Oldest known book about British cheese is acquired by the University of Leeds

An ancient book explaining in delicious detail the wonders of cheese - and its dubious medical benefits - has come to light having been written by hand nearly a half millennium ago.

The 16th century manuscript is the earliest known book about cheesemaking in Britain, and has been acquired by the University of Leeds' special collections.

The 112-page vellum-bound 'A pamflyt compiled of Cheese' is unknown and thought to be unpublished. Matured to perfection, it was handwritten in the 1580s.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Food historian Peter Brears said the manuscript is probably the first comprehensive academic study of a single foodstuff to be written in the English language.

Introductory page of A pamflyt compiled of Cheese © University of LeedsIntroductory page of A pamflyt compiled of Cheese © University of Leeds
Introductory page of A pamflyt compiled of Cheese © University of Leeds

He added: "I’ve really never seen anything like it."

And food critic Jay Rayner, a University of Leeds alumnus, said it is "thrilling" to see this rare document added to the library's collection, "taking us right back to the origins of cheesemaking in the UK, in itself part of the very weft and weave of our food culture".

The book opens with Greek philosopher Galen’s definition of cheese as ‘milke coagulated’, and contains the immortal observation: ‘A surfyte of cheese dose bringe payne’.

It goes on to discuss curds and whey, the many different kinds of cheeses and their merits.

Cover of A Pamflyt compiled of Cheese © University of LeedsCover of A Pamflyt compiled of Cheese © University of Leeds
Cover of A Pamflyt compiled of Cheese © University of Leeds
Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Thoughts on ‘the vertues of cheese used as a medicine’ have dated less well, with theories outlining the effects of cheese on people of different temperaments.

The milk of a dog apparently ‘dose cause a woman to be delivered of her childe before tyme’; and in a chapter on ‘the diversitie of milke used in making cheese in this contreye’, the author reassures us that he has never heard of women’s milk used for cheesemaking ‘in any place’, although camel’s, ass’s and mare’s milk are used in certain places.

Caroline Bell, co-founder of Thirsk-based artisan cheesemakers Shepherds Purse, described the book as “a wonderful find", and said such an insight through time was "invaluable".

“As cheesemakers ourselves, it gives us a chance to appreciate the evolution of the practice from ancient times to now," she added.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The identity of the book’s author remains unclear, but three owners’ names show that it had an impressive social life.

It was circulated in the group around the Dudley family of courtiers, with a note on the flyleaf from MP Clement Fisher asking for it to be returned when it had been "perused".

Walter Bayley, whose name appears at the end of the text, was physician to Elizabeth I; and Edward Willoughby of Bore Place, Kent, came from another family of parliamentarians.

To Mr Brears, the mention of a Kent village called Kingsnorth suggests a degree of local knowledge that might confirm Willoughby as the pamphlet author.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The book was subject to "fevered" bidding at an open auction earlier this year, and has been acquired by the University of Leeds with the support of the Friends of the National Libraries(FNL). It will join the Cookery Collection at the University of Leeds Library.

Masud Khokhar, Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said that with an unbroken history of cheesemaking in Yorkshire dating back to the medieval monks and beyond, it feels "apt" that the university has been able to give it a home. It can now be read online.

Related topics: