Category Archives: Early Modern

Giving Food as Gifts

George Cruikshank ‘At Home in the Nursery or The master and Misses Twoshoes Christmas Party’ 1835

We all love food. We eat it every day, we incorporate it into celebrations, and we even use it as gifts – it is the most basic form of offering. Most family get-togethers nowadays will often incorporate food, with the practice often helping maintain relationships. The gifting of food is still a very common practice; I frequently gift my grandparents with chocolates and biscuits, despite my grandfather having diabetes… he likes what he likes.  However, how common was the gifting of food in Early Modern England?

Gift giving is explained as having two features: the first is the exchange of goods, with the value of gifts being uncertain and the time between giving and exchanging being at the discretion of those involved.[1] The meaning of the gift typically outweighs its value. The second feature of gift giving is that it takes place in a context of reciprocal interactions, with parties usually exchanging gifts at the same time.[2] 

The gifting of food was important in Early Modern society for the maintenance of relationships, peacemaking, corporate alliances and sometimes as a doctrine of charity to those who may be less well off. If you engage in readings regarding Medieval or Early Modern life, you might notice that food gifts sometimes appear as ‘rewards’. Food was not the only thing exchanged. During the period we see items such as silverware, furniture and money also exchanged. Neighbourly exchange of goods was common within this period. There was still a popular belief in witchcraft and some people thought it best to please their neighbours to avoid being cursed or being subjected to accusations. Often, peasants gave hens to their lords at Easter and other times throughout the year as well as their rent which needed to be paid.

Gift Giving at Christmas

Christmas has often been known as a time of over-spending and overindulgence, some might argue that we spend far too much money on gifts for loved ones and friends. Within the Early Modern period, gift giving typically commenced on New Years Day. Some people gave items of monetary value, whereas others exchanged produce. This included apples, eggs or a fat capon (a castrated cockerel specially fattened for the table).[3]  

Langley and Company, ‘Langley’s New Twelfth Night Characters’, 1818

Foods for the Feast

Dining was a common practice for those living in Early Modern society. The upper-class had certain cultural practices which were to be followed. This included things like elaborate dinner clothing, meal preparations, entertainment and the exchange of goods.

In the countryside, the gentry and elite members of society often showed their hospitality by hosting entertainment for their friends and neighbors. This included music, feasts and performances, especially during the Christmas period. Guests showed their gratitude by giving gifts to the hosts. A gentleman from Sussex, Timothy Burrell often invited friends, family, and dozens of the “humbler neighbors and their wives”.[4] Richer neighbors gifted the Burrell household with presents such as large quantities of cheese and butter, wine, sugar, chocolate, ducks, and pigeons.[5] The “humbler” attendees would bring “small tributes”. [6]

The Early Modern Period saw some of the most notable exchanges in history, including the Columbian Exchange. Despite this well-known, large scale form of exchange, it is important to remember the small transactions that occurred within communities as tokens of gratitude and appreciation. Remember, ‘It is better to give an apple than to eat it’!

[1] Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, ‘Gifts and Favors: Informal Support in Early Modern England’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 229.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hannah Flemming, ‘Christmases past to present(s): how the great British Christmas took shape’ (2011), <> [accessed 28 April 2019].

[4] Timothy Burrell, ‘Journal and Account Book of Timothy Burrell, from the Year 1683 to 1714’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. 3 (London, 1850), pp. 125.

[5] Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, ‘Gifts and Favors: Informal Support in Early Modern England’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 315.

[6] Timothy Burrell, ‘Journal and Account Book of Timothy Burrell, from the Year 1683 to 1714’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. 3 (London, 1850), pp. 126.

Georgian Christmas – What a Feast!

Hogarth’s ‘The Assembly at Wanstead House’, 1728-31

When we think of Christmas, most of us will think of the massive amounts of food we have left over at the end of the day. If you are like my family one joint of meat is not enough, we typically having gammon, turkey and beef. But just what did the Georgians feast on at Christmas and how similar is this to what we eat today? 

After the English Revolution (1642 to 1660) Christmas was made illegal in England under the rule of radical Puritan, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell banned the festivities as the Puritans believed that “excessive eating, drinking, and partying” were sinful acts and that the day should instead be a sober day of reflection.[1]After his death, the monarchy was reinstated, with King Charles II on the throne. Christmas was back!

Georgian Christmas spanned much longer than in the Medieval and Tudor period or than our own festive period today. Beginning on St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, to Twelfth Night, January 16th.[2] The month-long celebration included attending church, exchanging presents, lavish get-togethers and parties.

Traditional Food

Christmas in this period saw large feasts, parties and get-togethers, meaning the quantity of food needed was massive. A lot of the food preparation was thus done in advance. Dishes like boiled puddings were something the kitchen staff and cooks could prepare around a week beforehand without them going bad. Cold food was also something that was customary.

Some dishes the feasts included were turkey or goose, venison but this was mainly eaten by the gentry, Christmas pudding, mince pies, twelfth cake, which is like modern Christmas cake, soups, cheese and a whole array of other meats and vegetables.

Doughlas Barnett, ‘Passing The Wassail Bowl’

As Christmas is a time for festivities and parties, many in the Georgian era consumed a lightly spiced ale with honey from large drinking bowl. The Wassail bowl was passed around the dinner table from guest to guest. The Anglo-Saxon term “weas hael” is what the Wassail Bowl was traditionally toasted to – meaning “for your health”.

Mince Pies

Mince pies have always been a popular item to eat around Christmas time. Today, the average Briton consumes an average of 27 mince pies at during the Christmas period.[3] However, mince pies haven’t always been the sweet treat we know them as today.

Traditionally, mince pies did contain mincemeat, typically being beef or mutton but in this period the type of meat would depend on the household income. These mince pies were a savory dish, rather than a sweet. Something strange about the mince pies is that during preparation an old tale demands that the mixture should only be stirred anti-clockwise. Also, the shape had great significance. They were an oval shape to represent the manger baby Jesus slept in.[2] Around Christmas, stars were put on top of the mince pie to represent the star that led the shepherds and kings to Bethlehem; this is something we still see today.

When looking at King George III’s Christmas Day Menu and many of the other menus for this festive period, “minced pyes” are a popular item incorporated into the daily feasts. You can see “2 dishes of minced pyes” at the bottom of the image to the right.

If you are interested in baking your own traditional Georgian mince pies, you can find a recipe put together by the National Trust here.

Christmas Pudding

Christmas pudding was regularly referred to as plum pudding within the Georgian era as one of its main ingredients was plum. Christmas pudding was traditionally made with chopped up pieces of meat, but within the Georgian period, suet was used instead. Again, like mince pies, plum pudding is something that frequently appears on King George III’s royal menus.

If you would like to make your own Georgian Christmas pudding this year take a look at the recipe below.

A boiled Plum Pudding – Hannah Glasse (18th-century recipe)

“Take a pound of suet cut in little pieces not too fine a pound of currants and a pound of raisins storied eight eggs half the whites half a nutmeg grated and a teaspoonful of beaten ginger a pound of flour a pint of milk beat the eggs first then half the milk beat them together and by degrees stir in the flour then the suet spice and fruit and as much milk as will mix it well together very thick Boil it five hours”.[]Hannah Glasse

I Hope you have enjoyed reading about Georgian Christmas dishes and get to try out the recipes. Happy baking!

[1] Serina Sandhu, Shoppers have already spent £4 million on mince pies (2017), [accessed 27 April 2019]

[2] The Journal, ‘The taste of Christmas past’ (2010), [accessed 27 April 2019].

[3] Joanne Mattern, ‘Celebrate Christmas’ (United States: Enslow Publishers, 2008), pp. 22.

[4] Ben Johnson, ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, <> [accessed 27 April 2019].

[5] Hannah Glasse, ‘The Art of Cookery made plain and easy’ (Michigan, 1967). pp. 167.5

Weather Forecasting: An English Virtue

Meteorology: the seasons, autumn. Engraving by A. Collaert . Credit: Wellcome Collection.

One of the readings from our class’s seminar caught my attention as an exciting topic to observe from the perspective of an early modern household. The suggested reading was a chapter within the first book of The English Husbandman (1635) by the prolific writer on domestic advice, Gervase Markham. As you can probably guess from the title, the chapter was regarding, ‘… other vertues, as namely how he shall judge and foreknow all kinde of weather and other seasons of the yeare.’ The reason it was of interest was due to the lack of consideration I had placed on weather and seasonal predictions with its specific relevance to the household, before this source. The revelations described by Markham and my own personal curiosity have led me to comment on why this ‘skill’ was something husbandmen would aim to possess.

Defining the fore-telling of the seasons and weather as a ‘vertue’ and devoting a whole chapter to this skill shows the importance Markham placed upon a man’s ability to know the future climate. Initially, this seemed strange, referring to weather watching and season prediction as a virtue in early modern England. I presumed the accuracy and belief in weather prediction would have been minimal in a society which had yet to enter the period of scientific enlightenment. However, the specific instructions Markham presents to predict weather and seasons suggests that ordinary husbandmen had some investment in these beliefs which to the modern reader appear incredibly abstract. It required the husbandman to be in tune with the natural world around him, relying on cues in the environment.

The English Husbandman (1635) p. 19.

One method which was used before the emergence of the barometer in the late 17th Century was natural astrological theory, judging the weather by looking at the celestial bodies.[1] These movements and the weather produced from them were believed to be directly linked to human physiology.[2] The renaissance revival in the humoral theory connected the weather conditions and more specifically astrology to effects on bodily fluids.[3]This mirroring was a key aspect of Markham’s weather and season predictions. The latter part of the chapter concerns the reactions a husbandman should have to the prediction of a poor year in health, rather than solely foretelling weather as the title suggests, Markham integrates monthly medical intervention with general observations which impacted on agricultural wealth. (See example above)

The other technique which Markham gives the husbandman for long term weather forecasting was using the weather experienced during the first twelve days of Christmas as a guide to the weather over the whole year, each day corresponding to each month. This was a conventional technique used in Western Europe, although the first day of observations varied regionally, with some nations choosing the New Year to mark the monthly weather.[4] This would have been a simple way for a husbandman to predict monthly weather patterns. It would have been more accessible to the ordinary man compared to the astrological practices which could be sophisticated and require calculations.[5] Nonetheless, the visible celestial changes such as moon phases and eclipses were expected to be observed under Markham’s instruction. This popular astrology could indirectly influence mortality through the weather changes; it was advisable to take note.

The English Husbandman (1635) p. 16.

Agricultural society in this period was vulnerable to adverse weather conditions, extremes in seasons could result in reduced crop yields, and traditional farming methods did not have a way to protect against these or absorb the losses adequately. Knowledge of weather would have been useful for planning, to prevent or promote the available farming methods. A good understanding of weather would lay the foundation for successful agricultural practices and allow the husbandman to hone his skills on the later parts of the book, such as planting, grafting and harvesting.

The majority of the advice given seems extremely rational and practical for the English husbandman, such when to expect ‘good yeares’ by observing where frosts fell, and plants bloomed at certain times during the year.

A woodcut representing one month from the peotry work by Edmund Spenser, “The shepheards calender : conteining twelue æglogues proportionable to the twelue monthes : entituled, to the noble and vertuous gentleman, most worthie of all titles, both of learning and chiualry, Maister Philip Sidney” (London, 1591) p.55. Credit: Internet Archive Book Images

Ordinary early modern families were reliant upon favourable weather conditions to ensure they avoided spells of dearth and famine. Weather could, therefore, be something which determined life and death for many communities. Knowledge of weather and changes of the season’s patterns and adapting to future weather would have been extremely desirable in this period. Finding ways to harness the natural world would give the husbandman some feeling of control. In times when people were susceptible to serious illness having some forward knowledge on the health of your family to plan for sickness would have been beneficial, even if the source of such knowledge was questionable. In hindsight, the importance Markham places on weather knowledge is reasonable; we take accurate weather forecasting for granted in the modern world.

Luckily the stakes are not as high in today’s society. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see the importance of weather prediction in this period. Perhaps the fact that some of these weather beliefs still exist shows how ingrained the confidence in personal weather forecasting is in the English psyche.

[1] Jan Golinski, ‘Barometers of Change: Meteorological Instruments as Machines of Enlightenment’ in William Clark, Jan Golinski and Simon Schaffer (eds.), The Science of enlightened Europe (Chicago, 1999), p. 82.

[2]Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England (Princeton, 1989), p. 23.

[3]Golinski, ‘Barometers of Change’, p. 70.

[4] Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: everyday ritual and magic in premodern Europe (London, 2000), p. 53.

[5]Curry, Prophecy and Power, p. 11.

Technology and the downfall of Recipe Books

Times have changed with the advancement of technology, and practically anything can be found on the internet. In the early modern historical period the internet evidently did not exist; books were the principal source for finding information to any questions that one needed to know. Books were available on how to cultivate land, grow food and recipes ranging from food to medicine. But has the advancement in technology meant that recipe books are a thing of the past?

Technology such as the internet has made accessing recipes to be at the click of a button; you can search ‘recipes’ into google and find yourself with over 2.6 Billion sites worth of recipes. In the past the equivalent of this would be a recipe book, which would be passed down through many generations within a family. The Johnson Family recipe book was written between the years 1694 to 1831, with hundreds of distinct recipes that also include medicinal recipes.

The Johnson Family Recipe Book 1694-1831.

Recipe books in family households were passed down through generations; the different handwriting shows how many authors were involved in the making of one recipe book. The Johnson Family recipe book had a continuous change of calligraphy; the writing at the beginning of the book is not the same as the last page in the book. The recipe book also holds sentimental value; ‘Elizabeth Phillips’ is the first name to appear, then it is written ‘Elizabeth Johnson the gift of her Mother Johnson’[1]. The handing down of a recipe book makes it an heirloom, where generation after generation was able to include their own recipes that future generations could try.

Technology has made the sentimental value and worth of recipe books almost disappear. People now no longer need to keep a copy of a recipe, as they can always find the recipe they need by searching for it on the internet. Although it has also allowed for others to share their most special family recipes, one that springs to mind that I have attempted is from Pasta Grannies. They are able to use the internet to share recipes they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. Family recipes are now able to reach all ends of the earth, rather than stay in one family household recipe book.

An example of medicine recipes.

Recipe books were critical in the everyday life, especially for when a person fell sick. Medicinal recipes were used in the hopes to cure people; if it worked then it would be recorded in a book and the recipe would not be lost. A medicinal recipe could be found between food recipes; ‘A salve for any soare but chiefly for a burning sore’ recipe was written following a ‘To make short cakes‘ recipe[2]. By having the medical recipes in-between food recipes shows just how vital and essential it was for people to keep a record of the recipe cures. However, with the advancement of technology, we are also able to find remedies online for common illnesses; there even are online doctors that can diagnose our symptoms! Thus the requirement no longer exists to hold onto recipes that can cure our illnesses.     

An example of a ‘good’ approval on a recipe.

When you look at a recipe book you may notice little squiggles around the recipes. These squiggles are in fact notes which vary from asserting that a recipe is ‘good’ (and even better if they have a tick next to the ‘good’). To even the disapproval of other recipes represented by being crossed out of the recipe book; ‘to make Goosbery Viniger’ in the Johnson Family recipe book was edited to be improved, but in the end crossed out of the recipe book. In some recipes, tips are included of what was done to improve a recipe. A Johnson family member found to perfect making ‘boiled sydar’ you need to have ‘16 pound of pouder sugar to a hogs head’ [3]. This is no different to online recipes’ comment sections, where comments are filled with approval or disapproval of people who have tried the recipes.  Some even offer advice on how to improve recipes by adding or removing ingredients, just like in recipe books.

Recipe books hold significant value, as we are still continuing to use them, this includes both in food and medicine especially. We no longer have to keep a record of recipes, as we can find any recipe through technology; which has meant in the loss of recipe books being written in the modern day. Technology has allowed for the creation of apps such as ‘Food Network’, which allows you to store your favourite food recipes; thus having a large book filled with recipes would be inconvenient. Let me know what you think, are recipe books a thing of the past?      

[1] Wellcome Library. Johnson Family recipe book (MS3082) London, 1694-1831  

[2] LUNA: Folger Manuscript Transcriptions Collection, Medicinal and cookery recipes [manuscript]. (124205) Complicated ca, 1625-1725

[3] Wellcome Library. Johnson Family recipe book (MS3082) London, 1694-1831

Collecting Knowledge and Family Secrets.

In the modern world, spending time in the kitchen and developing new methods and recipes for cooking has somewhat diminished – with many preferring the sociability and immediate readiness presented by restaurants and fast-food establishments. With so much choice and a wide-range of cuisine styles, it is easy to see why but whilst we are spoilt for choice, are we depriving ourselves of the same choices and styles in our own kitchens?

Elaine Leong’s article on collecting knowledge has made me consider what culinary secrets my family may hold, if any and why such knowledge has not been passed down to me as readily as it may have been for a first-born daughter in an early modern household. Leong explains that the family worked as a collective and that no one member was exempt from contributing to the pages of what would become a family book, dedicated to food recipes and medicinal recipes for the curing or relief from ailments but also of lineage and family history. [1] Whilst I can’t imagine my parents keeping such records, as they too prefer the efficiency of modern-day dining and have the luxury of modern healthcare, I thought of my nan, who seems to always be hand-preparing food for our visits.

Upon speaking with her, I soon came to the realisation that whilst early modern households preferred the handwritten sources of knowledge, my Nan retained hers internally. When I questioned her on any potential family recipes passed down from her mother and Nan she simply replied with “It’s all in my head. I remember because I watched my mother do it so often, it just became something ingrained.” To my surprise she also told me that she had never measured anything and that written recipes, because of their reliance on measurements, were better thought of rather than written down – as by reading them, you felt restricted to follow them precisely. Instead she judges her quantities based on visual appearance – something else she attributes to watching her mother closely in the kitchen. All the recipes she then went on to give examples of tended to be those of the dessert type – puddings and cakes.

When I questioned her further on why she had never passed down the knowledge to my mother, she simply replied that it was because she didn’t need it and had never asked or showed an interest in collecting the knowledge. My mother, whilst she cooks many fresh and homey meals, does not tend to make things such as bread and puddings from scratch – which is mainly since they are so cheaply and readily available in the supermarkets pre-made. Modern-day families tend to be working families now, with each member absent from the house daily, going about work and education. When and if the entire family does reside in the same room at the same time, time is very much of the essence and so in respect of my mother’s household, there simply isn’t the time to invest so much in to baking and dessert making.

Only a few hours after the initial conversation with my Nan, I received another call from her – correcting her early notion that every recipe she had was mentally retained as she had a digitally kept version of a recipe for Irish Soda Bread passed down from my granddad’s side of the family. It had come in to her possession after a distant family member had come across the recipe in his ancestors’ collections and had transcribed it digitally to distribute to those members of the family that lived too far from him to be able to verbally communicate. Upon glancing at the recipe, I suddenly came to a realisation about my own habits of collecting information.

Whilst I have already mentioned my awareness of my Nan hand-preparing food, I personally, had never asked for her advice when preparing food, myself. The digital format of the soda bread recipe was so familiar to me that I realised that I had spent a great deal of time looking up recipes through search engines, rather than collecting it generationally and I had done so naturally and without thought. With everything so readily available via the internet and with the devices connected to the internet being so vast and numerous, I had flocked to them for the answers to my questions, rather than speaking with the people in my family. As a product of my time, I also tend to buy ready-made ingredients from the supermarket and much of my daily food is plucked from the depths of my freezer. Whilst I cannot change my past actions, glancing over the surface of the potential culinary secrets of my family has made me determined to give use to my kitchen and to make the most of the knowledge that could be available to me, if I only I could stray from the convenience of the internet and verbally and physically communicate with those around me.

[1] Elaine Leong, Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household (2013) <> Wiley Library Online Library <> [date accessed 28 March 2019]

How to Craft the Perfect Orchard

If like me, living in a city means you don’t really have much garden space, so I can say I have never grown anything before in my life. But this hasn’t always been the case. From the first half of the twentieth century, orchard gardens began propping up all over England on the properties of high-status houses, sometimes owned by religious orders or noblemen. Particularly in Greater London’s county of Herefordshire, fruit orchards were easy to come across due to its excellent microclimate, which creates the perfect conditions for growing fruit. Nowadays, Herefordshire has an abundance of craft cider manufactures, like Gwatkin Cider but the county is still home to many orchards, for example, Shenley Park.

Gervase Markham (1568- 3 February 1637) was an English poet and author. Coming from a family of knights and nobles, he was largely exposed to the luxuries of the upper-class social order, making him no stranger to the operations of a household or pleasure gardens.

Markham wrote about many subjects. His works ranged from comedy, poetry, novels, and ‘how to’ books. One of his most popular works is The English Huswife.

Looking at the second part of Markham’s The English Husband I am going to explore just how the English Husbandman crafted the perfect orchard; this will definitely come in handy if you ever inherit 50 acres or land or if, like us, you marvel at those who lived in Early Modern Europe.

Crafting Your Orchard

To begin with, you want to seek out the sunniest, airiest section of land in your newly inherited property. If your garden faces south, you’re in luck, you’ll have direct sunlight from the south and west sun beaming on your property, helping the growing process.

The foundations of your orchard should look as displayed on the left. Craft a great large square, approximately 12 to 14ft, before sectioning off into four quarters. In the centre, if you’re feeling extra fancy you can add a fountained, as fashioned in the diagram, or maybe a small pond.

At this point, we’re ready to plant our fruit trees. The U.K bestselling apple is Gala apples, originally an apple of New Zealand. They grow extremely well in our climate and are profitable. Markham suggests the planting of pears and wardens (a hard cooking pear) as the next best option, and quinces and chestnuts are your third. Depending on how much fruit variety you would like, stone fruits, such as apricots, peaches etc. can be grown by the wall at the north section of your orchard.

Your orchard should aim to resemble the diagram to the right. Our smaller dots are your stone fruits, like your peaches, plums, or apricots. The centre consists of our apple trees. These are to be around 5 feet apart from one another.

Within 6 to 10 years your orchard should be flourishing. Get ready for endless plum and apple tarts!

Some tips for perfecting your orchard:

  1. Make sure your soil is fertile.
  2. Choose your fruit wisely. English climate is moderate, to say the least. Fruit trees, such as apples, plums, pears and cherries thrive in our mild climate. Remember, apples are delicious.
  3. Plant your summer and winter fruits at different times. Planting them together can prove problematic; this is because as seasons change the soil moisture fluctuates, which can affect the way the fruit develops.

Other links:

To learn more about the history of the orchard see Pee Brown’s The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit.

‘Little Adults’?: The Presence of Children in the Early Modern Household

When reflecting upon the early modern household’s project, the lack of children present in the source material was raised and having already researched the extraordinary child demoniac cases of the late Elizabethan and Early Stuart periods, I decided to delve further. Considering the increased ratio of the child demographic in the early modern period, I found it odd that not more mention is made of children in relation to the household/family unit. There were plenty of children around so why are they not all-over contemporary literature?  

Early modern children have previously been considered as ‘little adults’, bred for labour and repressed of play and nurturement. [1] One answer is that they were not regarded as ‘full humans’ until they reached adulthood and could contribute to the household, therefore their mention was irrelevant. Yet when I came across two particularly worried women seeking advice from Sir. Hans Sloane about their children’s illnesses, I was glad to know that they certainly did care about their offspring, and a great deal too. Children tend to appear in sources when there was a cause for concern, the emotional despair of parents is then best seen through private documentation such as letters and diaries. The seventeenth-century diarist Reverend Ralph Josselin, constantly reflected upon his children’s fortunes and misfortunes, confirming that they were always on his mind. [2]

To be clear, childhood in the early modern period it is the stage before ‘youth’, which we would now interpret as adolescence. I am not suggesting that some early modern children, namely those of poorer families weren’t turfed out of home to work when circumstances required, but this was out of necessity and not choice. In terms of the middling classes at least, it can be gleaned that children could live out their childhoods with joy and love.

Mrs Tothill and Mrs Lowther wrote to Sloane with unrestrained desperation. Concerned that her son’s trouble with worms was re-emerging, Mrs Lowther lamented: [3]

‘I cant help fearing the Consequence of such frequent returns & therefore though it proper to acquaint you that we are very apprehensive’

Similarly, Mrs Tothill pleaded with Sloane :

‘I humbly beg you to grant me so as to take him into your compasinat and affecinat cear as a youth far from his own family and Sr both Mr Tothills and my grattud shall attend you in the most perticullers manner affecinat parants can show’

Mrs Tothill recognises that Sloane is unknown to her personally, yet her grief over one of her four sons whom ‘is a very dear dearling child’ to her and Mr Tothill is so great it prompts her to seek out Sloane. [4]

Yet these are parents of the eighteenth-century, a time where Phillip Aries decided families began to care for their children. [5] Apparently, until some point in the seventeenth-century, child-parent relations were distant and there was no such separation between the stages of childhood and youth, children were simply expected to ‘adult’ quickly. Being familiar with the child demoniac cases I must disagree with Aries. Parents were more concerned for their children than ever in the post reformation decades, a surge of child rearing publications became available, [6] and the removal of the element of exorcism in baptisms created an enhanced fear for the salvation of children.

Early modern children represented a religious battleground, where either God or the Devil would persevere, and the child’s predestination would become clear. In some cases, this battle was very visible. When 14-year-old Mary Glover fell into fits in 1602, later ascribed to possession, her parents feared so much for her life that they ‘caused the bell to be touled for her’. [7] Throughout the detailed report on her case, the efforts her parents went to cure her and the emotional trauma they felt is obvious. Regularly noted as being by Mary’s side is her mother, and her father did all he could with his connections to restore her health, sending forth ‘many harty sighes’ when preachers gathered to pray for Mary. [8] The concerns that prompted parents to seek advice or reflect upon in diaries were largely generated by health and prosperity, unsurprisingly interlinked with the religiosity of the era.

Considered by many to have been taking advantage of their enhanced position as demoniacs, the Throckmorton children enjoyed playing with others whilst out of their fits. [9] In fact, play was one of the only things that could temporarily restore Elizabeth Throckmorton:

‘she was never out of her fit within doores…she would be merrie and lightsome, finding many things wherein she would take delight, as playing with her cosens’ [10]

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game (1555).

By looking at private and extraordinary sources, the presence of children is found, and they are not projected as neglected little adults at all, clearly ‘children pastime themselves’ with ‘light and childish sportes’. [11] These snippets rather suggest a strong, emotional connection between the early modern parent and child.


[1] Paul Griffiths, Youth and Authority (New York, 1996).

[2] Alan Macfarlane (ed.), The Diary of Ralph Josselin: 1616 – 1683 (Oxford, 1976).

[3] K. Lowther to Hans Sloane, 1739-05-02, Sloane MS 4076, f. 48, British Library, London.

[4] Tothill to Hans Sloane, 172-08-14, Sloane MS 4046, ff. 282 – 283, British Library, London,

 f. 283r.

[5] Phillipe Aries, Centuries of Childhood (1962).

[6] John Lyster, A rule how to bring vp children (London, 1588).

[7] Stephen Bradwell, Mary Glovers Late and Woefull Case, Together with her Joyfull Deliverance (1603), British Library, Sloane MS 831, f. 4v.

[8] John Swan, A True and Breife Report, of Mary Glovers Vexation (1603), p.8.

[9] D. P. Walker, Unclean Spirits, (London, 1981).

[10] Unknown, The most strange and admirable discouerie of the three witches of Warboys, 1593,pp. 10 – 12.

[11] Ibid.

Further reading:

Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman, Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (New Haven, 1994).

French, Anna, Children of Wrath: Possession, Prophecy and the Young in Early Modern England (Farnham, 2015).

Sharpe, J. A., ‘Disruption in the Well-Ordered Household: bAfe, Authority and Possessed Young people’ in Paul Griffiths, Adam Fox and Steve Hindle (eds), The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1996).


During a visit to the University of Essex’s Special Collections, whilst pursuing a number of early modern household books, I came across the term ‘self-murder’ in George Cheyne’s A Treatise on Health and Long Life, (London, 1787), p. 142.       

Self-murder or suicide as we know it today, was not something that had previously popped up during my studies, and therefore caught my attention.  It got me thinking about what this term meant to those of early modern society, and how their understanding and reactions to it mirrored or differed from ours.

There has always been to a certain extent a perceived stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, and even up until the last few decades it has not been something openly spoken about, which could explain its lack of real presence in historical literature.

In the aforementioned treatise from the year 1787, Cheyne explicitly linked the occurrence of self-murder in Britain to the high frequency of chronical distempers, such as scurvy.  He suggested that the British’s inability ‘to suffer patiently the lasting pains of chronical distemper’ resulted in their opting to take their life by means of suicide.  This brief mention of suicide really sets the tone, that self-murder was understood by Cheyne at least, as a weakness of character.

 I wanted to know more and upon further investigation I came across Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy’s comprehensive investigation into the history of suicide, Sleepless Souls, (Oxford, 1990).  They discuss how early modern responses and attitudes towards self-murder came full cycle.  First hardening and then returning to a more sympathetic and tolerant view more in alignment with the ancient philosophies. 

In Tudor and early Stuart England self-killing was not only a sin in the context of religion but also a criminal felony. This was due to its knock on effect within society, such as the family of a male self-murderer being unable to cope financially.  This crime was taken very seriously and would be tried posthumously, with the heirs of the deceased being severely punished for their actions.

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, (Surrey, 1852).

Ophelia’s suicide in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (London, 1589), although fictitious is one example that publicly illustrated how diverse the responses to suicide in the early modern period were. They were symptomatic to the legal, theological and popular attitudes of society. 

Let us look at what had occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to bring about this complete transformation of opinion that MacDonald and Murphey talk about.  They believe that political and religious changes have much to do with the increasing hostility towards suicide, specifically the Protestant Reformation.  Protestant reformers preached that suicide was a terrible sin instigated by the devil and a crime against God.[1]  In this sense it would be easy to see why attitudes towards self-murder changed, with religion being so deeply embedded within the heart of every early modern household. 

George Abbot the then future archbishop of Canterbury spoke of suicide as being the very antithesis of Christian hope, ‘a sin so grieuous that scant any is more heinous unto the Lord’.[2]  These sorts of opinions were reiterated and stressed in many other treatise, sermons and devotional works, really entrenching early modern society with this belief concerning suicide, despite the lack proofs supporting it within the bible. 

A further notion regarding suicide preached by the clergy, was that self-murder actually came from God, as an act of retribution for sins committed.  This argument was employed as a tool during the reformation as a way to promote one’s own church, and examples were used of Catholic persecutors of Protestants that went mad and then killed themselves.

Despite attitudes evidently becoming more hostile during the Protestant reformation, it is worth mentioning what the Catholic Church thought in regards to the act of self-murdering.   

According to Catholic teaching despair was a sin unforgivable, and suicide was the consequence of extreme despair, and was therefore one of the seven mortal sins.  This belief would to a certain extent, contradict the view that the reformation had as much to do with the changing attitudes towards self-murder as first thought.  The Catholic association of suicide and despair is clearly depicted in Giotto Di Bondone’s Seven Vices and Seven Virtues (Padua, 1306)found in the Cappella Scrovegni Chapel.

After 1660 a greater ecclesiastical, judicial and societal leniency towards self-murder was evident, the causes are more complex than those that contributed to the earlier hardening of attitudes.  Much of it is owing to the English Revolution and its after effects upon local government and legal institutions.  

The abolition of prerogative courts, the fall of censorship, and the rise of the new science enlightenment philosophy, all played their parts.[3]  Many were in opposition to this relaxing of attitudes some even protested, nevertheless this was a time of cultural change and the lay persons opinions outweighed those in support of severity concerning self-murder. 

The rise in literacy towards the end of the eighteenth century also enabled more to read the widely published defences of suicide, and it came to be regarded by many as a rational choice.  Despite the law against self-murder not actually being changed until the nineteenth century, the use of it in court became increasingly suspended.   

With suicide being ever present in our daily news as the biggest killer of men under 49, I felt it was important to see how over time attitudes to it have changed.  Even in the early modern period acceptance and sympathy for the victims of self-murder won over the judicial and ecclesiastical attitudes of hostility.  It is innate to sympathise with fellow human beings especially in their darkest times, nobody should ever feel ashamed or alone when suffering mental health issues.   

Bibliography/Further Reading

Abbot, George, An Exposition Upon the Prophet Jonah, (London, 1600).

Bondone, Giotto Di, Desperatio, (Padua, 1306).

Cheyne, George, A Treatise on Health and Long Life, (London, 1787).

MacDonald, Michael & Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls, (Oxford, 1990).

MacDonald, Michael, ‘The Medicalization of Suicide in England: Laymen, Physicians, and Cultural Change, 1500-1870’, in Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History, eds. Charles E. Rosenberg, Janet Lynne Golden, (New Jersey, 1997).

Millais, Sir John Everett, Ophelia, (Surrey, 1852).

Mortality Analysis Team, ‘Suicides in the UK: 2017 registrations’,, Office for National Statistics,, [accessed 25/03/2019].

Murray, Alexander, Suicide in the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 1998).

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, (London, 1589).

[1] MacDonald, Sleepless, p. 5.

[2] George Abbot, An Exposition Upon the Prophet Jonah, (London, 1600), p. 132.

[3] MacDonald, Sleepless, p.109.

Becoming Michael Fish: using Early Modern methods to predict the weather

The weather forecast plays an arbitrary role in most of our day to day lives as a segment on the news or something to quickly check on an app. It only really becomes important when planning a day out or looking out for severe weather warnings. Weather is not something most people are concerned about unless in extreme conditions or if the weather is predicted incorrectly, such as in 1987 when Michael Fish assured viewers in his lunchtime weather broadcast that there was not a hurricane on the way. However, in the early hours of the next day, the south coast of England faced gales that reached 115 miles per hour.[1]

‘Michael Fish revisits 1987’s Great Storm’, BBC News, 16 October 2017.

For people in the early modern period, especially those who relied on agrarian method for their own produce and business, the weather was pivotal in ensuring their survival. Gervase Markham includes a section in his book The English Husbandman (1635) about how to read signs from the sun, moon, clouds and air to help the reader predict the weather, with a focus on rain. The fact that it was included as part of a book that ‘contained the knowledge of Husbandly Duties’ shows how vital it was to have some understanding of the weather in early modern society.

Stephen Wilson highlights that weather prediction was not a new practice in the early modern period and that it took place in the Ancient world as well and could be linked to divine beings.[2] Weather in the early modern period was not perceived as just a natural occurrence but also influenced or controlled by other forces such as God, saints, demons or humans with specials powers such as witches which allowed for its unpredictability.

For five days, I have used Markham’s guide to reading signs about the weather to see if I could successfully forecast the weather or become the next unfortunate Michael Fish. On Thursday, around lunchtime, the day seemed grey with a thick blanket of cloud covering the sky.

‘If there you shall at any time perceive a Cloud rising from the lowest part of the Horizon, and that the maine body be blacke and thicke, and his beames (as it were) Curtaine-wise, extending upward, and driven before the Windes: it is a certaine and infallible signe of a present shower of Raine, yet but momentary and soone spent, or passed over : but if the Cloud shall arise against the Winde, and as it were spread it selfe against the violence of the same, then shall the Raine be of much longer continuance.’

Gervase Markham’s ‘signes from the cloud’

Checking Markham’s ‘Signes from the cloud’, the cloud did seem to start at the horizon and cover the sky but did not seem particularly black or thick. As a black and thick cover of cloud is a sign of a brief rainy shower, I forecast that there would be a light shower later in the day , more of a drizzle fitting to the pale clouds. I was wrong – at about 3pm, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue and clear. Going back over my notes, I realised I should have noticed the lack of waterfowl on the lake – if the ducks and geese would have been on the lake then it would have been almost certain to have rained.

‘If you shall perceive water-Fowle to bathe much’

After falling short reading cloud signs, I turned to Markham’s more definitive signs. Markham suggests that salt becoming moist when placed in a dry place is a sure sign that rain will follow. So, I placed salt on my bedroom windowsill, in an attempt to limit the effects of modern-day insulation and left it overnight. When checked the first two mornings, the salt had remained dry which was consistent with the fine, spring weather forecast, however on third morning the salt had become damp, forming clumps that suggested rain was on the way – although I could not spot the neighbour’s cat washing behind her ear to confirm with a sign from a beast, rain did follow.

‘If Salt turne moyst standing in dry places’

While my readings of Markham’s signs were not always accurate, the empirical reasoning behind the signs are identifiable. By observing the moisture levels in salt, dampness in the air can be visibly seen which suggests incoming wet weather. Empirical observation is also seen in the various descriptions of cloud colouring that suggests rain, an understanding which is common today with dark clouds in the day suggesting that rainfall is due. Markham, like Michael Fish, used the tools he had to best predicate the weather and educate others of the best way of doing so. Markham’s work shows how early modern people running households sought to bring order and predictability to their lives. Through reading signs in order to predict the weather, the good husbandman would have been able to prepare and plan in order to best provide for his household. While weather forecasts may not play such a pivotal role in all our daily lives, except for businesses where work takes places mainly outside, the impact when it is predicted wrong can be catastrophic, just ask Michael Fish!

[1] Joe Shute, ‘Weatherman Michael Fish on missing the Great Storm of 1987: ‘when I saw what happened I thought, ‘oh s***’’, The Telegraph (12 October 2017), [accessed 1 April 2019]

[2] Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London, 2000), pp. 57-58.

Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman (London, 1635), pp. 10-13, [accessed 25 March 2019].

A 17th Century recipe in a 21st Century kitchen.

Today we have the world at our finger tips. We can order products or goods online and have them delivered right to our front doors. We can pop to the shops and have fruits and food goods from around the world available to us. If we want to try something new, we have endless resources to help us find the best recipes. The accessibility we have to recipes today has removed the importance of cooking advice and recipe books being passed down, edited and improved through the generations; now we simply go onto the internet or the shops and buy or find the best recipe that suits us. The lack of exclusivity of recipe books today in comparison to the seventeenth century has inspired me to follow a recipe and record the results. From this experiment I hope to discover if there is something to be said for the almost casual formatting of recipes and the smells and flavours people in the seventeenth century experienced and if the same can be created in a twenty-first century kitchen.

John and Joan Gibson: Medical recipe book, 1632-1717.

‘To make lemmon Marmalad’ is a recipe from John and Joan Gibson’s medical recipe book. The first entry to this book was 1634 and the last 1717. It was interesting to find food recipes alongside recipes for medicines, however home remedies were often used when a doctor was not available therefore it comes as no surprise to find recipe ‘To make Lemmon Marmalad’ in the same book as a recipe for ‘if ye be swelld & ye humor hott’. The three hands in this recipe book belonged to John Gibson, Joanne Gibson and Joanna Gibson, this is an example of recipe books being used by the family and handed down through the generations. Adding to this often, the author would be credited alongside the recipes, for example, ‘given me by Lady Davey 1717’ shows the exchange of recipes and the relationship between women.

John and Joan Gibson: Medical recipe book, 1632-1717.

The format and way this recipe reads is different to the format seen in today’s recipes. There are no titles for ingredients, equipment and method. There are no measurements of time and heat. The general lack of specific information in the recipe shows the possibility such details were not needed in the seventeenth-century. This gives insight to the difference in the requirements of a recipe book then and what are needed now. The recipe reads as a list of instructions therefore when trying to gather ingredients and the appropriate equipment for the recipe, I had to read the recipe several times. Terms used such as ‘put it to’ made the instructions unclear and hard to understand what the method required me to do. As a result, although this is a relatively simple recipe, the re-reading and lack of guidance made this recipe fairly difficult to follow. The ingredients are interesting as quantities and types were not provided. For example ‘Take green apples’ it does not say how many apples or the type (regular or cooking?) of apples to use. This could have resulted in a different tasting marmalade each time this recipe was followed therefore the consistency of this recipe’s results come into question. Did this recipe produce the same marmalade every time?  The lack of specific details in the recipe could not have guaranteed this lemon marmalade would have always reliably been the same. The recipe would likely have been interpreted differently each time therefore producing difference in the taste and texture of the marmalade depending on the quantities of ingredients used by different people.  I also wondered ‘why am I using apples in lemon marmalade?’  Sugar was expensive in the seventeenth-century therefore using apples as a sweetener for the marmalade can be a justification. The availability of lemons may have also contributed to the use of apples in lemon marmalade as lemons were likely imported and so apples were easier to come by in volume. I suggest apples were used to add to the texture, sweetness and volume to the lemon marmalade. The lack of clear instructions and precise ingredients present the idea the availability of flavours, ingredients and equipment would have encouraged the motion to use whatever was available to those following this recipe.

My ‘Lemmon Marmalad’

Overall, the aroma in the kitchen was very pleasant and sweet, especially when boiling the apples. Due to the lack of explicit measurements and quantity of ingredients, it took three batches to find the right lemon, sugar and apple ratio to make an edible marmalade. The result was a syrup-like, particularly sticky, tangy and sour marmalade with a bitter sweet aftertaste. The experience of reading and following a seventeenth-century recipe has been interesting as it has shown relative difference in the understanding and requirements of recipes between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries.

My First Transcription Project

I have just completed the final pages from my first experience of transcribing historical documents, and so I thought this would be the perfect time to write a blog post about this particular assignment. I will be discussing what I learned about the process of transcription, the issues that I encountered while transcribing the particular document that I was working on and what the pages I transcribed taught me about Early Modern recipe’s and recipe books.

An example of one of the pages that I transcribed
An example of one of the pages that I transcribed

The pages that I was transcribing came from the recipe book of Margaret Baker. Baker compiled this recipe book throughout her lifetime and it was published in 1675, making it a fantastic source of inquiry into the nature of recipes and recipe books in early modern England. Although little is known of Margaret Baker, like many authors of recipe books in the early modern period she was most likely a housewife. No dates are given to suggest when each recipe was put into the collection, but it is likely that Baker compiled these recipes across much of her lifetime, especially given the sheer volume and variety of recipes present within the tome. The first thing I noticed upon skimming through the pages of Baker’s book was the way in which the style of handwriting used changed throughout the progression of the novel. This coupled with the fact that the same words are spelt in a different way many times throughout the book (For example, morning and morninge) leads me to believe that Margaret was almost certainly not the only person who contributed recipes to the book. She most likely had help from other sources, which is quite common of recipe books of the period, perhaps from a family member. In one page I transcribed, the words “Nuesse Gessett” are written next to one of the recipes. Having not found any evidence to suggest that these are actual words, I can only assume that it is a name, most likely of the person that contributed that particular recipe to the book.

Having never done transcription of any sort before this, I wasn’t even really sure what transcription was. For this particular book, I was transcribing  using the semi-diplomatic format, which meant that I was supposed to transfer the text from the book to a modern document, whilst keeping the language and punctuation used as close as possible to the original text. This meant I would copy down the text as it was written on  the page, and I was not to correct the spelling of words  or add punctuation where the original author had not. The DROMIO software that I was using to transcribe Baker’s book included a number of handy XML buttons that could be used to aid in my transcription. I could mark page breaks, headings, text insertions, text in the margins, and it even allowed for the tagging of superscript text and symbols that represented words, such as the symbol for ‘ye’ which cannot be represented in modern computerised format.

A picture of the DROMIO software that I used to transcribe Baker's book
A picture of the DROMIO software that I used to transcribe Baker’s book

There were many different features of Baker’s book that made it difficult for me to transcribe. The first, and main issue, was learning to read and understand the handwriting style used in the early modern period. Some letters were very difficult to distinguish from one another, the letter ‘s’ for example looks very like the letter ‘f’when written in early modern hand. Issues like this sometimes made letters very difficult to distinguish from one another, especially in the middle of a word where ‘r’, ‘e’ and ‘c’ looked very similar, as did ‘i’ and ‘l’, as well as ‘n’ and ‘m’. These jumbled letters in the middle of a word were not too much of a problem when part of a word that is part of the modern English language, as the first and last letters of the word were generally enough to give me a good idea as to what the word was. This, however, brings me onto the second big issue I encountered when transcribing, which was words that no longer exist in the English language, or are not recognisable when compared to their modern counterparts. If the word I was transcribing didn’t even exist, then how was I to know whether I had correctly transcribed it? Despite this issues however, I feel that after some practice I really got the hang of reading early modern text, and the speed at which I was able to read and transcribe pages greatly increased.

From my transcription of Baker’s book, I learnt a some interesting things about the types of recipes and the construction of early modern recipe books. The first thing that intrigued me was the huge variety of recipes that were present within the book. These ranged from simple pie recipes, to medicine and into alchemical recipes, with one page mentioning an elixir that healed almost every ailment one could possibly imagine. Another very interesting aspect of the book was it’s unusual forms of measurement, which included “the waight of 100 shilling nine pence of blacke pepper” and “brimstone as much as a great hasell nutt”. I still wonder as to how these could possibly be used as accurate forms of measurement, but nonetheless it was certainly intriguing, and makes me wonder if this was common across many recipe books of the period or if it was specific to Baker’s.

Overall, I would certainly say that this transcription project has been a positive experience. Not only has it allowed me to study this particular early modern recipe collection in great detail, it has also taught me a valuable skill which I will undoubtedly use again at some point in the future.


Recipe’s for Life

As you may have read in previous blog posts on this page, recipes are a much broader  concept than simply instructions for cooking. One thing that this can include is a recipe for trying to have children. Today there is all sorts of information available to couples trying to conceive. In the 21st Century it is more likely that couples trying to have children would go to a doctor and find out all sorts of sciencey ways that will improve their chances. But what about in the 17th Century – what did people then do to help them improve their chances? Without a secure knowledge of how reproduction worked and what roles the woman and men’s bodies played, you might think that couples simply played the odds. Enter Recipe Books. Aristotle’s Master-piece (probably not actually written by Aristotle himself) is one such book that gives advice for these couples.

To understand the thinking behind her advice (which I will go onto in a second – fear not), it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the humoral system. This theory was originally made by Hippocrates and expanded upon by Galen, and essentially argues that the body is made of the four ‘humors’; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. When these liquids were balanced you would be in perfect health, both physically and mentally. These humors had different qualities composed of; cold, hot, moist, and dry.

Diagram of the Four Humors

If you want more information on how this would affect people’s moods in a general way look here. What is important here for us is how people viewed women and men to help us understand why Aristotle’s Master-piece suggests certain methods for conception. The general consensus in Early Modern Europe was that women’s bodies are naturally cold and wet, whereas men’s bodies are naturally hot and dry.

And now we come toman the advice. It is interesting to see how people thought certain things would help conceive a child. For instance Aristotle’s Masterpiece has some methods about the act to encourage procreation.

One of the things that has not gone out of fashion is the concept of “Generous Restoratives”. In the 17th century this would consist of herbs that would help relax you and warm the body up, and ‘hot’ spices which would help the latter. This is where we see the idea of the humoral system come into play. Because the cold, wet body of a woman was not seen as the best way to conceive and keep a baby healthy. This means that in order to make a baby, ideally the woman would need to make herself warmer. This could be done through the restoratives, having a hot bath or even drinking wine. Although the reasons behind it have largely changed, there are still websites promoting the use of natural herbs to promote fertility. This is not because people still buy in to the humoral theory, but because it is believed to help with hormone balance and help relax the couple. This means that the “generous restoratives” Aristotle’s Masterpiece refers to may have actually had a positive effect on fertility, despite a misunderstanding of how human bodies worked.

The text also shows an importance of the humors after sex has occurred. Aristotle’s Masterpiece states that “when they’ve done what Nature does require, the Man must have a care he does not part too soon from the Embraces of his wife, lest some sudden interposing Cold should strike into the womb, and occasion a miscarriage1”. The thinking here is that because the man is naturally hot, whereas the woman is naturally cold, not cuddling after sex would cause the baby to miscarry. This means that cuddling after sex in the Early Modern Period was not just a show of affection, but also necessary to help you have a child.

What is really interesting is another piece of advice the masterpiece gives us is that in order to help conceive, sex should be “brisk and vigorous2”. This is interesting because it shows that people believed that the emotional state was very important to the conception of a child. What did this mean for arranged marriages where there was no love? The masterpiece states that “Sadness, trouble and Sorrow, are enemies to the delights of Venus” and should you try to conceive during this time it would have a “malevolent effect upon the Children3”, so it may be that you could have a child but that child would probably not turn out well. This could be signs of an early understanding of modern psychology. While they believe it is the mood during conception that would have a negative effect, growing up in a household where your parents are always fighting or sad may have negative consequences for the child.enhanced-buzz-24936-1372182219-1

The reason I found this manual so interesting was because a lot of the ideas used in it we still hold today. People will still use natural herbs to promote fertility, although not because they think it wi
ll warm up the naturally cold female body. People still like to cuddle after sex, again not because of the warmth for conception but because it is affectionate. Just because people in the Early Modern period did not have a firm grasp on how reproduction and the human bodies functioned, or differed with regards to sex, it did not mean that all the ideas were completely unfounded. Specifically regarding the restoratives, people would have experimented with different herbs and spices until they found something that seemed to work for them. This would be passed on to friends and family until a fairly well established and thoroughly tested method would become more prominent than others that only worked for a couple of people. Considering they were working off the humoral system it may seem bizarre that we are still using a few of their methods, but it does make sense. And hey, at least it’s an excuse for a nice hot bath.


[1] Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed, in Two Parts (London, 1697), pp. 91-94.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

The Use of Medical Recipes by Women Outside of the Household

When one examines the recipe books of Early Modern Europe, it is not a challenge to find a plethora of recipes designed to cure certain ailments and heal the human body. This makes it clear that a large number of housewives had an interest in medicine and its practice, and inside the home a number of women probably actively engaged in the practice of medicine. However, outside of the household the story was rather contrasting. It was not that women did not want practice medicine outside of the household, but rather that many men disapproved of it. Male physicians and apothecaries actively sought to limit, and later even ban, the women who wanted to practice medicine. An example of this was the Paris Surgeon’s Guild, who after 1484 would only accept the widows of former Master Surgeons as members of the guild, and later in 1694 women were outright barred from membership. One could assume that this systematic persecution of women in the medical field resulted in the non-presence of female medical practitioners outside of the home, but this would not be true. There were still women who chose to practice medicine outside of the home, and this blog post will examine two sources that demonstrate the vital role that some women played in Early Modern medicine and healing.

Saint Elizabeth cares for a patient in a hospital in Marlburg, Germany (1598)

The  first source that will be examined is a letter written by Lady Mary Wortley Mortagu to a woman named Sarah Chiswell (a friend in England). The letter was written in April 1717, and concerns Montagu’s observation of the process that was used in Turkey to treat Smallpox. Montagu was living in Turkey as she was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey. As Montagu is writing to a friend, I see little reason as to why she would lie about the events that she describes in her letter, and therefore they are most likely factually accurate.

Montagu starts of her letter by saying that “the Small Pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting“. The Turkish, through a process that was known to Montagu as ‘engrafting’, but was more commonly known at the time as variolation have managed to totally eradicate the harmful effects of the disease. Montagu explains that there is a set of old women whom “make it their business” to carry out the procedure. Although it is not clear whether this means this women pursued this venture for profit or simply for the good of the people, it is clear that these elderly women carried out the treatment. Montagu then describes the process of ‘engrafting’ in great detail, frequently referring to the old woman throughout. For example, “the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have open’d“. This implies that the old woman has a good understanding of the anatomy of the human body, further emphasising her knowledge and involvement in the practice of medicine. Montagu also makes it clear that these women do not perform medicine just within their household, but rather that “every year thousands undergo this operation“. Obviously there are not thousands of people within these women’s households, and so it seems they were treating the community at large. Towards the end of the letter Montagu mentions that she wants to have the process carried out on her son, demonstrating the trust she has in the medical knowledge that these women possess.

The second source is another letter, this time written by a man named J. Hare to the famous Early Modern physician Hans Sloane. Hare was a vicar for the Parish of Cardington in Bedfordshire, England. The letter describes a man who falls ill and is subsequently treated by a local woman. Hare assures Sloane of the accuracy of his claims, saying “I affirm and in Testimony have subscribed my name” at the end of the letter. As Hare is a man of God, a testimony from him almost guarantees the authenticity of his statement.

The letter starts out by describing that a man within a household where Hare was staying had had an ear pain for two or three days, and upon a female servant searching the man’s ear she noticed small maggot like creatures within the ear cavity. Hare then says that a woman from the neighbourhood was sent for. According to Hare, the woman “applyd to it ye steam of warm milk“. The woman was sent for from the local area, and so was most likely already known within the area as a healer and practitioner of medicine. The woman applies the treatment to the patient, and a little later Hare manages to pick 24 maggots out of the man’s ear, although some still remain that were too far into the ear to reach. Hare then says he “left him for about an hour… & then returning to him, I could at first perceive nothing but a think bloody matter but by degrees they worked outward and I pickd out nine more“. Hare states the next day, the man was better and complained of no more pain. It seems the treatment the village woman had applied was likely responsible for the  uptake in the man’s condition, as he had complained for several days of pain and suddenly no longer felt any. This exhibits the medical knowledge that this woman possessed, and gives us further evidence that women practiced medicine outside of their own homes. Interestingly enough, steam and is still known today to be an effective treatment for ear pain. Steam helps to clear the ear drum of pus and wax, which was most likely the bloody substance that Hare describes, and this seemed to push the maggots out of the patient’s ear.

Both these sources demonstrate that in the  Early Modern period, some women were not only demonstrating exceeding medical knowledge, but they were also actively practicing outside of their home environment. Women were likely responsible for healing a large number of people from within their local communities, and even though they often were not allowed to become licensed medical practitioners, this did not stop them from trying to make a difference.

Baker’s many Agues

By Abbie Burnett

As a class we have been drawing to the end of our recipe books project. Our website exhibition on Margaret Baker’s seventeenth century manuscript has launched, and I am certainly proud of how far we have come and how much we have learnt about the digital world of early modern recipes.

Baker’s manuscript has offered us many topics to research and explore, and it was after a last leaf through of its pages on the Folger website that I realised a recipe title reoccurred numerous times: “For An Ague”.  I personally have transcribed pages in which an ague recipe is featured, however I did not realise then that variants of this recipe were not just included once or twice, but eleven times throughout the manuscript. 

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker folio 38r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

So, what is an ague? It is not a word in which I was familiar with, at first I thought it may have been a miss spelling of the word ache, but this seemed unlikely as Baker includes recipes for aches within her book and so she is obviously aware of its spelling. So I searched for the term ague in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to discover that an ague was a form of feverish sickness, most likely to be malaria. According to this article, the term ague remained in common usage in England until the nineteenth century. My curiosity about these recipes was truly ignited; Malaria- in England?!

This then begs the question, why would Margaret Baker, who we know to have lived in the midlands of the UK, require so many recipes to treat Malaria? Today malaria is common in warmer environments close to the Earth’s equator. The Centres of the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  sites locations for highest transmission of the disease in Africa south of the Sahara and in parts of Oceania. You wouldn’t contract it in England- one benefit o
f living on such a rainy island.

This map shows an approximation of the parts of the world where malaria transmission occurs in the 21st-century.

For Baker living in seventeenth-century England, this does not seem to be the case. The inclusion of eleven recipes to treat an ague suggest that the disease was frequently affecting her or someone within her social circle. Baker even includes a recipe to treat a pregnant woman with an ague.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 81r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

Looking into the history of this disease I discovered an article on the British Medical Journal website titled Malaria in the UK: past, present, and futureFrom it I learnt that the disease was once indigenous to the UK, (and may once again be due to global warming but that’s an issue for another blog post…). It was only in the late nineteenth century, when the use of antimalarial drugs and improvements in the standard of living, that transmission of Malaria declined and eventually disappeared in England. Other evidence of agues prior to the nineteenth century can by found by looking to the famous William Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 and included agues in 8 of his plays! In the Tempest, one character diagnoses another with an ague and attempts to treat him with alcohol:

“. . . (he) hath got, as I take it, an ague . . . he’s in his fit now and does not talk after the wisest. He shall taste of my bottle: if he have never drunk wine afore it will go near to remove his fit . . . Open your mouth: this will shake your shaking . . . if all the wine in my bottle will recover him, I will help his ague.”[1]

Alcohol and opiates were commonly used to suppress the shaking fevers of malaria. Interestingly, the recipes that Baker includes to treat an ague differ quite a lot. Some recipes include alcohol as their main ingredient, like this one on (f.66v) made of simply the ‘white of 2 new leade eggs… and putt to it a spounefull of aqua vite’ to be mixed well and drunk before the ‘fite douth come’. While others include more varied ingredients such as this one on (f.75r) with a mix of herbs, plants and medicinal waters, and then created by a more complicated methodology- distilling.  However there are some common ingredients in baker’s ague recipes. These include; liquor/ ‘aquavitie’, ‘reddest sage’, ‘eall’, and ‘ealder buds’.  A couple of Baker’s recipes are specifically for ‘quarten’ agues, the OED defines this as a fever  that reoccurs every fourth day. This was surely a very unpleasant form of Malaria, which Baker would have been keen to heal.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 105v, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

The fact that Baker had eleven recipes to deal with the problem of agues suggests that not one individual recipe was particularly effective in curing malaria. It is possible that once the patient stopped taking their medicine their symptoms returned. Alternatively, Baker’s family may have been especially susceptible to agues or many different strains of the disease may have plagued them. This would have been common knowledge to Baker’s friends and neighbours, and may explain why a recipe was contributed by John Reedman “for an ague all though thay have had it longe”.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 126r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

The inclusion of ague recipes in Baker’s manuscript have helped reveal another aspect of the seventeenth-century world in which she existed. I am glad to have had that last leaf through of its pages. I’m sure whoever next takes up the task of continuing our work on Baker will continue to expose parts of her world this way. They will discover as I have, that her recipe book is much more revealing than it at first appears.  

[1]Paul Reiter, ‘From Shakespeare to Defoe: Malaria in England in the Little Ice Age’ Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal 6 (2006). 

The Digital Recipe Project – A Finale!

When i decided to choose The Digital Recipe Project back in the summer when i was deciding what third year modules to take on for this year, I did not think that I was going to grow such a bond with Margaret Baker, a seventeenth-century English housewife. Initially, I was very excited to be working with an entire recipe book written by a woman over 300 years ago and to have the chance to transcribe it into a digital format, like a professional historian! However, as the module progressed, Baker’s life and the society of which she lived in was becoming even more intriguing to me and I couldn’t help but want to find out more!

Initially, the idea of this module having such a vast digital component was exciting to me, being a 21st century young adult, the internet is at the centre of everything, and I thought I would have easily got the grasp of blog-writing and website-making. However, the reality was not as straight-forward, and trying to write an informal blog post after two and a half years of formal historical essay-writing, was a lot more difficult than I initially thought. Despite this, (and despite the 9am starts) this module was a lot more intimate than any of my other third year modules – with such a small class, it was nice to get to know Lisa a lot better than we usually would with any other seminar leader, and it made us all feel a lot more relaxed in conversation and debate within our seminar. Not only this, but every seminar really was a conjoined effort, and each week was a different topic and theme to investigate.

It is amazing how much you take for granted being brought up in the 21st century, where medicines and treatments are constantly developed, and recipes are shared by foodies more and more on social media such as on Instagram and Facebook. Sometimes the recipe book is disregarded, and the recipe for any dish can be with you in 10 seconds with the help of Google. It was not this easy in seventeenth-century England, these recipes for both food and medicine were circulated around the country normally through word of mouth, or through migration. It is interesting now, especially, how disregarded medicinal recipes have become, and that is something that I myself was guilty of, in our first seminar: ‘What is a recipe?’. Maybe I was ignorant in just thinking that a recipe book was just that.. a book for food recipes. However, recipes had a much broader meaning, nowadays you would immediately link a ‘recipe’ with food, however, I do not think the seventeenth-century English believed in such structural organisation and conformity. A recipe book did not mean simply food, like a prayer book did not necessarily mean it only included prayers (which i mention in my last blog).

Sitting opposite my own bookcase which is full almost solely of recipe books, from Nigella, to Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein to Delia Smith, there is not really any other recipe book other than for anything other than just food dishes. From witnessing the use of alchemy widely in Margaret Bakers seventeenth-century recipe book, I was beyond excited when I found a book on my shelf with ‘Alchemy’ written in big writing on the spine of the book.. however, looking more closely ‘Alchemy in a Glass, The essential guide to Handcrafted Cocktails’ was not what I had expected to come across. Its interesting however, this book is actually giving you instructions of how to make cocktails, so its as much a ‘guide’ as it is a recipe book! Wow, this module really has got me thinking more about the definition of a ‘recipe book’!

Yet, this even got me thinking further, how such meanings and emphasis become placed differently throughout the years, although we speak the same language, we don’t necessarily speak the same meaning – and this is something I especially had to take into consideration when I first begun transcribing Baker’s book.

To close this final blog post, which is more of a reflection, or a transcription of my own train of thought, I wanted to mention a book that my grandmother recently let me borrow named ‘Natural Wonderfoods’. Although it is not a recipe book, it lists nearly every fruit, vegetable and meat product, and explains on a double page spread the importance of these different types of within healing, immune-boosting and for fitness-enhancing.

The introduction of the book itself, gives acknowledgements to our ancestors, and it is amazing that I open the book onto the introduction page (that i never look at) to such mention of the fact that knowledge of these healing foods were known centuries ago (Maybe its Baker herself that made me open it, saying: ‘See! I was right about all these healing foods in my recipe book!).

Looking at ‘A medycine for the eies’ (14.v. 15.r.) sage leaves, fennel leaves, honey and egg were used. Looking in this glorious book, all the completely natural foods are written: sage, fennel and eggs (which can be used as face masks to help dry skin!) I will leave you all with the pages and explanations of both sage and fennel to show you just how knowledgeable and clever these seventeenth-century women were! Thank you Margaret Baker et al!






By Florence Hearn.


Bartimeus, Paula, Haigh, Charlotte, Merson, Sarah, Owen, Sarah, Wright, Janet, Natural Wonderfoods, (London 2011)