Monthly Archives: November 2016

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.


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’.

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.


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.

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.



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.



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.


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.

img_1130              img_1126-2



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.


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.


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.

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.