Transcribing and the Transcribathon

By Amy Powis

Three months ago, transcription was not something that I had ever heard of, yet here I am writing this blog post about my experience with it. How much can change in a short space of time! I was both interested and excited about learning transcription, the form of comprehending early modern handwriting, typing it phonetically into a specially designed website so that they can be preserved online, as original copies of primary sources are not normally something that I view. So getting to analyse and look at the recipe book in its original format was intriguing to me, as I could gain more knowledge about the subject especially the recipe in question.

Transcribing has many perks as these sources are then easier to access, meaning that the sources are easier to view by historians and people. There are specific websites to complete the transcription including Dromio, the site that I used, which allows users to pick sources, including early modern recipes and then transcribe them. Any transcription that we completed as part of the Transcribathon could count as part of our transcription assignment, so of course, I was going to take part.

The Transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC), took place on 9th November 2016, where over 100 people from across the world transcribed the 236 pages of Lady Grace Castleton recipe book (V.a.600) in under twelve hours. On the day of the Transcribathon, I tried my hand at transcription, for the first time, in a classroom that had been booked out for University of Essex students for three hours of the Transcribathon. Maybe not the best time for my first attempt, considering it was so new to me and I had no idea what I was doing, but the appeal of the Transcribathon was that it was open to professionals and amateurs alike including novice history students.

To my pleasant surprise, there was a bustling atmosphere in the room with discussions ranging from how transcription was easy, to people considering what a particular word in the recipe book was. As I started transcribing, I noticed there would be a social media aspect that made the Transcribathon enjoyable, as I could find others completing it through #Transcribathon. This was almost comforting knowing that other people were also having trouble with the recipes, which made the independent project feel that you were not alone, which was weird considering I was in a room with other people. It was also quite nice, as I got a few helpful tips through the hashtag. 

I encountered a few problems along the way, particularly in the beginning, constantly needing the Oxford English dictionary open to identify words, wondering what specific words were. For example, on page 17, whether a word was “Rose” or Kole, although I went for the latter initially. But it got easier with time as I only just found this mistake looking at my transcription for this post. The writing was also difficult for me at points particularly with the long “S” as encountered with “Rose.” This caused problems for me because believing that a letter could be something different can change the meaning of a word and a sentence. Like Tracy mentions on her blog, transcribing can be difficult with “ye” meaning “the” being used in the text, if I had not been told this previously, I would have struggled with it, not knowing what it meant. Dromio itself was useful, having buttons which did this for you, which was always useful. 


A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p. 17

Problems continued, especially with the handwriting at first, similar to Abbie, who also took part in the Transcribathon. For example, on page 17, I stumbled on particular words, thinking that a plant called “Egrimony,” as Agremony. I also thought that in places the handwriting was hard to read, cutting close to the bottom of a page meaning that I sometimes found it hard to understand, although with more practice this did become easier. This was seen on page 18 as in the beginning I did not know what the bottom of page stated, but with more perseverance, I understood it to be “a fare morter then take 3 pound of sheep scuer.


A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p.18

Abbie also mentioned the case of human error in the transcription process. Although this is something that I see as a problem, being a novice myself and making mistakes, as previously mentioned, the format of the event is quite helpful. It allows for errors to be cross-referenced to see which answer is the most accurate to what is written in the source. In this case, it means that by working in the Transcribathon suggests that human error may be less likely to happen, but not impossible. Human error could be a problem, however, causing the incorrect transcription to be used which could cause future mistakes, but this is unlikely especially if proof-reading of transcriptions is done effectively. 

I enjoyed being part of the Transcribathon, learning more about early modern recipes than I have before. For example, the ingredient list on page 17 contained “dragons.” I suppose that I would just laugh at this and think where would someone get a dragon, almost dismissing it. I mean where would someone in the 17th Century get a dragon! But on a historical basis, I would have to think what creature would a dragon have been, most likely a type of reptile maybe a snake, but where would it have come from? This meant that this was a glimpse into an Early Modern life that I would never have discovered had it not been for the Transcribathon.


A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p.17

I enjoyed my experience taking part in the Transcribathon for the first time, as it was a nice way to engage and learn how to transcribe as well as allowing me to expand my knowledge on recipes in the Early Modern period. It was things like this that made the experience enjoyable for me as it was something new and I learned a skill that I have been credited for and can put on my CV and let’s face it how many assignments can you do that!