Bramble leaves, peacock dung and a shovelful of bees: transcribing 17th century recipes  

Katie Birkwood describes the transcribathon that the Royal College of Physicians archives team took part in, organised to make ancient texts readable both to modern eyes and for digitisation purposes. However, some of the advice in the 17th century books should probably be disregarded, such as bramble leaves and white ginger to ward off the plague and a shovelful of bees to treat hair loss.

On 4 March 2021 the Royal College of Physicians archives team took part in its first transcribathon: an international crowd-sourcing event to make the text of archival documents searchable. The transcribathon was run by the Early Modern Recipes Collective (EMROC) and focussed on 17th century recipe books from the RCP and its near London neighbour, Wellcome Collection.

EMROC is an international group of scholars and enthusiasts who are committed to improving free online access to historical archives and quality contextual information, with a focus on the preservation, transcription and analysis of recipes written in English from circa 1550-1800. The first EMROC transcribathon was held in 2015 and is now an annual event.

The term ‘recipe’ (also known as a ‘receipt’), at this point in history, includes not only culinary, but also medical, cosmetic and veterinary recipes. Everything from soups to ointments to plague cures can be found in them.

The transcribathon throws open images of these recipe books to a worldwide audience of scholars, students and enthusiasts with the simple-seeming task of typing out what they see on the pages, word-by-word, letter-by-letter, rendering the original handwriting into more easily legible and—crucially—machine-searchable form. This year it took place on the platform From the Page, open-source software for collaborating on texts.

Throughout the course of the day, 170 people got involved in transcribing 322 pages of text. We uncovered recipes for preventing plague, dizziness, and baldness and much more, using common ingredients such as bramble leaves, rosemary, wine, vinegar, honey, onions and fennel and some more surprising substances such as white lead, peacock dung and even bees burnt on a fire shovel and boiled in oil. Though some of the ingredients and methods seem bizarre to modern eyes, these remedies and recipes were based on medical theories of the time, and shared between friends and family.


Elaine Leong from EMROC contacted us in June 2020. She was interested in delivering the 2020 EMROC transcribathon in partnership with us, using our recipe book collection. EMROC were originally planning to deliver the event in summer 2020, which, for obvious reasons, was delayed until the autumn, and then again rescheduled for spring 2021 with the addition of a second partner, Wellcome Collection.

We were delighted to get involved with the transcribathon because we are committed to research access to our collections, which offer so much to the study of the history of medicine.

We already had around a third of our recipe books digitised, most as part of Wiley Digital Archives. Having recently expanded remote access through this collaboration, the transcribathon continued that engagement by providing classroom led resources for students internationally and it increases the awareness of RCP’s collections across those audiences.

We picked out a manuscript with the EMROC team, a process made easy by the recent digitisation. Together we settled on ‘Lady Sedley’s Receipt Book’ of 1686 (our MS534) because of its owner story, because it was not too long, and because it is written in nice clear handwriting. We already had digital images of all pages and sent them over to the Folger Shakespeare Library who uploaded it to their project section on From the Page.

Expanding our reach

As well as providing the manuscript images for the transcribathon, both the RCP and Wellcome Collection extended the day’s activities across additional media. Wellcome hosted a live workshop with six speakers, and  RCP focussed on the social media, promotion and video content to frame the transcribing.

Pamela Forde, RCP Archives Manager commented:

This was a great opportunity to do some research into this specific item. As a collection manager, I rarely get the opportunity to focus on just one item and study it. I am usually making access possible for others.

Making the videos was an excellent way to really show how special the item was, how unique and interesting. A blog or tweet can’t replace a human voice, in terms of personalising something and providing that extra engagement, to enthuse researchers.

Expanding our reach via blogging, Twitter activity and video content made our recipe book ideal teaching material in the university classroom. Dr Marissa Nicosia, Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature at Penn State University used the material as part of her remote teaching:

Extra thank you to @RCPmuseum for the excellent introductory videos, which worked so well for introducing this activity in a synchronous online class.

Julia Nurse, Research Development Specialist at Wellcome Collection was delighted by the immediate research benefits from the project:

Lady Ayscough’s book of ‘Receits of phisick and chirurgery’ which dates from 1692 at Wellcome Collection was selected for the 2021 transcribathon for several reasons: it was the first domestic recipe book to enter the collection, and the earliest documented library acquisition in 1897. What we had not realised was that Lady Sedley, owner of the recipe book selected for this event by the RCP, was more likely to be Ann Ayscough, who became Sir Charles’ common law wife around 1672.  Were these two women related in some way? Similar recipes appear in both, for example, ‘Lucasellus Balsome’ that have the same ingredients. There are also parallel recipes for plague, smallpox, scurvy, dropsy and agues as well as the expected topical salves and herbal tonics. Thanks to this transcription project, further comparative research on these two manuscripts is now possible.

The transcribathon day was so successful that by half-way through the day transcribers started to run out of pages to work on! EMROC had to add a third manuscript—supplied from Wellcome Collection—at the last minute to meet demand. You can delve into all the transcribed recipes online, but be aware that the RCP doesn’t necessarily recommend any of these treatments today!

Katie Birkwood ( is the rare books and special collections librarian, Royal College of Physicians