Transcribing in Baby Steps

By Jennifer Munroe

Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540.  Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A woman, all layers lowered, (after restoration) Engraving Published: circa 1540 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

When I decided to have students work on transcribing a manuscript recipe book, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. After all, I have been transcribing manuscripts for over ten years, and at this point I am finally getting fairly good at it. I had to some extent forgotten the pleasure and pain associated with my first try at the difficulties of reading secretary hand. But including manuscript documents in our collective research and teaching gives us a way to uncover voices previously silenced, experiences and perspectives hitherto only marginalized, which allows us new ways to think about questions of feminism and ecofeminism alike related to the women’s relationship in particular with the nonhuman world.

By exploring alternative perspectives on this relationship, students learn more than just how early modern Englishwomen engaged with plants and animals in symbolic as well as very practical ways (though that would be reason enough). What I aim to facilitate is their understanding of the reciprocity that is inherent to living on this planet for women (and, of course, men) then and now. The climate change crisis that we face today is only the latest symptom of what many have argued is a larger problem that begins with our neglecting our fundamental connection to the nonhuman things that surround us, are within and comprise us (if we recall Michael Pollan’s New York Times piece on the microbiome).  The work I was asking students to do was, therefore, aimed at facilitating greater sensitivity to such relational thinking, and it materialized in the intellectual understanding they gained as much as the collaborative relationships they developed with each other.

Last fall, I taught a graduate seminar that looked at the human/nonhuman relationship in early modern English texts. The course considered a range of texts from the most canonical, literary (Shakespeare, Milton, Cavendish) to print and manuscript recipes. The transcription took place during a four-week unit embedded within the course. Students worked first with a partner and then by themselves to transcribe two total manuscript pages of recipes. Students in the course had no experience with transcription, which was actually a positive thing as far as I was concerned because it allowed them to see this material with fresh eyes. I used the Cambridge site as a primer for students and spent one week of our unit working through the basics of paleography. It was a crash course, really. Even with such minimal preparation, and some work on their own with exercises on the Cambridge site, students were ready to start their transcriptions during the following class.

By Week 2, students were still apprehensive about working with manuscripts, but they partnered with another student to transcribe one page (usually two or three recipes) from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript recipe book, available digitally through the Wellcome Library.  The time spent during class working through the transcription helped me realize several pedagogical goals: first, our classroom became a laboratory of active learning, as students struggled with the details on the page; second, that learning was collectively achieved by way of their discussing with each other how they might interprets letters and words that at first glance may as well have been a completely foreign language. By the third and fourth weeks, students transitioned to working on a page of their own, but the classroom became no less a collaborative space. In fact, at this point students had achieved a high enough level of comfort with their discomfort with the text that room began to sound a bit like an auction house; students called across the room to one another to ask for help with a particular word or, as happened especially during week four, to explicate with wonder, excitement, and sometimes revulsion (puppy water anyone?), the details of a particular recipe they finished.

Why do this work, though? If measured by the total number of pages students transcribed by the end of the unit (only approximately 10 or 15), one might wonder if the product warrants the number of weeks dedicated to the exercise. But that’s really not the point as far as I’m concerned. Most immediately, having transcribed these recipes offers students access to a different perspective about the relationship between humans and nonhumans, at the very least because the print texts we have from this period are almost exclusively by men. But doing this work also connects students to something bigger than they are: the imperfections of paper and ink that made someone from the past seem more human; the nonhuman ingredients used by an early modern woman for sustenance and health that reflected her interdependence with the earth and its resources; the relationships students forged with each other through trial and error that allowed them to make these discoveries. While I won’t claim that all of the students in the class decided that further transcription is in their future, I feel confident that they were changed by the experience. Their understanding of relationships of various kinds expanded. They came to see in a different way the historical particulars of how women used plants and animals even as they became participants in a dialogue that is greater than themselves. And that’s reason enough for me.

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