A response to “Women and Chymistry in Early Modern England”

By Felix Wills

During this weeks seminar, a particular source that caught my attention was Jayne Archer’s analysis of the Recipe Book of Sarah Wigges. I found Archer’s analysis of Wigges book, and more specifically what it could tell us about women and their involvement in Chymistry in Early Modern England, particularly intriguing. Thus, I believe that there would be no better topic for my first blog post than an analysis and critique of Archer’s findings.

A photograph of the inside leaf of Sarah Wigges' recipe book
A photograph of the inside leaf of Sarah Wigges’ recipe book

To begin, an introduction to the book that Archer has analysed, the ‘Manuscript Receipt Book of Sarah Wigges’. Wigges’ book was written circa 1616 in England. Like the vast majority of women who compiled recipe books during this time period, Wigges was a housewife. Also, much the same as many other recipe books of the period,  it did not just feature recipes for edible treats, but also recipes for medicines to cure particular ailments, instructions to make washing powder, instructions to help women compile a set of household accounts, as well as many other useful instructions for keeping an orderly household. However, where this book differs so heavily from other texts of the same type is that it contains some recipes that would be far more typical of a Chymistry book than of a recipe book. It contains a recipe that purports to allow the reader to manufacture the Philosopher’s Stone. Archer points out some rather amusing juxtapositions of everyday recipes situated immediately next to those that are rather more fantastical in their nature. Archer gives the example of the final leaf of the book, which contains a recipe to produce puff pastry and a recipe to manufacture diamonds. The last page sums up the overall theme of the book very well, the rather benign combined with the mystical.

Archer’s aim within the article is to establish whether women had a genuine interest in and actively practised Chymistry. Archer draws on two primary sources, one by Richard Allestree (written in 1673) and another by Thomas Vaughn (written in 1650). These two sources offer two very conflicting view about women and their success within Chymistry. For Allestree, women are too wasteful to be good chemists, they have a propensity to spend the money of the household rather than produce goods that will add value to it. As for Vaughan, he believes rather the opposite, that women have some sort of natural intuition that allows them to be better Chymists than men. Vaughan’s viewpoint is not surprising, as Archer discovers, given that his wife Rebecca is credited in helping Vaughan write his own Chymistry book. He has seen first hand that women can be successful within the field. A third primary source presents a balance between the two viewpoints, written by Margaret Cavendish. She suggests that women would labour over a fire just as much as a man, but that women are more likely to spend gold than produce it, and therefore do not make good Chymists. Archer also notes that there are multiple examples of women being involved in Chymistry in Early Modern England, the most notable of whom being Queen Elizabeth I, who had a Chymistry lab that she used regularly.

margaret-cavendish
A portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and a well renowned natural philosopher

In the next part of the article, Archer focuses on the evidence that Wigges’ book in particular provides us in order to establish what role women played within Chymistry in the Early Modern period. Wigges describes many chemical procedures within her book, such as the distillation of water and alcohol, which would have been an extremely useful skill at the time. Archer believes that this supports the notion that women actively practised Chymistry and it had its place within their household duties. However, Archer discovers that an unusually large amount of the Chemical recipes in the book had been taken (un-cited) from other books such as John Gerard’s Herball and Andreas Libavius’ Alchymia to name just two. Although this shows that Wigges’ was unusually well read for a non-aristocratic woman of her time, it calls into question her true abilities when it comes to Chymistry. In addition to this, there a number of other cited sources of chemical recipes. A large portion of the centre of the book is written in a different handwriting style to those used at the beginning and end of the book, and contains copied passages from such novels as The Book of Sir Dunstan, which the author this time cites as the source. At the very end of the book, there is situated a number of recipes for producing precious stones, and these return to the same scrawling, messy handwriting used in the central section of the book mentioned previously. All this evidence would seem to suggest that the Chymistry parts of the recipe book were either written by another person or plagiarised from different texts.

The one criticism of have of the otherwise well written and interesting article Archer has produced is that in her evaluation of Wigges’ book. She acknowledges that it is very tempting to assume that Sarah Wigges herself was not the author of most of the chemical recipes within the book. She then goes on to say that it is most likely that Wigges did not even practise most of the rituals and chemical recipes used in her book, but that she was probably interested in these topics because of the use of chemistry in everyday household tasks such as distillation. To me, an interest in something is not the same as being an active practitioner. I for example, am interested in cricket, but I do not play and probably never will, just the same as Sarah Wigges may well have enjoyed reading and learning about Chymistry, but it is very unlikely she practised it. So when Archer goes on to state in her conclusion that instead of placing women at the fringes of Chymical discourse in Early Modern England, they can perhaps be placed at the centre, this greatly puzzles me, as much of the evidence she has collected from Wigges’ book and her other sources suggests that this was simply not the case. Women, although certainly interested in some aspects of chymistry, were not heavily involved in its practice in Early Modern England.


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