Category Archives: Transcription

My First Transcription Project

I have just completed the final pages from my first experience of transcribing historical documents, and so I thought this would be the perfect time to write a blog post about this particular assignment. I will be discussing what I learned about the process of transcription, the issues that I encountered while transcribing the particular document that I was working on and what the pages I transcribed taught me about Early Modern recipe’s and recipe books.

An example of one of the pages that I transcribed
An example of one of the pages that I transcribed

The pages that I was transcribing came from the recipe book of Margaret Baker. Baker compiled this recipe book throughout her lifetime and it was published in 1675, making it a fantastic source of inquiry into the nature of recipes and recipe books in early modern England. Although little is known of Margaret Baker, like many authors of recipe books in the early modern period she was most likely a housewife. No dates are given to suggest when each recipe was put into the collection, but it is likely that Baker compiled these recipes across much of her lifetime, especially given the sheer volume and variety of recipes present within the tome. The first thing I noticed upon skimming through the pages of Baker’s book was the way in which the style of handwriting used changed throughout the progression of the novel. This coupled with the fact that the same words are spelt in a different way many times throughout the book (For example, morning and morninge) leads me to believe that Margaret was almost certainly not the only person who contributed recipes to the book. She most likely had help from other sources, which is quite common of recipe books of the period, perhaps from a family member. In one page I transcribed, the words “Nuesse Gessett” are written next to one of the recipes. Having not found any evidence to suggest that these are actual words, I can only assume that it is a name, most likely of the person that contributed that particular recipe to the book.

Having never done transcription of any sort before this, I wasn’t even really sure what transcription was. For this particular book, I was transcribing  using the semi-diplomatic format, which meant that I was supposed to transfer the text from the book to a modern document, whilst keeping the language and punctuation used as close as possible to the original text. This meant I would copy down the text as it was written on  the page, and I was not to correct the spelling of words  or add punctuation where the original author had not. The DROMIO software that I was using to transcribe Baker’s book included a number of handy XML buttons that could be used to aid in my transcription. I could mark page breaks, headings, text insertions, text in the margins, and it even allowed for the tagging of superscript text and symbols that represented words, such as the symbol for ‘ye’ which cannot be represented in modern computerised format.

A picture of the DROMIO software that I used to transcribe Baker's book
A picture of the DROMIO software that I used to transcribe Baker’s book

There were many different features of Baker’s book that made it difficult for me to transcribe. The first, and main issue, was learning to read and understand the handwriting style used in the early modern period. Some letters were very difficult to distinguish from one another, the letter ‘s’ for example looks very like the letter ‘f’when written in early modern hand. Issues like this sometimes made letters very difficult to distinguish from one another, especially in the middle of a word where ‘r’, ‘e’ and ‘c’ looked very similar, as did ‘i’ and ‘l’, as well as ‘n’ and ‘m’. These jumbled letters in the middle of a word were not too much of a problem when part of a word that is part of the modern English language, as the first and last letters of the word were generally enough to give me a good idea as to what the word was. This, however, brings me onto the second big issue I encountered when transcribing, which was words that no longer exist in the English language, or are not recognisable when compared to their modern counterparts. If the word I was transcribing didn’t even exist, then how was I to know whether I had correctly transcribed it? Despite this issues however, I feel that after some practice I really got the hang of reading early modern text, and the speed at which I was able to read and transcribe pages greatly increased.

From my transcription of Baker’s book, I learnt a some interesting things about the types of recipes and the construction of early modern recipe books. The first thing that intrigued me was the huge variety of recipes that were present within the book. These ranged from simple pie recipes, to medicine and into alchemical recipes, with one page mentioning an elixir that healed almost every ailment one could possibly imagine. Another very interesting aspect of the book was it’s unusual forms of measurement, which included “the waight of 100 shilling nine pence of blacke pepper” and “brimstone as much as a great hasell nutt”. I still wonder as to how these could possibly be used as accurate forms of measurement, but nonetheless it was certainly intriguing, and makes me wonder if this was common across many recipe books of the period or if it was specific to Baker’s.

Overall, I would certainly say that this transcription project has been a positive experience. Not only has it allowed me to study this particular early modern recipe collection in great detail, it has also taught me a valuable skill which I will undoubtedly use again at some point in the future.

 

The Digital Recipe Project – A Finale!

When i decided to choose The Digital Recipe Project back in the summer when i was deciding what third year modules to take on for this year, I did not think that I was going to grow such a bond with Margaret Baker, a seventeenth-century English housewife. Initially, I was very excited to be working with an entire recipe book written by a woman over 300 years ago and to have the chance to transcribe it into a digital format, like a professional historian! However, as the module progressed, Baker’s life and the society of which she lived in was becoming even more intriguing to me and I couldn’t help but want to find out more!

Initially, the idea of this module having such a vast digital component was exciting to me, being a 21st century young adult, the internet is at the centre of everything, and I thought I would have easily got the grasp of blog-writing and website-making. However, the reality was not as straight-forward, and trying to write an informal blog post after two and a half years of formal historical essay-writing, was a lot more difficult than I initially thought. Despite this, (and despite the 9am starts) this module was a lot more intimate than any of my other third year modules – with such a small class, it was nice to get to know Lisa a lot better than we usually would with any other seminar leader, and it made us all feel a lot more relaxed in conversation and debate within our seminar. Not only this, but every seminar really was a conjoined effort, and each week was a different topic and theme to investigate.

It is amazing how much you take for granted being brought up in the 21st century, where medicines and treatments are constantly developed, and recipes are shared by foodies more and more on social media such as on Instagram and Facebook. Sometimes the recipe book is disregarded, and the recipe for any dish can be with you in 10 seconds with the help of Google. It was not this easy in seventeenth-century England, these recipes for both food and medicine were circulated around the country normally through word of mouth, or through migration. It is interesting now, especially, how disregarded medicinal recipes have become, and that is something that I myself was guilty of, in our first seminar: ‘What is a recipe?’. Maybe I was ignorant in just thinking that a recipe book was just that.. a book for food recipes. However, recipes had a much broader meaning, nowadays you would immediately link a ‘recipe’ with food, however, I do not think the seventeenth-century English believed in such structural organisation and conformity. A recipe book did not mean simply food, like a prayer book did not necessarily mean it only included prayers (which i mention in my last blog).

Sitting opposite my own bookcase which is full almost solely of recipe books, from Nigella, to Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein to Delia Smith, there is not really any other recipe book other than for anything other than just food dishes. From witnessing the use of alchemy widely in Margaret Bakers seventeenth-century recipe book, I was beyond excited when I found a book on my shelf with ‘Alchemy’ written in big writing on the spine of the book.. however, looking more closely ‘Alchemy in a Glass, The essential guide to Handcrafted Cocktails’ was not what I had expected to come across. Its interesting however, this book is actually giving you instructions of how to make cocktails, so its as much a ‘guide’ as it is a recipe book! Wow, this module really has got me thinking more about the definition of a ‘recipe book’!

Yet, this even got me thinking further, how such meanings and emphasis become placed differently throughout the years, although we speak the same language, we don’t necessarily speak the same meaning – and this is something I especially had to take into consideration when I first begun transcribing Baker’s book.

To close this final blog post, which is more of a reflection, or a transcription of my own train of thought, I wanted to mention a book that my grandmother recently let me borrow named ‘Natural Wonderfoods’. Although it is not a recipe book, it lists nearly every fruit, vegetable and meat product, and explains on a double page spread the importance of these different types of within healing, immune-boosting and for fitness-enhancing.

The introduction of the book itself, gives acknowledgements to our ancestors, and it is amazing that I open the book onto the introduction page (that i never look at) to such mention of the fact that knowledge of these healing foods were known centuries ago (Maybe its Baker herself that made me open it, saying: ‘See! I was right about all these healing foods in my recipe book!).

Looking at ‘A medycine for the eies’ (14.v. 15.r.) sage leaves, fennel leaves, honey and egg were used. Looking in this glorious book, all the completely natural foods are written: sage, fennel and eggs (which can be used as face masks to help dry skin!) I will leave you all with the pages and explanations of both sage and fennel to show you just how knowledgeable and clever these seventeenth-century women were! Thank you Margaret Baker et al!

 

 

 

 

 

By Florence Hearn.

Bibliography

Bartimeus, Paula, Haigh, Charlotte, Merson, Sarah, Owen, Sarah, Wright, Janet, Natural Wonderfoods, (London 2011)

A Rookie Transcriber!

Having been a History student since starting school as a young child, I have never been as involved and hands on as I would’ve liked to be. There was never any opportunity to be a first hand historian, dealing and submersing myself within primary sources and documents. We would always be studying from a modern day perspective, simply learning, not involving and doing. This was exactly a reason why I chose the Digital Recipe Project,  I wanted to be more involved in History itself, I did not just want to know, I wanted to discover.

I knew that Transcribing was something I had never done, and something I had always wanted to do, but throughout secondary school, A Levels, and even through university, there was never a time where transcribing was an option.

Although I wanted to take part in transcribing, I was very apprehensive, and thought it would be very difficult to get to grips with. I remember visiting Essex Record Office in my first year as an undergraduate, and we had a swift talk about palaeography and transcribing. This lesson did make me feel apprehensive about Transcribing, I thought it would be very challenging, like there was some kind of important strategy which you needed to know in order to transcribe correctly.

However, looking back, I shouldn’t have been so fearful of this, I knew I wanted to transcribe, but I just didn’t know how. Like what Tracey mentions in her blog, the use of thorns, abbreviations, and superscripts were the most daunting elements of transcribing. I understand now that once you grasp a hold onto these features, they aren’t so confusing as one thinks. The two hour palaeography lab really boosted my confidence, not only did it break down the features of transcribing, such as the ones I mentioned, but it made me realise that I wasn’t on my own, there was a lot of people who hadn’t done any transcribing before either.

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Superscript from Margaret Baker’s recipe book.

The recipe book we looked at was that of Margaret Bakers’, and at first, although I knew a bit more about transcribing, I still found it intimidating. Despite this, I was very excited to get stuck in,  and even posted a picture to a social media platform: snapchat, to express my excitement!

 

blog-snapchat-image

The palaeography lab was very useful, Lisa taught us what to look out for, and ways to help you if you have hit a ‘palaeography brick wall’ one could say. We had to be very careful, as early modern households would normally interchange letters (for example ‘s’ and ‘f’); something that Margaret Baker, had frequently done within her recipe book. We also learnt a few tips if we did get stuck, such as looking back at the reading to find similar letters in a word, if you are not understanding it. Also, reading the word in the accent which they would have had, would help us understand a word or sentence, as they normally wrote phonetically, for example Baker wrote spelt ‘rowle’ instead of ‘roll’ and ‘fower’ instead of ‘four’.

blog-rowle-image blog-fower-imagePhonetic spelling of ‘roll’ and ‘four’.

 

Transcribing was still quite daunting, maybe because it is so easy to slip into modern spelling and grammar, and this therefore could lead to incorrect transcribing. Due to this, transcribing was a slow and careful process, something that needed a lot more focus and careful analysis than I expected! Even with this careful focus, I still almost transcribed ‘sugger’ as ‘sugar’ and ‘chickinges’ as ‘chickens’. Luckily, reading over my transcription a good 4 times, prevented me from making this modern mistake.

Transcribing made me feel so involved, I didn’t feel like I was being taught about Early Modern households and recipes. I felt like I was peering through a window of their own home, reading through the exact recipes, warts and all, which they would have relied on all them hundreds of years ago. I felt like a professional Historian; I always think of people dealing with old documents as professionals, further adding and discovering historical information, but here I was, a third year History Student, doing it all myself, and I couldn’t help but feel like an important part of an interesting and important project!

I wasn’t just transcribing a document of a few recipes, but I was developing my knowledge about Early Modern Households. In Bakers’ recipe book, it goes from ‘To make a bake puddinge’ to ‘To make a french dish’ and then ‘to destroye fleaes’. It makes me think that nowadays, we only see a recipe book as a universal source for cooking food dishes. But it seems in Early Modern households, it was more like a household bible, referring to it for not only baking or cooking but even to keep their houses clean.

blog-full-paleography-image

Maybe living this modern, 21st century life, we become blinded to the self-sufficiency of the past, an idea which is quite depressing. There was no retail or convenience store to quickly ease your house of insects, and no supermarket to buy your Sunday night desert, But why would you want to when you can spend your own time baking good food and making household conveniences for your own family. After all, nothing beats a home-made apple pie!

By Florence Hearn

 

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.

Transcribing

By Tracey Cornish

During my working life as a legal secretary I have always looked at ‘old’ documents, having to ‘read’ old leases and conveyances.  However I was not really reading them as such as they mostly say the same thing and therefore I had to just skim read them to look for anything that was different – which was a very rare occurrence.

Looking at Margaret Baker’s recipes was a totally different ball game.  Firstly there is the question of a recipe.  I had always thought of a recipe as instructions regarding food however Margaret Baker uses recipes in a number of contexts which does include food but also medical recipes.

To say I was a bit daunted would have been an understatement.  Lisa went through all the basics with the class such as thorns which is written as a ‘y’ but we would use a ‘th’ meaning ‘ye’ would be ‘the’.  There were other letters which were used in place of letters we would use today such as ‘u’ could be ‘v’, ‘i’ could be ‘j’ and ‘ff’ could be ‘f’.  As Lisa was explaining I was getting more worried by all the minute!

However, once you begin to transcribe it becomes a lot ‘easier’.  You begin to see how the author writes their letters and words.  Margaret Baker’s ‘s’ looks like a ‘f’ for example.  She also puts two dots over her ‘y’s’ which is a personal thing that she does.  She also, like most people of the time, spells phonetically, for example, ‘hour’ is spelt ‘hower’ so actually saying the word aloud helps to work out what it may be if you are struggling.   If I could not decipher a word I wrote […..] so that i could go back to it once I had finished as I may have come across similar letters or words or just making sense of the sentence.

The two pages I transcribed of Margaret Baker had a variety of recipes.  It started with ‘To make a Bake Puddinge’, and continued with ‘To make a french dish’, To destroye Fleaes’, ‘To make ffrench ffritrs’ and finished with ‘For the consoumption of the longs’.  Five very different recipes on two adjoining pages.

baker

So then came the 9th November 2016,  the day of the EMROC International Transcribathon!  I wasn’t at all sure whether to join in as I was hardly an expert or even experienced come to think of it as I had only ever transcribed two pages! However, I thought I would be brave and give it a go.  The Transcribathon consisted of transcribing Lady Grace Castleton’s recipe book.  I would be joining an experienced group of transcribers from America and people from other parts of the world who logged on virtually.

When I first logged on I was really concerned, Lady Castleton’s handwriting was difficult to read.  However, I found a page that looked relatively ‘easy’.  Well, it was bizarre!  The double page consisted of recipes for aches, pains and toothache, but the final recipe on the page was so difficult as it used such strange ingredients – crabs and snakes skin.  This for me, made it quite difficult to transcribe as I had not heard of some of the ingredients it is then hard to try and decipher words that are not so easy to read.

castleton

I enjoyed being part of the Transcribathon and felt really proud of myself seeing my name alongside other transcribers on the EMROC webpage.

After reading Abbie’s blog it was good to know that  I was not alone in feeling apprehensive in participating in the Transcribathon even though we had been invited to join and Lisa was aware of our transcribing abilities.  Like Abbie, I too went back and corrected my mistakes or words that I was not sure of as my confidence grew.

Learning to transcribe has helped me already as for my dissertation I have found a few letters on the National Archive website which I have to read and since our Paleography lecture and seminar I have found it somewhat easier to decipher these letters.   I am certain that learning to transcribe will help me further in my education and going forward.

To read these recipes gives great insight into how people of the time lived, ate, treated illnesses and shared their knowledge with family and friends.  Sadly this form of family traditions is dying out due to the technology of today which makes these old recipes and the transcribing of them even more important.