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

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