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Article Review: Earliest Book on British Cheese Acquired by University of Leeds


Image of Introductory page of A pamflyt complied of Cheese
Introductory page of A pamflyt complied of Cheese

As a bookbinder and enthusiast of historical manuscripts, the recent acquisition by the University of Leeds Libraries has stirred my excitement. The treasure in question is an undiscovered gem – the earliest-known book about cheesemaking in Britain, titled "A pamflyt compiled of Cheese." The 112-page vellum-bound manuscript, handwritten in the 1580s, promises a unique glimpse into the world of 16th-century cheesemaking.


This extraordinary manuscript, previously unknown and believed to be unpublished, offers a comprehensive exploration of the differences, nature, qualities, and goodness of cheese. Written in English in a 16th-century 'secretary hand,' the text opens with Galen's definition of cheese and delves into curds, whey, and the various cheeses found in England and Wales. Interestingly, it discusses the virtues of cheese as a medicine, rooted in the theories of bodily humors by Galen.


Image of the Cover of A Pamflyt compiled of Cheese
Cover of A Pamflyt compiled of Cheese

The manuscript reflects Elizabethan practices of gathering information from Classical authors, contemporary physicians, and practical insights from country folk. Its social life is equally intriguing, circulating among the Dudleys, a prominent Tudor family, and bearing ownership notes from figures like Clement Fisher and Walter Bayley, a Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford and physician to Elizabeth I.


This discovery is a culinary and historical delight. Food historian Peter Brears aptly describes it as "probably the first comprehensive academic study of a single foodstuff to be written in the English language." The meticulous approach of combining classical knowledge with practical insights reflects the scholarly dedication of the unknown author. The local knowledge embedded in the mention of Kingsnorth further adds to the manuscript's charm.

The identity of the author remains shrouded in mystery, yet the three owners’ names, including influential figures like Walter Bayley, enhance the manuscript's historical significance. The University of Leeds' acquisition, supported by the Friends of the National Libraries, ensures that this valuable piece of culinary history will find a home in the Cookery Collection, enriching the understanding of domestic science.



In the vast tapestry of historical manuscripts, this discovery stands out as a testament to the meticulous exploration of a seemingly mundane yet culturally significant subject: cheese. As someone deeply immersed in the world of bookbinding and restoration, I can appreciate the value of preserving and celebrating such rare glimpses into our culinary past. This manuscript is not merely a record of cheesemaking; it's a journey back in time, a slice of history that will undoubtedly fascinate fellow bookbinders, restorers, collectors, and anyone with a love for the rich tapestry of our shared cultural heritage.


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