exploring recipe books from the seventeenth-century

Archive for the category “Gender”

Lady Elizabeth Grey Countess of Kent (1582-1651)

Frontispiece to Grey's manual with her portrait

Frontispiece to Grey’s manual with her portrait

Many of the remedies I use in my research are from Elizabeth Grey’s ‘A choice manual in physick and chyrurgery(surgery)’. Elizabeth Grey (1582-1651) collected medicinal remedies which were published posthumously in this book. It was common for noble women of the time to take an active interest in illness and remedies and to use their knowledge to give medical aid to the poor. This was seen as part of their duty. Her husband died in 1639, she was childless, she knew Anne of Denmark (Charles 1’s mum). In my future research I want to find out more about the woman behind the recipes so I got quite excited to find this portrait below from the tate.

Lady Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent

Lady Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent circa 1619 by Paul Van Somer

“The present painting is known to have belonged to Charles I (1600-49) the son of James and Anne, as it appears in the inventory of his collection made in about 1639. Lady Grey had been a favoured attendant of Anne of Denmark and had walked in her funeral procession as a ‘Countess Assistante’. The fact that she is attired in black, including wearing black jewellery in the form of expensive egg-shaped jet beads, suggests that this portrait may relate to the mourning period after the Queen’s death. Under her heart, she wears a jewel – possibly a closed portrait-miniature case – with the crowned monogram ‘AR’ – standing for the Latin ‘Anna Regina’ (meaning ‘Anne the Queen’)[…] Her extremely low decolletage is a fashion paralleled in other Jacobean female portraits, including those of Queen Anne herself. Such exposure, even for ladies of mature years, was evidently considered entirely acceptable, although presumably confined to an elite court circle only.” Karen Hearn  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/van-somer-lady-elizabeth-grey-countess-of-kent-t00398/text-summary



‘To cause a woman to have her sickness’

I said that not all the recipes were as innocent as they initially seem. Here is a prime example.

A recipe from Elizabeth Grey’s book to cause a woman to ‘have her sickness’ (to bring on her period):

‘Take Ergimonie, Motherwort, Avens and Parsley, shred them all with Oatmeal, make Pottage of them with Pork, let her eat the Pottage but not the Pork’.

Now why would a woman want to purposefully induce that monthly annoyance? An unwanted pregnancy perhaps? There were no pregnancy tests in the early modern period. Although an early modern woman knew the signs of pregnancy- missing periods, weight gain, morning sickness etc., she did not know for certain she was pregnant until the quickening- when you first feel the baby kick- and even this could easily be mistaken. It is not that surprising that many women, especially first time mothers, claimed to have been surprised to find themselves giving birth.

Abortion became illegal in 1624 under the infanticide statute, but an induced miscarriage was only called an abortion if it occurred after the quickening. Therefore any woman, suspecting an unwanted pregnancy could prepare and take this remedy in the hope of an early abortion. The result would not even be recognised as a miscarriage if taken early enough in the pregnancy. Rather it was seen as a restoration of the menses, a good thing as, if a woman did not have her monthly bleed it was thought that the excess blood would congregate around her brain.

Many of these remedy manuals were pocket-size and so could, if necessary, be easily hidden. Convenient when delicacy was needed in such a situation.

Safeguarding Pregnancy project

So, my work on “mood food” is basically complete, and my other line of research which I now want to focus on is about gender and the recipe books. As this is my current line of research it will be a lot less polished than the entries on melancholy which was more of a retrospective blog really. These entries will be more of a work-in-progress type thing; they’ll include summaries and comments on related articles that I’m reading and how I think they could be useful in my research, there will also be recipes that I’ve found (some analysed properly as historical sources) and more posts on the research process, gathering ideas etc.

I initially became interested in looking at gender and the cookery collection because many of the texts are instruction manuals aimed at women, telling them how to be a perfect woman (well housewife actually but hey, we’re in the seventeenth-century, what’s the difference?), were written by men. The other aspect of gender which interested me was how these books, acting as manuals of womanhood, would probably have been passed down from mother to daughter adding to a female-life-cycle-type-theme.

Gender being far too large a topic, especially when I only have 12 weeks research time, I started narrowing it down by looking at recipes specifically for female problems. There are loads, unsurprisingly chiefly concerned with motherhood.  Recipes:

  • for plasters for sore breasts,
  •  ‘for the mother’ (the womb was then referred to as the mother),
  • to procure conception,
  • ‘for a woman that hath her flowers (oh the euphemisms!) too much’/ ‘to stay the flowers’/’to cause a woman to have her sickness’,
  • ‘for greensickness’ (anaemia),
  • to prevent miscarrying,
  • to cause easy labour,
  • ‘for the dead child inside the womans body’,
  • ‘to deliver a child in danger’,
  • ‘to cure them that have pain after child-bearing’,
  • ‘to increase a womans milk ‘ the list goes on.

Many of these are not quite as innocent as they seem as I will reveal soon…

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