By Monterey Hall
As indicated by Katrina Rutz to the introduction to the Bulkeley Project, Elizabeth Bulkeley’s A boke of hearbes and receipts contains a section that tells the reader how to recognize five different sugar “heights” or boiling temperatures, a section common to many pre-nineteenth-century recipe books (Hess 225). The third height, known as manus christi height, is a bit of an enigma in the culinary history world. “Manus christi”—or “hands of Christ” in Latin—refers not only to a stage in the candy-making process, but also to an expensive medicinal hard candy that first appears in medieval recipe books and continues on until its abrupt disappearance in the early nineteenth century (Davidson 493). However, despite their shared name, manus christi the candy and manus christi the candy-making height seem to be entirely at odds with one another (493).
The vast majority of authoritative sources on pre-nineteenth-century candy-making, including The Oxford Companion to Food, refer to culinary historian Karen Hess when discussing manus christi height. In Hess’s book, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, she states that manus christi height refers to the point at which boiling sugar has reached 215°F (Hess 227). This temperature is a little bit cooler than the stage of candy-making now known as the thread stage; sugar at this temperature is used to make syrups and is characterized by the appearance of loose, non-balling threads when the sugar solution is dropped into cold water (“The Cold Water Candy Test”). It is likely the current moniker “thread stage” that led Hess to believe that manus christi height refers to this boiling temperature: the instructions for manus christi height in Washington’s cookbook read “When your sugar is at manis Christi height, it will draw betwixt your fingers like a small thrid, and before it comes to that height, it will not draw. & soe use it as you have occasion” (Hess 226). Bulkeley’s instructions read similarly to Washington’s: “When your suger is in a full sirrup let it boile till it doth drawe betwixt your fingers like athred and then it is a manuus Chrie height” (Digital Image 169/41). These along with other books describing manus christi height almost always contain a reference to it “drawing between the fingers like a thread.”
The presence of the word “thread” in most of the instructions for manus christi height probably led scholars to believe that it is the equivalent of the thread stage in today’s candy-making terminology. This would put manus christi the height at odds with manus christi the candy: hard candy requires a much hotter temperature to form, and so Hess and other scholars have postulated that manus christi candy and manus christi height are unrelated. However, Hess might have been incorrect in her original statement, and thus this postulation might also be incorrect.
The assumption that manus christi height is the same as today’s thread stage ignores the fact that instructions for manus christi height specifically state that “it doth drawe betwixt your fingers like athred” (Digital Image 169/41, emphasis added). Sugar in today’s thread stage will not draw between your fingers. It will create threads in a bowl of cold water, but those threads will not maintain their structural integrity outside of water (“The Cold Water Candy Test”). The stage in which sugar will draw like a thread in one’s hands in today’s candy-making lexicon is the hard ball stage, which falls between 250°F and 265°F (“The Cold Water Candy Test”). In this stage, “the syrup will form thick, ‘ropy’ threads as it drips from the spoon” (“The Cold Water Candy Test”), threads which would be strong enough to maintain their integrity if drawn between the fingers.
Probably the most convincing evidence that manus christi height refers to today’s hard ball rather than today’s thread stage is its position within the sugar section. Manus christi height falls in the middle of the candy-making section, just like today’s hard-ball stage falls in the middle of current candy-making tutorials. The next step to figuring out the exact temperature of manus christi height is to further explore the other stages of candy-making. If we can find recipes that refer to specific heights in the candy-making process, we will get a better idea of what these heights looked like, and consequently we will be able to more accurately correlate them with our own current candy-making stages.
Bulkeley, Elizabeth. A boke of hearbes and receipts. 1627. Wellcome Library MS 169. Web. 11 April 2016.
“The Cold Water Candy Test.” The Accidental Scientist: Science of Cooking. National Science Foundation Exploratorium, 2016. Web. 20 April 2016.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Ed. Tom Jaine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.
Hess, Karen. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery: And Booke of Sweetmeats. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.
Hopkins, Kate. Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Print.
Monterey Hall is a student at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She worked with the Bulkeley manuscript during a course on Digital Research Methods in Historical Recipes with Professor Rebecca Laroche.