Category Archives: Education

MOOCing about with Ancient Recipes

A while ago, Professor Helen King (Open University) offered Dr Patty Baker (University of Kent) and me the opportunity to be involved in an exciting project: a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on the topic of Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World. We had previously worked together on a pedagogical project (an article on the difficulty of teaching sensitive topics such as the history of abortion), and were prepared for a new collaborative challenge.

Several months down the line, the MOOC is in the final stages of writing. We chose to organise our material in the ‘head-to-toe’ order, which is the structure so often adopted in Greek and Roman medical texts. We cover a huge variety of themes and topics, in what we hope will be an original and informative introduction to ancient medicine.

I was particularly keen to introduce as many recipes as possible into the MOOC material. We did so both in written sections and in video ones. For the film sections, I chose to recreate two ancient recipes: that of a collyrium (an eye remedy) found in Galen’s pharmacological writings and an oxygarum (a recipe supposed to aid digestion) found in Apicius‘ cookery collection.

Filming in the stacks of the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon
Filming in the storerooms of the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon

The wonderful National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (South Wales) was kind enough to host the filming. They provided us with authentic looking Roman pots to put all the ingredients in, as well as a costume – complete with winged-phallus amulet – for me to wear. I believe being in costume greatly helped me feel slightly less nervous.

For nervous, I certainly was. This was only my second experience of filming: the first had taken place a couple of days before, at the Wellcome Library, where we filmed a piece on manuscript herbals. I had not quite realised that filming a cookery piece usually involves several cameras, as multiple takes are not possible (because ingredients are expensive). I therefore had to pretend to be natural in front of the producer (Lizzy Jones) and three cameramen. Let’s just say that I can’t see an alternative career for me as a TV chef…

We started with the collyrium:

White collyrium, for a persistent flow of tears and other afflictions; it is called ‘delicate’: calamine, 16 drachms; white lead, 8 drachms; starch, 4 drachms; gum, 4 drachms; tragacanth gum, 4 drachms; opium, 2 drachms. Take up with rain water. Use with egg. Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12.757 Kühn

Of course, I could use neither white lead nor opium, which are dangerous substances. I substituted the former with zinc, and the latter with a white powder.

Wondering what comes first: the remedy or the egg
Wondering what comes first: the remedy or the egg

As someone who has experience recreating ancient recipes, I knew exactly what to expect: the ingredients mixed together with water would take on a consistency similar to a very thick shaving foam. But, while photos can illustrate this point, they can’t do so as powerfully as a film.

Like so many ancient eye-remedy recipes, this one omits to state that the preparation has to be left to dry, a process which I discovered takes at least 24 hours… Fortunately, I had tried this at home a few days before the filming! Once the preparation is dried, it can be crumbled, and a small amount is then applied to the eye. But to what part of the eye, and how exactly? I knew that the part of the egg to use is the white (I can now add ‘can separate an egg in a highly stressful situation’ to my CV), but I did not know whether to dip my finger in the crumbled remedy first and the egg second, or vice versa. Helen King and I had a quick chat, and decided that the egg came first!

The second recipe I recreated is named after its main ingredient, garum, the famous Roman sauce made with fermented fish. A purist would have prepared some garum in advance, but I simply went to the supermarket to buy some Nam Pla, also known as Thai fish sauce:

Another oxygarum, for digestion: 1 ounce each of pepper, parsley, caraway, lovage; mix with honey. When done add garum and vinegar. Apicius, De re coquinaria 1.37

Feeling a bit like a rabbit in the headlights
Feeling a bit like a rabbit in the headlights

Preparing that recipe was very simple. Instead of using an ounce (a relatively large amount), I used a spoonful of each ingredient. I confidently announced to the camera that Roman medicine was ‘all about proportions’ merrily throwing spoonfuls of ingredients into a mortar. I failed to notice that I had been rather heavy handed with the pepper.

Of course, the crew insisted that I should try some of my wonderful aid to digestion. I obliged – the things that one does! The preparation tasted surprisingly sweet, until – that is – the pepper kicked in. I am sure my face pulling will be much appreciated by the MOOC learners!

I was left with a fishy, fiery taste in the mouth for several hours. Perhaps the Romans were wired differently from me, but I suffered from heartburn for the entire afternoon.

Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, a Future Learn MOOC, will start on February 6th, 2017. You can read Helen’s thoughts on writing a MOOC here.

How to Tend an EMPS Garden

By Nadia Clifton and Breanne Weber

In October 2015, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we started the Early Modern Paleography Society. Our faculty mentor, Dr. Jen Munroe, recently wrote a post for the Recipes Project about our founding, which inspired us to reflect on our achievements this past year and to update everyone on just how quickly EMPS has grown.

EMPS has achieved many of our initial goals. We settled into a rhythm for group meetings, which doubled in size during the spring semester, and joined forces with Berlin transcriber Julia Jaegle to finish a double-keyed transcription of the “Cookbook of Timothy and Mary Cruso” (Folger ms X.d.24). Our founding officers traveled to the first annual EMROC transcribathon in October and contributed to the completion of the Winche manuscript transcription; two of them were subsequently offered internships with the Folger’s Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) database project, transcribing and vetting hundreds more pages of their manuscript collection in June. Perhaps our greatest achievement was our first EMPS transcribathon in April 2016, which hosted over 70 attendees locally and across the U.S. and resulted in a completed transcription of an anonymous 17th century cookbook (Folger ms W.b.653). For the first year of a student organization, these are amazing achievements and we are very proud.

We began our second year with many new goals and EMPS continues to grow at a rapid pace. We planned from the outset to send our officers to the second annual EMROC transcribathon in November and are excited to see another project through to completion. Another of the first things we did was enlist the help of a graduated member to develop a logo, which we love and feel represents the spirit of EMPS perfectly:


As we write this post, social media banners and t-shirt designs are also in the works. We have also created Facebook and Twitter pages, which we update regularly, to share more immediately what we’re up to and what we find among the pages of the texts we transcribe. And, while many of our members continue to contribute blog posts to EMROC and the Recipes Project, we also launched our own EMPS blog. In providing this platform, we encourage our members to actively contribute not just to our projects but also to the academic and social community that surrounds them.

In terms of our meetings, most of our members have become confident in their paleography skills and have asked to be responsible for transcription of their own pages. Instead of spending all of our group time transcribing one page together, then, we assign pages and work collaboratively when needed. This has resulted in much more efficient transcription time, and we’re seeing the effects of this change: since our first meeting this year, we’ve triple-keyed 8 pages, double-keyed 16, and single-keyed 2 pages from the Carlyon manuscript (Folger ms V.a.388). This almost meets our single-keyed page total from meetings last year!

We’ve also expanded our meetings to include other activities. During our last meeting, we used Dr. Munroe’s alembic still to distill rosewater, a process we had read about but never seen in-person. We also held a workshop on Secretary Hand for our members: we taught the alphabet and worked through the ingredients list of a recipe for a “wounde drincke” (Folger ms V.a.140). At our next meeting, we’re hosting a local herbalist, who is going to teach us about modern herbal medicine and the process of making tinctures.

Spring semester will bring even more exciting EMPS activities. Experimenting with cooking is our favorite way way of bringing recipes to life, but this year, we endeavor to recreate a recipe for ink in order to try writing our own recipes the way early moderns did: from memory, and with quills. In addition, we will start transcription on a new recipe book dedicated solely to EMPS; there is nothing like the thrill of finishing a full keying of a book cover to cover. Of course, a year in EMPS wouldn’t be complete without the culmination of our transcription efforts: the Second Annual EMPS Transcribathon.

Even though EMPS seems unstoppable, there is one difficulty that we are facing: recruiting members. Who could resist the enthusiasm of members, the challenge of a difficult hand, and the plain ol’ fun of transcribing during EMPS meetings? Usually no one, but our current recruits have only been English majors because that is where the organization originated. In order to reach out to students all over campus, we will be contacting faculty in departments such as history, gender studies, and nursing, to offering a short transcription workshop for their classes.

Like one of the herbs used in the recipes we transcribe, EMPS is growing strong and healthy at UNC Charlotte with its amazingly dedicated officers and enthusiastic members to tend it. Many of our members will be graduating in May, however, and moving on to complete additional degrees at other universities. Although they will be missed, we know they will be carrying an EMPS seed with them, a seed that may sprout EMP Societies across the country, and perhaps even the globe.

Local recipes for local people: Reading recipes in the classroom (and the pub!)

By Lucy-Anne Judd

As a PhD researcher exploring regional examples of recipe manuscripts in the local archives, I was thrilled when two opportunities to talk about my research with two very different local audiences recently arose. The first, for the wonderful Nottingham PubhD audience, and the other, in a nearby secondary school as part of an event designed to give a ‘taste’ of postgraduate study opportunities to a group of 16-18 year old, post-16 pupils.

What is PubhD?

PubhD is an innovative event that began in Nottingham in 2014 and has been steadily taking up residency in other university cities ever since. The premise is simple; on a monthly basis, PubhD invites three doctoral students from any discipline, to take on the challenge of explaining their research topic in ten minutes or less, at ‘pub level’. In return, participants get a drink or two for their efforts, a great opportunity to face challenges from the (very friendly) audience, and a chance to try out new ideas.

For me, the key to introducing recipes to this pub audience was an emphasis on some of the local Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire families that I am currently researching through their recipe collections; the Willoughby’s of Aspley, the Miller-Mundy’s of Shipley Hall, and Henrietta Cavendish-Holles-Harley of Welbeck Abbey. From here, I was able to give a brief overview of three key themes in my thesis. First, how much recipe manuscripts can tell us about what people ate and the ailments which afflicted local households in the early modern period. Second, how we can trace recipe sharing networks in the region through the many frequent attributions. And tthird, what we can learn about the role of men in early modern domestic life.

The audience response was outstanding and like other speakers on the night, I was asked an array of insightful and interesting questions which ate into far more than my allotted 20-minute Q&A time! I was particularly pleased to see notes taken by one audience member who summarised the talk in a way that gave me a chance to reflect on the current shape of the project:

PubhD Notes (All) (2)
Image credit: Alice Thickett (@artfultacticsuk)

Postgraduate Outreach Taster – ‘What is a PhD?’

University outreach is a big part of my working life and so, when given the chance to extend this to a postgraduate awareness and aspiration-raising session, I was quick to take it up.  By first asking the question ‘What is a PhD?’, the introductory part of this session aimed to address any pupil misconceptions, as well as explain the many routes and options beyond undergraduate study. I approached pupil  perceptions and concerns with post-it questions collected from the group early on in the session and answered by the end.

I opened the recipe workshop with a very brief introduction on what a receipt book is, and some of the questions I am seeking to answer as part of my research. The main body of the session then aimed to get pupils actively engaging with recipe sources by examining manuscript and printed recipe sources alongside one another.

I asked the groups two ‘starter’ questions for discussion, alongside the caveat that they should be prepared to share their views with the rest of the class:

  1. What are your first impressions of these sources?
  2. What are the similarities and differences between them?
Recipe Taster Session - Resource Sheet (Side 1) (2)
Resource sheet given to pupils for comparative activity

The most striking aspect of the group responses was their own recognition that these types of documents were quite removed from what they are used to encountering in curriculum history topics in school – and this excited them! Although they were unfamiliar with some of the key local historical families and their homes, pupils quickly appeared to be able to identify with the distinctly local aspect of the manuscript copies I gave them. The groups also highlighted their own difficulties in transcribing and understanding some of the text due to sentence structuring and unfamiliar language. They also began to show an interest in how the printed example proclaimed itself to be aimed at ‘Good-h[o]us[e]wives’.

In a time-limited session, it was a challenge for the group to get far beyond these initial responses but with more time, lots could have been done to see pupils extending their skills in reading and transcribing the sources. There are plans to develop this outreach session into an extended history ‘taster’ as part of a summer residential programme for pre-entry university students. In this session, pupils will be given a much longer opportunity to dissect and engage with recipe sources, as well as to explore key themes in greater detail.

Overall, it was amazing to witness once again the universality of interest in recipe books as those in the classroom (and the pub!) embraced the value of studying receipt book manuscripts as historical sources.


A Recipe for Recipe Research: The Making and Knowing Project

By Pamela Smith

The Aim

BnF MS Fr 640, f. 3r: coral contrefaict (imitation coral). Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
BnF MS Fr 640, f. 3r: coral contrefaict (imitation coral). Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The Making and Knowing Project is a five-year initiative to create an open-access critical digital edition and English translation of an intriguing late sixteenth-century French manuscript, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Fr. 640. This anonymous manuscript is the written result of recipe collecting and workshop practice in the sixteenth century, and it gives unique insight into craft and artistic techniques, daily life in the sixteenth century, and material and intellectual understandings of the natural world. This compilation of artisanal techniques, recipes, and experimental notes produced by an experienced practitioner stands at a pivotal moment in the growth of a new mode of gaining knowledge which we now call “science.” It grants an invaluable view into the continuous, methodical experimentation through which art objects were created by skilled labor, and how the process of artistic creation yielded insights into the behavior of natural materials.

The fact that an artisan recorded these technical procedures at all is part of a seminal development in early modern European history. Around 1400, craftspeople increasingly began to write down their embodied knowledge. Their “how-to books” were imitated and disseminated by entrepreneurial printers to a diverse audience, helping to foster a culture that valued practical knowledge. Ms. Fr. 640 shares in the practical format and aims of these how-to books, but it differs significantly from any other known how-to text in its lack of formulaic recipes, its constant reference to the writer’s own experiences, its extensive observation of animal behavior, and its illustrations.

The critical edition will add a rare and important text to a limited corpus of technical treatises and will make the manuscript accessible to diverse audiences. It will contribute to the careful deciphering of materials and techniques done by museum curators and conservators; it provides rich evidence for new scholarship in the histories of art and of science; and its extensive interpretative apparatus of textual, historical, and technical annotations will open fertile avenues of research on technical “recipe books” to literary scholars and historians, among others.

The Process

The Making and Knowing Project is creating the critical edition and English translation of this manuscript by a series of “expert crowd sourcing” workshops and courses that involve students, practitioners (such as sculptors, conservators, technical art historians), scholars of the humanities and social sciences (history, art history, anthropology, and museum scholars), natural scientists (chemists, conservation scientists, and engineers), and practitioner-scholars from the emerging field of the digital humanities.

The first stage of transcription and translation of the manuscript is carried out in a series of three-week summer paleography workshops that bring together graduate students (of, for example, French literature, history, and art history) to gain skills in middle French script by transcribing and translating the manuscript in the collaborative workspace of a Google Drive folder. The first paleography workshop was held in June 2014, during which 15 students from European and North American universities transcribed and translated about a third of the manuscript (concentrating on metalworking “recipes”). The following summer (focusing on colormaking recipes), the students were able to complete a draft of the entire transcription and translation. The next paleography workshop (which will also include data visualization work) is scheduled for June 2016.

Laboratory seminars. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Laboratory seminars. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The second stage of the project, the Laboratory Seminar, began September 2014. In the Laboratory Seminar (History G8906: Craft and Science), students conduct historical and laboratory research on the recipes transcribed and translated by the paleography workshop. Laboratory research focuses on attempting to understand materials and processes appearing in the manuscript by means of a variety of techniques, including experimental reconstructions of the processes described in the manuscript. The students take field and laboratory notes, stored on a Wiki and photos stored in Flickr, in which they record their reconstruction experiments as well as their experience as history students doing hands-on work in the lab, for the entire project is also meant to be a reflection on methodology and the use of reconstruction as a historical source. The student research (text-based, object-based, and hands-on) is brought together in multi-media essays that form the historical and material commentary for the critical edition of the manuscript. This course is being offered every semester for at least three years (2014-17).

The third phase of the project began May 2015, when a Working Group Meeting brought together scholars, practitioners, and the students from the 2014-15 Craft and Science classes to discuss and critique the “moldmaking and metalworking” annotations written by the students. This phase provides expert oversight on the critical edition. Working Group Meetings will be held each May at Columbia University; the next is slated from May 25-28, 2016.

The fourth phase of the project (begun 2015) includes design and development of the final digital environment for the completed critical edition and translation. This stage includes digital encoding workshops to collectively complete the markup of the manuscript, and a Digital Humanities Laboratory Seminar in which humanities and computer science students help develop the final digital edition.


The Project has taught all its many participants much about both collaborative work in the humanities (primarily its remarkable efficacy!), and how much information the reconstruction of technical recipes can yield. One of the most important results of reconstruction has been the new level of interpreting the recipes that it necessitates and fosters. By the constant moving between the manuscript and recipe texts and the hands-on experimentation, we have gained an understanding of the manuscript that would not have been possible by attempting to read through it in a linear way (which, because of the manuscript’s nature as a compiled text would have been difficult at best).

Pattern and concave side of medal following Ms. Fr. 640, f. 92r. Michaela Groeneveld and Marianne Nuij (M.A. Conservation, University of Amsterdam), building on research by Columbia students Rozemarijn Landsman and Jonah Rowen, Making and Knowing Project collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Pattern and concave side of medal
following Ms. Fr. 640, f. 92r. Michaela Groeneveld and Marianne Nuij (M.A. Conservation, University of Amsterdam), building on research by Columbia students Rozemarijn Landsman and Jonah Rowen, Making and Knowing Project collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

The combination of text-based, object-based, and reconstruction research has allowed us to decipher obscure materials and techniques, such as the method for “incuse reverse casting,” or, as Ms. Fr. 640 has it, “Molding a hollow on one side and a relief on the other”). We also learned more about workshop practice, and, interestingly, have found ourselves able to follow the learning process of the author-practitioner himself in the course of his trying the recipes. He appears to have learned and recorded his experiences in some of the processes, while other recipes he seems not to have tried. In all, we have come to appreciate the constant experimentation of the workshop, and we have come to see that failure, repetition, and “extension” are important components of experiential learning in the workshop.

Lifecast rose. Giulia Chiostrini and Jeffrey Palframan, The Making and Knowing Laboratory. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.
Lifecast rose. Giulia Chiostrini and Jeffrey Palframan, The Making and Knowing Laboratory. Image Credit: Making and Knowing Project.

We have also come to understand better the author-practitioner’s bodily intimacy with some materials used, and how this understanding may have shaped his classification of materials into taxonomies. We have been able to map out some parts of his taxonomy of materials—his material imaginary—to see the ways in which he reasoned and experimented across types of materials in order to hypothesize about useful materials and probable results of his trials. We have gained insight into his primary areas of interest, which include transforming the state or properties of one material to resemble another material, such as casting an ephemeral rose in metal, or attempting to transform a brittle material into a malleable one. Such manipulation of materials to bring about transformation of properties and states, as well as his “material mimesis” is typical of technical recipes more generally, indeed of craft making in early modern Europe in general.