Category Archives: Research and Writing

Around the Table Podcast: Talking Curious Cures with James Freeman

By Sarah Peters Kernan

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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.


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

Provided by 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


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)


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

Hannah Bower


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.

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, — 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 (  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.

Experiencing Historical Techniques through the Color Black at the ROOHTS Summer School

By Sharifa Lookman

As October draws to a close, we feature yet another exciting article from our ongoing series of cross-postings on the hands-on, collaborative research project into recipes for Burgundian Black, organized by Dr. Jenny Boulboullé. Today, Sharifa Lookman provides another fascinating peek into the inner workings of the project (Joshua Schlachet)

For the pre-modern artist, color was anything but random. As both concept and product, it wore many masks: the bearer of symbolic significance, an agent of trade, and a protagonist in histories of politics, economy, and geography. In material, it was the hard-earned product of natural ingredients and arcane, even alchemical processes. Researchers in the Faculty of Design Sciences and the working group ROOHTS (Research on the Origin of Historical Techniques) at the University of Antwerp have returned to historical recipes to investigate these aspects of color. From July 1-5, in collaboration with the ARTECHNE ERC research group at the University of Utrecht, researchers took up the following question: how did pre-modern colorists perceive, manufacture, and master the color black?

The intensive, five-day summer school, “Burgundian Blacks,” brought together artists, scholars, and scientists of diverse backgrounds to investigate black color technologies of multiple media, working from the production of black textile dyes (the focus of a January workshop, the Burgundian Black Collaboratory) and moving into adjacent practices used to produce black inks and paints in and around the historic region of Burgundy. Each day consisted of a theoretical component and a practical one: classes moved back and forth between the lecture hall, with studies on historical contexts, and the laboratory, where recipes were tested through experimental reconstructions, or (re)enactments.

The setting—a university conservation laboratory—was decidedly ahistorical and acknowledged the inherent limits of reconstruction: small sample sizes and anachronistic instruments, for starters. And yet, when all thirteen of the participants and a handful of instructors were in the lab together, we more or less simulated an active ‘workshop,’ complete with masters and apprentices, back-and-forth shop talk, and bustling bodies (Fig. 1). As a participant, I found that the summer school’s give-and-take between the written word and re-enactment emphasized two fundamental ideas in the study of color technologies: the mutability of language in interpreting recipes and the intellectual merit of touch and sensation in reconstructing them; in other words, the valuable cross-fertilization of both mind and body in materiality studies.[i]

Figure 1: Laboratory space in the University of Antwerp conservation labs.


In considering early modern writings on color, twenty-first century scholars must first be acquainted with an author’s vocabulary, biases, and technical ‘know-how.’ This was the case in our workshop reconstruction of “Noir de Flandres” (Black of Flanders), a seventeenth-century French recipe for a madder and woad-based dye. Here the compiler of the recipe added in his own hand, “And you will have a perfect and durable black” (Fig. 2).[ii] What, according to our writer, is a ‘perfect black,’ and how did it relate to other early modern colors? Over the course of our two-day dye session we produced a number of dyed textiles, many in various shades of black and others not black at all (Fig. 3). Were any of them ‘perfect?’ We often struggled with terms to describe this range, using words such as ‘fresh,’ ‘saturated,’ or ‘opaque.’ But are these the terms an early modern colorist would use? Our author does tell us that, in addition to being ‘perfect,’ the Noir de Flandres is also ‘durable,’ implying that, even in the moment of its making, it was important that the color last for posterity.

Figure 2: “Noir de Flandres” recipe manuscript with compilers annotation: “Vous aurés un noir parfaict & durable.” Image courtesy of the Royal Society Archives.
Figure 3: Dying linen using gallnuts; Left: Whole gallnuts; Center: Washing unbleached linen after first dye bath; Right: Cooking unbleached linen in second dye bath.

Knowledge of materials, processes, and techniques was also gleaned from sources that were not written down, namely ‘shop talk,’ a kind of knowledge circulated within and across artist workshops. Though the dye recipes we tested ranged in time period (1350-1670) and geography, they often shared ingredients. By analyzing the presence and absence of certain ingredients in black dye recipes, scholars, such as Natalia Ortega-Saez of the University of Antwerp, have classified these recipes into three main groups.[iii] Based on these, a twenty-first century reader can effectively ‘fill in the gaps’ when information in the original transcription of one particular recipe is missing or unclear. Likely, a contemporary would have done just that, having considered particular instructions to be common knowledge. We might think back to the Italian artist and writer Giorgio Vasari who, describing fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini’s treatise on painting, wrote, “[Cennini] was anxious to know the peculiarities of colors … and gave much advice which I need not expand upon, since all these matters, which he then considered very great secrets, are now universally known.”[iv] By the sixteenth century certain materials and their properties must have been widely known across Europe, and the disappearance of these procedures in writing suggests that this information was not forgotten, but instead circulated verbally, just as we shared and transmitted knowledge orally in the laboratory.


Where our dye reconstructions were much more ‘experimental,’ some recipes being deciphered and tested for the very first time, our pigment recipes had comparatively fewer unknowns. Instead, we were encouraged to consider the appearance, smell, and feel of our materials as we progressed through the recipes. Simply put, we shifted away from the written and spoken word and towards the sensory experience of color production. We began by roasting our raw ingredients—primarily animal bones and fruit pits—in crucibles in an open flame (Fig. 4). The goal here was to char the materials just until they turned black; too long on the flame risks turning the bones white, the base for another color, ‘bone-white.’

Figure 4: Roasting materials for pigments; Left: Peach and cherry pits pre-fire; Center: Crushed bovine bone in crucibile, pre-fire; Right: Crucible in flame.

The body took centerstage as we began grinding our pigments. Organic materials, like fruit stones and plant matter, broke down in mere minutes, but sheep and bovine bones were significantly denser and more difficult, some requiring twenty to thirty minutes of continuous grinding. To achieve the kind of fine powder necessary for high-quality pigments, one clearly needed strength and dexterity as well as a cultivated sensitivity to natural materials. Without time specifications in our recipes, we ground our pigments until they felt finely powdered, and mulled them with water until we could no longer feel or hear granules sliding between the glass (Fig. 5). Sensory indicators—touch, smell, and sight—developed into an acquired “skilled vision” and “expert touch” akin to shop talk, one that filled gaps in reasoning.[v]

Figure 5: Grinding pigments; Top left: Mortar and pestle to grind charred matter; Top right: Ground color; Bottom left: Mulling ground color with water to further break down particles; Bottom right: Final result for vine black.

We considered these ideas even further by applying the pigments to paper: how did the paint feel when applied? What was its texture? Translucency? Facture? Here the term ‘body’ can be dually defined. In addition to referring to the body of the maker, it also suggests the ‘body’ of a color, as Jenny Boulboullé of the University of Utrecht has observed.[vi] The coloristic effects, success, and ‘body’ of our black pigments were not only dependent on its raw material and how we processed it, but also the type of binding medium used; depending on this, a color’s transparency, density, and quality differed considerably (Fig. 6). Because we used only water and gum arabic as binders, I couldn’t help but wonder how, precisely, the choice of binder can modulate the color black. In other words, to quote Ann-Sophie Lehmann, in mixing and applying pigment, what is the “matter of the medium?”[vii]

Figure 6: Left: Page from sample book produced during the workshop; Upper right: Two samples of Vine black, one with a water binder (left) and the other a binding mixture of water and gum arabic (right); Center right: Cherry stone black. We did not grind the cherry stones into a sufficiently fine powder and, because of this, the resulting pigment had a grainy, irregular consistency; Lower right; Stick lac black. In this sample I bound the stick lac in gum arabic with very little water. The result was a tacky paint that congealed when applied to paper.

Re-enactments of historical techniques bring to the surface ideas that are often latent in strictly theoretical approaches to technique and materiality. By investigating recipes for pre-modern black, we engage with color as both technique and concept, as the cross-geographical product of nature and artistic experimentalism, and, above all, as an area of study that has increasingly come to move across disciplines and scholarly domains.


[i] See Sven Dupré’s blog post, “Re-enactment in Teaching Art History (Part 1),”

[ii] Original French: “un noir parfaict & durable.” Recipe transcribed and translated by Jenny Boulboullé.

[iii] Natalia Ortega Saez, Ina Vanden Berghe, Olivier Schalm, et al., “Material analysis versus historical dye recipes: ingredients found in black dyed wool from five Belgian archives (1650-1850),” Conservar Património 31 (2019): 1-18.

[iv] Giorgio Vasari, “Vita di Agnolo Gaddi,” in Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568, Vol. 2 [1568], eds. Paola Barocchi and Rosanna Bettarini, 6 vols. (Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1966-87), 248-9; for translation see Angela Cerasuolo, Literature and Artistic Practice in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Helen Glanville, ed. Walter S. Melion (Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2017), 173.

[v] Cristina Grasseni, Skilled Visions: Between Apprenticeship and Standards (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2007).

[vi] Jenny Boulboullé and Maartie Stols-Witlox consider these themes in an essay entitled, “Working (with) the corps: bodies of colours, sands and varnishes in Ms Fr. 640 and MS 2052,” which will be published in the forthcoming Critical Edition of Bnf Ms Fr 640, edited by Pamela Smith & the Making and Knowing Project.

[vii] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The matter of the medium: some tools for an art-theoretical interpretation of materials,” in The Matter of Art: Materials, Practices, Cultural Logics, c. 1250-1750, eds. Christy Anderson, Anne Dunlop and Pamela H. Smith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 21-41.

What We’re Reading This Fall

By Jess Clark

The abundance of fantastic historical writing—from insightful social media and blog posts to traditional academic monographs to op eds—means that most of us aren’t lacking interesting things to read. At times, though, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing out on important pieces, new books, or forgetting about germinal texts. This month, I decided to check in with some of the Editors here at the Recipes Project to find out what everyone’s reading in the coming weeks. Here are just a few of their suggestions, from their bookshelves and browsers to you.


Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Basic Books, 1985)

In this classic study, Cowan charts the industrialization of housekeeping through a variety of new technologies designed to improve the experience of female homemakers: “washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton.” However, as she masterfully argues, these technologies actually served to replace the labour of other figures, like men and children, rather than lessen the amount of time devoted by women to maintaining the home.

Lisa Fagin Davis, “
Why Do People Keep Convincing themselves they’ve Solved this Medieval Mystery?” at The Washington Post

Davis unpacks the ongoing fascination with the Voynich Manuscript, an early fifteenth-century codex housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Written in an “unknown collection of symbols” and featuring illustrations of “realistic plants, circular zodiacal and astronomical diagrams,” the Manuscript has been subject to multiple attempts to decipher its mysterious code. However, “[b]y beginning with their own preconceptions of what they want the Voynich to be,” argues Davis, many would-be interpreters’ “conclusions take them further from the truth.”


Rachel Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (Cornell UP, November 2019)

This is a bit of a cheat since the book isn’t out until November, but many RP readers are no doubt looking forward to contributor Rachel Herrmann’s new book on the role of food in Revolutionary America. Focusing on “hunger creation and prevention” as “tools of diplomacy and warfare,” this text will be a must-read for historians of food, recipes, conceptions of dearth and plenty, and the foundations of early America.


Michael W. Twitty, “Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors, Sit Down,” on Afroculinaria

Award-winning author, chef, and historical interpreter Michael W. Twitty responds to negative online reviews of southern plantations, which criticize interpreters’ attention to slavery and its legacies. Writing of his own experiences as a historical educator, Twitty emphasizes that, in doing this work, he’s “performing an act of devotion to my Ancestors. This is not about your comfort, it’s about honoring their story on it’s own terms in context.”


Michael Walkden, “’Excrements of the Earth’: Mushrooms in Early Modern England,” on Shakespeare & Beyond

Walkden analyzes seventeenth-century English attitudes towards the eating of mushrooms, pointing to the ways fungi could, at various points, signify danger and treachery, continental excess, or filth and debasement. Pointing out their distinctiveness as a food type, he suggests that “[t]he hostility that many writers expressed towards mushrooms is perhaps reflective of the threat they posed to the order of things.”


What are you reading this Fall? We want to hear from you! Let us know here what sites, texts, and projects we should be featuring here at the Recipes Project.