By Monterey Hall
Inset within Lady Frances Catchmay’s Booke of Medicens (Wellcome MS 184a) is a group of recipes attributed to one Mistress Vernam. This individual contributed thirty-two recipes to the manuscript spanning from folios 32r to 33v, making her Lady Catchmay’s single biggest outside contributor. These recipes are also prefaced by a marginal note stating “Mr:s: Vernams: medicens:” and appended by another marginal note stating “The End of Mr:s: Vernams medicens:” (Catchmay), making her the manuscript’s only contributor to be differentiated by any sort of individualized heading. And yet, despite having contributed a large amount of material to Lady Catchmay’s Booke of Medicins, Mistress Vernam appears nowhere else in any early modern database.
The sheer volume of recipes that Mistress Vernam contributed to MS 184a implies that Lady Catchmay had a great deal of respect for her. There are two possible reasons why Mistress Vernam has so many recipes within the manuscript: this collection might be a starter manuscript like those discussed by Elaine Leong; or, more likely, Lady Catchmay might have collected these recipes during the manuscript’s original compilation. The lack of other such sections in the book seems to discredit the theory that this particular collection could be a starter manuscript. If Lady Catchmay had left blank sections open for starter manuscripts, then we would expect to find several different collections like Mistress Vernam’s. Since this collection is entirely unique within the manuscript, it is far more likely that Lady Catchmay collected these recipes during the book’s original compilation.
Lady Catchmay must have had a close relationship with Mistress Vernam to have collected and included so many of Mistress Vernam’s recipes in her manuscript, but discovering the nature of this relationship has proven challenging. Mistress Vernam did not have an official title, so she could not have been of the same social status as Lady Catchmay. She might have worked in the Catchmay household, but it is difficult to say this for certain without a written record detailing as much. In order to find out what Mistress Vernam’s relationship to Lady Catchmay might have been, I looked for her in other contemporary manuscripts with the help of Dr. Rebecca Laroche. If Lady Catchmay respected Mistress Vernam enough to accumulate four whole folios’ worth of her recipes, then I thought that surely Mistress Vernam must appear in another medical text. Dr. Laroche and I searched for every variant of the name “Vernam” that we could think of on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s HAMNET catalogue, the Wellcome database, and the Luna database without finding a single hit. I continued to search for her on my own within these same databases, and I also perused the Defining Gender database with just as little success. Even a simple Google search turned up nothing. Each of these failures to find her only served to make me even more curious about Mistress Vernam’s identity.
I then turned to the database Ancestry.com to try to find Mistress Vernam in genealogical records. An individual would have to meet three criteria to be considered a match: her married name would have to be a variant of Vernam; she had to have been married within fifty years or so of 1625, the rough date of the manuscript’s original compilation (Rutz); and she had to have lived near St. Briavels, Gloucestershire, the place in which Lady Catchmay lived and likely where she compiled her manuscript (Rutz). I found many individuals that met two of the three criteria, but only one individual matched on all three. Jess Cox was a woman who married John Vernam in Hardwicke, Gloucestershire (about 25 miles from St. Briavels) on the 2nd of November, 1613 (Ancestry.com). Although there’s no way to know for certain if this is the same Mistress Vernam as the one who is referenced in Lady Catchmay’s manuscript, she is the only individual on all of Ancestry.com that matches well enough on date, place, and name to be considered a likely candidate.
Rather than giving a definite answer to the question of Mistress Vernam’s identity, however, this discovery raises even more questions. Neither Jess nor John Vernam have any other records in the genealogical database, so there is still no way of knowing precisely how Mistress Vernam is connected to either Lady Catchmay or seventeenth-century medical practice. To find out, I will have to turn to other medical texts to see if Mistress Vernam’s recipes have been accumulated by other manuscript or print compilers.
Monterey Hall is a student at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She worked with Professor Rebecca Laroche in an independent study on the Catchmay Manuscript in Fall 2015
Catchmay, Lady Frances. A Booke of Medicins, preserues and Cookerye. 1625. Wellcome Library MS 184a. Web. 2 Nov 2015.
Ancestry.com. Ancestry, 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2015.
Leong, Elaine. “Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household.” Centaurus 55.2 (2013): 81-103. Wiley Online Library. Web. 3 Dec 2015.
Rutz, Katrina. “Frances Catchmay.” EMROC.hypotheses.org. July 2014. Web. 23 Nov 2015.