My First Transcription Project

I have just completed the final pages from my first experience of transcribing historical documents, and so I thought this would be the perfect time to write a blog post about this particular assignment. I will be discussing what I learned about the process of transcription, the issues that I encountered while transcribing the particular document that I was working on and what the pages I transcribed taught me about Early Modern recipe’s and recipe books.

An example of one of the pages that I transcribed
An example of one of the pages that I transcribed

The pages that I was transcribing came from the recipe book of Margaret Baker. Baker compiled this recipe book throughout her lifetime and it was published in 1675, making it a fantastic source of inquiry into the nature of recipes and recipe books in early modern England. Although little is known of Margaret Baker, like many authors of recipe books in the early modern period she was most likely a housewife. No dates are given to suggest when each recipe was put into the collection, but it is likely that Baker compiled these recipes across much of her lifetime, especially given the sheer volume and variety of recipes present within the tome. The first thing I noticed upon skimming through the pages of Baker’s book was the way in which the style of handwriting used changed throughout the progression of the novel. This coupled with the fact that the same words are spelt in a different way many times throughout the book (For example, morning and morninge) leads me to believe that Margaret was almost certainly not the only person who contributed recipes to the book. She most likely had help from other sources, which is quite common of recipe books of the period, perhaps from a family member. In one page I transcribed, the words “Nuesse Gessett” are written next to one of the recipes. Having not found any evidence to suggest that these are actual words, I can only assume that it is a name, most likely of the person that contributed that particular recipe to the book.

Having never done transcription of any sort before this, I wasn’t even really sure what transcription was. For this particular book, I was transcribing  using the semi-diplomatic format, which meant that I was supposed to transfer the text from the book to a modern document, whilst keeping the language and punctuation used as close as possible to the original text. This meant I would copy down the text as it was written on  the page, and I was not to correct the spelling of words  or add punctuation where the original author had not. The DROMIO software that I was using to transcribe Baker’s book included a number of handy XML buttons that could be used to aid in my transcription. I could mark page breaks, headings, text insertions, text in the margins, and it even allowed for the tagging of superscript text and symbols that represented words, such as the symbol for ‘ye’ which cannot be represented in modern computerised format.

A picture of the DROMIO software that I used to transcribe Baker's book
A picture of the DROMIO software that I used to transcribe Baker’s book

There were many different features of Baker’s book that made it difficult for me to transcribe. The first, and main issue, was learning to read and understand the handwriting style used in the early modern period. Some letters were very difficult to distinguish from one another, the letter ‘s’ for example looks very like the letter ‘f’when written in early modern hand. Issues like this sometimes made letters very difficult to distinguish from one another, especially in the middle of a word where ‘r’, ‘e’ and ‘c’ looked very similar, as did ‘i’ and ‘l’, as well as ‘n’ and ‘m’. These jumbled letters in the middle of a word were not too much of a problem when part of a word that is part of the modern English language, as the first and last letters of the word were generally enough to give me a good idea as to what the word was. This, however, brings me onto the second big issue I encountered when transcribing, which was words that no longer exist in the English language, or are not recognisable when compared to their modern counterparts. If the word I was transcribing didn’t even exist, then how was I to know whether I had correctly transcribed it? Despite this issues however, I feel that after some practice I really got the hang of reading early modern text, and the speed at which I was able to read and transcribe pages greatly increased.

From my transcription of Baker’s book, I learnt a some interesting things about the types of recipes and the construction of early modern recipe books. The first thing that intrigued me was the huge variety of recipes that were present within the book. These ranged from simple pie recipes, to medicine and into alchemical recipes, with one page mentioning an elixir that healed almost every ailment one could possibly imagine. Another very interesting aspect of the book was it’s unusual forms of measurement, which included “the waight of 100 shilling nine pence of blacke pepper” and “brimstone as much as a great hasell nutt”. I still wonder as to how these could possibly be used as accurate forms of measurement, but nonetheless it was certainly intriguing, and makes me wonder if this was common across many recipe books of the period or if it was specific to Baker’s.

Overall, I would certainly say that this transcription project has been a positive experience. Not only has it allowed me to study this particular early modern recipe collection in great detail, it has also taught me a valuable skill which I will undoubtedly use again at some point in the future.


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