Spring Vegetables

R.14.19. title page
R.14.19. title page

A brief account of the Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy was written in 1614 by Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) and dedicated to Lucy, Countess of Bedford. Trinity holds three manuscript versions, now digitised, and a copy of the gorgeous 1989 translation, The fruit, herbs & vegetables of Italy: an offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford by Gillian Riley with a foreword by cookery writer, Jane Grigson. The three manuscripts were described by M. R. James as (an) Italian culinary tract (R.14.19, dated 14 June 1614) and Racconto Delle Radici Etc (R.3.44, dated 28 June 1614 with alterations, and R.3.44a, dated 28 September 1614).

Giacomo Castelvetro came to England in 1613, after his anti-papal activities in Venice brought him to the attention of the Inquisition. He was imprisoned in 1611 and freed only on condition that he left Venice; Sir Dudley Carleton, English Ambassador, having cleverly argued his case. Sir John Harington initially supported Castelvetro financially. He had been taught Italian in Venice by Castelvetro and was the brother of the Countess of Bedford. Castelvetro also taught Italian for a term at Cambridge, but when Harington died in 1614, there was apparently no other obvious source of income available to him.

Sir Henry Puckering
Sir Henry Puckering

At the time he wrote A brief account he was living at Charlton, near Greenwich, home of Sir Adam Newton whose wife, Katherine Puckering, was the daughter of Sir John Puckering, the Lord Keeper. Although dedicated to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, herself an enthusiastic gardener, Castelvetro’s appeal to her for assistance was made too late, not least because she had inherited huge debts from her father and had additional money problems of her own. Castelvetro died in 1616 in penury. In 1691 Sir Adam’s son, Sir Henry Puckering (formerly Newton) gave his library to Trinity College and this included several manuscripts in Castelvetro’s hand.

Q.13.32, plate VII
Q.13.32, plate VII

As Gillian Riley indicates, he wrote A brief account to encourage the English to improve their diet by eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat. In Spring he advises eating spinach, sprouting broccoli, artichokes and peas ‘the noblest of vegetables’ and to:

‘take the plumpest spears of asparagus and having oiled them well, roll them on a plate in salt and pepper . . . roast them on a grid. Lavishly sprinkled with bitter orange juice, this makes a most delicate dish.’

R.3.44a f004v-005r
R.3.44a f004v-005r


John Martin, ‘Castelvetro, Giacomo (bap. 1546, d. 1616)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/50429] doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/50429

Giacomo Castelvetro, The fruit, herbs & vegetables of Italy: an offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, translated with an introduction by Gillian Riley (Viking 1989).


There is a lot of excitement regarding the solar eclipse which can be viewed over much of Britain later this week. (Friday 20th March)

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun. It may completely obscure the view of the Sun from the Earth (a total eclipse) or only partially (a partial eclipse). This week’s eclipse will block up to 80 per cent of the sun. Manuscript O.2.5 contains diagrams of both solar and lunar eclipses.

O.2.5, f. 7v

Astronomers have, of course, predicted and recorded these events for centuries. Here at the Wren Library we have a number of astrological texts dating from the 1300 and 1400s.

Manuscript O.1.57, a 15th century text, contains a table of solar eclipses. It indicates the total eclipse of June 1433 which could be seen in the Hebrides, the Borders in the East and on the Yorkshire coast.

O.1.57, ff. 6v-7r
O.1.57, ff. 6v-7r

The late 14th century text bound within Trinity Ms R.15.18 includes tables of eclipses between 1406-1462. The solar eclipses are depicted in red and gold and the lunar eclipses which follow in blue and gold.

R.15.18, ff. 20-21
R.15.18 (V), ff. 20-21

Another manuscript, R. 15.21, contains tables of lunar eclipses. The page shown is for the month of March and records eclipses between 1356 and 1461.

R.15.21, ff. xvi verso - xvii recto
R.15.21, ff. xvi verso – xvii recto

If you want more data, visit Nasa’s webpages for a catalogue covering five millennia!

Labours of the Month: March

Pruning trees for March - Trin MS B.11.31
Pruning trees for March. Trin MS B.11.31

February having flown by, it is time once again to find out what we should be doing this month. Medieval manuscripts tell us that it’s finally time to get out into the garden. Our 15th century French Book of Hours, B.11.31, tells us that this month we should be out pruning our trees (eccentric head wear optional).  Meanwhile, the 13th century English Psalter, B.11.4, suggests planting or digging.

Digging and planting - Trin MS B.11.4
Digging and sowing/planting. Mind your toes! Trin MS B.11.4

In addition to the labours themselves helping locate where manuscripts are produced, scholars look at the differences between Kalendar tables, as different Saints’ Feast Days were prominent in different places. The Kalendar table from B.11.4 (pictured below) most likely places the manuscript’s production in London according to M.R. James. It features St. Cuthbert (c. 634 – 20 March 687), a cleric associated with Lindisfarne and Melrose, Northumberland, who was an important Saint in Northern England in the middle ages and is entombed at Durham Cathedral. His feast day is on 20 March.

The next day, 21 March, is the feast of St. Benedict (c. 480 – 543 or 547), who is most famous for establishing the rules for the Benedictine monastic order and is also the patron saint of students. Both of these dates are highlighted in the Kalendar table through rubrication – the use of red text to highlight a passage or date in medieval manuscripts. This is the origin of phrase ‘red letter day’, indicating that something particularly significant happened on that day.

Kalendar page from B.11.4 showing illuminated roundels and rubrication.
Kalendar page from B.11.4 showing illuminated roundels and rubrication.

The astrological sign for March is Aries, the ram, and the first sign in the Zodiac. The solar transit of Aries begins on the Spring Equinox, around 20 or 21 March (perhaps this is another reason for the two rubricated Feast Days on the page above). The equinox marks the point when the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator heading northward, making the days grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere and marking the first day of Spring.

Luckily, all that daylight means more time to get all of that pruning and digging done. Happy Spring!

Aries from Trin MS B.11.31.
Aries from Trin MS B.11.31.