SUNDRIES: An eighteenth century newsletter

N° 11 - December 31, 2005

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POETRY: Ode For the New Year inter text CUSTOMS: Etrennes inter text NEW YEAR'S WITH: Frances Burney, the Revolutionaries, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Zebulon Pike, and Voltaire

inter cooking 18th CENTURY RECIPE: Pheasant with Carp Sauce inter text RECIPE REVISITED: Talmouse and pizza


POETRY: Ode For the New Year

This ode, sung at St. James, is no worse, probably a touch better, than other odes, etc. for the New Year published in the Virginia Gazette. It does have the distinction of having been written by Poet Laureate Colly Cibber (in 1737). (For the layout, see the page image: )

Buried in this occasional piece is a theme that would resonate more deeply by the end of the century, and that was very much in contrast to the more absolute French idea of monarchy: the idea that the power of the king protects the liberty of his people, and that "Prince and People" are in partnership.

Ode for the New Year

Grateful Britons! grace the Day,
Give to Godlike George his Due:
This alone shall swell the Lay;
George is blest, in blessing you,
May Years to Years the Sound repeat,
And sing the Mutual Bliss compleat.

May Years to Years the Sound repeat,
And sing the Mutual Bliss compleat.

While Greatness knows no vain Desire,
It only asks, what you require:
And while His Crown your Freedom shields,
Your Freedom Power to guard it yields.

What Glory charms
Like such a Sway!
Protection warms,
And we obey.
From Hand in Hand,
The Joy is toss'd,
While dread Command
In Love is lost.

Lords of yourselves, you from the Law,
That gives the Discontented Awe;
'Twixt Prince and People, no Debate,
But Zeal to make each other Great.

Thus possessing
Ev'ry Blessing,
Could Enjoyment pall Desire;
New Obedience,
True Allegiance,
Gracious George would still inspire.
So the Fountain
From the Mountain,
Leaves the verdant Vale below,
While improving,
And removing
Circling Harvests fall and grow.

Raise then, to Caesar, raise the Song.
Let Vocal Wishes loudly sing;
That Great and Glorious, Great and Long!
Long, Long, and Happy, live the King.

NOTE: After I originally posted this, a list member suggested that it could readily be adapted for - probably satirical - use by Americans. :)

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CUSTOMS: Etrennes

The French word "Etrennes" once primarily referred to the New Year's gifts which, today, have been replaced by Christmas gifts (cadeaux de Noel). These days it more often means the kind of tip one leaves for the doorman or the postman during the holidays.

In 1933, one grumpy correspondent of the Intermediaire des Chercheurs asked, "From when does this disastrous habit date?" (1933 (294))

The answer is, from Roman times, and celebrations of the goddess Strenna (or Strenia):

January 1 Strenia
Strenia was a Sabine Goddess of the New Year, who gave her name to laurel boughs cut from a wood sacred to her. Eventually her name was applied to this holiday when the Romans decorated with palm, bay and laurel branches, hung with sweets, dates, figs and gilded fruit.

Strenia, the ancient Roman name for the New Years is still found in Sicily were groups go around singing La Strenna, wishing everyone Happy New Year and asking for treats. If refused, they curse the offender with a threatening verse. It also survives in France, where New Years gifts are called Etrennes.

This pagan origin may be one reason that gift-giving, which was still done on New Year's Day in France in the 19th century, was moved to Christmas, and given - for Christians - a more suitable origin:

Christmas Gift Giving
The giving of gifts to the poor was part of the Roman Saturnalia and was done over a three day period honoring the goddess Strenna. The Romans brought this tradition with them to the British Isles including Caledonia (Scotland) and Hibernia (Ireland). This custom gradually changed to be primarily the giving of gifts to children and family members. The Christian church adopted the custom as a symbol of the three Magi who brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
NOTE: This site appears to be defunct as of 3-20-2006

Certainly, the practice was condemned early on. A sermon attributed to St. Augustine refers to 'diabolical New Year's Gifts" (diabolicas strenas). In 613, a Church council at Auxerre condemned the practice in similar language. In 1160, Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris who began Notre Dame, gave a sermon against it on the Day of the Circumcision (that is, January 1). He started by saying we needed to remove, not flesh, but every manner of sin, so that we are "spiritually circumcised" (!). Then he says:

There are numerous false Christians who want neither to circumcise nor to abandon their vice, who do their sorceries and their divinations according to pagan custom. And by their charms want to look into things to come, and put their belief in New Year's gifts and say that none will be rich nor happy if he is is not given gifts. Such people believe without fail that the devil is worth more to them than Jesus Christ, but they are quite blind if they are not careful, because they keep the law of Mohammed and are worse than Sarazins.

Intermediaire des Chercheurs, 1889 (28-29)

De Sully mentions, quite incidentally, two important facts. One is that these gifts were once considered 'lucky' in a superstitious way. The writer of the item also points out that the year had been said to begin at Easter, and so de Sully's statement that January 1 began the year is significant.

Clearly, in 1400, the Duke Louis d'Orleans had either not heard or not heeded such warnings. The Intermediare (1885 (750-751)) lists his gifts that year to Queen Isabeau (Isabelle?) and friends: jeweled items from one of the great jewelers of the time, to the tune of 4600 francs (equal to 45,000 francs in 1885). This included an image of Our Lady, surrounded by sapphires and pearls, given to the queen, and a large sword, covered with gold worked in Venetian style, the pommel encrusted with rubies and pearls, for... himself. And much more.

Contrast this with what he gave out the following year: twenty Brie cheeses.

A few centuries later, on December 4, 1592, a schoolboy wrote to his mother from Nimes: "Since we've moved on to the first class of M. Rulman, thank God, and the first of the year approaches, we must give New Year's gifts to our professors, particularly in this class in which one must give a good example to others."

The writer of the query asks if this habit was widespread, and if so, how long it went on under the Old Regime, but also suggests that the young man might just be writing his parents for money "like students today". IC, 1896 (571)

Finally, one of the more unusual - and historically resonant - etrennes was noted in the Intermediaire of 1891: "One hundred years ago, January 1, the conquerors of the Bastille came to solemnly offer to the dauphin, as a New Year gift, a domino set made of stones and marbles from the Bastille." (1891 (14)). Did anyone later look back on this as a bad omen: a gift made from a prison to a boy who would die in one?

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NEW YEAR'S WITH: Frances Burney

The intimate, off-handed tone of these diary entries belies the importance of some of the figures mentioned:

Queen's Lodge, Windsor, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1788-I began the new year, as I ended the old one, by seizing the first moment it presented to my own disposal, for flying to Mrs. Delany, and begging her annual benediction. She bestowed it with the sweetest affection, and I spent, as usual all the time with her I had to spare. . . .
In the evening, by long appointment, I was to receive Mr. Fisher and his bride. Mrs. Schwellenberg, of her own accord desired me to have them in my room, and said she would herself make tea for the equerries in the eating-parlour.
Mrs. Delany and Miss Port came to meet them. Mrs. Fisher seems good-natured, cheerful, and obliging, neither well nor ill in appearance, and, I fancy, not strongly marked in any way. But she adores Mr. Fisher, and has brought him a large fortune.
The Princess Amelia was brought by Mrs. Cheveley, to fetch Mrs. Delany to the queen. Mrs. Fisher was much delighted in seeing her royal highness, who, when in a grave humour, does 'the honours of her rank with a seriousness extremely entertaining. She commands the company to sit down, holds out her little fat hand to be kissed, and makes a distant courtesy, with an air of complacency and encouragement that might suit any princess of five times her age.
I had much discourse, while the rest were engaged, with Mr. Fisher, about my ever-valued, ever-regretted Mrs. Thrale. Can I call her by another name, loving that name so long, so well, for her and her sake? He gave me concern by information that she is now publishing, not only the "Letters " of Dr. Johnson, but her own. How strange!
Jan. 4.-In the morning, Mrs. Schwellenberg presented me, from the queen, with a new year's gift. It is plate, and very elegant. The queen, I find, makes presents to her whole household every year: more or less, according to some standard of their claims which she sets up, very properly, in her own mind.

* Kew Palace, Thursday, Jan. 1, 1789.-The year opened with an account the most promising of our beloved king. I saw Dr. Willis, and he told me the night had been very tranquil and he sent for his son, Dr. John Willis, to give me a history of the morning. Dr. John's narration was in many parts very affecting: the dear and excellent king had been praying for his own restoration! Both the doctors told me that such strong symptoms of true piety had scarce ever been discernible through so dreadful a malady.
How I hastened to my queen!--and with what alacrity I besought permission to run next to the princesses! It was so sweet, so soothing, to open a new year with the solace of anticipated good!

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NEW YEAR'S WITH: the Revolutionaries

The Revolutionaries - Le Goffic calls them 'conscripts' - were not fun guys. They may have enjoyed a good round at the guillotine, but New Year's Day was distinctly NOT in their favor:
Abolished in December 1791, the custom of New Year's Day was not re-established until six years later, in 1791. Our conscript fathers, who did not trifle with delinquents, had declared the death penalty for anyone who paid visits, even for simple New Year's wishes... And why this assault on the most innocent of customs? The Monitor will tell us. There was a session at the Convention. A deputy, named La Bletterie, suddenly mounted the tribune. "Citizens," he cried, "enough hypocrisy! Everybody knows New Year's day is a day of false demonstrations, of frivolous clicking of cheeks, of fatiguing and humiliating bows..."

He went on at length on this tone. The next day, ..the firefighter Audoin...responded with this memorable phrase: "New Year's Day is suppressed: a fine thing. Let no citizen, on this day, think to kiss the hand of a woman, because in bending he would lose the proud male attitude which every good patriot must have!"

...But in the end the firefighter Audoin and his colleague La Bletterie obtained only an ephemeral victory over tradition."

Le Goffic, Fetes et Coutumes Populaires, 28-29

The English traveler Blagdon learned this first hand (at some cost to both his sleep and his purse):

Paris, January 1, 1802.

Fast locked in the arms of Morpheus, and not dreaming of what was to happen, as Lord North said, when the king caused him to be awakened, in the dead of the night, to deliver up the seals, so was I roused this morning by a message from an amiable French lady of my acquaintance, requesting me to send her some bonbons. "Bonbons!" exclaimed I, "in the name of wonder, Rosalie, is your mistress so childishly impatient as to send you trailing through the snow, on purpose to remind me that I promised to replenish her bonbonnière?"—"Not exactly so, Monsieur," replied the femme de chambre, "Madame was willing to be the first to wish you a happy new year."—"A new year!" said I, "by the republican calendar, I thought that the new year began on the 1st of Vendémiaire."—"Very true," answered she; "but, in spite of new laws, people adhere to old customs; wherefore we celebrate the first of January."—"As to celebrating the first of January, à la bonne heure, Rosalie," rejoined I, "I have no sort of objection; but I wish you had adhered to some of your other old customs, and, above all, to your old hours. I was not in bed till past six o'clock this morning, and now, you wake me at eight with your congratulations."—"Never mind, Monsieur," said she, "you will soon drop asleep again; but my mistress hopes that you will not fail to make one of her party on the Fête des Rois."—"Good heaven!" exclaimed I again, "what, is a counterrevolution at hand, that the Fête des Rois must also be celebrated?"—"'Tis," interrupted Rosalie, "only for the pleasure of drawing for king and queen."—"Tell Madame," added I, "that I will accept her invitation."—Dismissing the soubrette with this assurance, at the same time not forgetting to present her with a new year's gift, she at once revealed the secret of her early visit, by hinting to me that, among intimate friends, it was customary to give étrennes. This, in plain English, implies nothing more nor less than that I must likewise make her mistress a present, on the principle, I suppose, that les petits cadeaux entretiennent l'amitié.

My reflection then turned on the instability of this people. After establishing a new division of time, they return to the old one, and celebrate, as formerly, the first of January.

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NEW YEAR'S WITH: Benjamin Franklin

Sorry. I couldn't manage a text transcription here. But this item seemed too precious not to mention: Benjamin Franklin, 1785, Expense Account for New Years Day Visit to Versailles. The American Memory site only gives this in image form. (Perhaps someone more comfortable with 18th century handwriting might care to transcribe it?)

Should the link below not work, try searching for the item by title at

Benjamin Franklin, 1785, Expense Account for New Years Day Visit to Versailles

This in the Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827

(Note that this is only the first of several pages.)

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NEW YEAR'S WITH: Thomas Jefferson

What was President Jefferson doing for New Year's, in 1802? Casting his own stone into what would one day be troubled waters:

On New Year's Day, 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter that would profoundly impact American law and policy. In a carefully crafted missive to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, the new president remarked that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution denied Congress the authority to make "'law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

The metaphor might have slipped into obscurity had it not been rediscovered by the U.S. Supreme Court. "In the words of Jefferson," the Court famously declared in 1947, the First Amendment "erect[ed] 'a wall of separation' [that] must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."

from Thomas Jefferson and the "Wall of Separation" by Daniel L. Dreisbach
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NEW YEAR'S WITH: Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike had not yet reached his Peak when, on January 1, 1806, he was exploring the Pine River area (in or near Colorado):

Wednesday, 1st January, 1806.--Passed six elegant bark canoes, on the bank of the river, which had been laid up by the Chippeways, also a camp which we conceived to have been evacuated about ten days. My interpreter came after me in a great hurry, conjuring me not to go so far a-head, and assured me that if the Chippeways encountered me without an interpreter, party, or flag, they would certainly kill me. But, notwithstanding this admonition, I went on several miles farther than usual, in order to make discoveries, conceiving the savages not to be so barbarous or ferocious, as to fire on two men (I had one with me) who were apparently coming into their country, trusting to their generosity; and knowing that if we met only two or three we were equal to them, I having my gun and pistols and my companion his musket. Made some extra presents for new year's day.

Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910
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I must admit I'm surprised Voltaire's correspondance doesn't include more witty New Year's wishes. Still, given who some of his friends were, I wouldn't say his New Year's references lack interest.

When an ageing king and an ageing philosopher correspond, what do they discuss? Their infirmities. Otherwise, one charm of Frederic the Great's New Year's letter (for 1765) to Voltaire is the contrast between its anti-clerical opening and the devout concern of its close - a reminder that even those who feel no need for a God themselves may hope one is watching over their friends.

I thought you so busy crushing the inf...*, that I could not presume you thought of anything else. The blows you have struck it should long ago have knocked it to the ground, if this hydra was not ceaselessly reborn from the depths of the superstition spread across the face of the earth. For me, long wise to the quackeries which seduce men, I set the theologian, the astrologer, the adept and the doctor in the same category.

I have illnesses and infirmities; I cure myself by diet and by patience. Nature has desired that our species pay a tribute to death of two and a half percent. It is an immutable law which the Faculty vainly opposes: .... after all, ground minerals and herbs can neither remake nor restore springs worn and half destroyed by time.

The cleverest doctors drug the sick man to calm his imagination, and cure him by diet; as I do not find that elixirs and potions give me the least comfort, as soon as I fall ill, I adopt a rigorous regime, and so far this has worked for me.

You may then console Europe for the great loss it thought to make of my person (though I find it quite slender): because though I do not enjoy a solid and brilliant health, nonetheless I live, and I do not feel that my existence is worth taking pains to prolong it, even if one could. Otherwise, I am grateful to you for the interest you take in my health, and the kind things you say. I regret that your age gives good reason to fear seing end with you this garden nursery of great men and brilliant geniuses who marked the century of Louis XIV. I pray God that he keep you in his holy and worthy keep.


*The 'infame' - infamous -, which was how Voltaire referred to the Church.

The Sage of Ferney's own 1772 letter to Catherine the Great begins:

Madame, I wish Your Imperial Majesty, for the year 1772, not an increase in glory, because that is no longer possible, but an increase in tweaks to the noses of Mustafa and his viziers, some new victories, your headquarters at Andrinopolis, and peace.

("Mustafa" was Mustafa III - I'll let someone more expert outline the Russian-Turkish wars and the resulting 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji.) The letter, after wandering to other subjects, ends:

I am sorry that Ali-Bey, Prince Heraclius, Prince Alexander know nothing of the parties on our ramparts, our admirable comic operas, our up-to-date fox-hall [sic - no doubt for Vauxhall], and that they do not know how to properly dance the minuet.

I put myself at the feet of Your Imperial Majsety for the year 1772, whose first day I count on seeing, because it begins today, and no one is sure of the second.

Your admirer and your very humble and very passionate servant,

The Sick Old Man of Ferney

Voltaire's 1775 letter to Frederic (neither was dead yet :) ) is of some historical importance, pleading as it does for the cause of Voltaire's house guest, d'Etallonde Morival - formerly Gaillard d'Etallonde.

In 1765, d'Etallonde had fled the town of Abbeville, after the mutilation of a cross had resulted in an investigation which led to the arrest of two of his friends. One, the Chevalier de La Barre, was executed, largely because of blasphemous behavior prompted by D'Etallonde himself. Better yet, it was probably d'Etallonde who had mutilated the cross - an act for which he was condemned to death. In absentia.

D'Etallonde had ended up in Prussia in Frederic's army, until Voltaire had asked that he be detached to his care to prepare an appeal. The philosopher wrote elsewhere of his shock that this well-off young man knew nothing of mathematics. Having gotten tutors for the young fugitive, here he proudly sends the result to Frederic.

Sire, I place at the feet of Your Majesty, for his New Year's gifts, a map of a citadel invented and drawn by d'Etallonde Morival, who had never known how to draw when he came to my house; his progress can be called prodigious, and so his talents must be used only for your service: he has learned precisely what is necessary of mathematics to be useful. All the rest is a ridiculous charlatanism, admired by the ignorant: the squaring of a curve is good for nothing... A good engineer is worth all these calculations of difficult nonsense. I am near my end and I speak the truth....

Allow me at least to die consoled by the goodness which you have and will have for d'Etallonde Morival, a gentleman full of honor and wisdom, who did not blush to be a soldier for three years and who was made an officer by Your Majesty, who is your handiwork, who devotes his life to you. He speaks German as if he'd been born in your States; he is diligent, discrete, hard-working; he writes very well and fast; he could be your secretary, if you needed one; allow him to work in my home to become worthy to serve you, until his affair is decided, whether I live or whether I die. He writes very well, he is literate, he is handy.... Deign, sire, to prolong his leave; he will depart the moment you order it. Your protection, your kindnesses will condemn his murderers; the great Julian would have protected him; the Cyrils and the Gregories of Nazianzus would have murdered him. What could you have not undertaken, that Julian undertook! You would have succeeded at it. But at least you console innocence. I wish you the years of the first kings of Egypt; your name is more illustrious than theirs.

Though Frederic had already aided d'Etallonde and showed on-going interest in his case, early on (2/9/1774) he gave a hint of what he might have done in Louis XV's shoes: "I confess that I do not think you have enough credit to obtain his pardon. The Chevalier de La Barre and he were accused of the same crime; it is against the dignity of the king of France after one has been publicly punished that he could pardon the other without appearing to contradict himself."

Poet, philosopher and freethinker though he was, Frederic was also a king, with firm ideas on the craft of kingship.

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18th CENTURY RECIPE: Pheasant in Carp Sauce

These days, we city dwellers don't eat much pheasant. But after browsing the many recipes for it in the Dictionary of Food (Dictionnaire des Alimens, 1750), I'm pondering alternative centerpieces for the preparations originally intended for it.

Take a well-trussed pheasant, bard it with a good piece of lard and roast it, being careful that it does not dry out from cooking.
While it is roasting, lay out in the bottom of a pot slices of veal and ham, a few slices of onion, parsley roots and a bouquet of fines herbes.
Then take a cleaned carp, wash it in only water; slice it into pieces as if to steam it, arrange the pieces in the same pot, and put it all on the fire to brown.
Then moisten it all with good juice of veal and Champagne wine; add a clove of garlic, some chopped mushrooms, truffles and some bread crusts. When everything is well-cooked, strain it vigorously, and be sure the sauce is a bit thick,; if it is not, add a little quail coulis.
This done, take the bard off your pheasant, put it in this sauce, let it boil in it five or six times; lay it out on a platter, with the sauce over it, and serve hot.
You can also blanch carp roe, bringing them to a boil in the sauce after straining it, and serve this ragout with orange juice on the pheasant.

RECIPE REVISITED: Talmouse and pizza

In researching the talmouse last week, I saw one 19th century account by a French traveler in Italy of eating a pizza, which he described as a kind of talmouse. Since most writers describe the latter as a cheesecake, I took this as a careless comparison. But having now made my first talmouse (with ricotta - a pitiful but entirely edible affair), I find that, with pepper, it tastes very much like a white cheese pizza. Which leaves me wondering: for the 18th century French, was the talmouse something like a pizza, a quick snack of cheese baked in a low crust?

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End quote

"That's one of the hard things to accept - that dead is dead."

Joan Didion on "Nightline"

Cynthia McFadden: "But you can accept that they live in you?"
Didion (short, wry laugh): "Well, I want them to live with me."

FROM CHEZ JIM BOOKS Three works on eighteenth century subjects:

For some sample 18th century vegetarian recipes, click here.

copyright 2006 Jim Chevallier.
When using brief extracts from this site, please credit properly and provide a link back to this site.
(NOTE: Most translations, except where otherwise noted, are by Jim Chevallier and are copyrighted as such.)
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