Category Archives: Folger Shakespeare Library

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). 

‘& thise will helpe you by the grace of god’ – God in the recipe?

It was not until I spotted multiple mentions of God through Baker’s book, that i began to consider Religion to Baker and her seventeenth-century English society. Multiple questions began to run through my mind that i was itching to find the answers to: Was Margaret Baker very religious? What was her relationship with God? Why has God been so widely mentioned in a book full of recipes for food and medicines?

The recipe ‘to putt a waye a heate; burninge; or ague’  is closed by Baker stating that ‘thise will helpe you by ye grace of god’. (V.a. 619, 65.v.) [1]

Margaret Baker’s recipe book, V.a.619

Immediately I was intrigued as to why Baker specifically included God and his grace at the end of the recipe for the medicine, and with this, i turned to the books to investigate. With the help of Lisa, I came across a chapter titled ‘Providence’ in Keith Thomas’ book: ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’, which actually gave me insight and a lot of answers as to why Baker mentions God in such a way. Thomas not only mentions that all post-reformation theologists taught that nothing could happen in the world without God’s permission, but that the actions of their lives were actually the “working-out of Gods purpose”[2]. Baker was mentioning God at the end of her recipes not because she was simply saying ‘God will help you’ but because she understood that she needed God’s own permission, or ‘grace’ in order for the medicine to successfully work.

Baker does not only use this sentence of the grace of God a couple times within her recipe book. She actually uses it almost twenty times in regards to various healing medicines and remedies, which can underline that she did understand and believe in the workings of God.


Various mentions of God’s grace in Margaret Baker’s recipe book, V.a.619

So why does Baker rely on God to heal the patient, when she has already conjured up an entire treatment to treat them herself? The idea of Providence can be used to answer this. The definition of Providence in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘The foreknowing and protective care of God (or nature, etc.); divine direction, control or guidance'[3],it was as if she was pleading for God’s blessing, not just over the ill, but over the ingredients used to make their treatment. It could be understood that God was an important ingredient in her recipe; it is all well and good producing a medicine, but what is the point if God does not provide his own care and guidance?

There is a disregard of any idea or belief in chance, that if the medicine worked, it was solely because God wanted it to work, not because of the great quality of the ingredients. It would have been their faith in God and his divine right to control the effect of the medicine, and ultimately, the life of the ill – whether he deserved to survive, or deserved to die.

This was an idea that many Protestant believed, that there was no natural explanation for the epidemics or disasters that struck them, for example: the plague, floods and fires [4] were direct punishments from God, attacking them for their poor morality. For example, in this pamphlet published in the time of the Great Plague, we see the Londoners pleading God to ‘have mercy’ over them and the ‘mortality of pestilence’ of which the ‘Almighty God.. raigned upon them’. This underlines the idea that these people sincerely did believe that God controlled everything, pleading Him to lessen the severity of the mortal plague. The seventeenth-century people placed explanation in the hands of God. Your house caught on fire? God was punishing you. The plague came to your city? The Heavenly Father was punishing you – and only the most pious, dedicated Christian who pleaded for God’s grace would receive protection and cure.

If one recognised Gods grace, if one was a good, religious person, God would supply his care and would forsee the healing of illness and/or disease.

Initially, I found it intriguing that God was included even within recipes to heal, however, the mixture of recipes and faith were not uncommon, and women even wrote sermons or hymns within them (Although Baker does not). Seventeenth-century recipe books seem to have had the flexibility to be a type of personal prayer book – one page could note a prayer, song or sermon, and the next could be a recipe for a meal. This is something we see in Martha Hodges book, and in between pages of ‘Psalm 126’ and  ‘A Preparation to Prayer’ lay a simple recipe of how ‘to make a Cakesfoot Pie’.

‘Psalm 126’ – p. 50 of Martha Hodges book. MS2844                      ‘How to make cakesfoot pie’ p.  52 of Martha Hodges book. MS2844

‘A Preparation to Prayer’ p. 53 of Martha Hodges book. (Wellcome Library, MS2844)

This explains that it was not actually so strange to mention God within recipe books, whether it is a sentence, or three pages long, and in fact, Bakers book was extremely mild in comparison to other recipe books like Martha Hodges. This does not however, mean that Baker was not a religious woman, as she could have held other religious pages on loose leaf pages [5].

My own curiosities of religion within Bakers book led me to understand that this was not out of the ordinary – that recipes and religion could combine into one, whether its within the same notebook, or within the same recipe. The grace of God was important to each individual, in every part of their life, even down to medicine and food. Piety amongst women and within recipe books were actually common, and who are we to question the religious expressions of a seventeenth-century woman?

By Florence Hearn.


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

[2]Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London, 2012), p. 90.


[4] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 97.

[5]Sherman, William, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, (Philadelphia, 2010), p. 75.


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

Hodges, Martha. Reciept Book of Martha Hodges, ca. 1675, (MS2844. Wellcome Library, London, United Kingdom)

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London, 2012)

Sherman, William, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, (Philadelphia, 2010)

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.)

Margaret Baker’s recipe books give us so much more information than recipes

By Tracey Cornish

Little is known about Margaret Baker, however just because not much is known of the author does not mean we cannot learn a significant amount.  Three recipes books that she had written have survived today, two are owned by the British Library and one is owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library.  They are dated approximately 1670, 1672 and 1675.  The recipe books contained medicinal, culinary and household recipes and it is through these recipes that we can find out how people lived and survived in the seventeenth century.

Baker’s books contain recipes from other people for example she mentions ‘My Lady Corbett, my Cousen Staffords, Mrs Davies and Mrs Weeks.   We could assume that these people were known to Baker and she has been given these recipes by them.  Both men and women could gain medical information through their contacts although they may not have always given information about their own health or concerns.  Therefore just because Mrs Denis tells Margaret Baker about a remedy ‘To comfort ye brayne and takes away aney payne of the head’ (37r) it did not necessarily mean that Mrs Denis had used the remedy herself.  She also appears to recite Hannah Woolley’s recipes from her ‘The accomplisht ladys delight in preserving, physic and cookery.’   Large sections of printed books are copied by Baker many are from doctors.  Many of the doctors quoted in her books were non English medical practitioners and this suggests that she was influenced by her continental contemporaries. However medical instruction at Oxford and Cambridge Universities were so far behind that in continental universities that a large percentage of Englishmen who wished to become doctors went abroad for their education.[1]

Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplisht Ladys delight

So what can we learn from Margaret Baker’s recipes?  The books contain a range of preparations for ointments, powders, salves and cordials for a variety of medical complaints.  From these remedies we can see what diseases were prevalent at the time. For example ‘A preservation against the plague’ (24r).  We would not find a remedy for the plague in medical books today and so was therefore a worry in the 1670s.   There is also a remedy for ‘A canker for a women’s breste.’  (68v).  This is very interesting as it reveals that even in the 1670s cancer was a known illness and could actually be diagnosed although one has to assume that due to the lack of medical knowledge in the seventeenth century it was only when a lump was present that cancer was diagnosed.  Other illnesses mentioned are measles and shingles (26r).  There is also a remedy for ‘the stone in the blader and kidnes’ (17v) which is another example of medical knowledge inside the body.

The body was believed to be made up of four humours – Blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile and it was an excess of one of the humours that caused illness.  Health was managed on a day to day basis.  Recipe books like Margaret Baker’s reveal the extent of self-help used by families and explores their favourite remedies and analyses differences in approached to medical matters.  Women as carers and household practitioners could assume significant roles in place of a sick person, for example the husband,  and some women would have made key decisions about information and treatment of the sick.[2]

Women and medicine

The recipes for foods reveals the diet of the seventeenth century person although one should remember that Margaret Baker was more than likely middle class and so was writing for middle class society.  She includes recipes for cakes, biscuits and meat.  Her recipes reveal that food was eaten according to the season. We can also learn what types of food the seventeenth century person ate.  As mentioned in my previous blog,  Baker’s use of animals in recipes no part of an animal ever went to waste with most parts being used as food.

Baker’s recipes also reveal beauty regimes in the seventeenth century.  Her recipes include a pomatum to style hair   Karen writes a more detailed account of the seventeenth century beauty regime according to Margaret Baker in her essay  on our website UoE Baker Project.

Recipe books like Margaret Baker’s are an invaluable insight into the world of seventeenth century society and how they coped with illness, disease and how they ate among other things.  When I first began this module I was apprehensive that recipe books would be limited.  How wrong was I!  I could never have imagined the knowledge one can retrieve from a seventeenth century recipe book.


[1] Anne Stobart, Household medicine in Seventeenth Century England, p.29.

[2] Ibid  p.29.

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!

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.

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.

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

Accent in Transcription

When it comes to reading, many students, and indeed many people in general, can definitely say they are pretty well practised. When it comes to reading texts from several centuries back, however, there are far fewer that are versed in the art. And it is something of an art. Just as the painter must learn the brush strokes, and the many details of creating his or her masterpiece, the historian must learn how to read once again, almost as though it was for the first time.


Perhaps this is something that can be sympathised with, by a painter who has lost use of his right hand, and now must learn with his left. Many of the practises are still the same, but both the painter and the historian must tackle the problem from a different angle, and learn the habits once again. After all, some of the language used, alongside spellings that might seem alien to the modern reader, must be adopted by the historian, in order to truly understand what is being written in a text, and what the words truly mean.


We all have our own struggles with transcribing documents of an archaic nature, but perhaps, rather than railing off several issues with the task of transcribing itself, it would be better to simply conclude that manuscripts are occasionally difficult to read, even in modern English. The fact that the language in the texts historians tackle routinely is different in many ways simply exacerbates this issue, up until the printing press is more widely in use, or documents are readily and conveniently transcribed on the internet, easily accessed by the modern historian. However, the issues with the language often make me note the similarities, too.


It is easily understood, on the most part, why modern English is constructed on the page as it is. A single, uniform type allows persons from wherever in the country, and even the world, to understand the text. This draws attention to the fact that early modern societies did not have such a globalised language to ascribe to, and many individuals would not know life far outside the county within which they were born and raised. I’ve often wondered if the English language is perhaps the most diversely spoken in the world. There seems to me to be more variation in the spoken accent ranging from the south – for example, my home county of Suffolk – to Scotland – for example, Edinburgh – than there is ranging from the East coast of the United States to the West coast. This difference in accent is not perceived in modern written text, due to the adoption of the standardised English language. From this post, I could as easily be from Ipswich as from Edinburgh.


And yet, in the texts of early modern England and Scotland, one can almost hear the accent come through the page. The word is written phonetically, in a language that could be easily understood by those in your locality, but perhaps more difficult to understand for a very distant reader. Of course, I’m not assuming that it would be so difficult to read a Scotsman’s book as it would be to read one in French, but there does seem to be a discernible difference. Whilst I could likely read a text from my county, or those surrounding in Essex and Norfolk with a degree of ease – assuming I’m given some legible handwriting – the meaning of words may take a little more concentration, as well as the way in which language is used. After all, it can take a bit of effort to simply translate a Tweet, written by a Northerner.


To conclude this post, I would like to suggest what I consider to be at least a contributing factor in why the modern English language developed, and was standardised. Most writing their manuscripts, be they family recipe books or anything else, often did not expect their work to see outside their own family, and friends. They almost certainly did not expect their work to be broadcast across the nation, and it’s perhaps more than doubtful that they thought historians would look at their pages with such interest, as we do. Therefore, the phonetic language and the implied knowledge of the locality makes sense, when reading these texts. When methods of disseminating knowledge with ease came into being, and were more accessible to the people, perhaps a standard form of English was required, to allow the knowledge of Suffolk to be learned in Edinburgh, and elsewhere. Of course, this is likely also the case across the world. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable in the regional variations of accent in other countries to any extent, but I would guess that any phonetic differences in the written word fizzled out at around the same time as the written word gained the ability to be spread with more ease and haste.

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.