‘The Best That Ever I Had’: Gifting a Medical Recipe in Early Modern Yorkshire

By Emma Marshall

On 4th September 1700, the elderly gentlewoman Alice Thornton sat down to write to Lady Henrietta Maria Yarburgh. Both women lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Thornton opened her letter by saying that she was ‘soe a great a stranger to your Person’, suggesting that she had never met Lady Yarburgh. [1] She was also of a lower social status and addressed her deferentially, repeatedly ‘begging your Ladyship’s pardon’ for having ‘committed a great piece of Rudeness to be soe free with a person of your quality’.

Image credit: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York (YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15)

What did Thornton have to say to this ‘stranger’? She explained that she had heard from friends and servants that Lady Yarburgh’s husband was suffering from ‘Paraleticks and Convolutions’. Thornton’s own deceased husband, William, had experienced similar ‘fits’ and she wanted to recommend a recipe for a ‘glister’, or suppository, which she had received from ‘the ablest Physsions’ and described as ‘the best that ever I had to preserve the life of my dere husband’. Thornton included this recipe as a separate insert so ‘that it may be more convenient to Read’, perhaps imagining that Lady Yarburgh would paste it into a book or circulate it among her own acquaintances, both common practices. Thornton also asked Lady Yarburgh to ‘do me the favoure to send me the Paper of Receipts backe againe for I am now very Aged; & cannot see to write the same and have great occasions for it’. These notes on the materiality of medical recipes shed light on their circulation, use and reuse. As proof that the glister was popular and effective on a wide scale, Thornton described using it to ‘cure many more in the same distemper’ as her husband, and clearly copying the recipe out on a regular basis was physically strenuous. However, hinting at its status as a treasured possession also emphasised her respect for Lady Yarburgh and encouraged trust between the two women. Unfortunately, the recipe has been separated from the letter and lost, perhaps suggesting that Lady Yarburgh did indeed return it to Thornton, or pass it on to friends. 

Aware that she was unknown to Lady Yarburgh, Thornton used the recipe’s accompanying letter to recommend her own expertise and character. She did so through narrative episodes, recounting her husband’s fits and her responses in detail. For example, William appeared as if he ‘had bin dead & without breathing or mocion or life 2 daies & 2 nights’ during his first attack, which she remedied with the glister. Emphasising the severity of his illness also stressed the efficacy of her recipe. This was reiterated by her account of William’s death, which she blamed on his disregard of her ‘extreame earnest’ pleas for him to ‘take yt order as usuall’. Thornton also expressed her own emotional reaction to William’s illness through conventional feminine behaviour, stating that she ‘cannot but sympathise with Your Ladyship having had so many frights & tears and watching & excessive sorrow in every fitt my dere husband had’. The link between physical gestures and emotion in sickchamber narratives has been explored by Hannah Newton, and in this letter they were used to communicate shared experience and feeling between writer and recipient. [2] Thornton’s desire to gift the recipe to Lady Yarburgh was explained in similarly personal terms: ‘haveing bin my selfe vissited with ye like calamity I am obliged in Charity to assist others […] in distress.’ She also added that God’s blessing on the medicine and ‘Christian patience’ were needed for positive results. Thornton used the letter to perform her identity as a skilled medical practitioner, loving wife and pious Christian, thus approaching Lady Yarburgh as a virtuous and empathetic friend. 

Despite the loss of the recipe itself, the letter sent alongside it shows how written medical instructions interacted with other forms of inter-household paperwork in early modern England, as described by Katherine Allen. Like her famous autobiography, Thornton’s recommended recipe was bound up with personal memory and emotional experience, a topic discussed by Montserrat Cabré amongst others, but it was also socio-politically significant. Thornton was 74 years old in 1700 and had suffered poverty since her husband’s death. In this context, her medical gift was a strategy to cross social boundaries and form an alliance with a potential patroness. As Elaine Leong notes, reciprocity was key to informal medical exchanges and Thornton could expect material, financial or social favours if the recipe was well received. [3] Of course, asserting medical authority to an unknown social superior could disrupt customary power dynamics, which Thornton navigated with care. She emphasised the recipe’s reliability through storytelling, describing her extensive and successful experiences of its use. However, she also had to prove her personal integrity if she was to be trusted by Lady Yarburgh. Thornton consequently used accounts of the remedy to present herself as a humble and compassionate gentlewoman, in line with traditional gender roles. The gifting of recipes was an important token of friendship and knowledge exchange, but it could also be used to construct self-identity and negotiate relationships rooted in social hierarchy, power and obligation.


Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.

Notes

[1] Borthwick Institute for Archives (University of York) YM/CP/1, 2/5, 15.

[2] Hannah Newton, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 119-21.

[3] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England (London: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 37-8, 174.