Female alliances

Amanda E. Herbert is Assistant Professor of History at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.   Her first book is Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain, published by Yale University Press in 2014.  

This blog post is an edited excerpt from that book, which explores women’s social networks in Britain, c. 1550-1750, and the many ways in which early modern women were encouraged to make and keep friends, including making marmalade…


On October 25, 1617, Anne Clifford wrote that she “gave [my friends] some marmalade of Quinces for about this time I made much of it.” Clifford’s record of a gift of quince marmalade affords a good example of the friendly ties that were engendered when early modern women gave the gift of fruits and preserves. Marmalades, sweetmeats, comfits, and conserves, the sugared and preserved yield of fruit trees, were early modern delicacies. When women gave these objects, they manifested their social position and wealth in two ways: first, in their associations with the fruits themselves and, second, in their extravagant use of sugar.  Consumable gifts such as these were meant to signal a woman’s culinary acumen, but they were also intended to convey a sociable and affectionate taste. When women gave gifts of fruit and confection, they worked to reinforce the ties, both emotional and social, which bound them together.

From a young age, elite girls were taught that the preparation of sugared fruits was a woman’s art. Women worked extensively in gardens watering, weeding, and fruit picking. Works of prescriptive literature suggested that a so-called useful woman was one who managed her household’s produce carefully and thriftily. Richard Allestree’s Ladies Calling (1696) suggested that “the art of Oeconomy and householdmanagery [is] . . . the most proper Feminine business, from which neither wealth nor greatness can totally absolve them.” But while elite women were encouraged to refine their skills in food production and practice economy as part of “the most proper Feminine business,” elite men were, in contrast, actively discouraged from participating in culinary work.

Anne Dormer ridiculed her husband for his culinary interests, confessing to her sister that his fascination with cooking was a troubling and aggravating sign of a selfish desire to “please his fancy”: “Mr. D is now much taken with all sorts of cookery and spends all his ingenuity in finding out the most comodious way of frying broileing rosting stewing and preserving his whole studdy is to please his fancy in every thing and by runing away from all things that might shew him his errors.” Dormer’s experiments in food production were quickly and harshly condemned by his wife as lazy and even ruinous, a waste of “all his ingenuity.” Dormer equated her husband’s cooking activity not with female industriousness but with idleness, wasteful luxury, and indulgence. She was particularly put off by his fascination with sugared confection and fruit preserves, adding derisively,  “[He] loiters aboute, somtimes stues prunes, som times makes chocalate, and this somer he is much taken with preserving.”

But early modern women, who were encouraged to do sugar-work, saw fruit as a highly desirable gift.  Then as now, raw fruits had to be preserved if they were to be enjoyed for any length of time. This required enormous quantities of sugar. The amounts of sugar called for in British recipes of the period were an indulgence and extravagance, even for those who had the means to afford them. Sugar had become more widely available in Great Britain by the 1660s, when British West Indian colonies in Barbados and the Leeward Islands shifted from tobacco to sugar production and began shipping greater quantities of the sweet substance to Britain. The product of exploitative transtlantic slave labor, sugar increased in availability during the second half of the seventeenth century, but its consumption in Britain was still restricted by status. Wealthy individuals bought sugar by the loaf, each loaf ranging in weight from three to fourteen pounds. Lower-status families could only afford “scraped” sugar, which was scratched off of a common, store-owned loaf and sold in small quantities inside paper packets. And taxes on the refined product remained high throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, ensuring that the confection remained an expensive commodity even in small quantities.

Title page of a later edition of Markham Gervase’s book (c) Library of Congress

Despite its cost, sugar was used extensively in preserving fruits. The prescriptive author Gervase Markham wrote a recipe in 1615 for “Marmalade of quinces red” illuminated the process women would have gone through as well as the ingredients they would have used to create fruit marmalades, jellies, and candies: “Take a pound of quinces and cut them in halves . . . then take a pound of sugar and a quart of fair water and put them all into a pan . . . when it beginneth to be thick then break your quinces, with a slice or a spoon . . . and then strew a little fine sugar in your box’s bottom, and so put it up.” In this recipe copious amounts of sugar were used both in the mixture itself and for the purpose of forming a light crust around the bottom edge of the finished marmalade. Sugar was the vital ingredient in most early modern preserving and conserving, and a pound of sugar per every pound of fruit was fairly standard in most of Markham’s marmalade recipes. Recipe book author Hannah Woolley’s recipe for “Quince Marmalade” called for the maker to “put white Sugar to it, as much as you please.” Considering the character of the British-grown quince, this amount could have been quite considerable; as Martin Crawford states in his article on quinces, “In warm temperate and tropical regions, the fruits can become soft, juicy, and suitable for eating raw; but in cooler temperate areas like Britain, they do not ripen so far. Here, raw quince fruits are hard, gritty, harsh and astringent.”

And so when Anne Clifford gave her female friends quince marmalade in 1617, she used the gift to convey many messages. The wealthy, well-educated Clifford (1590–1676) was the daughter of the Earl of Cumberland, and her first husband was the Earl of Dorset. She shared an uneasy relationship with both her natal and married families. Clifford’s extensive manuscript papers document disagreements with family members over inheritance issues, estate management, child care, and personal comportment. When Clifford recorded her present of quince marmalade in her personal daily diary, the sentences surrounding provision of marmalade hint at the weightiness of this gift to Clifford and to the greater importance of gift exchange to her own sometimes shaky alliances: “Upon the 25th, being Saturday, my Lady Lisle, my Lady ___ [blank in manuscript], and my Coz. Barbara Sidney [visited]. I walked with them all the wildernesse over & had much talk of my Coz. Clifford & many other matters. They saw the Childe and much commended her. I gave them some marmalade of Quinces for about this time I mad[e] much of it.” Clifford wrote of the bestowal of the present within the context of a visit, in which three elite women, at least one of whom was a female relative of Clifford’s, traveled to Dorset to socialize with her at her home. The women spent time walking together out of doors, talking, and exchanging information. The visit was then recorded as concluded with a gift that was both luxurious and handmade and that Clifford was careful to note was of her own creation.  By the end of this meeting, Clifford and her female friends had affirmed their alliances, and gift giving was central to the interaction.


Curious about the sources cited in this post?  You can find them here:

  1. Richard Allestree, The Ladies Calling in Two Parts (London, 1696).
  2. Martin Crawford, “Quince,” Agroforestry News 6, no. 2 (January 1998).
  3. Anne Dormer, Letters to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull, 1685–91, Add. 72516, ff. 156–243, British Library.
  4. Anne Clifford Herbert, The Diary of Anne Clifford, 1616–1619: A Critical Edition, ed. Katherine O. Acheson (New York: Garland, 1995).
  5. Gervase Markham, The English Housewife: Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to be in a Complete Woman, ed. Michael R. Best (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1986).
  6. Hannah Woolley, The Gentlewomans Companion or, a Guide to the Female Sex: The Complete Text of 1675, ed. Caterina Albano (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2001).

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