Tag Archives: class

Class and The English Housewife

I have spent a lot of time talking about The English Housewife as an instruction manual and as a place to learn about cookery. What I have spent less time with is the issue of class and audience, those issues that would give us a better picture of who the English Housewife actually was. Beyond her gender and marital status, the title won’t tell us much, but we do know enough about Markham to make some pretty good guesses. Markham is particularly interesting to me because he is writing for a country audience (this and his other books focus on activities that would be undertaken by a husbandman, or small landowner, and housewife), and because he encourages frugality (later authors seem more lavish).

Food and Class

In order to start thinking about class and cookery manuals, it’s important to know what the different classes were eating. Of course social classes were different from how we think of them today–rather than having a ‘middle class’ there were ‘middling sorts,’ which is kind of a hodgepodge term (that I still have trouble defining well) for those who lived comfortably but were not gentlemen/noblemen. The ‘gentry’ were gentleman landowners, whose social status would have been a bit higher.

If you remember my post on the Markham Meal, you probably noticed that the menu was almost entirely vegetarian (save for the one meat dish). That’s not to say that vegetarianism was a common concept in the 17th century (in fact, vegetarian monastic orders were heavily criticized by authors of books on health, who felt a lack of meat shortened one’s life; see Albala 201-202), but rather that there seems to be a misconception that only meat, and not much else, was eaten during this time. Markham does include another menu for a feast that includes a large number of meat dishes, but both this and the banquetting menu I’m working from are noted as not being “of regular use,” but still important for the housewife to be able to cook on special ocassions (Best, 110). Meat had fallen in price in the time after the Black Plague, but its cost had risen by Markham’s time when meat would have been available regularly only to the elite (others ate meat less frequently or ate less expensive cuts, like organ meats–see Albala, 188). Vegetables made up the majority of the diet of the lower classes, who could not afford to have meat or dairy regularly. Meat was commonly eaten by the nobility in the middle ages, but plant-based foods became more popular and began their ascent up the social ladder during this time (Thirsk, 4-8). Books like Markham’s helped further ensure the place of fruits and vegetables on middling tables. These books taught proper social graces and the newest food preparations, and so their inclusion of vegetables made those foods seem worthy of their tables (Schoonover, 20-21).The food on one’s table was indicative of social standing, but was also seen almost as a determinant as well: a peasant eating the food of the peasantry would absorb those elements within the food making it crude, while a courtier’s consumption of exquisite foods served not only as a symbol of wealth, sophistication, and power but also as that courtier’s embodiment of those qualities through the consumption of that food (see Albala, 184).

Cookery Manuals and Class

Most cookery manuals during this time would have been directed toward middling sorts and gentry, and became increasingly popular along with other self-help and how-to manuals (Cormack and Massio, 79-84). Other manuals, such as John Murrell’s A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen… all seemed to follow the theme of providing readers with the newest preparations of foods that were most fashionable at the time. Markham is interesting because he offers some of these preparations, but does so more to provide a well-rounded education in homemaking to his readers, who would need to know how to prepare such dishes for special guests or occasions (see Best, 110). He focuses more heavily on thrift, and on encouraging the use of items grown in the kitchen garden and available in the home (this may be due in part to his own social status as a gentleman, and the fact that he saw his wealth and status decline over his lifetime. For an excellent biography, see Best’s introduction).

The women who read Markham’s book would not only need to be educated enough to be literate, but would also need to be of a social standing where they were still directly involved within household tasks. Middling women, whose husbands owned estates or ran businesses, worked alongside servants to assist with the growing and preparation of food, as well as the production of household goods, such as linens (Mendelson and Crawford, 307). While women in the gentry and merchant classes also supervised workers and organized household affairs, they were much more directly involved in household labor than noblewomen, who directed the labors of large numbers of servants without direct involvement in their tasks (Mendelson and Crawford, 307-309). These women also were likely to be literate: David Cressy places the gentry along with the clergy and professionals on the “accomplished end of the literacy scale,” and his research shows at least a thirty percentage point difference between them and the next most literate group, comprised of yeomen and tradesmen (Cressy, 124). Thirsk suggests that Markham’s writing bridged the gap between gentry and laboring classes through his simple recipes and his focus on economy (Thirsk, 91-92), and while his work may have been more accessible to them, his use of spices and imported ingredients situates it solidly within a gentry/middling audience. His writing also would have been inaccessible to most members of the lower classes and even to the housewife’s servants, which clearly indicates the country housewife would have used the book in the direct supervision of servants’ work. Literacy among servants in most of the country was low, akin to husbandmen and laborers, with illiteracy rates for servants estimated at 76 percent. Only servants in London were more likely to be literate, with a surprisingly low 31 percent illiteracy rate (Cressy, 129).

I’m hoping to write more soon about the different ingredients in Markham and how these relate to class–please let me know if you have any questions or want me to explain/expand upon anything!


Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Cormack, Bradin and Carla Mazzio. 2005. Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Chicago: University of Chicago Library.

Cressy, David. 1980. Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mendelson, Sara and Crawford, Patricia. 1998. Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murrell, John.  A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen… London: widow Helme. 1617.

Schoonover, David E., ed. 1998. Ladie Borlase’s Receiptes Booke. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Thirsk, Joan. 2007. Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760. London: Hambledon Continuum.


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