Students Staff

10 December 2015

Essex academic helps decipher Shakespeare’s world

Statue of William Shakespeare outside Guildhall Art Gallery copyright Alexandra Thompson

Dr Lisa Smith from the Department of History at Essex is helping to uncover new insights into the world of William Shakespeare through a new online project asking volunteers to decipher manuscripts dating back more than 400 years.

Shakespeare’s World is a joint project between crowdsourcing organisation Zooniverse, the Oxford English Dictionary and Folger Shakespeare Library, and is asking volunteers to work on a multitude of manuscripts penned by the Bard’s contemporaries from letters to recipes.

Dr Smith was asked to get involved in the project through her work as collaborator on the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective. She will be taking part in the online discussions of Shakespeare's World Talk and she has already been answering queries online.

We spoke to Dr Smith about the project and its potential impact.

Why is it important to ‘decipher’ contemporary documents?

Historians have tended to spend a lot of time in the archives reading old documents for good reason - they can tell us a lot about the past. Take, for example, recipe books: these can be wonderful sources for family history, as well as medical and culinary knowledge. But why put images of them online and transcribe them? Doing this opens up the possibility of new ways of analysing the material. For example, it will be easier to track references to, say, specific ingredients, ailments, remedies, cookery recipes, or people both within and between documents. Although some modern history projects have used Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which automates deciphering the text, OCR does not work as well with old handwriting as it does with twentieth-century newspapers. The human eye - even the inexpert eye - is still much better at recognising shapes in old handwriting than OCR.

What kind of insights can they give us into the 16th and 17th centuries?

My main interest in Shakespeare's World is the recipe books, which are an easily accessible sort of source for many people. Early modern recipe books were a hodgepodge of food, household knowledge (from ink to cosmetics - or details of the family's births, deaths and marriages), and medical information. Not only do they have a lot of short bits (the recipes!), which makes them easy to dip in and out of, but recipes tend to attract a lot of interest - either because of the weird and wonderful remedies, or because of the sense of immediate connection that food gives us with the past. Through these sorts of documents, it is possible to glimpse the daily life of people in the past: what they ate, how they prepared food, what sorts of medicines they used when sick...

How important is crowdsourcing becoming to history research?

There have been a number of crowdsourced projects that have made large bodies of documents available online. The Bentham Project (, for example, has opened up the correspondence and collected works of Jeremy Bentham in exciting ways. The transcriptions are freely available, which is useful for teaching and research - and reunites a collection that was otherwise dispersed.

What is the biggest challenge to deciphering material?

The irregular spellings and abbreviations... Transcribing is really a lot like puzzle solving.

What do you hope the project will achieve?

Once we have transcriptions, we can tag the text and start to search the manuscripts in exciting ways. But, I also love the excitement that recipes and transcription can generate beyond the academic world. Recipes are fun, and so is transcription.

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