Looking at Paper and Recipes…

By Elaine Leong

Earlier this year, when the daffodils were in full bloom, I shared the fruits of my recent research with the readers of this blog. My current project, ‘Papering the Household: Paper, Recipes and Technologies in Early Modern England’ explores the intersection of early modern recipes and paper making and paper use.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Manuscript v.a. 456, fol. 28r.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Manuscript v.a. 456, fol. 28r.

In that post, I marveled at the myriad of ways in which early modern householders utilized paper in their production of a range of medicinal and health-related products – as plasters to apply medicines, as a means to preserve drugs and, in some cases, to separate mixtures. A good example is the recipe to heal a bruise showcased in the image above. This week, over at the Shakespeare’s World blog, I explore the way householders used paper in culinary and, in particular, baking recipes. Paper, it turns out, was a crucial tool for early modern home cooks. Bakers used floured paper to line cake and biscuit tins and to mold and shape sugar confections such as almond lozenges and cheesecakes. There was also one fascinating instance where paper was employed as a way to gauge the heat of one’s oven. Once I started looking, uses of paper began to crop up in recipe after recipe.

When I reflect upon my adventures in research paper and recipes, two key thoughts spring to mind. First, my previous notions of paper-use in early modern England were woefully misguided. While certain kinds of paper were undoubtedly expensive and largely used for writing and book production, many other kinds of paper were in constant use and re-use in the period. For example, grocers were in the habit of wrapping foodstuffs in brown paper. The same paper was then used or, most probably, re-used to make medicinal plasters and to line cake and biscuit tin. While we might think of the more expensive seized white paper as reserved as letter paper and book production, it seems that it was also used for making marchpane, drying apricots and stopping nosebleeds. Early modern men and women used paper in a wide range of contexts that we’re only beginning to uncover.

Secondly, I was also struck by the collaborative nature of the research. As many of you know, shifting through the hundreds and hundreds of recipes in early modern recipe collections to look for use of a particular material is not easy task. Lucky for me, I’ve had immense help from the communities of two “citizen transcription” projects. The first is the Early Modern Manuscripts Online Collective (EMROC) in which students transcribe and encode manuscript recipe texts in classrooms. The second is Shakespeare’s World, a Zooniverse project creating transcriptions of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s manuscript holdings.

Members of these two projects helped me in different ways. EMROC members collectively produced full-text transcriptions of Johanna St. John and Rebekah Winche’s recipe books. With the “find” function in Word, entries with paper-use were a snap to locate. The community at Shakespeare’s World, on the other hand, has been looking out for and tagging recipes with paper as they work their way through the digital archive. Using the channel #paper, they have created a data set of more than twenty examples of paper-use from ten different manuscript recipe books in just a few months. I am grateful to the members of both these projects for their help.

Clearly, my project is enriched and extended by our collective efforts and my analysis of paper-use in recipes owes much to students on campuses in the USA and Canada and to the energetic community at Shakespeare’s World. With citizen science projects such as Zooniverse (which hosts Shakespeare’s World) our research methodologies are continually changing and expanding. I might have begun my research on recipes in the wooden carrels in Duke Humphrey’s Library but a few years on, the research landscape has definitely shifted.

View of the Bodleian library at oxford in Oxonia Illustrata (Oxford, 1675).

For one thing, with the modernization of the Bodleian, readers now engage with early modern manuscripts in the Weston Library rather than Duke Humphrey’s… But also with digitization projects, many of us now read our manuscripts on our computers rather than at the archive. I miss the musty smell and crackly pages of a seventeenth-century manuscript, but I’m also delighted for new research possibilities offered by new digital tools and thrilled to be part of large communities of fellow citizen scientists.

Of course, this idea of “crowd sourcing” research is not new. Recipe collecting could be considered an early form of citizen science. After all, our historical actors quickly realized that calling on their friends and family was the most effective and quickest way to gather tried and trusted medical and culinary knowledge.

Speaking of collaboration and communities, in my journey to explore paper and recipes I have encountered a number of scholars working on cognate projects. Over the three Tuesdays, I would like to share some our discussions on the theme of paper and recipes with you. Next week, Orietta da Rold offers us rich evidence of paper-use in medical recipes in late medieval England, reminding us that the story I tell for seventeenth-century England was one with a long history. On August 16, in a special post on the Layfield manuscript, Hillary Nunn demonstrates how following the trail of paper brings up unusual questions and unexpected connections. In the final post of the series, Gabriella Szalay introduces us to the work of the eighteenth-century German naturalist Jacob Christian Schäffer (1718-1790) who conducted a series of “paper trials” in a bid identify raw materials (other than linen rags) to make paper.

Together, this series of posts on paper and recipes demonstrates the wealth of questions inspired by looking at an everyday object: paper.


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