The Rebirth of Embodiment: Hand-Compiling an Early Modern Recipe Book

By Mackie Black

The early modern family participated in manuscript culture through the collection and trading of recipes among family, friends, and political connections. In this post, I describe how modern scholars can participate in a new manuscript culture through transcription. While digital transcriptions are valuable for accessibility, these projects hide thephysical experience that went into the creation of these texts. Though digital transcription does include physicality, with typing and coding and especially in an emotional sense with the frustration at a difficult word or phrase and the ultimate joy that comes with figuring it out, this is a different embodied experience than that of recreation through rewriting. Hand-writing recreation provides a more in-depth understanding of the messy physical processes of the past, those that leave the writer with ink-stained hands and the paper with scratched out mistakes, rather than the clean processes of the present. The cleanliness of today’s digital interaction with manuscripts removes not only the physical mess of writing with ink but also streamlines our encounters with these manuscripts to the point that their mistakes and quirks can be ignored in favor of analyzing the clean, edited text. My experience reconstructing the compilation of an early modern recipe book by hand-copying recipes using writing technology that closely approximates those of the time, became an act of recovering this messy embodiment. The physical act of transcription raises new questions that can allow us to more fully understand the processes behind the creation of these manuscripts. 

Photo of two sheets of paper with handwriting.
Attempts to copy recipes with a quill (left) and an ink-dipped pen (right).

My project adds to work by scholars including Marissa Nicosia at Cooking the Archives and Margaret Simon by stepping away from the kitchen and into the processes of recipe collection and copying. For this project, I created my own recipe book using manuscripts held by the Folger Shakespeare Library LUNA: Manuscript Transcriptions Collection and the Wellcome Collection as a final project for a graduate seminar. I skimmed through 8 manuscripts and selected 67 recipes that I could see myself making, focusing on those with vegetarian ingredients to fit my own diet, before hand-copying them in a notebook using either a quill or an ink dip pen. I also used cutting to remove unwanted ingredients and paste in recipes, mirroring this tool as it was used in recipe books, commonplace books, and in the literature of George Herbert and the Ferrar family in their Little Gidding Harmonies

Photo of open notebook with sections of handwriting and sections of cut-and-pasted excerpts from other notebooks.
Pages 88 and 89 of the completed recipe book showing two examples of cutting in order to remove non-vegetarian ingredients from recipes.

I experienced a difficult and messy process, one that left me with hand cramps and ink stains. Moving from the keyboard to the quill reconnected me to the methods of the past. While I was unable to fully leave the 21st Century behind thanks to my reliance on digitized manuscripts, I was able to experience the physical processes of writing down a recipe using an inkwell and quill. Digital transcription work is not messy, but this hand-copying was, engaging senses such as smell that get lost in the digital world. At the end of the day, there will be no ink stains left on the hands of the digital transcriber, no ink splotches to frantically clean off the manuscript or the table. It is this messy physical experience that I aimed to explore and through which new questions and avenues for further research arose.

Close-up photo of ink-stained fingers with laptop in the background.
My ink-stained hands.

Through this project, I experienced transcription in a new way that gave me an experiential understanding of the shapes of letters in various hands. As soon as I began copying and writing the letter “w”, for example, I understood it and grew better at recognizing it. It took the experience of hand-copying these recipes to understand that the unique shape of the “w” is a function of the difficulty of doing upstrokes with a quill or ink dip pen. This helped me better understand the rationale for certain writing conventions of the past as more than mere quirks but as features necessitated by technology. This process of realization, this rebirth of knowledge, occurred frequently during this project and improved my transcription abilities, as I had a better understanding of the embodied experience of writing with the technology available in the 17th Century than I had when I had been only transcribing digitally.

Photo of desktop with open recipe notebook, open laptop, ink pen and inkwell, and paper for blotting ink.
My desk as I copied out recipes. Shown are the book in progress, my laptop which I used to pull up the recipes I was copying from, my ink well, my glass dip pen, and my scratch paper used to restart the flow of ink on the pen if it dried out.

This experience also had me asking new questions. Unlike with digital transcription, when hand-writing, I was focused on the processes of copying. I asked myself, what types of editing were the authors using when they copied these recipes? Were they editing as they wrote by removing ingredients like I was? Were they adding ingredients that they thought would work better based on their own experience? Were they fixing mistakes such as removing repeated words and scratched out phrases like I was or were they at times introducing new mistakes? Does this editing count as unique knowledge creation?

A photo of a notebook with writing in black ink.
Pages 57 and 58 of the completed recipe book.

These new questions and this new experience allowed me to better understand why early modern writing looks the way it does. It opened a door for the recovery and rebirth of the physical knowledge hidden behind digital archives and digital transcription. Projects like this one that force modern scholars to rediscover this embodiment for themselves allow us to uncover this hidden knowledge, leading to a better understanding not only of the processes that resulted in the manuscripts we study but also of the people that created them. 



Cite this blog post
Melissa Reynolds (2023, June 8). The Rebirth of Embodiment: Hand-Compiling an Early Modern Recipe Book. The Recipes Project. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/tddg

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