All posts by fwills

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I have just completed the final pages from my first experience of transcribing historical documents, and so I thought this would be the perfect time to write a blog post about this particular assignment.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.


Did the medical recipes within early modern recipe books represent early modern medicine and medical understanding?

Having just completed my online exhibition text on the use of medicinal recipes within the receipt book of Margaret Baker, I was researching how the medical recipes within Baker’s book compared with medicinal understanding in the time period. This involved studying the medical recipes in Baker’s book and determining whether the ingredients used in her medical recipes were the same ingredients that would have been recommended by physicians of the time in order to treat a particular disease or ailment. The result of this examination was that Baker’s medical recipes were heavily comparable to the recipes of early modern physicians.

As a result of this research, I began to wonder whether the medical recipes present in other early modern recipe books would tie in as closely with early modern medical knowledge. Therefore, the goal of this blog post will be to examine the medical recipes from a different early modern recipe book, one written by a Mrs. Elizabeth Hirst and dated 1684. From this research, I will hopefully gain a better understanding as to whether Margaret Baker’s medical knowledge was an exception to the norm, or whether it was common for women of the household to possess extensive medical knowledge in early modern England.

An example of one of the recipe’s in Hirst’s recipe book

The first recipe from Hirst’s book is a recipe entitled “To stop Rhewme in the eye” (Hirst 31). Rhewme (or rheum) is a watery thin mucus that discharges from the eyes and crusts together.  The recipe instructs the user to make a plaster from several herbs, as well as frankincense and the white of an egg, and apply it to the temple of the patient. In JohnGerard’s Herball, he explains that the user can make a remedy to “keepeth backe the watering of the eies” using rofeleaves, frankincense and the white of an egge (Gerard 1211). Hirst’s recipe is clearly very similar to Gerard’s, although she substitutes the rofeleaves for several other herbs. Nonetheless, her recipe conforms to the medical knowledge of the time, and Culpeper’s Pharmacopoeia seems to suggest that the herbs are not really necessary at all. Culpeper says that “Frankincense… being applied to the temples, stops the rheum that flows to the eyes” (Culpeper 74). This demonstrates the Frankincense was the key ingredient that Hirst needed to include in her recipe, and her inclusion of this demonstrates her knowledge of early modern medicinal practice.

The second recipe that I will be examining is a much simpler recipe that is designed “to cure a feaver” (Hirst 37). The recipe simply instructs the user to infuse rhubarb in white wine, and make the patient drink it in the morning. Hirst explains that this will allow the passing of stool and help trapped wind to escape. In Pharmacopoeia, Culpeper states that rhubarb “sleeped all night in white wine” will “purgeth but gently” (Culpeper 11). This purging is reffering to the passing of bile in the stool. Once again, this demonstrates that Hirst appeared to possess extensive medical knowledge, and this particular recipe shows that she is not only aware of the recipe but also how the remedy works.

A final recipe that I will explore is a recipe “to take away pimpl’s or redniss in ye face”(Hirst 39). Hirst informs the reader to take a small piece of brimstone and mix it with white wine to form a cream, which should then be applied to the skin of the patient. Once again, we can find a very similar recipe in Gerard’s Herball, Gerard’s version uses white wine vinegar as opposed to white wine, and adds in the root of an iris as well as the brimstone. Gerard states that the recipe “taketh away sun burning, freckles/spots, the morphew, with all deformities of the face”(Gerard 1341). However, Brimstone appears to be the ingredient that actively heals the skin, as Culpeper states that “brimstone… takes away leprotics, scabs and lech” (Culpeper 42), all three of which are skin issues. Once again, Hirst demonstrates that she has an excellent understanding of medicine, and that the recipe she has used conformed to the medical theories of her contemporaries.

Although a rather small sample size, all three of the recipes that I selected from Hirst’s recipe book were recipes that were thought to be scientifically accurate in the early modern period. This demonstrates that Hirst appeared to have an excellent knowledge of medicine for a woman of her time. Whether the recipes are her own or not, she was clearly very well read and likely studied the medical field of her own volition. This evidence, supported by the study I have already conducted on the recipes in Margaret Baker’s book, appears to demonstrate that early modern women (or at least the ones who published recipe books) were quite knowledgeable when it came to medicinal practise and theory. It appears that Baker’s aptitude for medical recipes was not an exception to the norm, but rather, at least in the case of Hirst, her peers possessed an equal or perhaps even greater understanding of medicine than Baker did.

By Felix Wills


Culpeper, Edward, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or the London Dispensatory  (Royal College of Physicians) London, 1720

Gerard, John , The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (Sidney Thomson Fisher) London, 1636

Hirst, Elizabeth , Receipt Book (Wellcome Library MS-2840) London, 1684


The Use of Medical Recipes by Women Outside of the Household

When one examines the recipe books of Early Modern Europe, it is not a challenge to find a plethora of recipes designed to cure certain ailments and heal the human body. This makes it clear that a large number of housewives had an interest in medicine and its practice, and inside the home a number of women probably actively engaged in the practice of medicine. However, outside of the household the story was rather contrasting. It was not that women did not want practice medicine outside of the household, but rather that many men disapproved of it. Male physicians and apothecaries actively sought to limit, and later even ban, the women who wanted to practice medicine. An example of this was the Paris Surgeon’s Guild, who after 1484 would only accept the widows of former Master Surgeons as members of the guild, and later in 1694 women were outright barred from membership. One could assume that this systematic persecution of women in the medical field resulted in the non-presence of female medical practitioners outside of the home, but this would not be true. There were still women who chose to practice medicine outside of the home, and this blog post will examine two sources that demonstrate the vital role that some women played in Early Modern medicine and healing.

Saint Elizabeth cares for a patient in a hospital in Marlburg, Germany (1598)

The  first source that will be examined is a letter written by Lady Mary Wortley Mortagu to a woman named Sarah Chiswell (a friend in England). The letter was written in April 1717, and concerns Montagu’s observation of the process that was used in Turkey to treat Smallpox. Montagu was living in Turkey as she was the wife of the British ambassador to Turkey. As Montagu is writing to a friend, I see little reason as to why she would lie about the events that she describes in her letter, and therefore they are most likely factually accurate.

Montagu starts of her letter by saying that “the Small Pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting“. The Turkish, through a process that was known to Montagu as ‘engrafting’, but was more commonly known at the time as variolation have managed to totally eradicate the harmful effects of the disease. Montagu explains that there is a set of old women whom “make it their business” to carry out the procedure. Although it is not clear whether this means this women pursued this venture for profit or simply for the good of the people, it is clear that these elderly women carried out the treatment. Montagu then describes the process of ‘engrafting’ in great detail, frequently referring to the old woman throughout. For example, “the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have open’d“. This implies that the old woman has a good understanding of the anatomy of the human body, further emphasising her knowledge and involvement in the practice of medicine. Montagu also makes it clear that these women do not perform medicine just within their household, but rather that “every year thousands undergo this operation“. Obviously there are not thousands of people within these women’s households, and so it seems they were treating the community at large. Towards the end of the letter Montagu mentions that she wants to have the process carried out on her son, demonstrating the trust she has in the medical knowledge that these women possess.

The second source is another letter, this time written by a man named J. Hare to the famous Early Modern physician Hans Sloane. Hare was a vicar for the Parish of Cardington in Bedfordshire, England. The letter describes a man who falls ill and is subsequently treated by a local woman. Hare assures Sloane of the accuracy of his claims, saying “I affirm and in Testimony have subscribed my name” at the end of the letter. As Hare is a man of God, a testimony from him almost guarantees the authenticity of his statement.

The letter starts out by describing that a man within a household where Hare was staying had had an ear pain for two or three days, and upon a female servant searching the man’s ear she noticed small maggot like creatures within the ear cavity. Hare then says that a woman from the neighbourhood was sent for. According to Hare, the woman “applyd to it ye steam of warm milk“. The woman was sent for from the local area, and so was most likely already known within the area as a healer and practitioner of medicine. The woman applies the treatment to the patient, and a little later Hare manages to pick 24 maggots out of the man’s ear, although some still remain that were too far into the ear to reach. Hare then says he “left him for about an hour… & then returning to him, I could at first perceive nothing but a think bloody matter but by degrees they worked outward and I pickd out nine more“. Hare states the next day, the man was better and complained of no more pain. It seems the treatment the village woman had applied was likely responsible for the  uptake in the man’s condition, as he had complained for several days of pain and suddenly no longer felt any. This exhibits the medical knowledge that this woman possessed, and gives us further evidence that women practiced medicine outside of their own homes. Interestingly enough, steam and is still known today to be an effective treatment for ear pain. Steam helps to clear the ear drum of pus and wax, which was most likely the bloody substance that Hare describes, and this seemed to push the maggots out of the patient’s ear.

Both these sources demonstrate that in the  Early Modern period, some women were not only demonstrating exceeding medical knowledge, but they were also actively practicing outside of their home environment. Women were likely responsible for healing a large number of people from within their local communities, and even though they often were not allowed to become licensed medical practitioners, this did not stop them from trying to make a difference.

A response to “Women and Chymistry in Early Modern England”

By Felix Wills

During this weeks seminar, a particular source that caught my attention was Jayne Archer’s analysis of the Recipe Book of Sarah Wigges. I found Archer’s analysis of Wigges book, and more specifically what it could tell us about women and their involvement in Chymistry in Early Modern England, particularly intriguing. Thus, I believe that there would be no better topic for my first blog post than an analysis and critique of Archer’s findings.

A photograph of the inside leaf of Sarah Wigges' recipe book
A photograph of the inside leaf of Sarah Wigges’ recipe book

To begin, an introduction to the book that Archer has analysed, the ‘Manuscript Receipt Book of Sarah Wigges’. Wigges’ book was written circa 1616 in England. Like the vast majority of women who compiled recipe books during this time period, Wigges was a housewife. Also, much the same as many other recipe books of the period,  it did not just feature recipes for edible treats, but also recipes for medicines to cure particular ailments, instructions to make washing powder, instructions to help women compile a set of household accounts, as well as many other useful instructions for keeping an orderly household. However, where this book differs so heavily from other texts of the same type is that it contains some recipes that would be far more typical of a Chymistry book than of a recipe book. It contains a recipe that purports to allow the reader to manufacture the Philosopher’s Stone. Archer points out some rather amusing juxtapositions of everyday recipes situated immediately next to those that are rather more fantastical in their nature. Archer gives the example of the final leaf of the book, which contains a recipe to produce puff pastry and a recipe to manufacture diamonds. The last page sums up the overall theme of the book very well, the rather benign combined with the mystical.

Archer’s aim within the article is to establish whether women had a genuine interest in and actively practised Chymistry. Archer draws on two primary sources, one by Richard Allestree (written in 1673) and another by Thomas Vaughn (written in 1650). These two sources offer two very conflicting view about women and their success within Chymistry. For Allestree, women are too wasteful to be good chemists, they have a propensity to spend the money of the household rather than produce goods that will add value to it. As for Vaughan, he believes rather the opposite, that women have some sort of natural intuition that allows them to be better Chymists than men. Vaughan’s viewpoint is not surprising, as Archer discovers, given that his wife Rebecca is credited in helping Vaughan write his own Chymistry book. He has seen first hand that women can be successful within the field. A third primary source presents a balance between the two viewpoints, written by Margaret Cavendish. She suggests that women would labour over a fire just as much as a man, but that women are more likely to spend gold than produce it, and therefore do not make good Chymists. Archer also notes that there are multiple examples of women being involved in Chymistry in Early Modern England, the most notable of whom being Queen Elizabeth I, who had a Chymistry lab that she used regularly.

A portrait of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and a well renowned natural philosopher

In the next part of the article, Archer focuses on the evidence that Wigges’ book in particular provides us in order to establish what role women played within Chymistry in the Early Modern period. Wigges describes many chemical procedures within her book, such as the distillation of water and alcohol, which would have been an extremely useful skill at the time. Archer believes that this supports the notion that women actively practised Chymistry and it had its place within their household duties. However, Archer discovers that an unusually large amount of the Chemical recipes in the book had been taken (un-cited) from other books such as John Gerard’s Herball and Andreas Libavius’ Alchymia to name just two. Although this shows that Wigges’ was unusually well read for a non-aristocratic woman of her time, it calls into question her true abilities when it comes to Chymistry. In addition to this, there a number of other cited sources of chemical recipes. A large portion of the centre of the book is written in a different handwriting style to those used at the beginning and end of the book, and contains copied passages from such novels as The Book of Sir Dunstan, which the author this time cites as the source. At the very end of the book, there is situated a number of recipes for producing precious stones, and these return to the same scrawling, messy handwriting used in the central section of the book mentioned previously. All this evidence would seem to suggest that the Chymistry parts of the recipe book were either written by another person or plagiarised from different texts.

The one criticism of have of the otherwise well written and interesting article Archer has produced is that in her evaluation of Wigges’ book. She acknowledges that it is very tempting to assume that Sarah Wigges herself was not the author of most of the chemical recipes within the book. She then goes on to say that it is most likely that Wigges did not even practise most of the rituals and chemical recipes used in her book, but that she was probably interested in these topics because of the use of chemistry in everyday household tasks such as distillation. To me, an interest in something is not the same as being an active practitioner. I for example, am interested in cricket, but I do not play and probably never will, just the same as Sarah Wigges may well have enjoyed reading and learning about Chymistry, but it is very unlikely she practised it. So when Archer goes on to state in her conclusion that instead of placing women at the fringes of Chymical discourse in Early Modern England, they can perhaps be placed at the centre, this greatly puzzles me, as much of the evidence she has collected from Wigges’ book and her other sources suggests that this was simply not the case. Women, although certainly interested in some aspects of chymistry, were not heavily involved in its practice in Early Modern England.