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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Livery Cupboard

Object 66 - Find out where the Tudors stored their midnight snacks

Elizabeth Sharrett

This post is by Elizabeth Sharrett, doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute.

“I love not the humour of bread and cheese, and there’s the humour of it.” The Merry Wives of Windsor – Nym, II.I
Oak livery cupboard

As the hard frosts of the year come upon us it is always a comfort to tuck into a warm meal in the evening and then drift off for a “goodly nap” until morning. In the sixteenth century, however, the main meal was enjoyed in the middle of the day with only a light snack taken before bed. Additionally, though we tend to think of 6 to 8 hours as the minimum for a good night’s rest, people didn’t necessarily pass through all of their REM cycles in one continuous snooze before dawn. Recent research has pointed to a different sleep pattern in pre-modern times, where it was common for people to sleep in two distinct chunks; a ‘first sleep’ followed by a waking period of one to two hours and then a second sleep. Therefore, if you woke up between sleeps feeling a little peckish, you might tiptoe over the other people asleep in the room to the livery cupboard, like the one featured in today’s blog, for a bit of light refreshment.

This particular livery cupboard made from oak dates from the later sixteenth century and can be seen on display at Shakespeare’s Birthplace. It stands 96 cm high and 86 cm wide and sits on a channel-moulded joined frame of stretchers. The upper portion is enclosed by a pair of plank doors that are mounted on original iron butterfly hinges, and stamped with a pattern of small roundels, pierced through for ventilation. The inside of the doors would perhaps have been covered with linen to prevent any unwanted creatures from likewise enjoying a snack.

Livery cupboards, which might also be the same thing as dole cupboards (the distinction is not very clear in documentary evidence), were used for distributing food at night either to the household guests or servants. Leftover bits of bread, maybe of a few slices of cheese, and a swallow of drink may have been stored inside. Though livery has modern connotations with clothing, the term derives from the French livree, meaning to distribute at specific times (Little Books About Old Furniture: Tudor to Stuart, p.87). Many inventories list livery cupboards as contents in bedchambers, and Edmund Spenser notes in 1596 that “…liverye is sayd to be served up for all night, that is theyr nyghtes allowance of drinks…” (Oak Furniture, p.335). So, while Nym might disparage the humour (way; habit) of a diet of bread and cheese, for many servants the rations stored in these cupboards probably provided a very welcome midnight snack.

To read more about ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleeps and what people got up to during the intervening period see the BBC news article: the myth of the eight-hour sleep.