Northern Centre for the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities

Pybus: "Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Household Recipe Books in Early Modern England"

Added 08 June 2011 | Duration 43 minutes 7 seconds

Dr Elaine Leong, University of Cambridge

When 84-year-old Lady Johanna St. John drafted her will in March 1703/4, her list of bequests included gifts of money, paintings, books, furniture and silverware. Half way through the document, St. John specified that ‘to [my] Granddaughter Soame according to my promise I give my booke of receipts of Cookery and Preserves. To my daughter Cholmondley I give my great receipt booke’. The ‘great receipt booke’ in question is a quarto-sized leather-bound book of medical recipes now in the Wellcome Library. The careful dividing of St. John’s two treasuries of knowledge amongst her daughters and granddaughters highlights both the value attributed to this knowledge and the importance of keeping such books in the family. This paper explores the role of the family collective in compiling household books of knowledge. It argues that the majority of recipe collections were created by household collectives in collaborations over time and space with family members and household dependants adding and contributing to the book as occasions arose. Consequently, these books were not so much the products of exclusively female endeavours, as previously represented, but rather testaments to the interests and needs of a household. The collaborative nature of these texts suggests that not only were recipes not a ‘women’s thing’ but also that gender issues associated with the genre are more complicated and nuanced than previously thought.  Elaine Leong further suggests that there may have been a difference between reading, writing, and collecting in closets and studies, and making and doing in stillrooms and kitchens.

Elaine Leong is interested in medical and scientific knowledge transfer and production in the early modern English household with a focus on issues of gender and her interdisciplinary projects use theories and methods in the history of the book and the history of reading to elucidate practical knowledge and quotidian activities within the domestic sphere. She is currently completing two book projects. The first is a monograph titled 'Treasuries for Health: Medical Knowledge and Practice in the Early Modern Household' and the second, in collaboration with Alisha Rankin, is an edited volume called 'Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science 1500-1800'. Leong will join the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge as a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in September where she will work on a project titled 'Reading and Writing Medicine in Early Modern England'.

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