All posts by adamcampbelldrew

A Guide to Transcribing

Transcribing is a difficult task to start and learn. Old writing is often poorly spelt, written, uses odd grammar/outdated terms and sometimes words are different in the same paragraph. If you’re looking to transcribe a larger piece of work, such as a recipe book, it has been written in by many different people – that have very different writing styles that reflect their own personalities and their situation at the time.

For most people, what puts them off of reading old texts is the handwriting. In old texts it is very rare that the authors attempted to ‘standardise’ their writing to make it easier for others to read – it often seems that it was written with the mindset that if they could read it that it was good enough. But what can be very frustrating is that in larger texts as mentioned before the writing style can vary wildly.

Two sections from the same book, showing how much the writing can change in one book alone

From the above images, for the right example, it’s a simple matter to transcribe – anybody could do it and its as easy as reading a modern printed book due to the regular and neat handwriting. What may trip people up is the occasional spelling oddity which will be addressed later.

As for the left it’s clearly more difficult. The handwriting has far more flourishes that connect some of the words, making it hard to make out where some words end. Many letters are also inconsistent in their writing and in the continuing theme are personal to the different authors. This clearly makes transcribing this type of work a significant challenge, but it is not impossible to get good at it fairly quickly.

Firstly, the best thing to do is read through the text and identify words that you can recognise to get a feel for the writing. In recipes, this often becomes words like ‘ounce’ or ‘quart’ as they are commonly used in recipes and are distinct words – ounce has no letters that require large flourishes such as d or h and the letters are normally written clearly. After that look for common letters in different words. If you’re struggling to read one word, try to look for a similar letter in a word that you can understand and apply that to the first word.

As an example of this, these two words are from a different section of the book. The first is meant to be read as ‘sliced’ and the second as ‘consumed’.

A strange quirk of this persons writing is that they wrote their c’s as an r, and their e’s look like a’s or o’s depending on how you look at it. Combined, this made it very difficult to figure out what the left was meant. If you read it without the understanding of these letters it comes across as more like ‘slirod’, which is not very helpful. The second reads ‘ronsumod’. With the second however, as the context of the word is in a recipe its not hard to realise that it is meant to be consumed. Now knowing that this person wrote their c’s and e’s in strange way it is easier to figure out the left means ‘sliced’. This can then be applied to other words that are causing trouble and can help to fill out sentences that were completely unknown. The context provided by these new words may help to figure out the rest of a sentence.

When it comes to spelling, there are some common words that are spelt differently no matter the author. They tend to spell the same word the same in their own writing, which is not always the case, but its rare that this carries over to other authors in the same book. These words are similar to modern spellings but can trip people up if they are unused to them. Common changes are e’s added onto the ends of words.

This excerpt is meant to say ‘boil it half’, but is spelt as ‘boyle it halfe’. Whilst this is quite clear when pointed out, the first word may poteninaly be read as ‘boylc’ if someone was not common with the way specfic letters are written as mentioned earlier. A way to work with unfamiliar spellings is to try to read the word and say it out loud as you do using what you think is the correct letters. If you read ‘boylc’ out loud you’ll probably recognise it sounding similar to boil, and put into the context will be able to figure out the correct word. As a general rule of thumb, most mispelt words are similar to the modern spelling with e’s added into them or doubled letters. As below, ‘pott’, ‘lett’, ‘dayes’, ‘straine’

Many of the words used in older texts are old fashioned terms as well; so even if you’re certain you’ve got the correct letters but the word is still not making sense it can be helpful to put it into a dictionary, prefereably one that has older meanings such as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Something that comes up a lot is the use of older shorthand words and symbols that can be confusing. One of the favourites is ‘ye’ which translates to ‘the’, but there is also ‘yr/yor’, ‘yt’, and ‘ym’ – your, that and them. These tend to be elevated slightly as well, placed above other words which can help to point them out while reading as shown below; ‘the fire while your’.

A common letter/symbol that can cause confusion is a long s that appears some words. Whilst it may seem like an f it is actually just a different way of writing the short case s that crops up occasionally; it is more common in handwritten formats and whilst the rules are fairly uncertain the general format is that the long s usually goes before a short case s in the middle of end of a word.[1]

[1]  West, Andrew (June 2006), “The Rules for Long S”, <>

An example from the US Bill of Rights in ‘Congress’

In conclusion, transcribing can be a difficult and time-consuming process if you attempt to tackle a piece of writing that is particularly difficult to make out, although not all old texts are like this. However, if you approach the writing with an open mind and go through it word by word, attempting to become very familiar with the authors style of writing, and referring to other parts of their writing and outside works you will be rewarded with access to first-hand accounts that can provide many opportunities to learn about the past.

(All images, aside from the last, were taken from various pages of EMROC Va429 ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750)’[1]

[1]Anna Maria Wentworth, (1725) “Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750” <>, (Retrieved 10th March 2020)



West, Andrew (June 2006), “The Rules for Long S”, <>


Wentworth, Anna Maria, (1725) “Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript], ca. 1675-ca. 1750” <>, (Retrieved 10th March 2020)

There is no Distinction Between Cooking or Medicine in Early Modern Cookbooks – Why?

A Doctor, a Herbalist, and a Chef – the early modern ’cookbooks’ have a common theme in that there is very little distinction or separation between the recipes; a recipe for making a Sweetmeat cake would be next to a solution for heat in the face, followed by how to whiten cloth using methods found at home[1]. Similar to how a husbandman was expected to be proficient in many different roles in Graham Markham’s book, the wife of a family was expected to be more than just someone who cooked or was simply the mother of the family as is the case for some modern thinkers. However although this is an impressive collection found in almost all of the early modern cookbooks for women, what it actually shows is that early modern women did not really make the special differences that modern society puts between medicines and cooking; instead they saw it all together as one area of knowledge. How far this was the case and why are some important questions that may help to give insight on the values and mind set of early modern housewives.

[1] ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript]’, (ca. 1675-ca. 1750), <>. P. 15-17

‘To Whiten Cloth’ – a recipe for whitening cloth using household materials. ‘Cookery and medicinal recipes [manuscript]’, (ca. 1675-ca. 1750),<>, P. 17

An early modern wife, as according to Gervase Markham again, was expected to be proficient in main areas of work and expected to be a part time doctor and be able to draw out bones, be able to create medicines ‘for any consumption, and, as some attitudes sometimes never, still be expected to cook ‘puddings of all kinds’.[1] Similar to Markham’s book on what it took to be a good husband, this is a daunting list of things that one woman was supposed to know how to do but again, there are similar considerations to Markham’s other book. Firstly, it is quite unlikely that whoever owned the book would be expected to remember all of it and never touch the book again; rather it is meant to be used as a reference book that can be used when needed and that the reader would only needed a passing knowledge rather than having the detailed understanding that an actual expert would have. Also, it is unlikely that the average housewife would have access to a book like this and that it would be read by middle class petty landowners wives instead. One of the largest things to consider is the literacy rates of women of the time that were almost always lower than similar classed men, often around 90% of illiteracy in most areas.[2] As such the book would have had to have been read to the wives by either their educated husbands or local educated men, and then most likely read to the poorer women that worked for the wife, and by extension her household. All together what these considerations mean is that Marham’s attempt at creating a ‘cookbook’ similar to others at the time did not draw a line between medicine and foods as described earlier; he instead packaged it all together in a way that can provide a refence guide for middle class housewives of the time rather than creating separate books for cooking, herbal remedies etc.

[1]Gervase Markham, The English hous-wife containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman … a work generally approved, and now the fifth time much augmented, purged, and made most profitable and necessary for all men and the general good of this nation, (1653), pp. 4-5

[2] David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.148

The wife of the house is explaining what needs to be done to a servant near the back of the image. Frontispiece from William Augustus Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor, 6th edition, c.1800.

With the plainer and more common household cookbook, this lack of separation between cooking and medicines is more noticeable and organic. Household cookbooks tended to be things that were passed down through families, with each generation adding new recipes they have found or editing older ones. But across these generations there is still no distinction between cooking for eating and cooking for medicinal or household purposes. Its not until 1853 with Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton that the idea of what a modern cookbook is set down, the idea of a reference book that is solely just for foodstuffs with measures and detailed instructions. Before this the majority of cookbooks were still collections of all types of recipes that were vaguely worded.  Even going into the more ‘rational’ minded eighteenth century where there was a greater interest in the professionalisation of areas of study such as medicine cookbooks were still including medicinal recipes.[1] This shows that even though there is definitely a shift towards having a book that is solely about cookery there is still some aspect of the earlier mindset of not separating the cookbooks, only keeping all types of work in the kitchen together.

[1]Hannah Glasse The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, (1747), p.328

An explanation for this lack of separation however could be one of convenience. Households passing down these cookbooks were simply writing down what they knew worked and what they assumed their families would need to know. They were unlikely to want to leave behind a large number of books all written on separate subjects; they are likely to have preferred to keep it all together for cost, time, and accessibility reasons. Cost wise, it was far cheaper to get one big book of blank pages that could be added to over time rather than a large number of separate books. Time wise it took significantly less time to write short recipes in one book rather than separating them. As for accessibility the issue of illiteracy rates in women shows up again, as it would be easier to get somebody to read out a small section of one cookbook that was needed at the time rather than reading out verses from various books. Despite this however, the fact that even though printing and literacy rates went up which made it far easier to produce these cookbooks, mass produced and handwritten cookbooks continued to make no distinction between cooking food and creating medicines.

Literacy rates of all women in Norwich showing that 89% were illiterate, this was common across England at the time. David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.1448

Overall one of the most common elements of early modern cookbooks that could be found in the homes of middle-class housewives was that they were a jack of all trades book. In it would be recipes for food, medicines, and basic first aid. This shows that for the most part there was no real distinction between the preparation of food and the preparation of medicines; they were essentially the same business and it was expected for women to be able to do both. While there are some explanations that this was more due to practicality rather than cultural reasons, the fact that it endured for so long suggests that this is not the case for all cookbooks.



What Makes a Good Husband: An Early Modern Take

What makes a good modern husband? Most people take the classical view; a husband is supposed to be the breadwinner, the one who works the 9-5 job and supports the family. Occasionally they might do the odd job around the house, but more conservative people will say the sole realm of the husband is the workplace. A more modern take is that while a husband is still expected to work they are also supposed to take an active role in the household – playing an equal role with the housewife in a less rigid men and wife family system.

The early modern husband was encouraged to be far more. Part geologist, meteorologist, chef and carpenter, the early ideal early modern husband should be at least familiar with all of those on top of their farming duties. The ‘English husbandman drawne into two bookes, and each booke into two parts.’ by Gervase Markham, written in 1613, attempted to show the contemporary readers what the ideal husband should strive to be. With advice on ‘how he shall judge and foreknow all kinde of weathers and other Seasons of the yeare’[1] and ‘of several parts and members of the ordinary Plough, and of the joyning of them together’[2] Markham’s book is full of practical advice that while it may not make the average farmer an expert it would at least help to familiarise themselves  with the necessary basics of these areas.

[1] Gervase Markham, English husbandman drawne into two bookes, and each booke into two parts. , (1613), p 4

[2] Ibid p.5

 ‘Farmers harvesting crops’ , Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress. 1486

It is important to note however that most of the population at the time were illiterate[1] – the average peasant farmer would not be able to read or perhaps even own such a book. Markham himself states that ‘this title of Husbandman is not tyed onely to the to the ordinarie Tillers of the earth’[2]. Only small landowners were expected be true Husbandmen and could become this idealised version of the term. Ordinary workers were not expected to reach such lofty heights. The term Husbandmen is applied to the master of the house rather than the modern meaning of a married man[3], but it is very unlikely that a literate man who independently owned his own land would be a bachelor. As such Markham’s book still serves as a guide for the ideal husband regardless of what term is used. The agricultural elements and the actual educational portions of the books might have been shared with the workers on the farm who could not access the book due to either poverty or illiteracy, but is very unlikely they would be interested or perhaps even shown the sections on etiquette or the ‘election of friends’[4], as it was not necessary for the common peasant.

[1]David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.144

[2] Markham, English husbandman, p. 10

[3] C. S. Partridge, ‘Tabular lists from Mr. Redstone’s Calendar of Bury Wills.’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History, Vol 13, (1907)

[4] Markham, English husbandman, p.4

David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977), p.1448

What all this points to is that the 17th century English society was, naturally, deeply focused on agricultural matters. There is a short section in Markham’s book explaining ‘The Duties and Vertues appertayning to the Husbandman’[1], but only two pages are devoted to what kind of personality and relationships the ideal husbandman should have. The rest of the book is entirely devoted to agricultural matters, primarily related to farming crops and other food sources but in the second portion of the book there are instructions on ‘Of the Adornation and Beautifying of the Garden for Pleasure’[2] which shows that although there was this large focus on production of food there was a growing part of the English higher class that were interested in growing the show gardens that became popular across the 18th and 19th century. Markham’s book can thus be seen as almost an example of the public interests of the time alongside what the society thought of as the ideal husbandman.

[1] Markham, English husbandman,p.4

[2] Ibid p.8

Example of an English pleasure garden
‘ The Grand Walk’, Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1751

A later chapter of the book would help the ideal husbandman to ‘make Grapes grow as big, full, and as naturally, and to ripen in as due season, and be as long lasting as either in France or Spain.’[1] The rather obvious attempts to invoke a sense of patriotism about growing grapes that can rival continental ones is an interesting chapter in the book. Although this is a nice example of the classic anti-foreign mindset that was well established in English society at the time[2], it is rather strange to see it in the context of growing grapes; and in the guide for how to be a good husbandman at that. What this can show is how deeply this element of wanting to be equal or better than the European powers was held by the high educated society. Markham was a member of the nobility rather than being a member of the lower social classes[3] and as such would have been aware of this mood. By extension, this guide to be the ideal husbandman again can act as a guide for not only how to be a good early modern husbandman but also as a way to see the opinions of society at the time.

[1] Markham, English husbandman, p.8

[2] Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, (2013)

[3] Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Markham, Gervase”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 73

‘Evil May-Day’ riots against foreign communities in London in 1517 London Apprentice, 1852

It’s hard to say what the expectation is approaching a book like this. Most people would not expect there to be such a diverse amount of knowledge, all of it being needed if someone wanted to be the ideal early modern husbandman. On reflection it shouldn’t be a surprise however. The modern idea of a good husband still applies somewhat; that they are the breadwinner and the man of the house who works their 9-5. Early modern England took it a bit more literally and expected the early modern husbandman to be the one making the bread himself, and Markham’s book would be there to help establish what the ideal husbandman to be.


Chisholm, Hugh, ‘Markham, Gervase’. Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.), (1911, Cambridge University Press.)

Cressy, David, ‘Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England: More Evidence’,The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Summer, 1977)

Markham, Gervase, English husbandman drawne into two bookes, and each booke into two parts, (1613)

Partridge, C. S., ‘Tabular lists from Mr. Redstone’s Calendar of Bury Wills.’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and Natural History, Vol 13, (1907)

Winder, Robert, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, (2013)