‘Secrets of Women’: Translating the Female Body in Early Modern Books of Secrets (1555-1700)

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Hundreds of recipes about reproduction and the female body were available to a growing number of readers in the early modern period, most of them in Italian or vernacular translations, such as English and French. This thesis examines printed books of secrets, in particular recipes about women’s bodies, in the light of their increasing circulation and translation in this period. The thesis analyses the Italian books that were translated and re-edited the most to study how ‘secrets of women’ were reshaped and adapted in their diffusion process. Recipe books have recently become the focus of many historians, yet there are few studies about translated recipes, especially where gender is concerned. Because books of secrets circulated in virtually all of Europe in multiple languages, which shaped the genre to specific contexts, considering their translation is crucial. Translators often provided alternative ingredients to make sure a recipe could be followed, and ‘corrected’ or ‘improved’ recipes according to their own expertise. They could also omit parts of the text they felt were superfluous or problematic, such as abortifacient recipes. The first part of the thesis examines the role of printers and translators in reshaping this kind of knowledge and how readers could adapt it to their lives. In the second part, each chapter is dedicated to a ‘professor of secrets’, the authors who compiled recipe collections. Through this process of refashioning ‘secrets of women’, medical and editorial trends become clear: they illustrate cultural perceptions of the body. Disseminating knowledge about the body was not a neutral activity in the past. Translation in this period was a creative, often collective activity, that reshaped knowledge between genres, material formats, languages, cultures, readerships, and, crucially, theory and practice. By understanding how ‘secrets of women’ were transformed, it is possible to see social and cultural shifts in values, priorities, and preoccupations, going beyond medical understandings of the body. This intricate network of meanings was constantly changing, which was partly due to the flexible nature of the genre of recipes, malleable to reworkings by the many people who participated in it and ‘translated’ this knowledge into their everyday lives. Therefore, all the people involved in the production, circulation, and reception of recipes were, in a way, ‘translators’ of medical knowledge, who were actively engaged in the (re)making of how the human body was conceptualised.
Date of Award1 May 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEvelyn Welch (Supervisor) & Laura Gowing (Supervisor)

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