Share this page

Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Grain Ark

Object 73 - A late 16th or early 17th century grain ark from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Elizabeth Sharrett

This post is by Elizabeth Sharrett, a doctoral researcher at the Shakespeare Institute.

This post is for all you bakers! Today’s object is an oak meal hutch or ark, c. 1575-1625, of Welsh or English manufacture, and is now at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Such structures were normally used to store corn, meal, or bread, and were sometimes referred to in inventories as a ‘wheat hutch’, ‘meale hutch’ or ‘corn hutch’.  In his book Oak Furniture Victor Chinnery explains that in the Midlands and elsewhere, they even stored ‘boultings’ (mentioned by Pandarus), or flour that had been sieved through a linen or ‘bolting-cloth’ (Chinnery, p.358).

Ark or Hutch
An English or Welsh late sixteenth-/early-seventeenth-century Ark or hutch of riven oak boards

Utility rather than appearance defines this functional piece, as opposed to some of the more decorative items of storage furniture featured in previous blogs, such as Peter Hewitt’s post on the glass-keep, or even the more basic, but modestly embellished, livery cupboard. The hutch is a sturdy structure, and has plenty of storage space at 68 cm deep, 97.5 cm high, and 104 cm wide. It is supported by stiles, which raise it off the floor to help keep out vermin, and has an unfixed canted lid that sits on top, but which could be flipped over and used as a kneading trough for making various kinds of breads.

As bread was the foundation of the early modern diet, the making of it was a staple task of everyday life.  In his handbook of advice to housewives published in 1615 Gervase Markham instructs that “our English housewife…shall…look into her bakehouse, and to the baking of all sorts of bread, either for masters, servants, or hinds (day labourers), and to the ordering and compounding of the meal for each several use.” With so many mouths to feed in the household, the hutch was built to withstand the stress of daily use.

Markham’s instructions for ‘baking manchets’—small, flat circular cakes of white bread such as the ones Pandarus describes—advises, ‘first your meal, being ground upon the black stones if it be possible…makes the whitest flour”. He then explains that it should be, “bolted through the finest bolting cloth, you shall put it into a clean kimnel [or kneading trough like the lid of the hutch], and, opening the flour hollow in the midst, put into it of the best ale barm (the foam on fermenting malt, used to leaven the bread) the quantity of three pints to a bushel of meal, with some salt to season it with: then put in your liquor reasonable warm and knead it very well together both with your hands” (Markham, p.209).

Pandarus: He that will have a cake out of the wheat must tarry the grinding.
Troilus: Have I not tarried?
Pandarus: Ay, the boutling; but you must tarry the leavening.
Troilus: Still have I tarried?
Pandarus: Ay, to the leavening; but here’s yet in the word hereafter the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven and the baking; nay, you must stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips. 

– Troilus and Cressida Act 1 Scene 1

Pandarus and Troilus are only euphemistically talking about making bread in this scene but this series of sexual puns nevertheless accurately documents the steps in that process.  Their conversation based around this distinctly feminine household duty is curious at the beginning of a play about war. It would have been extremely unlikely for either character to have ever been responsible for the actual production of such basic household fare. Their exchange perhaps highlights the tension between the domestic and political spheres, which exists throughout the play, and their familiarity with the process perhaps suggests that knowledge of this crucial skill was held throughout society. Additionally, in a play filled with references to food and digestion, what better way to begin than with a metaphorical discussion of making the nutritional staple of life? I’ll be exploring other objects associated with bread-making in my next few posts…