May 25, 2010

Copies of Antique Manuscripts

A remarkable archive of antique manuscripts which opens a window on to the experiences, hopes, fears and interests of people who lived during the 15th to 18th centuries has been put online.

The University of Cambridge Scriptorium Project features thousands of pages taken from 20 different handwritten "miscellanies", some of which date back as far as the Wars of the Roses.

The books were used to record snippets of information that people had read, been told, or overheard, at a time when paper was a scarce and expensive commodity.

The collection includes a notebook in which Edward VI wrote down various Biblical passages and a miscellany kept by William Rawley, chaplain to Francis Bacon, in which he recorded Bacon's sayings and a number of his (rather bad) jokes.

Perhaps more significantly, however, it features copious amounts of material reflecting the day-to-day lives of other people. Recipes, accounts, sonnets, quotations, prayers, sermons, legal tips and medical instructions were all added to the compendia as they were passed down through the generations.

Over a period of decades, their owners recorded everything from poems by Shakespeare and Milton, to plague remedies, laundry lists, or, in one case, the contents of their fish pond. As a result, the books provide an insight into sections of the population of whom we would know far less without them, not least the women of the era.
The website also includes a complete and interactive online course in deciphering medieval and early modern handwriting as well as further resources for manuscript studies.

"The idea is to enable other researchers to decipher their own manuscripts even if they have not encountered early modern handwriting before," Dr. Beadle added. "Hopefully this project will help to open up the literature, history, theology and philosophy of this period to a new generation of students and scholars all over the world."