Category Archives: Record-keeping

Margaret Bakers Ghost?

I have wracked my brain to think of a subject for this, my last blog post of our academic year’s involvement with Margaret Baker’s recipe book. To be honest, so close  to the end of term  my brain is numb and I cannot effectively put pen to paper on any one particular scholarly point of our digital recipe project. So, I thought I’d appraise the exhibition website our group has just completed. After the initial panic, denial of our technical prowess and frantic last minute virtual collaborations that threatened to crash Facebook, the subject of this blog rests upon comparison.

The Scribes Room in the Schwazer Bergbuch (ÖNB 10852, fol. 85v), 1561; (fol. 114v)

Before I compare and contrast the seventeenth century with the twenty first I must stress how proud we are of what we produced, how we conquered our fear of technology and found that team spirit that we were afraid would not materialise.

Our website is our ‘masterpiece’. [1] Not a pompous boast it is a reality, comparing directly with the piece of work completed by apprentices in the past. While our skills have not been seven years in the making, we, like them absorbed knowledge and skills passed on from master to student. In years to come it will be a testament to the progress we made under the watchful eye of our tutor. It will also stand as the bar upon which we can either rest, or from which we can climb even higher.

Our engagement with Dr. Lisa Smith’s Digital Recipe book project has taken us from novices to accomplished scholars. We can transcribe incomprehensible scripts;
understand concepts of empire, alchemy, chemistry and medicines contained within what at first appeared to be no more than written instruction. We can also now effectively navigate our way around early modern primary texts, reconstruct and experiment with confidence.

Our ‘masterpiece’ is comparable with Bakers Manuscript in as much as it has been a collaborative undertaking. Baker has her contributors, Lady Croon, Mistress Corbett, and through her friends, relatives and aristocratic connections we have snapshots of her life and have placed her in context. [2] We too have collaborated, forged alliances, networked and brought different skills to the table.

A possible Margaret Baker?

Like baker we have used our foremost technology; for her ‘the book’, for us ‘the website’. Yet herein lies the greatest  difference between ourselves and Baker, namely our modern quest for perfection. There is no denying that digital technology has enabled the wider study of Bakers book. However, alongside what has been gained we must also look at what has been removed. From the pages of Bakers book 1675 and those of our modern website 2017, it seems to me especially that something has been ‘lost in translation.’

 

Both Baker and ourselves are represented on the page by our words yet it is only Baker’s thinking processes that are evident. To read Baker is to know far more about her than it is to recognise us on our website. To compensate we included an ‘about us’ page but that was a statement of what we thought the reader would like to know as opposed to them discovering us for themselves. Alternatively, to ‘find’ Baker is quite
thrilling. Despite there being a possibility of a more sophisticated edition, this her assumed  workbook  has an abundance of clues to follow. But our website, unless we had consciously designed it to do so reveals nothing personal about the HR650 students who compiled it.

Clear and precise if a mistake is made on a website it can be erased leaving only perfection. It does not entertain the workings of the mind, a process that is so thankfully clear in Baker. We are represented by our words but not our thought processes. Baker crosses out, makes mistakes, creates ink splodges, and leaves stains from cooking or experimentation on the page, indicative of experimentation, change of mind, a new direction to pursue, a muddled train of thought to be improved upon later.

Today, a mistake is inexcusable. Deleteable type makes it is so easy to ‘get things right’. Yet for Baker mistakes were unavoidable, ink would soak into porous ‘rag’  paper  and if a large piece of text was heavily crossed through, the reverse was almost illegible.[3] For Baker mistakes or miss-thoughts were unavoidable unless she discarded her papers. This highlights emotion in her penmanship, the feelings that accompanied a clear, steady, neat and light hand were going to be different to those involved in heavy dark strokes. Even if the writing was not hers we know that by the very differences we can see.

Today by striving for uniformity and perfect presentation we have lost the personal and individual. While Intelligence and reasoning is still present in mechanically written words, character and personality is not.

In my second blogpost I argued that if Baker and I ever met I would recognise her, divided only by time. I still think that. Alternatively, if she could see our website, unadulterated by mistakes she would think me perfect and unknowable. As a concept usually reserved for God, it is reasonable to assume then that going back in time would be easier for me than coming forward would be for Margaret.

Having said that I will report that at the moment we launched our state of the art ‘masterpiece’ the cork from the celebratory champagne popped unassisted. Perhaps Baker was there in the shadows and did not need mistakes on a page to know everything about us after all.

[1] UoE Baker project 

[2] Baker, Margaret. Receipt Book of Margaret Baker, ca. 1675, (MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)

[3]  Baker, Margaret. Receipt Book of Margaret Baker, ca. 1675, (MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.)