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The Early Modern Household and Public Health

For the past few weeks, my classmates and I worked extension on the UoE Baker project, which explores different aspects such as Beauty, Supernatural and Medicine and so on in Margaret Baker’s recipe book. I must say, I am quite proud of our final product and I found the research of how people such as Baker, constructed their recipes to be very enlightening. Exploring Margaret Baker’s medicinal recipes made me think of how the general health care system in early modern England was at the time as opposed to the medical help and recipes offered by domestic family household recipes.

General hospitals in the early modern Europe were inherited from the medieval system which was designed to care and cure. However, the treatment received in these hospitals ranged from non-existent to quite substantial and only catered to the curable poor and not sufferers of contagious diseases.[1] It was only after hospitals began to become medicalised over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that it expanded its medical services.

One question that popped into my head was, why did the common household contribute to public health and care? Well, the answer was religion. The origins the hospital was rooted in early Christianity which advocated a mission to save people’s souls. Jane Crawshaw attempted to illustrate how the contribution from families to the public health uncovers a system and variation of medical practices.

“Domestic expertise, alongside bonds of kinship and a sense of obligation and charitable care within the parish, has, therefore, been shown to have influenced women’s work” [2 ]

Most places, especially the countryside were not able to receive extensive care until the eighteenth century. [3] Luckily, people practised medicine in rural areas. Public health was considered a collective effort and everyone should do their part to help the poor. Hannah Woolley noted a noble woman, who she belonged to, had a ‘Charitable temper to do good amongst her poor neighbours’. [2] Clearly, this would’ve been a great support network for medical care.

Hannah Woolley, A supplement to the Queen -like closet.

Through this, we can understand the motives behind the making of these medical recipes by people of a noble background or from certain neighbourhoods. In Hannah Woolley’s recipe book, she endlessly lists the different types of wounds and illnesses she treated in her neighbourhood. Apparently, her skills were ‘often exercised’ amongst her fellow neighbours in Newport Bond, Essex. She claimed she was trusted to treat

” Agues, Feavers, Small-pox, Consumptions, and many other diseases; in all which, unless they were desperately ill, their parents trusted me without the help of any Physician or Chirurgion: likewise the neighbours in eight or ten miles round came to me for cure.” [4]

( An Early modern neighbourhood)

With epidemics such as the cattle plagues, particularly in rural areas, spreading at an alarming rate, the government hired physicians, practitioners and midwives to montior health in the local area and provide care which used as a warning system.[5] I guess one way to look at it is they were unofficial GPs (general practices) for local health care before it could be legitimised. This definitely helped me contextualise the link between women, the early modern household and domestic/medical recipes.

The idea of neighbourhoods having that one person they could go to and trust when access to general health care provided by the state was not accessible or available, deepens the understanding of a sense of community that seemed to be clearly embraced in the early modern period. Its quite nice to think that medical recipes were not just inherited or constructed and made out of sheer interest in medicine but was for the purpose of providing healing and care for their own local community and those who couldn’t even afford it.


[1] Lindemann, M., Disease, and Medicine in ed. Scott, Hamish M.,  The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History: 1350-1750, Volume 1, Oxford, 2015) p.109

[2]  Woolley, H. A Supplement to the Queen-Like Closet… (London, 1674) p.10

[3]  Lindemann, M., Disease, and Medicine in ed. Scott, Hamish M., The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History: 1350-1750, Volume 1, Oxford, 2015) p. 113

[4] Woolley, H. A Supplement to the Queen-Like Closet… (London, 1674) p.12

[5] Lindemann M., The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern European History: 1350-1750, Volume 1, Oxford, 2015) p.113

The Circulation of Knowledge and Recipes

In class we discussed the circulation of knowledge and whether the way in which people, in early modern England, exchanged recipes should be considered a patronage or currency. We tried to understand how and why knowledge and recipes, particularly medicinal ones, was being circulated. Medicine and cures were becoming very important and were a popular field of study for people such as Jesuits in Spanish America during this time. The main questions that I pondered over were: how did knowledge and recipes circulate between different people and groups? Was it used commercially or socially? How was its reliability ensured?

There was a brief debate as to whether the system of exchanging knowledge should be considered patronage or a currency. As Alex noted, if one was to go to a doctor with a medical problem, they would pay for the doctor to inform them of the ‘recipe’ on how to get better and get the prescribed medicine. Leong and Patrell agreed that there was a medical marketplace. However, it began filled with ‘smart consumers’ who became informed on which remedies they could make themselves rather than racking up a pricey bill and being exploited by doctors. Therefore it could also depend on the spheres in which information and recipes are being shared. There is an obvious commercial value, but there is also a social aspect in people offering advice to one another, in other words, patronage. Its certainly another valid way of describing how people traded and exchanged knowledge and recipes of domestic medicine socially and used them as gifts or advice for relatives and social acquaintances.

Leong and Pennell agree that most recipes collected were traded between friends or family on social visits. For instance,

“[a] total of 12 recipes, from a number of occasions were collected at [Archdale] Palmer’s own residence in Wanlip. Some of the donors were labelled as ‘cousins’, while William D’Anvers of Swithland, the father of Palmer’s daughter-in-law, is typical of the extended family who exchanged recipes with him during social visits.”[1]

It was also not unusual for recipes that were exchanged to be presented as part of a dowry or wedding gift in Italy. [2] This made me realise that recipes were considered very valuable and important which is why recipes were also inherited by family members.

Additionally, Leong and Pennell observed that one third of the 6554 recipes they analysed came with the name of the donor or ‘author’.[3] This reminded me of the whole idea that in society, the esteemed reputations of things such as movies gain more attention and popularity through word of mouth. Clearly, factors such as who someone was able to treat would be influential in this process. For instance, Sir Theodore de Vaux, a fellow of the Royal Society, was physician to King Charles II and the dowager Queen Katherine. By important figures such as them communicating with important and influential people in parliament and aristocratic circles , his effective recipes would have spread amongst them and add to the reliability of his medicinal recipes. However, we agreed that this would only go so far as it would’ve been local and not an effective way to circulate knowledge on a mass scale compared to writing letters and keeping collections. In addition,

“[r]ealising the value of that information – that is, converting it into medical knowledge – was not simply about knowing how to construct and operate a still, but about knowing what and who was trustworthy in provision of the raw data of recipes.”[4]

Physicians such as Sir Théodore Turquet de Mayern successfully championed the effort to produce the first official pharmacopoeia and was one of many who were considered trustworthy. The fact that cures and different recipes were tried and approved by other respected fellows of the Royal Society ensured that they were more reliable. For instance, ‘philosophical transactions’ were made between physicians and fellows of the Royal Society. In ‘An Account of the Diseases of Doggs, and Several Receipts for the Cure of their Madness’, Theodore de Mayern, T. and Theodore de Vaux offer four different approved cures for the bite of a Mad Dog. Clearly, knowledge was circulated in a support system amongst professionals.


Mayern, T. and T. de Vaux, ‘An Account of the Diseases of Doggs, and Several Receipts for the Cure of their Madness…’ Phil.Trans. 16 (1686) pp.408-409

Personally, I think the circulation of medicinal knowledge was and is more like a currency that is part of a wider support system. As people in early modern society believed cures and recipes for various purposes was special and worthy enough to be exchanged as gifts or should be inherited shows us how valuable it was to them. It also shows how people supported each other as it added to each other’s care and health. Therefore, early modern medicinal knowledge and recipes were used socially more than commercially.


Leong, E. and S. Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace”’, pp. 133-152 in M. S. R. Jenner and P. Wallis, eds. Medicine and the Market in England and Its Colonies, c. 1450-1850 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[1] E. Leong,  and S. Pennell, ‘Recipe Collections and the Currency of Medical Knowledge in the Early Modern “Medical Marketplace” (Basingstoke, 2007) p.139

[2] Ibid p.141

[3] Ibid p.138

[4] Ibid p.149

Fertility and the Future Generation

Previously, I had generally understood the basics behind the ideology of humorism. I thought it was only used as a way to identify the composition of the human body, which consisted of four bodily fluids; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. However, after reading  Aristotle’s Master-piece Completed, in Two Parts and ‘Medicine, Marriage and Human Degeneration in the French Enlightenment’ by Michael Winston, my simplistic understanding of the system changed. Once I found out about the ideologies that had emerged based on this, it gave me a new insight into the mentality and desires of the early modern family. For instance, during the early modern and Enlightenment period, these humors were considered to affect fertility and thereby the degradation of future generations

.                          aristotle

I came across in my reading that many things were considered in the early modern day to affect a woman’s fertility. One them was the lifestyle of the higher class. It was notable that the rural or laboring, poor did not encounter the same issues with their fecundity as the middling or elite class. I guess when you consider the idea that rural class needed children to help work, whereas the elite class didn’t and there was less pressure to produce a sizable family, it is logical.

However, I found it oddly interesting that although sex was considered a ‘cold’ act, and only men had the ‘juice’, if a female wanted to encourage her fecundity, it was ideal that her body should be hot during love-making. Many methods and sexual practices were suggested such as eating spicy foods and taking hot baths. For instance, Aristotle suggests that couples who desire to have children should drink some wine moderately, to’set the mood’ lift their spirits. This was important

“… for if their spirits flag on either part, they will fall short of what Nature requires; and the woman either miss of conception, or else the Children prove weak in their bodies, or defective in their understandings.” p.93

Moreover, Aristotle’s advice indicates that getting pregnant wasn’t the major issue but the precautions that had to be taken to avoid a miscarriage and have healthy children with a higher mortality rate was.

“…for anything of sadness, trouble and sorrow, are enemies to the Delights of Venus; and if at such times of coition there should be conception, it would have a malevolent effect upon the children.” p.92

Although I could understand to some extent why they would have thought this could work and be effective, I can’t help but find it amusing. Considering the 16th century up until the 18th century was characterised by stagnant population growth and reduced fertility [1] it is understandable how finding remedies for this problem were desired by many in early modern society. In the wider context, the growth in self help literature and even home-made recipes of a similar nature made it easier to provide this.

The pressure on people in the early modern Europe to be married and fufill the true ideal goal of marriage, which was the production of healthy children, was immense. Children were considered to be the foundation of a loving family. Texts such as Venette’s Tableau de l’amour conjugal, suggests that marriage and family is the basis of social order.

“marriage is life’s most pleasant bond, the support of society” [2]

Notably, the idea that family is central to a functional society still exists today. The only slight difference is in the early modern era they believed the health of a child was due to the temperaments and body temperature of the parents, whereas in today’s society, many cases have argued that genetics or the upbringing of an individual is what can predetermine their behaviour and actions. After reading various articles, I found that though a lot of beliefs of earlier societies appear foreign at face value, the more you find out, the more you can see how the values and beliefs we have in today’s society had emerged and developed up until now.


[1] Evans, J. ‘‘Gentle Purges corrected with hot Spices, whether they work or not, do vehemently provoke Venery’: Menstrual Provocation and Procreation in Early Modern England’, Social History of Medicine 25, 1 (2012) p.5

[2] quoted in Michael Winston, Medicine, Marriage, and Human Degeneration in the French Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2005) p.268


Political Recipes

By Sarah Osho

During my second seminar class for the digital recipes module, we discussed and debated what a recipe was and its conventional functions. My initial and general understanding of what a recipe encompassed was the transmission and exchange of personal knowledge, usually for the use of cooking. During the seminar, we also realised it would depend on the context and how the information is interpreted. This would help determine whether it was indeed a recipe. However, after reading ‘Constructing the Politics of Cookery: Authorial Strategy and Domestic Politics in English Cookery Books, 1655-1670’ by Claire Saffitz, the concept of a recipe is not a straightforward as it seems. I found the possibility of an early modern cookery book being used to spread royalist propaganda very fascinating. Who would have thought that recipes would not only be of a domestic nature but have a political dispute between the comparisons of two Queens too?

Image result for The Queens Closet Opened 1656
The Queens Closet Opened (1668)

The first section of Saffitz’s article looks at The Queen Closet Opened (1656), credited to Henrietta and Maria and The Court & Kitchin of Elizabeth (1664) credited to Elizabeth Cromwell.  Saffitz’s suggests these book illustrate how good housewifery and the strength of nation was seen as connected in the early modern era. Madeline Bassnett and Laura Knoppers point out that they were used as

polemical political tools in the decades before and after Charles II’s restoration to emphasize aristocratic and royalist social networks, promote courtly practices of the early Stuart era, and link the wellbeing of the national household to the monarchy.[21]

This very insightful as this indicates how both the domestic and political spheres have a connection just as the public and private ones do.  This could indicate the popularity and thereby influence it had in the early modern period. However, Saffitz argues that due to “male authorship and female subjectivity,” the attempt to merge political polemic with cookery book genre has resulted in the instability of these two texts.  Additionally, its structure conflicts its function as a practical cookery guide.

Saffitz also suggests there is an anxious tone to these two texts in the exposing and making private feminine spaces public.  The idea that William Montangu has pirated Henrietta Maria recipes, thereby ‘opening the Queen’s closet’, alludes to the idea of making her private hidden secrets, and in this case her political competence, known. As one goes through the recipes, it is apparent that the style is of a detached nature, showing how it does not contain any personal tastes and preferences in recipes and therefore no sense authorship. It reveals

a troubling tension between what is presented as a window into the private life of the Queen and her absenteeism from this space she is supposed to occupy.

This showed me how there were many more ways of reading and interpreting a recipe. If analysed closely, it can be informative in terms of tracing personality traits and the social aspects of a person or family home. Which recipes they used and from what backgrounds they originated from could be relatively useful in making social and political links.

Another aspect of the article was the idea that Henrietta Maria’s portrayal was that of an ideal queen and housewife, whereas Elizabeth is represented as a queen who was as “stingy toward her husband’s table as she is toward the nation”. Her reputation at the time was not a pleasant one amongst the poor.  During her reign 75% for the price of food increase and agricultural labour wages drastically fell as well. Knoppers stated Elizabeth was unwilling or unable to act hospitably in her role as protectoress. [29] The Court & Kitchin of Elizabeth implies Elizabeth’s poor household management indicates and is linked to her incompetency as a wife and ruler, which are both damaging to England. This presents yet another way in which to interpret recipes and the authorship behind the different editions made. This book also shows me how women were conceived and judged by their domestic abilities and if inadequate, can be used against them.

To conclude, clearly recipes cannot be strictly defined in a singular sense. Their uses are never-ending and can be quite informative. Some can be used to just transmit knowledge from one family member to another, and others used to show and support a political statement.