13 December 2021

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In the college archives, there is a copy of a curious printed booklet entitled An Account off the Festivation and Jubilee holden at Emanuel Colledge September 29, 1684.

Employing cod–archaic spelling and phraseology, and purporting to be an account of a celebration marking the centenary of the college’s founding, it is actually a satire upon the bicentenary feast held at Emma on Michaelmas day 1784. The booklet opens with a description of the food and drink served, then proceeds to make observations about the musical entertainment (‘that Orpheus mote have ylistened to with envy’) and the distinguished guests.

A photograph of a selection of fruit, with glasses of wine behindThe banquet is represented as an occasion of gastronomic excess, featuring turtle soup as the first course, followed by ducks, geese, game, ‘fatte Bocks’ [venison], beef, pork and ‘the whole store of the sea’. A procession of puddings, including ‘Syllembibs’ and trifles, were succeeded by a delectable dessert course comprising ‘pyne apples’ and a profusion of other fruit and nuts. The wine list included claret, port, madeira and ‘Tokaye from Hongary note to be excelled for sweetness’ (Plate 1—Above: a spread of wine & fruit, similar to the feast's dessert). What do we know about the real feast? It was unquestionably a very lavish affair, with almost 140 guests. Under the convivial mastership of Richard Farmer, 1775–1797, Emmanuel had become the most socially fashionable college in Cambridge, and many prominent men of letters and affairs were present at the bicentenary dinner, including William Pitt the Younger, the new MP for Cambridge University and de facto Prime Minister (the ‘Festivation’ booklet claims Pitt sent his excuses, but the report in the Cambridge Chronicle confirms his attendance).

A piece of parchment with handwritten black letters and numbers written onNo menu survives, so we cannot tell to what degree the booklet exaggerates, but we know from suppliers’ bills that venison and other game were served, and a passage in the Reminiscences of Henry Gunning (an undergraduate at Christ’s in 1784) confirms that some unlucky turtles were indeed consumed, for several ‘lively’ specimens were kept in tubs in the Master’s Lodge before the feast, where they were open to inspection by the curious.

Detailed bills for the dessert course survive, which chime closely with the booklet, for they list pineapples, apples, pears, peaches, melons, nectarines, lemons, grapes, walnuts, cobnuts and filberts. The invoice for wines and spirits (Plate 2—L), suggests that the guests made very merry indeed.

Four copies of the ‘Festivation’ booklet, addressed to the Master and certain of the Fellows, were covertly ‘dropt in the Hall’ at Emma, the only surviving copy being annotated to the effect that since it was so error-ridden, the writer could not have been present at the feast. It may indeed be the case that the anonymous satirist had relied on hearsay, but it is surely also possible that the ‘mistakes’ were a deliberate part of the joke. One of the guests was George Steevens, a well-known writer and critic who had collaborated with Richard Farmer on Shakespearean research. By the 1780s he had become an eccentric and vexatious character given to inflicting hoaxes and anonymous letters upon the academic world, and it is tempting to speculate that he was the author of the booklet, the final page of which is devoted to an ironic appraisal of the supposed improvements Steevens had made to Shakespeare’s texts.

However inaccurate the booklet may have been in respect of the bicentenary celebration, it was wholly so as far as any 1684 centenary jubilee was concerned, for that anniversary had not been marked at Emma. There had been a banquet in 1677 to celebrate the consecration of the new chapel, the construction of which left the college cash-strapped for more than a decade, so the provision of another lavish feast only a few years later would have been an unattractive proposition. It was a very different matter a century later, according to the ‘Festivation’ author, for he claimed that Emmanuel’s fellowship so enjoyed their gourmandising that they hoped to celebrate the jubilee ‘everyche fyftie years in place of everyche hondred’. Those of us unlikely to live to see Emma’s quincentenary in 2084 might find the prospect of a modest celebration in 2034 rather appealing!

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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