Reading Practice

The Pursuit of Natural Knowledge from Manuscript to Print

Manuscript Appendices

Appendix A: Appendix B:
Transcriptions of Reader Marks Censorship & Cancellations

About the Data

The 182 “vernacular practical manuscripts” analyzed in Reading Practice and catalogued in these digital appendices were identified through years of research in library reading rooms, following close consultation of catalogues, databases, and reference works. I began this research in the summer of 2014 with searches of the Voigts-Kurtz database of Medical and Scientific Writings in Middle English, compiled over several decades by Linda Ehrsam Voigts and Patricia Deery Kurtz and now containing data on more than 1200 manuscripts containing Middle English medical or scientific texts. After identifying promising manuscripts in the Voigts-Kurtz databse, I followed this initial search with consultations of manuscript catalogues for the Beinecke Library, Yale University; Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; British Library, London; Cambridge University Library, Cambridge; Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; Morgan Library, New York; National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; Trinity College Cambridge Library, Cambridge; University of Glasgow Library, Glasgow; and Wellcome Library, London.

Only after reading catalogue entries could I ascertain whether a manuscript met my criteria: firstly, that it was composed entirely (or nearly so) in Middle English, and secondly, that it was comprised entirely (or nearly so) with natural knowledge. Many of the manuscripts catalogued by Voigts and Kurtz did not meet this criteria, either because they contained too much Latin for my purposes or they contained just a small section of medicine and science and were otherwise devoted to literature, law, religion, or other texts.

From these searches, I identified over 300 fifteenth-century manuscripts that I hoped would reveal how English lay people thought of books as tools for collecting and utilizing knowledge related to day-to-day medical practice, agriculture, or husbandry. However, I couldn’t ascertain if the manuscripts I had identified were the sort of book that a non-elite person might own until I made research trips to the libraries and archives that held them. I was fortunate to begin this project at the same time that many libraries in the U.K. were changing their policies in regards to digital photography. As a result, I was able to photograph scores of manuscripts in a single trip, which I then analyzed and catalogued in my database over the following months. These research trips, conducted over summers and academic holidays between 2014 and 2021, enabled me to whittle down my initial corpus of over 300 potential “practical manuscripts” to the 182 manuscripts analyzed in Reading Practice and described in these appendices. Part of this process entailed identifying fifteenth-century manuscripts that had been bound into composite volumes by later collectors. These once-separate manuscripts are counted individually in my corpus, and their folio numbers in those composite volumes are noted in the spreadsheet below.

As such, the spreadsheet below contains the following information on each of these 182 vernacular manuscripts:

  • Shelfmark
  • Archive/library
  • Approximate date of creation
  • Writing support (paper or parchment)
  • Number of folios (and folio numbers, for composite manuscripts)
  • Size in mm
  • Quality of scribal hand
  • Information on contents
  • Information on reader marks
  • Information on reader cancellations or censorship
  • URL for digital facsimile, if available

After many years reading “practical” manuscripts, I realized that I was seeing the same categories of natural knowledge reappear over and over again, even if individual texts themselves varied from exemplar to exemplar. The spreadsheet below notes which manuscripts contain texts in the following, oft-repeating genres:

  • Illustrations
  • Medical recipes
  • Herbals
  • Charms
  • Medical treatises
  • Treatises on phlebotomy
  • Reproductive recipes
  • Uroscopy texts
  • Surgical texts or surgical recipes
  • Craft recipes
  • Dietaries or health regimens
  • Plague treatises
  • Prognostications
  • Texts on weights and measures
  • Texts on animal husbandry
  • Texts on planting, grafting, or gardening
  • Texts on hawking, hunting, or fishing
  • Almanacs
  • Treatises on astrology
  • Culinary recipes

Because excellent resources exist to identify and track individual Middle English medical or scientific texts, including the Voigts-Kurtz database, the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, or George Keiser’s A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500, Vol. 10: Science and Information (New Haven, 1998), I did not reproduce their work. Where possible, I did identify which version of an herbal, medical recipe collection, treatise on uroscopy, etc. appears in each manuscript, but I do not note textual variants or incipits. My aim in noting the contents of these manuscripts is to indicate which genres of natural knowledge were most compelling to English readers; which were most popular; and which most often appeared side-by-side within the same collections.

Manuscript Data

Download this data as a .csv file here.


About the Manuscript Appendices

As part of my quest to understand how fifteenth- and later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers engaged with these manuscript collections of natural knowledge, I paid special attention to evidence of reader interactions in marginal annotations, added recipes, and cancellations. The two manuscript appendices contain transcriptions of these reader interactions. Manuscript Appendix A contains transcriptions of reader marks that can be dated or attributed to a reader, notes about other additions to manuscripts like added recipes or corrections, and the approximate date of each mark. Manuscript Appendix B contains descriptions of reader cancellations and censorship in practical manuscripts. Both kinds of reader marks tell a story about the ways English readers interacted with books of natural knowledge, and in turn, how that natural knowledge shaped their relationship to their bodies and the wider world.