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


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.


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