Promoting passion in book collecting

Gervase Markham, Rival to Shakespeare and Expert in Housewifery

How much would a horseman know about housewifery? Gervase Markham claimed to know quite a lot, indeed–enough to write Country Contentments, or The English Huswife. Originally published in 1615, the book proved immensely popular. But it was only one of Markham’s varied works; he was an incredibly prolific author who even rivaled Shakespeare!

A Natural Expert in Agriculture

Born around 1568 in Nottinghamshire, Markham grew well acquainted with the country life. He also apparently received a liberal education, as he was familiar with Latin and a number of modern languages. The younger son in his family, Markham had to make his own fortune, so he became a soldier of fortune. His duty took him to the Low Countries, and he eventually served as a captain under the Earl of Essex in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Markham’s upbringing imparted extensive knowledge of animal husbandry, falconry, horsemanship, and other practical and agricultural pursuits. A noted horse breeder, Markham is said to have imported the first Arabian horse to England. When he left the service, he traded a pen for a sword and, banking on his background, penned The Gentleman’s Academy (1595). Prior to this book, few practical guides existed for the yeoman or country gentleman. The first, The Book of St. Albans, was published in 1486 (and Markham would later edit an edition of the work). Walter of Henley later wrote Book of Husbandry and Fitzherbert authored a treatise on the same subject. Thus Markham’s work met with a wide audience.

Markham promised to deliver an almost dizzying amount of information in each work . The English Huswife, for example, purports to include all the “inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleate woman,” from “physicke” to baking, from “conceited secrets” to the “ordering of great feasts.” Markham outlines the makings of a good cook:

“She must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and a ready care. She must not be butter-fingered, sweet-toothed, nor faint-hearted. For the first will let everything fall, the second will consume what she should increase, and the last will lose time with too much niceness.”

A Shrewd Bookseller


From the 1631 edition of ‘The English Huswife’

Sir Egerton Brydges notes that “[Markham] seems to have become a general compiler for the booksellers, and his various works had as numerous impressions as those of Burn and Buchan in our day.” Cheap and Good Husbandry (1616) was in its fifteenth impression by 1695, and The English Huswife was in its eleventh by 1675. Markham was quite cunning in issuing new impressions or editions of his work; he strived to maximize patronages. If one dedicatee passed away, he replaced the person with someone even more illustrious. And he would break books into multiple volumes, giving him two or three dedications opportunities per volume, rather than per work.

Markham bravely delved into both theatre and poetry, penning works of literature that were quite popular in his day. Shakespeare scholar Nathan Blake calls Markham the “most indefatigable writer of his era,” and his frequent publications proved problematic for his contemporaries. Experts speculate that Markham is the rival to whom Shakespeare refers in his sonnets, and that he may also be an inspiration for the character of Don Armado in Love’s Labour Lost. And by 1617,  Markham’s reputation as a cattle doctor–along with his many publications on the subject–proved problematic for others who wished to be establish themselves as experts on the subject. That year, booksellers pressed Markham to sign a paper promising not to publish anything else on “horse, oxe, cowe, sheepe, swine, goats, etc.”

Markham’s observations and recommendations, though hardly applicable today, are quite a quaint read! You’ll find excerpts in the related reading listed at the end of this post.

Related Books

English Housewifery


Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifery contains over 450 recipes “Giving Directions in most Parts of Cookery; And how to prepare various Sorts of Soops, Cakes, Made-Dishes, Creams, Pastes, Jellies, Pickles, Made-Wines, &c.” The appendix includes over seventy more recipes. This volume, the twelfth edition, has 203 pages, plus 33 pages of supplement and menus for every season and index. It’s been expertly re-bound in banded, brown three quarter calf, on matching marbled boards, gilt titles on new label; replacement matching endpapers. Two of the placement diagrams, showing recommended placement of dishes at table, have been expertly repaired with Japanese paper. Early owner’s name and remarks on the fly leaf have been preserved with the date Sept. 28. 1790. This is now an elegant and sturdy little book from a private household collection which has not lost any of its cachet in the expert restoration process. Details>>

American Domestic Cookery

Rundell_American_Domestic_CookeryMaria Rundell’s American Domestic Cookery is “Illustrated by Nine Engravings. To which is added The Complete Family Brewer. By an Experienced Housekeeper” It was originally published in 1807 as “A new system of domestic cookery,” with earlier American editions that included only two engraved plates. Initially Mrs. Rundell collected various recipes for cookery and suggestions for household management for the use of her married daughters. After sending the manuscript to John Murray, an old family friend, it was published and became an immense success. Rundell modestly claimed that her book was not only essential to the “modern” middle-class housewife, but also a gift to the public. Details>>

The Skilful Housewife’s Book

Newell_Skilful_Housewife_BookThe first edition of Mrs. LGD Newell’s The Skilful Housewife’s Book was published in New York in 1846. It has over 650 recipes and addresses such diverse topics as household duties, gardening, flowers, birds, and plants. It’s illustrated with two black and white plates and includes “Miscellaneous Moral Hints on the Formation of Character, Habits, Etc., Simple and Safe Remedies for Common Diseases and Accidents…” with many recipes. Details>>

Related Reading:

She will have knowledge of all sorts of hearbes (Shakespeare’s England)

A world of sallats (Shakespeare’s England)

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This entry was posted on January 29, 2014 by in Food and Literature and tagged , , , , .
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