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Shakespeare’s World and updating the OED: a splendid antedating of “white lie”

line of text from the image of a letter

text from Folger Manuscript L.a.2, a letter in the Bagot Family Papers

“Antedatings” for the Oxford English Dictionary are always exciting, showing that a word or meaning has been around for longer than previously thought. Sometimes, though, they just take your breath away. For instance, the OED’s editors recently prepared a new version of WHITE and its various compounds and derivatives. This involved, among other things, carefully combing through all of OED’s existing quotation files, and numerous online databases of historical linguistic evidence. In this process the earliest example we found of white lie (“A harmless or trivial lie, especially one told in order to avoid hurting another person’s feelings”) was from 1741. Imagine, then, our surprise and delight (and yes, it is delight, rather than lexicographical sour grapes!) when keen-eyed Shakespeare’s World participant mutabilitie found this in a letter from 1567:

image of letter

Letter from Ralph Adderley I to Sir Nicholas Bagnal, marshal (of army) in Ireland, 1567, Papers of the Bagot Family of Blithfield, Staffordshire (Folger MS L.a.2)

Lines 8/9 give us “Albeit I do assure you he is vnsusspected of / any vntruithe or oder notable cryme (excepte a white lye)”, pushing “white lie” back nearly two centuries earlier than we previously suspected.

An obvious question is why we haven’t added this to the OED the day that @mutabilitie spotted it. In this instance, we’ll need to do a bit more work on this manuscript letter, to be sure of how we want to cite it, and especially date it, in the OED – and we very much hope that the experts at the Folger will be able to cast an eye over that as well.

In other cases, the work involved for the OED will be more extensive, and take longer. The task of revising an OED entry is complex, and typically involves a number of different specialists – for instance, researchers checking numerous data collections for examples of the word (especially ones that are earlier or later, or point to different meanings or constructions); expert definers, assessing how the meaning is described; specialists compiling data on the typical spellings a word has shown through its history; etymologists, tracing how the word has been formed, where it has come from, and how it has been influenced by other languages; bibliographers, scrutinizing how examples are cited and dated and ensuring that the cited text is accurate – and this is before we take account of areas that typically impinge less on the Shakespeare’s World data, such as pronunciations, or definitions of scientific vocabulary. Coordinating all of this work involves an intricate sequence of inter-connected tasks, and inevitably takes time – particularly when your wordlist runs to over a quarter of a million words. That’s why some of the Shakespeare’s World material that will ultimately have a big impact on OED entries will get an enthusiastic “thank you” from OED editors but may not show up in the published dictionary text until it can be incorporated as part of a full revision of the dictionary entry where it belongs. This is probably going to prove the case with the discoveries about taffety tarts and farts of Portugal in two earlier posts: the entries for both taffeta and fart are due for full revision for the OED at some point in the not too far distant future, which will enable us to take full account of how this new information helps transform our understanding of the history of these words.

by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

Access to the OED for Shakespeare’s World participants: an important update!

A number of postings on Talk have highlighted exciting finds for the Oxford English Dictionary coming out of the work of Shakespeare’s World participants. Look for blog posts here in the coming weeks on some of these discoveries and how they are informing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

We are thrilled to have this information for the OED, and intend to make full use of it in revising the dictionary (for more information about the OED and its revision programme see the earlier posting on taffety tarts).

However, we’ve been only too aware that not all participants have access to the online OED (although many people already do, typically through libraries or academic institutions).

We are therefore delighted to announce that, as of now, OUP will be happy to give free access to the OED for any Shakespeare’s World participants who have made more than 500 transcriptions (of up to a line each) in the past year. If you fall in that category and would like access to the OED to help you transcribe and explore these fascinating documents, then please contact us with the subject line ‘Shakespeare’s World OED access’.

by Philip Durkin (@PhilipDurkin), Deputy Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

@shaxworld #paper #baking #thankyou


Our kitchens are filled with paper. We make our morning coffees by dripping water through a paper cone filled with freshly ground coffee grinds. We wrap our sandwiches for lunch in wax paper and line our cake tins with baking paper. Dry kitchen paper is often used to dry food before deep drying and damp kitchen paper is often used to preserve freshly cut herbs in the fridge. Many different kinds of paper thus aid us in performing a variety of quotidian tasks in our homes. Paper, in fact, might be the unsung hero in modern kitchens. Recently, as part of a new research project (more on that here), I began to wonder whether paper also performed similar roles in kitchens of the past.

Early modern recipe collections record detailed instructions to produce foodstuffs and medicines and are revealing of the way householders carried out a range of daily tasks in early modern homes. In fact, they are ideal sources to explore paper-use in pre-modern kitchens. However, the sheer number of recipes in the hundreds of surviving recipe books, each containing scores of individual recipes, makes the search for paper-use a little overwhelming and, at times, challenging for a single researcher. In short, I desperately needed the help of the Shaxworld community!

Luckily for me, over the last few months, the kind and wonderful members of Shaxworld have been tagging instances of paper-use in recipes with the label #paper. So far, around 20 recipes in 10 different recipe collections have been identified. [1] A glance through these reveals that, like today, paper served a multitude of uses in the home and was a used as a tool in both food and medicine production. Two common usages emerge from our sample: paper was used to line cake/biscuit tins and to apply ointments and salves. A few months ago, I took a look at paper used as plasters for The Recipes Project blog and so today I’d like to further explore uses of paper in early modern baking practices.

Page from the cookery book of L. Cromwell with the recipe to make ‘Speciall Cake bread’. Folger MS V.a.8, p. 127.

Within our sample, seven recipes use paper as a kind of liner. The recipe book for Margaret Baker, for example, has a recipe to make Jumballs (a kind of fine sweet cake or biscuit). The recipe advises users to warm and ‘creame’ together flour, sugar, egg whites and rosewater and ‘mould’ the resulting light paste in caraway or coriander seeds. These are then shaped into knots and baked on ‘flowered papers or tinn plates’ (Folger MS V.a.619, fol. 95r). Another recipe to make ‘Speciall Cake bread’ in the cookery book of a ‘L. Cromwell’ advises the baker to ‘take a browne paper & dry it very well & strowe it with flower & lay it under the cake’ (Folger MS V.a.8, p. 127). In the early modern period, the brown paper was often used as a wrapping paper of sorts by grocers etc. The request here to ensure that the paper is dry suggests that ordinarily the brown paper might be damp or wet in some way – perhaps this is a case where the brown paper was first rinsed and then reused? Aside from the cheaper brown paper, more expensive white paper was also used to line cake tins. Examples include the recipe ‘To make very fine cakes’ in an anonymous recipe collection (Folger MS V.a.19, p. 132) and a recipe to make marchpane (Folger MS V.a.364, the recipe book associated with Nicholas Webster, fol. 12v-13r) which both suggest the maker to bake on sheets of white paper.

In addition to lining cake tins and biscuit sheets, paper was also used to shape baked goods. A recipe for almond lozenges tells the maker to ‘fashon’ as they like upon plates or paper moulds (Folger MS v.a. 8, p. 133). Another recipe for cheesecakes recommends the baker to ‘pin papers about them to prevent their falls’ during the baking process (Folger MS V.a.8, p. 147).

Recipe by ‘Mrs E’ for a biscuit. Folger MS V.a.8, p. 110.

Finally, paper, it seems, also helped bakers ascertain the heat levels of their ovens. One particularly interesting recipe for biscuits requires a particularly hot oven. The recipe instructs the baker to that the ‘oven must be soe hot as to turne a peece of white paper browne’ (Folger MS V.a.8, p. 110).

It seems that paper was a crucial tool for early modern bakers and was used in the production of a range of different baked goods. This discovery confirms recent suggestions that paper was not as scare, rare, and expensive in the early modern period as was previously thought. In fact, paper was used in a range of everyday tasks suggesting that it was readily available and probably fairly economical. Significantly, our recipe writers were, at times, quite specific about the kind of paper used. Our current sample is probably a little too small for us to tease out whether this was due to personal preference or whether particular baked goods (likely the more precious ones) required special lining papers. Moreover, the final example where white paper was as an indicator of heat demonstrates the ingenuity of householders in taking and re-purposing everyday objects.

The focus on paper-used in recipes has brought up a number of fascinating points and enabled us to delve deeply into everyday activities of early modern householders. I’m still at the beginning of my research and so if you spot paper in a recipe, please mark it with #paper and add it to our sample. I’m so grateful to everyone for your help with my project! A final word – every Tuesday in August, The Recipes Project blog will publishing posts on recipes and paper. So, if this topic tickles your fancy, do click, click, click over there and have a read.

[1] The collections are Folger Shakespeare Library MSS V.a.8, V.a.19, V.a.21, V.a.140, V.a.215, V.a.364, V.a.388, V.a.456, V.a.490, and V.a.619.

By Elaine Leong @elaineleong

Talking to culinary and food historians about Shakespeare’s World

I recently participated in a panel at the Manuscript Cookbooks Conference at Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, along with my Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) colleagues Hillary Nunn and Jennifer Munroe. Each of us spoke about how we engaged various audiences in the activity of transcription, and how the process of transcription is an important form of close reading that can transform our understanding of a text.

This is particularly true of recipes. Being a close reader of historical recipes means learning how to recognize and interpret common knowledge (of course an early modern person would know the length of a “nail”) and gaps (of course an early modern person would know to add elderberries to elderberry wine).

Jennifer Munroe talked about her experiences with undergraduates in the classroom and the kitchen, trying to interpret a recipe with no previous experience or exposure to early modern ingredients or practices, relying on their critical and creative thinking skills as they did, for example, in working with a recipe for “A Medecine for a Pinn and a Webb, or any other soore Eye” from the receipt book of Mrs. Corlyon (Folger MS v.a.388).

Image from receipt book

A page from Mrs. Corlyon’s book of medicines (Folger V.a.388)

Implicit in this recipe is the specific “three leaued grasse” it features, and the recipe calls for the concoction to cook over a “soft fier” and add only enough honey for it to be “yellow,” but what shade of yellow is unclear. Students learn not only to fill in the gaps, to look for the absences as well as the details recipes in this and other books provide, but they also come to appreciate how users of these books possessed a working knowledge about plants and processes that we have largely lost today.

Hillary Nunn showed the new understandings we can extract from the most basic kitchen processes when we search transcriptions of recipe books. Her work demonstrated how easy it is to overlook the importance of seemingly common recipe ingredients. Water, she pointed out, was not just something that recipe writers could assume users got from the tap. Instead, recipe books require a wide range of different types of water, and often called for waters that has already been processed.

I spoke about you, our wonderful Shakespeare’s World contributors, and the fascinating discussions on Talk, and the “relatability factor” that is much higher for recipe books than other types of early modern manuscripts. We all prepare meals and take care of ourselves, after all, so of course we are fascinated by how earlier generations managed to do these same tasks–the similarities and differences are equally striking.

We were reminded by various participants at the conference that reading a recipe is very different from trying to make it. And, we reminded them that our goal was to transcribe the recipes precisely so that these early modern texts can be studied by scholars as well as followed by cooks (and the two are not mutually exclusive!)

At the conference we saw Irish, German, Swiss, American, and English manuscripts ranging in date from the seventeenth century to the 1960s. One of the recurring themes was how complicated it is to represent the multiple layers of production and creation, and to fully understand the two-way flow between handwritten and printed recipes. Another theme had to do with regionality, and whether or not names of recipes with geographic locations accurately represent where the recipes were “born.” Attempts to categorize recipe books can be tricky as well, but some of the suggestions included: planned vs. unplanned recipe books; recipe books acting as memory prompts for an individual vs. recipe books that are stand-alone, for anyone to use; and heirloom recipe books not meant for cooking vs. practical recipe books passed down through the generations. One of the most salient points for those of us interested in early modern recipe books was how they can be a source not just for recipes, but also for women’s history, biography, and autobiography.

The schedule of presentations for the entire conference is here.

by Heather Wolfe,
with contributions from Hillary Nunn and Jennifer Munroe



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