All posts by hillarynunn

Transcribathon 2021: Revealing Recipes

4 March 2021
Revealing Recipes: Top Tips from Early Modern Women:

Lady Sedley’s from the RCP and Lady Ayscough’s from the Wellcome Collection

Image of a poster. It reads: Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), Wellcome Collection and Royal College of Physicians invite you to their joint spring transcribnathon: Revealing Recipes--Top Tips from Early Modern Women. March 4, 2021. 1PM-9PM GMT. 8AM-4PM EST. 5AM - 1 PM PST. Online and Worldwide. Join us for a one-day manuscript adventure making two fabulous 17th century medical recipe books searchable for users around the globe. No experience necessary, and all from the comfort of your own home!

Please join the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC), Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Wellcome Collection for a one-day manuscript adventure on March 4, from 1PM to 9 PM GMT. This worldwide event offers a chance to help make two medical recipe books searchable for users around the globe. 

We’ll be transcribing two fabulous 17th century medical recipe books: Lady Sedley’s from the RCP and Lady Ayscough’s from the Wellcome Collection. Drop in, or stay all day! 

For more, see our ever-expanding Revealing Recipes project page

Transcribers will be working around the globe.  Participants will virtually meet scholars from around the world and emerge from the day with a line for their CV—all from their own home, classroom, or office! NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY – we’ll walk you through the coding and offer pointers on the handwriting.

Interested in joining our Transcribathon virtually? Contact Lisa Smith, at or @historybeagle, or jump in on the day.

On Transcription in the Undergraduate Classroom

By Ian MacInnes, Albion College

Last year, I taught my upper-level class on Early Modern Women’s Writing for the first time in five years. As I planned the course, I reflected on the enormous difference five years had made in the accessibility of manuscripts. In other classes, I had noticed how my students’ eyes lit up when I introduced even a few manuscript passages. This time, I decided to go all in – to make manuscript transcription and study the central scholarly endeavor of the class, using EMROC and the skills I had developed in Heather Wolfe’s amazing paleography workshop at the Folger Library. I learned a lot by building my course around manuscript study, and the results surprised me. I had thought of manuscripts simply as an engaging subject matter, but they ended up fundamentally altering my students’ perspective on humanities scholarship. Their growing confidence made them more curious and more determined. They began to see texts as opportunities to develop new insights and ideas, and they began to see such insights as truly belonging to them.

Paleography takes time

The first thing I learned was that working on paleography throughout an entire course instead of creating a “unit” in the topic is definitely the way to go. While an intensive week-long workshop might be fine for faculty members who are already expert in an area of study, undergraduates clearly need time and practice to develop their skills. I began by introducing a few lines from a different manuscript every class period, trying to add a few skills each time. Soon, I had them create analytical alphabets for a given hand, with screenshots attached to letters. Next, they participated in an EMROC transcribathon with its fairly easy text (using the Folger Library’s collaborative Dromio transcription engine). Eventually they moved on to help EMROC with a more difficult manuscript (also using Dromio). As a final step, I asked them to cook one of their transcribed recipes, hewing as closely as possible to the ingredients (which I provided) and the methods (including cooking on an open fire) and to make their results public in a on-campus demonstration. One advantage of working slowly and systematically, I found, was that my students’ growing expertise in the subject matter of the course help them learn paleography. And building skills carefully can allow students to tackle challenges happily. As my student Julia Vitale, ’19, put it,

“As a future teacher, I also loved the scaffolding involved in this assignment. We learned how to transcribe, and then we read many readings written by women about gender roles, stereotypes, cooking, writing, etc. At the end of this assignment, we got to combine those skills with some cooking, and then present the results to the class, trying each others’ food.”

Embracing my ignorance

I was a little worried when putting together my plan because I don’t feel that I’m an expert in paleography yet, and I knew there would be times when students might bring me difficult passages I might not easily decipher. They did, but the result turned out to be extremely helpful because it let me cast myself as their colleague and collaborator. Making my own effort visible also helped promote a growth mindset for my students, showing them that paleographic skill is a result of effort and careful thought, not intelligence. When I would eventually decipher the passage, I would explain my process as a way of helping them develop problem-solving skills and of encouraging them to persist. My student Courtney Rogers, ’19, began referring to herself as “Detective Rogers”: “It feels like a challenge to figure out what the missing pieces of the puzzle are,” she said, “which I love to do.”

Making the humanities collaborative

The transcription of manuscripts for public presentation is collaborative, so I knew I needed to emphasize collaboration. What I learned is how positively my students responded to collaboration and how it changed their understanding of the humanities. Participating in EMROC’s transcribathon early in the course helped convince students that collaboration is valued among serious scholars. Student Kellie Brown, ’21, said, “I think what made me feel part of the community was that we were seeing the live feed on Twitter about other people participating in the event, and that I felt like I really could understand what I was reading even though a couple of weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to read those documents at all.” I tried to keep collaboration at the front of my students’ minds through the rest of the semester by having them work in groups, share problems, and cooperate on solutions. And it made me happy when a student like Lauren Huggett, ’21, would say, “I got a real sense of accomplishment when I helped one of my peers figure out a word.”

Transcription requires scholarship

It turns out that manuscript transcription doesn’t just help students develop a detailed and analytical approach to language. In all my early modern courses, I introduce students to tools like the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online (EEBO). But in this class, my students quickly realized that these tools were the key to prying open the meaning of tantalizing passages in manuscripts; they were far more strongly motivated to use them than I’ve experienced in other classes. They also developed a new respect for online maps, Wikipedia, and even Google’s auto-complete feature. Depending on the manuscript, students had to draw together knowledge from areas as disparate as lexicography, cultural history, ethno-pharmacology, mathematics, theology, basic Latin, and chemistry.

Make room for reflection

In part because the project was new for me, I built formal reflection into each assignment, but I quickly realized that these reflections provided much more than a sly opportunity for feedback. Reflections made my students partners in the scholarship of teaching and learning. They helped them develop a perspective on the nature of scholarship in the humanities. And they allowed them to develop new insights. As Stephanie Saksa, ’19, said, reflecting on her attempt to cook from a seventeenth-century manuscript: “In the end, everything that frustrated me about this baking actually helped me realize that baking wasn’t something put in place by the patriarchy to oppress women, but rather women creating for themselves to communicate with each other, be creative, have a purpose, and put their mark on society.”

Transcription is original scholarship

Ultimately, I learned that manuscript transcription can help with that elusive humanities goal: integrating original scholarship into the curriculum. By using the Folger’s Dromio engine and focusing on manuscripts targeted by EMROC, my students realized they were making a significant original contribution to the field; their work was true scholarship and not just a classroom exercise. They were solving new problems and their knowledge was being disseminated to others in the field. Paleography is a teachable skill, and it has immediate payoffs in terms of student engagement, curiosity, and close reading. But it has much larger payoffs for our students by transforming their relationship with humanities scholarship.

Here are some links to my materials:

Cooking in the Baumfylde Kitchen

By Keri Sanburn Behre, Portland State University

I had the opportunity to lead a directed study for a graduating student last summer. The student had been interested in taking my early modern literature class focused on early modern women’s writing, but had not been able to fit it with her schedule. As I was planning a new paleography unit based on Mary Baumfylde’s manuscript for the class at the time, the student agreed to work alongside me as a test subject for the materials I had drafted in addition to other readings and assignments. As I embarked on my task, one of my guiding questions was “What is the value in actually preparing and trying the recipes from this manuscript?” With every task, it became increasingly clear that researching, preparing, and tasting/using these recipes led us to a level of close reading and immersion that would not have been achievable without our material engagement.

Transcription, Gathering, and Planning

Transcribing the recipe “A pultis to allay paines swellings or any anguish” with the goal of actual preparation required a degree of engagement that that the many transcriptions I had previously carried out did not. Understanding the ingredients became less about deciphering the what and more about comprehending the why.

A pultis to allay paines swellings
or any anguish.
Take straroberrie leaves, violett leaves
collumbine leaves, of and blynde nettles
of each a like quantitie, boyle them
in fayre water, and thicken itt
with oatemell and apply itt to
the place grieved as Warme as
you can suffer itt. 

Gerard’s Herbal addresses the topical application of both strawberry and violet leaves. According to that volume, strawberry leaves “taketh away the burning heate in wounds”[1] and violet leaves, “mitigate all kinde of hot inflammations.”[2] Columbine leaves are known for aiding sore throats and sluggish livers, but their topical application is not addressed.[3] And “blynde nettles” are not nettles at all. Gerard refers to them as Archangell, or “dead Nettle,”[4] a term used interchangeably with “blind nettle” for non-stinging nettles. As it turned out, the purple blind nettles, known colloquially as “red henbit,” is a plant very familiar to me, as it grows on the roadsides throughout my neighborhood in spring. This plant is, in fact, part of the mint family and is credited with anti-inflammatory properties both today and in Gerard’s Herbal, and so it makes sense in this poultice recipe.

The oatmeal with which Mary Baumfylde would have been familiar would have likely been “rough oats,” slightly finer than “pinhead oats,” which were cut in half and sifted to remove the floury substance.[5]Steel-cut oats come closest to approximating this texture, so these make the most sense for preparing this recipe. In the early modern period, oats would have been cooked slowly into a porridge using only water and salt.[6] Considering the moderate temperature of cast iron cooktops, this recipe should be done at a relatively low temperature on a gas or electric stove, so “boyle” almost certainly does not refer to rolling boil we think of today, but instead probably means something more proximate to “heat” or “cook.” By the end of my transcription, I had a plan: prepare oatmeal first, then gather all of my herbs fresh in a single morning or afternoon before compounding the poultice. It would be interesting to make a salve with these same herbs to try out the combination in a less perishable way.  

I had my next significant experience of connection with the text in venturing outside, clippers in hand, to seek out the plants I would need. The first two ingredients, strawberry leaves and violet leaves, were easily obtainable in my back yard. As I searched my back yard for the wild violets that I knew grew in the shade of my Japanese Maple tree, though, I began to appreciate the fact that the plants were small in the dryness of the Pacific Northwest late summer. I thought about the early modern women stewarding the herbs that grew nearby their homes and carefully removed only a few leaves from each plant, so as not to cause undue stress and to ensure the continued health of the herbs.

Finding columbine leaves and red henbit proved trickier in late summer: I don’t grow Columbine and couldn’t find “blind nettles” in my neighborhood park where I knew them to grow in other seasons. I could have tried my luck at a garden center, but I thought of the manuscript authors and instead paid a visit to my friend Rebecca and her sprawling forested land while we searched out and (again, carefully) gathered enough columbine leaves to prepare the recipe. Alas, though, it seemed that red henbit had fallen victim to either summer heat or hungry bunnies. I don’t believe seasonal unavailability would have stopped our early modern medicine-makers, so I prepared to carry out my plan without them.

Clockwise, from top-left: wild violet leaves, columbine leaves, strawberry leaves.

My day of gathering was deeply satisfying and connecting, both to the land and plants of my own yard, neighborhood, and my friend’s land, and to the women who wrote and read Mary Baumfylde’s book.

The transcription and planning process for my student, Kynna, was similarly broadening. She chose to prepare the recipe “How to Make Cheese Cakes.”

To Make Cheese Cakes
Take 6 qrts of new milk and one part of cream
Sett it as you do a cheese but in stead of – 
Warming the milk putt in as much hot water
As will make it fitt & when it is com’d brek itt
& pour it in to a Cloth & whey it between
two & when the whey is very well draind
take the curd & breake it with a pound
of fresh butter some mace & a pound of suger,
the yelks of 14 Eggs & whites of 8. Make
Them upon plates in a very good puff past
When they are risen & craterd they are enough.

This recipe is different because the ingredients were all relatively familiar to us: milk, cream, hot water, butter, mace, sugar, and puff pastry. However, there were some immediate procedural questions that Kynna had to understand in order to move forward. The recipe begins by instructing the cook to take the quantities of new milk and cream and “sett it as you do a cheese.” From reading Ruth Goodman’s How to be a Tudoras part of the class, she knew that cheesemaking was part of the daily household routine.[7] . However, it was during one of our early meetings that I guided her to picture something akin to cottage cheese or ricotta (not cheddar) as the product these women were making daily. Kynna observed that the experience made her realize how much rich knowledge the writers of the Baumfylde took for granted, and how much homesteading knowledge has been lost.

Kynna proceeded to research early modern methods for making basic cottage cheese in the library before confidently moving forth with her gathering and preparations. She also did some calculations and downscaled the recipe to 2/3, not having a kettle in her kitchen that could comfortably hold the requisite six quarts of milk and one quart of cream, plus an unknown amount of boiling water to make the cheese curdle. At this point, she expressed some concern over the final line of the recipe: “when they are risen and craterd they are enough.” She wondered whether she would know when they were sufficiently risen and catered, and precisely what “catered” meant, but moved toward her recipe preparation phase with a spirit of adventure nonetheless.

Recipe Preparation

Compounding the poultice at the stove with my 8-year-old son was the quickest and easiest part of my endeavor. First, we chopped the leaves I had gathered and measured one packed tablespoon of each type: strawberry, wild violet, and columbine. The next time I make this recipe I hope to use red henbit as well, and I will probably double the amounts I gather in order to also infuse some oil for a salve.

Next, we measured one cup of water and combined it with the chopped leaves on the stove over medium-low heat.

And then we waited for the heat to slowly bring the liquid to a simmer.

When a simmer was achieved, we added 1 and 1/4 cups of “oatemell.” I used cooked steel cut oats, as discussed above, because this type of porridge would have been on hand as the base for daily porridge in the early modern household.

We mixed these together with the heat still on.

After a few minutes to thicken, we spread the warm mixture thick on brown paper.

And applied it to “the place grieved” (an insect bite on my son’s arm) “as warme as [he could] suffer it.” My patient pronounced the remedy “weird,” but soothing. After a few minutes, some of the redness and itchiness had abated.

I dried a bundle of my carefully obtained columbine leaves in the event that they’re not available next time I want to make this recipe.

In her own kitchen, Kynna made cheese for the first time.

She proceeded to strain the cheese and mix up her cheesecake mix as instructed in the recipe.

She decided to bake them in a variety of pans to see which would best work as the “plates” the recipe calls for, and put them in an oven set to 325 degrees, figuring that by the afternoon (cheesemaking time), and after all the breads were baked, the temperature of the typical early modern oven would be on the lower side.

Kynna let them bake 20 minutes and then checked every three minutes after that, knowing they would finish at different times because of their different sizes. She was delighted when the smallest cake first appeared puffed and pocked with an uneven surface that looked like tiny craters: “risen and cratered.” As each cake took on this appearance, she removed it from the oven and set it to cool.

She explained her relief afterwards: “‘risen and cratered’ sounds vague, but it perfectly describes what it looks like when it’s done.” The cheesecakes came out quite delicious: less sweet than the cheesecakes to which we were both accustomed, but a nice, fluffy texture; creamy; and slightly lemony from the mace.

These experiences have given us both a unique and moving connection to the material culture of the period. I gained an appreciation for the plants I used, the community that brought them to me, the intensive planning and comprehension that goes into even a very simple and seemingly straightforward recipe, and the joy of preparing an old-fashioned remedy that brought some comfort (and levity) to my kiddo. It is notable to me, as someone who has studied the material culture of the period and prepared many recipes in the past, that the process of moving from handwritten manuscript to completed recipe engendered a deeper experience than transcribing one recipe and preparing another, exercises I’ve done many times. Kynna was moved in a similar way, working in her kitchen to comprehend and recreate the intricacies of cheese-making and baking practices that early modern cooks took for granted: “After doing the recipe, I knew I could read the words and trust that, when the time came, I would know what to do.” Our Baumfylde authors and readers were resourceful chemists, healers, and artists. By inhabiting this manuscript, Kynna and I understood and became these things too.

[1]Gerard, The Herbal,998.

[2]Gerard, The Herbal, 852.

[3]Gerard, The Herbal, 1095.

[4]Gerard, The Herbal, 704.

[5]Alan Davidson and Tom Jaine, eds., “oats,” The Oxford Companion to Food, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006),550.

[6]Alan Davidson and Tom Jaine, eds., “porridge,” The Oxford Companion to Food, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006),625.

[7]Ruth Goodman, How to be a Tudor(New York: Liveright/Norton, 2015),175-181.


Exploring Recipe Transcriptions with Voyant in the Classroom

By Heather Froehlich

The below post is a summary of a classroom activity executed in Spring 2019 and developed as part of the EMROC teaching partnership at Penn State University with Dr. Marissa Nicosia (Penn State Abington). Students at Penn State Abington can enroll in a 1-credit, 3-semester cycle of the Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities (ACURA) initiative. For more content related to Penn State Abington’s involvement in EMROC-related activities, please see the Penn State Abington tag. This post has been cross-posted, with some light edits, at Heather Froehlich’s blog

This semester I have partnered with Dr Marissa Nicosia (Penn State Abington) on an undergraduate research course she runs on Early Modern recipes in collaboration with my colleague Christina Riehman-Murphy as part of the larger Early Modern Recipes Online Collective initiative. In this course, students transcribe recipes from a 17thcentury recipe book using Dromio (, learn about Early Modern food culture and history, and develop a lot of hands-on research experience with Marissa, Christina and me. This semester we and our students were focusing on a medicinal and cookery book associated with Anne Western, owned by Folger Shakespeare Library and affectionately called MS V.b.380.

This course has a pretty serious transcription element, where one of the requirements was that each student would transcribe 40 openings using Dromio throughout the semester. Since each student was responsible for submitting a Word file of their transcriptions to Marissa for grading, we then had a substantial (but not complete) coverage of the volume to work with. And it could be easily be loaded into Voyant Tools for some linguistic exploration. 

Over the course of the semester, students have also grown increasingly comfortable with the differences between contemporary and early modern recipes with regards to both genre and format, so we wanted to get them to think about the language of recipes more pointedly. The students were already experts in the language and style of the author they were working with. And since the students were so intimately familiar with the work they had already done, it was a little less of a hard sell to get them to think about their work from a more birds-eye view and think about what the language of their recipes looked like in aggregate.

Before class met, we asked the students read three contemporary chocolate chip cookie recipes.[1] We had a brief discussion about the overall form of these contemporary recipes before dropping them in Voyant to practice reading from a birds-eye view. Chocolate chip cookie recipes, as you may have guessed, do not have a whole lot of variation, making this a pretty low-stakes way to introduce the various features of Voyant, which are labelled below using the corresponding numbers: word cloud (1), reading pane (2), general trends over time (3, not particularly useful for this genre), some basic statistics (4) and concordance (5). 

3 chocolate chip cookie recipes in Voyant
Three chocolate chip cookie recipes in Voyant

Using the word cloud (1), students can visualize medium-to-high frequency content words in their corpus. With the reading pane (2), users of Voyant can observe a larger context for specific vocabulary. The general trends over time (3) graph shows overall variation across our three chocolate chip cookie recipes, where each (faint) box represents 1 recipe; it graphs the most frequent content words identified by the Voyant system for comparison. Box (4) offers some basic statistics, including a type/token ratio or lexical density score for each document and some of the overall most frequent content words in each document. Finally, box (5) allows users to identify salient lexico-grammatical patterns in a keyword in context concordance format (words to the left, keyword, words to the right). This is less about linear reading (page 1, word 1 to page 375, word 238561) but vertically to observe recurrent phrases or types of language.

Once they were comfortable with the idea, we ramped up the stakes a little. In small groups, our students looked at their own transcriptions in Voyant, taking notes on what made their sections of the corpus similar and different to each other. This process was designed to get the students to think about what their recipes were doing not just stylistically but linguistically, too: what are the lexical ingredients of their recipes? This primed for discussions about polysemy (apound of something vs pound the ingredient) and words marking for measurement (spoon). One group even discussed the importance of the verb minglingas a way to describe mixing things together in one student’s particular section of the recipe book. 

Now used to the software and the process, we looked at the full class corpus (a compiled file consisting of all the students’ submissions). Students and faculty partners practiced some close reading, identifying terms of interest and looking at them using Voyant’s concordance feature, including a variety of ingredients (sugar, water, butter, mace, rosemary) and verbs for actions chefs may use (again, back to ‘mingling’ and ‘stir’).

VB380 class corpus in Voyant
Looking at the class corpus in Voyant Tools

And though we had been discussing the role of V.b 380 as a medicinal and cookery book throughout the semester, this was thrown in sharp relief while the we all thought about the language of the class corpus. Certainly one big surprise was the relative importance of ‘sugar’ compared to ‘water’ in v.b.380. We were very struck by the lack of fixed vocabulary for the recipes, though we all had a pretty clear sense of expectation for the full-class corpus based on our earlier exploration. And, finally, we had a brief discussion about variation and affordances of changing some of data to deal with the question of spelling, authorship and authenticity.

While this was set up to be a discussion of linguistic features (nouns versus verbs; variation; etc) many students commented on how salient some terms were as transcribers – yet these were deemed less important in the overall big picture provided by Voyant. Ultimately, this left our brilliant students thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of both Voyant’s birds-eye view and linear start-to-finish reading – which was an even better outcome than I could have asked for.


Additional notes:This is related to another undergraduate classroom activity I have done a few times where students read several online articles related to a theme, try out the birds-eye-view approach to the topic using Voyant, and then move into trying it out on some of their own writing (forum posts, assignments, etc) to think about their ownstyle. It works pretty well as a way to get undergrads to think about their own style and editing in a way that is a little less obvious than other formats.

Please also see Miriam Posner’s very excellent Investigating Texts With Voyant workshop (10 April 2019) for more ideas[1] For the curious: One was from Smitten Kitchen, one from Martha Stewart, and a recipe of their choice from the NYT’s giant chocolate chip cookie compendium. (If I was doing this again, I would maybe not use NYT, as it kept asking us to log in. Also if I was doing this again, I’d be bringing cookies into class!)