Transcribing Early Modern Recipes with the crowd on Shakespeare’s World

By Victoria Van Hyning and Paul Dingman

Shakespeare's World.
Shakespeare’s World. Image courtesy of Paul Dingman.

Since the launch of the Shakespeare’s World crowdsourcing website on December 10, 2015, transcribing receipt book manuscripts has become a highly interesting and fun (some even say “addictive”) project for numerous users, a.k.a. “citizen humanists,” around the world. They come from many walks of life, and many have never studied paleography, but they are keen to contribute and many are gaining new skills, confidence, and knowledge as they make their way through a variety of manuscripts.

Shakespeare’s World started as a collaboration between Zooniverse, an academic crowdsourcing organization based at the University of Oxford, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO), an initiative at the Folger Shakespeare Library which seeks to do for manuscript resources what Early English Books Online (EEBO) has done for printed ones. The goals of Shakespeare’s World are manifold:

  • to generate transcriptions for the Folger’s online EMMO database, which is planned to launch in early 2017
  • to identify new words and word variants from manuscripts, which are currently under-represented in the OED, and add them to the dictionary
  • to serve as an experiment in crowdsourcing for paleography, i.e., letting users transcribe at their own pace — as little as one word or phrase at a time — yet still creating opportunities for thousands of people to try something new and contribute to an important scholarly resource

In November of 2015, the EMMO team examined the current Folger collection and identified 29 digitized manuscripts containing primarily recipes to include in the first batch of images for Shakespeare’s World. Together, these manuscripts amount to approximately 2,200 images and constitute the first of two genres from which users can choose to transcribe when they visit the site (the other starting genre is letters). Additional types of manuscripts will be added in the coming months, and the total volume of material is ~120,000 pages. To date, volunteers have worked on ~2,400 pages.

Some of the receipt books are fairly short, such as V.b.363, a bound manuscript of forty-two pages with entries from multiple hands, and some only have a few pages that have been photographed at this point, such as V.a.425. Others have hundreds of pages in them that have each been digitized, such as V.a.21. All of these receipt books were handwritten in the sixteenth and/or seventeenth centuries. However,  few have received much, if any, scholarly attention until fairly recently, with EMROC and other academics starting to delve into these works.

The citizen humanists on Shakespeare’s World are noting that these receipt books consist of recipes for dishes most of us would recognize today like pudding, cakes, or biscuits, as well as perhaps more unusual concoctions like foole or snail water. Transcribers on the site are also finding that the receipt books include a multitude of home remedies for a variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to seizures to indigestion. By viewing the way recipes for food and medicine are situated next to one another in the receipt books, users are discovering that in early modern times, these concepts were quite literally not far apart.

Example of a manuscript transcription page at Shakespeare's World.
Example of a manuscript transcription page at Shakespeare’s World.  Image courtesy of Paul Dingman.

While the therapeutic efficacy of some of these old remedies may seem doubtful to us in the twenty-first century (or just plain gross), they are nonetheless fascinating, not to mention valuable, as historical sources for understanding this period.

We are very grateful to Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Jen Munroe in the EMROC group for being our guest experts on Shakespeare’s World for the receipt books. They are helping to sustain and stimulate some wonderful conversations on the discussion forum known as Talk, which is a great place for experts and volunteers alike to ask questions, report finds, and swap tips for those of us brave enough to try making some of these early modern recipes in the 21st century!

Victoria Van Hyning is the humanities PI of Zooniverse and an early modernist working on English Catholic women’s autobiography in the period when it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England and parts of the British Isles (c.1535–1790s). She will use the Shakespeare’s World data in her research, in order to look for examples of Catholic women’s writing.

Paul Dingman is the Project Manager for Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He earned a PhD in History with a concentration in medieval/early modern Europe and is especially interested in cultural history and the digital humanities. Before returning to school to pursue his doctorate, Paul worked for several years in the field of information technology.

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