Medieval Sweets, Petits Propos Culinaires, #20

11. ibid.

12. Wilson, C. Anne, editor. 'Banquetting Stuffe'. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

13. Gervase Markham, The English Huswife, (1615) , edited by Michael R. Best, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1986


A Book of Fruits and Flowers, printed by M.S. for Thos. Jenner, 1656. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1991.

A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, John Murrell, 1617. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1990

A Delightful Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen, John Murrell, 1621. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1990.

An Ordinance of Pottage, Constance B. Hieatt, Prospect Books, London, 1988

A New Booke of Cookerie, John Murrell, 1615. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1988.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokery, 16th century, edited by Catherine Francis Frere, W. Heffer & Sons Ltd., Cambridge,1913. Reprinted in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Vol.I, 4th edition, Duke Sir Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, 1987

A Queen's Delight, W.M., 1655. Reprinted by Prospect Books, London, 1984.

A True Gentlewoman's Delight, W.I. Gent, 1653. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1991.

�Banquetting Stuffe', edited by C. Anne Wilson, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1991

Curye on Inglysch (14th century manuscripts), edited by Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler, Oxford University Press, London/New York/Toronto, 1985.

Delightes for Ladies, Sir Hugh Plat, 1609. Reprinted in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Vol. I, 4th edition, Duke Sir Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, 1987.

Epulario, or the Italian Banquet, Printed by A.I. for William Barley, 1598. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1990.

Le Menagier de Paris ,1395, translated by Janet Hinson. Printed in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Vol. I, 4th edition, Duke Sir Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, 1987.

Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery ,Karen Hess, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981

The Appetite and the Eye, edited by C. Anne Wilson, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1991

The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Opened, Sir Kenelm Digby, 1669. Reprinted in A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Vol. I, 4th edition, Duke Sir Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena, 1987.

The Compleat Cook, W.M., 1655. Reprinted by Prospect Books, London, 1984.

The English Huswife, Gervase Markham, 1615, edited by Michael R. Best, McGill-Queen's University Press, Toronto, 1986

The Good Huswives Jewell, Thomas Dawson, 1596. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1988.

The Ladies Cabinet, The Lord Ruthuen, 1655. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1990.

The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, Thomas Dawson, 1597. Reprinted by Falconwood Press, 1988.

Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books, edited by Thomas Austin, Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press, 1888. Reprinted by Kraus Reprint, New York, 1988.

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