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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Butter Churn

Object 80 - Find out more about butter churns and the manner in which butter was made in the Elizabethan age

Elizabeth Sharrett

This post is by Elizabeth Sharrett, Doctoral Researcher at the Shakespeare Institute.

Falstaff: Tut, never fear me. I am as vigilant as a cat to steal cream.

Prince Henry: I think to steal cream indeed, for thy theft hath already made thee butter.

Henry IV, Part 1, 4.2.55-58

Butter Churn
A 19th century plunger churn from the Collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Prince Henry likens Falstaff’s belly – literally and figuratively fat from thieving – to the barrel, or ‘tun’, used to churn cream into butter.[1] Such a barrel would have been similar to the one seen in the image above, now at Palmer’s Farm. Though the butter churn in the image is from the 19th century, the basic structure has changed little since the 16th and 17th centuries, as can be seen in the woodcut below, from Laurence Andrewe’s The Vertuose Boke of Distillacyon (ca.1527-30).

The barrel at Palmer’s Farm is 62 cm tall and 110 cm at its widest (probably no match for Falstaff’s belly), and includes a long plunger or churn staff (91 cm), which would have been inserted into a hole in the close fitting lid. Like bread, butter was made from scratch; however the tender process of its creation required greater skill. Gervase Markham writes, “For your butter which only proceedeth from the cream…it must be gathered very carefully, diligently, and painfully”.[2] So important was this task that he stresses, “though cleanliness be such an ornament to a housewife, that if she want any part thereof she loseth both that and all good names else, yet in this action it must be more seriously employed than in any other”.On the “Manner of Churning”, Markham instructs that the cream should be strained through a strong, clean, cloth into the barrel, and then churned “with swift strokes, marking the noise of the same which will be solid, heavy, and entire, until you hear it alter, and the sound is light, sharp, and more spirity”. At this point “your butter breaks”, which can be determined by “the sound and lightness of the churn-staff”, and “the sparks and drops which will appear yellow about the lip of the churn”. 

Butter Churn illustration
A woodcut of a butter churn from Laurence Andrewe’s The Vertuose Boke of Distillacyon (ca.1527-30.)

He warns that if the butter “be over heated, it will look white, crumble, and be bitter in taste, and if it be over cold it will not come at all, but make you waste much labour in vain”. Therefore, if churning in the summer, he advises placing the barrel in cool water and churning with slow strokes, as opposed to the winter when you should churn “as fast as may be”, in a warm place. The frequent use and intensive nature of the plunging action may explain why there are so few surviving examples of this object from early modern England.

If these instructions are followed, Markham promises, “you shall have your butter good, sweet, and according to your wish”. Perhaps some people enjoyed the fruits of their labour spread over toast, as this simple pleasure was certainly enjoyed in Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the 17th century down-hearth toaster. This handheld device was designed to clasp two pieces of bread, to brown quickly over a fire at a safe distance. The convenience of this appliance is surprisingly similar to that of the modern toaster. However, as we have learned in this post and my previous blogs on object 73, a grain ark,  and object 77, a bread peel, in Shakespeare’s England, the process of acquiring the ingredients for the snack was not as straightforward as it is today.

[1] David Bevington, ed. Henry IV, Part I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 252.

[2] All references to Gervase Markham are taken from The English Housewife, edited by Michael R. Best (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986), 170-172.