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.
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!
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’.
Phonetic 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.
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