Tag Archives: Collecting

First Monday Library Chat: Cambridge University Library

Today’s First Monday Library Chat takes us back to England to talk with Dr. Suzanne Paul, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library. The University Library is the central library on Cambridge’s campus, used by members of all Cambridge colleges, researchers from all over the world and accessible to the public for a nominal fee.

As the Medieval Manuscripts Specialist, could you tell us broadly about the medieval manuscripts held by Cambridge University Library? What are the strengths of your collection?
 
The collection, consisting of c. 3000 items, is very broad based, as you might expect in a library that’s been acquiring manuscripts for 600 years. There are some outstanding early medieval manuscripts, like the early 5th-century ‘Codex Bezae’ and the 10th-century ‘Book of Deer’, believed to be the oldest extant book produced in Scotland, but numerically, the greatest strength lies in the 12th-15th centuries and ranges across religious, literary, historical, scientific and legal texts. The majority of our manuscripts are of English provenance, from a variety of monastic and other institutional sources and from numerous individual collectors. Our current exhibition showcases our French medieval manuscripts but we have a particular strength in manuscripts containing Middle English texts.

Do any of these medieval manuscripts contain recipes?
 
The short answer is ‘yes’. The majority of the recipes in our manuscripts are medical but there are also alchemical, culinary, veterinary and what I would term ‘artisanal’ recipes for activities such as making ink and glue or gilding and colouring. The issue, as always, is finding the recipes. The principal catalogue for our main ‘two-letter’ (Dd-Oo) collection dates from the 1850s and the treatment of recipes is generally cursory. The Middle English recipe texts received some attention with the compilation of the IMEP volume relating to the collection (Margaret Connolly, Index of Middle English Prose: Handlist XIX Manuscripts in the University Library, Cambridge (Dd-Oo), Cambridge: Brewer, 2009). Connolly estimates that there are well over 2000 recipes in the manuscripts she indexed and she drew attention to three manuscripts (CUL MSS Dd.5.76, Dd.6.29 and Ee.1.15) which each contain over 200 recipes. Of course, many recipes occur singly or in small groups, many were added to manuscripts later, in blank spaces or on flyleaves, and many are not written in Middle English. Work is in progress to produce new online descriptions of all the manuscripts but there is a lot of work to be done on identifying and classifying recipe texts.
My colleague, Dr Anke Timmermann, is investigating alchemical images in manuscripts held in Cambridge libraries and will be producing a handlist of alchemical resources and images. She recently came across an interesting series of alchemical illustrations in a seventeenth-century manuscript which form a visual representation of the recipe for the philosophers’ stone (see image below), along with an intriguing personification.

alchemical manuscript
‘the crowing of nature’ – 17th c. visual alchemical recipe. CUL MS Gg.1.8, f. 80r. By permission of the Syndics of CUL.

I’m interested in the Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection – the world’s largest and most important collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts.  Are there any recipe-related items in this collection?
 
The Genizah collection is made up of 190,000 manuscript fragments recovered from the storeroom of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Egypt. Although the Genizah was intended as a depository for worn-out sacred texts too precious to throw away, many secular documents dating from the 10th to the 17th centuries ended up in it. These Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew texts give us a unique insight into Jewish communal and domestic life and the wider economic and social history of the medieval Mediterranean and Near East. Dozens of medical recipes have been recovered from the Genizah, including this one, recently identified as a prescription in the hand of the great Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides. See Efraim Lev and Leigh Chipman, Medical Prescriptions in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (Leiden: Brill, 2012) for more.
 
The alchemical material in the Genizah collection is the subject of research by my colleague, Dr Gabriele Ferrario. Although there has been a pervasive tradition identifying Egypt as a centre of alchemical knowledge and a longstanding belief in the Jews as particularly skilled practitioners, it is only now that the actual activities of Jewish alchemists in medieval Egypt are being uncovered. Gabriele tells me that the alchemical texts he has identified are not generally theoretical or allegorical works but are principally practical in nature, that is, recipes and instructions for laboratory experiments, often adapted from Greek or Arabic sources according to the local availability of ingredients.

medieval alchemical manuscript
12th-13th c. Alchemical recipe for making silver – CUL MS Misc. 8.51, page 1. By permission of the Syndics of CUL.

Cambridge University Library is also home to some high-profile modern and early modern science collections, including the papers of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Could you speak more broadly about some of the early modern or modern recipe collections in your library?
 
We have numerous seventeenth-century and later commonplace books and scientific notebooks containing recipes and laboratory instructions. Newton’s papers include not just his mathematical and scientific thinking but also chemical and alchemical notes. The collection of Darwin’s papers at the UL encompasses all aspects of his professional and domestic life, including his wife Emma’s recipe book which has recently been edited and published.

Your library offers a number of prizes and fellowships that may be of interest to our readers, including those focused on book collecting and bibliography. Can you tell us a bit more about these?
 
The library appoints a Munby Fellow every year. This is a full-time 10-month position (October-July) open to a post-doctoral researcher of any nationality to carry out bibliographical research in any subject from any period. The only stipulation is that the proposed project must be based primarily on collections held in Cambridge libraries, whether print or manuscript. According to previous Fellows, one of the most exciting aspects of the position is being allowed to go ‘behind the scenes’ and browse the library’s Special Collections stacks as a member of library staff. The current Munby Fellow, Dr Anke Timmermann, is working on alchemical material but there is plenty of scope for other recipes researchers to investigate other aspects of our collections. The Fellowship is usually advertised in the summer.

Thanks, Suzanne, for chatting with me!

If you have any questions about the Cambridge University Library collections, please email Suzanne Paul. If you’d like to feature a library on the First Monday Library Chat, please email Michelle DiMeo.

First Monday Library Chat: British Library

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! We’ve been talking to libraries in the USA and Canada, but today we jump across the pond to the British Library in London, England. The British Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, with around 14 million books and a grand total of over 150 million items, print and digital.

Today I’m chatting with Dr. Arnold Hunt, Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, about some of the manuscript recipe books in their collection.

The British Library has an impressive assortment of bound manuscript recipe books, and some loose recipe collections. Can you give us an idea of the scope of the library’s holdings?

Our subject-index of manuscripts lists over 300 items under the heading ‘Recipes’ or ‘Receipts’, ranging in date from medieval to nineteenth century, but chiefly from the early modern period.Some could be categorized as ‘cookery’ or ‘medicine’, but others are just listed in our catalogue as ‘miscellaneous receipts’ with no clear indication of their contents, so there’s still a lot of work to be done in describing and cataloguing them all properly.This is definitely one of the more neglected areas of our manuscript collections – partly, I suspect, because until recently these manuscripts would have been regarded as women’s work and therefore not very important.

I have a particular love for Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of manuscripts, which includes several early modern medical and scientific recipe books. Can you tell us a bit more about why the Sloane collection is important, and when and how the British Library acquired these works?

Sloane specialized in medicine and botany, though he collected very widely in other areas as well.For the first half of the eighteenth century, right up to his death in 1753, he was the pre-eminent English collector in these fields, so he had the pick of everything that came onto the market.One reason why his collections are important, though, is that he wasn’t fussy about what he acquired – he just collected everything he could lay his hands on – so his library is full of manuscript recipe books, including a lot of those ‘miscellaneous receipts’ that I mentioned just now, that a more fastidious collector might have discarded.After his death his collections were bought by Parliament and became the foundation of the newly-formed British Museum, later sub-divided to create the National History Museum and the British Library.

The Sloane collection includes some manuscript recipe books by both well-known and lesser-known figures. Why do you think Sloane was interested in collecting these? How do they fit into his book collection as a whole, or what can they tell us about Sloane?

Sloane’s motives for collecting aren’t always clear.But as a good Baconian, he wanted to get rid of the medieval tradition of ‘books of secrets’ and bring science and medicine into the realm of public knowledge.By acquiring these recipe books, he was bringing their contents into the public domain where they could be empirically tested by enlightened physicians like himself.The good recipes could be adopted, the bad ones could be discredited, and medical knowledge would thus be advanced.In other words, he seems to have looked on these manuscripts as potentially valuable resources for his own clinical practice.

I’ve noticed that many of the British Library’s recipe books, in the Sloane collection and in others, have been rebound. The new bindings are far less fragile and easier to use, but without the original bindings we lose some clues to the original composition process and use. Can you talk a bit more about conservation decisions? How do modern conservation practices differ from older ones?

Many of Sloane’s manuscripts were rebound in the nineteenth century.This was done for what at the time seemed to be perfectly good reasons, but it had some unfortunate results.I particularly regret the loss of some of Sloane’s notes on the flyleaves of his manuscripts, as well as notes by previous owners which might have told us something about their earlier provenance.Conservation nowadays is carried out with a lighter touch, and when manuscripts are rebound we generally preserve the covers of the old binding.  Our Collection Care blog explains the reasoning behind some of our conservation decisions.

Can you describe a couple of interesting recipe-related manuscripts in the Sloane collection that could inform us a bit about the scope of Sloane’s collecting practices?

Sloane MS 703 is a volume of household receipts, very neatly copied in a late seventeenth-century hand, which Sloane’s librarian Humfrey Wanley described as ‘A great Collection of Receits in Cookery, Physick, and other matters Relating to Women’.

Sloane MS 703, f. 43. Credit: British Library, London.
‘To make Oring Marmelett’. British Library, Sloane MS 703, f. 43v.

Sloane MS 1000 is a more miscellaneous collection, copied in a variety of different hands, often on small scraps of paper, which Sloane listed in his catalogue as ‘Processes and receits’ collected by ‘Mr Bonivert’ (i.e. Gideon Bonivert, one of Sloane’s correspondents).

Sloane MS 1000, f. 195. Credit: British Library, London.
‘A water for the head’. British Library, Sloane MS 1000, f. 195r.

What these two manuscripts show is that there’s very little distinction, in the early modern period, between receipts collected for domestic and household use and those collected for professional or medical use.Bonivert’s collection includes examples of both, and Sloane himself collected right across the spectrum.

Do these recipe books factor into any institutional digitization priority lists that might eventually provide free access?

For many of Sloane’s manuscripts we’re still reliant on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century catalogue descriptions, so at the moment I feel the priority is to get the collection properly catalogued to modern standards.Ideally this would include digitization as well, but the scale of Sloane’s collection makes this a dauntingly large task.However, we’ve been working with the British Museum and the Natural History Museum on a project called Sloane’s Treasures, which has the ultimate aim of bringing together all Sloane’s collections – books and manuscripts, prints and drawings, artifacts and specimens – into a single database where they can be studied as a unified whole.

Can anyone visit the collections in the Manuscript Reading Room?

Most of our manuscripts are available for consultation by anyone with a BL reader’s pass, though for some manuscripts we ask readers to supply a letter of introduction from an academic colleague or tutor.  If you’re planning a visit to the BL, and you already know what you want to see, you can order items in advance.  If you have a question about a particular manuscript in our collection, you can contact us at mss@bl.uk.

If you would like to suggest a library for the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.