All posts by Amanda Herbert

First Monday Library Chat: Schlesinger Library at Harvard University

This month’s First Monday Library Chat features the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.  We spoke with Marylène Altieri,  Curator of Books and Printed Materials, about the Schlesinger collections.  She was joined by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, an independent scholar and culinary historian who became an affiliate of the library in the 1970s and who has welcomed legions of budding scholars to Schlesinger as a de facto research advisor.

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Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schlesinger_Library
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schlesinger_Library

 

The Schlesinger is known for its commitment to collecting materials on the history of women in America, including the historic ties between women, food, and etiquette. Can you tell us about the range and scope of culinary materials held at your institution? When did the Schlesinger begin collecting materials on these topics?

Schlesinger Library, the world’s most significant collection of books, manuscripts, periodicals, images, and artifacts documenting the history of women in America, is also home to one of the country’s most extensive and distinguished culinary collections. The Schlesinger’s culinary collecting goes back to 1960, when 1500 historic cookbooks, many donated to Harvard College by Marietta Greenough, were transferred to the library, then known as the Women’s Archive, from Widener Library in Harvard Yard. Building on that kernel, the culinary collection grew to encompass not only books but periodicals, papers of culinary figures, and ephemera such as pamphlets and menus. Barbara Haber was the Curator of Books at Schlesinger for over three decades at a time when few academic libraries had any interest in this area, and through her advocacy the culinary collection became firmly established here and continued to grow. The culinary collection grew mainly by gifts and continues to benefit from them, combined with strategic purchases of essential new publications and antiquarian purchasing to fill gaps and deepen our strengths. Our collection policy, reflecting the reality that now many libraries collect in this area, defines our focus on cookbooks that emphasize the domestic aspects of food and its role in the lives of women and families.

We estimate that the culinary collection now includes 20,000 volumes, going back to 1567 and including thousands of rarities from America and Europe. Our main strength in the printed collections is American culinary history. Other strengths include cooking as part of domestic science (which crosses over into our women’s history collections); a large collection of periodicals, both culinary and general women’s publications; French and Continental cookery from the 16th to 21st centuries; significant collections of Russian and Eastern European cookbooks; Swedish cookbooks; modern Greek cookbooks; works on vegetarianism and other health diets; 20th-century British cookery; wartime cookery; culinary ephemera including over 4500 pamphlets, and menus, films, and even blogs. We also have significant holdings in domestic arts and kitchen design; a recent Museum of Modern Art show on the History of the Kitchen featured quotations from the works of Christine Frederick, a domestic scientist whose papers we hold. Etiquette and consumer advocacy are two further related areas; we hold historian Arthur M. Schlesinger’s collection of 19th and early 20th century etiquette books, which includes many works on dining etiquette, and many works on consumer aspects of food and cooking. And of course, the related collection here of 80,000 volumes of books on women’s history contain a vast amount of material on women’s activities in the home, including cooking.

In addition to the print collections, we have many outstanding and important culinary collections among our 3,500 manuscript collections. Here you will find the papers of many women and organizations of the culinary world: Julia Child, M. F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Simone Beck, Dione Lucas, the Rombauer-Becker Family, Grace Zia Chu, Stella Standard, Peg Bracken, Roberta Kalechovsky (a Jewish animal rights and vegetarian writer/activist), and Zarela Martinez; The Window Shop café founded by wartime Eastern European immigrants on Brattle Street in Cambridge, the Corner Book Store, a renowned culinary book shop operated by Eleanor Loewenstein in New York City, papers of Christine Frederick and Esther Peterson, home economists; several home economics associations; culinary organizations such as Les Dames D’Escoffier, the Epicurean Club of Boston, oral history interviews with members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Records of the Women and Food Information Network, Records of the Fishermen’s Wives of Gloucester, and many handwritten, or manuscript, cookbooks.

What distinguishes Schlesinger from other culinary collections is that our culinary collections are embedded in a rich and deep context of materials documenting women’s lives and domestic and family life. There isn’t another collection that can offer such a supportive context; this context greatly enhances the research experience and the possibilities here. Another distinction is that we are open to the public; no academic affiliation or prior vetting process is required to use our materials.

 

Two of the most well-known collections at the Schlesinger are those of Julia Child and her fellow author Simone Beck, with whom she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking I and II. What’s the history behind the Child and Beck papers, and how did they come to be a part of the Schlesinger Library?

First Edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961).  Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastering_the_Art_of_French_Cooking
First Edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastering_the_Art_of_French_Cooking

It was through Avis DeVoto that Julia Child’s papers first came to the Library. Mrs. DeVoto, a cookbook editor at Knopf, had corresponded extensively with Julia during the 1950s and 1960s, during the time Julia Child and her collaborators were laboring on the manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she and her husband became good friends of Julia and Paul Child. When Mrs. DeVoto, who knew the collecting interests of Schlesinger Library very well, decided to give the letters she received from Julia and Paul Child to the library, the Childs also donated their letters from Avis DeVoto. This gift, heralded in the Library’s annual report for 1968-70 as “an especial pleasure,” opened the door. Nearly every year from that point on, the annual reports record donations of books from Julia Child, eventually numbering in the thousands. Julia Child had built an impressive collection of rare and important cookbooks during her residency in France, in her zeal to master French cooking techniques and to research the historic antecedents for every recipe she wrote. In 1976, she signed the agreement that formalized the donation of her papers, and she began to deposit her papers as well as books here steadily. The final chapter in the Schlesinger’s acquisition of Julia Child’s papers was written in the fall of 2001, when Child moved to California. This last donation comprised 94 cartons; included were Julia Child’s detailed subject files (covering everything from Artichokes to Zucchini), carefully organized over the years by her office staff. There were also thousands of photographs, mostly taken by her husband Paul; files on her television programs, correspondence, records of dealings with her publishers, framed awards, and Paul Child’s diaries of their travels. One can imagine many uses of these papers in the future, from studies of early television history to the conditions of social life in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and other countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1992 Julia Child donated a significant collection of papers of her longtime professional colleague and close friend Simone Beck to Schlesinger Library. Simone Beck, Julia Child, and Louisette Bertholle founded the Ecole des Trois Gourmandes in Paris, and they also wrote the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961; Child and Beck then went on to bring out volume two in 1970. Child and Beck remained extremely close until Beck’s death in 1991. It is said that many of the recipes in Mastering were Simone Beck’s recipes, researched, greatly enhanced, and carefully explicated for American cooks by Julia Child. In light of this, it’s particularly interesting to see Beck’s own early handwritten recipe collections, included with her papers. Schlesinger recently acquired further materials that will enhance scholars’ understanding of Beck’s own cookbook writing and how Child encouraged and influenced her friend. The new material consists of 80 letters, as well as typescript drafts and recipes, and a photograph of Beck.

Julia’s papers radiate with her serious and thorough approach to everything she did. Her papers are important because she believed deeply that what she was doing was important, not for her own glory, but in service of her goal: raising the standard of cooking and eating and making it attainable and fun for everyone. In addition, her papers trace her astounding personal evolution and her invention of new career paths for women.

 

Most people associate Child with her books or with her very popular cooking shows (“The French Chef,” “Julia Child & Company,” and “Dinner at Julia’s,” among others) but she was also devoted to scholarly study of gastronomy. Can you tell us a bit about her efforts to introduce this as a serious field for academic work?

Julia Child at KUHT.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child#/media/File:Julia_Child_at_KUHT.jpg
Julia Child at KUHT. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child#/media/File:Julia_Child_at_KUHT.jpg

Julia Child was a diligent student of culinary history and acquired a substantial research library of historic cookbooks during her residency in Europe in order to study the history and variations of the recipes she was developing. Julia Child’s books comprise one of the largest collections of European, particularly French, cookbooks in America; when still housed in Child’s own home, she generously opened her door to researchers who could not find these books in American libraries at the time – Barbara Ketcham Wheaton was given a key to the house and encouraged to use Child’s books as needed. Before she died, Childs donated nearly 5,000 titles to Schlesinger. There are many treasures among them: her beautiful 18th and 19th century editions of Menon, La Chapelle, La Varenne, Carême, Grimod de la Reynière, and Urbain Dubois; her two 19th-century editions of The Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Child; a wonderful late 19th-century work on using leftovers (L’art d’accommoder les restes, dédié aux petites fortunes), her 1931 first edition of The Joy of Cooking, her Santa Barbara Junior League Cookbook of 1939, her Fannie Farmer, her Larousse Gastronomique boldly inscribed “La Pitchoune”, the little Norwegian cookbook issued by her cooking instructor in Norway, Lolly Raestad, and the work on Chinese Snacks translated from the Chinese by Nina Simonds, who wrote an entire letter to her mentor Julia inside the front cover. Julia Child’s book collection has been cataloged in detail, is used by many researchers, promoted extensively in our public outreach and exhibits, and stored in the best possible climate-controlled and secure storage.

 

I know that the Schlesinger’s culinary collections have inspired both exhibits and seminars (most notably those organized by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton), and the public’s response to those efforts at outreach has been terrific. Can you tell us a bit about the ways that members of the public are invited to engage with your culinary collections?

Many researchers come to the Schlesinger every year to make use of our culinary resources, and to look at and learn from our exhibitions. In 1993, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Barbara Haber, and Joyce Toomre organized a major and ground-breaking exhibition at Harvard in 1993 entitled “No Food in the Library” (with the word No crossed out) that highlighted how much undiscovered material on food history was to be found throughout all the varied Harvard subject libraries. In addition we organize exhibits, including a major exhibit on Julia Child during 2012, the centennial of her birth. We have held several culinary symposia at the Radcliffe Institute, and the Culinary Historians of Boston meet at Schlesinger once a month to offer a talk by a cookbook author or culinary history scholar. We have also collaborated with the instructors of an undergraduate course at Harvard on the Science of Cooking, organizing an online exhibit and talks and hosting tours for some of the international chefs who teach in the course. Finally, we host Barbara Ketcham Wheaton’s annual Reading Historic Cookbooks Seminar, about which she writes:

Cookbooks, unlike novels, often change from one edition to another. The reasons for these changes include new ingredients, new equipment, changing tastes and perceptions of health benefits. The library has an especially notable sequence of Menon’s Cuisinière bourgeoise, from its first edition in 1746 until well into the 19th century. It was published in many parts of France, even during the Revolution; it was translated into most European languages, English, and Russian. The Schlesinger Library’s collection documents some of these changes in its more than four dozen editions. These books are full of information but much of it comes in very small units, making comparisons among the editions a challenge. To gain control over the details I have evolved a method for analyzing the contents of cookbooks in a structured way, and for more than a decade I have been offering a week-long seminar at the Schlesinger Library on these topics. A close reading of a dozen or more cookbooks looking only at ingredients reveals much about nutritional, sensory, seasonal, and class differences. On the second day a fresh group of books is read, and only the kitchen, its equipment, cooking techniques, and the management of heat and cold are considered. On the third day each person chooses a menu and mentally recreates the work-flow that produces the meal, and the means by which it is presented and eaten. Next we look at the cookbook as a genre, its structure and language, and the audience it addresses. Recipes are ideas, and like other ideas they move freely across boundaries of language, space, and class. They populate the cookbook-structure, but are not confined to it. At the end of the seminar we ask what place these books played in the lives of the writer, the publisher, the reader, and the cook.

 

Clearly there is something in this material that calls out to people. I get many offers from families who have a precious mother’s or grandmother’s recipe book that they’d like to donate. For them, these items have deep sentimental value; but more and more people are recognizing that they have research value as well. They are not unlike family photo albums. For many adults, the mere sight of the faded spine of their mother’s Settlement Cookbook or Joy of Cooking or the cracked plastic spines of those charitable cookbooks is enough to reduce them to tears.

 

How can we access your collections? Do you offer any travel fellowships? How much material is available online?

Our collections are fully cataloged in our online catalog, HOLLIS, which is available worldwide on the Internet. Many thousands of our photographs are digitized and also available for viewing on the Internet. A substantial number of our books are also digitized. For scholars who wish to come to the library in person, we offer small research grants for undergraduates, advanced degree candidates, and postgraduate researchers as well as independent investigators (see www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/grants). All materials must be used in our supervised Reading Room, but no academic credential is necessary. Researchers simply register at our front desk to use the collections. Our Research Services staff can correspond with researchers at length about their needs and advise them in detail on the contents of our collections. They can be contacted at slref@radcliffe.harvard.edu. The online catalog can be consulted at www.hollis.harvard.edu. Detailed information about visiting Schlesinger Library and about all our collections is available on our website, www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library.

The researchers who come to the Schlesinger are able to read, and touch, the cookbooks and papers of women they’ve never met and to piece together the quality of their lives, the structure of their society, and the nature of their discourse from the simple texts of their daily domestic work.

The Pharmaca of Jozeph Coelho: A Family of Converso Apothecaries in Seventeenth-Century Coimbra

By Benjamin Breen

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.
Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.

The apothecaries of early modern Portugal were tradesmen, and, although they were typically literate and well read, they left few archival records. The “Pharmaco de Jozeph Coelho,” a little-known manuscript housed in the National Library of Portugal, stands as a remarkable exception. The face that peers out at us from the title page—long-haired, surmounted by an angel, wearing a dapper black hat along with a rather quizzical expression—appears to be this manuscript’s primary author, Jozeph (or Joseph) Coelho.[1] Although Jozeph’s “Pharmaca” mainly consists of excerpts from Greco-Roman and Islamic medical authorities like Dioscorides and Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesue), it also tells us a surprising amount about Jozeph and his family.

One of the first things that jumps out at anyone who consults Jozeph Coelho’s “Pharmaca” (which has recently been digitized) is the surprising number of doodles and visual puns. Coelho’s talent for drawing is evident from the very first page, which, in addition to his apparent self-portrait, features an ornate border abounding with fruits and flowers as well as some typically Baroque scrollwork. Coelho has even gone to the trouble of highlighting two plume-like vertical objects (jets of fire? feathers?) with green ink.

Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.
Credit: Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho (1668), fol. 1r.

After a short dedication written in Spanish by another hand (an ode to the wisdom of Andrés Laguna, a converso physician who authored one of the most influential sixteenth century commentaries on Dioscorides), the text gets down to business, with minimal ornamentation to distract from a series of Latin and Portuguese quotations of Dioscorides’ De materia medica and Pseudo-Mesue’s Canones universalis. But when he segues into translating Pseudo-Mesue’s list of medicinal simples (De simplicibus), Coelho’s decorative inclinations seem to kick in. Many medicine names receive ornate borders, like these for Cassia fistula (the “Golden Shower tree,” native to Southeast Asia) and conserve of violets, where Coelho plays on the similarity between the Portuguese words for violet (violeta) and guitar (violão).

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 14r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 14r.

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 15r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 15r.

 

By page thirty, Coelho’s doodling has ramped up even further. On fol. 33v, a list of pills described by Mesue and the Byzantine physician Nicolaus Myrepsus, there are no less than seven decorated initials, including two personified moons, two men holding arrows, and a man wearing a headdress (a motif that reocurrs throughout the text and might reflect Coelho’s idea of an indigenous Brazilian).

 

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 33v.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 33v.

 

Coelho’s “Pharmaca” may have been a didactic work designed to instruct journeyman apothecaries, so this visual ornamentation might amount to something more than mere doodling. Perhaps we can liken Coelho’s drawings to the early modern equivalent of New Yorker cartoons: visual jokes that allow the reader to pause and catch their breath before diving into another complex block of text.

 

Not only does the manuscript abound with unusual drawings, it also offers some useful clues about the Coelho family’s practice. One place to start is the title page itself, which identifies itself as a product of the botica (apothecary shop) of Rua Larga (Broad Street) in the Portuguese town of Coimbra. From this we can surmise that the botica supplied the physicians of the University of Coimbra, because that university’s school of medicine was located on the same short street. Indeed, although the shop of the Coelhos has long since been replaced by boxy buildings of gray concrete and student parking, the Rua Larga is still the home of the University of Coimbra’s School of Medicine today.

 

Credit: Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, (Cologne, 1598), “Illustris Civitati Conimbriae In Lusitania.”
Credit: Georg Braun, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, (Cologne, 1598), “Illustris Civitati Conimbriae In Lusitania.”

A 1598 bird’s eye view map of Coimbra gives a sense of the town as the Coelhos would have known it. It was already an ancient settlement by this time, having been founded by the Romans as a frontier outpost in the first century CE and successively controlled by a series of Visigothic kings, the Islamic caliphs of Al-Andalus, and finally the Portuguese crown. The map testifies to this complex history, depicting both Roman ruins (the three columns to the left of the Rua Larga) and a gate to “Almedina” (the medina quarter of the old Moorish city). Following the forced conversion or expulsion of Portuguese Jews in 1496, the University of Coimbra became a haven for the converso, or “New Christian,” descendants of Sephardic Jews who chose to remain in Iberia.

 

The Coelhos numbered among this New Christian community. We know this not only because Coelho has historically been a Sephardic name in Portugal, but because a member of their family, Maria Coelho, was arrested by the Inquisition of Coimbra on charges of judaísmo (retaining Jewish customs) in August of 1666. The “Processo” relating to her case records her father as the apothecary Filipe Coelho, and describes Maria as an unmarried, thirty-year-old “boticaria” (female apothecary). Working from the assumption that there was unlikely to have been two different apothecary families named Coelho working in Coimbra at the same time, my conjecture is that Jozeph Coelho was Maria’s brother.

 

After being interrogated and jailed for three years, Maria was in 1669 transported to Brazil as a degredado (deported criminal), where her fate is unknown. Although Maria likely spent the end of this period in Lisbon, from whence degredados were usually shipped, she would have initially been jailed in the Inquisition prison of Coimbra. As the 1598 map reveals, this was just a few minute’s walk from Maria’s family shop on the Rua Larga. The anguish that Maria and her family would have felt about this drawn-out imprisonment is hard to detect in the surviving sources, but painfully easy to imagine.

 

I suspect that the the “Pharmaca” actually contains a portrait of Maria. The manuscript’s title page announces that it was written in 1668, and Maria would therefore have been absent from her family for one to years by this time. Given this context, I interpret the drawing of a “Boticario” and “Botica[ria]” (male and female apothecaries) on fol. 76r of the “Pharmaca” as a tribute to Maria’s memory, created by a brother who would never see her again.

Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 76r.
Credit: BNP 2259, Pharmaca de Jozeph Coelho, fol. 76r.

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Benjamin Breen, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing a dissertation on the early modern drug trade. His articles have appeared in The Journal of Early Modern History, The Journal of Early American History, and History Compass. He is the editor-in-chief of The Appendix, a journal of narrative and experimental history.


[1] The manuscript actually contains at least four different hands, but I am making the assumption that the hand that appears in the first half of the text along with the title page is Jozeph Coelho. I suspect that hands in the second half of the text are additions by either Coelho’s family members or perhaps (if my surmise that this was a didactic text is true) by journeyman apothecaries adding further notes and commentaries.

Creatively Interpreting the Ménagier de Paris

By Tovah Bender

When I was handed an upper-level undergraduate course called Medieval Culture at Florida International University, I decided to push the concept of “culture.” I wanted to showcase all of medieval culture, high and low, ideals and practice. I wanted students to appreciate the richness of the cultures and to experience the period—both major events and daily life—through the eyes of those who lived in the period. I also wanted to make the society tangible to modern students, to whom the premodern past is often a very foreign place.

 

Andres Del Haya cooks chicken according to a medieval recipe.  Photo courtesy of Andres Del Haya.
Andres Del Haya cooks chicken according to a medieval recipe. Photo courtesy of Andres Del Haya.

This resulted in a course devoted entirely to the study of medieval primary sources in all their variety. When I teach the class, I emphasize sources that can be experienced through the senses; polyphonic music, recordings of texts in the original, and images of cathedral windows, in addition to imagining the smoke that filled a peasant’s hut, the cool quiet of a church interior, or the stench of a siege camp. All of these things help students to experience the time as their historical subjects would have done. This sensory experience also helps students bridge this divide with the past and see history through the eyes of their subjects. Taste is certainly a part of this.

One of the final texts that we read in this course is the Ménagier de Paris, a Parisian guide to housekeeping from the early 1390s, ostensibly written by a wealthy bourgeois husband for his much younger wife but likely intended for a larger audience.[1]  The first section of the book consists of advice on the comportment of the wife, including widely told parables such as the stories of Suzanne, Lucretia, and Griselda. The second section is a how-to guide on running one’s urban bourgeois home, including—in the Greco and Rose edition I used in class—nearly 20 pages of menus and 75 pages of recipes.

Yannine Gonzalez's interpretation of "Emplumeus (Baked Apples)" from the Menagier de Paris.  Photo courtesy of Yannine Gonzalez.
Yannine Gonzalez’s interpretation of “Emplumeus (Baked Apples)” from the Menagier de Paris. Photo courtesy of Yannine Gonzalez.

Students are fascinated by this text. The ingredients and the combinations of ingredients are all different from what they have experienced. They are also frustrated by what is left unstated. How long does one cook a swan? What is verjuice? Class discussion can wander from ideas about the ways that different foods function in conspicuous consumption, to food preservation, to local and international trade, and to the division of labor. All of this discussion ties together some of the major themes of the semester, and—really—of any history class. But the recipes also make the Middle Ages incredibly tangible as students think of the tastes of the ingredients and the physical challenges of creating some of these recipes.

I know that the Ménagier de Paris makes a big impression because two weeks later students are asked to submit a final project creatively reinterpreting one medieval source or source-type that they have encountered during the semester, and many students choose to work on the Ménagier. The assignment asks that they interpret the material of any source in a different genre or tell a modern story according to the rules of a medieval sourcetype. The projects are always fantastic and creative, and they always involve a lot of cooking.

Thomas Cartaya's Marinated Chicken.  Photo courtesy of Thomas Cartaya.
Thomas Cartaya’s Marinated Chicken. Photo courtesy of Thomas Cartaya.

These cooking projects vary greatly but all involve a good deal of thought in comparing medieval and modern tastes and cooking experiences. A student prepared Hippocras, and described it as what would happen “if a pumpkin latte and wine had a baby.” Another made a pottage, the cooking of which—the student admitted—was greatly aided by the well-stocked local grocery store. A different student described the local grocery store as a limiting factor; falcon and wood pigeon were nowhere to be found. The students all eagerly sampled medieval pottage, which the chef brought to class, while the graduate students to whom I gave a medieval sampler platter were a little less convinced by the merits of medieval cooking, despite enthusiastically polishing it off.

Yanist Ontivero's interpretation of poached pears from the Menagier de Paris.  Photo courtesy of Yanist Ontivero.
Yanist Ontivero’s interpretation of poached pears from the Menagier de Paris. Photo courtesy of Yanist Ontivero.

For many of the students, I believe the appeal of such a project was the chance to experience through their senses what they could only imagine when reading. Even as they might have been familiar with many of the ingredients, the combinations are sufficiently unfamiliar to most modern palates that it is difficult to imagine the outcomes of the recipes. As one student noted in his project report

“any contemporaneous reproduction of medieval art and writing, as a rule, would be but a facsimile of the original […] By exploring the realm of cooking and recipes, however, one may truly strive towards an accurate and tangible glimpse of at least one facet of medieval life.”

Even if modern interpretations are no more “accurate” than readings or musical interpretations, there is something decidedly tangible and truly enjoyable about them to students of the Middle Ages.

[1] The book is available in two inexpensive English editions, The Goodman of Paris by Eileen Power and The Good Wife’s Guide by Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose.

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Tovah Bender is a permanent instructor of Medieval and Early Modern European History at Florida International University.

Teaching Recipes as Literary Practice and the Practice of Transcription

By Amy L. Tigner

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a founding member of Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC)—an international group whose main objective is to transcribe early modern receipt book manuscripts and upload them onto an open, searchable database—I, along with my EMROC compatriots, wanted to create a labor force to increase the number of transcriptions available to the public.  As many of us teach at universities, we thought it would be a great idea to conceive of classes in which a portion of the workload would contribute to this digital humanities project.  I have to be honest, that at first, I thought of my students as a kind of slave labor, but Rebecca Laroche (see previous blog post in this series) quickly reminded me of the value for students of what we were trying to accomplish as scholars ourselves.  After all, we are in the process of building a new source of knowledge and making viewable to the masses what had previously been seen only by the lucky few. Also, such a process would in fact teach the students valuable skills that they could use if they continued in the profession, or, if not, they could parlay into other pursuits outside academia.  From a traditional point of view, students would need to learn paleography, a necessary skill for any archival work. As more and more libraries are digitizing their manuscripts, there will be quite a lot of this kind of scholarly work for years to come.  Additionally, students would learn how to code their transcriptions into XML in order to upload their work to the database, Textual Communities, which is hosted by the University of Saskatchewan; this skill is clearly transferrable to the outside world.

The first class I taught that incorporated this project was a senior seminar for English majors at the University of Texas, Arlington, in spring of 2013.  The course was entitled “Recipes for Literature/Literature of Recipes.” I have a previous post that details the course, and students in the class also posted blogs about their discoveries in transcribing Wellcome MS108, a receipt book written by Jane Barber.  As this course was really successful (students generally loved working on the project), I thought I would take it to the next level and have graduate students contribute.  So the following year, I taught a class entitled “Food, Women, and Manuscript Culture.”  The course was designed to change students’ conception of the “literary” by broadening the meaning to include household writing, and in particular recipes. The graduate students (like the undergrads) first had to learn how to decipher seventeenth-century handwriting, so I (like Rebecca Laroche) had students use the Cambridge online paleography course, a site that has progressively difficult handwriting examples from the period.

Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Students from the University of Texas, Arlington cook using early modern recipes. Photo courtesy of the author.

I found in both classes group work was key, as students get easily frustrated with the kind of work, especially as most were inexperienced with difficult and archaic handwriting. As some students naturally have a greater aptitude for transcription than others, they were to become teachers—good practice for many whose future plans include teaching. When it came to coding, which was a completely new world for me, students had to use problem-solving skills or often relied upon other students to help them. This collaborative atmosphere in the class created a greater sense of intellectual community—and fun.  Another interesting thing happened, however, in the work of transcription and later of coding: students had to slow their reading down, often to the level of deciphering individual letters, in order to read the text.  Thus transcribing and coding turned into close reading, causing students to dig deeper to find meaning.  We often ask students to read a text slowly and carefully, but more and more students are losing the patience to read in this manner. Our experience with the Internet, and with media more generally, trains us to read quickly and to skim the surface but rarely to be contemplative. This digital humanities project brings together traditional scholarly pursuits with twenty-first century technology to contribute to a growing a body of knowledge about the past.