Lost properties and where to find them: comfit hailstones

What are “lost” theatrical properties? What evidence exists for them? This post draws on my research into the impermanent materials of early modern performance to consider the theatrical life of early modern sweets. 

In January 1573, preparations at Hampton Court for welcoming the new year with the anonymously writtenMasque of Janus were stalled by the weather. A driving wind threatened to bring snow inside, and tents were erected to protect the interior from the elements (Feuillerat, 179). Winters in early modern England could be particularly harsh, with temperatures often cooler than they are today. The Thames would regularly freeze for extended periods of time (Fagan, 48). 

Perhaps the guests of Hampton Court made their way through this snowy landscape and across the frozen Thames in order to attend The Masque of Janus. Once they reached the hall (we don’t know which one), they were sheltered from the forces outside: with windows boarded up and the space lit by torches and candles (Feuillerat, 179). Represented inside the hall was a mythical version of the scenes outside. The performance featured rosewater “fflakes of yse”, sugary comfit “hayle stones” (Feuillerat, 175), and lambskin “snowball[es]” which were “sweetened” with “Roze wat[er]” (Feuillerat, 175, 178). Janus and his followers wore “w[hi]te velvett Buskins” and “long white Berd[es]” (Feuillerat, 177); perhaps, as in Jonson’s later Chloridia (1631), these white costumes and white beards were chosen to “expresse Snow” (B3v). None of these snowy props or costumes survive, and so we might consider them “lost”. We only know about them because their purchase is recorded in the account book of the Office of the Revels. 

Perhaps the most “lost” of these properties are the “comfits,” since neither the object nor the word is now familiar to most of us. Comfits are small, hard, white sweets comprising a seed or spice coated in layers of sugar (Richardson, 136-40). They are the ancestor of the sugared almond and aniseed ball. Sir Hugh Plat’s recipe book with added household and beauty tips, Delightes for Ladies (1600), describes the process of making comfits: start by “choos[ing] the whitest, finest, and hardest sugar” (D1r), dissolving it in water over a high heat, add seeds and spices and stir them continually to coat them in layers of sugar, drying them in between each coating (C12v-D6r). The result of this process is “ragged” comfits, as depicted in Clara Peeters’ painting below. A lower heat will produce smoother, rounder comfits  ̶  which would more closely resemble hailstones.

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Rosemary (1607)

 
The small white objects on the silver plate are comfits – the baton-shaped sweets likely contain a cinnamon centre.

The word “comfit” is linked to “confetti”: originally the Italian version of these sweets, which have a long tradition of being thrown at festivals and celebrations (Davidson, 214). The etymology thus holds a clue to how the comfits were used in the masque – perhaps they were thrown or dropped in order to replicate falling hailstones. 

These comfits are not just designed to be seen as they fall: audiences are encouraged to also touch, taste, and smell them. They are multi-sensory objects. The comfits would feel like hail when caught by or landing on audience members, as well as sounding like hail as they hit hard surfaces. When consumed, the sugar coating would dissolve on the tongue like melting ice. 

The apothecary Roger Moorer was paid 9s 8d for at least four pounds of comfits (Feuillerat, 175). This is a relatively small expenditure compared to the total cost of the season of multiple different performances (£512 16s 6 ½ d; Wiggins, II, 90), but these are still luxury items. At this time, prior to the establishment of sugarcane plantations in English Caribbean colonies, sugar was imported from Brazil and was still relatively expensive (Hall, 65; Mintz, 33, 64). There is a long history of sugar being used to display white wealth and power in England, and scholars such as Hall and Shahani have examined this display in light of the sugar trade’s reliance on Native American and African labour. The inclusion of the comfits in the masque, and particularly the act of throwing them, may have rendered them inedible, so that the spectacle and excess associated with both sugar and masques are intensified. The display may have culminated in waste rather than consumption. 

The Masque of Janus is not the only early modern performance to incorporate comfits into its staging. Gager’s Dido (1583) and Percy’s Aphrodisial (1602) also used comfits specifically to represent hail. Gager’s Dido was performed in June, and the contrast between the weather represented inside and the actual weather outside creates environmental irony (Jones, 9-10). British summers may be notoriously unreliable, but it is unlikely it was snowing in Oxford in June 1583. Inside the Dining Hall of Christ Church College, however, audiences watched as a wintry tempest created by Juno forced the characters of Dido and Aeneas to seek shelter. Holinshed’s Chronicles describes “the tempest wherein it hailed small confects, rained rosewater, and snew an artificiall kind of snew, all strange, maruellous, & abundant” (VI.1355). The “strange” and “maruellous” nature of the snow inside is intensified by the contrast with the summer weather outside. And in the context of the play’s narrative, the supernaturally-induced storm may have been as strange to the Carthaginian characters as it was to the Oxford audience.

There may be a form of material irony at play alongside the environmental irony. Sugarcane requires a tropical climate to grow, as do many of the spices which form the interior of the comfits. So while snow was commonplace in England, the materials with which it was represented speak of very different climes. 

These small sweets, with their correspondingly small entry in the account book of the Office of the Revels, are easily overlooked. Once part of a spectacular masque, now they exist as a few unassuming lines of text. Focusing our attention on these “lost” properties brings this early modern masque to life in vivid detail, and transport us from a wintry English court to Brazilian sugar plantations. These objects lift the performance from words on the page to a multi-sensory, embodied event. 

Anouska Lester, Before Shakespeare PhD student

Anouska would like to thank Mollie Clarke and Erin Julian for their help with this post.

Bibliography

Binns, J. W., editor. ‘William Gager’s Dido’. Humanistica Lovaniensia, vol. 20, Leuven University Press, 1971, pp. 167–254.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Fagan, Brian M. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850. Basic Books, 2002.

Feuillerat, Albert, editor. Documents Relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth. Louvain, A. Uystpruyst, 1908. Internet Archivehttp://archive.org/details/DocumentsRelatingToTheOfficeOfThe.

Hall, Kim F. ‘Sugar, Gender, and the Circum-Atlantic Performance of Class’. Feminisms and Early Modern Texts: Essays for Phyllis Rackin, edited by Rebecca Ann Bach and Gwynne Kennedy, Susquehanna University Press, 2010, pp. 63–80.

Holinshed, Raphael. The Firste Volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande Conteyning, the Description and Chronicles of England, from the First Inhabiting Vnto the Conquest. The Description and Chronicles of Scotland, from the First Originall of the Scottes Nation, till the Yeare of Our Lorde. 1571. The Description and Chronicles of Yrelande, Likewise from the Firste Originall of That Nation, Vntill the Yeare. 1547. Faithfully Gathered and Set Forth, by Raphaell Holinshed. Imprinted [by Henry Bynneman] for George Bishop, 1577.

Jones, Gwilym. Shakespeare’s Storms. Manchester University Press, 2015.

Jonson, Ben. Chloridia Rites to Chloris and Her Nymphs. Personated in a Masque, at Court. By the Queenes Maiesty and Her Ladies. At Shroue-Tide. 1630. Printed for Thomas Walkley, 1631.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Reprint Edition, Penguin Books, 1986.

Peeters, Clara. Still Life with Rosemary. 1607, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clara_Peeters_Stillleben.jpg. Private Collection.

Plat, Hugh. Delightes for Ladies, to Adorne Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories. VVith, Bewties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters. Read, Practise, and Censure. Peter Short, 1600.

Richardson, Tim. Sweets: The History of Temptation. Random House, 2004.

Wiggins, Martin. British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. Oxford University Press, 2011-.

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