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Transcriptions of unpublished descriptions of the western medieval manuscripts at Cambridge University Library by M.R. James (1862-1936)


Beween 1903 and 1970, a succession of Library staff and scholars undertook the task of describing many of the western medieval manuscripts in the collection at Cambridge University Library. Initially, the intention was to supplement the information that had been made available through the publication between 1856 and 1867 of the five-volume Catalogue of manuscripts preserved in the Library of the University of Cambridge, by providing descriptions of manuscripts among the Additionals classmark sequence that had been acquired since that time. However, in 1911, Cambridge University Library’s Annual Report noted of the nineteenth-century catalogue that ‘although it contained much excellent work, it needs revision and correction to bring it up to the standard now expected of such catalogues’. This set in motion the first of several attempts to produce fresh descriptions of the western medieval manuscripts among the Two-Letter (Dd-Oo) classmark sequence as well, and (without success) to produce a new catalogue of the whole of the Library’s collection. Only with a further four decades’ work after this was the Library’s original objective realised, with the publication in 2009 of a summary catalogue by Jayne Ringrose.

M.R. James’s descriptions

Among those involved with these initiatives was the manuscripts scholar Montague Rhodes James, who produced descriptions of approximately half of the Library’s medieval manuscripts, between 1926 and 1930. Unfortunately, it was felt after James’s death in 1936 that these were not of a standard sufficient for publication, but his drafts were retained as the basis for future work. These original, handwritten drafts have been accessioned into the University Archives (under UA ULIB 7/3/74).

Transcriptions of M.R. James’s descriptions

The illegibility of James’s handwriting was notorious among his friends and contemporaries; it remains a source of frustration for scholars attempting to make sense of his descriptions of University Library manuscripts, some of which contain may contain useful details. Between 2002 and 2011, transcriptions of James’s notes were compiled piecemeal by University Library staff, with a view not only to making them more widely available but also to aiding the preservation of the originals (some of which are now in poor condition). Thanks to the industry of Jayne Ringrose, Rev. Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente, Dr Martin Blake, Dr Robin Payne and Dr Suzanne Paul, a little over half of James’s descriptions were transcribed – covering approximately a quarter of the Library’s collection of western medieval manuscripts.

While the original drafts remain available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room, owing to their fragility we ask that as much use as possible is made of the transcriptions beforehand. Researchers are strongly advised to read the following guidance carefully before citing any of the transcriptions in their work.

A complete list of manuscript classmarks for which James compiled a description is available for download. Classmarks are colour-coded according to the person responsible for the transcription.

Researchers are welcome to reference these in their work, on the proviso that the person responsible is duly credited. The following is the recommended citation (the date is usually given as part of the transcription):

  • UA ULIB 7/3/74: M.R. James, unpublished description of Cambridge, University Library, MS [classmark], transcribed by [name], [date]

Reading the transcriptions of M.R. James’s unpublished descriptions

James compiled his descriptions on sheets of paper supplied by the University Library, pre-printed with a series of headings: Title, Language, Material, Measurements, Collation and so forth. The arrangement of the transcriptions largely reflects that layout, with the addition of the heading ‘Secundo folio’.

Some editing of the transcriptions has latterly been undertaken to standardise their presentation – ensuring consistent titles and indentation for each one – but no attempt has been made at this juncture to proof-read their contents against the originals or the manuscripts themselves.

In a number of instances, characters in the transcriptions are no longer displaying correctly. A dozen or so transcriptions of Greek manuscripts have been badly affected and have therefore been omitted: these are struck through on the list of manuscript classmarks. Around 30-40 other transcriptions – predominantly of descriptions of Middle English manuscripts – contain a few such errors, but are otherwise wholly legible.

Not all of the writing on James’s draft descriptions is by his hand. Basic information about the manuscripts was filled in in ink before the manuscripts and pre-printed forms were sent to James by B.F.C. Atkinson: secundo folio, language, material, measurements, number of leaves, columns and lines to a page. No distinction has been made in the transcriptions between Atkinson’s work and James’s.

Furthermore, James’s drafts were subsequently annotated by members of Library staff, most often by H.L. Pink, who was tasked with revising and updating them with a view for publication. Pink’s interventions are sometimes marked in the transcriptions with square brackets or his initials, though such distinctions are not always made on the descriptions themselves. No attempt has been made at this juncture to check the transcriptions and ensure that Pink’s and others’ annotations are properly demarcated.

If direct citation of one of James’s descriptions is necessary, therefore, prior examination of the original is strongly recommended, in order to ensure that the information is James’s work. For assistance in identifying an annotator’s handwriting, please contact James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist. (An illustrated guide to ‘Library hands’ is forthcoming).

Other points to note:

  • secundo folio: a folio number is usually supplied when this is taken from somewhere other than f. 2.
  • measurements: given in inches.
  • collation: no standard format was observed by James in preparing collation formulae. Proceed with caution and take nothing on trust.
  • underneath ‘Binding’, James often included references to the recording of the manuscript in earlier inventories (e.g. Thomas James, Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis (1600) or John Moore’s manuscripts in Bernard, Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum (1697)) or earlier classmarks used by the University Library (e.g. #D.Z.4).
  • there was no pre-printed heading for provenance information. James usually clustered this information around the beginning of the ‘Contents’ section.

Further information

For further information concerning these and other unpublished descriptions produced during the 20th century, see:

James Freeman, ‘Unpublished descriptions of western medieval manuscripts at Cambridge University Library’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society (forthcoming, 2021).

Jayne Ringrose, Summary catalogue of the Additional medieval manuscripts in Cambridge University Library acquired before 1940 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009), pp. vii-viii.

Jayne Ringrose, ‘The Legacy of M.R. James in Cambridge University Library’, in The Legacy of M.R. James: Papers from the 1995 Cambridge Symposium, ed. by Lynda Dennison (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2001), pp. 23-36.

For further information, please contact:

Dr James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist,


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