By Mary E. Fissell ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
In 1693 Elizabeth Strachey (ca. 1670–1722) wrote her name on the inside cover of a notebook. Over the next three decades she filled the book with recipes for remedies. While hundreds of such recipe books survive, many lack an attribution, making it difficult to understand the larger context in which they were made and used. But here we know that in 1692 Elizabeth Elletson married a gentleman, John Strachey (1671–1743), who inherited the family home at Sutton Court in Somerset. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society who worked on geography and geology. She began keeping her recipe book the following year.
The book was a collaborative production; almost fifty people are credited with recipes. Some are family members, such as “Cousin Cross” or “Aunt Clarke.” Others may have been friends with a shared interest in medicine. “Mrs. Newark,” for example, is credited with a dozen recipes. The book was built up incrementally, over many years; recipes were added over time without any apparent larger structure. Mrs. Newark’s recipes are in clumps of three or four, suggesting a visit or a letter prompted their inclusion. Strachey also drew upon the expertise of doctors. She mentions Drs. Hill, Butler, Chambers, and Griffiths, and she took advice from the philosopher John Locke, a family friend and a physician by training.
The book is not solely hers. Strachey died in 1722, but entries continue for about a decade afterward. Her successor (perhaps one of her daughters?) drew upon written sources, other manuscript recipe books, and printed works such as William Salmon’s Practical Physick (1692). Elizabeth had drawn mainly upon her large network of friends and acquaintances.
The recipes deal with a wide array of conditions, including gout, fevers, webs in the eye, and scurvy—typical of the period. But you would never know from this volume that Strachey gave birth to nine sons and nine daughters: there are few recipes for reproductive problems and disorders. The recipes are not complex, relying upon local herbs and on measures like “as much as will lie on a penny.” There’s a powder to kill rats and mice, cunningly compounded of oatmeal, bacon fat, and lime. But Strachey was a sophisticated consumer and producer of medical knowledge. She recorded Richard Mead’s remedy for the bite of a mad dog. She mastered the art of distilling. Many of the recipes reveal a careful accounting of efficacy: they are “approved,” tested by trial and error, in much the same way her husband and his Royal Society colleagues assessed the results of their trial-and-error experiments.
Other recipes hint at a tenuous boundary between magic and natural knowledge. Strachey recommends a lodestone (a magnet) to draw away pain. On a corner of the page the word “abracadabra” is written as an acrostic. This age-old charm could have been written on a piece of paper that was worn next to the skin or chewed and swallowed. We cannot tell if it was merely a curiosity or a bit of insurance against the tide of ill health that any mother of eighteen confronted day in and day out.
A Book of Receipts of All Sorts (1693–1730s) (Elizabeth Strachey, Somerset, England; Bound manuscript; 83 leaves and 14 loose scraps with recipes; 5 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄2 in.) is available to read and download, along with a variety of other manuscript recipe books, in NLM Digital Collections.
Mary E. Fissell is Professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her scholarly work focuses on how ordinary people in early modern England understood health, healing, and the natural world; her most recent book is Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Motherhood in Early Modern England. She is writing a social and cultural history of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a long-lived popular medical book.