The Community of the Transcribathon

By Breanne Weber
MA Student, UNC Charlotte

A few weeks ago, an international community gathered together with one purpose: to transcribe a 17th-century recipe book. I was one of the graduate students from UNC Charlotte fortunate enough to travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Transcribathon on-site at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was an incredible experience for me, especially since I am particularly interested in early modern book history.

The thing that most astonished me about the Transcribathon was the sense of community. Though I am merely a second-year master’s student, I immediately felt at-home, welcomed with open arms by leading scholars in their respective fields.
The atmosphere in the basement room at the Folger was charged with excitement. It was by no means a solitary experience: the room was filled with transcribers exclaiming over delicious recipes (like cheesecake and butter-filled pancakes), reading aloud tweets from transcribers at remote locations, and deliberating over nearly illegible or really strange words or phrases (“does this recipe really call for an ounce of unburied man’s skull?”). Though we each transcribed individually, there was certainly a communal sense of purpose and an excitement about our work. Even the transcription sprints, while creating some competition among transcribers, fostered the community – we all worked in unison on the same page and later projected our transcriptions on the screen, each person taking a turn to read a line and see our communal progress.

The best part of the day, though, was when Dr. Heather Wolfe, the manuscript curator at the Folger, brought the Winche manuscript into the room. To see in-person the very pages we spent the entire day transcribing digitally was a surreal experience; we all gathered around the manuscript, asking questions and finding the pages that we had already transcribed. As Dr. Wolfe showed us the pages of the manuscript, our post-modern, technological world collided with the 17th century world of Rebeckah Winche in a very real way. It was almost as if Winche herself was present in the room with us.
I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity to participate in the Transcribathon. The sense of connection and common purpose made transcription even more real and important to me than it already was. And, as a result of this amazing experience, the officers of the Early Modern Paleography Society (EMPS) have decided to host our own Transcribathon in the spring in order to provide an opportunity for others to experience this community like we have. These avenues for connection are so important to the work that we do. After all, that’s why recipes are so important: they bring people together.

Sheepeshead Pudden Chronicles, or, Adventures in Transcription

By Robin Kello
MA Student, UNC Charlotte

Fellow travelers in transcription and compatriots in the paleographic arts, allow me to share a short tale.

After the October transcribathon at the Folger, a friend asked: “Why waste a day looking at old recipes?” Yes, dear readers, you may be astonished to hear it, but there are folks out there who fail to notice the magic of the early modern manuscript.

While I do not spend time criticizing his leisure pursuits – a certain recipe of hops, barley, yeast, water, and American football – I relished the opportunity to respond. I suggested that beyond the political, ethical, and scholarly reasons to do the good work of transcription, there is joy to be found in what Amy Tigner refers to on this blog as “the treasures of the book.” The adventure of the transcribathon – our transatlantic, cross-century colloquy with Rebeckah Winche – engenders community and occasions discovery.

To transcribe Winche’s book is: to open a door that opens further doors into the past; to rethink environments both “natural” and cultural; to see a reflection of renaissance trade routes in the ingredients of remedies and recipes; to recognize an expression of the transmission of folk knowledge before the standardization of medicine; and to be given access to the views of early moderns who were not the poets and priests or sanctioned scribes and scholars of the realm, but the unofficial chronicles of the time. These recipes articulate methodologies of care, of how we used to sustain and heal ourselves.

They also offer a toad’s leg in a silk satchel to be hung around the neck, the urine of a young boy, and various recipes for “Sheepesehead Pudden.” The single-word “Sheepeshead,” the “en” that resolves the substantive noun, and the double “d,” arching forward, as secretary hand will, toward the preceding word – this language and its world are both familiar and strange. Though I do not intend to par boyle the head of sheep to make a very fine pudding, I delight in the discovery, and share it with my companions.

Then we all partake in Winche’s marvelous book, triple-transcribed, viewed and vetted, fit for consumption, with the rest of the world. In 1715, 1815, or 1915, it was reserved for the fortunate few; in 2015, the web lets us give it to the world. The cutting edge of this cutting-edge scholarly endeavor is not just in its valuable interdisciplinary import, but in the democratic nature of the digital humanities.

I am immensely grateful to have been part of the transcribathon, to be a member of the Early Modern Paleography Society at UNC-Charlotte, and to explore these early modern recipes. It is not because I am especially skilled – in a sprint, I lag – I tremble at the vowel – but because of what we find in the encounter with Winche’s world. Get to the keyboard and stare down the vowel. The adventure continues, and the treasure is shared.