walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Here's what happens when you let an expert in folklore write history

I was fascinated by the section in _Eat My Words_ about Freda DeKnight's _Date with a Dish_, so I thought I'd finally make a serious attempt to read the whole book. I've gotten seriously bogged down and may not recover, but I'll at least try to explain why.

Theophano, according to the back of the dust jacket, is "Associate Director of the College of General Studies and adjunct faculty member in the Graduate Program in Folklore and Folklife and in the Department of Religious Studies at The University of Pennsylvania". The subtitle of _Eat My Words_ (published by Palgrave) is: Reading Women's Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. She has taken published and unpublished (sometimes manuscript in many hands) cookbooks, often filled with marginalia by others, and tried to imagine the lives of the women who contributed to these books in one way or another.

I cannot adequately describe how badly I want to like this book.

Exhibit #1 is a manuscript in the UPenn collection (hey, saved Theophano a lot of travel money): http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/record.html?id=MEDREN_2362740.

If only Theophano had _read_ this description of the manuscript and looked up the words in the description that she did not understand. Like, say, dowry. Here's how Theophano describes it:

"On the same page on which she mentioned Horncroft [believe me, we'll be returning to Horncroft] she wrote, in a clear-well-executed script, all of the possessions she brought with her."

Theophano then proceeds to misunderstand the phrase "3 beds". Here's what the OED (2nd with supplement) has to say about the word "bed" (in part):

I. The sleeping-place of men or animals. 1. A permanent structure or arrangement for sleeping on, or for the sake of rest...It consists for the most part of a sack or mattress of sufficient size, stuffed with something soft or springy, raised generally upon a 'bed-stead' or support, and covered with sheets, blankets, etc. for the purpose of warmth. The name is given both to the whole structure in its most elaborate form, and, as in 'feather-bed,' to the stuffed sack or mattress which constitutes its essential part.

Because the only other large item of furniture in the list is a single chest of drawers and some other chests, and because _every single other indication in the book_ is that Ms. Brett is not wealthy, the inescapable conclusion is that Ms. Brett meant the stuffed sacks. Not the bed-steads. Theophano missed that, however, and instead concluded that Ms. Brett must mysteriously be choosing to live poor:

"From her book, I conjecture that she was a devout woman who, despite her wealth, traveled in modest social circles." Plain book. Plain food. Plain goodwives who are contributing recipes -- and that's when it isn't straight-up relatives [we'll be coming back to some of those relatives]. If Theophano had any historical sense, she'd have known she must be wrong somewhere and gone and asked about what else those beds could mean.

Moving along. Theophano doesn't seem to realize that list of belongings is there, and carefully written (unlike the rest of the book), because it is a legal document. Brett is listing what she brought into her marriage, in case there's any problem later on. This is important. Really important. The record referenced above describes the page as a dowry, but Theophano never uses that term and appears not to know what that's all about. Bad sign. Here's where it gets much, much worse.

There are two references in the book to flax being turned into linens. Theophano mulls this, wondering if Brett was doing this herself, or if she hired someone else to do it. She does understand that this would disambiguate whether Brett was aristocratic or not. I'll tell you what else will let you know if Brett was aristocratic or not: _do a little f*ing research_.


You'll notice on this page (from a 1907 book of marriage records in Sussex county, which we'll get back to in _just_ a moment): April 19, 1681, Francis Pellat of Berry & Hopestill Brett of Newick, spinster: sureties, said F.P. and Thomas Newington of Southover, gent. (Newick or Porstlade).

The date is right, but that's not all that's right. Internal to the ms. is a reference to "my cousin Betty Pellat", which is a nice piece of confirmation. Berry (now Bury) and Newick and parishes in Sussex county, in the same general area (as in, within a single digit number of miles) as an area known as "Lower Horncroft" (where the big excitement recently revolved around a proposed sand quarry). Here's a modern map:


According to Alice Clark, author of _Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century_, p 95 in google books (I'm too lazy to go up two flights of stairs to dig up my own copy), spinster in this century was still a technical term: a woman who spins. Granted, just about everyone did except the very rich.

Seventeenth century parish records in Sussex county are so easy to get hold of now, I literally tripped over the marriage record for Ms. Brett, because her name is pretty unique in any century. But they weren't _that_ hard to lay hands on when Theophano wrote this book. It would not have been particularly difficult for Theophano to find an expert in the era/area to give an opinion on the likely character of Ms. Brett -- and that expert would not, in this century or any other, supported the notion that Ms. Brett was some rich woman who had decided to live with poor people as some devout person.

Theophano is mysteriously confused by Ms. Brett's use of the term "my sister", speculating that she may have "belonged to a religious community". Well, duh, yeah she did. While Theophano thinks using "my sister" may have meant Brett was a Quaker or other dissenter, there isn't any particular reason to suspect this. Returning to the OED, definition 3b of sister is: "A female member of the Christian church as a whole, or of some body or association within this." That said, it would be _far_ more likely that Brett was a Puritan than a Quaker. Why do I think this? Because Puritans gave their kids hortatory names -- and if Hopestill isn't a hortatory name, I'm not sure what is. Really, the weirdest thing about it is that I know from other googling that it was used as a man's name as well:


Hopestill and Patience. Nice. And notation indicates they were Puritans, too. There -were- Quakers in West Sussex, so we can't precisely rule out the Quaker theory, but it is an unlikely one.

I don't actually have a problem with someone imaginatively reconstructing a life based on a very thin amount of information. I don't. I just have a problem when that imaginative reconstruction doesn't match well with what few facts are available. Theophano desperately wanted to make it so that maybe Brett was rich, maybe she wasn't married, maybe she was a Quaker, maybe wtf. But Brett was, while not poor, precisely by the standards of her time, definitely not rich. Odds on, she married a tenant farmer (altho you never know -- she might have married someone who owned a small farm). She worked hard all her life, and had been raised to make sure she knew what was hers and hang onto it. She cooked in the simple styles common at the time, and when she got sick, she had the doctor write the prescription down in her book so it wouldn't be lost or forgotten.

Here's a few more tidbits about how Pellat-Brett turned out:


Frances Pellat of Bury [Hey, we can spell it correctly now!] gent [probably _not_ a tenant farmer, then] to be buried in church near wife Lettice [who wha?!] -- wife Hopestill P. [okay, so I'm betting Hopestill is wife #2] -- bro Samuel P & John Scutt of Petworth gent messuage [???] at Kingston upon Thams for das [that means daughters!] Katherine & Lettice [oh, probably from marriage #1] -- sister Elizth. P. L [ I mean pounds] 20. [Hey, I bet that's cousin Betty! Cousin does sometimes mean collateral other than sib ]. -- bro Richd & Wm. P. L5. Dated 1 Sept 1686 Pr 3 Mar 1692 [ no mortal clue what that's all about].

Searching around in that book for Hopestill produces other information, like, she died July 22, 1749 at age 92 and is interred at Cuckfield Church, which means we can figure she was 24 when she got married.

I think this is the church:


"Near this place is interred the body of John Warden, of Butler's Green in this parish, Esq. who died April 30, 1730, aged 79 years; and also of Hope-still, his wife, who died July 22, 1749, aged 92" Cuckfield Church, Sussex.

The author of _Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature_ mentions Hope-still, and it looks like there were two of them in the area at the same time. I initially thought they were the same, but not any more.


What's the tally on husbands?

nee Brett, Pellatt (married 1681), Warden (married 1694)

Our Ms. Brett had 5 kids starting when she was 37ish! One son and two daughters survived.

It's a better story when you actually use some facts. There's some land, at least owned by the husbands. To an American eye, it looks like Ms. Brett was solid gentry. Think Jane Austen's characters.

I wish I knew what happened between when Mrs. Warden died, and when Ms. Aresty got her hands on Brett-Pellatt-Warden's manuscript. I'm looking forward to reading what Ms. Aresty has to say about Brett and other cookbook authors in _The Delectable Past_. I'm looking forward to it a lot more than I am looking forward to finishing the disaster that is _Eat My Words_.

ETA: Brett's probably grew up in Horsham. At least that's where her father was from.

ETAYA: I am an idiot. I shouldn't complain about Theophano. Ms. Brett came to her marriage listing all the household linens and crap, but doesn't list any fancy dress whatsoever. But she has "a graye horse". That's a yeoman's daughter. She's not gentry at all.

This is _really_ interesting:


ETAYA: but I'm nearly done I swear.


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