Early modern English householders were bombarded with health-related information. Contemporary booksellers’ shelves were crammed full of medical textbooks, pharmacopoeias, herbals, surgical handbooks, expositions on new medical theories, regimen guides, and more. City dwellers were frequently greeted by advertisements pasted on posts and walls offering all sorts of wondrous drugs claiming to cure ailments from worms in children to cataracts. Aside from the vast outputs of printers and book producers, householders also encountered medical information in more intimate and immediate settings. Consultations, whether face-to-face or via correspondence, with physicians and other medical practitioners inevitably yielded new medical know-how. Even trips to the pub and humble social visits were avenues in which health and medical information was requested, proffered, and discussed. Around dinner tables, householders exchanged tips on how to make secret remedies or make the most of one’s herb garden, sought advice on where to obtain the best spices, and debated the almost miraculous properties of exotic materia medica. With their family’s health maintenance and potential sicknesses never far from their minds, householders eagerly recorded and treasured this kind of information. The close relationship between food and medicine in the period, in terms both of health maintenance and of the location of homemade medicines within household management and long-term provisioning, means that many of the books are filled to the brim with both medical and culinary recipes. These notebooks now offer modern readers unparalleled access to the medical curiosities and anxieties of early modern men and women and the multiple ways in which they engaged with natural knowledge. In the early modern English context, these manuscript recipe books are one of the richest sources for the study of the informal epistemological processes and practices that occurred within early modern homes.
Established in 2012, the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) is an international group of interdisciplinary scholars working to crowd-source, transcribe, and tag English language recipe texts dating from c. 1550–1700. An experiment in citizen transcription and research-led pedagogy, it teaches students to read, transcribe, and encode in XML early modern manuscript recipe texts. Through their transcriptions, the students create open-access searchable editions of the texts and contribute to a collaborative research project conducted on campuses in the USA, the UK, and Germany. The collectively produced transcriptions are further tagged to create a database tracking recipe contributors, ailments and diseases, ingredients and materia medica, production methods and equipment, units of measurement, and seasonality. The resulting database will enable us to gain a deeper understanding of everyday science and medicine and its place within the early modern English social and cultural landscape.
The project is conducted in collaboration with the Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project at the Folger Shakespeare Library and utilizes their crowd-source transcription platform Dromio. In October 2015, the project organized an international cross-timezone twelve-hour transcribathon, during which around ninety participants worked together to produce a fully triple-keyed transcription of the recipe book of Rebecca Winche (d. 1713).