A Sixteenth-Century Institutional Kitchen

We looked at the 1547 meal plan of the Heilig-Geist-Spital in Hamburg before. However, there is another interesting resource. Its fortunate survival allows us a glimpse of the kitchen in which all of these meals were produced. Kitchen inventories are rare except in the context of probate estates, and those are usually quite limited. However, when the Spital was handed over to the committee of the Oberalten in 1528 as part of Bugenhagen’s Lutheran church reform, a list of all properties and possessions was made. Such lists also still exist for a number of other church institutions, preserved again not in the original, but in Staphorst’s source collection, the 1723-29 Historia Ecclesiae Hamburgensis Diplomatica. As in so many cases in the history of Hamburg, the losses of 1842 and 1943 are only partly made up by the work of the city’s historians.

The kitchen equipment in the Spital is recorded with a view to its value as a household asset here, listing metal vessels by weight. This was commonly done with larger kitchen gear whose mass of bronze or copper represented its resale value. Some of the pieces are quite large.

In the kitchen:

6 large grapen of 339 lbs (at about 55 lbs apiece, quite substantial)

2 small grapen of 25 lbs (a quarter the weight, about as much as my biggest potjie)

1 large Schüsselgrapen (wider than the usual) of 105 lbs

3 large cauldrons of 29 lbs

2 small cauldrons of 12 lbs

1 large cauldron holding 3 tuns of water of 65 lbs

1 cauldron holding 2 zuber of water of 44 lbs

1 cauldron holding 1 zuber of 22 lbs

2 long dripping pans (Bratschapen), not usable

1 colander and cauldron of 14 lbs

1 chopper

1 bankschive (metal tray?) and slaughtering knife

2 spits, one long one short

2 old spits

1 water ladle

1 large and 1 small griddle

1 brass lid of 10 lbs

At the baking house:

1 large cauldron of 23 lbs

4 small cauldrons of 23 lbs (6 lbs each)

1 large mortar of 35 lbs

Obviously, this is not a complete list. It lacks the majority of articles of daily use – the wooden coopered and lathe-turned bowls, the earthenware pitchers, pots, and cups, the wooden spoons, cutting boards, ladles and whisks, and the tables and benches all the work was done on. All of these were effectively articles of consumption, things that used up over time, and thus not considered assets the way metal gear was. The kitchen certainly had these things and must have regularly restocked them.

What is listed here is considerable wealth. Such stocks of kitchen gear, much like lands and treasuries, accumulated over generations in the hands of the church where they were never divided up in inheritance. We know from recorded wills that wealthy people sometimes left pieces of their kitchen equipment or silverware to the church, and this likely explains some of the eclectic nature of this collection. This source also demonstrates how long-lived some of these items could be: The same reform process that delivered the Heilig-Geist-Spital to the secular clergy also took the estate of the cathedral chapter. The list of their domus panum includes several items that can be identified with reasonable certainty in wills dating almost a century earlier. This is not unexpected – I use a pair of pots and a kitchen knife that are about a century old myself – but it shows clearly how long cooking pots could last. As an aside, we know from its early 16th-century statutes that the cooks’ guild of Hamburg required new members to add a piece of equipment to the communal store of cooking and serving gear, so the principle also applied in secular contexts.

Looking at the equipment in detail, the first thing to notice is the predominance of vessels for wet cooking processes. Large, heavy three-legged cooking pots to stand in the embers (grapen) and thinner vessels designed to suspend over the fire (ketel) are the largest and most numerous items. The larger ones, weighing in at over 100 pounds in the case of the wider-mouthed Schüsselgrapen and over 50 in that of the other large ones – are legitimately enormous, but even a regular-sized one at 12 pounds was not exactly convenient to handle. This is about the weight of a 5-litre potjie, though bronze could potentially have held more in a somewhat thinner-walled vessel than cast iron. Meanwhile, a potjie of around 100 lbs – the second largest size that seems to be produced – holds about 60 litres today. You can produce a lot of porridge or stew in one of those.

The cauldrons are designed to hold more liquid. While we do not know exactly which tun measure is referred to here (there are several), the largest one holds at two tuns at least 350 litres, upwards of 500 if – improbably – the largest tun measure is assumed. A container this large may have been intended for brewing rather than cooking, though this would be an unusual use of the word ketel. Hamburg was a brewing city, and the vessels used for that were usually referred to as pans (panne). Again unfortunately we do not know which measure a zuber represents, but it puts the larger of the two at between 100 and 200 litres, the smaller one between 50 and 100. Guesstimating from these already speculative figures, the smaller cauldrons recorded would then hold anything between 10 and 30 litres, a good size for a household, but more suitable for side dishes in an establishment the size of the Spital.

Griddles, spits, a colander, and various other instruments round out the equipment. Clearly, though the Spital kitchen was able to provide roasts if called upon, that was not what it was set up for. The absence of pans seems more surprising, but you can easily fry things in a grapen. It is interesting that the only mortar recorded is found in the bakehouse. Perhaps that was just where it stood – moving the 35-lb hunk of metal cannot have been a welcome task – but there may also not have been much call for one in the day-to-day operation of a kitchen that neither produced much in the way of complex delicacies not routinely ground spices.

We also have a record of serving gear and silver kept at the Spital. Unlike the kitchen listr, though, this one must be read with some caution. We know from a different listing that a significant quantity of serving gear, including tableclothes and candleholders, were held at the Spital’s chapel and may have been used for festive occasions. What we have here may just be the basic things they did not bother moving every time. The Spital had the following on their premises:

In the Hall:

6 large handwashing basins of 32 lbs (5.5 lbs each)

2 ewers of 22 lbs (11 lbs each)

2 candlesticks of 28 lbs (14 lbs each)

3 fire baskets and one additional candlestick

14 grapen of 47 lbs

2 wreath-shaped and 2 crown-shaped candelabra of 6 candle holders each

28 pitchers

7 additional pitchers kept in the office

32 eating bowls (Näpfe)

29 serving bowls (Kohlschüsseln und Salferen)

20 plates

3 bowls

6 small pitchers

4 brass Stülper (candle extinguishers)

7 small grapen and pitchers, not weighed

5 bellows

6 seat cushions

1 long and 1 short bench cover

1 cupboard, 1 Schenkschive (serving tray?)

19 old chair cushions

Silver tableware at the Spital:

1 large silver drinking cup

1 bowl decorated with a face

1 bowl decorated with a rose

1 bowl decorated with a face and angels

1 bowl bearing the names of the three Magi

4 silver pitcher

1 silver cup

1 silver fork and pen

1 silver scoop

9 silver spoons

3 broken spoons

(total weight 135 Loth 2 Quentin,a little over 2 kg. The silver in the church weighs several times that).

This is an eclectic mix, but in that, it is not atypical. Many recorded sets of silverware consisted of individual pieces accumulated over time, not the matching sets from the 18th and 19th century we are used to seeing in museums and stately homes today. Since the Spital was a charity operated by Franciscan friars, it is unlikely any of it was purchased. Most likely, the pieces were left to the Spital in wills and kept as a store of wealth as much as for use.

This entry was posted in Uncategorised and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *