By Abbie Burnett
Before I became a student of the Digital Recipe Books Project, six short weeks ago, I was barely aware of what transcription was, let alone how valuable it could be to me as a historian. So maybe you would consider me unqualified to take part in an annual international Transcribathon of an early modern manuscript, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), and yet on the 9th November 2016 that’s precisely what I did! My first Transcribathon was also only my second experience of transcribing historical manuscripts and as a novice I have learned a lot recently about the skills involved, its difficulties, rewards and uses.
EMROC’s international Transcribathon is in its second year and has proved hugely popular with participants from all over the world logging on to join in with the project, some groups met to collaborate in person in locations across the globe such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Essex, the University of Akron, the University of Texas Arlington and the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Whilst others logged on virtually, joining in for quick lunch breaks or dedicating a whole afternoon to the event. Personally I took part for a couple of hours while I was in my flat; helping transcribe a seventeenth century recipe book while in your pyjamas is not to be scoffed at!
The Transcribathon lasted twelve hours and covered 236 pages from Lady Castleton’s recipe book (V.a.600), and although many participants were those who study early modern history, the history of recipes or who had experience with transcription, the invitation to join in was open to all–no experience necessary! The inclusive nature of the event encouraged an impressive total of 128 transcribers to participate, beating 2015’s Transcribathon total of 93 transcribers, and exceeded in completing a triple-keyed transcription of Lady Castleton’s book. The Transcribathon was a lot of fun and much more exciting than I expected it to be. For me in particular the time limit of twelve hours created excitement as I logged on when it was in its final few hours and so the pressure was on to complete the pages I had selected in that time!
Trying to transcribe accurately but efficiently for an inexperienced transcriber like me was a definitely a hard task, but a challenge I felt I rose to with the help of online courses dedicated to reading old English handwriting, such as a course by the National Archives and one by the University of Cambridge. Especially helpful to me was a website dedicated to apothecaries’ symbols commonly found in medical recipes, which helped familiarise me with the letters and symbols which I found not only in Lady Castleton’s book, but also in Margaret Baker’s recipe book, which we are transcribing in class.
On Twitter and Facebook EMROC was available to offer support and encouragement, and the hashtag #transcribathon was in full effect as virtual transcribers got involved with those on site. This modern edge to history really added to the experience as it gave solitary transcribers like me an insight of how collaborative and special this event was, I felt like I was part of something unique.
Transcription was first introduced to me in our seminar titled ‘Paleography Lab’, for those who don’t know, paleography is the study of ancient writings and the deciphering and interpreting of historical manuscripts, in class we discussed how paleography and transcription can be used profitably by historians and researchers. At first I had assumed that the main function of transcription was to reproduce a manuscript in a more modern style of handwriting or digitally, thereby making it available to a wider audience and ensuring that information within a manuscript is not lost from history. However within our seminar the group discussion expanded my original views of transcription; it was not simply a reproductive system but also a way for researchers to get a closer reading of a manuscript and understand it or its context on a deeper level than merely paraphrasing it or taking separate random quotes to refer back to.
Transcription, however, like all methods of research, has its flaws. Human errors are common and extremely easy to overlook. I discovered this first-hand; more than twice during the Transcribathon of Lady Grace Castleton’s recipe book, I re-read my completed pages of transcriptions to find that by correcting a letter or a word I changed the whole meaning of the sentence and even the meaning of the recipe.
These revelations brought me a feeling of pride as I knew I was growing more comfortable with Castleton’s handwriting and things were beginning to make sense. For example, when I was on page 74 of her book I corrected “if some quantity of whitte wine” to “the same quantity of whitte wine“, which made a lot more sense both to me and the recipe. Despite my growing pride and confidence as I found these mistakes and corrected them, I also felt more unsure of myself. How many mistakes had I made and had I corrected them all? I hoped so. Furthermore, transcription can be very time consuming; the close reading of historical manuscripts can be long and drawn out especially when contending with the additional factors of handwritten pieces of work, words spelled phonetically and unstandardised fonts. For historians who take these factors into consideration and make adjustments to deal with them as best as they can with the many online resources available, transcription can be one of the most enjoyable forms of research.
I still consider myself a novice transcriber. However, the experience of the Transcribathon, paired with in class practice of transcription and seminar discussions, have helped me to take a step in the right direction into becoming an adept transcriber. I have no doubt that it is a skill that needs to be continuously worked on by historians to be able to transcribe almost effortlessly.
If you’re a historian who enjoys getting up close and personal to primary sources, my experiences with transcription tells me it is the method for you–especially for those interested in the study of early modern recipes. As I have learnt from my first Transcribathon, and will continue to discover during my work here on the Digital Recipes Book Project, transcription not only allows you to glean insights into the recipe on the page, but also into the life and times of its author.