Oldest Known Book on British Cheese (1580s) Appears Online

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September 14, 2023

A 16th Century book about cheese is now online and in the special collection of a U.K. university library. A noted food historian places its historical value quite high, as perhaps the first book to focus on a single type of food written in the English language.

Medieval British cheese book

Books written in the 1580s, to which this work has been dated, tended to have long titles, and this one is no exception. The full title of the 112-page book is this: A pamflyt compiled of Cheese, contayninge the differences, nature, qualities, and goodnes. As was often the case, this title contains spellings of words not often seen in the modern era of spelling standardization.

The book begins with a mention of the famous ancient Greek philosopher and physician Galen (and, indeed, mentions him a few more times) and then goes on to discuss curds and whey, various definitions of cheese, and the many kinds found throughout England and Wales. Also discussed are what were thought to be various medicinal properties of cheese. Other earlier sources include the ancient Roman poet Virgil and the medieval Persian doctor and scientist Abu Bakr al-Razi. A few passages are in Latin; the vast majority is in English. Overall, according to Peter Brears, one of the U.K.'s leading food historians, the book is quite possibly the earliest hyper-specific food book written in English.

Historians aren't quite sure who the book's author was, although the names of three well-known people appear in the book's pages:

  • A note from Clement Fisher, who represented Tamworth in Parliament, appears on the flyleaf.
  • The name of Edward Willoughby, who came from an important family based in Kent, appears in the text itself.
  • The name of Walter Bayley, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, appears as well.

The book now resides in the special collection of the library at the University of Leeds. The book can also be found online.

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Social Studies for Kids
copyright 2002–2023
David White

Social Studies for Kids
copyright 2002–2023
David White