Category Archives: Digital History

The Origins of Haggis: A Burns Day Post

Chris Hilton

Recent historical work casts doubt on the provenance of Scotland’s national dish, as reported on the BBC website on Monday 3rd August 2009. Historian Catherine Brown has located a reference to haggis in Gervase Markham’s 1615 work The English Hus-Wife, which predates Burns’ celebration of the dish by more than a century and a half (and is, of course, held in the Wellcome Library).

The hunt is on, then, for more seventeenth-century references to haggis, to prove or disprove its Scots origins. The Wellcome Library’s launch of a digitisation programme makes available the contents of seventy recipe books from this period, indexed down to individual recipes and available for remote study via the internet. Already one haggis recipe is visible to the public, in an early seventeenth-century volume held as MS.635. In a faded but perfectly legible hand, the author instructs one in the art of making a haggis:

Take a calves chaldron [entrails] and parboyle it; when it is cold mince it fine with a pound of beefe suet & penny loafe grated, some Rosemary, tyme, Winter Savory & Penny royall of all a small handful, a little cloves, mace, nutmeg, & Cinamon, a quarter of a pound of currants, a little suger, a little salt, a little Rosewater all these mixt together well with 6 yolkes of Eggs boyle it in a sheepes paunch and so boyle it.

Does this help to settle the argument? Not quite: the snag is that we do not know who wrote MS.635 or where. This sounds like sitting on the fence, or maybe on Hadrian’s Wall: but all we can do is invite readers in to the Library or onto our website, to view the manuscript, try to work out its origins, and join in the argument.

This post was originally published on the wonderful Wellcome Library blog in 2009. Thank you to Chris Hilton who has very kindly allowed us to edit (slightly) and post this for Robert Burns Day!

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.

 

* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!