Category Archives: Digital History

Shopping for Recipes in Early Modern London… Virtually

By Melissa Reynolds

Within just a few decades after William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476, Londoners had their choice of printed collections of medical recipes, herbal lore, instructions for distillation, and surgical instruction. Most of these editions were printed versions of texts that had been popular in Middle English manuscript collections, and printers did their best to choose from among these handwritten collections to produce printed editions that were better organized or more comprehensive.

Between 1525 and 1526 the printer Richard Banckes produced a suite of medical books, each of them sourced from Middle English manuscripts. Banckes’s medical books were the first of their kind printed in English: a medical recipe collection, known as The Treasure of Pore Men, with remedies collected from a number of manuscript collections; an herbal, known as The virtues & properties of herbs, based on the Middle English Agnus castus; and a uroscopy treatise known as The seynge of urynes, which was probably based on British Library MS Sloane 382, a manuscript created around 1450. In other words, the volumes that Banckes printed in the mid-1520s contained medical knowledge that had been widely read in England for a century or more.

But in print, century-old remedies were hugely popular. Banckes’s herbal and remedy collection were best-sellers among English readers. After Banckes left the printing trade in the late 1520s, rival printers began printing their own editions of his medical texts. By 1550, thirteen different editions of Banckes’s herbal had been issued by nine different printers. The same was true of a most printed medical collections.  By 1550, the London book market was glutted with reprints of the same remedy collections and herbal treatises, most of them sourced from manuscripts that were also still in circulation. 

So how did early modern readers decide on which recipes to read?

As scholars of recipe knowledge, we presume that our historical subjects were interested readers—that is, that they had a vested interest in assessing the value of the recipes or remedies that passed through their hands. Given the sheer number of recipe collections, herbals, and surgical collections on offer in what was a largely unregulated market, I imagined sixteenth-century London as the perfect environment for English consumers to begin honing their critical faculties, selecting from among dozens of inexpensive printed remedy books. For a few pennies, these readers could access a wealth of knowledge that had previously only circulated in manuscript. But for them to become discerning readers, they would need to be aware that choices could be made.

Though in the later sixteenth century, London’s booksellers would crowd the alleys around St. Paul’s Cathedral, this was not yet the case in the first half of the sixteenth century. With bookshops scattered throughout the old city, were sixteenth-century consumers really able to compare editions or locate the best prices? Could they hope to visit more than one or two shops in a single outing? 

The GoogleMyMaps above developed as an answer to those questions. It features the locations of English bookshops in London between 1525 and 1555, divided up by decade. In what follows, I’ll briefly describe the process of creating it, not because I think others will have the same questions about recipe shopping in London, but because creating a historical map to understand the circulation of recipe knowledge or material texts could be useful in a variety of classroom settings.

GoogleMyMaps is a totally free platform that will work for anyone with a Google account. Get started by visiting mymaps.google.com and clicking “Create A New Map.” Creating a personalized map is as easy as clicking the map to plot a location and then labeling it—at least, it’s that easy if you’re dealing with locations that actually exist on a contemporary Google map.

To create my map of early sixteenth-century locations, I couldn’t find Wynkyn de Worde’s shop at “the sign of the Sun” in twenty-first century London. Though printers’ colophons do include information on their shops’ locations, those locations are only described in relation to other sixteenth-century landmarks like churches or bridges. To find the print shops, I would need to find those landmarks on a sixteenth-century map. And luckily, I knew of one I could search: the Map of Early Modern London.

A nineteenth-century reproduction of the “Agas Map” of London, a woodcut map created in the 1560s and digitally annotated by the Map of Early Modern Project.

The amazing team at the MoEML project has digitally annotated the “Agas Map,” a woodcut map of London created sometime in the 1560s, so that a user can search for churches, parishes, alehouses, bridges, streets, prisons, playhouses, and almost everything in between. With the help of the Agas Map, I was able to find St. Dunstone’s church, which is where first Robert Redman, then William Middleton, then William Powell had their shops at the “sign of the George.”

For the most part, once I found a church on the Agas Map, I was able to find the same church on the contemporary Google Map. In some instances, I did my best to approximate a print shop’s location using street names on the Agas Map cross-referenced with modern streets in London. Because I had already carefully read the colophons of a number of early printed books and compiled a list of their locations, the production of my personalized Google map only took a few hours, and they were hours well spent. The exercise of searching the Agas Map and plotting early modern locations onto the streets of modern London gave me a much better sense of the early modern city I study, one which I’d never quite been able to visualize without buses or tube lines or high-rises crowding my mental picture. I felt I could really picture my sixteenth-century consumers, walking Fleet Street from one shop to another, looking for an herbal or remedy collection.

Google MyMaps are an easy, free, and accessible way for students to start to think concretely about the circulation of recipe knowledge, whether in early modern printed books, or among a network of friends or family, or as a collection of ingredients sourced from around the world. In my case, creating my personal Google map did help me to better conceive of the choices English consumers made about which books to buy. And for those of you interested in early English print, I hope you’ll find the map useful for research, too, whether inside or outside the classroom.

Introduction to the Plant Humanities

By Julia Fine

Recipes, as the tagline of this project suggests, feature in many facets of daily life, from food to science, magic to medicine. At the basis of many (if not most) of these recipes are plants: we’ve learned here how chiles were used to treat malaria in early modern China, that cucumber juice contributed to a 17th-century Russian hangover remedy, and why coffee was understood as a potential cure for the Plague in Turkey.

Bright watercolor drawing of various plants, most likely from Malaysia or Sumatra.
Plate from [Album of Chinese Watercolors of Asian fruits], held by Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library. The album was most likely produced by a Chinese artist located in Malaysia or Sumatra between 1798 and 1810. Image Credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Much of history focuses on decidedly human stories, where plants are relegated to the background. As historian Londa Schiebinger writes, “Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life in proportion to their importance to humans.”

We at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC have spent the past four years working to rectify this by placing plants at the center of human stories as part of our Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative. By bringing history together with botany, archaeology, art history, and other disciplines, we aim to highlight how plants have shaped the course of human history, and how humans have shaped plants in turn. The fruit of our exploration has been a digital humanities lab that puts narrative history side-by-side with primary sources, mapping tools, herbal specimens, and more in order to demonstrate the complexity of plants, as well as their importance in the current climate crisis.

Herbal specimen. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our lab now features over 15 original narratives on plants, with more coming in the near future. These plant-centered narratives are written by historians of science, art historians, paleoethnobotanists, geographers, and comparative literary scholars (among others). One narrative highlights how early modern women used herbs like dittany as a means to exert agency over their own health and fertility— a particularly critical topic given the vociferous debates about abortion occurring in the United States and elsewhere today. Another narrative on turmeric demonstrated how plants were not simply drivers of imperial expansion, but also tools through which understandings of the British Empire were spread.

Over the next month, we will be publishing excerpts from some narratives on The Recipes Project site. We will see how European conquistadors drew on Indigenous Mesoamerican recipes when transporting cacao to Europe. We will learn how peony, often imagined today as an ornamental flower, was used as a medicinal herb in both Chinese and Western medical traditions, where it was used to treat epilepsy, sciatica, and convulsions. And we will see how our modern-day fascination with cassava, frequently lauded as a “climate survivor crop,” would not be possible if not for the knowledge, expertise, and processing techniques developed by Mesoamerican and South American women, which allowed for poisonous cassava to be made edible.

Botanical drawing of a cacao vine
Botanical drawing of a cacao by Maria Sibylla Merian in her work Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium , 2019. Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Together, these stories highlight the primacy of plants in the history—and future— of human society. We hope you enjoy your trip around the world through these narratives, and stay tuned for opportunities to get involved with our initiative.

A Snapshot of the Food Studies Community

By Christian Reynolds

From October to December 2019, the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network ran a community survey asking what (and how) food scholars are currently using analogue and digital material. We were also interested how the community thought US and UK libraries and archives could better support food researchers through digitisation and activities. (See previous blog post.)

We were overwhelmed by the response to the community survey with 200 respondents from the global food research community — despite there being multiple ‘disruption events’ including an eight day university strike for many UK research institutions, as well as the Thanksgiving Holiday period. We’re really excited to have the voices of so many food researchers help us shape what is needed by the community. 

In the next few months, we are writing up the results of the community survey. But in the meantime, we want to share with you the headline descriptive results of the survey: who are we, what we want, and how we communicate. 

Who? and Where?

Though the community survey nominally focused on respondents from the United States of America (41%), and the United Kingdom (28%), there were additional respondents from multiple other countries (31%). The largest other populations of these were Canada (9%), and Australia (5%). Participants responded from twenty-one countries in total. 

There was a wide spread of ages, with the majority of respondents(44%) being between 31-50 years of age. 

Age of respondents

Over 70% of participants were academics. This included Professors (16%), Early Career researchers (14%), and Students (17%). There was a wide range of other professionals (n=55) including independent scholars, cooks and chefs, writers and journalists, book sellers, and heritage professionals. The range of respondents certainly represents the diversity of jobs and roles within the wider the food research community! But also owing to such a breath of roles and ages of respondents, there was a lot of variation in the familiarity/comfort with digital and analogue research tools.

Type of Researcher

The geographic scope of food studies is truly broad, with most researchers interested in more than one geographic area. 125 (or 62.5%) respondents were interested in the UK region, while 133 (or 66.5%) were interested in the US region. Another 66 respondents were interested in Canada, 97 in the wider colonial areas, and 99 interested in multiple other places globally.

This geographic interest is also shown by the broad range of locations holding primary research material. 112 respondents mentioned UK archives and 118 mentioned US archives. Even so, Canadian, Australian, and European archives featured heavily — and many other global institutions were mentioned.

Results suggest that there is overlap in user-base between global (UK, US, etc.) archives, but we need to do more research to understand how the community fits into the wider food research community. By this, I’m thinking of where a researcher is based versus where their archives are based. 

Percentage of respondents who use these cultural institutions

There were another ninety-four institutions were mentioned by name in the “other” text box. Multiple mentions include places like Yale University Library, Winterthur Museum, University of Toronto, New York Public Library, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Library Australia, archive.org — and so many more.

What does the community want?

The most asked for service at 92% was… digitization of materials! The community also wants finding aids and catalogues (each 64%). These views were further expressed in the free text “other” category.

Priorities for content and services provision

What people wanted digitised most (184 respondents) was Printed Material (Books, Magazines, Advertising, Ephemera, etc.). In other words, researchers thought digitisation of these items would help their research the most.  Printed Materials had a mean “importance” score of 85 (out of 100).

However, researchers also wanted to see more OCR text functionality (n=179) and digitised manuscripts (n=178); these had mean importance scores between 74 and 80. Additional analysis needs to be carried out to understand how particular types/themes of food research (and users of specific archives) can be prioritised. 

Mean importance score for increased digitisation and access of materials to help individual research activities

How do we communicate?

Email remains the most common method for communication between researchers and cultural institutions (n=178), with in person communication being the second most popular (n=115). A smaller community of respondents interacted with cultural institutions via social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram . We have yet to “cut” this with age based variables. Interestingly blogs and website messaging/chat, and WhatsApp services were mentioned in the “Other” free text response. 

This, of course, is just a snapshot of our community of food researchers. There is still so much to explore in the survey results! Please do contact me (c.reynolds@sheffield.ac.uk)  for if you would like to give additional feedback or thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.

And to complement the wealth of information from the community survey, we are now conducting a follow up 2020 Archive Survey — directed at curators and digitisation teams in cultural institutions. Please promote this Archive survey to any curators and digitisation teams in your own networks. We’d love to know more from cultural institutions about the scope of their food-related collections, any barriers to digitization, and future ambitions. The Archives survey closes on 14 March 2020.

Editorial Note: Christian Reynolds is the principal investigator of the the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network  (@AHRCfoodnetwork on Twitter). The Recipes Project is a partner organisation in the network.

Remember, remember the fifth of November

The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective transcribathon for 2019 is coming soon… November 5! Flex those fingers, boot up your computer, and get ready to join in, because this is no ordinary transcribathon.

Please join EMROC for our fifth annual international transcribathon as we transcribe an anonymous early modern medical recipe book (which includes recipes for whiskey and novel uses for oatmeal). It’s a super source, which Rebecca Laroche describes here. We will have transcription groups working in at least a dozen locations around the world, on three continents, with people coming and going virtually throughout the day.

The goal? To complete a transcription of a recipe book, making it easier for users to search than a digitised manuscript. This will eventually be available through the Folger Shakespeare’s Library catalogue alongside page images. Our other goal is to have fun with a community of people interested in transcribing and recipes, whatever their skill level.

We have lots of exciting activities planned to accompany our transcribing delights, which will run from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. GMT.

There will be:

  • subject hashtags on Twitter: #EMROCtranscribes, #feministOED, #materialhealthtech, #animalproducts, and more. (Details on the EMROC blog.)
  • a Zoom link (https://essex-university.zoom.us/j/706439992) all day to connect participants from around the globe.
  • and speakers!

Joining Zoom

Zoom is an easy-to-use platform that enables participants to ask the EMROC team questions throughout the day and to chat with other transcribers. You don’t need any special tools, either. Just click on our Zoom link, download the exe (if you don’t already have Zoom), and you’ll be in. There are details here on how to join, participate, and leave. We are hoping that the chat and Q&A functions on Zoom will make it easier for novice transcribers to get help quickly, as well as to bring the transcriber community together.

Speakers

The Department of History at the University of Essex is also hosting an EMROC panel on ‘Recipes in the Making’, which focuses on the manuscript we’re transcribing. Speakers include Heather Wolfe (Folger Shakespeare Library), Sara Pennell (Greenwich), and Anne Stobart (Exeter).

The panel will be recorded, though it won’t be up immediately…

Survey?

We would love it if you filled in our pre-transcribathon survey, which will take no more than five minutes of your time. The survey will help us to learn more about our participants’ interests and backgrounds.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/7T9HKR5

If you want to join in or have other questions, please do let me know on Twitter (@historybeagle) or by email (lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk).

Thank you so much for your interest in our transcribathon and for filling in the survey. We would be so excited to transcribe with you on November 5.

An earlier version of this post appeared first at emroc.hypotheses.org.