"Margaret Cavendish’s Medical Recipes: Medicine, Experience, and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England"
Friday, October 26, 2018 - 3:35pm
Benjamin Goldberg
Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies
University of South Florida

In collaboration with Justin Begley (Helsinki), I am working on a transcript of Margaret Cavendish’s family book of medical recipes (often called ‘receipts’). This previously unpublished manuscript (MS Pw V 90, located at the University of Nottingham, UK) is a fascinating and rare document, written by a number of hands (including Margaret’s), and which provides some unique insights into Cavendish’s thought. 

In this talk, I describe the contents of the MS, placing it in its proper context, namely, recent historiography on food, medicine, and cooking in early modern England. I focus, in particular, on how this work differs from most other recipe collections, both manuscript and printed, in, e.g., its exclusive medical focus and its inclusion of doctor’s reports. I then discuss how to interpret this work within the larger context of Cavendish’s natural philosophy, noting that we must be careful in how we interpret it, since it is not exclusively her writing, though there is evidence she was the one who compiled and organized it. With this proviso, I argue that this MS places some pressure on the received view of Cavendish’s conception of experience and experiment, seemingly undermining her anti-experimentalism and penchant for speculation. When this MS is read along with Cavendish’s extensive, if scattered and disorganized, discussions of medicine and food, however, we can resolve these apparent tensions by carefully attending to the various roles that empirical experience plays in Cavendish’s thought. Taken together with recent historiography on non-traditional aspects of the Scientific Revolution (women, kitchens, cooking, etc), this work can help us define some of the novel ways that experience was thought about in these various alternative contexts.

I conclude with some thoughts on our historical accounts of experience by scholars such as Steven Shapin and Peter Dear. I argue that these accounts, while not untrue, also do not exhaust the ways in which these ideas were understood in early modern England. Our accounts of experience and experiment are thus in need of revision and expansion so as to adequately account for the complex ways in which these ideas were used by various thinkers beyond thecanonical philosophers andscientists of early modernity.