Encouraging Experimentation: Sarah Jackson

Studies of female experimentation by the likes of historian Alisha Rankin include the complexity of exchanging knowledge, through ‘letters of medical advice, medicine recipes, recipe collections, practitioners, equipment, ingredients and medication’ (1). This relates to the complicated transmission and circulation of receipts between groups of both females and interestingly also homosocial groups. This means that eighteenth-century female authors and compilers displayed both their own receipts and those they had acquired from elsewhere. Yet, we might question their choice to include more than one receipt for the same illness.

Historian Seth LeJacq states how ‘in some recipes, offers to avoid surgery are often not stated explicitly. With some ailments, surgery hovers as the implicit but seldom-mentioned alternative’ (2). Therefore, this might suggest that the inclusion of more than one receipt is an alternative to further prevent the need to consult a surgeon. However, these female compilers could instead be encouraging the reader to participate in experimentation; they must trial and identify which of the receipts best treats their ailment. Due to the books being compiled rather than written, experimentation becomes part of the receipt.  In a post about the role of efficacy statements (Experimentation and Preventative Medicine), we suggested that women chose receipts with statements of success, implying they had previously been experimented on. The receipts in this post are lacking in statements of efficacy, suggesting that the results are unknown until the reader has experimented for themselves. Evidence which particularly supports this comes from Jackson’s and Battam’s printed books. This is because the motives behind a printed edition of a receipt book are more likely to be public as opposed to personal, therefore suggesting that the purpose of the book was to serve as a medical aid for various readers.

Accordingly, we decided to compare Sarah Jackson’s 1755 book, Anne Battam’s 1750 book, and a 1767 manuscript (A book of culinary and medicinal recipes in various hands). Despite the manuscript being titled as ‘anonymous’, there are ownership signatures by ‘Mary Leigh’. However, we might challenge historian Catherine Field’s view that ‘assertion of authorship’ included ‘adding a name on the title page’ (3). This is because the signature is often from a compiler and owner rather than an author – many of the receipts are written in diverse handwriting. It is instead a collection of contributions. Nevertheless, ‘Mary Leigh’ is a female compiler and can be compared to Sarah Jackson and Anne Battam (who also face scepticism as to whether their receipts were their own). By making these comparisons, we hope to find that these corresponding receipts encouraged experimentation.

In Sarah Jackson’s 1755 The director: or, Young woman’s best companion, there are three receipts directed at the obstructions caused by kidney and bladder stones. These are Howe’s Water for the StoneAnother Water for the Stone, and Another for the Stone. To put these receipts into context, historian Raymond Anselment justifies these inclusions, stating that ‘the greater number of entries dealing with stones may reflect the widespread interest in painful bladder and kidney afflictions’ (4). Howe’s contribution includes methods such as distillation and ingredients such as Sassafras, Cow’s milk, white wine and nutmeg. The vast majority of these ingredients might be categorised as plant / animal substances, and are dependent upon the reader’s ability to obtain them.

Howe’s Water for the Stone – Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library (Cookery S/JAC)
Similarly, Another Water for the Stone requires plant ingredients such as Scabious Leaves, Pellitory of the Wall Leaves, and Flowers. This coincides with historian Elaine Leong’s argument, highlighting the importance of seasonality because ‘early modern home-based medical practices were tied to the land’ (5). Therefore, this encourages engagement with botany, as historian Jayne Archer states that ‘these receipt books also testify to the wide range of skills required of the housewife, including gardening’ (6). Literature and historiography regarding the seventeenth-century depicts a similar interest in land-based ingredients, suggesting that aristocratic women practicing medicine were already engaged in collecting natural ingredients. It would therefore appear that both these receipts are dependent upon the reader’s ability to acquire the ingredients.

Another Water for the Stone – Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library (Cookery S/JAC)

Another for the Stone shares contextual similarities with Another Water for the Stone, in that both recommend dosage repetition based on the Galenic astrological cycle within the human body. This being said, Another for the Stone features only non-standardised measurements (i.e. ‘as much as you can easily grasp in your hand’, and ‘the Proportion of a little Finger’). In comparison to the previous receipts (both predominantly standardised), this receipt appears to be aimed at a reader somewhat lacking in expertise of complex medicines. As of yet, this is the most significant hindrance as to whether the reader can participate in experimentation. If they cannot acquire the ingredients required for the first two receipts, then there can be no comparison of the final results.

Another for the stone
Another for the Stone – Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library (Cookery S/JAC)
More thought-provoking though is the variance in efficacy statements. Howe’s Water for the Stone claims to ‘prevent the Fits, and also Breeding of the Stone, if not destroy what is bred already’. Alternatively, Another Water for the Stone vaguely mentions the ‘excellent Virtues’ of the remedy. Notably, Another for the Stone has no efficacy statement. This lack of information on any desired outcome is the marked example of the encouragement of experimentation. The reader must trial in order to judge which receipt is the most efficacious for their needs. This is arguably a structural narrative strategy by Jackson to encourage her readers to discover for themselves the results and fill the gaps where the efficacy statements are missing. In order to do this, the reader could participate in experimenting with the receipts and recording which result was most desirable.

As has previously been stated, Jackson’s receipt books were released in printed edition. Though we cannot know for certain, it is likely that she did not participate in the experimenting and instead left this to her readers. Therefore, her choice to include corresponding receipts without clear displays of their results provides an insight into how female compilers wanted their audience to engage with medical literature.

We intend to find that similar comparisons can be made between corresponding receipts in Anne Battam’s receipt book and the anonymous manuscript. Subsequent entries will be made regarding the encouragement of experimentation by these female authors.  

(1) Alisha Rankin, Becoming an Expert Practitioner: Court Experimentalism and the Medical Skills of Anna of Saxony (1532-1585), Isis (2007)

(2) Seth LeJacq, The Bounds of Domestic Healing: Medical Recipes, Storytelling and Surgery in Early Modern England, Social History of Medicine (2013)

(3) Catherine Field, Many Hands Hands: Writing the Self in Early Modern Women’s Recipe Books, Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England (ed. Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle) (2007)

(4) Raymond Anselment, The Wantt of Health: An Early Eighteenth Century Self-Portrait of Sickness, Literature and Medicine (1996)

(5) Elaine Leong, Herbals she peruseth: reading medicine in early modern England, Renaissance Studies (2014)

(6) Jayne Archer, Women and Chymistry in Early Modern England: The Manuscript Receipt Book (c.1616) of Sarah Wigges, Gender and Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe (ed. K P Long) (2010)


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