A Sweet Taste of Power: the Rise, Fall, and Legacy of Sugar Subtleties

Sugar is so prevalent in society that one does not often stop to consider its purpose. But as anthropologist Sidney Mintz discusses in her book Sweetness and Power, sugar has historically played many roles as medicine, spice, preservative, decoration, and sweetener (77). One particularly fascinating employment of sugar as a decorative emerged in the Middle Ages through the creation of sugar sculptures called subtleties. When sugar was an incredibly rare substance, subtleties were served at banquets as both edible art and symbols of power, but once it was available to the masses, subtleties became obsolete. The legacy of subtleties, however, can still be seen in the tradition of serving a wedding cake.

A Feast for the Eyes

Sugar sculptures were first created in the 11th century Middle East by artists called sukker nakkasarli (Abbott, Kindle location 336). They would combine highly refined sugar, almonds, and water to form a clay-like paste that could then be molded and baked into various forms (Mintz, 88). Sultans and caliphs alike commissioned the sculptors to create edible table decorations for their sumptuous feasts. As sugar spread from the Middle East to Europe, so too did the practice of sugar sculptures. They appeared in French courts in the 13th century, soon followed by those in England, Italy, and Germany. The European elite specifically referred to them as ‘soliltees,’ or ‘subtleties’ in English (Bovey, the Medieval Diet).

In their purest sense, subtleties were edible art. They were brought out between banquet courses to entertain, amaze, and delight one’s guests (Mintz, 88). This may seem surprising to a modern audience accustomed to eating dessert after dinner, but in the Middle Ages, food was not divided and served by flavor. Many believed sugar could even prepare the stomach for a feast, and so, a specific subtlety called a ‘warner’ was sometimes presented as the very first dish (Bovey, the Medieval Diet). This practice is captured by a 15th-century French illustration of a royal banquet hosted by Richard II for the Dukes of York, Gloucester, and Ireland (Chronique d’ Angleterre). As can be seen below, the distinguished group of men are seated around a table. A servant is walking into the room, carrying a ship made entirely of sugar- a subtlety- which they will admire and devour before proceeding to their next course. A boat is just one example of the shapes subtleties were forged into, but there are many others. From animals to churches, to palaces and heroic figurines, the variations were endless.

Richard II dines with dukes, an example of a Medieval feast

A Not So Subtle Display of Power

Subtleties were more than just beautiful decorations, however, but emblems of wealth and power; only those of status could afford to craft, serve, and eat sugar in such gluttonous quantities. The nobility, acutely aware of this connection, were motivated to display sugar in ever grander presentations. Consider the image below, an engraving of the feast served at the Duke of Jülich’s wedding in 1587 (Hogenberg). Rather than just one subtlety, the Duke had an entire table filled with sugar figurines. In one corner stands a replica of his castle, in another, a forest of trees, animals, and fruits. Even his coat of arms can be found throughout the table. It would have cost a staggering amount of money to produce such a display of sugar, but that was precisely the point.

A lavish subtlety display at the Duke of Jülich’s Wedding

Sugar Looses Class

The price of sugar would continue to drop, and as it did, subtleties became less an indication of power and more ornamental. As sugar percolated down to upper-class families in the 16th century, high-end cookbooks began including subtleties. For example, Patridges’s 1584 Century Cookbook contained a recipe for marzipan, and Robert May’s 1660 The Accomplisht Cook provided instructions for making a subtlety in the shape of a ship (Mintz, 92). But by the mid-18th century, sugar was cheap enough for even the middle-class to enjoy, and they, too, were interested in making subtleties. This historic moment is reflected by Hannah Glasses’s 1747 the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, in which she includes a recipe for a marzipan ‘Jumball’ and a hedgehog (Mintz, 93). Glasse’s publication was no ordinary cookbook, but something explicitly written with the lower-classes in mind. She dedicates the opening lines of her book to them:

“I believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon: but as I have both seen and found by experience, that the generality of servants are greatly wanting in that point, therefore I have taken upon me to instruct them in the best manner I am capable: and, I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of cooking cannot miss of being very good ones” (Glasse, i)

The average family could suddenly use sugar and cookbooks to create cakes, biscuits, and most importantly, sugar sculptures. The wealthy abandoned subtleties once they no longer embodied power. As sugar became increasingly ordinary, they were eventually forgotten by the masses.

Lingering Traces

Despite this decline, one example of a subtlety still exists today: the wedding cake. At the majority of western weddings, it is customary for a couple to serve a wedding cake with white frosting, multiple tiers, and edible decorations made of sugar paste, marzipan, or buttercream (Wilson, 70). On the one hand, the cake is just a tasty treat to eat, but on the other, it is something to be visually admired and adored. It is a modern-day subtlety, and typically, the richer the couple, the more impressive the sugared display. Just consider when England’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011. As can be seen in the video below, their cake stood at three feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. It had eight tiers, was covered in white fondant, and adorned with 900 sugar paste ribbons, bows, flowers, and leaves (Galarza and Hatic, A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes). It was a public display representing the English crown’s wealth, the tradition of matrimony, and the harmonious match of the couple themselves. The average wedding cake is not nearly as extravagant, and yet, they nonetheless exist.

The popularity of subtleties fluctuated with the changing price of sugar; when sugar was expensive, subtleties were embraced by the rich as artful, edible declarations of power, but once cheap, they were tossed aside and now appear only at special occasions like a wedding. But the history of subtleties represents a much larger narration- the idea that what people eat reflects back on them as individuals. Subtleties no longer appear on the dining room tables of the elite, but other items have taken their place. Just consider the role of caviar, a well-aged wine, or a Kobe beef steak. These dishes are beautiful, delicious, and too expensive for most to afford. Over time, these may also decline in popularity, but the tradition of using food as power will not.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. Duckworth Overlook, 2008.

Bovey, Alixe. “The Medieval Diet.” The Middle Ages, The British Library, 30 Apr. 2015, http://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/the-medieval-diet.

Galarza, Daniela, and Dana Hatic. “A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes.” Eater, Eater, 18 May 2018, http://www.eater.com/2018/5/18/17340392/cake-royal-wedding-meghan-markle-prince-harry-william-kate-elizabeth-history.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

Wilson, Carol. “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History.” Gastronomica, vol. 5, no. 2, 2005, pp. 69–72., doi:10.1525/gfc.2005.5.2.69.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

Chronique D’ Angleterre (Volume III). The Dukes of York, Gloucester and Ireland dine with King Richard II. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 5 Apr. 2018. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_II_dines_with_dukes_-_Chronique_d%27_Angleterre_(Volume_III)_(late_15th_C),_f.265v_-_BL_Royal_MS_14_E_IV.jpg>.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. N.p.: n.p., 1747. Internet Archive. Internet Archive, 24 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/TheArtOfCookery/page/n5&gt;.

Hogenberg, Franz. Table setting for the wedding of Johann Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves and Jacobe, Margravine of Baden, 1587. Digital image. Getty Research Institute. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <http://primo.getty.edu/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=GRI&afterPDS=true&institution=01GRI&docId=GETTY_ROSETTAIE17130&gt;.

Royal Wedding Cake on Show. Dir. On Demand News. YouTube. YouTube, 22 July 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trb1oenjgNc.&gt;.

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