Teaching Transcription and Recipes at a Liberal Arts College

In a new undergraduate course at Bowdoin College about health and healing in the early modern Iberian world, we dedicated a unit of our semester to studying recipes from the period, as curative and culinary, considering questions such as access to ingredients, location of preparations and intended makers and recipients. We began our unit with introductory materials from selections from Carolyn Nadeau’s Food Matters (2016) and Michael Soloman’s Fictions of Well Being (2010). We then spent a class session in Special Collections for some hands-on work. Although we did not have any examples of Iberian recipe books on hand, the college is fortunate to possess a 1662 copy of The queens closet opened: incomparable secrets in physick, chyrurgery, preserving and candying, allowing students to handle the palm-sized edition of this widely popular 17th-century English recipe book, commenting on the materiality of the book, the contents of the recipes and connections with cabinets of curiosity as well as the gendering of medical practices.[1] In anticipation for this visit, students also spent time with the virtual paleography tutorial preparing them for their first encounters in transcription during this visit.

Bowdoin’s resourceful librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven curated a selection of manuscripts in English, offering a variety of hands and examples of types of documents with early material from the collection. Some of the documents included a French-to-English translation of Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713); A 1772 court notice for the trial of Ansell Nickerson who was “charged with the crime of murder, committed upon the High Seas”; A revolutionary war letter from Jacob Gerrish to L. Jewett dated November 23, 1778 regarding troop provisions and movement around the Boston area; and a 1727 land deed for the township of North Yarmouth, Maine. Along with our hands-on help, students consulted tips on transcription using selections from this guide.

Thanks to advice from colleagues in EMROC, I learned about the Granville manuscript as a source of information that would allow us to think about recipe circulation in the Iberian context, while also demonstrating ties between England and Spain and the global circulation of ingredients and preparations. The goal of the class was to introduce students to the history and content of this particular recipe collection, but also to provide space for some hands-on practice with digital transcription.

Here is one of the recipes, “receta para agua de ambar” or recipe for amber water, from the Granville MS, fol. 106r.

Below are some student responses to the transcription experience:

Francesca-Beth Haines: “From transcribing the two recipes I chose, I found that although the transcription was, at times, quite difficult and perplexing, it was very satisfying to figure out the word or words that were actually written… I learned to be patient and open-minded through this process. This was an eye-opening experience where I participated in something I never thought I would, and I was able to gain additional respect to those who perform these transcriptions because they can be very arduous.”

Hannah Zuklie: “Transcribing today was especially interesting because each recipe reminded me of the Lentils (Carolyn Nadeau) reading we did earlier in the semester, and it made clear that the Granvilles had access to privileged foods like steak, not to mention chocolate from the Americas.”

Cordelia Stewart: “Transcribing with DROMIO was an incredibly rewarding experience. While the process of transcribing requires patience and persistence, the omnipresent knowledge that every word decoded contributes towards a huge project of sharing is super fulfilling. It was a particularly empowering exercise as a Spanish-speaking female to work on transcribing recipes from historic Spanish-speaking females.”

Grace Mallett: “I learned the importance of understanding the context of the time period in which the manuscripts were written. With this background knowledge, illegible words will be much more clear and transcription is much more seamless. Furthermore, I feel like this experience truly allowed me to sense the history of the manuscripts. Seeing the original text / paper was very powerful and made my experience feel extremely authentic.”

Tessa Westfall: “I had so much fun decoding and transcribing the Early Modern recipes! It felt like I was a real detective, uncovering what people hundreds of years ago were interested in. It was so remarkable to me that even though the textual expression looked so different, the recipes I was working on could easily be found in a contemporary cookbook. The whole experience was a very exciting coalescence of past and present, old and new, and I felt really lucky to have contributed to the project.”

Catherine Call:  really liked the transcription class. It was fun, and like a puzzle. It reminded me of a religion class I took last year when we read excerpts from the Dead Sea scrolls and looked at the actual pieces they came from– this exercise (and looking at how tiny and faint the Dead Sea “scrolls” were) reminded me of how much work goes into making information available.

Sabrina Albanese: I really enjoyed transcribing the recipes. It thought it was interesting to know that we are able to be part of something bigger than ourselves and actually help out others studying recipes. It was like a puzzle trying to figure out what the writing was saying but it was fun!

Diego Villamarin: I appreciated having a class in Special Collections and Archives prior to the digital transcription. Getting the hands on experience with a peer reminded me the goal of our work. Also, working in a group allowed us to cover a larger span of the paper, since we covered each other’s weaknesses and we had the second pair of eyes to check over our transcription of the text. The individual work with EMROC in the library computer lab offered a hands-on experience that had a more immediate contribution since our transcriptions were sent immediately and were awaiting more transcriptions in order to ensure accuracy. Working in the presence of our peers certainly gave the feeling and rush of taking part in a “transcribe-a-thon”. With your and Marieke’s help, a lot of the common mistakes and hurdles were overcome. The experience gave me a new appreciation for the work that is done to make the papers and texts that I read legible and accessible.

[1] For a compelling introduction to this recipe book, see Opening the Queen’s Closet: Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth Cromell, and the Politics of Cookery (Laura Luner Knoppers, Renaissance Quarterly 60.2 2007)

Margaret Boyle is an Associate Professor in the Romance Languages and Literature Department, Bowdoin College.

Jamming Out with Rosemary

By Samuel Fatzinger

As I was transcribing a recipe manuscript by Elizabeth Bulckley, “A Booke of Hearbes and Receipts,” (compiled in 1627, Wellcome Library) I came across a page title “The Vertues of Rosemary.” While apparently Rosemary can perform many medical miracles, what really piqued my interest was a brief sentence at the bottom of the page (12r):

Also rosemarie comforteth the braine

the memory, the inward senses, & restoreth

speech to them that are posessed with adumbe

paulsie, espetially the conserue made of this.

What did this mean, a conserve of this? A conserve of rosemary, certainly. But made out of what? A conserve, distinctly form other forms of preserving food, usually contains pieces of fruit (presumably because many fruits, especially their rinds or skins, contain pectin, which works as a congealing agent when it is prepared), and rosemary is certainly not a fruit. 

The idea of a rosemary conserve brings something into question that I find very interesting about early modern recipes. Recipes are generally written in the imperative, but in the case of early modern recipes, many recipes direct the reader to perform tasks that have an implied understanding such as: still, make it up, candy it. These directions point toward an understanding within cooking culture at the time that was taken for granted. Unlike modern recipes that direct the user to use certain temperatures when cooking in the oven, early modern recipes might suggest an oven that is quick, slow, or covered. At other times, heat directions find common ground, such as place on a slow fire (in modern terms, low to medium heat). Measurement directions work on the same principal. A recipe might direct the user to add a quantity of product according to a handful or spoonful. We still use a similar application in modern recipes, but at other times a recipe might direct the user to add a “quantity.” Recipes, then as much as today, fall in that valley between exact science and intuition (baking is usually the exception).

So, some boundaries in cooking are porous, either by default or understanding. There are some cooking practices on the other hand that are strictly differentiated, like that of conserves, preserves, waters, and syrups. This makes sense given the times. Lacking convenient modern preservation methods, early modern cooking required many differing forms of preserving foods. Having differing methods for preserving foods based on strict methods worked for both varying an otherwise limited degree of flavor profiles, as well as allowing similar cultural groups to share recipes and cooking methods with a knowledge of what the preparation and outcome of that recipe was supposed to be (see: implied understandings).

This difference between the strict and porous boundary is exactly why I became curious about a rosemary conserve. So I decided to make it, and some variations too. For the rosemary conserve, I made a rosemary water that reduced by about half (it was very pungent), and then made a syrup out of some of that water by adding sugar in a 1-to-1 ratio and then let it reduce by about a third. The result had the consistency of honey, but with a rich rosemary aroma and flavor (the needles were strained before adding the sugar). I also made a conserve out of grapefruit and cranberries (it’s about that time of year) that was based on two recipes for making a conserve of barberries (a mid-17th century recipe from Nicholas Webster and an anonymous early 18th century recipe, both from the Folger Library) and a conserve of strawberries and lemon rind. To both I added the rosemary water instead of plain water in order to give it flavor. These jellied much better, certainly due to the addition of pectin from the citrus fruits. But I still cannot figure out why Bulckley would assume that a rosemary conserve, without giving its recipe, is not a strange thing – that by mentioning it, the reader would know not only what it is, but how to create it. A thorough search of the Folger and Wellcome of a rosemary conserve were fruitless (please let me know if you find something otherwise!).

You might be thinking that it would be easy to simply add powdered pectin to a rosemary solution similar to what I concocted, but powdered pectin wasn’t isolated (much less distributed) until the mid-19th century. I’m still not sure what Bulckley meant, but (see video below) I was more than happy to explore the idea in my own kitchen.


Samuel Fatzinger is a former restaurant cook and current MA candidate, University of Texas, Arlington

Shorthand in Cromwell and Packer

By Michele Pflug

Last week, I was perusing Katherine Packer’s A Boock of Very Good medicines for severall deseases wounds and sores both new and olde, dated 1639, when I came across some passages consisting entirely of curious symbols: omegas, slashes, numbers, hyphens.  I was utterly unsure of what to make of these cryptic codes embedded in medical recipe book.  Out of curiosity, a professor and I put the images on Twitter, in the hopes someone, somewhere would know how to crack the code.

I was utterly unsure of what to make of these cryptic codes embedded in medical recipe book.  Out of curiosity, a professor and I put the images on Twitter, in the hopes someone, somewhere would know how to crack the code.

Due to similarities, the Twitter community assumed the images came from L. Cromwell’s manuscript book, one of the three manuscripts up for transcription today.

This welcome confusion prompted me to compare the two shorthands.  At first, they appeared to have nothing in common.  Upon closer inspection and comparison, it was apparent that the shorthand in Packer’s manuscript was written upside down.  Suddenly, what I believed to be E’s transformed into 3’s, 6’s transformed into 9’s, and omegas, well, stayed omegas.

I cannot speak with absolute certainty, but based on the similarity of the symbols and the order they appear, the shorthand in both manuscripts seems to be of the same system.  Certain symbols resemble shorthand for measurements in merchant’s notebooks, while others hark back to medieval abbreviations.   These are useful hints, but do not form enough of a basis to translate the passages.  In both manuscripts, recipes written in symbols were often sandwiched between recipes written conventionally, which begs the question: why choose to write certain recipes in shorthand?  In manuscripts shared amongst friends, neighbors, or family, could writing in shorthand be a method of exclusion?  Secret knowledge held by those who could interpret the systems of symbols?  Recipes closely guarded and highly valued?

Welcome to #EMROCTranscribes 2017!

By Lisa Smith

Welcome to our third annual transcribathon!

The goal in previous years has been to take one book and finish a triple-keyed transcription of it over twelve hours. In 2016, 128 people from around the world finished Lady Castleton’s book, and in 2015, we had ninety-three transcribers complete Rebeckah Winche’s book.

We’re delighted to welcome several groups joining in today: University of Essex, George Washington University, University of Guelph, Folger Institute, University of Akron, University of North Carolina Charlotte, Penn State Abington, Oberlin College, University of California, Pacific Lutheran, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, University of Texas Arlington, and Mount Saint Mary College. If you’re joining in, whether as a group or an individual, please let us know!

Our 2017 project

Recipe containing elf hoof from Margaret Baker’s manuscript. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.619.

This year, EMROC is trying something a little different. Rather than focus on one book, there will be a BANQUET OF BOOKS. As Amy Tigner explains,

Our goal is to have 10 completed texts this year, that is 10 triple-transcribed and vetted early modern recipe books that can be downloaded in a searchable pdf. We currently have a number of texts that are either partially transcribed or fully transcribed but not completely vetted. So, in working to complete these texts we will be offering a banquet of possibilities for those interested in learning more about early modern recipes and paleography.

Example from Packe’s book. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, Va215.

The three books on offer are: Margaret Baker, Susannah Packe, and Letitia Cromwell. I have a soft spot for Baker, having worked on her book with my Digital Recipe Books Project module last year. (The class blogged about it here  and developed a contextual online exhibition about the book here.) The Baker manuscript has many intriguing elements, such as excerpts from published medical and alchemical treatises and a recipe that calls for elf hoof! But the other books have their delights, as well. Cromwell has a recipe for the proverbial humble pie and a page written in code, while Packe has a great sections with candy, fruit wines, and beer.

For those who like things a little easier, I recommend Baker (almost entirely one hand, fairly clear, throughout) or Packe (one easy and neatly spaced hand, and one slightly harder, messier hand). Cromwell, with its mix of hands will appeal more to those with experience.

Page from Cromwell’s book, with code. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.8.

Need help? Want to say hello?

To join in, all you need to do is go to the Folger’s transcription interface, at: http://transcribe.folger.edu. When asked to sign in, just enter your first and last names (or whatever name you’d like to use), and an account will be created for you. Please be sure to enter your name as you’d like it to appear in the database.

Once in, click “EMROC.” There is a folder called “Transcribathon” at the bottom of the list, which contains the three manuscripts we’ll be working on. (More on those tomorrow!) Click on a manuscript and find a page that needs transcription. Look to the right of the page number to see how many people have transcribed it. If there are fewer than three, go for it!

We also have helpful guides to doing transcription and how to use the online transcription tool, Dromio. You can also send in your questions to other transcribers on Twitter (#EMROCtranscribes) or by commenting on our blog posts throughout the day.

Point people throughout the day will be on our Twitter account (@EMRecipesOnline) or by email.

And now, let’s kick things off here in Essex! We’ll be going from 7:00-11:30 ET.


Joining our Transcribathon without experience?

Thinking about joining in #EMROCtranscribes this year, but feeling nervous? Worried about tackling old handwriting? Please read on for some tips from other first-time transcribers, as well as practical guidance on how-to join in!

What it is like to join a Transcribathon

One thing that participants often describe is the sense of team-work that comes from a transcribathon: from UNCC and from UTA. Whether you’re joining virtually and keeping touch on Twitter, or working in person with a group, it can be a lot of fun.

But what about if you don’t have experience? Last year, I encouraged students in two undergraduate classes to participate in the Transcribathon. Here are accounts from two students who had only recently started to learn how to transcribe and one who had never done it before. I even managed to get my mom involved. Her account follows…

When a Non-Academic Transcribes for the First Time (and Tips for Newbies)

By Eluned Smith

Why was an retired health professional with a lengthy career in health services management attending a transcribathon session at the Folger Shakespeare Library?  When my daughter, Lisa Smith, invited me, I leapt at the prospect to see what was in an early modern recipe book.

Lady Grace Castleton’s “Booke of Receipts” from the seventeenth century provided me the chance to gain insight into her household, particularly the medical and cookery recipes used by her family.  To my delight the five short recipes I transcribed were medical recipes, dealing with treatment of such things as stomach ailments, sore eyes, consumption and included a recipe for “a soueran [sovereign] water for any thing that lyeth in the hart of stomeck Small pox or measells.”  Although the recipes were interesting, they are certainly not treatments I would advise anyone to use today…

Lady Castleton’s Booke of Receipts, Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.600, pp. 6-7.

I found it challenging to transcribe the old recipes – not only has spelling changed but the formation of letters such as an S were very different. (tip: Novices should always beware of the deceptive long S, which looks more like a lower-cased ‘f’!)  One would think that someone whose own handwriting is notoriously difficult to read would not have any problems, but Lady Grace’s manuscript had inconsistent spellings. (Another tip: always sound out the word, as it helps to decipher it.) Even her style of writing showed variation. Ink spots on the document and the changes in grammar and spelling over time made the process very slow for me. In addition, I had to fight the tendency of both my computer and me to automatically type modern spellings. (A final tip: keep checking the spellings and save constantly!) Fortunately, I enjoy puzzles and figuring out strange ingredients in old remedies.

Lady Grace was methodical in recording both the quantity of her ingredients and how the remedies should be used, but the recipes were filled with sensory details, too. The medicine made for sore eyes was to be dropped into the eye with a feather. The one for the stomach included boiling snails in beer until they made a ‘noyse’, then grinding them with a mortar and mixing them with washed and cleaned worms, roots and herbs. We had a lot of discussion in the room about the noise snails would make when boiling; this would have been a very precise measurement of doneness.

Today we have concerns about drug companies pushing meds, treatments that are not always helpful, and doctors who do not always correctly diagnose. However, these snail-filled recipes certainly made me appreciative that I live in time in which medications are made in a lab and not in my kitchen.

Getting started with transcribing

If you’ve read this far and are keen to join virtually, this is what you need to know.

Signing in

We’ll be using the Folger’s transcription interface, at: http://transcribe.folger.edu. The interface is called Dromio and associated with Early Modern Manuscripts Online. When asked to sign in, just enter your first and last names (or whatever name you’d like to use), and an account will be created for you. Please be sure to enter your name as you’d like it to appear in the database.

Finding something to transcribe

Once in, click “EMROC.” There is a folder called “Transcribathon” at the bottom of the list, which contains the three manuscripts we’ll be working on. (More on those tomorrow!) Click on a manuscript and find a page that needs transcription. Look to the right of the page number to see how many people have transcribed it. If there are fewer than three, go for it!

Spelling and old words

While transcribing, you’ll probably also want a window open to the Oxford English Dictionary, which many public libraries and most university libraries have available online. The OED Online lists old variants of words. And, if that doesn’t help, as Eluned noted above, you should also try sounding out the word.

Keep the spelling as you see it.

To encode or not to encode?

Use any of the encoding buttons you feel comfortable with; they’re explained at http://emroc.hypotheses.org/transcribathons/transcribathon-instructions-glossaries-and-more/glossary-of-xml-buttons .

This will make the text machine-readable, as well as human-readable. But if you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll be adding in the encoding during the vetting process anyhow!

If you do encode, here are a few tips for encoding that you should probably know about.
  1. Please do include page numbers.
  2. Mark recipe titles as headers (hd).
  3. Mark the layered efficacy marks as ‘cross in circle’ and ‘dot’ using the metamark (mrk).

what will it look like?

An example of the encoded transcription alongside the page image, from the Winche manuscript, can be seen here.

saving and finishing

Remember to save — a lot! Systems sometimes crash, especially with lots of users on it at the same time. Click “SAVE” as you go.

When you’re finished the entire page, just hit “Done”. You can then return to the EMROC folder, or exit altogether.

How to join the group

Further details will follow in a blog post here tomorrow, just before everything kicks off at 7:00 a.m. ET. But you can also follow along at #EMROCtranscribes on Twitter or our Twitter account @EMRecipesOnline. Please do wave hello in blog comments our on Twitter if you are joining in!