Category Archives: Libraries, Archives & Museums

Around the Table Podcast: Odeuropa with William Tullett

By Sarah Peters Kernan

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In this episode, Sarah Kernan talks to William Tullett, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York and a Lead in the Horizon 2020 funded project Odeuropa. This European research project was designed to show that the sense of smell and scent, or olfactory, heritage is an important way to connect, promote, and protect Europe’s cultural heritage. This episode was recorded just before the project’s funding period concluded at the end of 2023. Follow William Tullett and Odeuropa on X (formerly Twitter) for updates.

Music

Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Odeuropa

Odeuropa Website

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage

Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit

Heritage Smell Library

Historical Scent Collection

Mentioned in the Show

Uncommon Senses Conference, Centre for Sensory Studies

American Historical Review, “Knowing by Sensing: How to Teach the History of Smell”

Osmothèque

Museum Ulm

Transcript

Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Dr. William Tullett, Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York and a Lead in the Horizon 2020 funded project Odeuropa. This European research project was designed to show that the sense of smell and scent, or olfactory, heritage is an important way to connect, promote, and protect Europe’s cultural heritage.

Will, thank you so much for joining me today!

William Tullett 00:53

Thanks for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sarah Kernan 00:55

Could you tell us a bit about Odeuropa? What’s the purpose of this project? Who is participating? Just some general information about it.

William Tullett 01:05

Yeah, so it’s a project that, well it’s still running, although it started in 2021 in the midst of Covid and will finish at the end of this year. Because of that it feels like it’s been running for a much longer time than it has, I think. But the main idea of the project is to use a kind of multidisciplinary mix of methods that includes not just history and art history and literary studies, but also computer science, so natural language processing and computer vision to work with both digitized text and images from the past, um, and also heritage science. So, kind of working with museums, um, and what we would call GLAMs, so galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, but also with chemistry, analytical chemistry, that allows us to examine the smells that objects from the past exude, um, and to try and preserve them for the future.

William Tullett 02:04

So it’s, ah it’s, an interdisciplinary project. It involves people across 6 countries, 7 different languages, multiple different universities, so it’s been quite a feat of organization. Um, and I’m luckily not the chief PI. So the PI is Inger Leemans in Amsterdam, who with her other Amsterdam colleagues including Marieke van Erp, have been the ones kind of really organizing and making sure that we all do what we’re told. So it’s been quite a big project and an exciting project to be part of and we’re now getting to the stage where we’re finally releasing a lot of the kind of results and final outputs of the project for people to kind of look at and play with. So there are tools. There are books. There are various websites and bits of digitized data for people to look at. So we’re now at the point we’re encouraging people to engage with all of that really.

Sarah Kernan 02:59

But before we get into all of those products that are coming out of Odeuropa, um, could you speak a little bit about how the project was initially developed and how the team came together. Because this, as you mentioned, it is a very large project. It’s a very impressive group of researchers who have come together.

William Tullett 03:16

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, so the project came together really, um, from the Amsterdam side, from Inger Leemans and Marieke van Erp and Arno Bosse, who are in the Dutch side of the project. And I think one of the things that they did that was really good was, and that you don’t see all the time now we’ve got Zoom for everything, is that they invited all of the people that they wanted to be involved in the project to Amsterdam, right. So we had multiple workshops together where we kind of talked about the kind of things that we’d like to do, the kind of outputs that we wanted to see from the project. And I think one of the big challenges with these big interdisciplinary projects of the sort that European Horizon 2020 funds, is that you want projects that give outputs that are state-of-the-art, not just for the historians on the project, but also for the people who are doing compute the computer science side of it, The heritage science side of it. So trying to make sure that all of the people involved are doing work that they find kind of useful and cutting edge and is going to advance knowledge in their own disciplines. And I think smell has, you know, was a useful thing to focus those various disciplines around, partly because it’s a sense and a stimuli that really presents a whole series of problems.

William Tullett 04:36

So, like linguistically smell is a problem, right? It’s difficult to describe smells. How do we find them? How do we categorize them? What does it mean to visualize smell in an image and how do we identify them in images? Can we archive smells? How do we archive and preserve them? So kind of all of these questions that I think resonated with all the different disciplines that were involved in the project made smell a kind of, to use the slang of grants people, a kind of wicked problem for us to kind of have work with and um, really the project, the call that we applied for, because obviously you know you can’t just come up with good ideas, there has to be a call out there that fits it, and the call that we aimed at was one that was about reconnecting digital resources with museums. And so essentially what we’re trying to do is use smell as a way to connect all of these digitized texts, databases, and image databases, and archival catalogs, and so on, with the kind of experience of heritage in heritage sites and museums and spaces by bringing smells back into those spaces, And so that’s really what the kind of project has been all about and sort of geared towards.

Sarah Kernan 05:51

As you alluded to, smell is a difficult topic to work with in many ways and it’s quite ephemeral and in so many ways and contexts, it’s different to so many people. Why should we be interested in studying and preserving and contextualizing smells and olfactory heritage and experiences, especially ones in the past? Why does that matter and how does Odeuropa fit into that?

William Tullett 06:22

So I think the reason that historicizing smell, preserving smell, contextualizing smells both in the past and present matters is because smell is a kind of fundamental part of our everyday experience. It’s a fundamental part of how not just humans engage with the world but also other animals more than human animals, as well. And if one of the goals of academic research in general is to understand the ways that we and other creatures experience the world then smell should therefore kind of be a fundamental part of that. But I think also there’s been a tendency ever since really the nineteenth century in museums, and it’s a tendency that luckily is now slowly being undone, to make museums and the experience of heritage all about the visual or at least the audio visual. And so if smell is really central and fundamental to our everyday experience and indeed was central and fundamental to people’s everyday experience in the past, then you know it makes sense to try and reintegrate that into museum spaces particularly actually in cases where you know the artifacts themselves or the paintings or other objects in museums and heritage sites have had particularly important olfactory or smell-related connections. It’s the classic case of, well we can have an incense burner in a glass case, but you know the whole point was that this thing was supposed to be used to burn incense and that had a smell and indeed had other kind of visual, tactile qualities to it.

William Tullett 07:56

So, I think it’s necessary for us to kind of recontextualize all of the things in museums that we have, but I think there’s kind of a much bigger broader reason why engaging with smell is really important. And that’s that many people today are often alienated from their sense of smell. And yet if we are to respond to the massive challenges that face the globe in the you know in the next five, ten years, we need to engage more with our environment and understand our environment better. And one way to do that is through smell. So by engaging people’s noses, by engaging not just academics and students with smell, but museums and libraries and the people that work in them and the audiences that use them, by engaging those constituencies with their nose, what we’re trying to do is also create a sense of olfactory awareness and encourage people to attend to the evidence of their noses more.

William Tullett 09:04

And a simple example of why that’s important is we’re all familiar with the idea of sell by dates and use by dates on packaging for food. Now if you’re in the seventeenth century and you went to buy food, you would go to a market and you would pick stuff up and feel it and touch it and you know put your knife into butter and take out the center of it so you could smell it. You know, all of this kind of very multisensory interaction. And now in the twentieth and twenty-first century, smell in supermarkets and other spaces that sell food, you know smells are still important but they’re fundamentally about trying to get people to spend their money. They’re about creating a desire for products rather than allowing people to assay quality of products. And so when there’s now been a move to try and get people away from using sell by dates and use by dates and instead just to kind of trust their own senses in order to be more sustainable by using food if it’s still fresh. Actually it’s been really interesting to see that many people are not able necessarily to smell out whether milk is fresh or not right, or whether it’s gone off or not because they’re just not used to using their noses. So that’s a kind of simple example I think of why encouraging people to be attentive to the evidence of their nose and getting people to engage with their nose is quite important from the point of view of sustainability and environmental awareness and you know, engaging our students, engaging museums and their audiences with smell is one way to create that more sustained olfactory awareness among people. So there’s a kind of wider social role I think that smell can play and history is one way to get that to people.

Sarah Kernan 10:48

That’s a really wonderful connection from the historical to how we can use that today in present day contexts. How does Odeuropa actually collect information, research that information about smells? What is the process of what Odeuropa is doing?

William Tullett 11:07

So, one of the things that Odeuropa is trying to do is to get smell out of lots and lots and lots of digitized archives. So, for anybody who’s listening to this podcast who is a historian, you know, or has worked with historical texts online, you’ll be aware that there are a load and those of great databases now full of historical source material. For example, Early English Books Online, or particularly relevant for this podcast, the Wellcome Library’s amazing collection of digitized recipe books. But we wanted to be able to do is kind of cut down the kind of needle in the haystack work of finding smell in those documents and to extract as many examples of smell occurring in digitized texts, historical texts, as possible. And so, we composed a massive dataset of historical text that includes text in English, German, Italian, Dutch, French, Slovenian, and some Latin. And then we trained models to be able to detect references to smell in those texts. And so we have kind of seed words like smell, or stink, or you know, kind of key olfactory terms. But then we also are looking for the different, what the natural language processing people would call frame elements. So, who’s doing the smelling, where is the smelling occurring, how are they describing what they’re smelling, all of that kind of data as well. What are the emotions that are connected to the example. And so, we trained, we trained models by annotating texts ourselves and then using those to train to train the models and let them loose on this historical text data, and then it’s gathered loads and loads and loads of references to smell.

William Tullett 12:57

I mean, you know, I think we’re now at the stage in the Smell Explorer, which is our kind of online database which anybody can go and look at, of smell excerpts, I think we’re now at the stage where there’s millions of references to smells from text data in there, including text from Gallica, the big online French digitized collections, the Deutsche Historic Archive, like loads of different text. So that’s the text part, then there’s the images part which is much more difficult because how do you decide what’s smelly in an image?

Sarah Kernan 13:29

Right? Exactly.

William Tullett 13:31

Yeah, that’s a problem, right? Like and it’s a problem that kind of, I think you could easily annoy a lot of art historians by answering badly, and so one of the things that we did early on in the project was to think about, well, what are the types of objects, or animals, or gestures, or spaces, which in different periods from the 1600s to the 1920s were thought to evoke smell? So there are really obvious things like gestures around, like holding the nose, or taking snuff, or smoking tobacco, for example, or throwing up, which is something that occurs in lots of allegories of smell, particularly Dutch ones, in the seventeenth century. And, but also we’re looking at animals, so like dogs, civet cats, you know, that were particularly associated with smell, and then also flowers as well. So, we did a whole kind of side project where we were training models to look and identify different flowers in still lives.

William Tullett 14:33

That’s been an interesting and tricky part of the project, but essentially it involves drawing boxes around objects and then training computers to then find more of those objects. That’s the very short form explanation. So, for example, we trained it to find gloves because early modern gloves were almost always perfumed. So, if we can find lots and lots of examples of gloves we can, kind of, that’s one olfactory object that we can find. Or we looked at chimneys and then we looked at chimneys with smoke and without smoke to think about the representation of smell and pollution, or different smoke coming from different objects. So if it’s coming from a chimney, it’s smoke, if it’s kind of a cloud of smoke that we’ve identified that’s coming from a teapot then it’s more of a kind of steam, right? So, thinking about different forms of vapor and how you identify them in images. So that’s the text and image stuff and then the other part of it, I guess, is the heritage side of it, which has involved some quite different methods.

William Tullett 15:30

And for the heritage science side of it, we’ve kind of had a mix of social science methods. So, for example, one of our case studies was the smell of heritage vehicles, particularly cars, and we ended up interviewing lots of car enthusiasts about like kind of do they value the smells of their cars and how would they describe them? We also, but then, we also used scientific methods. So, we used various forms of pump and other that that would basically pump air over a fiber and the fiber would extract the volatile organic compounds. So then once you’ve captured the volatile organic compounds, you take them to a lab, you put them in a gas chromatography mass spectrometry machine, which then allows you to essentially see which smells are, you know, which compounds are making up the smell of that particular car, right. So, it was a mix of kind of social science stuff and more kind of what people wrongly or rightly might call hard sciences like chemistry. So, it’s a truly interdisciplinary project and it’s partly thinking about, I think, the way in which smells and the impressions that they leave are not just textual but also actually materially about us today, which I think the kind of car example really nicely gives you a sense of.

Sarah Kernan 16:56

Absolutely.

William Tullett 16:57

So yeah, whole different mix of methods to extract smells. And hopefully we’ll keep to use, keep using that multidisciplinary mix into the future, because I think that’s kind of the future of smell studies and sensory studies.

Sarah Kernan 17:09

That’s really fascinating how many, how many different sides there are to this project and how many different disciplines are converging in one place. Um.

William Tullett 17:19

Yeah. I mean I think that’s always been a strength of sensory studies right? So, like, sensory studies you know is a field that really comes from anthropology and geography, but now has this kind of rich interdisciplinary mix of methods. And if you go to the Uncommon Senses conference which is the big kind of interdisciplinary sensory studies conference in Concordia in Montreal every two years, you’ll kind of see a whole rich array of people doing a whole different series of methodologies, from kind of more common historical literary, art historical types of thing, to people who are doing like research on senses and spider sex. And you know we had a whole panel where it was people getting to play with different types of tactile technologies like rumble chairs and tools for training dentists that involved scraping off virtual plaque and all this kind of stuff. So, I think there’s kind of a sense in which we are just drawing on a tradition within sensory studies that is very multidisciplinary in really interesting ways.

Sarah Kernan 18:21

Now that Odeuropa is coming to a close, could you talk a bit about some of its outputs, the products that have come of Odeuropa, and whether or not those have achieved Odeuropa’s main goals.

William Tullett 18:37

Well, of course we’ve achieved all of our main goals on Odeuropa, and I’m not going to suggest otherwise. I mean, I think, I think in some ways that we’ve achieved and um, exceeded in many respects what we set out to do and that’s partly because as soon as we started to talk about smell and the past when we announced the project in late November 2020, the amount of interest we got was absolutely incredible. And that’s led to lots of opportunities like the American Historical Review where we’ve done a series of articles with them that’s included the first ever published smell in a historical journal with its own DOI, right? So, you know we’ve been able to do this extra stuff that we never planned in the first place but has, I think, pushed the field forward in really interesting ways. But the main outputs that we kind of planned to do, which we’ve also managed to do in the time that we’ve had, um the Smell Explorer, which is as I’ve said before the kind of big data set online where people can browse all of the text data that we’ve gathered and image data that we’ve gathered. So that has millions of references on it and people can freely use that online and there’ll be a link in the show notes for people to look at that. We are hoping in the future we’ll be able to add more data to that. The problem is, of course, with anything like this is it costs time and money to process data to put more in, but there’s already another project going on called POEM in the Netherlands which is all about early modern English literature and poetry and smell, and we’re hoping to integrate more data from that project into the Explorer.

William Tullett 20:14

And then the other things we’ve done. We’ve got the Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage which I’ve kind of been the editor-in-chief of, which is an ever-expanding resource and we very much plan to keep adding entries to that. So if you want to write about a smell or a particular nose and way of smelling in the past or a particular kind of place or smellscape, then please do get in touch with me. Very happy to welcome more entries to that. But the encyclopedia also has alongside the entries what we call storylines, which are a way of representing smell not just in the form of a kind of linear text as you would get in a kind of article or a book, but in the form of kind of interactive hypertext stories. So we use the open source tool Twine, which some listeners may be familiar with, that basically allows you to create digital choose-your-own-adventure type stories as a way to create stories that kind of, you could use smell to leap between different places and times in the past, right. And kind of making real use of smell’s full potential there to crisscross across times and places. So there are lots of storylines for people to explore in the Encyclopedia as well. And then there’s the Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit which is kind of really an attempt to give people the resources, particularly in museums and heritage sites, to integrate more smell into their practice. And so that contains lots of advice on kind of how to find stories that you can tell about or with smell in your collections, about how to kind of work to create smells and then diffuse them in a space, different diffusion methods that people might want to use for example, and also has information on kind of the risks to be aware of, right, because lots of conservators and other people are quite nervous about using smells in museum spaces. So that’s like a 200 and something page PDF that you can download online. But there’s also a series of resources connected to that that people can use, for example, to create smell walks around their own museums and heritage sites, or cards that they can use to kind of do storyboarding to think about smell in their collections and how they can tell stories with smell.

William Tullett 22:31

And then the final thing, I guess, that the final big kind of public-facing thing that we’ve produced which is at the moment accessible to fewer people because it’s not online. And one of the beauties of smell is that it frequently resists digitization in an ever more online and virtual world. And, but, the final example is something that I can show on camera but you won’t be able to see because you’re listening to this. But what I’ve produced is this magical box and it contains twelve different scents that we’ve worked on with perfumers during the project. Re-creations of different historical smellscapes or smells, some of which were kind of, very much imaginary, sort of, creative interpretations. So we’ve got the smell of hell in there which is based on looking at the way the smell of hell is described in seventeenth century sermons, and then working with a perfumer to interpret them. Some of them are kind of more based on looking at recipes. So, we’ve got pomander and perfumed gloves in there. Both kind of based around an interpretation of early modern recipes. So it’s a real range of different scents and the aim is to give those kits to museums and then to work with them on integrating them into some of their curating and education practices in attempt to get smell into more, into more people’s lives right? We kind of, and all of this, the Toolkit the Smell Kit, they’re all based on things that we did during the project as well. So we had a kind of smell tools that we arranged with smells at ah Ulm Museum in Germany, we did a whole workshop on malodors and kind of how to use, which was partly about you know how do we use bad smells in a heritage context. And of course we started during the pandemic so we kind of had to innovate and use some different methods to get smells to people and so some of that material has ended up in the Toolkit, as well. Different ways to distribute scents to people for events. So it’s all based on those three years of experience and research. So yeah, there’ll be links in there. There’ll be links in the show notes. Please do look at the Encyclopedia and the Smell Explorer and download the Toolkit. And if you do do look at them or use them then get in touch with us and let us know what you do with them.

Sarah Kernan 25:00

That’s fantastic! That, that box is very impressive. It really is a little magical box of smells that you were showing. Will that be available for anyone to try to get a hold of, or is that exclusively for museums?

William Tullett 25:15

So at the moment it’s exclusively for partners that we’re working with and the people who attended our kind of big end event which was in Amsterdam last week. But we’re also doing something else with the box and the smells, in that they’re going to be preserved in the Osmothèque. So for those who don’t know what the Osmothèque is, it’s essentially the world’s largest archive of perfumes. And they, Odeuropa and the Osmothèque have collaborated so that the Osmothèque can begin to host a heritage smell collection there, which would include our smells and hopefully in the future more smells with the scents themselves and the documentation that we’ve produced with them. The hope is that more places like the Osmothèque will begin to kind of preserve smells as well and that in the end we’ll encourage a culture where archived smells are publicly accessible to people on a wider basis in the way that say video or text or audio are. I think we’ve got a long way until we can we can get to that position. But that’s kind of like a much longer term goal for us.

Sarah Kernan 26:25

Great. Has anything surprised you or the team as you have been working on Odeuropa? Have you have you come across anything whether it’s a smell or a story or a description or any new conclusions that have just really knocked everyone’s socks off?

William Tullett 26:44

It’s always very difficult to answer, isn’t it, when you’re somebody who’s kind of like, knee deep in a subject area. Stuff that you will find fascinating and that knocks your socks off will probably be quite boring to lots of other people and seem like a kind of minor discovery. But, I think that the thing for me that has been really interesting and surprising. So, the first thing has been the public reaction to it which has been really welcoming and really engaged and really fascinated with what we’re doing in a way that I’m not sure I expected. And I think hopefully that will open up opportunities for more people to do this kind of work because it will encourage more researchers to go into the field. In terms of the actual research though, I think that one of the things that, I wouldn’t say it was surprising to me but which I think the project has really allowed us to do, is to tell a richer variety of stories about smell and its histories than were otherwise kind of there in the historiography before. So, you know, a lot of the work pre-Odeuropa had kind of focused on one of two things: perfume and its histories or sanitation and public health. And so it was either the fecal or the fragrant and that was kind of your choice.

William Tullett 28:15

And I think one of the things that has been really nice about Odeuropa is it’s given us the opportunity and the resources to explore a series of other stories, and for me that work has involved kind of opening up new questions about the history of animals and smell that I hadn’t really thought about before. You know, one of the things I found really interesting on going through our material was just the sheer amount of stuff about the care of animals and being sensitive to animal sensitivities around smell in not just in kind of sixteenth, seventeenth century sources but all the way through into the late nineteenth century. And I think there’s so much work to be done to be done there and that’s something I’m going to be working on in my next project. But also stories about war and conflicts, that was another kind of area that I thought was, came out a lot in the source material that we’d collected and the relationship between war and smell over time. But I think there’s a final thing that did surprise me is that the project has completely changed my attitude to my methodology.

Sarah Kernan 29:20

Really? How so?

29:22

So, basically when I started the project, I was very much of the mindset of a lot of other sensory historians like Mark Smith, which is that but we can never really reconstruct what it was like in the past and there’s no real point in using our noses. You know, it’s all about text. It’s all about language. There’s no point in actually engaging our own senses. And indeed, that’s kind of what I say in the introduction to my first book. And now thanks to this project and thanks to working with not just the computer scientists and the heritage chemists and scientists, but also working a lot more with creative practitioners and artists with perfumers and flavor and fragrance specialists, it’s kind of completely upturned that viewpoint and now I’ve ended up publishing a whole book that basically argues we should use our noses. You know, and that there’s a lot to be gained by smelling stuff and that maybe we should publish smells instead of publishing books. Maybe that would be a more exciting and interesting way to engage people with the past that’s still based in scholarly research. So I think actually the big surprise for me has been that working with all of these wonderful people and collaborating across disciplines and outside of academia, has completely changed how I see my field and how I see research. And I think there is something to be said for that more widely for historians, actually. A lot of academics and historians are some of the worst examples of this tend to assume that their understanding of the modern world is kind of just like how the modern world is, and so then they compare say, the early modern world, with that, right, and that’s kind of led into all kinds of weird assumptions about smell, including the idea that we live in a less smelly and more deodorized world today than we did in the past. Now you can say that if you’re an academic in an air-conditioned office that’s regularly cleaned by underpaid cleaners. It’s rather more difficult to say that we live in a deodorized world if you live next to one of the massive waste dumps that we have here in the UK, or if you live in the South of the United States next to a paper pulping plant, right. So, I think yeah, that’s the thing that’s really come out of the project for me is just working with a much more diverse range of people. You have a much more diverse range of sensory experiences and that has made me kind of question how I do my work and how I should do it in the future. It’s a very long answer, but I think, you know, it actually that was the thing that surprised me the most.

Sarah Kernan 32:02

Well, I think this is a perfect tie-in to a final question. Um, so say someone who’s listening to this podcast episode is thinking learning about historical smells sounds absolutely amazing. How do I do that? What do I do next? What do you recommend?

William Tullett 32:23

Yeah, I mean the first thing I’d say if you’re thinking about learning more about the history of smell and about historical smells and how to engage with the past through smell, congratulations. You’ve made the right decision, and you’ve listened to this podcast correctly. So well done. I think that the first thing I would say is to just pay attention to the smells around you, actually. So, one of the things that I try to do in the new book is I have olfactory figures which are just moments in the book when I say go and smell this thing that might be in your cupboard, right. Because lots of the smells that are around us every day have a much, much deeper history than perhaps we appreciate. And, I mean, one example of that and the kind of specificity of those histories is wintergreen. So, wintergreen is a kind of smell and flavor that is in lots of different products. In the 1960s and 70s they found out that people in the UK hated the smell of wintergreen. It was their one of their least favorite smells. In the US it was one of the most liked smells, most preferred smells. And the reason for that was because wintergreen was in loads of medical stuff in the UK, and in the US it was in root beer and candy, right. So, what I’m saying is if you kind of start at the tip of your nose and think about, well, why do I like this this particular smell right? Why is this smell important to me, you know, and use that as a kind of road into thinking about your relationship to the past through smell I think is the first thing I would suggest.

William Tullett 33:54

But then there’s so much great material that’s been published in the field and there are various ways that you can kind of get an introduction to it. We published a conversation piece in the American Historical Review which is free to access. And that was, that’s a really nice introduction to the field. But also, there’s a whole online bibliography that I’ve curated of over seven hundred entries, so if you want a kind of giant reading list to start and to pick out something that might interest you, look out for the Past Scent Bibliography which you can find on the Odeuropa website for information on how to do, to look at that. But finally, I mean one other thing you can do is do what lots of people I suspect on this podcast do, which is do things like recreate recipes right? I mean before we came on air, I was suggesting that, you know, one of the nice things about doing this with the Recipes Project is that I think lots of people who are interested in historical recipes are much more minded to be welcoming to ideas about reconstruction. And yeah, just find a historical recipe and try and remake it and think about, you know, what do the different materials that are going into that recipe smell like individually, what does the process smell like, what does the end result smell like, just doing some basic material engagement with actual stuff, I think is really important. Because I could sit here and recommend you loads of stuff to go and read, but I think it’s actually more important you engage your nose than engage your eyes as a kind of route into this.

Sarah Kernan 35:33

Everyone heard it here first, just go out and smell things. That’s all you need to do to get started.

William Tullett 35:39

Absolutely!

Sarah Kernan 35:40

Well, thank you so much! This is a great conversation. Thank you for joining me today to talk about Odeuropa.

William Tullett 35:48

No problem at all. Thanks for having me.

Sarah Kernan 35:50

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.

Around the Table Podcast: Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 with Deborah Krohn

By Sarah Peters Kernan

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In this episode, Sarah Kernan talks to Deborah Krohn, Associate Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at Bard Graduate Center, about the recent exhibition Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 at Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Staging the Table explores early modern dining practices through illustrated manuals featuring instruction and carving and napkin folding. The books are considered alongside early modern material artifacts such as table linens and carving knives, as well as modern napkin folds based on period designs. Follow Deborah Krohn and Bard Graduate Center on Instagram to learn more about current and future projects.

Music

Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 Exhibition Website

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 Digital Exhibition

Instruments of Dining: A Research Symposium

Settings and Sounds: An Exploration of Early Modern Dining with Food Historian Ivan Day and Music Ensemble Sonnambula

Studio Visit: The Gentle Art of Napkin Folding: A Demonstration by Joan Sallas

Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800 Catalogue

Mentioned in the Show

Food and Knowledge in Renaissance Italy: Bartolomeo Scappi’s Paper Kitchens

Ivan Day

Molly Taylor-Poleskey

Sonnambula

Napkin, Netherlands or Germany, ca. 1600, with later inscriptions and labels. Linen. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. Moore, 1923, 23.80.74a.

Frontispiece, from Neu Verbessertes Trenchir-Büchlein . . . (Breslau: Caspar Müller, 1660). Engraving. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Transcript

Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Deborah Krohn, Associate Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at Bard Graduate Center about the exhibition she has curated, Staging the Table in Europe 1500-1800. The exhibition at Bard Graduate Center Gallery explores dining practices through illustrated manuals featuring instruction and carving and napkin folding. The books are displayed alongside early modern material artifacts such as table linens and carving knives, as well as modern napkin folds based on period designs. Deborah, thank you so much for joining me today.

Deborah Krohn 1:02

My pleasure.

Sarah Kernan 1:03

So, Staging the Table has so many different components, including physical and online exhibitions, a catalogue, a symposium, performances, lectures, workshops. The project also pairs texts with imagery and material objects, including modern reproductions and interpretations of really exquisite napkin folding. This comprehensiveness is so helpful for conceptualizing the early modern table. Could you talk about how you developed the idea for Staging the Table and how it came to encompass so much.

Deborah Krohn 01:39

Sure. So, like so many of our projects it came really out of a very long-term interest in culinary history, as well as the history of books and print culture and early modern Europe. And I had been teaching classes for a number of years where I was using recipe books as primary sources to try to understand cultural history. You know, the culture of the table, food production, food distribution, images, images of food and still life painting, in more prescriptive texts like herbals and, you know, botanical treatises, anything that had to do with anything that was potentially edible, and recipes of all kinds, cosmetic recipes as well as culinary recipes. So, really that whole sort of very, very broad group of ideas and material things and images. And I had written a previous book about a 1570 cookbook, Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera. And that was, that really sort of got me into book history in a major way because I kind of, as an art historian, trained as an art historian, I realized after being really, sort of, gripped by the incredible illustrations in this recipe book that in order to actually understand what they were doing there I had to read the book. And then, you know, it sounds pretty obvious, but for art historians I dare say it is not always obvious to read the book. And then once I’d read the book I realized, well, you know, why it is what kind of editions are there, and how many times was it published, so it sort of was like, almost like following a breadcrumb trail to get, to use a food metaphor, to get to the whole. And after I’d written that book, I realized that there was a lot of other stuff that was similar:  carving manuals that were, by the end of the sixteenth century, very specific; books that were didn’t have any of the other kind of stuff that was in these larger recipe compendia and that were much more focused. And I just started kind of collecting references and exploring those and realized that there was a lot of, a lot of copies of these just in the New York area. Because part of the exhibition at Bard Graduate Center is part of a program that we call the Focus Project, where faculty (it’s mainly faculty and postdoc-curated exhibitions that are done as part of a curricular enterprise within the teaching structure) and we’re not really supposed to borrow stuff from far away places. You know, we’re really supposed to keep it as local as possible. So, I realized that there was this kind of treasure trove of these carving manuals really at five or six libraries in the tri-state area around New York, and that it would be really potentially very, very good to develop it into an exhibition so that’s a kind of long-winded answer to your question.

Sarah Kernan 04:50

No, It’s great. Um, so by the time this episode is released, the in-person exhibition will have ended at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, but the catalogue and all the digital components like the online exhibition and the YouTube videos are all still going to be available. Before we actually turn to those lasting components, I just have a few questions about the physical in-person exhibition.

Deborah Krohn 05:17

Sure.

Sarah Kernan 05:18

So, Staging the Table showed how dining at elite early modern tables was really a multi-sensory experience and every part of the meal from the food to the napkin folding, the room and table decorations, even the small details like the carving knives, that those could really represent or highlight a family, or a specific event, or a theme, and every aspect of the meal could be highly manipulated to a really dramatic degree. This exhibit really hits home that the table encompassed so much more than just the food that was on the table and there’s really a wealth of extant material culture to examine. Could you, could you talk about this for a moment, reflect on this for a moment?

Deborah Krohn 06:07

Sure, probably more than a moment. Um, yeah. So, the table was a really important space because in the early modern period there wasn’t that much else to do besides work, sleep, and eat. And, so, a lot, I think, a lot of social life came, came down to what happened around the table, whether it was in, a very illustrious banquet in an aristocratic or princely home or castle or even in a modest home in, in a town, or you know, perhaps even in the countryside, that meals were central to people’s lives, and so, understanding how important that was, I, I realized that it was, it would be really interesting to pull together as much information as, as I could about that event. And one, one parallel that became really evident to me when I was preparing the exhibition was thinking about the table as a kind of, of a Wunderkammer, a chamber of wonders. You know there’s been a lot of attention amongst art historians and historians of material culture to look at this phenomenon in the early modern period of these collectors cabinets where all kinds of objects were, were thrown together for private consumption and, and enjoyment, but that these were really the nucleus of the modern museum. And it struck me that the table was also a place for display, and contemplation, and kind of a socializing around a group of objects in the same way that the Kunst- and Wunderkammer was.

Deborah Krohn 07:59

But the table was in motion. It was, it was set up and put away. Tables were not permanent pieces of furniture. They were trestles. And they could be taken down. They wouldn’t, there wasn’t a dining room for a lot of this period, right. Not a set place in the home where dining took place. It was, could, you know, usually in the biggest room there was when it was a banquet and then it would became something else afterwards or the next day, so you know there, these were not kind of permanent spaces. But they were nevertheless very important, so I wanted to get a sense of what these spaces looked like. A lot of people think about and talk about the culture of food and dining and a lot of the objects as ephemeral, as things that sort of come and go, they, they, they, they’re not around. They’re not lasting. And I find this word somewhat problematic because they are a lot of the objects themselves were ephemeral but then there’s ways to kind of access the experiences that people had through texts, through images, through prints, through objects, that you know, and through recipes and all of that.

Deborah Krohn 09:02

So, so really I was trying to presuppose that the table is a kind of space for all of these activities and and it’s it’s also, doesn’t come out so much, I mean in an exhibition you have limited space to explain all your ideas, right? You have these labels, and labels are amongst the most frustrating things for somebody to write because you know they have to be really short and there’s so much that you want to kind of cram in, an object does speak a thousand words and for a label you often only have 150, and how you can possibly do that. So my labels are a little long. Um, but that’s actually what’s on the website. The labels are there. They’ve been slightly edited to be sort of in conjunction with the online exhibition but that information has been preserved on the website. So, yeah, I mean that’s sort of the idea of bringing together the um, especially the knives, some of the cut the carving knives and the linens is to just give people a sense of like the look and feel of this in a material sense and, you know, the one thing that you can’t have in an exhibition in a museum is food. So how to get around that, you know that’s another topic we could potentially talk about that, you know, in in another part of this, but that because it’s a huge subject, but I don’t know, does that answer your question?

Sarah Kernan 10:27

Yeah, yeah, I was able to visit the exhibition a few weeks ago, and…

Deborah Krohn 10:33

Oh great. You should have gotten in touch with me!

Sarah Kernan 10:38

I was really struck by just seeing some of these objects in person, especially the table linens, seeing the napkins. That’s not something you usually see on exhibit in too many museums. So, being able to see those and then see the the modern reproductions or interpretations of these Renaissance and early modern napkin folds was so fantastic, and seeing how they repeated a lot of these same ideas and themes like sugar sculptures, that I think might be a lot more familiar through people who look at these recipes and see recipes for how to mold things out of sugar paste.

Deborah Krohn 11:20

Right.

Sarah Kernan 11:22

But actually seeing these sculptures in essence out of linen repeating that same idea and having the same visual impact was really stunning.

Deborah Krohn 11:31

Right. Well, we were really fortunate to be able to have some reconstruction folded linen centerpieces made by Joan Sallas who lives in Barcelona and whom we flew over for the first week of the exhibition so he could bring some of his amazing creations, and he really has recreated these based on very, the very limited information in the treatises. You know, they explain how to make the basic folds but they don’t explain, you know, the step-by-step of how to take these basic folds and make a crab, or, you know, a double-headed eagle, or a turkey, or some of these fantastic objects that he, that he has created so, you know that’s, that’s a part of it too understanding the kind of ingenuity and the craftsmanship that went into it and all of what people sometimes refer to as tacit knowledge, right? You know, you have these books and there’s information in them. But what does the information actually tell you, how far does it take you, what other types of pedagogical support would be needed to create these, these objects and that’s something that, that’s very hard to kind of communicate that in an exhibition. But that was a big part of the research process for me was trying to think about how you might make these things and what kind of training and how that training was, was communicated. I guess you saw some of the wonderful frontispieces from the carving manuals where there were pictures of these, these men who were in it, caught in the act of teaching and sort of depicting that pedagogical moment is something I found super interesting and something you don’t often see in other types of imagery and visual material from the period. You know, to had it, teaching is not something that’s easy to represent visually.

Sarah Kernan 13:27

Yeah, yeah.

Deborah Krohn 13:29

So that was something that I, I mean there, you could, there is a whole history of it and that would be a whole other interesting topic, like you know Bolognese fourteenth-century legal scholars, you know, tombs with pictures of, you know, people standing at a cathedra teaching there, that they exist. But it’s a very specific kind of iconography. So, you know that was just like one of the many things that interested me about these books.

Sarah Kernan 13:56

How did you actually decide on what items to include in the exhibition? Was there really, was there anything you really wanted to include but couldn’t?

Deborah Krohn 14:07

I mean, yeah. If you, if I could have made a wishlist of everything I wanted from every museum in the whole world, yes, there would a lot been lots of things I would have borrowed from that, you know, the Kunstkammer in Vienna and, you know, the V&A, and any other number of European museums that have fantastic examples of this. So yes, but I did I think I did manage through the generosity of the Metropolitan Museum and the Cooper Hewitt which both of those have great collections of cutlery that’s completely understudied and it’s usually not out in the galleries, it’s hidden away in the storerooms. So I was able to find examples of, of objects that that were illustrative of this culture and which helped me to tell the story in ways. So yes, I think that everybody, every curator, would say that there are things that got away, but given the limited kind of construct of this exhibition, I was very pleased to have the loans that I, I got and to be able to kind of make them carry that the sort of messages and the meanings that that I wanted to convey, so, you know, that’s important that you, you have ideas and then you have to find objects that, that you can use to kind of illustrate those ideas. I think the process is different than if you set out to do an exhibition of, you know, impressionist painting for example, where there that the objects speak for themselves. There’s, there’s the early, middle, and late style. There’s all kinds of thematic ways you can organize a show like that, but it’s basically a paintings by an artist, whereas here, you know, an exhibition that involves all these different kinds of things I think involves really figuring out what the narrative is and what the basic ideas are that you want to communicate and then finding ways to do that through the objects that are available to you.

Sarah Kernan 16:09

Could you tell us a bit about the team of people who helped you put together Staging the Table?

Deborah Krohn 16:15

Sure. Well first, first I should mention the, the two designers, the designer of the book Jocelyn Lau and the exhibition designer Ian Sullivan, because they really helped me to kind of make my visualization that I had in my mind come to fruition, that was really important. I had very specific ideas of how I wanted this material to be displayed and both of them were incredibly good listeners, but, and creative, and so they kind of work with me and wait. It was a really good team I think that was part of it. But then beyond that, you know, we have the whole installation team and the students who over a period of three or four years, actually was drawn out because of covid. The exhibition was originally supposed to take place in 2021 and was delayed for two years and honestly, that was a kind of godsend because it would have been a totally different exhibition if I had mounted it in 2021. So, as a result of that, multiple generations of students got to work on it in the context of the of the two-year MA program that we have and they contributed through their research both directly and indirectly to parts of the exhibition. One really specific way that they contributed was through an amazing website based on a deck of playing cards published in seventeenth-century London that we were not able to borrow from the Beinecke Library, but we used a digitized copy of those decks of cards, and they created this fantastic website that brings food, and that was the brief was find recipes that the carving animals and fruits on the on these cards could have, how they would have been made, and so they they use the cards as a kind of way of getting into the whole period in terms of food. So, so that’s one very specific way in which other people contributed to the exhibition and then, you know, then of course there’s the usual: the editors, and, you know, the people that work with you to make sure that your labels make sense and are are clearly expressed and don’t have too many convoluted sentences and and all of that. So I guess you don’t mean really that, you mean more sort of intellectual collaboration.

Sarah Kernan 18:45

Well, those are all people I, I was thinking of, you also, there were also people who popped up in the exhibition itself, like Ivan Day…

Deborah Krohn 18:56

Ivan Day. Absolutely, right.

Sarah Kernan 18:58

…with his recorded, audio recordings of reflections about different appropriate food history commentary, and then Sallas’s napkin folding and his workshop and involvement in that. So.

Deborah Krohn 19:13

Yeah, I mean those people, both of those people I was, I was obviously aware of their work, and Ivan and I have known each other for maybe ten or fifteen years and I’ve, I’ve been to various conferences, and over the years have really come to understand the incredibly unique way that his knowledge and experience can be activated for an audience and the ways that that kind of practical understanding of things is so key to, to bringing the period alive and and bringing the objects alive. So I was really thrilled that he agreed to come to New York and and see the show and and comment on it and bring his reproduction set of knives with him and some other objects that he used for some of the programs that are, I think you’ll have links to those on on the podcast. But, but, yeah, I mean he his knowledge contributed both in direct ways and and in indirect ways as well in terms of my own kind of study and research and and coming to understand this in the way that I I did to put together the exhibition. So we we we stand on the shoulders of all of these people as we do our research.

Sarah Kernan 20:30

Absolutely. Well speaking of all these other people who do this research, could you speak a little bit about the symposium that was associated with the exhibition, I believe it was called Instruments of Dining, and also the other events like Settings and Sounds and how they complimented and added to the exhibition? And for our listeners, all these programs are going to be linked in our in our podcast notes.

Deborah Krohn 20:53

Yeah.

Deborah Krohn 21:59

Great. So, I wanted to do something for symposium that would kind of be accessible to a, to a larger audience than than simply the four or five people that might be interested in early modern recipe books. I mean, I know that there are a lot of people and that they’re probably all listening to this and thinking well like, why not just do programs that are geared to us? But part of it is the the person who’s the head of our public programs and research program, his name is Andrew Kircher, really was very encouraging in terms of trying to open it up to a, to an audience, which I really appreciate. This is something that a lot of places in thinking about public humanities and other ways of engaging a broader public with with kind of research projects, right? So that’s kind of the bigger background. So the symposium, I invited a scholar who I’d met at various conferences, Molly Taylor-Poleskey, who who works on dining at the German courts in the seventeenth century and she gave an archivally-based paper that was very interesting and really spot-on in terms of the courts and the the types of things that would be happening based on these archival sources that she’s researched and then I I had some, the music side of it.

Deborah Krohn 22:24

Well then Ivan, of course, because for the evening program, that was the Settings and Sounds, and the symposium, did different lectures where he was talking about ways that objects and he he made this wonderful sugar sculpture tazza that he demonstrated its use and shows showed us some cutlery from the period, so he did a lot of really great, very hands on things. And then the music, that came about because one of the carving manuals and folding manuals that became kind of the protagonist of the exhibition was something compiled, translated from the Italian in the 1640s by a German Baroque literary figure named Georg Philipp Harsdörffer. And Harsdörffer, I’d never heard of him before I was engaged in this project, but he’s actually an incredibly important person for other publications and and activities and among which he wrote the first libretto for the first German opera that was produced in the early 1640s and so I started digging around and finding all kinds of fascinating stuff and and in almost all the images of dining and banqueting from the period you see musicians and and a number of the images in the show and some of the prints, and I wanted to try to imagine what that what it would sound like to be at a meal and to have the the kind of music that would be played at a banquet at the table.

Deborah Krohn 23:54

And Andrew Kircher has a lot of contact in the performance world and was able to create a relationship between a wonderful early music group called Sonnambula, and specifically the person who is the the sort of director of Sonnambula, Elizabeth Weinfield, and together we kind of crafted a program where they actually went back and found the score for some of the music that was connected to one of the events that’s pictured in one of Harsdorfer’s books is the banquet to celebrate the Peace of Westphalia, which is the end of the Thirty Years’ War that took place in Nuremberg in 1649, and so we went back and found some of the music and she was able to, you know, play a snippet of it live for the event. And that was something that was really significant for me was to put together the the kind of soundscape as well as the tablescape for these events and and that was the idea of it and there were some other music um Telemann and some other more well-known kind of table music Tafelmusik that that she found to play for this. So, you know, a kind of involving people in what the the term Gesamtkunstwerk, you know, sort of “total work of art” is something that often is used in conjunction with German opera from the nineteenth century, but it it was really the case that these banquets from the seventeenth century were were total works of art with the with the food, the the visual stimulation, music, and and then sort of poetry and recitation and emblematic literary inscriptions that apparently would appear on so a lot of the sculptures made out of food or made out of sugar or linen. So there were all these elements and dimensions that I that I you know couldn’t really even in an exhibition communicate to say nothing of in, you know, a monograph, so that was really what I I tried to use those programs to do is to bring in all this other content and to kind of, you know, obviously one could quibble endlessly about authenticity and you know that’s another, that’s a whole other conversation, but I think in terms of just getting a broader sense of it with a, with the proviso that it’s not completely authentic and it’s impossible to to go to a situation where you have complete authenticity and any kind of reconstruction or recreation, but it at least provides a sense of what that experience would have been like.

Sarah Kernan 26:33

If we could switch gears now to the catalogue.

Deborah Krohn 26:37

Sure.

Sarah Kernan 26:38

I absolutely love this catalogue, actually. I don’t normally say that about catalogues. They’re usually really large and unwieldy and not exactly the most easy books to use. But this is really so manageable to to hold and to flip through. It’s such a beautiful book. It’s so evocative of the text of the period from the exhibition. It uses both red and black font throughout, like it’s so often the case with these early print books. There are decorative elements, they’re really evocative of the woodcuts found in books at the time, the different sorts of typefaces that you often see. So I really just love the visual aspects of the book as well. But it’s also such a valuable scholarly resource as well, and I was wondering if you had actually visualized this exhibition as a book or a monograph before an exhibition because this catalogue actually reads so fluidly, more like a monograph than an exhibition.

Deborah Krohn 27:49

Well first of all, thank you. It’s it’s wonderful to hear that because those are all things that I was very, very engaged with sort of making happen and and this. And to answer the question, I mean, you know, it is a monograph. A lot of catalogues are multiple authors and part of the the, this focus project idea, is that it’s a way for faculty members to deploy their research in a way which is more public-facing, so in a sense it I did think of it as a monograph, but I but I wanted it to be written for a broader audience. When I first started thinking about this, it was sort of amorphous. Once I got into it, I realized how significant visually it would be for an exhibition.

Sarah Kernan 28:40

So, the exhibition is now digitized and it’s freely available online. Could you tell us a bit about the process of digitizing a physical or in-person exhibition and some of the challenges associated with that, as well as some of the benefits you see?

Deborah Krohn 28:57

Sure, I mean the benefits are pretty clear, because an exhibition is around for a limited number of months and then it disappears. So having some permanent record of it is really important and it’s really nice because it’s it’s actually it’s so sad to think about the end of an exhibition. You know you work so hard on these and then and then they inevitably come to an end. So it’s really great that it exists in the digital form. So in order to create that, we have two wonderful, sort of digital people at BGC, Jesse Merandy and Julie Fuller, and I worked really closely with them to figure out how to, you know, organize it into some form, choose the order that the objects would occur in, but the process was pretty straightforward. I I just we we used the the images that, we had digitized images because of because of the book and the book illustrations, uploaded them, and uploaded the label material, and Jocelyn Lau who had designed the book created the design for the website, so that it was kind of a seamless transfer of all the graphic details that you mentioned, that were so important in in the sort of look and feel of the exhibition. So, in this case, the the online version does capture a lot of those aspects that you mentioned that the mixed typefaces the color scheme and all kinds of, kind of the quirks of early letter press printing which was what we you know we really wanted to communicate that. So I’m glad that came through.

Sarah Kernan 30:34

Well, final question. Did you have a favorite book or object from Staging the Table?

Deborah Krohn 30:42

Hard question. Who’s your favorite child. Um, let’s see. I, a favorite single object. Gosh. I mean…

Sarah Kernan 30:55

Or a couple, if you can’t really choose.

Deborah Krohn 30:57

Yeah, I mean, you know. One of the napkins that we borrowed from the Met that was, it’s it’s a napkin that was from seventeenth-century Haarlem or Belgium, sort of that area, that has a wonderful kind of label that’s sewn onto it with a series of names of different family members over several generations. And it’s it’s an American family, that’s how it got to the Met, and it was it’s actually in the American Wing at the Met, it was donated by an American family along with a lot of other objects. But the fact that this napkin had such an important status in the family that it became this kind of locus of of these different memories and the the kind of set of names on it. I I found that just so moving to see how something that many people would consider a kind of humble object, a napkin, became really the bearer of memory and transmitting family, you know, the family history, so that that object to me was just like a really important thing. Because you know these napkins, people had hundreds of them in the early modern period, literally hundreds, because they um they were used constantly. And they were really, you know, necessary to to this the rituals of dining and they do survive but people don’t really use them anymore.

Deborah Krohn 32:30

They’re too much work. I think when you start asking questions and talking about this, so many people when I was doing tours of the exhibition would say, oh yeah, I have all this big box of of of linens from my grandmother, but I never use them because they’re so hard to wash and, you know, and iron, and so but these are really these sort of humble material objects. And and so that’s something that’s that was one of my favorite objects. And then I’ll have to say some of some of the books that just the illustrations. There’s there’s one illustration of a carver and he’s standing in what looks to me very much like a Kunstkammer, and I think it’s kind of riffing on this the the theme of the Kunstkammer, you know that, I found that actually at the very end of my research process and we didn’t have time to even borrow the book, so I have a reproduction of it. And and one thing I’ll just say this really quickly. In the exhibition we also have a lot of reproductions because when you’re doing a book exhibition one of the challenges is you can only open a book to one page, but what I chose to do is to attach all of those reproductions with nails to the wall so it looked sort of like the workshop and so that the visitor. wasn’t deluded into thinking these were actual objects. I wanted it to be really clear what was a reproduction and what was, you know, an actual object. So this this image of the carver in his workshop that looks like a Kunstkammer, to me made that exact connection. And instead of having precious objects like jewels, and cameos, and ancient sculpture that you’d see in a in a Kunstkammer illustration, they’re carcasses of animals and and carved fruits. So, and I think it was actually humorous. I mean, whoever made that had a sense of humor about the sort of visual tradition that was being quoted, and that, so that to me was, it’s a favorite object because it seemed to kind of embody some of you know some of my ideas about the exhibition.

Sarah Kernan 34:25

Wonderful! Well Deborah, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about Staging the Table.

Deborah Krohn 34:32

It’s been a really wonderful opportunity for me to reflect as the exhibition is coming to a close and to think about some of the themes. And I really appreciate your interest. Great to meet you.

Sarah Kernan 34:43

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.

Around the Table Podcast: Historical Recipes in the Digital Age with Elaine Harrington

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Listen here, or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts!

In this episode, Sarah Kernan speaks to Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian at University College Cork about Historical Recipes in the Digital Age. This project was created by a partnership between UCC Special Collections and Digital Learning and relied on the contributions of staff and students to shape and analyze the project. To stay up-to-date with UCC Library Special Collections & Archives, follow @UCCLibrary and @theriversideUCC on Twitter and UniversityCollegeCorkLibrary on Facebook.

Music

Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Historical Recipes in the Digital Age Project Team

Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian (@walkerabroad)

Emma Horgan, Library Archivist (@emshorgan24)

Stephanie Chen, Digital Learning Specialist (@iamstephanie_c)

Cara Long and David Leen, student workers in Digital Learning, UCC Library 

Kian O’Mahony, student on internship in Special Collections & Archives

Manuscript Sources

UCC Library Special Collections Manuscripts U.59, U.295, and U.368

Project Resources

Patrick O’Dwyer (2019) “HI6091: Work Placement in Special Collections (2019).” The River-side. 

Elaine Harrington and Emma Horgan (2022) “Pi Day and Historical Recipes.” The River-side.   

Kian O’Mahony (2022) “Work Placement and Historical Research Skills in Action.” The River-side.  

Cara Long and David Leen (2022) “Reflection on the Use of Scalar.” The River-side.  

Stephanie Chen and Elaine Harrington (2022) “Remaking the printed word in the digital age.” Poster Presentation at 87th IFLA World Library and Information Congress, Dublin, Ireland 25-28 July 2022 and complementary interactive website.

Elaine Harrington (2023) “From Books to Bytes: Transforming Access to the Printed Word in the Digital Age.” Poster Presentation at BOBCATSSS 2023: A New Era – Exploring the Possibilities and Expanding the Boundaries, Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway.  25-27 July 2023.  

Elaine Harrington (2023) “Remaking the Printed Word in the Digital Age.” An Leabharlann: The Irish Library, 32 (1): 4-9. 

Mentioned in the Show

Historical Recipes in the Digital Age

George Boole

Scalar

#PiDay and #PieDay

Transkribus

Snails in Recipes

National Folklore Collection

Transcript

Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian at University College Cork. She was part of the team who created Historical Recipes in the Digital Age, a digital project based on manuscript recipes in UCC Library Special Collections. Elaine, thank you so much for joining me today.

Elaine Harrington 00:46

Not at all. Thank you for having me.

Sarah Kernan 00:49

Could you begin by telling us a bit about Historical Recipes in the Digital Age? What exactly is part of this digital project and how is it connected to University College Cork?

Elaine Harrington 01:01

Sure. So Historical Recipes in the Digital Age is a digital publication. You can consider it an exhibition, where apart from the introduction, you can dive right in and maneuver around. That is, it doesn’t necessarily have a linear flow to it. And we look at primary sources of three manuscript recipe books from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. These are Irish recipe books, but written in English as opposed to written in the Irish language. They’re held in Special Collections and here in UCC Library, which is how we have easy access to them. And the excerpts from them form the basis of the Scalar instance which is where we host Historical Recipes of the Digital Age. So, the project is a combination of images of the recipes, textual transcriptions of the recipes, visual visualizations based on those textual transcriptions, and then combinations that are not so readily identifiable if you were looking solely at the paper version. In addition, we’ve included some contextual information about Cork from a postcard collection that’s held in the Archive Service in UCC Library. So it’s a good way to get lots of different parts of our collection into an online digital setting.

Recipe from U.295, Special Collections, UCC Library. Photo courtesy Elaine Harrington.

Sarah Kernan 02:29

Well, could you speak a bit about how you and anyone else from the project team actually came up with the idea for this project? And could you also tell us more about the project team, too?

Elaine Harrington 02:39

So, when I started thinking about this question initially, I thought about the project team, but I realized that it originated, my interested in recipe books, around 2014, 2015. And this was when the university celebrated the year of the life of George Boole. And George Boole is the person for whom Boolean Algebra is named, which is big in libraries, or if you’ve ever done AND, OR, NOT searching. Um, he was the first professor of mathematics here in the university and he’s someone really important at the heart of the university, and the library that I’m based in is named for him. And as part of the celebrations for his year, they wanted to introduce the contextual information about what had happened in his life, so they included food and Cork. And one of the recipes that they looked at was college pudding, which is a kind of a rice pudding that’s boiled. And it’s not very nice even when you dolly it up with syrup, but it came from one of the recipe books, and that made me think that there’s always a way for food in particular to have interest to pretty much everyone. It’s one of those universals. Then in 2019, there was a student who as part of a work placement for a postgraduate history module, Skills for Medieval Historians, he came and he worked on that same manuscript recipe book.

Elaine Harrington 04:10

His background was a chef so we thought that he would be familiar with some of the food terms, but he had difficulty reading some of the handwriting from the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century recipe books. But he was used to the terms that were used. And from there we moved into thinking how could we use some of the recipe books in different ways. And then the pandemic happened and suddenly we had no more in-person access from March 2020 to July 2020, and then over the next year access was so much more restricted that we had to find ways to bring our collections into a digital environment. Around about the same time, about May 2021, a digital learning specialist was hired in UCC Library, and that’s Stephanie Chen. And over the next year, she and I started collaborating together on a series of projects of which this Historical Recipes in the Digital Age was one. And it was a great way to get our content into a space, but I wasn’t the only one who had to do all parts of the project, and who had made for greater collaboration and interactivity across the different parts of the library service. So we wanted to have both enhancing access to the collections, learning new technologies, but also a really important part within UCC is our connected curriculum, where students are co-creators, co-researchers, and they learn lots of new skills. So for us to have student partners, that was key.

Elaine Harrington 05:45

So the project team was myself, Special Collections librarian; Stephanie Chen, the digital learning specialist; there were two undergraduate students, Cara Long and David Leen, who were studying law and business information systems, who worked on Stephanie on a series of digital projects including this one; a postgraduate student who is working with me on a work placement portfolio module, Kian O’Mahony; and Emma Horgan, one of the Library archivists. And she came in later the project where both she and I started to try our hand at making some of the recipes and it wasn’t always successful. So that’s the project where we came up with the idea and the project team.

Sarah Kernan 06:28

That’s wonderful. I love how diverse the group of people and interests and contributions are from everyone on the team. That’s wonderful, especially the input from students, too.

Elaine Harrington 06:46

Yeah.

Sarah Kernan 06:46

Could you talk a little bit about Scalar, for anyone, in particular, who’s not familiar with that platform. How did you decide to use it, and did you use any other projects as inspiration, whether or not they were born on Scalar or not?

Elaine Harrington 07:05

Sure. So, during the pandemic, I wrote a blog post on WordPress. This is The River-side, which is Special Collections’ and Archives’ main communication tool for longer-form pieces than tweets. So, the post I wrote was on an eighteenth-century Cork library, a charity school, and the library was donated to the university in the early 1990s. I had looked at visualizations limited on what Google could do for me. Between places of publication, who is the donor, the different types of books that were present, overlapping items with other things in the collection, but it was actually really limited between what was the tools available on WordPress, the plugins that were available to me, and then looking at, say, Google Maps as a way of creating some of those visualizations, so I was eager to see what else was out there. In searching for it, I came across Scalar and some other annotation tools like Hypotheses. But again, there was so much going on during the pandemic. It was, it’s too much for one person to do on their own.

Elaine Harrington 08:14

In the summer of ’21, I participated in the American Library Association International Librarians networking program which is the initiative of one of their roundtables, and it allows participants to form a collaborative relationship with someone else for four months at a time, and the intention is that you can continue to network with that person if you so choose. The person I was partnered with was Dr. Win Shih, who is Director of Integrated Library Systems at the University of Southern California, and we were both interested in emerging technologies. So, he was telling me about some of the different technologies being done in the University of Southern California and he mentioned Scalar, and they were actually the ones who created it. I had come across Scalar already, so I was hugely interested and I asked him lots and lots of questions about how he found it. So, he passed me on to the Special Collections team and their actual technology people so that when I suggested to Stephanie that we could use Scalar, not to replace WordPress but to sit alongside it to do things that weren’t possible on the blogging site, we already had an entry in. At the time, I think so many people were pursuing Scalar as an option. So, it was really handy to have had that personal connection.

Elaine Harrington 09:35

I could see from their Special Collections site the things that they had used it for. Alice Online: The Works and World of Lewis Carroll, A History of Photography in USC Libraries Collections, and these were things that we could then explore ourselves and go yes, we like that item, we can see how we can use it for not just the blog post that I had done on the Cork charity school but lots of other things. It was far more interactive than what the WordPress could be. It was also important that the tool was open source and web-based so that we could access this anywhere, and they gave us options about did we want a registration key and it would be hosted on the USC site, or did we want to self-host, the source code is all available on GitHub. Or you could use a different site. They suggested one called Reclaim Hosting and they offer Scalar as an option as an option rather for their hosting packages. But because we were so new to it, we said we would start low-key first and ask them to host it and we would have an access through a password and username, etc. So that’s probably enough for that part.

Sarah Kernan 10:48

Wonderful. Well, you’ve talked a little bit about, in terms of the project team, how staff and students have been involved in the creation of Historical Recipes. Has input into the project been tied to coursework, or has it been totally independent of that? Could you just talk a little bit about how it’s actually integrated into courses and learning?

Elaine Harrington 11:16

So, it actually stands independent of courses and learning. We decided to do the first iteration of it by linking it to Pi Day, which is three point one four so fourteenth of March.

Sarah Kernan 11:31

We are very familiar at the Recipes Project with it!

Elaine Harrington 11:33

And yeah, of course I’m saying it to the wrong people! So, I had seen it come up on Twitter and I thought this is a great combination of mathematics and recipes, plenty of collaboration with different groups who might not think of recipes necessarily. And so we specifically picked, we don’t really have pies in Ireland, so I widened it out to baking in general, and then widened it out again to maybe like syrups or frosting or the like. We took an expansive view of what pie was. So I selected which recipes and which recipe books to use. I showed all the students that were involved in the project all the different recipe books, what they look like, then we, I scanned the items uploaded them to a OneDrive folder that we had access to and they immediately knew that they wanted to work only with the twentieth-century one because that was by far the easiest to read and required the least amount of transcription on their part. So, it already had the list of ingredients. They didn’t have to create that themselves from, oh I see that they mentioned gooseberries here, I should add gooseberries to my ingredients list. So, a lot of the detective work was removed.

Elaine Harrington 12:54

Stephanie liaised with USC, and she set up the UCC instance, and then she worked with the students on figuring out how Scalar worked. Emma came in towards the end of the project when she and I started making the recipes specifically for Pi Day. Only one of the students was involved in doing coursework and that was the student who worked with me while he was on placement, but he also worked on a series of other projects, so this wasn’t the sole focus. Every year UCC Library hires various student workers, whether for invigilation, shelving, data entry, and two of them came on board to work with Stephanie on a range of digital projects which included 3D scanning of objects, creating 360 degree tours based on mapping of historical advertisements in eighteenth-century Cork and newspapers, and creating a coloring book for #ColorOurCollections. Um, they were involved in lots of other projects as well over the course of the eight months, but those were the ones that they also had input from Special Collections on. The intent was to return to the project again this year for Pi Day, but you know the way of it, other projects pop up in the way. But it is a resource we intend to return to, and I never did get back to pushing, transferring the blog post of the eighteenth-century Cork charity school into Scalar, so I have to do that separately.

Sarah Kernan 14:18

Well, this project is different than a site with complete digitized manuscripts or recipes collections, and it’s obviously quite different than looking at the physical objects, the original physical books. Could you talk about the value of working with these kinds of digital images and what skills students developed to work with these recipes. You’ve already mentioned some of the challenges that they encountered in terms of reading the handwriting and transcribing them, coming up with the list of ingredients, for example…

Elaine Harrington 14:51

Yes.

Sarah Kernan 14:52

But what are other skills that they might have acquired during this process?

Elaine Harrington 14:58

So, if I start with how it’s different from the original. So, with the digital projects, we should be mindful of what is omitted. For example, with the recipes in Historical Recipes in the Digital Age, I have scanned around the recipe itself rather than seeing the full page, so we don’t know the person who wrote the recipe did they think, ooh Apple Charlotte, I also want to put in Apple Cake so that the two of those would be side by side. That part of it is now missing from the site itself. All of the recipe books had inserts and those weren’t scanned, but if you were looking for a specific Apple Charlotte recipe, then you would spot it if you were looking at the physical item. And then two of the recipe books have indexes that were created by a series of people over a number of years. We didn’t transfer those over. And there’s also newspaper cuttings on the front of one for everything from tips for burns and skulls, or diphtheria, how to mend broken china, and simple disinfectant. So they’re not recipe books, it’s also folk cures and a whole range of other things. Some of the challenges, I had mentioned the handwriting is the most obvious but I think it’s the food terms, for how much has food changed in the last one hundred years. The students had never heard of dripping, which is a type of fat, and I had to explain that to them. They had never considered that beef tea could be used for colds. Why wouldn’t you have access to all of the different, you know, pharmaceutical pills that we would have now.

Elaine Harrington 16:44

They really didn’t like the handwriting. We keep coming back to it, but it’s something that the history department and UCC have also noted and they’re specifically creating different modules to accustom students to get used to handwriting because we write so much less now. But the students involved were business and law students, so they wouldn’t have those modules in the same way that Arts Humanities students would. So it was really interesting seeing their perspective on that. As part of the summing up of their presence on the projects. We asked them like what could you say that would be useful to other students who might be considering but don’t have a background in Arts and Humanities. So, they said they really liked working on the variety of projects, how they learned new skills which would further assist them post-college. These were undergraduate students. They developed digital fluency and greater experience in different technology types. They became more capable in troubleshooting technical problems whether it was software, or 3D printers, not specifically used on this project but on others, and they became more comfortable with adapting to new types of technologies, and we talked about that as well at the start before we started chatting about this. They enjoyed using Scalar to create an interactive and virtual book to display historical recipes. And they enjoyed deciphering the handwritten recipes, as challenging as it was, and they found it really rewarding then to input them into Scalar.

Elaine Harrington 18:15

They found the process of learning and navigating their way through Scaler more challenging and inconsistent than they thought it would be. They thought that it wasn’t an intuitive tool, which is why the project itself took longer than expected. But they had also used H5P which they preferred. So, the personal preferences really showed up. But they did, they really did like using Scalar in different ways. And I think that’s something that all of us need to be mindful for, because you think that people are these digital natives and I use that with caution. That they are more comfortable with stick them in front of a digital tool they’ve never seen it before and they get going and I think for them as well to know that there is this learning curve is definitely worthwhile in learning at that point.

Recipe from U.295, Special Collections, UCC Library. Photo courtesy Elaine Harrington.

Sarah Kernan 19:07

Well, you’ve hinted a bit that you’d like to add a bit more to the Scalar site and grow it a little bit. Could you speak to that a bit and could you also talk about how this project may have influenced any other projects that have gone on at UCC?

Elaine Harrington 19:28

So, at the moment we would be aiming to work towards Pi Day 2024. It’s hard to believe it’s coming up so fast. But also to grow it out and I mentioned that there are lots of other different things included in the historical recipe books, so to focus on some of those folklore cures, or to look at things that were unexpected. For example, there’s a recipe for curry powder. Which I wouldn’t have expected in the middle of the nineteenth-century recipe book. But then I must remember that Cork was a port city as part of the British Empire and there are the influences from other parts of the then British Empire and which are brought to bear on that recipe book. How has it influenced other things. We’re exploring other tools such as Transkribus to um, almost shortcut handwriting in a way, but we need a significant body of work for that to be possible. And the Archives Section within the Library are working with the History Department for those history students to learn different ways of looking at letter forms and thinking, okay, so that’s that, this is how I do that. But those are really good for anyone who are in Arts Humanities departments and not anyone else and that’s one of the challenges we find in the Library Association of Ireland where books group, where there isn’t, where books courses taught within many of our universities. How do you bring on the next group of librarians like myself who might not have as much familiarity with handwriting either. I sound like I’m mentioning only handwriting when there were so many other different challenges to focus on. But if you can’t read what the content is about then it’s a really limiting factor. No matter how much people are interested in food, and we’re so much used to the printed word now, that it really is quite the challenge.

Sarah Kernan 21:34

Absolutely, absolutely. If other institutions are considering similar projects in scale or in theme or scope to yours or instructors are considering devising similar digital projects for their courses, what sort of advice would you provide to them?

Elaine Harrington 21:57

Sure. So, new digital tools aren’t always as easy or intuitive no matter our level of familiarity with digital tools, in general. With each new technology, there is a learning curve and time to master that should be factored in. But also consideration of what else you’ve going on either in the students’ lives or in your own life. As I mentioned, Pi Day 2023 didn’t happen this year for that very reason. If you have other resources available like transcriptions of recipes from previous projects then reuse them. There’s no point reinventing the wheel unnecessarily. But as a positive, we reach the highest number of potential users in such a short space of time, we’ve created a variety of different resources as part of the project. So, there’ve been two posters at different international conferences. We have an interactive website so that you can see the Scalar project alongside all the other projects that was created at the same time, there’s been a journal article and four different blog posts associated with recipes and how we use them. So already we have this tremendous body of work where we can really showcase what is possible with what is seemingly such a small activity.

Sarah Kernan 23:20

Recipe from U.295, Special Collections, UCC Library. Photo courtesy Elaine Harrington.

Final question. Do you have any favorite recipes from the manuscripts in the project and are there any features in the manuscripts that you think are really ripe for scholarly attention?

Elaine Harrington 23:33

So, for Pi Day I chose to make the afternoon teacake recipe in part because I thought it would be easy and fast to make and it was. But also it was easy to follow, unlike the one for lemon filling which went horribly, horribly wrong. It still tasted nice, but I couldn’t use it for what I had intended which was to put between the two afternoon teacakes and kind of create a sandwich. It was far too liquidy for that in the end. And the second question sorry again was…

Sarah Kernan 24:03

Are there any features in the manuscripts that you think are really ripe for scholarly attention?

Elaine Harrington 24:08

Yes, absolutely. So I touched on that earlier, the different combinations of recipes for cures for diphtheria, or mending china, but there’s also one, and I can’t condone it, for using snails to do something else. It’s a very odd little cutting, but we have this large collection in Ireland called the National Folklore Collection. A lot of it is already available online. And I think there are lots of synergies between that collection and some of the folk cures that are present which aren’t typical recipes as we would expect to see them in modern cookbooks but were definitely part and parcel of the tradition of manuscript recipe books. So I think there is something there and also because the National Folklore Collection where a lot of the contributions have been in the Irish language. So for here these recipe books they’re all in English, which is open to far more users than would be otherwise.

Sarah Kernan 25:15

Elaine, thank you again for joining me today to talk about this great project, Historical Recipes in the Digital Age.

Elaine Harrington 25:22

Thank you so much for having me, Sarah. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Sarah Kernan 25:27

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.

Around the Table Podcast: Talking Curious Cures with James Freeman

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Listen here, or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts!

In this episode, Sarah Kernan speaks to the principal investigator of Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries, Dr. James Freeman. Curious Cures is an impressive project to digitize, catalogue, and conserve over 180 medieval manuscripts that contain unedited medical recipes in the University of Cambridge Libraries. Dr. Freeman talks about manuscripts, recipes, digitization, the Curious Cures team, and some of the challenges and rewards of working on such a large projects. To stay up-to-date with the project’s progress, follow #CuriousCures on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and the University Library on Twitter.

Music

Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Mentioned in the Show

Medieval Medical Recipes in the Cambridge Digital Library

Curious Cures Project and Team

Cambridge Library Digital Content Unit

Cambridge Library Conservation and Collection Care

Wellcome

The Polonsky Foundation Greek Manuscripts Project

Index of Middle English Prose

eTK/eVK2 Project

Peter Jones

Text Encoding Initiative

Culinary Recipes of the Middle Ages (CoReMa)

Transkribus

This Podcast Will Kill You (Episode 108 Gout: Toetally fascinating)

Hannah Bower

Transcript

Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes. Today I’m speaking to Dr James Freeman, principal investigator of Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries, an impressive project to digitize, catalogue, and conserve over one hundred and eighty medieval manuscripts that contain unedited medical recipes in the University of Cambridge Libraries. James, thank you so much for joining me today.

James Freeman 00:48

My pleasure. Thank you very much for the invitation.

Sarah Kernan 00:51

Well, let’s start off with some basics. Could you tell everyone about Curious Cures, what exactly does the project encompass, and what manuscripts are part of this project?

James Freeman 01:01

Well, you summarized it very well in your introduction. So, as you say there’s over one hundred and eighty, I think it’s one hundred and eighty-six in total, medieval manuscripts, so handwritten books. They are predominantly late medieval manuscripts…fourteenth, fifteenth century, some into the early sixteenth century, though there are a few earlier. I think the earliest is eleventh century that we’ll be covering. And the one thing that they have in common is that they contain unedited, or uneditable even, medical recipes. So, these are recipes that have never been published in print before, or for the most part haven’t been published in print. They’re mostly English in origin and particularly the later medieval ones. Many of them contain recipes written in Middle English, but there’s a big mix of Middle English, Latin, there’s some in Anglo-Norman French, and there’s some, a few, in Old English. But it’s a fairly miscellaneous kind of corpus because, of course, the one thing it has in common is the unedited nature of the medical recipes that these books contain. So there were also manuscripts from Italy, in particular, but also France, I think there’s some from Germany, too, that are being covered by the project. But most of them are English and that’s a reflection also of the way in which the collections at Cambridge University Library and the Colleges and Fitzwilliam Museum that are collaborating with us have developed and what our collection strengths are.

Sarah Kernan 02:42

What kind of conservation and cataloging and digitization is actually taking place with these?

James Freeman 02:49

So, the conservation is, for the most part, focused on the conservation for digitization. So, this is the sort of routine stabilization work, repairing tears, that sort of thing, and where items are particularly fragile, providing the photographers in the University Library’s Digital Content Unit with sort of help in setting up, supporting, and handling the manuscripts. There’s a certain number within the project that will be able to do more intensive treatments which might involve in some cases doing a bit of rebinding or kind of more time consuming work that will ensure that these materials are accessible, not only digitally, but also in in the flesh, so to speak, to researchers for decades to come. All of the manuscripts that are being covered will be re-boxed or boxed, the ones at the University Library. So that’s the conservation sort of side of things.

James Freeman 04:03

Digitization, so it’s a bit of a mixed picture. Because we’re collaborating with twelve Cambridge Colleges, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and doing some of our own manuscripts at the University Library, as well, the picture is quite, is a bit mixed. So, for instance, Trinity College, they’ve digitized all or almost all of the manuscripts that we’ll be covering there and they have their own set up. Some, but most of the colleges, don’t. Corpus is another one that has had all of its manuscripts already digitized, but most of them don’t, so they will be coming to the UL for conservation treatment and for digitization by my colleagues in the Digital Content Unit. That digitization is going to be cover to cover. So, all of the, you know, the bindings, spines, four edges, all of the end leaves, all of the pages, and I mean I couldn’t go into the technical specifications about photography. But if there are some photography enthusiasts among your listeners, they’re welcome to get in touch and I can put them in touch with Raffa Losito, who is the project photographer, and she could give them all the details about the lenses, and the photography cradle, the rig that they’ve got set up, because I know some people get really interested in this. So yes, so that’s the conservation and the digitization.

James Freeman 05:26

The cataloging, again, it’s kind of the usual sort of thing that you would expect with a digitization project. So, I’ve got a team of three catalogers, Clarck Drieshen, Sarah Gilbert, and Tuija Ainonen, who will be describing the manuscripts textual contents. So, what the texts are and the intellectual contents of the manuscripts, their material characteristics, so what they’re made of, the collation, the structure of the gatherings of leaves, the dimensions, the layout of the text, what the decoration is, style of handwriting, etc., etc., etc. And also the history of those manuscripts as objects, so what their date and place of their origin, to the degree that we’re able to know this either from explicit evidence like scribal colophons, which are quite rare in English manuscripts, or more generally paleographical or art historical evidence, and also their provenance. You know, their ownership. And then the point at which they’ve come to the UL, you know, and there’s a number of common ways in which they’ve been acquired or donated to us over the centuries.

Sarah Kernan 06:43

How have you determined, or how has your team determined, which manuscripts would actually be conserved and digitized in these collections, as well as what kind of transcription or contextualization work was actually necessary?

James Freeman 06:58

So, it’s a tricky one for conservation because, you know, we don’t have the capacity outside of a project, outside of an externally-funded project, to do the sorts of detailed condition survey work that is the step one, if you will, of the Curious Cures project. So we have to make a kind of guess and an informed estimate of what is likely to be required on the basis of our experience with previous digitization projects. So, we’ve just come to the end of a major project to digitize, catalogue, and conserve all of the manuscripts in Cambridge Libraries that contain texts in Greek, which was funded by the Polonsky Foundation. So, we’ve got a bit of experience there, so we can. My colleagues in Conservation Shaun Thompson, who’s the lead conservator, and his colleagues Marina Pelissari and Rachel Sawicki, can come up with a sort of per manuscript estimate of what materials they’re likely to need, you know, materials to make a box and you know, wheat starch paste, Japanese tissue paper, that kind of thing, for doing the repairs. But then can also make an estimate of what might be required for more intensive work, both materials and their time, for a subset of maybe a dozen, or a few more, that will require a bit more, a bit more TLC, let’s say. Though obviously they’re much better informed than I am, and they could again provide the kind of detail that me as a non-expert can’t. So, if there’s any, again, if there’s any of your listeners who are interested in what they’re doing, there will be blog posts, I can promise you that, but we could also give you further information if you’re interested.

Sarah Kernan 08:47

Well, you’ve mentioned a couple other individuals who are part of the team who are helping out with this project. How large is the team, is it is it all staff, are there faculty or students or members of the public, or who all is involved in this project?

James Freeman 09:04

So, it’s a combination of existing members of staff whose time the project has essentially bought out. So, part of my time has been bought out while I run the project so we’ve recruited somebody as backfill for my role. Although coincidentally, he is actually also working as a cataloger the rest of the time. So, for instance, the cataloging team, they’ve all been hired from outside and they’re on fixed-term contracts for the project. But members of Conservation and Digital Content Unit, for instance, they already worked at the UL, so the Digital Content Unit, for instance, has to be sort of self-financing. So, the wages of the photographers that are paid, that work there, are paid by digitization projects, commercial orders, that kind of thing, so it’s a little bit of a mix. So, I mean the team is pretty large. I think there’s, and a rough guess I think, there’s about a dozen or maybe fifteen people involved in one way or another. It’s larger if we also count all of the librarians in the college libraries who are liaising with my colleagues in Conservation about the transfer of manuscripts from their library to ours and so on. So, it’s a fairly big enterprise, you could say, so we have regular team meetings and there’s a steering group that meets quarterly just to kind of keep a handle on progress.

James Freeman 10:39

There aren’t members of the public involved at this stage in what we’re doing, simply because the focus of the project. So, we’re funded by Wellcome by one of their research resources awards, and the focus, or what Wellcome’s kind of priority, are in their formulation health researchers in the humanities and social sciences. So, you know historians of medicine, historians of science, that kind of thing. So this is a sort of scholarly endeavor aimed at providing those researchers with better access to the collections that we have at the UL and other libraries in Cambridge. That said, there’s clearly great scope for public engagement and the response to the project so far to the initial publicity and the announcement of the launch has been kind of a bit mind-blowing, to be honest. Like I knew people would be interested, but I didn’t, I wasn’t quite prepared for how interested and what level of attention the project has received so far. I mean, it’s really encouraging and a lot of that, you know, that’s testament to the kind of skill of my colleague Stuart Roberts and his team in the Library’s communications office in getting the press release prepared and sent to the right places. So myself and other members of the team have been trying to keep the momentum going from that by doing podcast recordings like this. But also we’ve got blog posts that are forthcoming, and it’s in the very, very early stages, but after the project there is potentially the possibility that we might do a physical exhibition at the UL that can communicate some of the outputs of the project to a broader popular audience.

Sarah Kernan 12:37

Well, given all the excitement about the project, how long do people have to wait to see any of these digitized manuscripts? Will we start seeing any soon, or will we have to wait a couple years for anything to be posted?

James Freeman 12:51

No, no. For the sake of my sanity, we’re going to release them in batches rather than leave it all to the end. So, the first group of manuscripts, which I think might be sort of maybe around twenty or so, are going to, hopefully, all being well, unless there’s some major technical hiccup, will be appearing on the Cambridge Digital Library at the end of this month. It’s tricky, big digitization projects. There’s a lot of moving parts and eventually, obviously at the end everything comes together. But at the moment, we have a bunch of manuscripts that the catalogers have catalogued, a bunch of manuscripts that the photographers have photographed, but the two groups aren’t necessarily the same manuscripts, so where those two groups do overlap we’ll be putting those online as soon as we can. And so the plan is to do the first release at the end of this month and then to do quarterly ones thereafter; so end of March, end of June, end of September, and end of December.

Sarah Kernan 13:55

Digitizing these manuscripts obviously has great value for anyone studying medieval medicine, but what else is included in these manuscripts that other scholars might find useful? Are there culinary recipes, or literature, or poetry, or interesting household or scientific texts?

James Freeman 14:16

It’s a real mix, because the selection criteria, if you will, is that a manuscript contains an unedited medical recipe. We have got receptaria manuscripts, you know, compilations of dozens or even hundreds of medical recipes. We’ve got medical recipes that contain, medical manuscripts that contain recipes dotted in their, you know, texts or in their peripheries, but also non-medical manuscripts that have had recipes scribbled onto end leaves, or fly leaves, or margins, or blank space, or whatever. So, it’s a real mix. One thing I haven’t said so far is that in addition to the cataloging, digitization, and conservation, you know as if we’ve not got enough to do, I’ve also set us the challenge that we’ll be transcribing all of the recipes in full. I can say a bit more about that in due course. So, the idea is that what the cataloging will do is give researchers a sense or an insight into the intellectual contexts in which recipe medical recipe knowledge was being recorded and disseminated. And the digitization, kind of complementary to that, will show how that knowledge is being arranged and organized on the page.

James Freeman 14:51

We know where the recipes are because of the great work that contributors to the Index of Middle English Prose or Thorndike and Kibre’s index of incipits or Linda Voigts and Patricia Kurtz’s work on Middle English medical texts which are now in the kind of eTK and eVK online resource, the fantastic work that they’ve done. We know where this stuff is, but we don’t necessarily know what the, you know, the kind of granular detail. You know, where can we find recipes that concern toothache, or headache, or difficult pregnancies. Or where do we find instances of, I don’t know, herbs like rosemary, or sage, or rue being used. And in combination with what other sorts of ingredients. It’s much harder to get at the at the nitty gritty. So, the idea behind the transcriptions is that we can give researchers that sort of access. So yes, so the other contents can be very, very varied. They’ll be the kinds of medical texts that you would expect to see, texts by, I don’t know, Matthaeus Platearius and others, or Johannes de Sancto Paulo, but also nonmedical texts. You know, so we have bibles, books of hours, liturgical books. I think we have literary texts as well. Legal manuscripts.

James Freeman 17:08

I have to say I was when we were thinking, when I was thinking about the project and putting things together and considering the scope for the project, I thought, you know, can we really justify all the energy and effort and expense that digitizing a non-medical manuscript that might just contain a few recipes on its end leaves when we could focus on more medical, more medically-focused, or you know, medical-specific manuscripts. Now, my rationale was that, well, manuscripts that contain more stable medical texts are, if they haven’t already been edited, are more likely, or have a greater chance than tiny little recipe texts which are anonymous and very mutable and often have very small variations between them. They have the more stable medical texts have a much greater chance of being edited in a more traditional sort of scholarly edition whether it’s printed or online. And, I was looking at some of the manuscripts, as well, just thinking about the non-medical contexts in which you find these recipes, and there’s a legal manuscript at the at the UL that I was looking at as part of the project. I think it’s called Additional Manuscript 2994. And it contains copies of statutes, legal formularies, that kind of thing. Interesting if you’re into that kind of thing. And I looked at the recipes which are on the end leaves, and they are, you would expect, they’re going to be miscellaneous, they’ve been scribbled in by a number of different hands, they don’t have any kind of rationale. It was just, you know, convenience, or there’s the most easily to hand bit of spare parchment. What I found here, was that there’s a couple of dozen or more recipes, all for the same complaint, that have been deliberately gathered by one person. They’re all copied by the same hand or thereabouts. Most of them have been copied by one hand, there might be a couple of others that have been added on by different hands. So, there’s a sort of deliberate organizing, you know, intention behind this. I mean they’re all for gout, so insert obvious joke about medieval lawyers and their rich diets here. So yes, so the contents of the manuscripts is going to be very varied. Now that fulfills sort of our own institutional objective, which is to get as many of our manuscripts digitized and cataloged and available to people virtually as possible, but it also fulfills Wellcome’s requirements and the needs of these historians of medicine, health researchers in the humanities and social sciences, in being able to access this kind of stuff.

Sarah Kernan 20:07

Well, going back to when you were coming up with the idea for this project, what was your intention? What makes now the right time to do such a large project like this?

James Freeman 20:21

Well, we were, I mean it’s been long in gestation, I have to say. I think that our first kind of conversations about it, and I have to acknowledge the help of Peter Jones who’s a fellow at King’s College here in Cambridge and he was very helpful in these sort of early stages, thinking about medical manuscripts at the at the UL. It was not a part of the collection, I have to confess, I knew very well at that time. But I think we were, I think we were first talking about it in certainly pre-pandemic times. So I think maybe 2018. And we were at that stage just at the start of the Polonsky Greek Manuscripts project. But of course, you know how it is. You’re already thinking about what the next thing might be, and we knew that Wellcome offered this research resources award to enable libraries like us to make our collections more accessible to researchers. And we also knew that and we’ve got a kind of proven track record of cross-collection collaborative digitization projects. So, we thought well, how could we best leverage, if you will, what we’re doing with the Polonsky Project to the kind of next thing.

James Freeman 21:34

One of our collection strengths as well as medical manuscripts, are manuscripts containing text in Middle English, you know, and literary texts, you know, Canterbury Tales, works by, you know, William Langland, John Gower, and so on, are very frequently used for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, as well as being sort of internationally significant for research. The medical ones are as well, but I have to say I hardly ever get those out for teaching. And I thought students would really take to this because, of course, you know, well, they would take to them for the reasons that they take to Chaucer, because it’s full of kind of bodily functions and you know very kind of visceral descriptions of human life and death. So, I thought these will have a great role to play in student teaching in the future. So, then I sort of started to look at what kind of resources existed and think, well, how could we improve on all the brilliant work that the IMEP or eTK and eVK have done.

James Freeman 22:43

And in September 2019, I went to a conference in Austria in Graz about TEI, the Text Encoding Initiative. So, this is about the kind of marking up of text with custom tags to essentially make it machine readable, categorizing what the content of the text is. And I met a researcher called Helmet Klug who is working on the Culinary Recipes of the Middle Ages project, CoReMA, which I’m sure your listeners will be familiar with, and his team were transcribing and marking up these cooking recipes using TEI tags, so marking up what words described ingredients, preparatory techniques, measurements of weight or quantity or time, equipment, that kind of thing, and I thought, well, this would map brilliantly onto medical recipes. I don’t feel embarrassed about saying that I thought, well, I’ll just nick this methodology, it’s brilliant! Why change it? You know, and in keeping some consistency with what CoReMA were doing, then of course you could bring the corpus of culinary and medical recipes together potentially, which would be really valuable for research so to see what kind of crossover there is in in these two texts. Now, first of all, you need the transcriptions, so we’re not going to be able to do what CoReMA are doing at this stage. We may actually have to leave that to health researchers in the humanities and social sciences to do that more involved kind of compact marking up and then comparative analysis. But, the development of handwritten text recognition technologies as well, means that we stand a good chance of being able to generate the full text, the quantity of full- text transcriptions, that previous initiatives, cataloging and indexing projects, haven’t been able to do.

James Freeman 24:51

So, we’ll be using Transkribus as a platform to do the, you know, line division and transcribe the text. We’ve got some developers here at the UL, Mary Chester-Kadwell is one of them, and she is going to help us kind of get up and running with Transkribus and improve on the TEI export that Transkribus generates. Because it’s a TEI description that will be produced, that the catalogers are producing, so we can bring that data together and put it onto the digital library. So yes, so that’s, those sorts of all of those sorts of things came together in terms of the timing of the project. We’ll have to see, there’s going to be a bit of, you know, trial and error and testing with Transkribus now, because of course. So, I went to the latest conference in Innsbruck last September and it’s clear that the machine, if you could call it that, requires much less manual training than it used to, say, five, six, seven years ago, in order to produce a model that comes up with an acceptable or a workable character error rate. And some people who were presenting their research were getting you know, really quite incredible resources. You know, character error rates of not just less than ten percent, less than five percent. So, and I was assured by people who are more familiar with this than I am, which was basically everybody else at that conference, that it’s much quicker to run things through Transkribus and then correct, than it is to do it manually. But, we’re not dealing with beautifully organized, neatly laid out texts with most medical recipe manuscripts. We’re dealing with scruffy layouts, multiple hands, writing in in different directions, you know, texts on the margins and the peripheries. So, we’re going to have to just sort of see how things go. Some manuscripts undoubtedly will respond better to the to the Transkribus treatment than others, but I think it might be quite interesting and push the boundaries a little to see what the capabilities of this software is with this somewhat un-standard, un-standardized style of manuscripts.

Sarah Kernan 27:28

The digitized images that come out of this project, those will obviously be able to be freely viewed by anyone. Will researchers be able to use those images freely?

James Freeman 27:40

Sure. So, we’ll be making them available as you say on the Digital Library using the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 4.0. So, people can, they’re free to share them and adapt them so long as attribution is given and that the purposes are non-commercial in terms of publication. So, you know, you could use things on your blog or in teaching or in slideshows. Go for it. But for publications, they would have to apply for licenses to reproduce. Now, there might be room for negotiation about terms on that, I’d have to leave that to my colleague Domniki Papadimitriou in the DCU. She could advise, but I hope that seems kind of reasonable. The images will be available in one form or another, I mean, I would say in perpetuity to the degree that, you know, any of us know what’s going to happen in five, or ten, or twenty years’ time, but certainly the descriptions will be uploaded as a data set and individually to the university library’s repository, Apollo. So, it will be possible to access them both there and through the Digital Library. So, the idea is that there’s a kind of stable version. Each catalog entry has its own DOI and the collection as a whole has a DOI, so that there is a record of each of the catalogers’ work that they can point to in their future research and whatever. But also, then we can, we may as the years go by want to enhance and augment and revise and expand those descriptions in the Digital Library.

Sarah Kernan 29:19

Yes. Well, final question. Do you have any favorite recipes yet that you have come across in these manuscripts, or are there any really outstanding features that you are excited for researchers to discover?

James Freeman 29:35

Well, yeah. That’s a hard question to answer because there’s so much good stuff in there, and if people, you know, and your listeners, you know, work on this stuff they’ll be, they’ll know this already. I mean, I like one that’s a cure for headaches which basically involves grinding pepper and boiling it in white wine, and then, “as hot as thou might suffer hold thereof in thy mouth and when it is nigh cold spit it out and take new and so do till the ache be away.” So, basically deal with your headache by getting drunk again. I mean there are some really interesting recipes deal with sort of female health and particularly childbirth. And it’s interesting. You know that the head-to-toe organization of recipes, such as it is, struggles, I think, to know where to place these treatments. You know it does start off with the head and you know works through headaches, and toohaches, and sore eyes, and, you know, coughs, and, you know, aching arms, and then it sort of gets to the gets to the middle regions and then sort of loses its way. But there are charms in amongst these medical recipes, of course. You know, there’s one in Additional Manuscript 9308, which is at the UL, very common, it’s one of the so-called peperit charms and it’s for a woman that travailth of child. So it, and peperit being the, you know, Latin verb give birth to or bear a child, you know, invokes all of these female saints who, you know, gave birth. So, invokes, you know, Saint Mary peperit Christ, Sancta Anna peperit Mariam, Sancta Elizabet peperit Johannem, Sancta Cecilia peperit Remigium. So, it’s invoking all of these important female saints, and you’re supposed to write this on a strip of parchment and bind it around, you know, the arm, or the leg, or the belly of the of the woman who’s in a kind of having a bad labor. And in fact, I think the Wellcome have a surviving example of this.

James Freeman 31:54

So that’s the kind of charm side of it, but then you also see the medical side of it, as well. And there’s a recipe for a woman in a similar predicament and it instructs you to take the juice of vervain, so the kind of common plant verbena, and give this to her to drink in cold water and she shall soon be delivered with the grace of Jesus. So, I mean, I wouldn’t dare to presume how effective or not that might be. I suspect not very effective at all. But I don’t know what the juice of vervain tastes like, maybe it’s utterly disgusting and the idea is that it takes your mind off things. But yes, there’s so many to choose from. There’s, if anybody here listens to the podcast This Podcast Will Kill You, you know they had one on gout recently. And the ones for gout are absolutely brilliant. Ah, you know there’s a very elaborate recipe which I couldn’t resist mentioning in the publicity for the project, about roasting a puppy stuffed with snails and sage, or the one that involves taking an owl, gutting it, salting it, baking it in an earthenware pot and then grinding it up and mixing it with boar’s grease to make a salve that you then rub on the affected area. None of which will have worked. But yeah, the elaborateness of some of these recipes. And there’s a researcher here in Cambridge, Hannah Bower, who works on recipes and magic tricks, as well, and she’s sort of suggested, you know, what’s the kind of value of these, is there a kind of entertainment dimension to them, were some of them not actually intended to be taken seriously, which I think is really interesting. So, hopefully what the project is doing will provide her and other researchers in this area with the material for new discoveries and new insights.

Sarah Kernan 33:47

Yeah, I’ve no doubt that this project is going to yield a lot of incredible research with all the information that researchers will now have access to freely. James, thank you again so much for joining me today to talk about Curious Cures.

James Freeman 34:04

My pleasure. Thanks very much for the invitation, Sarah.

Sarah Kernan 34:07

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.