This post was written by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the history department at the University of Birmingham.
[R]emove the court-
cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a
piece of marchpane…
Romeo and Juliet, 1.5, 6-8.
In this scene from Romeo and Juliet, a serving-man orders the removal of the court-cupboard and plate after the banquet has ended. Court-cupboards were moveable sideboards that usually stood at the ends of halls or parlours. During a meal or banquet, they were used to store domestic utensils, table linens and wine, and display expensive silverware. One object that could be displayed on court-cupboards or used to present food to banqueters is the spice plate. Spice plates, like this one held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, were intended to be used during the dessert course or banqueting course of a meal. The banquet was a separate and expensive component of the main meal and was characterized by spectacle, entertainment, and leisurely consumption. Spice plates were meant to contain and present delicacies like sweetmeats, exotic spices, fruit, honey wafers and refined sugar to the guests. In an earlier post, I wrote about a set of 12 posy trenchers in the SBT’s collection, which were also used during a banquet course. We can see how these objects might have been connected: guests would choose, or be given, sweetmeats or fruit from the main spice plate and then they would place these delicacies onto the plain side of their decorated trenchers.
Sometimes spice plates came in sets of 6 or 12, like a sixteenth-century silver-gilt set held in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This set is quite exquisite: the center of each plate is engraved with scenes of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, while the hollow area beneath the rim, called the ‘well’ or ‘bouge’, is engraved with marine creatures. Because these plates are so elaborately decorated, it is difficult to know whether they were ever used to present foodstuffs or if they were items intended for display only. What is also interesting about the V&A set is that they were originally engraved with coats of arms. These arms, though, have been erased and a different coat of arms has been placed over top of the original. An examination of the traces of the original coat of arms by the V&A revealed that they were those of Lord Burghley, William Cecil, who was Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I. The later arms are those of the Montagu family, but it is unclear when these were applied to the set. Perhaps, then, this set of spice plates was intended to be a display item, presenting the owner’s personal heraldry, and staging a kind of visual propaganda at a banquet.
Spice plates are sometimes mentioned in inventories and wills. Interestingly, in Shakespeare’s will, he bequeaths ‘my broad silver gilt bole [bowl]’ to his daughter Judith. Although we cannot be certain, it is intriguing to speculate whether this ‘bole’ could be similar to the spice plate held in the SBT. Or, it may have been similar to spice plates represented in many sixteenth and seventeenth-century still-life paintings by artists from Northern Europe. One example of this is Dessert Still-Life by the German artist Georg Flegel (1566-1638) seen here. This painting shows a decorated spice plate containing what looks like different kinds of fruit, while on the table in in the foreground, a mouse takes interest in a walnut and some morsels of sugar confectionary.