30 Grains of a Dead Man’s Skull: Transcribing Folger MS V.b.380

By Amanda Pickett

What is medicine like today? While the exact picture varies throughout the world, for me and many others, it is a process of expediency. Starting with a quick call to the nearby doctor’s office at my earliest convenience, I summarize my ache or ailment and within hours I get an appointment. The appointment itself entails a speedy check-in, followed by a short examination, where I sit in a room smelling of antiseptic, on a paper-covered table, while a nice man or woman in a white lab coat and gloves surveys me from head to toe. A little poking, some prodding and a couple of clarifying questions and the doctor diagnoses the problem sending me off with a prescription for my local pharmacy sure to cure me in days—simple. However, during the early modern era, medicine was not nearly as reliable or scientifically exact, but nonetheless revolutionary to the development of what the world knows today.

While transcribing an early modern recipe book, which acted as a tangible legacy and everyday manual to an early modern household, I was given the opportunity to glance back into the past. Whereas today medicine and science, especially when treating the common cold or the flu, is uniform to the public—involving labs, research, testing, FDA approval, etc., during the early modern era medicine was dependent on trial and error, often left up to each individual family and their homemade remedies. There was no common antidote or remedy, no vaccines or proper dental care, and the methods in which families treated illness and disease were wholly unique. In fact, medicinal remedies of the early modern era, were produced in kitchens concocted with chosen, personalized ingredients wielded by the lady of the house. The test subjects of these crafted treatments were those of the household, varying in ailments and illness, on whom the effectiveness of each medicinal recipe relied.

Folger MS V.b.380, f. 168

For the medicinal recipes I transcribed, each one was rated with a review of good or bad, or ingredients scribbled out and changed, as a signifier of the recipe’s personal success and the care for the smallest details. However, as I read and transcribed, it was hard to imagine anyone, especially the author’s loved ones, consuming the contents of these concoctions. In recipe 154, Convulsion Water, the ingredients are as follows:

     Take one pound of Peony roots scrape ’em cleane, and slice ’em
     into 3 pints of white wine, let it stand Infusing in Embers all night,
     then strain it out very hard. To this a quarter of an Ounce of Castor
     in fine powder, one Ounce of Spirit of Castor, 30 graines of the​ moss of
     dead mans scull, & 30 grains of the​ scull of a dead man, Both the​ scull and
     moss must be beat in to fine powder, mingle these all together
     and shake ’em in a bottle one hour. Take of this 2 spoonful at a
     time 3 morning before the​ ffull & Change of the​ moon if there be
     Occasion as by the fits coming: and the​ same quantity at any other time.
     One spoonful is enough for a Child.  [1]

Admittedly, I was baffled that any one of these ingredients would be implemented for medicinal healing but even more disturbed by the use of actual human remains. Despite the knowledge today that consumption of any human biproduct poses serious health risks, the threat of disease seemed even more impactful during an era of no sanitation or vaccination.

While my initial reaction was that no such remedy could ever or should ever be employed to heal any ailment or be given to any person, especially children, I eventually went on to explore what would prompt someone to consider such ingredients. I came to discover that peonies, something I had classified to be used solely as decorative flowers, actually possess anti-inflammatory properties when boiled down. Additionally, white wine is known for its capabilities in lowering cholesterol and contains important antioxidants that help protect and strengthen the body’s immune system and overall functionality.

So how exactly did the trial and error cooking-chemistry in early modern kitchens, lacking exact measurement and safety regulations, evolve into the expedient, stress-free, FDA-approved industry it is today? In fact, early modern kitchens opened the door for the modern medicine we know and overlook now. Experimentation and testing of medicinal recipe’s began in the home, specifically the kitchen, where women took great care crafting the perfect remedies. Research and development, not unlike today, involved sharing recipes amongst broader social circles all the way to nascent academic institutions. Meanwhile the effectiveness of every recipe was perfected and recorded to for future generations to use and add to. While the difference of the times seems in great contrast, the fundamentals of research and development of science and medicine have been long lasting and still relevant to this day.

[1] “English cookery and medicine book [manuscript], ca. 1677-1711,” Folger MS V.b.380. At lines 3–5 of the recipe, the note “Anne Western }” appears in the left hand margin.           

Amanda Pickett is a Senior at Penn State – Abington, studying with EMROC member Professor Marissa Nicosia in that campus’s ACURA program.

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] folger.edu. 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.

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.