Recipes for Success
How women shared medical knowledge in the 17th century.
In 17th-century England, recipe collections, which included sets of instructions on how to produce different foodstuffs, cleaning products and, crucially, medicines to use at home, were compiled by both men and women. Women’s medical work was limited mainly to the domestic environment, so these collections meant that women made a particular impact on the early modern medical sphere. While men could train as physicians, apothecaries and surgeons, women were denied access to Oxford and Cambridge universities, the Royal College of Physicians and the Company of Barber-Surgeons. Midwifery was the only professional medical opportunity open to them. Consequently, manuscript recipe collections written by women reveal to us their enthusiastic and insightful contributions to a practice in which their official role was considerably restricted.
Transmission of knowledge
The primary function of medical recipe collections was the transmission of knowledge, especially between laywomen, and collections were often passed between mothers and daughters. Lady Grace Mildmay, for example, wrote that she wished to pass her medical writings to her daughters and granddaughters: ‘Writing as familiar talk and communication to them, I being dead, as if I were alive.’ She left her collections to her daughter, Lady Mary Fane, upon her death in 1620. Ann Fanshawe also passed her recipe collection to her daughter, Katherine, who wrote that it was ‘given me by my mother’ in 1678, two years before Ann’s death, and added more recipes in her own hand. Similarly, Lady Johanna St John bequeathed her compilations to her granddaughter and daughter in her will, dated 1704.