Transcribing Shakespeare’s World

I’ve written before about archaeology, it really is a love of mine and I’m occasionally (often) frustrated that I can no longer get in a trench and scrape away with a trowel for 7 hours a day, or even  better, hack away with a mattock for an hour or two. I can barely do the garden for a morning these days without needing to have a sleep in the afternoon. I loved the connection with the material culture of the past, with trying to decipher what had been going on in this particular  place e.g. 2000 years ago; “Why is this big pile of cow skulls in this particular part of the town?”, “What can we learn from this pattern of distribution of finds?”. We have so much to learn from the past, and uncovering it afresh is quite thrilling.  But how else do you get your hands on old stuff, and feel a real connection with the ancestors, if you don’t have the time (or energy, I wish I did) to volunteer in a museum, or with YAC or similar…?

Well, I’m filling the gap by transcribing 16th Century manuscripts from my own desk. This is a crowd sourcing project running under the Zooniverse umbrella – have a look, there are loads of projects there;  I’ve transcribed ships’ logs before, and also done some planet hunting. I read about the Shakespeare’s World project through a New York Times article which popped up somewhere [Twitter most likely, it’s not all political doom and gloom, well, it mostly is I suppose, right now…]. I beetled off immediately to see what this project was all about.

So what is it all about?

Transcribe handwritten documents by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and help us understand his life and times. Along the way you’ll find words that have yet to be recorded in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, and which will eventually be added to this important resource.

You can transcribe recipes or  letters. The first thing I transcribed was a recipe for Preserving Pippins, then I did one on how to ‘Make a Grand Sallet’ (salad). It can be a challenge, some of the handwriting looks modern and is fairly easy to read:

Some of it less so:

And some of it is completely indecipherable (to me at least) and contains strange yet beautiful flourishes:

Fear not though, because there are all sorts of aids to help you decipher what you’re looking at. You start by taking a very good tutorial (and you can refresh on this at any time). There are lists of alphabets and symbols, and a choice of common abbreviations to refer to. We all know ‘ye‘ don’t we? There is similar for ‘which’ ‘when’ ‘that’ and so on, but also, for example Matie (majesty) and Worll (worshipful).

I have found the recipes easier to deal with than the letters. Recipes have a certain structure which hasn’t changed much in the past few  centuries; a list of ingredients “take a pound of cheeries, a pound of sugar, cinnamon”,  followed by a method “seethe thym in a panne”, finishing with a bit at the end about presentation (in the case of the Grand Sallet at least). Words are often repeated within and across recipes so you learn the form. Letters are a little less formulaic, so my challenge to myself is to tackle more letters (I did a bit on one from a man in a debtors prison called ‘The Hole’, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in The Hole…).

You can transcribe as much as you can or would like to on a particular page (sometimes that’s nothing) and move on to the next. You won’t be the only one looking at that page, as you’ll see by the previous transcribers mark – the grey dots.  Pages pop up in a random fashion, so you’re not doing a whole collection of the same handwriting constantly, but when that handwriting comes around again you’ll begin to recognise it (I got a strange thrill out of this). There are forums to discuss this all in, though I haven’t had chance to pop in there yet.

It’s great fun (I realise it may be quite niche fun but I stand by my statement) and I’m finding it a much more rewarding way to spend, say, a lunchtime, than looking at the daily horrors unfolding on the news sites. I already love Shakespeare and, for half an hour or so a day, I can feel like I am in ‘his world’ – maybe that’s a 17th Century kitchen looking at a recipe for how ‘To Make Cheescakes’ or ‘sillibub ‘, or peering over the shoulder of someone writing to a bishop, or reading the pleas of a debtor for funds to release them from The Hole. 

About the Project: https://www.shakespearesworld.org/#!/about

P.S. I do wonder who scribbled on this one though (it screams small child to me, I’ve had the walls to prove it) ..:

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