By Tracey Cornish
Little is known about Margaret Baker, however just because not much is known of the author does not mean we cannot learn a significant amount. Three recipes books that she had written have survived today, two are owned by the British Library and one is owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library. They are dated approximately 1670, 1672 and 1675. The recipe books contained medicinal, culinary and household recipes and it is through these recipes that we can find out how people lived and survived in the seventeenth century.
Baker’s books contain recipes from other people for example she mentions ‘My Lady Corbett, my Cousen Staffords, Mrs Davies and Mrs Weeks. We could assume that these people were known to Baker and she has been given these recipes by them. Both men and women could gain medical information through their contacts although they may not have always given information about their own health or concerns. Therefore just because Mrs Denis tells Margaret Baker about a remedy ‘To comfort ye brayne and takes away aney payne of the head’ (37r) it did not necessarily mean that Mrs Denis had used the remedy herself. She also appears to recite Hannah Woolley’s recipes from her ‘The accomplisht ladys delight in preserving, physic and cookery.’ Large sections of printed books are copied by Baker many are from doctors. Many of the doctors quoted in her books were non English medical practitioners and this suggests that she was influenced by her continental contemporaries. However medical instruction at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were so far behind that in continental universities that a large percentage of Englishmen who wished to become doctors went abroad for their education.
So what can we learn from Margaret Baker’s recipes? The books contain a range of preparations for ointments, powders, salves and cordials for a variety of medical complaints. From these remedies we can see what diseases were prevalent at the time. For example ‘A preservation against the plague’ (24r). We would not find a remedy for the plague in medical books today and so was therefore a worry in the 1670s. There is also a remedy for ‘A canker for a women’s breste.’ (68v). This is very interesting as it reveals that even in the 1670s cancer was a known illness and could actually be diagnosed although one has to assume that due to the lack of medical knowledge in the seventeenth century it was only when a lump was present that cancer was diagnosed. Other illnesses mentioned are measles and shingles (26r). There is also a remedy for ‘the stone in the blader and kidnes’ (17v) which is another example of medical knowledge inside the body.
The body was believed to be made up of four humours – Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile and it was an excess of one of the humours that caused illness. Health was managed on a day to day basis. Recipe books like Margaret Baker’s reveal the extent of self-help used by families and explores their favourite remedies and analyses differences in approached to medical matters. Women as carers and household practitioners could assume significant roles in place of a sick person, for example the husband, and some women would have made key decisions about information and treatment of the sick.
The recipes for foods reveals the diet of the seventeenth century person although one should remember that Margaret Baker was more than likely middle class and so was writing for middle class society. She includes recipes for cakes, biscuits and meat. Her recipes reveal that food was eaten according to the season. We can also learn what types of food the seventeenth century person ate. As mentioned in my previous blog, Baker’s use of animals in recipes no part of an animal ever went to waste with most parts being used as food.
Baker’s recipes also reveal beauty regimes in the seventeenth century. Her recipes include a pomatum to style hair Karen writes a more detailed account of the seventeenth century beauty regime according to Margaret Baker in her essay on our website UoE Baker Project. https://sites.google.com/prod/view/uoebakerproject/beauty
Recipe books like Margaret Baker’s are an invaluable insight into the world of seventeenth century society and how they coped with illness, disease and how they ate among other things. When I first began this module I was apprehensive that recipe books would be limited. How wrong was I! I could never have imagined the knowledge one can retrieve from a seventeenth century recipe book.
 Anne Stobart, Household medicine in Seventeenth Century England, p.29.
 Ibid p.29.