Tag Archives: Female alliance

The dark side of female alliances

In the early modern period many women lived in a homosocial world. Gendered activities such as cooking, looking after children, medicine making were used by women to create and maintain female alliances.[1] These activities allowed them to advance female education and knowledge, in addition to gain financial and social advantage.[2]

The importance of female alliances

When thinking of early modern women, people tend to picture obedient women working around the household and raising kids. Even if I ever thought about friendships between women, stereotypes made me think their conversations were mostly meaningless gossiping. Amanda E. Herbert’s book made me realise that there is a deeper side to female alliances.

Two women gossiping
Image credit: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/156627

Elite women’s manuscript diaries are important primary sources when it comes to looking for evidence of female collaboration and cooperation. As Herbert argues these alliances are important for historians to understand early modern women’s life much better, as this gives their life another perspective.[3] Linda A. Pollock further argues that the ‘notion of sisterhood’ was a successful way to restore women’s agency and culture.[4] But even though most of these relationships were positive, some alliances broke down. Laura Gowing in Common bodies argues that not all female relationships were positive, but these relationships were essential to their everyday life.[5] Women made alliances with people outside of their class too. For example the kitchen was a space where servants and the elite socialised. Their conversations were not always high-minded, they laughed together while working, also exchanged secrets and gossips.[6] From my point of view this is the most popular image of early modern female alliances.

Failure of connecting with others

Herbert mentions how women had their own sex to help out when it came to “household task and domestic emergencies”, so the loss of these relationships could be a huge disadvantage.[7] In addition Pollock argues that women who broke law or breached morality could be weaker and left without much support.[8] Most early modern women turned to these alliances for advice when they had a medical/financial difficulty, as they were taught to reach out to others when feeling isolated or lonely. They turned to these relationships in times of emotional distress or loss.[9] Like many other women, Sarah Savage relied on her friend’s support. But her Nonconformist actions prevented her from participating in the alliance-building and social activities that most (Anglican) women attended, as Nonconformist women experienced social exclusion.[10] Furthermore, she chose not to engage with other women, as she thrown upon female alliances. Savage avoided the traditional alliance building activities, she rather spent time alone with her books. Interestingly, she enjoyed spending time with women whom she considered to be of lower status.[11] There is no wonder that women like Savage found it difficult to connect with the other women and create alliances, as people associate the most with those who are very similar to them, moreover, they connect easier. Even though it seems like she was alone, she still received some help from others (servants) when she became ill (neighbours), and when she gave birth.
Failure to create female alliances could be dangerous when it comes to domestic abuse. If a mistress treated her servants badly, it was more likely that they would not help her when she was abused by her husband. [12] This example shows that even though marital violence was not happening in every single household, if women did not have their safety net to help them and support them, their life could be much more difficult. Falling as a victim to marital violence made women more vulnerable, especially without help. In addition, alliance was really important when looking for witnesses in the case of divorce/court appearance.

‘The Bottle’ (1847) by George Cruikshank
Image credit: Hulton Archive—Getty Images

Another example can be childbirth and pregnancy. Pollock argues that childbirth was a tribute to female networks.[13]The experience of pregnancy and childbirth was depending on the help women could receive from the people around them. These life events are usually painted very positive, but Pollock mentions how women were afraid of childbirth, so a familiar space and familiar faces could be calming factors when it came to the actual delivery.[14] Conflicts took place in the birth chamber, which could make the experience for the mother worse. In addition if a child was illegitimate, the community refused to help, so therefore the failure to connect with others would leave the mother even more vulnerable and completely alone.[15]
These two examples show how a woman in early modern England without her safety net would have a more difficult life experience. The failure of connecting with other women- similarly to Sarah Savage could lead to a very lonely, more boring life where the woman depended mostly on herself.  

Why focus on the negatives?

I think a question that I have to think about when it comes to this topic is, why did I first focus on the positive sides of female alliances? I think one of the reasons for this are the limited sources and coverage on the topic. When it comes to this topic I find there are more secondary literature on the positive sides of female alliances rather than the negatives. Not everyone had a positive experience, but those women could be from a lower class where writing skills were not taught. Herbert even mentions in her book that most of the sources she used were elite women’s diaries, letters, and recipe books. Even though there were female alliances between different classes, those in lower ones either did not know how to read and write and/or had no time to record their life. From my point of view those who were more likely to live a harder life (lower class women) might have had a more negative experiences but there is so much less left behind. It is important to look at both sides, because it tells us so much more about women’s experience from the early modern period.

This image from my point of view showcases women working together in harmony. This could be a positive example of female alliances. Image credit: https://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1600s2/queenh/closet.html

To conclude female alliances were not fully positive, as there were some difficulties when women could not connect with others. If they failed to build a safety net in cases such as childbirth (especially illegitimate) or marital violence, women were exposed to greater danger. My main take away from the HR650: The Early Modern Household Project module was that whatever I believed about early modern times was not always necessarily true. There are so many stereotypes about how early modern households, female alliances and relationships in general looked like, but the truth does not always fall behind these stereotypes.

The current situation (COVID-19) and the library closure created some difficulties when it came to researching this blog.


Foyster, Elizabeth, Marital Violence: An English family history, 1660-1857 (Cambridge, 2005).

Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Pollock, Linda A., ‘Childbearing and female bonding in early modern England’, Social History, 22 (1997).


[1] Amanda E. Herbert, Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014), p. 174

[2] Ibid. p. 2

[3] Ibid. p. 5

[4] Pollock, Linda A., ‘Childbearing and female bonding in early modern England’, Social History, 22 (1997), p. 286

[5] Herbert, p. 4

[6] Ibid. p. 82

[7] Ibid. p. 169

[8] Pollock, p. 287

[9] Herbert, p. 184

[10] Ibid. p. 169

[11] Ibid. pp. 174, 179

[12] Elizabeth Foyster, Marital Violence: An English family history, 1660-1857 (Cambridge, 2005), p. 188

[13] Pollock, p. 288

[14] Ibid, p. 292

[15] Ibid, pp. 299,302

Collecting recipes and gifting hand-written recipe books: still a family tradition?

There is a time in everybody’s life when they move out from their parent’s house and start their adult life. Cooking and starting a recipe collection is a key part (for some) of becoming an adult. While reading Elaine Leong’s and Amanda E. Herbert’s articles it struck me that there are many things in common with early modern people and with us – modern people. Family recipes, cookbooks were an essential part of their lives, but from my experience it is still important to many today.

Female alliances

Early modern women’s shared labour, attempt to cooperate/collaborate can be seen in household inventories, guidebooks, prescriptive texts and manuscript recipe books.[1] What I found really interesting is that women did not just get advice from their closer group within their class, but also from below their class. Mary Chantrell is a perfect example to this, as she noted that one of her recipes were from a laundress, and another had been approved by an older woman.[2]They trusted those who had experience and wisdom, no matter their class. According to Herbert, examples such as this one prove that elite women contacted and worked with women of all kinds both within and outside their homes. Recipes allowed them to share their knowledge about ingredients and materials, also about how to negotiate with male shopkeepers, which means seeking other women’s advice was a tool to advance their female independence too.[3]

Manuscript recipe books

The covers of an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Manuscript recipe books were handwritten books, including lists of ingredients and step-by-step instructions for making food, cosmetics, handicrafts and medicines.[4] Women shared advice and knowledge within these books to a range of women; it could be to relatives, servants, neighbours. In addition, they defended female education, knowledge and space against the male physicians and authors.[5] Recipes were the main platform for saving information and knowledge for the future in the early modern household.[6] Many gathered recipes alone, but most times they borrowed the recipes from their friends, family members and neighbours (the closer the person the more reliable the recipe was).[7] Some recipes were passed onto next generations. If they lent their book to someone else, they could communicate on the margins of the pages, as that was a place for more information or adaptions to be shared.[8]

Pages from an early modern recipe book
Image Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library.

Women were proud of these collections, and noted which recipe was from whom. Recipe books were worthy enough to mention in inventories, moreover, their value made them to be the perfect gift.[9] Mothers gave them to their children to guide them, especially to help their daughters to become a proper housewife. Recipe books, especially when given as a gift, had a ‘starter’ portion, which was quite helpful from my point of view. This ‘starter’ collection could be inherited or copied by the owner of the book. [10]

Female alliances and recipe sharing in the modern world

Montserrat Cabré’s blog about recipes and emotions made me think about how giving recipe book as a gift was more an act of love, rather than just to a guide to become a housewife. Cabré argues that recipes connect women and generations, furthermore she adds it created a space for conversation. Food and dishes that the whole family loves always brings back nice memories, so passing on this knowledge is not only a help of survival, but an act of love too.

The front page of my mother’s recipe book. The writing means “Miracle of miracles”. This title was given by my mother’s sister, but we do not know the reason behind it. It is sort of a family mystery.

When I was reading the articles by Leong and Herbert, it surprised me how similar early modern recipe book traditions and my family’s traditions are. My mother has been collecting recipes for sixteen-seventeen years at this point. Her collection consists of two notebooks, they have both printed and handwritten material, a mix of everything. Similar to early modern examples, my mother wrote adjustments to her recipes too, especially to the ones which she collected from others. When I decided to move to the UK from Hungary, my mother gifted me a notebook with my favourite recipes inside of it, which is basically the ‘starter’ portion of my collection. I think this is the most interesting similarity, as ‘starter’ collection as a whole was a completely new information to me. I never thought it was a way to gift recipe books, I just thought it was something clever my mother did.

Some random pages from my mother’s recipe book. Similarly to early modern examples, my mother wrote some comments next to recipes too. Here she noted that the recipe on the left is very delicious, and that the right one is from somebody else.

Early modern recipe books were not only useful for everyday life, for example in Anna Cromwell’s situation they came handy when emigrating to the Americas.[11] These recipes helped her to adapt to the new ingredients and dishes. I would like to think that in a way I was in a very similar situation to Anna Cromwell when moving to England, as my mother’s gift helped me adjusting to the new environment and helped me feel like I am home. Using my mother’s gift as a guide I had to adapt to different ingredients and spices. Obviously my situation was not as drastic as back then, but between countries there are very significant differences when it comes to basic ingredients like milk and flour (even salt is less salty here than back home!) and recipes needed to be adapted to achieve a similar result as back home.

To have another example from today’s world, my mother’s friend received a recipe book from her mother too. But this one looked more similar to the early modern ones because it did not only have food recipes, but also tips and tricks when it came to the household. For example it had advice on what to do when someone was expecting guests, what to do when red wine spills on the table and so on. In a sense it is very similar because its purpose was to prepare the daughter to become a knowledgeable ‘housewife’. I think these two examples show that we still have female alliances in a way, as the knowledge sharing/recipe collecting tradition never changed, only the time and space. 

Recipes collected from printed material

Ever since I received my gift I have been adding new recipes and adjustments to it. Early modern wives, daughters even male members of the household did the same thing; they expanded their collections, wrote adjustments next to recipes. It was very interesting to see how similar early modern examples were to my case, because my family never knew about ‘starter’ collections until I read the articles by Leong and Herbert. Hopefully I will be able to carry this tradition, which has been around since the early modern times.


Herbert, Amanda E., Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014).

Leong, Elaine, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013).

Montserrat Cabré, ‘The Emotional Life of Recipes’, <https://recipes.hypotheses.org/1069> [accessed 21 January 2020]



[1]Amanda E. Herbert, Female alliances; gender, identity, and friendship in early modern Britain (New Haven, 2014), p. 116

[2] Ibid, pp. 107-108

[3] Ibid, p. 105

[4] Ibid, p. 102

[5] Ibid, p. 103

[6] Elaine Leong, ‘Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household’, Centaurus, 55 (2013), p. 83

[7] Herbert, p. 105

[8] Ibid, p. 114

[9] Leong, p. 86

[10] Ibid, p. 91

[11] Herbert, (2014), p. 110