Category Archives: Transcribing

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.

Code Makers: The Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Corpus

By Elisa Tersigni

Last week, EMROC published a blog post called “Code Breakers,” describing the efforts of our Before “Farm to Table” project volunteers, who – like EMROC – transcribe our recipe books. This week’s blog post will be talking about our “Code Makers”: Meaghan Brown (Digital Production Editor), Michael Poston (Database Associate), and myself, Elisa Tersigni (Digital Research Fellow), who together devised BFT’s process of encoding—or what happens after the transcriptions are vetted and before they become accessible online. This blog post is meant to be a crash-course in what this in-between stage looks like and why we do it.

What is encoding?

Encoding is the process of applying code to digital texts to create machine-readable texts in order to facilitate computer-assisted analysis. Our encoding is done using Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is commonly used because it is intuitive and flexible. (More on this below.) Encoding might be thought of as functioning the same way that highlighting in a text does. Take, for example, this recipe for “An excellent medicine For any kinde of Ague”:

Fig 1. Recipe “An Excellent medecine,” found on 25r of Medicinal and cookery recipes of Mary Baumfylde (1626, call number: V.a.456)

Let’s say we wanted to encode the recipe’s text to identify easily the title (which we will mark in red), all ingredients (which we will mark in yellow), any person’s names (in blue), and any markers of approval or disapproval of the recipe (green). The colour-marked recipe will look like this:

An XML-encoded version of this recipe might not look much different, except phrases are sandwiched between a pair of tags (a start tag, which marks the beginning of the phrase, and an end tag, which marks the end of the phrase) instead of being highlighted:

<head>An excellent medecine For

any kinde of Ague.</head> <persName>Doctor Costine</persName>

Take <ingredient>saffron</ingredient> one ounce and a halfe and

as many <ingredient>Currens</ingredient> vnwashed as will

beate itt up into a Cataplasme, beat

them well together and putt itt

in bagges of Poulter two to be

applyed one the hand wristes one the

Pulses and the other one the pitt

of the stomach: <tested approved= “yes”>probatum est</tested>

(N.B.: The above tags are for illustrative purposes only and may not reflect actual encoding.)

We use XML because it is both human readable and machine readable: the human reader can intuit that a phrase falling in between the “ingredient” tags is an ingredient. Our encoding is based on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)’s Guidelines, which is an encoding standard that is commonly used for digital humanities projects. TEI is a consortium that collectively develops and maintains encoding standards for texts. Standards are important to ensuring that data is easily shareable and usable by other researchers for other projects. Standards also help with preservation of data, making sure that the data is useable for as long as possible.

Why encoding?

Encoding permits computer-assisted reading. For instance, if all the recipe titles in a book are marked as “head”, we can generate a list of all recipe titles by extracting everything between the “head” tags. If recipe titles are marked in 20 different books, we can generate a single list of all recipe titles, or we can generate 20 lists of recipe titles and compare those lists against one another to see if there is any overlap between books. Or, if we mark the recipes as having some evidence of being tested and include details of whether the recipe book user expressed approval or disapproval of the recipe, we can extract all the recipes of which users approved or disapproved.

Encoding doesn’t just help users perform searches; it can also help software development. For example, if—instead of marking titles, ingredients, and people’s names—we instead marked the structure of the manuscript—line beginnings and endings, underlining, formatting—high-quality encoded transcriptions can be used to create or improve Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) software for manuscripts.

What are we encoding?

Because encoding requires interpretation, it is time consuming. And because encoding is flexible, it is prone to what is called ‘scope creep’—that is, the tendency for expectations and demands to increase over time, thereby slowing down a project. Our encoding must balance breadth (the number of manuscripts we encode) with depth (the amount of encoding we complete in one text). To strike that balance, our project began with a trial period, in which we tested how long it would take us to encode certain features, such as including both original and modern spellings in transcriptions.

Our trials helped us decide to prioritize the identification of the basic structure and details of the texts: where recipes start and end, the names of people identified in recipes, the names of locations identified in recipes, and whether recipes were tested and approved. These details will help us to do some basic network analysis to reveal some of the relationships between our recipe books: who owned them, where they came from, and whether recipes are shared across time and space.

For example, by searching the term “lady” in the Folger’s Luna Digital Image Collection, which currently has searchable text versions of some of our manuscript books, I was able to discover that variations of “Lady Allen’s water” appear in at least half a dozen of our manuscript recipe books from the 17th century: Jane Staveley’s receipt book (V.a.401), Susanna Packe’s receipt book (V.a.215), Lady Grace Castleton’s receipt book (V.a.600), and two anonymous books: V.a.563 and V.b.363. This phrase does not currently appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and appears only twice in print, according to searches of the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database. The ability to search quickly not only helps answer research questions but can also point researchers in to new research questions: what is “Lady Allen’s water,” from where did the recipe originate, and why is it commonly recognized in manuscript receipt books but not in print recipe books?

How can I learn more?

If you’re a graduate student who is interested in our project, consider applying for our funded graduate student workshop, Eating Through the Archives: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Early Modern Foodways. If you’re interested in volunteering for our program as a Code Breaking transcriber or a Code Making encoder, contact Heather Wolfe at hwolfe [at] You can also read our research updates by following @FolgerLibrary or @FolgerResearch on Twitter or reading our scholarly blogs The Collation and Shakespeare & Beyond.

Elisa Tersigni is the Digital Research Fellow for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, Folger Shakespeare Library. Elisa tweets as @elisatersigni.


Code Breakers: The Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Transcriptions

By Elisa Tersigni

As many EMROC readers know, a major component of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s three-year, $1.5M Mellon-funded Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures (BFT) project is the digitizing, transcribing, and encoding of our early modern English recipe book collection—the largest such collection in the world.

This builds on the work of our transcribathons—frequently organized by EMROC, often taking place in EMROC members’ classrooms—which are crucial to our project and attract the most attention on Twitter, in part because of the hilarious recipes transcribers sometimes discover in the process (see examples by EMROC members here). Readers may not realize that transcribathons are just one cog in the machine that makes these manuscripts digitally available: every page of every manuscript is triple-keyed by three transcribers; after which the transcriptions are checked for accuracy by an expert paleographer to create a single authoritative transcription; then that vetted transcription is encoded by a team, which includes myself; only after which the transcriptions are made available for teachers and researchers to use. This blog post will focus on the critical but often hidden volunteer transcribers, who dedicate hundreds of hours a year to the project; next week’s blog post will delve a little deeper into the encoding process.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Founders’ Room, where I joined three of the volunteers working on the manual transcribing of the Folger’s recipe book collection. Typing away are just three pairs of the invisible hands working to make the recipe books readable and searchable online.

Nicole Winard is the first volunteer I speak with. A retired public-school teacher and high school librarian, she has been a volunteer transcriber for three years. She’s also the Volunteer Transcriber Coordinator, which means that she corrals the Folger Shakespeare Library’s docents and other volunteers from the community, now spanning the globe. Nicole tells me that she begins each day at her kitchen table, with a cup of coffee and a transcription. When asked how many hours she spends transcribing a week, she is reluctant to answer. “My husband would be more honest about this than I am,” she says. I get her to admit to 20 hours a week on average, though I suspect it might be more.

Today, Nicole is transcribing with Anne Riordan, a retired financial analyst who discovered a love of Shakespeare on a study abroad year (coincidentally the 400th year anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth) at the University of Bristol, and Amy Thompson, a Senior Docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a local drama coach. Both Anne and Amy have volunteered as transcribers for two years.

Nicole, Anne, and Amy describe themselves as “like the women in The Bletchley Circle”—the British women who, in WWII, secretly worked as codebreakers. They share a love of crosswords, puzzles, and sudoku. When asked why they volunteer so much of their time to the project, they cite a combination of scholarly interest and personal satisfaction. They are afraid that “ink on paper is being lost” today and want to preserve that information in a new form. They also want to give voices to the women of the past: Nicole says, “so much of what we have here [at the Folger Shakespeare Library] is men. A library dedicated to seventeenth-century writing—it’s hard not to be [man-focused]!” They describe the work as “addictive” and “fascinating,” allowing them a window into the past: “You feel like you’re part of the family when you read a recipe and know what [a mother] gave [her] 10-year-old for the plague. You feel like you’re in the room with them.” They derive joy from learning and contributing to a cause. Still, they are aware of that they are providing a valuable and specialized service at a bargain rate. Amy says of the Bletchley women, “they picked them because they could get women cheaper … we’re pretty cheap, too!”

The transcribers living in the DC area regularly meet to transcribe together in person, typing side-by-side and working on problematic sections of manuscripts together. Other volunteer transcribers include Dr. Elisabeth Chaghafi, a Professor at Tubigen University in Germany; Dr. Robert (Bob) Tallaksen, a semi-retired professor of radiology at West Virginia University, and the team’s Latin expert; the mostly anonymous transcribers of Shakespeare’s World; and the whole crew at EMROC. Since the transcribers work all over the world, most of the conversations happen over email. The emails often relay what Nicole calls the “ews and ahs” of the recipe books. This past week’s emails included a recipe for what one should take “For an Inflammation in the Throat, from swallowing a Wasp in a Draught of Beer.”

Fig. 1 Recipe “For an Inflammation in the Throat,” found on page 35 of Part II of Andrew Slee’s Medicinal Recipes (1654, call number: V.a.398)

Today, as they are transcribing a different recipe found in the same volume, they are discussing what the recipe ingredient “man’s flesh” could possibly be. “Maybe it’s an herb that looks like a penis,” one offers. They all laugh.

The work is fun, but it is scholarly work nonetheless: for instance, in transcribing the recipes, they sometimes find words not currently listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or find instances of words or phrases that pre-date those recorded in the current OED entries. For instance, Bob submitted the word “deege” (probably meaning “a small amount”) to the OED as a possible new word and found a use of “Jesuit’s bark” (in The Conclave of Physicians, 1686) that pre-dates the OED’s current entry by 18 years.

The transcribers have also helped the Folger’s Cataloguers refine the dating of the recipe books by noting internal evidence of contemporary events. For instance, when Nicole transcribed Katherine Brown’s Medicinal and cookery recipes (c.1650–1662, call number: V.a.397), she found written in the margins, “A plot against king Charles” (fo. 42v), “the king to be beheaded to morrow” (fo. 82v), and “Kill him” (fo. 2r). And code breaker is not just a metaphor for this group: Amy discovered that Katherine Packer’s receipt book (1639, call number: V.a.387) contained a code in which some recipes were written. Together, Amy and Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s Curator of Manuscripts and Associate Librarian for Audience Development, broke the code. Amy then made a key and transcribed the coded pages.

Fig 2. Recipe no. 103 found on page 36 of Katherine Packer’s A boocke of very good medicines for seueral diseases, wounds, and sores both new and olde, 1639, call number: V.a.387.

103. an excellent [b]rew

and apro[v]ed caudle to cleans

ye wombe after a childbirth or


take rie and beate it as you

doe wheat for forminty and boil

it in smale ale to a caudle

sweeten it as y[ou] like it wth

suger and drinke of it morning

and at . 4 . of the clocke in

ye afternoone and at night

wn you goe to rest as much as [you]

can drinke at a draught an

if occasion be oftener. /-

[ Transcription by Amy Thompson]

If you’re reading this article and wondering how you can join Puck’s Circle—that’s what I’m calling the Folger’s version of The Bletchley Circle—please contact Heather Wolfe at hwolfe [at] folger [dot] edu. If you’re new to paleography, have no fear: Heather is teaching a new series of Practical Paleography workshops  beginning on Tuesday, October 1 at 2:30 P.M. Workshops will run at the Folger Shakespeare Library every Tuesday in October for about an hour.

This digitization project did not start with the BFT project, nor will it end with the project. We’re hoping that digitization will continue as our collections grow through continued acquisition. Please follow us on Twitter at @FolgerLibrary and @FolgerResearch to learn more, including when we’ll be hosting our next Transcribeathon.

We’d love for you, dear Reader, to join!

Elisa Tersigni is the Digital Research Fellow for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, Folger Shakespeare Library. Find her on twitter @elisatersigni.

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.


Medicine out of Mole-Hairs in Jane Dawson’s Manuscript

By Ashley Gonzalez

Though all of Jane Dawson’s recipes are fascinating, perhaps one of the most curious ones involved the medical use of moles for hair loss and hair growth. This interest was noted by multiple people during the Fall EMROC transcribathon: 

Why this connection between moles and human hair? I decided to look a little deeper to see what I could find out. 

My transcription of the two mole-based recipes, which you can see on the manuscript page here, consists of the following:

to Expell haire in any part of the bodey

Take a mole & lay her in water to be soaked so long till, she shall have noe hair is Left on her; wththis water anoint [the] place from wchyou would expel [the] haire & afterwards wash it with Lye maid of Ashes, & then rub it with a linen cloth, if you shall see [the] haire retorne; wash twise or thrise in [the] aforesaid manner & it will [illegible] expel [them] & by noe means can be maid to renew againe. 

            To recover Haire in any part of the body

Take [the] blood of a mole & anoint the part; two or 3 times therewith that you wod have the haire to increase on; [the] blood being warme; as it comes from [the] mole being newly killed; it will wond[er]fully renew & bring hair to the admiration of all men (Dawson 21)

The first recipe implies a distinct link between the removal of the hair of the mole and the removal of human hair, which suggests that the recipe works according to the doctrine of sympathies. Connections such as these between the ailment and the cure for said ailment were common in the seventeenth century:

In the tradition of seventeenth-century herbalists … there was a sympathy between certain plants and certain ailments, or parts of the body, which could be recognized by its distinctive ‘signature’. Thus any herb which resembled the form of eyes, for example – such as eyebright, the scabious or the marigold – was said to be useful in the healing of eye complaints. Such connections were part of a complex web of correspondences and sympathies connecting macrocosm to microcosm. (Harrison 41)

If early modern herbalists connected the characteristics of ailments with the physical appearances of herbs, the same thinking might apply to animals. Just as herbs resembling eyes were said to treat blindness, so too might the hair of a creature be said to assist with ailments concerning the hair of humans.

Perhaps the most notable feature of a mole is its blindness. Edward Topsell in his 1658 book The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpentsincludes a segment on moles in which the following visual can be found on page 388:

Though this illustration implies that moles have easily visible eyes, they would have been hidden under a layer of fur:

Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] Talpa europaea MHNT

Despite the mole’s eyeless appearance, it seems to have been relatively well-known that moles possessed eyes underneath their fur, as evidenced in Topsell’s illustration. The fur covering the location of the eyes might have been viewed as excess. Thus, it follows that individuals wanting more hair might look to the mole to inspire their own hair growth. Similarly, the process of removing the mole’s hair could become associated with the removal of hair in general, resulting in a ritual wherein the human hair is “anoint[ed]” with the removed mole hair in hopes of stimulating the expulsion of excess hair.

As for the origin of Dawson’s recipes, one likely source is Topsell’s aforementioned book, which includes Dawson’s cure for excess hair almost word for word. The similarities suggest that Dawson directly came into contact with Topsell’s book herself or through a source that had copied from the book. Unlike the resemblance in the hair removal texts, the recipes concerning hair growth show significant differences. Topsell’s book utilizes the burnt skin of the mole rather than the blood: “For the renewing, and bringing againe of those haires which are fallen or decayed, take a mole and burne her whole in the skin […]” (Topsell, 502). This use of burnt skin may ultimately refer back to Dioscorides, who originally used porcupine and hedgehog skin in his recipes for hair growth. Though there are other differences in components, Topsell’s version keeps the idea of using a creature’s skin as a main ingredient.

Medicinal recipes are changed as they pass from one individual to another, with information being added, removed, or altered. It is therefore likely that Dawson’s curt recipe may have originally been a part of a longer one that was altered as time passed—perhaps passing through word-of-mouth, or being copied from an acquaintance or friend’s own personal medicinal cookbook. It is evident that Dawson pooled together knowledge from multiple people, suggesting that the medical care they could expect had a direct correlation to both the knowledge and the quantity of the people they knew. 

Interestingly, there is one source that includes both of Dawson’s recipes. Joannes Jonstonus’ 1678 book reads: “the [mole’s] blood brings hair … the water wherein a Mole hath been, and left hair, restores hair.” (Jonstonus 91). There is one crucial change from Dawson’s version: the fur of the mole is said to promote hair growth rather than hair loss. An intriguing dilemma would arise if an early modern person came into contact with these two recipes claiming opposing results.  Though the publication status of Jonstonus’ book would imply that it was Jonstonus’ version rather than Dawson’s that would have been in more frequent use, this would likely depend on a variety of factors, including the book’s distribution and popularity. 

Though an analysis of the mole recipes mentioned beforehand allows for a better understanding of Dawson’s own recipe, it should be noted that these recipes are likely only a fraction of early modern recipes concerning moles and hair. Numerous others exist, and further analysis of those versions could bring to light a more thorough and complete understanding of this unique remedy.

Works Cited

Dawson, Jane. Cookbook of Jane Dawson. Folger ms. Vb.14.

Harrison, Mark. “From Medical Astrology to Medical Astronomy: Sol-Lunar and Planetary Theories of Disease in British Medicine.” The British Journal for the History of Science,vol. 33, no. 1, Mar. 2000, pp. 25-48. JSTOR,

Jonstonus, Joannes. A description of the nature of four-footed beasts with their figures en[graven in brass] / written in Latin by Dr. John Johnston ; translated into English by J.P. Translated by J.P, Amsterdam, 1678. Early English Books Online,;idno=A46231.0001.001

Topsell, Edward. The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents. London, 1658.

Ashley Gonzalez recently graduated from The University of Akron, where she undertook this research in ENG 489: Disease in Literature.