Guidebook Hierarchies

Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman, 1622, Frontispiece

Publications addressing skills and duties of housewives and privileged gentlewomen had been widespread in England since the late sixteenth century. They date far earlier than Henry Peacham’s Compleat Gentleman which seems to have been devised as a counterpart to the guides for women, discussing appropriate education and interests for a male elite.

John Partridge, The Treasurie of Hidden Secrets, 1600, Frontispiece

The earliest publications with a title explicitly referring to an intended use by women include Thomas Tusser’s Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry: United to as Many of Good Huswiferie published in1573 and John Partridge’s The Treasurie of Hidden Secrets: Commonlie called, The Good-Huswiues Closet of Provision, for the Health of her Houshold Gathered out of Sundrie Experiments of the same year, ab bestseller still reedited in the 1730s.

These early works were followed by the extremely successful publications by Hugh Plat, which after his Jewel House of Art and Nature of 1594 keep referring to the knowledge of noble women, for example in A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen: Or, The Art of Preseruing, Conseruing, and Candying published in 1627. In 1613 Gervase Markham’s presents with The English Husbandman a first male counterpart to Partridge’s advice for housewives, primarily treating livestock and agricultural issues. Markham edited and enlarged his volume several times and republished it with different title. He also sold another volume with instructions for good housewives with the title Countrey Contentments, or The English Husvvife in 1623.

Hugh Plat, The Jewel House of Art and Nature, 1653, Frontispiece

Henry Peacham dedicated his guide book for young noblemen to William Howard, Lady Arundel’s second son. Supposedly Peacham’s guide was modelled after Baldassare Castiglione’s Libro del Cortegiano while recipe collections for a female audience are located in the tradition of the libri dei segreti or books of secrets. Castiglione’s work, printed in 1528, is counted among the most influential works for European court culture, the recipe books appear only as marginalia. The key terms of aristocratic education introduced in Il Cortegiano, such as ingenio, grazia and arte, are considered the basis for understanding court culture. On the other hand, the libri dei segreti aim at practical skills and provide specific instructions on a wide variety of topics (William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature 1996).

These specific guides with applied knowledge seem less influential despite their popularity and wide dissemination. A hierarchy of theory and practice which shaped the historiography of art becomes apparent, differentiated according to social rank and gender. Practical knowledge and manual labor are constructed as inferior, intellectual contemplation and theoretical considerations as the noble ideal. Contrary to Francis Bacon’s demand for a practical natural philosophy and the re-evaluation of physical experience, both the culture of the recipe book and the share of of women like Lady Arundel in the shaping of an early modern culture of knowledge have long been neglected.

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1645, Frontispiece

Since at least Pamela Smith’s studies on the importance of workshop knowledge for the creation and reception of art, research on applied knowledge has led to a more differentiated assessment of the importance of practical skills and physical knowledge for art. Scholastic certainties established at universities authorized and privileged male natural philosophers, an artificial authority resulting in the devaluation of practical, often female knowledge gained from experience and the observation of nature. Scholastic philosophers condemned an unbiased, impartial engagement with nature as childish wonder and the opposite of true learning or wisdom.

In his Novum Organon, first published in 1620, Francis Bacon laid the foundation for a reassessment of practical knowledge. His treatise is an urgent call for the systematic practical study of nature. Bacon’s aim in criticizing the idola, traditional fallacies of philosophy, was the applicability of philosophical knowledge for the improvement of human life (Jürgen Klein, Francis Bacon’s Scientia Operativa, the Tradition of the Workshops and the Secrets of Nature 2008). The philosophical study nature was supposed to become an active, experimental, even mechanical endeavour leading to a re-evaluation of work, and theoretical terms like labor, usus and diligentia (Joanna Picciotto, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England 2010).

Knowledge of nature gradually changed from a philosophical to a physical experience, resulting in the desired re-evaluation of the relationship between art and craft, manual labour and theoretical studies. Against this background, Lady Arundel’s collecting and experimenting with a wide range of recipes is to be understood as an important contribution to a culture of knowledge and as participation in a newly established culture of practice.


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