Transcribathon: Recaptured, Reflected, and Envisioned

By Vincent Sosko

The group transcribing work done in our conference room several weeks ago was the first such experience for all eight graduate students from the University of Texas, Arlington. Group work was no stranger to us, but never before had we taken part in a textual archeological dig within such an immense group effort. This ‘dig’ is better termed paleography, and our work with this study so far this semester prepared us for the transcribing we would do that day. Over a month or so of transcribing practice has introduced me to another element of scholarly work, given me exposure to new ingredients for cooking and new conventions of writing, and ultimately allowed me to hone my transcription skills into my own personal style of transcribing, albeit the style of a fledgling. It was not until the day of the Transcribathon that I had considered or realized that my peers were developing their own personal transcribing styles as well.

While uncovering the pages of the receipt book of Rebeckah Winche, we did so on an individual basis where each person selected their own pages and set about the act of transcribing. What our work became was anything but individual, as we held an open line of conversation about the unique remedies to bizarre maladies. Jason, Jordan, and Erin offered up the most intriguing recipes, leading Jayson to dub them the “lucky ones” for encountering those grotesque recipes we all love to read (i.e. a remedy calling for “Bearsfoot” and “pigs blader”). We also openly discussed the troubling words, flourishes, and conventions that others may have had a better sense of understanding. The debates that these struggles led to and the suggestions that came from them was where I clearly saw the very personal ways that we see the handwriting and thus the differing styles of transcribing emerged. Where one transcriber was able to see the dual application of the u/v convention that aided another transcriber who might have been flummoxed when encountering this (such as seeing “couer” and misreading cover as cower and therefore being contextually confused), there was a transcriber who had developed a routine to interpret ‘thorns’ that lent itself to others. These differing transcription styles came together to vivify paleography for me, and what we were creating was much more than an in depth collection of transcribed recipes.

This bonding we had over our work on the pages, supported by the bonding over the large variety of snacks available, provided me with a new sense of scholarly work that I have not had much exposure to yet; one in which we receive more joy and intellectual reward in the journey than in the destination. To think that the work we did within our four walls was connected to a worldwide network of the same journey helps me realize now just how the Transcribathon emulated the potential of scholarship for those who continue in academia.

Vincent Sosko, PhD student, University of Texas, Arlington

Vetting Rewards

By Joul Smith

Vetting rewards. It may not be the sexiest part of transcribing, but scrutinizing the products of the Winche (Folger V.b. 366) transcribathon has improved my technical skills as a transcriber and re-oriented the value I place on my work with recipes. And as a graduate student whose work and study revolves around early modern English, I’m developing “skill” and “purpose” for my future profession by vetting.

At first, vetting sounds grueling and intrusive. Here’s the process: I collate the various transcriptions, determine which versions are the best, reformat them into one text that can be correctly interfaced with Dromio (the Folger Shakespeare Library’s transcription tool), edit them (by re-transcribing if necessary), then pain-stakingly tag every word that matches a specific category (And for recipes, it’s almost every other word.). In my graduate classes, this is usually the work of transcription trolls. They would sneak in after you spent hours hashing out the general spine of a difficult hand and use your hard work to finish a transcription that was only possible because of your initial dedication to the text. Then they would brag about their skills as a transcriber (Yeah. I’m still getting over it.). In the case of the Winche manuscript, for instance, a recipe for “A Drink for the Sciaticae” has a crossed out “bru,” which three highly accomplished transcribers labeled three different ways: “bri,” “bro,” and “be.” Close examination shows that the “u” matches the hand’s “u” and the line “bru one ounce of licorish brused,” seems to demonstrate an editorial thought-process—worthwhile, but now I’m the troll.

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Yet in the end, vetting stretches my capabilities and makes me a better student of early modern English, paleography, and the digital humanities. For example, I want a researcher to authentically experience “two pailefuls of pumps water” in Winche’s “How to dry Meats Tongues,” but the “pailefuls” is spelled strangely and the hand hardly helps. Furthermore, the “s” in “pumps” could be an “e,” but it’s unclear. I firmly believe it’s an “s” because it matches what seems like the speech pattern indicated in the heading: “Meats tongues.” Put it all together, and we have a unique measurement, “pailefuls” and an intriguing kind of ingredient “pump’s water” that all needs to be tagged through overlapping features that preserves the original text. At junctures like “pumps,” vetting isn’t a straight-forward, objective activity, despite our solid principles and rigorous criteria. For you worriers, I put on my graduate-level-expertise hat and marked it as an unclear “s” which responsibly renders an accurate and authentic version of Winche’s recipes for future researchers.

As you can see, there is fruit in this exercise (sometimes literally), and it isn’t just the result of correcting transcription. Sure, it sharpens my paleographic eye, increases my early modern recipe lexicon, and improves my ever-expanding digital skill. But when I correct a milestone overlap in TEI syntax, I’m not just fixing XML, I’m transferring the knowledge of the Winche manuscript to those who want and need it but can’t access it easily or at all.

Joul Smith, Graduate Student, University of Texas, Arlington

Transcription Communities: Experiencing a Transcribathon in a Class Setting

By Nancy Simpson-Younger

As part of my Book in Society class, thirteen students took part in the Transcribathon on Wednesday, October 7th, For this group, transcribing Winche’s work was the culmination of a two-week unit on paleography, which covered italic and secretary hands as well as early modern print and manuscript culture. (This unit was also part of a larger historical trajectory for the course itself—which, by December, will have covered artifacts from scrolls to iPads.) Because of this context, my students experienced the Transcribathon as a reflection of a particular historical moment—but also as an intersection between three communities: our own class group, the larger EMROC consortium, and the early modern communities of recipe writers that we’ve been studying. In this post, I’d like to explore the intersections between some of these historical and community contexts, and then to share some questions that these intersections helped us investigate in our class.

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Until we began the transcription unit, my students had read about the communities that spring up around books (for example, groups of monks in a scriptorium, or professional Torah scribes)—but we hadn’t experienced a textually-rooted community firsthand. EMROC was a fantastic community to start with, because it not only unites scholars from around the world but provides electronic forums (Twitter, blogging, etc.) that students can easily access and participate in. During the Transcribathon, for example, my students quickly started tweeting their findings, and they were delighted to experience instant dialogue with scholars from different time zones:

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Using Twitter was particularly compelling for a couple of reasons. First, many of my students are Communications Studies majors, interested in examining community discourse (and the role of technology in that discourse). Second, Twitter allowed us to interrogate the relationship between the manuscript and the digitized version(s) of that manuscript in a new way. While we had used the work of Heidi Brayman Hackel and Ian Moulton to discuss the digitization of early modern archives, we hadn’t experienced manuscript digitization in a realtime, community-centered format. The Twitter feed allowed us to ask how social media technology enables (re)iterations of a text in a way that recontextualizes not only the words, but the history and signification of each recipe.

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This led us to start asking some important questions—both during the Transcribathon and in its aftermath. If a word is clipped out of a manuscript, how does it signify differently? What happens when that word is placed into a new context—not only the context of the Tweet itself, but the context of EMROC’s work, or a laptop (or, indeed, IHOP?) What’s the relationship between the recipe part (word or ingredient) and the recipe or manuscript whole? Sharing pictures of specific textual snippets allowed us to start asking these questions, and to ask what the ramifications of social media might really be for signification, writ large.

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Because it enabled these questions, linking the topics of historical and community context, the Transcribathon was a compelling wrap-up for our early modern unit. For the students, the project also drove home the notion that historical texts aren’t frozen in a particular historical or geographical spot. Instead, early modern manuscripts inspire ongoing scholarship and conversation, allowing us to ask what the effect of our own technology might be, and how intersecting contexts might ultimately re-inflect meaning.

Nancy Simpson-Young teaches at Pacific Luthern University.

Research, Recipes, and the Transcribathon

By Amy Tigner

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Last week, EMROC organized a Transcribathon, in which some 90+ students and scholars in Germany, the UK, Ireland, Canada, the US, and Australia transcribed the 17th century recipe manuscript of Rebeckah Winche, a new acquisition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, over a 12- hour period. We were all connected electronically, communicating which pages we had transcribed and tweeting about interesting discoveries we had made about the manuscript. Though this was a virtual experience globally, it was also brought transcribers together in physical spaces, as in nearly every location students and scholars sat together for this common pursuit.

Being in a room of people transcribing one manuscript is exciting, as we collectively begin to reveal the treasures of the book. I with several other members of EMROC and some of our graduate students sat in the basement board room of the Folger Shakespeare Library transcribing with Folger librarians and other interested paleographers. Througout the day, people would often comment on some strange ingredient or recipe or they had just encountered. And, as the day progressed, more and more scholars and students began to discuss what interested them—what they were in particular trying to find out about this manuscript, about early modern recipes or seventeenth-century culture more generally. What we were experiencing was ground level collaborative research. Our eventual project is to have a searchable database, so that scholars all over the world can do a word search through multiple manuscripts to conduct research. However, building a database takes a great deal time and the colossal effort of many; in the meantime, the transcribathon itself functions a bit like a living, small-scale database.

For example, early on in the transcribathon, Hillary Nunn told me that she was transcribing a recipe for chocolate, or “Chocolet,” as the manuscript spells it. As I have had a long interest tracing in recipes for chocolate as they travel from the Mexico to Spain to England and then back to colonies in the New World, I was very excited to see this recipe. In the seventeenth century, chocolate was something that was a drink rather than something to eat; eating chocolate in solid form in candy or other sweet recipes does not appear until the eighteenth century. Winche’s recipe was interesting, however, because it was not a recipe for a drink per se, but for preparing and storing chocolate that would eventually be ground up into water, milk, or perhaps even wine. According to the recipe, the chocolate would not be fit to use for three months.

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Something else interesting in the recipe was the inclusion of seemingly unusual ingredients: ambergris and musk. Both of these were used in perfumes; ambergris comes from the secretion of sperm whales and musk comes from the glandular secretions of musk deer. As strange as it seems, such perfuming of chocolate was not uncommon in the period: recipes both from Earl of Sandwich’s manuscript (c.1668) and from Penelope Jephson’s receipt book, dated 1674, both call for ambergris and Sandwich’s recipe also suggests musk and civit (another perfume from the glandular secretion of the civit cat). Although it seems odd to us to put these exotic perfumes into chocolate, current chocolatiers are also adding seemingly incongruous aromatic ingredients to chocolate: lavender, rose petals, bacon, wasabi, curry powder, and cayenne pepper, to name only a few.

Amy L. Tigner, University of Texas, Arlington