Digital Tools for Teaching Early Medicine to a New Generation: Part 3

At the 2019 AAHM annual meeting in Columbus, OH, Emily Clark, Kathleen Crowther, Elaine Leong, and Lisa Smith convened a lunchtime panel to talk about using new digital tools to teach undergraduates early medicine. This post, the second in a series of four, will cover one of the methods discussed.

Transcribing and Making Recipes

Elaine Leong  

As a researcher, I’m interested in recovering vernacular and informal health-related practices, particularly those occurring in sites such as households. In recent years, handwritten recipe books with instructions to make a range of food and medicines have emerged as key sources for this research. Hundreds of books of recipes are available for study in libraries and archives and make for fascinating reads. As each book can contain up to two hundred or more recipes, when taken together, these notebooks make for a huge archive. Take for example this recipe to prevent a miscarriage in the book of Lady Ann Fanshaw.

L0030016 Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images “…powder for good miscarrying” Recipe book, containing medical, culinary and other recipes, compiled from 1651; with additional entries in various later hands Ann Fanshawe Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The recipe format gives us a clear sense of the various ingredients, equipment and technologies used in home-based drug production.

While these sources offer an in-depth look at household medicine, they are also difficult to study as most only present recipe after recipe with little context. Unsurprisingly, scholars have turned to digital tools to try to analyse this vast archive, tracking commonly addressed ailments or the introduction of new materia medica, for example. To do that, though, we first have to turn these handwritten scrawls into marked-up text, which is a labor-intensive endeavor. The handwriting, languages, and marginal notes in these books are too problematic for a machine to learn and reproduce accurately in this time, so, we have to do this manually. To get around this problem, our project the “Early Modern Recipes Online Collective” (EMROC) uses crowdsourcing technologies to produce searchable transcriptions. We are all familiar with online crowdsourcing projects such as Wikipedia, and, of course, scientists have long relied on citizen scientists to band birds, classify galaxies, and count penguins. For the past seven years, we have been harnessing this technology to produce transcriptions, with lots of help from undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in our history, history of medicine and science and English literature classes.

Working with the Folger Shakespeare Library, EMROC uses the Dromio transcription platform to collect, collate, and vet transcriptions. Working as citizen humanists, students from multiple campuses labor together to produce multiple-keyed tagged transcriptions of recipe texts, participating in an international research project and adding to a fast-growing archive which is available via the Luna platform of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Transcribing activities have been included in classes from specialized graduate seminars on palaeography and archives, to freshman composition classes, to second-year undergraduate mixed lecture/seminar courses on early modern science. Instructors include transcription in a number of ways – as the main focus of the seminar in a bid to produce a digital edition or as one-off sessions or, following the connected classroom model, as a focal point to foster conversations across campuses and disciplines.

I included series of exercises on recipes in my seminar titled “Health, Medicine and Society in Early Modern England” at Bard College Berlin. We first encountered recipes in our session about cures and therapies where, working in groups of 3 or 4, students transcribed a page from a manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As preparation for the session, they were provided with a range of resources including websites for palaeography training and sample alphabets. They were also directed to student-authored blog posts about transcribing on the EMROC website such as this.

On the day, as I went from group to group, it was clear that, at first, the students found reading the 17th century handwriting challenging, but as they began to decipher the text, they became fascinated by the content and the process. The atmosphere of the room warmed up quickly with students eagerly asking each other questions – about the form of different letters in the alphabet, about the virtues of particular ingredients and the ailments they might have been used to address. Transcribing forced them to read slowly and closely, puzzling over words and ideas, and in doing so it fostered new conversations and fresh questions.

After about 20 minutes, when the students had finished transcribing one page, I ran a competition pitching the groups against each other to see who could most quickly and accurately transcribe a single page. Using Dromio’s collation tool, we collectively graded the different transcriptions and awarded the prizes. Given this was at 6 pm on the Friday before spring break, I was surprised by the students’ enthusiasm and passion for transcription or, perhaps they were just a competitive bunch. All the groups typed at top speed, completing the transcriptions in accurately record time and all were super engaged in the judging process. There was yelling, there was laughter, and for the losers who did not go home with chocolate Easter eggs, some disappointment.

But it did not end there. As their spring break assignment, the students were instructed to select a recipe from their transcribed pages and gather the materials and ingredients needed to recreate the recipe at our next session. Two Fridays after, we headed to one of the on-campus student kitchens and had a bit of an experiment. Two students recreated a remedy for a bruise. Both admitted that they chose it because it was short and simple. However, as they recounted in the reflection discussion, they quickly realized that it was a little more complex than they had initially thought. First, the task of collecting “greene oake” stymied the two committed urbanites. It took a bit of googling, a knowing friend and a long walk to find the tree. Luckily, the session took place in early spring and so “greene oake” was relatively easy to find. However, both were confused about which part of the tree to use. Settling on the bark, they discovered that burning it to ash was much more time consuming than they had expected. From our discussions, it was clear that both came away with new appreciation of the kinds of natural and material knowledge required of early modern householders to produce medicines and of the questions asked by historians of medicine as we engage with historical sources.

Going into this course, my goals were pretty simple. Of course, I wanted my students to leave with a good idea of early modern health practices and medical theories but more than that, I wanted to get them into the early modern mindset, to appreciate that our historical actors saw the world through different lenses and that their ideas of health and medicine were located in complex systems of thought, grounded in connections to the natural and material world. I also wanted them to get a sense of the tricks of our trade as historians – i.e., the various steps we take to interpret and analyze primary sources and construct narratives and to illustrate some of the different historical methodologies we employ from close reading to reconstruction. Transcribing and making historical recipes turned out to be just the ticket. For examples of additional teaching resources, visit the EMROC website here and here.

Elaine Leong’s research is centered upon medical and scientific knowledge transfer and production with a focus on issues of gender. Her interdisciplinary projects use theories and methods in the history of the book and the history of reading to elucidate practical knowledge and quotidian activities within the domestic sphere. She leads the ‘Reading and Writing Nature in Early Modern Europe’ research group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. Her first book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2018.  Elaine is currently working on her second book project Reading Rivière in Early Modern England. She is a founding editor for The Recipes Project and occasionally tweets as @HistoryElaine.

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