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Michelle DiMeo, 'Elizabeth Isham's Medical Receipt Book'

The Draft of Elizabeth Isham’s Medical Receipt Book


Michelle DiMeo, University of Warwick



1. In the diverse collection of family papers in the Northampton Record Office is a series of seven paper scraps filled with medical notations written in Elizabeth Isham’s tiny hand using her personal shorthand. The notes consist of copies from printed medical texts and receipts from lay practitioners which Isham either personally collected or copied from a manuscript source. Three of these documents are undated leaves of paper used exclusively for medical notations and four were originally letters written by Elizabeth Denton to her niece Elizabeth Isham, where Isham later wrote medical notations in the margins and blank space. Three of these letters are undated and one, IC4831, has ‘1643’ written in Denton’s hand. This manuscript also includes a receipt in the marginalia dated ‘1646’, which is written in Isham’s hand. Her handwriting is consistent throughout these seven manuscripts, suggesting they were probably all written in the mid- to late-1640s. Her increased interest in medicine at this time may have been propelled by the civil war, which is further supported by the large number of receipts dedicated to treating wounds from gun powder and bullets, as seen in IC4824.


2. As a whole, these tiny notes should be read as Elizabeth Isham’s first draft of a medical receipt book. Erica Longfellow has shown the Isham family’s compulsion to draft their writing, and Alice Eardley has pointed to Elizabeth Isham’s practice of using the blank space left in letters written to her for drafting her diary. The hundreds of early modern receipt books extant today show that these texts were highly organised and many have been written by a scribe, thereby demonstrating the time and expense that went into the compilation of a manuscript collection. Elizabeth Isham’s notes appear to be drafts in which she began deciding what to include in her receipt book and how to present it. Some of these notes show Isham’s later corrections or additions in the margins; for example, the comment in IC4830 ‘My Aunt Ish used to wash the [same?] afore she rolled it up in white wine’ is squeezed into the margin aside her lengthy copy of a printed surgical text. Other documents demonstrate the first steps of organisation typical of many receipt books, as seen in IC4828 where she has ‘for ye itching—burning of the eyes 3 remedies’. Recipe book scholars have offered various interpretations as to why many of these texts list numerous remedies for the same problem—a stage in the compilation process which takes place prior to copying the receipts into the final book. The diction and later amendments to Isham’s notes suggest she was thinking about a larger audience, evidenced by the clear instructional voice used in the receipts that speaks directly to the reader. The clearest example is in IC4824 which includes the note ‘[This] oyle of cammille is made after my own manner’, with Isham thereby attributing the receipt to herself. Self-attribution is common in receipt books since they are collections of remedies from various sources and would not be compiled only for personal use. Isham would not have had to write that this was ‘after my own manner’ if she did not intend these receipts to one day reach a wider audience. Unfortunately, no receipt book is extant today, which may either imply that Elizabeth Isham never completed one before her death, or that it has since been lost. (The manuscript receipt book MS0030 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, compiled by an ‘Elizabeth Isham’ and Thomas Sendell, appears to have been compiled by a different Elizabeth Isham.)



3. Most of the medical notes in this archive are copies from printed texts, which can tell us more about what Elizabeth Isham read. IC4823 includes the title ‘This out of Mrs. Mansels Booke of Mr John Vigo ye Chirgun’. A very similar attribution is also found in IC4831: ‘of Mrs. Mansel’s Book of Surgery Chirurgerie, writ by Master John vigo chir’. English translations of the Italian surgeon Giovanni da Vigo’s (c.1450-1525) texts were available in multiple editions in England from the mid-sixteenth century, and Isham appears to have borrowed a copy from a ‘Mrs. Mansel’ who has not yet been identified. Isham included both chapter and leaf numbers throughout her copy of da Vigo’s text, a meticulous note-taking technique which she employed when copying other printed texts. Sometimes the titles of the books from which she copied are given in abbreviated form, such as the surgical ‘Enchiridion’ vaguely referenced in IC4830. At other times, Isham listed the chapter and leaf numbers, but neglected to include the book title; this is seen in IC4827 in her copy of ‘the first book of a Anatomie of spondiles or of the China bone Chp-7’, which she copied from an unnamed surgical text. IC4828 includes a list of definitions for basic measurements and ingredients (mostly herbal but also some chemical) which Isham had copied from an unnamed printed source. These lists were a common feature in many seventeenth-century manuscript receipt books and were generally included at the beginning or end of compilations.


4. Additionally, Isham listed a series of medical receipts that appear to have been collected from various sources. IC4826 contains standard household remedies similar to those found in many seventeenth-century women’s receipt books, including various ways of mixing simples such as ‘oyle of roses’ and practical medical solutions for household ailments, such as ‘when the child is dead in the womb’. IC4827 includes a list of medical receipts with attributions to lay practitioners who are mostly female (such as ‘Mrs. Lowes Med. for red eyes’) which were probably received by oral transmission or manuscript exchange. One of these receipts is ‘Mr bagshaw med—for Aloe’, who is probably the Edward Bagshawe whose letter of medical advice is also preserved in the family archive (IC255). Further work on these attributions could begin to recreate Isham’s medical circle.


5. While these notes contain many features common of an early modern women’s receipt book, some of the content indicates that Elizabeth Isham had a more sophisticated knowledge of medicine than many women of her class. For example, the receipt titles in IC4824 are in Latin, though the body of the receipts are generally in English with an occasional ingredient listed by its Latin name. Most women’s receipt books were written exclusively in English, as few women read Latin. Isham’s diary lists numerous occasions where she is learning Latin and her book list in IC4829 shows that she owned a Latin grammar. Another interesting fact is that the printed texts from which Isham copied were mostly surgical—a branch of medicine that does not appear to have been widely practiced by seventeenth-century women. Most of the medicine in contemporary women’s receipt books consisted of salves and waters, and women who copied from printed texts generally did so from herbals or chemical ‘books of secrets’. Yet the most extraordinary practice is found in IC4828 where Isham copied, from an unnamed printed text, theories on the causes of sickness and the division of labour between physicians and surgeons. Early modern women’s receipt books are generally filled with practical medical remedies fit for a gentlewoman, with the scholarly theories behind illnesses being reserved for university educated men. These passages suggest that Elizabeth Isham learned medicine not only to maintain a level of practical knowledge expected of the woman of the house, but also to fulfil her own insatiable interest in learning.


Works cited




Northamptonshire Record Office. IC4823. Elizabeth Denton to Elizabeth Isham, with Isham's medical notes. 10.12.16??

—. IC 4824. Elizabeth Isham, medical notes (undated).

—. IC4826. Elizabeth Isham, medical notes (undated).

—. IC4827. Elizabeth Isham, medical notes (undated).

—. IC4828. Elizabeth Denton to Elizabeth Isham, with Isham's medical notes. 30.07.16??

—. IC4829. Susanna Stuteville to Elizabeth Isham, with Isham's booklist. 27.05.1648

—. IC4830. Elizabeth Denton to Elizabeth Isham, with Isham's medical notes. 09.05.16??

—. IC4831. Elizabeth Denton to Elizabeth Isham, with Isham's medical notes. 03.12.1643