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

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