Project (2011-2013)

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

When Mary Cholmeley married Henry Fairfax in 1627, nestled amongst the possessions she carried to her new home in Yorkshire was a leather-bound notebook filled with medical recipes. Over the next few decades, Mary and Henry Fairfax, their children and various members of the Fairfax and Cholmeley families continually entered new medical and culinary information into this ‘treasury of health’. Consequently, as it stands now, the manuscript can be read both as a repository of household medical knowledge and as a family archive.  Focusing on two Fairfax ‘family books’ and drawing upon a larger survey of over 150 seventeenth-century household recipe collections, this essay focuses on the process through which early modern recipe books were created. In particular, it explores the role of the family collective in compiling books of knowledge. In contrast to past studies where household recipe books have largely been described as the products of exclusively female endeavors, I argue that the majority of early modern recipe collections were created by family collectives working in collaboration across spatial, geographical and temporal boundaries. This new reading of early modern recipe books as testaments of the interests and needs of particular families encourages renewed examination of the role played by gender in transmission and production of knowledge in early modern households. Finally, my findings suggest that there may have been a difference between reading, writing, and collecting knowledge in closets and studies, and making and preparing in stillrooms and kitchens.