Category Archives: Research and Writing

An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription

This term, my third-year class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” was involved in my research: testing the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform.*  The class has been busy collaboratively transcribing the seventeenth-century recipe book of Johanna St John and it’s been an adventure for us all.

Johanna St John’s Book, Wellcome Library, WMS 4338. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The students had little to no experience in digital creation or transcription at the start of term, but in the last three months, they have learned the logic of XML and gained an appreciation for the exactness required in transcription. These are habits of thought, as well as useful skills.

The Textual Communities site was by no means complete when we began our transcriptions. As we became familiar with Johanna St John’s book and worked on our transcriptions, it became easier for us to identify what we needed the system to do. Every week, we would discover at least one new problem with it. But Peter Robinson and Xiaohan Zhang have been constantly developing the platform in response to our needs, from figuring out how to implement semi-diplomatic conventions  in XML or to represent marginal notations to ensuring that the preview and submit buttons work. By witnessing this process of creation, the students have also learned much about the way in which digital resources are constructed and the choices that researchers make in both transcription and data design.

We have had to be flexible and patient: research is a messy business of failures and false starts. Advanced researchers are only too familiar with this, but it’s something that undergraduates often don’t see–or think about it only in terms of their own work. When teaching, we ordinarily (and for good reasons) present students with a set syllabus and assignment description, from which we don’t deviate. But this term, we have had to revise a number of deadlines and assignment guidelines as we encountered research problems along the way. Truly research-led teaching!

This is by way of an introduction for the next few posts, which will focus on Johanna St John’s book and have been written by some of the students.


* Two of my collaborative research groups, Recipes: Food, Magic, Science, and Medicine and Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, will be launching projects on this platform in 2013. Stay tuned!

Writing Recipes Down

Alisha Rankin, Tufts University

Every time I give an in-class exam, as I did this week, my students complain bitterly about how much their hands ache from all of the writing. In this digital age, they tell me, writing simply is not something they do very often. They’re out of practice. With a keyboard, they could have written twice as much.  It got me thinking about the recipes I work on and the labor involved on behalf of the women who wrote them – although in the case of my ladies, of course, the distinction was between memory and writing rather than writing and typing.

A striking recipe manuscript belonging to the counts of Hohenlohe in southwest Germany illustrates the importance of the act of writing down. Copied into the blank pages at the back of another recipe collection, it begins with the heading, “The old countess of Mansfeld gave these medicines to her son, Count Hans Georg, written in her own hand.” [i]

Scribal Copy of Dorothea of Mansfeld’s Recipe Book, late 16th c.

“The old countess of Mansfeld” referred to Dorothea of Mansfeld (1493-1578), a German noblewoman widely known for her remedies and her charitable healing. Her recipes were prized by aristocrats and commoners alike, and they were even recommended by several physicians. The Hohenlohe recipe book illustrates how much she was respected: so much so that the very fact she had written the book herself was deemed a crucial item of information.  The scribe soon ran out of pages at the back of the volume and had to continue the text in the blank pages between each chapter of the original collection. Every jump in the text reiterated Dorothea of Mansfeld’s act of writing down. The inside back binding explains, “NOTA: In the front of this book, after the twenty-forth folio, continue more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld also wrote down for her son, Count Hans Georg, by herself.” [ii]

Note on the back page of recipe book sending the reader to the blank pages in the middle of the volume: each jump in text emphasizes Dorothea’s “own hand.”

If one flips to the designated folio, the recipes indeed continue under the heading “These are more medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.” The reader is led in the same manner through three more breaks in the text, some of them mid-recipe, until it concludes in the (previously blank) pages after folio 65 with the words: “End of the medical arts that the old countess of Mansfeld gave to her son, Count Hans Georg, written by herself.”

Why did the copyist deem it so important that the countess had written the recipes in her own hand (mit Aigner handt) or that she had written them herself (selbsten geschrieben)? I think there are several possible answers. Most obviously, this emphasis underscores the important connection between text and practitioner: the fact that Dorothea had transferred her arts directly into paper and ink tied the document to her considerable reputation. A recipe collection carefully written in the hand of a well-known practitioner was a valuable object indeed.

To return to my students’ complaints about having to write out their exams by hand, their grumbles might highlight a second answer to the question. Writing was difficult. Copying out recipes required much care and a lot of time. To do a meticulous job was a laborious process.  Dorothea of Mansfeld herself indicated that writing down recipes was no simple matter. When an acquaintance, Anna of Saxony, asked Dorothea to copy out some of her memorized recipes in 1561, Dorothea cautioned that it was no easy process. She first needed “empty books in which to write” and thus “humbly” asked Anna to send “three books bound in parchment, one made of large paper, the others of small paper.” Moreover, she warned Anna, “Your Noble Grace must have patience, for such things take time.” [iii] Recipes written in Dorothea’s hand represented the painstaking efforts of a highly respected and highly ranked woman, and as such, they had great value.

A final reason for emphasizing that Dorothea had written the original recipes herself may be a simple matter of penmanship. As anyone who has worked on German court documents can attest, most sixteenth-century aristocrats – and particularly women – did not have stellar handwriting. Anna of Saxony frequently expressed embarrassment about her own writing, which she considered to be clumsy and unsightly.  In contrast, and highly unusually, Dorothea of Mansfeld wrote in a beautiful, neat, even, humanist hand.

A recipe in Dorothea von Mansfeld’s handwriting

Dorothea’s texts were thus valuable both for their outward appearance and for the promise of medical efficacy in their content. As I head off to decipher my students’ exams this weekend, I suspect I will appreciate this respect for good penmanship!

A version of this post appears in my forthcoming book, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.

[i] Hohenlohe Zentralarchiv Neuenstein, Best. GA, U5.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Dorothea of Mansfeld to Anna of Saxony, June 1, 1561, SHStA Dresden, Geheimes Archiv, Loc. 8528/1, fol. 329r.