Category Archives: Digital Humanities

Recipe’s for Life

As you may have read in previous blog posts on this page, recipes are a much broader  concept than simply instructions for cooking. One thing that this can include is a recipe for trying to have children. Today there is all sorts of information available to couples trying to conceive. In the 21st Century it is more likely that couples trying to have children would go to a doctor and find out all sorts of sciencey ways that will improve their chances. But what about in the 17th Century – what did people then do to help them improve their chances? Without a secure knowledge of how reproduction worked and what roles the woman and men’s bodies played, you might think that couples simply played the odds. Enter Recipe Books. Aristotle’s Master-piece (probably not actually written by Aristotle himself) is one such book that gives advice for these couples.

To understand the thinking behind her advice (which I will go onto in a second – fear not), it is necessary to have a basic understanding of the humoral system. This theory was originally made by Hippocrates and expanded upon by Galen, and essentially argues that the body is made of the four ‘humors’; black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. When these liquids were balanced you would be in perfect health, both physically and mentally. These humors had different qualities composed of; cold, hot, moist, and dry.

4-humors
Diagram of the Four Humors

If you want more information on how this would affect people’s moods in a general way look here. What is important here for us is how people viewed women and men to help us understand why Aristotle’s Master-piece suggests certain methods for conception. The general consensus in Early Modern Europe was that women’s bodies are naturally cold and wet, whereas men’s bodies are naturally hot and dry.

And now we come toman the advice. It is interesting to see how people thought certain things would help conceive a child. For instance Aristotle’s Masterpiece has some methods about the act to encourage procreation.

One of the things that has not gone out of fashion is the concept of “Generous Restoratives”. In the 17th century this would consist of herbs that would help relax you and warm the body up, and ‘hot’ spices which would help the latter. This is where we see the idea of the humoral system come into play. Because the cold, wet body of a woman was not seen as the best way to conceive and keep a baby healthy. This means that in order to make a baby, ideally the woman would need to make herself warmer. This could be done through the restoratives, having a hot bath or even drinking wine. Although the reasons behind it have largely changed, there are still websites promoting the use of natural herbs to promote fertility. This is not because people still buy in to the humoral theory, but because it is believed to help with hormone balance and help relax the couple. This means that the “generous restoratives” Aristotle’s Masterpiece refers to may have actually had a positive effect on fertility, despite a misunderstanding of how human bodies worked.

The text also shows an importance of the humors after sex has occurred. Aristotle’s Masterpiece states that “when they’ve done what Nature does require, the Man must have a care he does not part too soon from the Embraces of his wife, lest some sudden interposing Cold should strike into the womb, and occasion a miscarriage1”. The thinking here is that because the man is naturally hot, whereas the woman is naturally cold, not cuddling after sex would cause the baby to miscarry. This means that cuddling after sex in the Early Modern Period was not just a show of affection, but also necessary to help you have a child.

What is really interesting is another piece of advice the masterpiece gives us is that in order to help conceive, sex should be “brisk and vigorous2”. This is interesting because it shows that people believed that the emotional state was very important to the conception of a child. What did this mean for arranged marriages where there was no love? The masterpiece states that “Sadness, trouble and Sorrow, are enemies to the delights of Venus” and should you try to conceive during this time it would have a “malevolent effect upon the Children3”, so it may be that you could have a child but that child would probably not turn out well. This could be signs of an early understanding of modern psychology. While they believe it is the mood during conception that would have a negative effect, growing up in a household where your parents are always fighting or sad may have negative consequences for the child.enhanced-buzz-24936-1372182219-1

The reason I found this manual so interesting was because a lot of the ideas used in it we still hold today. People will still use natural herbs to promote fertility, although not because they think it wi
ll warm up the naturally cold female body. People still like to cuddle after sex, again not because of the warmth for conception but because it is affectionate. Just because people in the Early Modern period did not have a firm grasp on how reproduction and the human bodies functioned, or differed with regards to sex, it did not mean that all the ideas were completely unfounded. Specifically regarding the restoratives, people would have experimented with different herbs and spices until they found something that seemed to work for them. This would be passed on to friends and family until a fairly well established and thoroughly tested method would become more prominent than others that only worked for a couple of people. Considering they were working off the humoral system it may seem bizarre that we are still using a few of their methods, but it does make sense. And hey, at least it’s an excuse for a nice hot bath.

 

[1] Aristotle’s Masterpiece Completed, in Two Parts (London, 1697), pp. 91-94.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

Baker’s many Agues

By Abbie Burnett

As a class we have been drawing to the end of our recipe books project. Our website exhibition on Margaret Baker’s seventeenth century manuscript has launched, and I am certainly proud of how far we have come and how much we have learnt about the digital world of early modern recipes.

Baker’s manuscript has offered us many topics to research and explore, and it was after a last leaf through of its pages on the Folger website that I realised a recipe title reoccurred numerous times: “For An Ague”.  I personally have transcribed pages in which an ague recipe is featured, however I did not realise then that variants of this recipe were not just included once or twice, but eleven times throughout the manuscript. 

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker folio 38r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

So, what is an ague? It is not a word in which I was familiar with, at first I thought it may have been a miss spelling of the word ache, but this seemed unlikely as Baker includes recipes for aches within her book and so she is obviously aware of its spelling. So I searched for the term ague in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to discover that an ague was a form of feverish sickness, most likely to be malaria. According to this article, the term ague remained in common usage in England until the nineteenth century. My curiosity about these recipes was truly ignited; Malaria- in England?!

This then begs the question, why would Margaret Baker, who we know to have lived in the midlands of the UK, require so many recipes to treat Malaria? Today malaria is common in warmer environments close to the Earth’s equator. The Centres of the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  sites locations for highest transmission of the disease in Africa south of the Sahara and in parts of Oceania. You wouldn’t contract it in England- one benefit o
f living on such a rainy island.

This map shows an approximation of the parts of the world where malaria transmission occurs in the 21st-century.

For Baker living in seventeenth-century England, this does not seem to be the case. The inclusion of eleven recipes to treat an ague suggest that the disease was frequently affecting her or someone within her social circle. Baker even includes a recipe to treat a pregnant woman with an ague.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 81r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

Looking into the history of this disease I discovered an article on the British Medical Journal website titled Malaria in the UK: past, present, and futureFrom it I learnt that the disease was once indigenous to the UK, (and may once again be due to global warming but that’s an issue for another blog post…). It was only in the late nineteenth century, when the use of antimalarial drugs and improvements in the standard of living, that transmission of Malaria declined and eventually disappeared in England. Other evidence of agues prior to the nineteenth century can by found by looking to the famous William Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616 and included agues in 8 of his plays! In the Tempest, one character diagnoses another with an ague and attempts to treat him with alcohol:

“. . . (he) hath got, as I take it, an ague . . . he’s in his fit now and does not talk after the wisest. He shall taste of my bottle: if he have never drunk wine afore it will go near to remove his fit . . . Open your mouth: this will shake your shaking . . . if all the wine in my bottle will recover him, I will help his ague.”[1]

Alcohol and opiates were commonly used to suppress the shaking fevers of malaria. Interestingly, the recipes that Baker includes to treat an ague differ quite a lot. Some recipes include alcohol as their main ingredient, like this one on (f.66v) made of simply the ‘white of 2 new leade eggs… and putt to it a spounefull of aqua vite’ to be mixed well and drunk before the ‘fite douth come’. While others include more varied ingredients such as this one on (f.75r) with a mix of herbs, plants and medicinal waters, and then created by a more complicated methodology- distilling.  However there are some common ingredients in baker’s ague recipes. These include; liquor/ ‘aquavitie’, ‘reddest sage’, ‘eall’, and ‘ealder buds’.  A couple of Baker’s recipes are specifically for ‘quarten’ agues, the OED defines this as a fever  that reoccurs every fourth day. This was surely a very unpleasant form of Malaria, which Baker would have been keen to heal.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 105v, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

The fact that Baker had eleven recipes to deal with the problem of agues suggests that not one individual recipe was particularly effective in curing malaria. It is possible that once the patient stopped taking their medicine their symptoms returned. Alternatively, Baker’s family may have been especially susceptible to agues or many different strains of the disease may have plagued them. This would have been common knowledge to Baker’s friends and neighbours, and may explain why a recipe was contributed by John Reedman “for an ague all though thay have had it longe”.

Receipt Book of Margaret Baker Folio 126r, ca. 1675, MS V.a.619. Folger Shakespeare Library

The inclusion of ague recipes in Baker’s manuscript have helped reveal another aspect of the seventeenth-century world in which she existed. I am glad to have had that last leaf through of its pages. I’m sure whoever next takes up the task of continuing our work on Baker will continue to expose parts of her world this way. They will discover as I have, that her recipe book is much more revealing than it at first appears.  

[1]Paul Reiter, ‘From Shakespeare to Defoe: Malaria in England in the Little Ice Age’ Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal 6 (2006). 

The Science and Secrets of Cooking

By Abbie Burnett

In his book Cooking in Europe 1250-1650, Ken Albala includes a guide explaining ‘how to cook from old recipes’. To those unfamiliar with early modern recipes the inclusion of this guide may seem unusual and even unnecessary as recipes today are explicit in detailing how a recipe should be recreated, therefore a guide to aid them is redundant. However, what is apparent to those who have familiarised themselves with early modern recipes is that there is a large amount of assumed knowledge between their lines. 

Albala argues that “modern recipes are written scientifically, even though for the most part cooking is not a science.”[1] While cooking may not be a science, the scientific nature of recipes today can be easily recognised by their list of precise ingredients, exact measurements which are standardised internationally, and their explicit instructions, cooking times and temperatures. A modern recipe can be reproduced by almost anyone who follows its strict instructions, with no previous knowledge or skills necessary. (A blessing to inexperienced chefs of the twenty first century!) In addition, it is likely that due to the clear cut  and explicit nature of modern recipes they will be easily replicated to the same standard in 200 years time as they are today, providing cooking appliances do not drastically change.

In contrast, recipe books from the early modern period are much more difficult to follow. Recipes from this period did not have explicit instructions or standardised measurements, they were characterised by vague instructions and ambiguous guidance which was open to much interpretation by the reader. There was also a high level of implied knowledge in recipe books from this period, to which a contemporary reader would have been expected to have been aware of in order to follow a recipe successfully. Within Margaret Baker’s recipe book the assumed knowledge behind the measurements for ingredients has been highlighted well in Karen’s blog post ‘Methods of measurement and delight.’

A recipe for a powder of tertian feauer in Margaret Bakers Recipe Book, V.a.619 “as much as will lye on a six pence”

But why are modern recipes so explicit while early modern recipes left much to interpretation? It may be because recipes today are globally exchanged, they have the potential to reach thousands of readers and be recreated in many kitchens around the world. For this reason recipes are required to be specific and universal; to allow for anyone to easily cook from them despite cultural or geographical differences. However, in the early modern period recipes were expected to reach a much smaller audience.  Evidence of sociability of recipes can be seen in Margaret Bakers recipe book, she mentions contributors such as Mris FamesSir Walter Rallyes and Mris Denis, among others.  Specific recipes may have been expected to be shared among families or neighbours, but recipes traditionally travelled through lines of inheritance.

Only rarely would a recipe reach fame nationally or internationally if it was especially successful, such as Dr Lucatella’s balame. Margaret Baker claims that she was the first to record Luatella’s recipe, it then appears in many other recipe books from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, as well as being sold seperately. Here it is found as ‘Lucatelles balsam’ in 1669 in a memorandum book contributed to by unknown authors, and as late as 1820 the balme is recorded in John Knowlson’s book The Complete Farrier; Or Horse- doctor; Being the Art of Farriery Made Plain and Easy… With…a Catalogue of Drugs

Mathew Lucatalla’s Balme in Margaret Baker’s recipe book V.a.619

Today, some recipes would be impossible to recreate exactly or simply fail without the level of literal detail that modern recipes include. For example Bearnaise sauce, included in this article as number 3 of the 10 toughest dishes in the world to recreate, is evidence of how precisely a recipe must be followed. A particular temperature must be maintained during the cooking and specialist equipment is required for a Bearnaise sauce to be correctly reproduced; “This sauce is made in a bain-marie (a glass bowl over a pan of boiling water), but if it gets too hot, the eggs will scramble and there is no turning back.” It may be that early modern people used simpler dishes as Bearnaise sauce was not said to be created until the early nineteenth century, however it is more likely that during the early modern period this information was conveyed in other ways than direct instructions within a recipe book. In the early modern period in which Baker wrote, recipes and the methods to recreate them took on secret like qualities. They were passed on verbally, taught by elder family members to their young, from chefs to servants, from neighbours to friends, rather than being shared openly to everyone and anyone.

Implied knowledge in early modern recipes displays the limited reach of recipe books in the early modern period, authors expected their readers to be aware of unsaid rules or at least be close enough to ask them personally if they required more information. While the secret like quality of early modern recipes romanticises early modern cooking, the consequences of the existence of assumed knowledge in recipe books is that we may never be truly able to reconstruct recipes from this period. As Florence’s blog post displays, reconstruction of early modern recipes includes a lot of guess work. Information which was implicit to contemporary readers has not been passed on which has turned recipes from the early modern period into a  truly secret code to be deciphered by historians. As mentioned earlier, Albala takes an optimistic approach to this problem by arguing that “despite changes in ingredients and procedures, what tasted good hundreds of years ago still tastes good today,”[2] and therefore by trial and error we can gradually work to reconstruct near authentic replicas of dishes from early modern recipes. However, I fear that the silences in early modern recipes in which assumed knowledge was meant to fill may remain silent, and true recreations of recipes from this period may therefore be impossible.

[1]  Ken Albala Cooking in Europe 1250- 1650 (Westport, 2006), p. 27.

[2] Ken Albala Cooking in Europe 1250- 1650 (Westport, 2006), p. 28.

The Creation of the Kitchen

By Tracey Cornish

The reading for this week’s seminar was a topic that I had not thought much about before.  Just as I had never really thought about recipes and their meaning in the early modern period before I began studying this module.  The topic in question is kitchens.  I suppose I had thought that kitchens had always existed in the way in which we think of kitchens now.  When you visit castles or stately homes there is always a kitchen where the hustle and bustle of daily life took place.  The kitchen in Hampton Court is indeed huge.  It was built in 1530 and was designed to feed at least 600 members of the court, entitled to eat at the palace, twice a day.

The kitchens had master cooks each with a team working for them.  Annually the Tudor Court cooked 1240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar.  That is without mentioning the chickens, peacocks, pheasant and vegetables which were also on the menu.[1]

Hampton Court Kitchen plan

Interestingly, Hampton Court Palace also has a chocolate kitchen.  The royal chocolate making kitchen which once catered for three Kings: William III, George I and George II is the only surviving royal chocolate kitchen in the country. Recent research has uncovered the precise location of the royal chocolate kitchen in the Baroque Palace’s Fountain Court. Having been used as a storeroom for many years, it is remarkably well preserved with many of the original fittings, including the stove, equipment and furniture still intact.[2]

 

Chocolate Kitchen in Hampton Court Palace

The only original 17th century kitchen to be preserved is at Ham House. In the basement  there are several small rooms comprising of the kitchen, the scullery, the servants hall, a laundry, several pantries, a wet larder, a still house, a wash house and a dairy room. All these rooms would have had servants working in them and would have made the workings of the kitchen easier as it would have provided room to prepare and cook food.[3]

Original 17th Century kitchen

Of course, this is an example of a palace so what about everyday houses?  Peasants in the middle ages lived in one room which served as a room for cooking, general living and eating.  It consisted of a hearth stone, a fire with a pot of the top.  Sara Pennell suggests in The Birth of the English Kitchen 1600-1850 that kitchens in the early 1600’s were ‘unfixed and at times contested’[4] and that it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that kitchens were ‘distinctive yet integrated spaces in the majority of households.’[5] Food could be prepared in any room with a table and could be cooked in any room with a fire.  However it was the need to provide space for the works of the kitchen and other ‘food’ rooms such as pantries, larders and sculleries which reallocated eating to its own distinctive space.[6] Pennell argues that histories of the domestic interior and its evolving design neglected the kitchen and yet arguably the kitchen is and was an important room in a household. [7]

Margaret Baker never mentions in her recipes as to where the production of the recipes should take place, one just imagines that she is in her kitchen trying out the recipes (the ones which she did try) and writing them down.  Of course, the fact that her kitchen would have been nothing like our kitchens today should also be taken into account if a reproduction of one of her recipes takes place.  As Florence mentions in her  blog,  Replicate, Authenticate and Reconstruct Baker uses ‘learned knowledge’ in her recipe book.  There would have been no modern oven to set to a certain temperature as they would have used a fire.

17th Century Kitchen

Evolution of the kitchen was linked to the invention of the cooking range or stove and the supply of running water.  The living room began to serve as an area for social functions and became a showcase for the owners to show off their wealth.  In the upper classes cooking and the kitchen were the domain of servants and the kitchen was therefore set away from the living rooms.

The kitchens of elite households were not originally in the basement.  In fact basement level kitchens were almost unheard of in England before 1666.  Yet by 1750 kitchens were found in the basement.  One could argue this was to keep the kitchen staff out of sight of the main household and to ensure that the kitchen smells did not overwhelm the main living accommodation.

A 17th Century Distiller

So what about the medical and scientific recipes?  Many kitchens or basements formed laboratories for people to experiment and write down their medical recipes.  It was popular for higher class women to have stills and alembics in their kitchens for making essences. .  Even the lower classes would gather herbs together and make remedies in their kitchens.

Experiments took place in many places such as coffee houses, laboratories and universities but the private residence was a popular place to experiment.  Many renowned scientists used their kitchens as a ‘laboratory’ including Frederick Clod who was a physician and a ‘mystical chemist’ who used his father in law’s kitchen to experiment. [8]

It could be argued that the design of kitchens have come full circle with many people preferring to have open plan living areas which include the kitchen with people enjoying socialising whilst cooking and enjoying all those cooking smells.

References:

[1] http://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/visit-us/top-things-to-see-and-do/henry-viiis-kitchens/#gs.R6K2E18 accessed 20th March 2017.

[2] http://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/visit-us/top-things-to-see-and-do/chocolate-kitchens/#gs.tJhj8mM accessed 20th March 2017.

[3] https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden accessed 20th March 2017.

[4] Sara Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850, (London, 2016) p.37.

[5] Ibid p.37.

[6] Ibid p.39.

[7] Ibid p.38.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Clod accessed 21st March 2017.

Images:

Hampton Court Kitchen plan – http://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/visit-us/top-things-to-see-and-do/henry-viiis-kitchens/#gs.R6K2E18 accessed 20th March 2017.

Chocolate Kitchen in Hampton Court Palace –  http://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/visit-us/top-things-to-see-and-do/chocolate-kitchens/#gs.tJhj8mM accessed 21st March 2017.

Original 17th Century kitchen –  https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden accessed 20th March 2017.

17th Century Kitchen –  http://www.homethingspast.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/cotohele-kitchen.jpg accessed 20th March 2017.

A 17th Century Distiller – https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/f1/6f/b0/f16fb0f555b48fd576bf6dc1621a041d.jpg accessed 21st March 2017.

 

Recipe Book Memories

By Abbie Burnett

 The digital recipe book project has opened our minds to recognise that recipe books can include more than just recipes for meals, some posts on this blog explore this topic in more detail (Faye’s post and Sarah’s post). However, even with this in mind, when working on Margret Bakers recipe book I have found it difficult at times to draw these personal connections between her recipes and her lifestyle, relationships, and status in society. Sometimes Baker’s recipes for Tripe Peys are just recipes for tripe pies.

f.101v. and f.102r. from V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker
A recipe of Tripe Peys in Margaret Baker’s recipe book 

On my journey to make a connection between Baker and her recipes I was recommended by Dr Catherine Crawford to read Claudia Roden’s recipe book The Book of Jewish Food [1]. Before opening the book I checked out a few of its reviews online to get a sense of how it has been received by the general public. As a scholar, book reviews are a useful resource not only to gain an approximate judgement of quality of writings; but to find concise summaries, evaluative commentaries, and the position of these books in scholarly literature.[2]  Out of the 693 people who rated Roden’s book out of 5 stars, 86% gave it a 4 or 5 star rating, and only 3% gave The Book of Jewish Food a rating of 2 stars or lower. This overwhelmingly positive response characterising Roden’s book as a “culinary landmark” which was “packed with history and anecdote” ignited my curiosity into this twentieth century recipe book.

Claudia Roden The Book of Jewish Food (New York, 1996)
Claudia Roden The Book of Jewish Food (New York, 1996)

My high expectations were not disappointed upon reading The Book of Jewish Food. In fact, although I was prepared to find it an interesting collection of recipes I was still pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it was as more than just a cookbook, but as an amazing historical narrative of Jewish people and their food. The links made by Claudia Roden between recipes and Jewish history made me abundantly aware of how recipe books have the potential to carry memories and emotion.

The Book of Jewish Food draws the reader into not only a world of food, but also a world of religion, of displacement and persecution, and of festivals and tradition experienced by the Jewish people of the past. Through reading this recipe book I did not only learn how to reproduce many types of different meals I also learnt a significant amount about the Jewish faith, to which I was previously relatively ignorant. Roden presents her dishes in a way that traces Jewish memories and the previous homes they came from. Her personal touch on the book allows the reader to recognise the emotional significance of recipes as well as the feeling of belonging that they can bring.

Other historians of recipes have touched upon the themes of memory and belonging which can be found within a recipe book. Among them are Montserrat Cabré who writes about The Emotional Life of Recipesdiscussing how recipe books can be emotionally charged objects. As well as Lisa Smith, whose blog post touches on the emotional significance of certain family recipes passed down through generations, she questions if these recipes were picked due to their practicality or due the memories that they evoke. Roden’s recipe book is unique in that it displays very clear emotional ties to recipes, however the early modern recipe books I have encountered often do not have this discernible evidence of emotion. Margret Baker seems to be a closed book in that sense.

Claudia Roden’s recipe book has not only furthered my understanding of the emotional depth of recipes, it has also furthered my understanding of the importance of considering religion when reading recipe books. Whilst I have been studying recipe books to decipher the kinds of lives that their owners lived during the early modern period, I have been neglecting a fundamental part of those lives. Religion was not simply a minor element of early modern life, for most people it was central to it and in Europe religious wars raged almost continuously throughout the period.[3]

The Magen David, a Jewish symbol
The Magen David, a Jewish symbol

Roden’s focus on Jewish traditions and the vital influence of religious kosher laws on recipes has highlighted to me the importance of considering religion in the study of recipe books, which are circulated in both religious and non religious communities. Religion has not been ignored by those who study early modern recipe books, the Recipes Project have a number of posts classed under religion, it is not their main focus but still an important consideration in the study of recipes. By neglecting religion in the study of recipes you simplify the lives of their creators and misrepresent them in history.

The Book of Jewish Food is an interesting read even to those with no intention of recreating a dish from its pages. It has opened my eyes to the close relationship of personal history and memory in recipe books, as well as the importance of considering religion when studying recipes.  For Roden, Jewish food brings a sense of religious closeness and personal identity, just as family recipes bring a sense of memory and belonging to many others. While Baker has previously appeared to me to have less of religious or emotional connection with her recipes, she may simply have not felt the need to make this connection explicitly clear in a private family recipe book, unknowing that historians would scrutinise its pages in the twenty-first century. I am sure deeper readings of Baker with these considerations in mind may reveal aspects which I have previously overlooked.

[1] Claudia Roden The Book of Jewish Food (1996)

[2] Franklin Obeng-Odoom ‘Why write book reviews?’ Austrialian Universities’ review 56 (2014).

[3] Mark Konnert Early Modern Europe: The Age of Religious War, 1559-1715 (Ontario, 2008), p. 9.

Historians Can’t Code

On the third of November our class decided to attempt coding our transcription work. Being a history student I can’t say my knowledge of coding is anything more than minimal. Friends that do maths have often been on the receiving end of blank stares as they try to explain exactly what it is that they are doing, or how it all works. So when our teacher announced we were going to try our hand at it, naturally I was a bit concerned. Looking over the notes for the class did nothing to calm my nerves. A sea of dots and slashes made no sense to me, but even so I went to class with the determination to crack this. By the end of our lesson I definitely had, at the least, a shaky understanding of how to use it.

We were coding on the same website we transcribe on, Dromio, a Folger Shakespeare Library platform. The type of code we learnt is called XML, which is an extensible mark-up language. It essentially helps us describe a document which has been electronically converted. It makes it easy to import and export the document, as the code will always stay the same if you are moving it somewhere new. The coding means you can trace information easily, so for historians we can find things like amounts or ingredients. I’m sure you will find a lot more coherent instructions and explanations of what XML is and how you use it on any number of websites so instead this blog will write about why we used it and how I found the experience.

So why is XML coding helpful to historians? Essentially it is for ease of searching these documents. If you decided to transcribe a document into say, Microsoft Word there would be lots of details in the text that you would not be able to communicate that may be interesting to a historian looking into a document. XML allows us to make easy notes on things such as whether there are things crossed out, if there are things written in the margin, or if a word is written in shorthand. It also allows us to note things like amounts used in a recipe. This is essentially so the computer knows what kind of thing you have put in and, as Lisa put it, the document can ‘communicate’ with other documents by looking for common themes or structures.

Another benefit is that those poor suffering historians who are working on a field that is nowhere near where they live can now access the documents from the comfort of their own home. Lots of archives and libraries, such as The Wellcome Library, are now very helpfully digitizing their documents. This means a wider range of people can access this information. However without the coding involved in transcribing a document it may be hard to find the documents you need without manually searching through records that may or may not have the information you need. Transcribing with XML means lots of key information will be tagged for you, saving hours of work – Huzzah!

coding
A very rough start to coding. My attempt at XML coding on V.a.619 Receipt book of Margaret Baker’s page 101 and 102

It was interesting, coming from a background with no knowledge of doing any actual coding. Admittedly we had a lot of help from our teacher, but I still felt like if needed I could do it myself and it definitely left me eager to try more. Leaving the lesson I decided to see if I could try and finish the coding of the transcription myself and managed to do a half decent job. There were some mistakes, for instance line breaks where there should not be line breaks, but I definitely benefited from it and actually found it surprisingly fun.

In a way it made it easier to acknowledge what the notes I was putting my transcription did. By coding in that I needed to put <amount> I knew that people would be able to search for that, rather than pressing a button and hoping I remembered to put it in. Although the system is primarily to help search and compare digitized texts in my view it actually helped me look closer at the text I was transcribing. This is actually fairly vital to a history student as many essays involve looking closely at primary sources and trying to understand them. For example, when transcribing the page there is a rather interesting ingredient involving a dead mans head. At first look it seems as though it is saying a pound of a dead mans head, but on closer inspection it says pouder (powder). This suggests all sorts of interesting things about what people did with the dead and how they were preserved, which could have been easily overlooked.

coding-3
An interesting ingredient found in V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker page 101 and 102

However I am very glad that Dromio has a system in place to do this work for me. At the click of a button you can go from coding the XML yourself to a HTML, where the writing is presented without the code. This is definitely an awful lot easier to read.  While I know that I could do the coding if necessary it is an awful lot easier to let Dromio do the hard work for you. It did help me look more carefully at the things I was deliberately noting, but often the actual transcribing took a back bench to the coding. Hopefully with practice this won’t happen but for now, thank god for Dromio.

coding-2
The end result of my coding. V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker page 101 and 102

Good Housekeeping

 

I’m md15914530033sure my mother never imagined that her well used Good Housekeeping’s Cookery Compendium (1952) would ever feature in a blog. I’m equally sure she had absolutely no idea what a blog was or how it had become  part of  21st century communication. Suffice to say her cook book, my blog and recipe books of the past  are as similar as they are different. Language and its presentation may be the common medium through which their ideas are expressed but what is actually being communicated is potentially exclusive; inclusive; multi-layered; of their period and timeless. That’s a highbrow explanation of a sample of books and blogs I hear you say? Not necessarily. Along with my fellow students, also grappling with the concept of what constitutes a recipe, my ideas, have drastically changed.

 

Blogs, for example are recognised as cutting edge modern communication and could not be further from an early modern recipe book if they tried. Sure about that? What about both being conversational; making use of speech and language contractions?  Similarly, my mother’s 1952 compendium- low on conversation and high on instruction- also finds a parallel in the modern blog where the writer needs to impart information concisely within prescribed word counts. As a firm believer in the idea that history is not a foreign country but the idea of ‘us in retrospect’ constrained only by relatively primitive technologies, it becomes possible to see how we, through texts such as Castleton and Baker are connected irrespective of time. With this in mind transcribing Bakers recipes as part of EMROC becomes a personal experience, especially her medicinal scripts. The realisation that the early modern woman and I have always been synchronised at the point we recognise medicines  need to be used means that we are closer than we think. That our ancestral counterparts actually had to produce many of their own prescriptions as opposed to purchasing them, as I do, seems to me a nominal difference. Knowing this, the acceptance of how Baker’s ‘warm musk desolveth wyndynes’ and the importance of being able to identify exactly where a fore-rib of beef is located on a cow, appears less ludicrous, now  reimagined as a continuation of family provision and domestic knowledge over time.

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Although Baker is our prescribed transcription project when you read around our subject it becomes clear just how much involvement women had in household management, aspiring to both proficiency and accomplishment.  As with the 1950’s novice housewife many women upon marriage found themselves charged with the running of a home, wellbeing of a partner and subsequent children and until the present day, where convenience foods and laboursaving devices prevail, these women had to provide largely from scratch. Even early modern gentlewoman Alice Le Strange who married in 1602 and, though not quite cooking and cleaning herself, found she needed to organise those whose labour supported the family estate. By trial and error she perfected her accounting, enabling her to both display agency and sustain control.

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Interacting with us on levels beyond that of accounting, the language of the Johnson Recipe Book is both definitive and ambiguous. Culinary and medicinal recipes in different hands are evidence of gendering, with knowledge exchanged by several members of the household or possibly generations over time. Efficacy markings throughout the manuscript, plus text struck through, illustrate how the author interacted and experimented with the text. Inclusion of newspaper cuttings also shows awareness of current ideas which the author is prepared to filter into her own findings.  As a repository for personal and collected information perhaps this was both a private and communal workbook? As the latter, inscriptions in Greek speak of possible inclusions by educated men and the mention of a Lady Gresham and Sir Francis Prugen speak of elite social networking or at least social aspirations.

 

Sir Richard Newdigate         (1644-1702)

If not social aspirations, then social affirmations appear in the Newdigate family papers. Loose papers kept by what appears to be a dysfunctional family disclose genealogical information plus dark family secrets compounded by the erratic state of mind of its patriarch, who used both carrot and stick to manage a small army of  servants. A family with a social position to protect, among recipes to treat ‘obstinate scurvy’  make butter ‘the Essex way,’ prescriptions for vetinary cases’ and ‘directions for  making ‘indian glue,’ there are receipts telling of a ‘a method  for cementing stone…’ a collection of books in Italian and French, plus a collection of ‘ coins and Italian marble.’  

 

Times may change but a need for remedies, control and the desire to improve are constant. That’s why I include  my mother’s Good Housekeeping Compendium alongside the Johnsons and Newdigates of this blog. Never having to use outlandish ingredients or administer an estate the size of a small country, she did however, like them, feel the need to establish her domestic identity. The similarities between herself and mistresses Johnson and Newdigate range over three hundred years the only real difference being that mum was now buying into a growing consumer culture with its own definitive need for effective household management. Among the recipes for rock cakes and how to make lump-less custard Good Housekeeping promoted thrift and economy in the form of buying sturdy kitchen equipment and polishing utensils weekly to prolong their life and so save money.

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In her time, and in her own way mum too experimented; physically with ingredients and mentally in her personal assimilation of the knowledge she received, leaving annotations on the pages of the family’s favourite recipes. The precise layout and colour presentation of my mother’s 1952 book is vastly different to those of the early modern housewife, but how to effectively pickle an egg  could well have been the result of earlier experimentations perfected by women like mistress Johnson. Alternatively, advice on thrift may have had roots in the accounting processes of Alice Le strange. I too, as a young child, claim involvement with the recipes in mum’s book, notably by scribbling ‘Thes one’ and ‘That one’ (this one/that one) across the pictures of my favourite cakes.  I  doubt however,  my involvement within the conversation of recipes, will ever be going down in history.

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My first Transcribathon!

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!

Castleton's signature, from From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.
Castleton’s signature, from From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.

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.