UW collaborators help transcribe early modern manuscript

Marissa Taylor, Laramie Boomerang via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 3/1/21

If you would like to learn what food recipes and medicine were like in early modern life, now you can.

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UW collaborators help transcribe early modern manuscript


LARAMIE — If you would like to learn what food recipes and medicine were like in early modern life, now you can.

A 17th to 18th century manuscript containing early modern culinary and medicinal recipes, poems and aphorisms was collaboratively analyzed and transcribed by University of Wyoming Honors College Dean Peter Parolin and two undergraduate Honors English students.

The Baumfylde manuscript (1626) — currently held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. — is a collection of handwritten recipes purposed for the household and created by countless individuals, spanning 132 years.

Parolin described the manuscript as an insight to early modern domestic culture during a time when medicinal recipes and cookery recipes weren’t separated. Unlike modern cookbooks that categorize different facets of cooking, no such distinction existed in early domestic culture.

“Receipt manuscripts (commonly known as recipe books) versus modern cook books are filled with home remedies … for some of the grossest ailments you can find,” Parolin said, “It would be like you had a beautiful recipe for chocolate mousse from Julia Child and the next page is ‘here’s how to handle your gonorrhea symptoms.”

Parolin said whoever ran the household, needed expertise in all areas of life, including health remedies; receipt books documented that expertise and placed it in one location.

The Baumfylde manuscript, according to Kristine Kowalchuk — adjunct professor of English and ethics at the University of Alberta — isn’t about any one experience in the kitchen, but rather, centralizes the idea of passing on a collective wisdom of what it is to have a family.

He disagreed with this idea, stating the structure of the manuscript, which is authored by many, provides a space for each voice to be heard separately from the “owner’ of the book.

“Some of the names attributed to the recipes appear to be those of the same household, while others appear to be names of friends, local acquaintances or legendary names, like ‘Dr. Phil’s recipe for how to repair your relationship,'” Parolin said.

Parolin approached Brianna Reeves and Nicole Alexis Foss, both former undergraduates at the UW Honors College to assist him in transcribing the manuscript.

"It’s every English major’s dream to work on a project of this nature and transcribe an archived text with an expert mentor," Reeves said.

Reeves primarily worked on footnoting unfamiliar words or language with the use of the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources. She said it was interesting to see the progression of words and their meanings over time.

“In a way, it felt like translating,” she said, “There were so many words that I had no idea what they were even though they were English. They take on a completely new meaning when you look at the historical context.”

She said Parolin made her feel confident in her skills and her contribution. “It is an incredible thing for a teacher to do, especially a teacher who obviously knows a lot about what he’s doing. It makes you feel like you know what you’re doing.”

Foss was tasked with reading the handwritten recipes and relaying it to Reeves.

“It was both infuriating and revelatory … standardized spelling is a modern luxury,” she said, adding there were times when a word was spelled two different ways in the same recipe.

Despite those challenges, collaboratively transcribing the Baumfylde manuscript allowed a conversation to continue unbound by time or space.

“That was a lot of the magic,” Foss said.

When contributing any type of research, Parolin added, you have to consider what’s already been said to avoid “mansplaining what’s already known.” There were many challenges faced during the two-year project, but the most challenging was trying to immerse in resources and conversations that weren’t necessarily available for this era of research.

Scholarship on Early Modern manuscripts exploring economy and cultures of the household is still relatively new,” Parolin said.

He added there are essays on Shakespeare dating back 400 years but work on early modern literature date back 40 years. Additionally, scholarly work on the household and women’s work, lives, experiences and literature is still in its infancy.

Parolin’s work could be considered original research and created a space for other scholars to contribute to a very new conversation.

In fact, Amy Tigner — editor-in-chief for the Early Modern Studies Journal and Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington — said the individuals who worked on the this project are the primary transcribers of the Baumfylde Manuscript.

Tigner and 10 other university scholars worked with the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective to develop an official transcription of the manuscript.

“We all teach early modern handwriting, or paleography,” she said, adding many of the professors recruited students to aid in their mission to make the manuscript widely available.

Each page underwent a triple transcription that was eventually vetted by a higher-up at the Folger Library and officially transcribed.