Tag Archives: Shakespeare’s World

Looking at Paper and Recipes…

By Elaine Leong

Earlier this year, when the daffodils were in full bloom, I shared the fruits of my recent research with the readers of this blog. My current project, ‘Papering the Household: Paper, Recipes and Technologies in Early Modern England’ explores the intersection of early modern recipes and paper making and paper use.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Manuscript v.a. 456, fol. 28r.
Folger Shakespeare Library, Manuscript v.a. 456, fol. 28r.

In that post, I marveled at the myriad of ways in which early modern householders utilized paper in their production of a range of medicinal and health-related products – as plasters to apply medicines, as a means to preserve drugs and, in some cases, to separate mixtures. A good example is the recipe to heal a bruise showcased in the image above. This week, over at the Shakespeare’s World blog, I explore the way householders used paper in culinary and, in particular, baking recipes. Paper, it turns out, was a crucial tool for early modern home cooks. Bakers used floured paper to line cake and biscuit tins and to mold and shape sugar confections such as almond lozenges and cheesecakes. There was also one fascinating instance where paper was employed as a way to gauge the heat of one’s oven. Once I started looking, uses of paper began to crop up in recipe after recipe.

When I reflect upon my adventures in research paper and recipes, two key thoughts spring to mind. First, my previous notions of paper-use in early modern England were woefully misguided. While certain kinds of paper were undoubtedly expensive and largely used for writing and book production, many other kinds of paper were in constant use and re-use in the period. For example, grocers were in the habit of wrapping foodstuffs in brown paper. The same paper was then used or, most probably, re-used to make medicinal plasters and to line cake and biscuit tin. While we might think of the more expensive seized white paper as reserved as letter paper and book production, it seems that it was also used for making marchpane, drying apricots and stopping nosebleeds. Early modern men and women used paper in a wide range of contexts that we’re only beginning to uncover.

Secondly, I was also struck by the collaborative nature of the research. As many of you know, shifting through the hundreds and hundreds of recipes in early modern recipe collections to look for use of a particular material is not easy task. Lucky for me, I’ve had immense help from the communities of two “citizen transcription” projects. The first is the Early Modern Manuscripts Online Collective (EMROC) in which students transcribe and encode manuscript recipe texts in classrooms. The second is Shakespeare’s World, a Zooniverse project creating transcriptions of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s manuscript holdings.

Members of these two projects helped me in different ways. EMROC members collectively produced full-text transcriptions of Johanna St. John and Rebekah Winche’s recipe books. With the “find” function in Word, entries with paper-use were a snap to locate. The community at Shakespeare’s World, on the other hand, has been looking out for and tagging recipes with paper as they work their way through the digital archive. Using the channel #paper, they have created a data set of more than twenty examples of paper-use from ten different manuscript recipe books in just a few months. I am grateful to the members of both these projects for their help.

Clearly, my project is enriched and extended by our collective efforts and my analysis of paper-use in recipes owes much to students on campuses in the USA and Canada and to the energetic community at Shakespeare’s World. With citizen science projects such as Zooniverse (which hosts Shakespeare’s World) our research methodologies are continually changing and expanding. I might have begun my research on recipes in the wooden carrels in Duke Humphrey’s Library but a few years on, the research landscape has definitely shifted.

View of the Bodleian library at oxford in Oxonia Illustrata (Oxford, 1675).

For one thing, with the modernization of the Bodleian, readers now engage with early modern manuscripts in the Weston Library rather than Duke Humphrey’s… But also with digitization projects, many of us now read our manuscripts on our computers rather than at the archive. I miss the musty smell and crackly pages of a seventeenth-century manuscript, but I’m also delighted for new research possibilities offered by new digital tools and thrilled to be part of large communities of fellow citizen scientists.

Of course, this idea of “crowd sourcing” research is not new. Recipe collecting could be considered an early form of citizen science. After all, our historical actors quickly realized that calling on their friends and family was the most effective and quickest way to gather tried and trusted medical and culinary knowledge.

Speaking of collaboration and communities, in my journey to explore paper and recipes I have encountered a number of scholars working on cognate projects. Over the three Tuesdays, I would like to share some our discussions on the theme of paper and recipes with you. Next week, Orietta da Rold offers us rich evidence of paper-use in medical recipes in late medieval England, reminding us that the story I tell for seventeenth-century England was one with a long history. On August 16, in a special post on the Layfield manuscript, Hillary Nunn demonstrates how following the trail of paper brings up unusual questions and unexpected connections. In the final post of the series, Gabriella Szalay introduces us to the work of the eighteenth-century German naturalist Jacob Christian Schäffer (1718-1790) who conducted a series of “paper trials” in a bid identify raw materials (other than linen rags) to make paper.

Together, this series of posts on paper and recipes demonstrates the wealth of questions inspired by looking at an everyday object: paper.

On Close Reading and Teamwork

Say the word ‘crowdsourcing’ and people automatically think of large-scale projects. Talk about ‘digital humanities’ and we think mining large sources of data. The online world is a vast and busy place. It’s not surprising that the media–and adherents of the ‘slow reading’ movement–regularly fret that the internet is destroying the way we think and read. (See this for just one example.)

Since December, Elaine Leong and I have been team researchers for the citizen science project, Shakespeare’s World, run by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Oxford English Dictionary.  The ‘Talk’ board is an active place, where volunteer transcribers come to ask questions or talk about the letters and recipes that they find. What has intrigued me most about the project is the way in which people engage with the material: deeply and in (dare I say it?) an early modern manner.


Pharmaceutical and Cookery Recipes, ca. 1675 (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.21), 261.

For just one example, let me introduce you to the tale of Bunchfussy, which begins with @parsfan’s comment:

‘The second recipe is a guest appearance by another hand, perhaps Mrs Bunchfussy herself, who sounds like a refugee from a Dickens novel.’

That would be delightful! Unfortunately, as I spotted immediately, this was the Mrs Dunch who had been mentioned in several other recipes. But… what WAS that word immediately after her name? Team Bunchfussy’s quest to identify the word reveals a lot about the importance of close reading and teamwork.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst, 1583. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Since I’ve started transcribing recipes online (starting with the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective), the way that I read them has changed. As a busy researcher, I ordinarily would have skipped over a mystery word like this one. In the interests of maximising research time and ploughing through lots of sources, I probably would decide that identifying the word was unimportant. There was already plenty of information: a name, an ailment, a list of ingredients. Missing this word out would not be a problem.

Transcribing online is different, though. The Shakespeare’s World system, which only presents one decontextualized page at a time, forces the transcriber to read closely. The handwriting can be difficult and, without an entire manuscript for reference, the only clues to decode an excerpt are on that page. Every letter, every mark, every word is important. And the transcriber is compelled to linger, focusing on the details and considering the possibilities.

Close reading is usually solitary, but on Shakespeare’s World, it often becomes collaborative. Perplexing examples are posted on Talk by transcribers where we puzzle over them together.

@mutabilitie joked that ‘it looks like “pissy” to me, but I suppose we can safely rule out that reading.’ Except… it did look rather like pissy.

The debate on the page initially focused on whether the first letter was a ‘p’ or an ‘f’, with contributors mustering evidence about letter shapes elsewhere in the recipe.* The general consensus was ‘f’. Perhaps it might be ‘firstly’ or ‘fully’ or even ‘fussy’? @S_Powell reported back that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), fussy would not have yet been in use. Then @elaineleong suggested ‘fissy’, but didn’t think it made much sense. She also suggested that we were all might be on the wrong track. What if the word belonged to the first recipe line rather than the title and attribution?

Indeed, what if it went with the word directly under it? Fussy smalligs. Fuzzy smallage!!! A quick check of the OED revealed that fuzzy was in use in the seventeenth century. And suddenly we had an answer. It may not have been Bunchfussy, but the second word was indeed fussy after all.

Apium Graveolens. Otto Wilhelm Thome, Flora von Deutschland (1885). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

An individual researcher might have skipped over a seemingly unimportant word, but ‘fussy’ turned out to provide a surprising amount of information that would have otherwise been missed. The knowledge that fuzzy smallage rather than plain old smallage was included in the recipe is interesting in two ways. First, the fuzziness might indicate its particular stage of growth—perhaps when in flower. That might indicate the timing (late summer) for preparing the recipe. Alternatively, it might be specifying use of the leaves rather than the stalk. Either way, this was a clue that would have been left out of a quick read of the recipe. Second, ‘fussy’ has not yet been listed in the OED as a variant of ‘fuzzy’.

Close reading, perseverance, and teamwork are rewarding. In an age of perpetual busy-ness and fast reading on the web, that the internet can also bring opportunities for slowing down fills me with delight.

*In addition to those named above, thank you to @Hannebambel @Greensleeves @Cuboctahedron for their contributions, which included points of clarification and transcriptions.

A shorter version of this post originally appeared at the collaborative blog shakespearesworldzoo–a blog that is well worth checking out, with more on recipes and early modern letters! Elaine and I also recently gave a talk on this case at a workshop on Citizen Science in Historical Perspective (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 19 February 2016).


Transcribing Early Modern Recipes with the crowd on Shakespeare’s World

By Victoria Van Hyning and Paul Dingman

Shakespeare's World. http://www.shakespearesworld.org/#/
Shakespeare’s World. http://www.shakespearesworld.org/#/ Image courtesy of Paul Dingman.

Since the launch of the Shakespeare’s World crowdsourcing website on December 10, 2015, transcribing receipt book manuscripts has become a highly interesting and fun (some even say “addictive”) project for numerous users, a.k.a. “citizen humanists,” around the world. They come from many walks of life, and many have never studied paleography, but they are keen to contribute and many are gaining new skills, confidence, and knowledge as they make their way through a variety of manuscripts.

Shakespeare’s World started as a collaboration between Zooniverse, an academic crowdsourcing organization based at the University of Oxford, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO), an initiative at the Folger Shakespeare Library which seeks to do for manuscript resources what Early English Books Online (EEBO) has done for printed ones. The goals of Shakespeare’s World are manifold:

  • to generate transcriptions for the Folger’s online EMMO database, which is planned to launch in early 2017
  • to identify new words and word variants from manuscripts, which are currently under-represented in the OED, and add them to the dictionary
  • to serve as an experiment in crowdsourcing for paleography, i.e., letting users transcribe at their own pace — as little as one word or phrase at a time — yet still creating opportunities for thousands of people to try something new and contribute to an important scholarly resource

In November of 2015, the EMMO team examined the current Folger collection and identified 29 digitized manuscripts containing primarily recipes to include in the first batch of images for Shakespeare’s World. Together, these manuscripts amount to approximately 2,200 images and constitute the first of two genres from which users can choose to transcribe when they visit the site (the other starting genre is letters). Additional types of manuscripts will be added in the coming months, and the total volume of material is ~120,000 pages. To date, volunteers have worked on ~2,400 pages.

Some of the receipt books are fairly short, such as V.b.363, a bound manuscript of forty-two pages with entries from multiple hands, and some only have a few pages that have been photographed at this point, such as V.a.425. Others have hundreds of pages in them that have each been digitized, such as V.a.21. All of these receipt books were handwritten in the sixteenth and/or seventeenth centuries. However,  few have received much, if any, scholarly attention until fairly recently, with EMROC and other academics starting to delve into these works.

The citizen humanists on Shakespeare’s World are noting that these receipt books consist of recipes for dishes most of us would recognize today like pudding, cakes, or biscuits, as well as perhaps more unusual concoctions like foole or snail water. Transcribers on the site are also finding that the receipt books include a multitude of home remedies for a variety of ailments ranging from insomnia to seizures to indigestion. By viewing the way recipes for food and medicine are situated next to one another in the receipt books, users are discovering that in early modern times, these concepts were quite literally not far apart.

Example of a manuscript transcription page at Shakespeare's World. http://www.shakespearesworld.org/#/
Example of a manuscript transcription page at Shakespeare’s World.  Image courtesy of Paul Dingman. http://www.shakespearesworld.org/#/

While the therapeutic efficacy of some of these old remedies may seem doubtful to us in the twenty-first century (or just plain gross), they are nonetheless fascinating, not to mention valuable, as historical sources for understanding this period.

We are very grateful to Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith, and Jen Munroe in the EMROC group for being our guest experts on Shakespeare’s World for the receipt books. They are helping to sustain and stimulate some wonderful conversations on the discussion forum known as Talk, which is a great place for experts and volunteers alike to ask questions, report finds, and swap tips for those of us brave enough to try making some of these early modern recipes in the 21st century!

Victoria Van Hyning is the humanities PI of Zooniverse and an early modernist working on English Catholic women’s autobiography in the period when it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England and parts of the British Isles (c.1535–1790s). She will use the Shakespeare’s World data in her research, in order to look for examples of Catholic women’s writing.

Paul Dingman is the Project Manager for Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He earned a PhD in History with a concentration in medieval/early modern Europe and is especially interested in cultural history and the digital humanities. Before returning to school to pursue his doctorate, Paul worked for several years in the field of information technology.