Historical Background

This page is my ‘historical research’ section, where you can learn more about the early modern English cookbook and about Markham. Because I am drawing on academic sources (and some of my blog readers are from within academia), this section is more formal than others on the blog. It also does not, at this moment, include all the research that I have (which would be about 20 pages, and way too long for a blog!) However, I would be happy to give more information to those who ask! Please post any questions or comments–I hope to keep adding to and refining this section as the project continues!

Gervase Markham originally published The English Housewife in 1615, with a 2nd edition in 1623 (Best, xvii). As indicated by Markham in both editions, it was not so much of an original work as it was a compilation of material from other sources. Markham had written a number of previous works, such as Markham’s Master-peece (1610), and wrote many other books both instructional and literary (Best, xv-xvi).

The English Housewife is among some of the earlier (although not the earliest) cookery instruction manuals produced in England, and was a predecessor to a host of later works, especially in the second half of the 17th century. This is the Boke of Cookery preceded Markham by over a century (published in 1500), although it addressed elite male readers. Markham’s direct contemporaries shifted to addressing a literate female audience: including John Partridge’s The Treasurie of commodius Conceits & hidden Secrets (1573), and Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies…(1602). Thomas Tusser’s Five hundreth points of good husbandry (1573) is similar to The English Housewife in that it is both a cookery manual and a guide to housewifery. John Murrell published A New Booke of Cookerie in 1617, 2 years after Markham’s first edition, but before his later edition that used some of Murrell’s writing.

Markham’s text has been of particular interest to me because of it’s divergence from other cookery manuals of the time. Markham was from a family whose wealth had, over the previous generations, begun to dwindle, and therefore he sought to live frugally and provide a model for others to do the same (Best, xi-xii). His economical use of foodstuffs has led to the argument that his work is one of the few that shows us what the lower classes were eating (Thirsk, 91-92).However, there is enough similarity between his work and others that were popular at the time suggests an audience composed of ‘middling sorts’.

The English Housewife was written as a guidebook for the wife in a “large rural household,” which implies a readership with a superior social status (Best, ix). At a time when only 1 in 10 women were literate (Best, vix), it is unlikely that many women in the lower classes would have access to literacy instruction, and therefore to published works.

Markham’s writing includes many of the same preparations as the recipe books of his contemporaries. I began by looking at other books that were housed in the University of Iowa’s Szathmary Collection, including those by Robert Godfrey (1665), Robert May (1685), William Rabisha (1673), and Hannah Wooley (1672). I also looked at the handwritten account ledger of Amy Goodrey, begun in 1689, as it included the amount spent next to different food items. However, it was (rightly) pointed out to me that these writers were working a bit after the time when Markham was, and so it would be wise to compare him with his contemporaries. I began doing so by looking at John Murrell’s 1617 cookery manual, and found many of the similarities between this and Markham as I found between Markham and the later writers. Unfortunately, other endeavors side-tracked me after this, and I have not, by the time of this writing, had a chance to research Markham’s other contemporaries.

The same preservation techniques were employed for fruits, flowers, and vegetables, although Markham’s section on ‘preserves’ is much longer than any other book I looked at. Like his contemporaries, Markham seems to have been pulled by a desire to preserve traditional values versus a fascination with the ‘new.’ (Best, page xi). In his cookery manual, we see this through a number of traditional offerings (such as oats, see Best, xxi), balanced by smaller sections of foreign/’strange’ preparations.


Godfrey, Robert (1665). Receiptes. University of Iowa Szathmary Culinary Collection MS Box 7:29.

Goodrey, Amy. 1689-1732. Recipe and Household Account Book. University of Iowa Szathmary Culinary Collection MS Box 7:30.

Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife. Edited by Michael Best. (1986). Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

May, Robert. 1685. “The accomplish cook, or, the art and mystery of cookery…” 5th edition. University of Iowa Szathmary Culinary Collection TX705.M46 1685. O. Belgrave.

Murrell, John. A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen… London: widow Helme. 1617.http://gateway.proquest.com.proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:1578

Rabisha, William. 1673. “The whole body of cookery dissected…” University of Iowa Szathmary Culinary Collection TX705.R3 1673. London: E. Calvert.


Woolley, Hannah. 1672. “The queen-like closet…” 2nd edition. University of Iowa Szathmary Culinary Collection TX705.W6 1672. London: R. Lowndes.


2 responses to “Historical Background

  1. Hannah Murray

    Hi, I stumbled across your blog whilst searching for information on Gervase Markham – this is really interesting! I’m just beginning to research various strands and topics which interest me personally for a painting project I am currently working on at Uni and was wandering if you had any idea where (if it’s even still in existence) the original copy of this book is?.Or, if it’s no longer around, what happened to the original? Thanks

    • juliaskinner

      Hi! I’m glad you like it! There isn’t really an “original copy” of this book–there are a number of copies in special collections in the US and presumably the UK (possibly elsewhere too), but you would need to look in your area’s repositories to see if they have it. It’s a printed book, so there are multiple “originals” in that multiple copies came out at the same time, so you wouldn’t necessarily find them to be different content-wise. I found out about ours because my school had a copy of a later edition in the library. Good luck!

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