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English Department | University of Texas | Arlington

Reconstructing Recipes, Recovering Losses, Telling Stories

Jennifer Munroe (University of North Carolina Charlotte), Hillary M. Nunn (University of Akron) Margaret Simon (North Carolina State University, and Lisa Smith (University of Essex)

To work with early modern recipes is always to work with loss. These losses are manifold, layered across time: original textual errors, imperfect transcriptions, and translation challenges. Cultural knowledge that perhaps seemed evident once has now seemingly vanished. The lack of its recent use has left fading traces; only by reabsorbing those traces meaningfully into our present — an incomplete and constant process — can we understand the past uses.[1] As senior academics who have seen recipe studies grow into a field of its own, we can easily forget how we learned to address absences and uncertainties, but working with novice transcribers constantly reminds us of the gaps in our historical understanding. The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) takes a feminist approach to teaching—developing an engaged and caring learning community — which enables us collectively to grapple with the possibilities that recognizing loss can offer. The errors made by new transcribers reveal changes over time, such as the place of handwriting or cookery knowledge; it is through storytelling, however, that we can begin to understand the breadth and meaning of historical and cultural change.

In the spirit of storytelling, what we do in this piece is offer a set of propositions related to how we might understand what has been lost in the intervening years since these recipe books were first compiled and what we might recuperate through their transcription. In articulating this understanding, we are also articulating a set of methods that have developed for working with these texts, as material for transcription as well as sources for glimpsing early modern domestic life. Notions of “loss” and “recuperation” are flexible concepts, as we see them, not fixed in time or space but perpetually evolving with each use of these books, and with each user. Ours is therefore an invitation to think with us, more than a definitive scholarly argument, what we offer here, and what is evident in recipe books themselves, is an iterative act; much like variations in a musical score, our piece moves, as does history itself, teleologically in one sense, and in another, in jagged stops and starts, folding back onto itself. In this sense, our essay mirrors the non-lineal, collaborative timelines embodied in the recipe compilations we study, and which we encourage others to revisit through the acts of transcription and scholarship. And so, each of our sections offers up “Another for ye same,” a familiar refrain in the books we transcribe, for just as the recipes in these books frequently offer multiple cures to treat what appears to be the same ailment, so too will the vignettes that mark each section of this piece consider notions of loss and recuperation from different points of view. These multiple perspectives, we hope, will serve as jumping-off points, inspiring still more possibilities for thinking with and about these books. In exploring these themes, we will make frequent use of Lady Sedley’s recipe book (1686) as well as earlier EMROC transcription projects.

Curing and Recuperation: Restoring Women Lost to History

Given its complex manuscript and print history, mysterious provenance, and historically relevant content, what has been known as Lady Sedley’s manuscript presents a compelling case study for the type of recursive and collaborative scholarship we propose.[2] Lady Sedley’s collection of culinary and medicinal recipes first came into view through Leonard Guthrie, a British physician practicing in the nineteenth century who held the manuscript in his private collection, then bequeathed it to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in 1913. His initial partial transcription and commentary appeared the same year.[3] The manuscript was fully digitized, as unsearchable image files, by the RCP. In 2021, it was transcribed through an international crowd-sourced event in collaboration with the EMROC, RCP, the Wellcome, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and FromthePage (an open-access transcription platform). These efforts began the transcription from scratch, rather than filling in what Guthrie’s transcription left out. Taking up a fresh start, we collectively sought to peel back the layers of meaning – and assumptions –  that Guthrie added to see what we, as twenty-first century transcribers, made of the manuscript. In that sense, we intentionally sought to lose what Guthrie added.

The story of Lady Sedley’s manuscript speaks to how recipe manuscripts embody the inherently collaborative, diachronic processes of cooking and medical care as much as they are texts fixed on a particular substrate at a particular time. The manuscript’s story, as we came to see it, suggests how media accounts and early print transcription both replicate and contribute to the uncertainties that surround the document’s original attribution.  Our efforts to elucidate the attribution attached to the manuscript instead uncovered the ways that Lady Sedley slips in and out view across an array of media forms — the seventeenth century manuscript, single-scholar print transcription, visual arts (both portraiture and print), periodical publications, and crowd-sourced digitized transcription.

Guthrie’s published treatment of the text, written for the Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians, includes transcriptions, partial transcriptions, or mentions of thirty-five of the manuscript’s 140 recipes; the Proceedings were not a publication format that could accommodate a complete transcription. And Guthrie doesn’t seem too interested in one. He focuses on the insufficiencies of the manuscript’s medical remedies, the text’s primarily male network of physicians, and scandals of the Sedleys. While Lady Sedley’s manuscript remained a unique object cloistered in Guthrie’s collection before its donation to the RCP, her reputation and that of her daughter were widely circulated and thereby fixed in the popular print record. Guthrie himself justifies his partial publication of the manuscript by noting that “‘The Lady Sedley’s Receipt Book’ is of some historical interest, for she was the wife of Sir Charles Sedley, wit, writer of plays and sonnets, and boon companion of Charles II.”[4] He further authorizes the manuscript’s relevance by referencing Sir Charles Sedley’s daughter, “the notorious Catherine,” consort to James II.

While Guthrie is certain that Lady Sedley, Charles’s first wife, is the author, the identity of the manuscript’s compiler is surprisingly uncertain. Pamela Forde’s recent work has proposed that the Lady Sedley who inscribes the 1686 recipe collection may have actually been Anne Ayscough. The manuscript is signed “Lady Sedley her receipt book 1686,” but as Forde reveals, from 1672 until her death in the early eighteenth century, Charles’s first wife, Lady Catherine Sedley (née Savage) was institutionalized at a convent in Ghent. Anne became his common-law wife in 1672 and thus could easily be the Lady Sedley of the manuscript. Forde writes that “Contemporary sources state they went through a marriage ceremony and she was known as Lady Sedley.”[5] These two possible Lady Sedleys are not the only Sedley women of note for this manuscript.

The uncertainty over the identity of Lady Sedley, and Guthrie’s early twentieth-century interpretive transcription of her manuscript, exist alongside a proliferation of printed material about the younger Catherine, the first Lady Sedley’s daughter with Charles. Her reputation clearly still informs Guthrie’s transcription almost two hundred years after her death despite the fact that she had no known contribution to the manuscript. Catherine was infamous in the court of James II due to her on-again-off-again affair with him, her “caustic wit,” and her unwillingness to entirely play the political games James and his advisers tried to involve her in. Although her mother remained sequestered from her husband, Catherine was initially willing to live in exile in Ireland at the behest of James’s advisors, but returned to court and resumed her royal affair.[6] Lady Catherine Sedley appears in at least two portraits, one an oil on canvas from the studio of Sir Peter Lely (c. 1675) which was subsequently engraved and circulated into the nineteenth century, and the other a watercolor on vellum from Peter Cross (1696). A semi-fictionalized vignette of Catherine was also published in The London Reader in 1864. Written by “S.K.” and set in a private room in White Hall, this piece imagines Catherine’s frustrations at being forced to give place to “that soulless, insipid apology for a queen.” In introducing Catherine, the author provokingly notes that the room’s occupant “was a woman whom it is difficult to describe.”[7] Thus the Lady Catherine’s reputation is kept in view at least into the late nineteenth century, and by Guthrie’s account, into the twentieth as well.

The difficulty S.K. has in describing Catherine is reflected in the misattribution of her portraits, which themselves seem a reflection of the unfixed nature of the title “Lady Sedley.” Lely’s portrait was long identified as being of Charles II’s mistress, actress Nell Gwynn, but a print of Lely’s portrait of Lady Sedley helped it to be accurately attributed in 1947. This is not the only case of Lady Catherine being misidentified as Nell Gwynn. An etching of Lely’s portrait by Charles William Sherborn which circulated in 1884 now appears in the National Portrait Gallery as “Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, engraved as Nell Gwyn.”[8] The gallery explains the original misattribution of Lely’s portrait by noting that “the exact identification of sitters is complicated by the frequent repetition of poses, costumes and accessories, as well as the generalisation of facial features, which turned portraits of individual sitters into fashionable likenesses.”[9] The manuscript’s Lady Sedley herself slips further from view behind her daughter’s own uncertain, but fashionable, likenesses.

As the younger Lady Catherine Sedley’s reputation generates print and portrait avatars and at least one fictionalized account, her likeness and notoriety dominate her family’s story in the historical record, just as Guthrie’s transcription does for the Lady’ Sedley’s recipe collection. Rather than preserving the nuanced lives of the Sedley women, this media record writ large superimposes Nell Gwynn over Lady Catherine Sedley or lets Lady Sedley herself (Savage or Ayscough) circulate only within the context of her daughter’s titillating courtly intrigue and partial accounts. While the portrait is now correctly attributed, this error, perpetuated across centuries, speaks to the extent to which female identity — whether represented on a print, in a portrait, through a fictionalized account, on a manuscript inscription, or by a manuscript transcription — was often made unstable by the male gaze or male priorities. In the case of Charles Sedley and even Leonard Guthrie, the title “Lady Sedley” becomes a cipher that can conceal or reveal whatever the writer wishes. And in this case, Guthrie seems to have little concern beyond scandal.

Even the manuscript’s current catalog record illustrates how these narratives generate momentum. In her chapter on the Brockman family, Elaine Leong argues that the very practice of building a family archive was backed by strategy to preserve the status and stories of the gentry, with the implicit goal being “to fashion a family identity.”[10] Sometimes today’s archives themselves seem to replay the institutional fashioning of the early modern elite family. For example, in the record for The Lady Sedley’s Manuscript in the Royal College of Physicians’ catalog, the research hierarchy links the manuscript to Leonard Guthrie’s text. While the catalog record does include some information about the uncertain attribution to Lady Sedley, Pamela Forde’s work to consolidate this claim and circulate it to an audience beyond catalog researchers is not linked, nor is EMROC’s research page on the manuscript. This speaks to the labor and delays that still shape how digitized archival records are presented and revised, even if it is potentially just a matter of catalogers not having time in the middle of a pandemic to adjust these links.

Similar efforts to define attribution and create easier access have long devalued women’s contributions to recipe books. Leong explores the history of the manor of Heppington and the three recipe books compiled by women in the household. The ownership inscription of Mary Faussett on one of the three volumes is almost fully obscured by her son Bryan’s bookplate. The original compilers of all three volumes are further marginalized by paper labels declaring the books to be “Heppington Receipts.” Leong discusses this as a case where “paperwork and knowledge organization fashioned the labors of individual women into a collective ‘family book.'”[11] While these bookplates and paper labels may have been pasted unthinkingly, the effect is the same. Obscuring the names of learned women that appear in recipe books – a form of media already seen as less authoritative – thus establishes the archive catalog entry as a means of promoting scholarly work of previous male members of the RCP.[12] Similarly, Guthrie’s text, which might be the Sedley Manuscript’s primary scholarly document simply due to issues of time and labor, nonetheless promotes his shaping of the work rather than the expertise of its original compiler.

Despite lingering questions about the catalog record, for EMROC and the Royal College of Physicians the project of transcribing the Sedley manuscript at least restores its scope and provokes revisiting its position in the RCP archive. In this case, the archival source texts destabilize the print version, while the material features and historical context of the manuscript itself destabilize its presentation of authorship. We can chart increasing visibility for the lost Lady Sedley and her recipes to the present complete searchable transcription now available on FromthePage, yet the digital artifact still can’t definitively solve the questions of identity the manuscript raises. It can only bring the mystery into view.

Another for The Same: Transcribing Lost Knowledge

As we take up EMROC’s fundamental task of creating searchable digital versions of previously unsearchable manuscript facsimiles, we are well aware that our work participates in a tradition of transcription practices that created these texts in the first place. With every attribution to a neighbor, family member, or medical authority, a manuscript like Lady Sedley’s declares its identity as transcribed texts, making explicit the compilation’s debt to transcription as a social and educational practice. Whether the compiler copies a single cure from a printed source into her book or painstakingly writes down a series of recipes from a friend’s book, domestic recipe manuscripts bear the marks of transcription as a means of recording knowledge and incorporating it into household practice. Faithful transcriptions, too, often reveal the history of a recipe in use, since emendations, commentary, and strikethroughs visible in copied recipes make clear that they were adjusted to fit the needs of the household even as they render illegible recipes once prepared there. In this sense, recipe manuscripts reflect the “social textuality” Arthur Marotti found in early modern commonplace books, with revisions, strikethroughs, and dialogue with previous writers becoming part of text that appears to have been, at first, simply transcribed into a compilation.[13] While these markers of a recipe’s use offer today’s transcribers a sense of the conversations that their predecessors engaged in around particular cures and illnesses, the traces such conversations leave on the manuscript page highlight the lost details of these recipes and the textual practices that transmit them to us.

Examining the role of transcription in verse compilations, Jessica Edmondes questions whether such emendations signal what some scholars have called a “looseness” in the relationship between the transcribed text and its source. She asserts that “Misreadings of a transcribed source text were unavoidable in a medium that relied on legible hands, from scribes who were on the whole amateur practitioners” but that “these practices could coexist with a concern for textual ‘authority’ and an interest in those individual poets responsible for writing the verse that these collectors so actively sought.”[14] Slippage, in other words, is inevitable, and purposeful emendations are possible, but maintaining as transparent a relationship between what is added to a scribal compilation and its source text nonetheless remains transcription’s primary goal.

EMROC transcribers constitute another link in a similar chain of transcription, even though they are working with a different breed of text. In their work with early modern manuscripts, they encounter recipes that have often already been transcribed, and which sometimes display changes – including accidental omissions, additions, and misreadings, as well as purposeful alterations – from earlier source texts. And, while the active writing and rewriting apparent on the pages of recipe compilations might illustrate the instability of manuscript and print text alike, those new to transcribing are not likely to see the manuscript page on their screens in this light. Instead, beginning transcribers are likely to see these recipe pages — full of unfamiliar characters, ingredients, names, and abbreviations — as full of things they are likely to get wrong, to transcribe and inscribe incorrectly, to the detriment of future users, and contributing to a loss of meaning with the potential to resonate through scholarship as a whole.

These anxieties, moreover, reflect the growing realization among digital humanities scholars that their projects risk blindly repeating what Alexandra Ortolja-Baird and Julianne Nyhan call the “deficient cultural scripts” of existing, already-accessible archives.[15] Indeed, transcription, as part of the broader drive to digitization, literally reinscribes earlier cultural assumptions about gender, race, and colonialism as it creates readily searchable files from less accessible early modern manuscripts. Given that, as Ortolja-Baird and Nyhan note, “we cannot predict the future use of the data we ma[k]e machine readable,”[16] recipe transcription flirts with reifying dominant narratives even as it seeks to make visible the everyday lives of women and the importance of the domestic realm. Making the text available in a transcribed form, moreover, offers at best a shadowy glimpse of the activities in less-privileged households. Even though we know little about the Lady Sedley who left us her recipe book, as we have seen the survival of her text owes much to its links to the English nobility. Though she carefully credits cordial recipes to Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Bayley, they are the only women without elite titles named in the collection; only two other women, Lady Mildmay and Lady Russell, appear in the compilation, while seven male doctors are included, some attached to multiple recipes.[17] In that sense, Lady Sedley, whoever she was, perpetuates the narrative that connects privilege and title to knowledge. Thus, even if the vast majority of the collection’s unattributed recipes emerge from practical household knowledge, the identities of these people responsible for developing that knowledge are subsumed into the household name. As much as transcription thus works from a democratizing impulse, it can only reinscribe the loss of many practitioners’ identities.

While the collection’s contents might not challenge cultural scripts regarding social status, the process of creating the transcriptions works to articulate the unspoken collaborations that create these manuscripts. As Margaret Simon observes in her 2021 Early Modern Studies Journal article, the collaboration that undergirds much of EMROC’s transcription activity replicates the process-oriented work of recipe compilation itself.[18] Many EMROC transcribers, she notes, first meet early modern recipes during transcribathons — group events that invite participants to transcribe a shared digitized manuscript during a set period of time. The collaborative conversations that occur as transcribers work, she notes, echo the multivocal quality of the recipes themselves, and the voices, concerns, and transcription decisions of previously unrepresented populations are incorporated into the work.

These new EMROC transcribers prove anything but “loose” in their approach to text. Instead, they are generally greatly concerned with capturing every detail of the words and the format of the manuscript at hand. In the case or recipe books, that means noting words and amounts that are scratched out, retaining mysterious spellings, and specifying what ingredients are abbreviated and what amounts appear in superscript.[19] As much as transcribers strive to include all, however, omissions and loss inevitably occur — through mistaken letters and, even more commonly, as a result of encounters with inscrutable meanings nested in far-off, unfamiliar contexts. The primary task of transcribers, after all, is to render into a more accessible form what they see in a manuscript, not to offer an interpretation of what they encounter there. This, however, is often easier said than done. The first transcription of Sedley’s recipe for “A Restoratie for a Ring,” for example, contains two difficulties that illustrate these challenges. First, the title itself is ambiguous, with the capital Rs that begin its two nouns lacking a clear resemblance to one another. Is the cure “A Restorati[v]e for a Ring” or a “Restorati[v]e for a King”?

Normally, looking for a match for the final word’s ambiguous capital elsewhere in the manuscript helps render a decision, but no similar version of this letter appears. Turning to the text of the recipe can provide hope of an answer, but that is not so in this case. The text reads:

Take Rosa Solis and Steep them all night in white wine
and Still them, if a man be weak let him drink the
water alone if he be metlye let him drink it with
vinegar, this will make a whole man a lepor.[20]

Or so this is how our FromthePage transcribers rendered the recipe’s conclusion, given the following image for its final word:

While, to other eyes, this might look like leg, that reading brings no immediately clear interpretation. What would it mean to “make a whole man a leg”? Exploration in the Oxford English Dictionary offers a possible connection to the seventeenth-century expression to keep one’s legs or “to remain standing upright; to keep oneself from falling or collapsing.”[21] That would certainly be a more desirable outcome than to “make a whole man a lepor” — clearly an undesirable medical outcome. The word’s final character resembles no g on the page, but, further down, the character appears in this word, rendered, thanks to context as parcells.

The comparison makes lepor a clear possibility, as much as it seems to defy logic. The recipe’s simple ingredients, moreover, offer little that is distinctive that might help solidify the cure’s meaning. Cordials under the name Rosa Solis are a standard ingredient in many recipes, made from the sundew plant, and the concoction usually involved vinegar, as does Lady Sedley’s. While the OED suggests ring referred in some early modern anatomy texts to the “ring cartilage” around the trachea or larynyx,[22] such a usage would prove largely inconsistent with the collection’s otherwise lay vocabulary; similarly, ring as a slang reference to the vagina, as often seen in Shakespeare, seem medically unhelpful. While some Indigenous American cures use Rosa Solis as a cure for ringworm,[23] early English texts are more likely to warn that the plant of the same name raises blisters on the skin even as a drink made from it can strengthen the body.[24] As difficult as it is to find a coherent connection between Ring and lepor, however, finding one between King and lepor is even more difficult, unless the recipe is intended as a political joke — not impossible, but odd nonetheless considering its position in a largely practical manuscript, sandwiched between a recipe “for a woman travelling with Child to make her soon to be deliver’d” and one “For Shortness of Breath.” The curative’s declared purpose, in short, reaches beyond a cordial water’s general use, and today’s readers may never access the specific knowledge the recipe hopes to offer. Today’s transcribers are thus left with the need simply to record their own confusion, lying in the letters and the mystery they embody, offering no tidy answers. The process of transcription thus leaves the mysteries of the manuscript unmarked, waiting for a later editor or scholar to spot them and grapple with their potential meanings.

Another For <th>e Same: Translation, Usefulness and Storytelling

EMROC’s project is one of recovery. We revive the words and knowledge of long-dead people; we find new uses for old texts. Transcription can be anxiety-producing, as discussed above, but it also offers the joys of curiosity and co-creation. Our rationale for transcribing recipe books is to make them useful for teaching, research and public engagement through our collaborations; to transcribe is also to begin to tell a story.

When we began our project in 2012, Handwritten Textual Recognition (HTR) was so new that expert transcription remained more effective than any AI options, especially for early modern texts. The Transkribus project, which started in 2015, has a similar goal to EMROC of providing transcribed texts freely by bringing together archivists, researchers and transcribers. The difference is that Transkribus also uses machine-learning to create an increasingly sophisticated HTR, “making it easier for anyone to read, transcribe, process and mine historical documents.”[25] The growing potential offered by HTR means that EMROC must confront the question: why is transcription still a useful practice for recovery when we could just automate it instead?

For EMROC, transcription is our first step in making our texts useful. If “not using: not being,” as Sara Ahmed puts it, our community of transcribers fulfills an important role:  ensuring that our texts continue to ‘be’ because they continue to be used. We are a community of pathfinders who clear the way so that we can understand and use these texts once more.[26] Precision is not transcription’s only purpose, or HTR would be an obvious choice. Through the process of transcription, all participants engage with the text—and each other—on a deeper level, asking questions about what they see (or not) and the reasons for it. Transcribing is a deliberate act of slow scholarship, enabling us to foster community and to prioritize work that we see as important.[27] The process is everything: a collaborative path-clearing to a deeper understanding of each text and its potential uses across time.

Transcription is fundamentally interpretative and reconstructive. When recipe scholars talk about reconstruction, they usually mean the process of making an old recipe. However, transcription itself is also a type of reconstruction, or translation, which moves between reading the handwriting, understanding the text, transcribing what we see on the computer, and encoding it with Extensible Mark-Up Language (XML). Although the provision of transcribed texts is important to EMROC’s project, it is the act of transcribing—or, more specifically, the translation inherent within transcribing—that is most meaningful for us. For example, even though the meaning of Lady Sedley’s “this will make a whole mane a Lepor” is fundamentally unclear, it is nonetheless carefully rendered as “this will make a whole man a Le<ex>por</ex>.” The meaning of the original remains unclear, but we have enough certainty (based on other textual examples) to extend the word in its XML form. It is, nonetheless, a process of interpretation as we insert our best guess as to what it might represent.

The possibilities, or limitations, for storytelling begin with transcription. Human expertise is still needed to correct HTR errors, just as EMROC has experts reconcile the work of novice transcribers.[28] The difference is that transcribers begin with the blank page, rather than machine-provided text. HTR simply displays unusual letters, such as a spurred “c” or an umlaut “y”, as letters without distinctiveness. Similarly, traces of artistry in a text—from fancy letters and flourishes to doodles—are not so apparent to AI. The Sedley book includes a humorous doodle of messy hair alongside a recipe to cure baldness (an example shared by the Royal College of Physicians on Twitter), while transcribers on Twitter and Zoom discussed a textual mystery of a strange symbol that kept reappearing in Ayscough’s book.

Royal College of Physicians, The Lady Sedley, her Receipt Book, 1686, MS 534, p. 44.

Wellcome Collection, Lady Ayscough, MS 1026, p. 150. Example of the mystery symbol from ‘Swelling to Asswage’.

HTR might suggest 3r or an abbreviation for dram, but to transcribers it was obviously not, even if they could not identify it.[29] HTR can makes transcriptions more efficient, but the generated text reduces the role for pathfinders in the recovery process; from the outset, the reader is pointed to likely meanings and specific paths, obscuring other possibilities.

Transcription enables close engagement with the past. Many students working with us become conscientious transcribers, who look for the tiniest details in their anxious quest to be as accurate as possible.[30] Alex Boon, a student who was part of the EMROC work on Margaret Baker’s book in a University of Essex module in 2016-17, indicated that his familiarity with her handwriting meant that he could identify when she was in a hurry or more careful.[31] Personality comes through in the tiniest of details, such as letter formation. Tracey Cornish, another Essex student, pointed to the individuality of Baker’s placement of umlauts over “y” and the idiosyncrasy of her spelling.[32] Lady Ayscough often put spurs above her letter “c”, as noted by Eleanor Kelley-Swift and University North Carolina Charlotte students.[33]

Wellcome Collection, Lady Ayscough, MS 1026, p. 251. From ‘How to Roast a Large Eale’.

Although we cannot speak directly to the past authors, we can try to understand what they say—and come to know them, if imperfectly—through the close analysis of their work demanded by transcription.[34] Karen Bowman (Essex student) described this tension in a blog post: “if Baker and I ever met I would recognise her, divided only by time. …  it is reasonable to assume then that going back in time would be easier for me than coming forward would be for Margaret.”[35] For Bowman, engaging with the mistakes and changes in Baker’s handwriting that allowed her to know her subject across time. Bowman found Baker’s ghost through working on the manuscript, even as the final transcription rendered Baker into even more of a shadow. The process, not the result, encourages in-depth conversations with the past.

Those conversations across time are challenging, requiring several translations. Living languages constantly change and the further back in time we go, the more difficult it is to understand.[36] Beginning transcribers often mistakenly describe seventeenth-century English as “Old English”—but the mistake highlights their recognition of a vast temporal distance. The past, after all, is a “foreign country.”[37] The first distancing comes from the handwriting. Although schools are increasingly teaching cursive, it is often treated as a nuisance or irrelevant in a digital age, despite the many kinesthetic advantages it can bring.[38] Some early modern recipe books such as Ann Fanshawe’s even have multiple hands, which further adds to the confusion.[39] Novice transcribers must first be taught that there are a variety of letter forms. The second barrier is the lack of standardized spelling before the nineteenth century, which can result in multiple versions of one word for even just one compiler. In the UK, it is easier to have transcribers relate to the phonetic spellings by encouraging them to read it aloud, or to hear it in a regional accent; when working with North Americans, there is less familiarity with what those words might even sound like. A third point of unfamiliarity is that many modern students do not know how to cook. The format of an old recipe, which typically begins with “Take” and includes a set of instructions with ingredients and methods merged together can further confuse novices more used to seeing ingredients and methods separated with methods clearly laid out as steps. It is noteworthy that Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell, who compile an online collection of modernized early modern recipes, rewrite the recipes in an updated format, which is much easier for modern readers to follow.[40] Layered acts of translation teach transcribers to read closely, to understand history deeply, and to uncover new uses for old books.

The word “reconstruction” implies the act of putting something back together, but nothing can ever truly be restored to its original state. The losses and what we have forgotten over time are a necessary part of the story.[41] Recipes, for example, are filled with tacit knowledge, which people would have learned from doing rather than recording it.[42] We often do not know whether a compiler liked or used the recipe, or what substitutions a skilled cook might have made when needed. Ingredients common in the past are not always easy to find now, while cooking tools and methods have changed significantly. For example, beginning transcribers are often intrigued that vanilla was absent from early modern recipes for baking, whereas rosewater was ubiquitous. Availability profoundly shapes our tastes and expectations for flavors. Even more surprising to beginners is that medicinal and cookery recipes appear alongside each other, raising questions of how those recipes might overlap and how an understanding of the working of herbs might not just be about taste. The obvious problem with reconstruction is that it is impossible to capture the past as it was—but what we learn through the process of reconstruction (however imperfect) is more fruitful than debating its accuracy. We cannot remember everything, nor should we; uses and knowledge should change over time, or will become stagnant, even un-useful.[43] Our mistakes allow us to understand the past while recognizing its foreignness and, in doing so, the text remains alive through its (changed) usefulness.

Students intuitively seem to have recognized this necessity, given the popularity of their attempts at recipe reconstruction and their interest in writing about it. The typical narrative arc is one of discovery. The student finds a recipe that seems familiar (or strange) and the result is often inedible or fundamentally different from the intended result. Friends or family try the recipe, bemusedly judging the cookery skills or historical flavors. The most crucial part of the narrative, however, is that the act of making recipes helps students to learn about the gaps between then and now (such as absent equipment, unclear descriptions, or difficult-to-find ingredients). Essex students Abbie Burnett and Faye Glover, for example, reconstructed Margaret Baker’s wayfers. As they worked, they confronted all the usual challenges of preparing historical recipes, including the difficulty of sourcing rosewater at their usual grocery stores.[44] But their real insight from the reconstruction was that preparing Baker’s food was a form of intimacy, which they likened to an early modern food gift. Indeed, they in turn gifted the wafers by bringing them to the final class for us to sample.[45] For Burnett and Glover, the process of cooking and sharing made the past more accessible—not so much the attempt to taste history, but the social and cultural significance of recipes and food exchange, then and now.

EMROC’s feminist praxis with recipes calls for developing different ways of teaching and new assignments. Our projects take place within our classrooms or wider EMROC community. At the heart of our pedagogy is a flattened hierarchy, community of care, and engaged classroom that encourages everyone to contribute. It is also one that recognizes the role of the body and individual experience in our classrooms.[46] During transcribathons, for example, people from around the world–novices to experts–work together, collaborating and discussing our work. Transcribers working alone are often anxious and isolated, as Simon notes, but find it more enjoyable and learn more when working closely with others.[47] Embodied knowledge is also important for us. Although our project is digital, we encourage participants to engage with the materiality of the sources through reconstructive efforts, such as that of Burnett and Glover. The haptic learning that comes through reconstructions stimulates longer term memory and higher-order understanding, while increasing skills in observation and imagination.[48]

Feminist lived time is, arguably, one that folds together past, present and future, which is what occurs with our students’ engagement with the texts.[49] Traditional academic expectations for historical writing, however, cannot measure the meaning of students’ encounters with recipes—part of which is the merger of the historical past and students’ present. When teaching recipes as part of a History course, for example, there can be a conflict between the need to assign students grades and the storytelling associated with recipes. While grading, a historian inevitably finds themself commenting on some of the submissions that the students have lapsed into storytelling, which means that the work does not provide enough analysis or theorization. For EMROC, by contrast, student storytelling has emerged as a central part of our feminist pedagogy, not merely a pedagogical tool–even for historians.[50] The narrative structure shared by students in their assignments is as follows. First, while transcribing, students become curious about something in or about the recipe. They then investigate the past in a way that connects them physically to it.  The next step is to write blog posts telling future readers about their encounters with the past. Each step of the narrative is important, revealing the students’ deep learning in a story form. The curiosity sparked through their transcribing, for example, enhances students’ long-term academic performance–and it is doubly powerful when combined with the conscientiousness that many transcribers show.[51] Storytelling is fundamentally about meaning-making, even if it does not follow the usual criteria for scholarly analysis. When events happen, we create narratives to relate the experience to others.[52] By telling stories, students can go beyond measurable facts and make sense of the “troublesome knowledge” that accompanies questioning everyday assumptions (which commonly happens when working on recipes).[53] Storytelling is as much a demonstration by students that they now understand the past differently as it is an opportunity for them to reflect critically on their process of discovery.[54]

For recipes and recipe transcription, the process of discovery includes failure, the familiar made unfamiliar, and collaborative knowledge-building. Transcription is the start of a story, and like storytelling, is about making meaning. Successful work with stories requires the intimacy of an engaged group, a willingness to work together and skilled listening/reading from the group — as the Twitter conversations during our Transcribathons can show.[55] The Baker Project (2016-7) students, for example, had to work closely together throughout the year to develop their website: listening to Margaret Baker, working with each other, changing their assumptions about the past. The results of their year-long conversations and storytelling can be seen on their website, which they envisioned as a case study that highlights the usefulness of recipe books to study the past.[56] Through collaborative storytelling, students recover the losses of the past by finding new uses for—and understandings of — the recipe books.

Another: Entanglements of Ecology and Care

We might extend notions of storytelling and knowledge-making to the practices, ingredients, and practitioners articulated in these recipe books, the ways such practices inextricably entangle humans and landscape and evoke a way of being that is largely lost in the modern, at least developed, Western world. Early modern recipes, that is, capture and retell stories of cooking and medicine that necessitated and fostered intimate relationships among plants, humans, and other animals, where attending to the comings and goings of the more-than-human world sometimes literally meant the difference between life and death.

Why might it matter to re-member — to acknowledge and piece back together — this sort of loss these many centuries later? As Donna Haraway aptly proposes, “It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”[57] Efforts to transcribe early modern receipt books bring past thinking, past worlds, into the present so that they might be re-membered, their intimate social and corporeal relations made visible and accessible to new audiences; these efforts enable the telling of alternative stories otherwise lost to history. To re-member the lost intimate human/more-than-human relations found in early modern receipt books is both to bring to bear old thoughts and to forge new ones, those that might make possible more sustainable ways of living on this planet today.

By attending to these otherwise lost ways of being found in these books, we attend as well to the sort of “matters of care” Maria Puig de la Bellacasa describes, for, as she writes, “relations of thinking and knowing require care and affect how we care” about people and planet.[58] Early modern recipes embody and enact these relations, not least in the way they ask us to consider not Knowledge (with a big K, implying Objectivity with a big O), but rather “situated knowledges” of the sort Donna Haraway characterizes as multiple, as the product of ongoing co-agentic happenings rather than a defined set of (inanimate) things, interacting with human bodies, locked in time and space in one or a set of circumscribed moment/s.[59]

English recipe books were born of a time that coincided with the rise of science, when legitimated knowledge-making originated in the laboratory, not the kitchen. These books remind us, on the contrary, that the knowledge they contain and that they advanced (even still today when we make them in our own kitchens or classrooms) emanated from the uncontained/able spaces beyond the house’s walls — the kitchen gardens, the meadows and riverbeds, the forest floors — and practitioners mucked their way to and from these spaces, mingling as they did with the more-than-human, in order to make these recipes.

Re-membering lost ways of thinking and being, then, does not simply re-construct what was; we yoke past and present in ways that lead to different foci for “care,” and recuperating lost ways of “caring” leads to the sort of “thinking with care” that might shape our present and future.[60] Such care might be found, for instance, directions common to these books — to bruise, stamp, and distill handfulls of plant and animal matter — which necessitated practitioners engaged in direct and tactile ways with these nonhuman things, mediated perhaps by a mortar and pestle or an alembic, but getting their hands dirty as they worked. The familiar directive to gather herbs and other flora suggests direct contact with plants as women and men traversed the landscape beyond the house’s walls, sometimes nearby (if in the cultivated garden space) and sometimes further afield (as was often the case to forage materials in meadows, at the forest’s edge, and elsewhere).

In these and other ways, books like the Sedley receipt book illustrate the complex web of intra-action of the sort physicist Karen Barad describes, where we find “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” — a human/nonhuman “we/us” rather than “individual elements,” or clearly demarcated “I/you.”[61] As Barad writes, in contrast to ”interaction” denotes ”separate individual agencies that precede their interaction,” ”intra-action” ”recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede. but rather emerge through, their “intra-action.”[62]  It is this multiplicity that early moderns experienced out of necessity daily, an entangled selfhood comprised of human/more-than-human entities that we have since largely shunned, but that must be recuperated if we are truly to address climate change and its attendant loss of life for humans and more-than-human alike.

These books also call to mind a lost sense of time directed not by modern human clocks but by the natural ebbs and flows of the more-than-human. Take, for instance, a recipe that directs, “these simples [the numerous plants, wild and cultivated] to be gather’d in May, and then distill’d in the beginning of June.”[63]; or another for a water to be “sett in the sunn 5 or 6 days.”[64] For these and the many directions like them we find strewn throughout these books, time is contingent, beyond human control, dictated by the seasons more than human intervention. Or, as we find in a recipe for dropsy in the Sedley book, which reads, “begin to drink itt in the first Quarter of the Moone, soe drink it till the Moone be at the full,”[65] the duration of cures and their medicinal efficacy tied to lunar phases rather than the conventions of time we rely on today, such as a Google calendar or iPhone.

In these books time is both a marked series of moments (as one might take a medicine at a designated time, or over time; or one might make a foodstuff or cure in the same manner) and a perpetually-deferred group of instances, folding back onto themselves — the many “if/then”  propositions in these books; or, they call on natural cycles, such as the lunar or diurnal cycles, that occur repeatedly and cannot be precisely demarcated but are instead gestural and apprehended by way of immersion in the moment and/or memory and that speak as much to the next time as they do the current moment in question.

To re-member these losses, is to both re-call them to mind and re-member their corporeal human and more-than-human particulars. To recuperate them as best we can several centuries on, is to “care” in these ways, to recuperate not only the seemingly-static or two-dimensional details on the page, but also the ways of (actively) being with, living on the planet that our modern sensibilities and Western lifestyles do their best to erase from memory.

Probatum Est?

 Just like the recipe books we study, this essay marks not just one moment in time, but a range of moments. Transcribing recipe compilations makes clear that these manuscripts represent the processes of recipe development throughout the early modern period, reaching back to a kitchen scene that predates the recording of a collection’s first recipe. Likewise, the last recipe recorded (which may not occupy a compilation’s last leaf, given the early modern habit of revising and adding to previous pages) does not mark the end of the collection’s development. Recipes, after all, continue to change with their environments, adapting as they encounter new surroundings, owners, and knowledge.

Our transcription practices seek to capture our own experiences with these books, even as we make them available to those reading them in an even wider array of contemporary times and places. In doing so, we seek to engage with the past, letting its mysteries stand when we cannot solve them rather than imposing erroneous understandings or obscuring what could be fruitful engagements for scholars whose concerns and contexts we cannot foresee. Without saying anything, we transcribe these losses of knowledge, yet create an opening for students and scholars to articulate these gaps in the story within their own narratives elsewhere.

As we relate the story of our ten years of transcribing these texts, we are particularly aware of the ways that illness has shaped our own engagement with these manuscripts’ older practices. COVID has expanded our sense of what drives people to collect and experiment with cures that test notions of acceptable practice, inspiring us to point out to new transcribers how fear and lack of resources can influence medical decisions. Remembering today’s immediate experience of pandemic, in short, allows us to forge new connections to practices that have long been forgotten. Such an empathetic approach need not condone medical carelessness, but can instead inspire empathy for those suffering from ailments that we, in our pre-covid times, could not so vividly picture in our own seemingly sanitized worlds.

We transcribe in our own time, just like the compilers of these manuscripts transcribed in theirs. Remembering that allows us to connect more readily to the seemingly alien practices recorded in these texts, prompting us to imagine how compilers viewed the richness and challenges of their changing surroundings. Transcribing with such empathy, however, cannot solve the mysteries of these recipes. Instead, transcription challenges us to record, rather than explain away, the unknown, to leave possibilities open rather than close them off. In doing so, we hope to allow a wider array of readers and researchers a clearer, but not necessarily tidier, glimpse of the historical processes that these manuscripts illustrate, both in their content and in their survival.

After more than two years of living through the Covid-19 pandemic, time feels unceasingly protracted even as it seems to have stood still these many months. Notions of entanglement these recipe books raise, though, might turn us not toward isolation, but instead toward empathy. By engaging these books in their complexity, we yoke ourselves to the men and women of the past, to the ingredients and processes that sustained them and the landscapes they inhabited. When we come to these books open to these forms of connection, we come to them as well with empathy, a new-found sense of the “we” rather than the “I” they suggest — a shared experience with the Other (human and nonhuman) that might well be key to our thriving in the years to come, as we face a changing planetary climate, resource scarcity, and more pandemics looming over us.


[1] Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 45; Victoria Browne, Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 63-64, 71.

[2] Catherine Sedley, The Lady Sedley’s Recipe Book. MS 534 (Royal College of Physicians, 1686).

[3] Leonard Guthrie, “The Lady Sedley’s Receipt Book, 1686, and Other Seventeenth-Century Receipt Books.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine v.6, (May 1913): 150–70.

[4] Guthrie, 158.

[5] Pamela Forde, “Revealing Recipes: Deciphering the Text.” Royal College of Physicians Blog. Royal College of Physicians. 09/09/2021

[6] Andrew Barclay, “Sedley, Catharine, suo jure countess of Dorchester, and countess of Portmore (1657–1717), royal mistress.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  27. Oxford University Press. 12/1/2021,

[7] S. K., “Catherine Sedley,” The London reader: of literature, science, art and general information; vol. 3, no. 66 (August 13, 1864) British Periodicals: 427.

[8] Charles William Sherborn, after the studio of Peter Lely, “Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester engraved as Nell Gwyn,” etching, 1884, National Portrait Gallery, London.

[9] Sir Peter Lely, “Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester,” 1675, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London.

[10] Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 136.

[11]Ibid, 138.

[12] Women were first admitted to the RCP in 1909. In 1963, Sujata Chaudhuri became the first woman of color to join. Aiysha Seth, “Searching for Female Firsts of the RCP.” Royal College of Physicians Blog. Accessed December 16, 2021. Accessed December 16, 2021.

[13] Arthur F. Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell, 1995).

[14] Jessica Edmondes, “Poetic Exchanges and Scribal Agency in Early Modern Manuscript Culture.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 2 (2017): 255.

[15] Alexandra Ortolja-Baird, and Julianne Nyhan, “Encoding the Haunting of an Object Catalogue: On the Potential of Digital Technologies to Perpetuate or Subvert the Silence and Bias of the Early-modern Archive,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 2021, 3.

[16] Ortolja-Baird, 19

[17] The Sedley collection references Mrs. Davis (49) and Mrs. Bayley (57), as well as Lady Mildmay (40) and Lady Russell (71) for a total of four named women, but includes Dr. Hintent (16), Dr. Jacob (59), Dr. King (59), Dr. Sydenham (61), Dr. Lower (71), and Dr. Graves (73).

[18] Margaret Simon, ‘The Experience of Scholarly Labor: Recording Affect in Transcription,’ Early Modern Studies Journal, vol. 7, no. 2, 2021, 16.

[19] The two transcription tools EMROC has used – Dromio and FromthePage – both allow easy tracking of these features, though the impact of these different interfaces on final transcription quality have not yet become clear.


[21] “Leg, P.3.h,” OED Online.

[22] “Ring, n. 1.II b,” OED Online.

[23] Daniel F. Austin, Florida Ethnobotany (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2004) 275-76.

[24] John Gerard, 1557. The herball or Generall historie of plantes (London, 1644).

[25] Guenter Muehlberger, Louis Seaward, Melissa Terras, et al. “Transforming Scholarship in the Archives through Handwritten Text Recognition: Transkribus as a case study,” Journal of Documentation 75, 5 (2019): 954-76 (955).

[26] Ahmed, Use, 45.

[27] Alison Mountz, Anne Bonds, Becky Mansfield, et al. “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14, 4 (2015): 1236-1259.

[28]  Meuhlberger et al., “Transforming Scholarship,” 965.

[29] On the doodle, see: @RCPmuseum, 4 March 2021,, accessed 28 January 2022. On the mystery symbol, see thread with Jennifer Park, Breanne Weber, Floating Oh and Hillary Nunn; @EMRecipesOnline, 4 March 2021,, accessed 11 January 2022.

[30] Transcription encourages conscientiousness, with transcribers often being concerned about getting it right, as Simon has found. This is important in another way, as conscientiousness is often linked to students’ higher academic performance. Simon, “Experience of Scholarly Labor”; Sophie von Stumm, Benedict Hell and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6, 6 (2011), 576.

[31] Alex Boon, “What is the Baker Project?” The Baker Project: University of Essex (2017),, accessed 11 January 2022.

[32] Tracey Cornish, “Transcribing,” The Digital Recipe Book Project, 18 November 2016,, accessed 11 January 2022.

[33] @EMRecipesOnline, 4 March 2021,, accessed 11 January 2022.

[34] Penelope J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 238.

[35] Karen Bowman, “Margaret Baker’s Ghost?” The Digital Recipes Book Project, 12 May 2017,, accessed 28 January 2022.

[36] Corfield, Time, 33-35.

[37] Phrase from L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), 1; David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[38] Susan Cahill, “Where Does Handwriting Fit In? Strategies to Support Academic Achievement,” Intervention in School and Clinic 44, 4 (2009): 223-228.

[39] See Elaine Leong, “‘Crost by mistake’: Scribbling in early modern recipe books,” The Recipes Project,, accessed 11 January 2022; Hillary Nunn with Rebecca Laroche, “Exploring CPP 10a214: Who is ’Me’?” The Recipes Project,, accessed 11 January 2022.

[40] Marissa Nicosia, Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen,, accessed 11 January 2022.

[41] Ahmed, Use, 78, 88-89; Corfield, Time, 234, 237.

[42] Pamela Smith, “In the Workshop of History: Making, Writing, and Meaning,” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19, 1 (2012): 4-31 (10).

[43] Corfield, Time, 234, 246.

[44] Abbie Burnett and Faye Glover, “Reconstruction,” The Baker Project,, accessed 28 January 2022. The conversations that emerge from reconstruction projects result in an intimate knowledge and understanding of historical decision-making, uses and skills: Anne Tiballi, “Engaging the Past: Haptics and Object-Based Learning in Multiple Dimensions,” in Helen Chatterjee and Leonie Hanan, eds. Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education (London: Routledge, 2015),  89-90, 95-6.

[45] Abbie Burnett and Faye Glover, “Food,” Baker Project,, accessed 28 January 2022.

[46] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 20-21, 39, 138-9.

[47] Simon, “Experience of Scholarly Labor.”

[48] Tiballi, “Engaging the Past,” 82, 85.

[49] Browne, Feminism,  31.

[50] As per Hessler and Lambert who suggest that storytelling can be a pedagogy itself, not just a pedagogical tool.  Brooke Hessler and Joe Lambert, “Threshold Concepts in Digital Storytelling: Naming What We Know About Storywork,” pp. 19-35 in Jamissen et al. Digital Storytelling,  22.

[51] von Stumm, Hell and Chamorro-Premuzic, “Hungry Mind,”  582-83.

[52] Browne, Feminism,  75, 97.

[53] Hessler and Lambert, “Threshold,” 24-25.

[54] Pip Hardy, ‘Introduction to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,’ 13-17 in Grete Jamissen, Pip Hardy, Yngve Nordkvelle and Heather Pleasants, eds. Digital Storytelling in Higher Education: International Perspectives (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 14-15; Hessler and Lambert, “Threshold,” 23.

[55] Hessler and Lambert, “Threshold,”  26-27, 29-30.

[56] The Baker Project: University of Essex,, viewed 28 January 2022.

[57] Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016,  35.

[58] Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016, p.69.

[59] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, v.14, n.3 (Autumn 1988): 579-599.

[60] Puig de la Bellacasa, 69, emphasis mine.

[61] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007, 33.

[62] Barad,  33.

[63] Sedley, 38.

[64] Sedley, 37.

[65] Sedley, 3.