There is no Distinction Between Cooking or Medicine in Early Modern Cookbooks – Why?

A Doctor, a Herbalist, and a Chef – the early modern ’cookbooks’ have a common theme in that there is very little distinction or separation between the recipes; a recipe for making a Sweetmeat cake would be next to a solution for heat in the face, followed by how to whiten cloth using methods found at home[1]. Similar to how a husbandman was expected to be proficient in many different roles in Graham Markham’s book, the wife of a family was expected to be more than just someone who cooked or was simply the mother of the family as is the case for some modern thinkers. However although this is an impressive collection found in almost all of the early modern cookbooks for women, what it actually shows is that early modern women did not really make the special differences that modern society puts between medicines and cooking; instead they saw it all together as one area of knowledge. How far this was the case and why are some important questions that may help to give insight on the values and mind set of early modern housewives.

[1] ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript]’, (ca. 1675-ca. 1750), <>. P. 15-17

‘To Whiten Cloth’ – a recipe for whitening cloth using household materials. ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript]’, (ca. 1675-ca. 1750),<>, P. 17

An early modern wife, as according to Gervase Markham again, was expected to be proficient in main areas of work and expected to be a part time doctor and be able to draw out bones, be able to create medicines ‘for any consumption, and, as some attitudes sometimes never, still be expected to cook ‘puddings of all kinds’.[1] Similar to Markham’s book on what it took to be a good husband, this is a daunting list of things that one woman was supposed to know how to do but again, there are similar considerations to Markham’s other book. Firstly, it is quite unlikely that whoever owned the book would be expected to remember all of it and never touch the book again; rather it is meant to be used as a reference book that can be used when needed and that the reader would only needed a passing knowledge rather than having the detailed understanding that an actual expert would have. Also, it is unlikely that the average housewife would have access to a book like this and that it would be read by middle class petty landowners wives instead. One of the largest things to consider is the literacy rates of women of the time that were almost always lower than similar classed men, often around 90% of illiteracy in most areas.[2] As such the book would have had to have been read to the wives by either their educated husbands or local educated men, and then most likely read to the poorer women that worked for the wife, and by extension her household. All together what these considerations mean is that Marham’s attempt at creating a ‘cookbook’ similar to others at the time did not draw a line between medicine and foods as described earlier; he instead packaged it all together in a way that can provide a refence guide for middle class housewives of the time rather than creating separate books for cooking, herbal remedies etc.

[1]Gervase Markham, The English hous-wife containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman … a work generally approved, and now the fifth time much augmented, purged, and made most profitable and necessary for all men and the general good of this nation, (1653), pp. 4-5

[2] David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.148

The wife of the house is explaining what needs to be done to a servant near the back of the image. Frontispiece from William Augustus Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor, 6th edition, c.1800.

With the plainer and more common household cookbook, this lack of separation between cooking and medicines is more noticeable and organic. Household cookbooks tended to be things that were passed down through families, with each generation adding new recipes they have found or editing older ones. But across these generations there is still no distinction between cooking for eating and cooking for medicinal or household purposes. Its not until 1853 with Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton that the idea of what a modern cookbook is set down, the idea of a reference book that is solely just for foodstuffs with measures and detailed instructions. Before this the majority of cookbooks were still collections of all types of recipes that were vaguely worded.  Even going into the more ‘rational’ minded eighteenth century where there was a greater interest in the professionalisation of areas of study such as medicine cookbooks were still including medicinal recipes.[1] This shows that even though there is definitely a shift towards having a book that is solely about cookery there is still some aspect of the earlier mindset of not separating the cookbooks, only keeping all types of work in the kitchen together.

[1]Hannah Glasse The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, (1747), p.328

An explanation for this lack of separation however could be one of convenience. Households passing down these cookbooks were simply writing down what they knew worked and what they assumed their families would need to know. They were unlikely to want to leave behind a large number of books all written on separate subjects; they are likely to have preferred to keep it all together for cost, time, and accessibility reasons. Cost wise, it was far cheaper to get one big book of blank pages that could be added to over time rather than a large number of separate books. Time wise it took significantly less time to write short recipes in one book rather than separating them. As for accessibility the issue of illiteracy rates in women shows up again, as it would be easier to get somebody to read out a small section of one cookbook that was needed at the time rather than reading out verses from various books. Despite this however, the fact that even though printing and literacy rates went up which made it far easier to produce these cookbooks, mass produced and handwritten cookbooks continued to make no distinction between cooking food and creating medicines.

Literacy rates of all women in Norwich showing that 89% were illiterate, this was common across England at the time. David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.1448

Overall one of the most common elements of early modern cookbooks that could be found in the homes of middle-class housewives was that they were a jack of all trades book. In it would be recipes for food, medicines, and basic first aid. This shows that for the most part there was no real distinction between the preparation of food and the preparation of medicines; they were essentially the same business and it was expected for women to be able to do both. While there are some explanations that this was more due to practicality rather than cultural reasons, the fact that it endured for so long suggests that this is not the case for all cookbooks.



6 thoughts on “There is no Distinction Between Cooking or Medicine in Early Modern Cookbooks – Why?

  1. This was a really interesting blog post which has spiked my curiosity for medical recipes. Are there any ingredients which you can identify to cross over the between the two categories more often than others? And was it only women who added to these books?

  2. Do you think there are any modern day equivalents to these “all in one” recipe/medicine/household books?

  3. When I first learnt that cookbooks included a larger variety of things in this period, it also made me wonder why that is. If it was more convinient and cheaper to keep everything in one place, what do you think, why did people start separating the family’s knowledge instead of keeping it in one book?

    1. I think that as time went on and there was that growing separation between men and women’s lives that you find the 18/19th century they might have felt a need to separate it all. You have your books for ‘men’s work’ and your books for ‘women’s work’ sort of thing, to try to separate the rather united ‘just home work’ that you found before in their effort to establish those gender roles.

  4. This is really interesting, I suppose then it could be asked what effects the spread of medical professionalism had on cookbooks and the role of the wife in the home?

    1. As medicine become more professionalised, as you say, you can imagine there’d be less need for these collections of medicinal recipes as the doctors would be training in special universities/colleges. As for the role of women as I said in a previous comment it might’ve been an attempt to establish the gender roles that you find the later time period, removing the vital work that women did and replacing them with just being wives and mothers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.