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Between 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.  The individuals involved, and the periods during which they undertook their work, are as follows:

  • Charles Edward Sayle (1864-1924): from 1903 to c. 1920.
  • Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936): from 1926 to 1930.
  • Basil Ferris Campbell Atkinson (1895-1971): from c. 1926 to 1960.
  • Arthur Ernest Bion Owen (1924-2008): from 1948 to 1949, and perhaps from 1960 onwards.
  • Roger Aubrey Baskerville Mynors (1903-1989): from 1948 to 1953.
  • Harold Leslie Pink (1902-1988): from 1948 to 1970.

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.

For further contextual information, see:

Handwritten drafts: accession and consultation

At each stage, the descriptions were retained by the Department of Manuscripts, as the basis for further work and revision in the future, and for reference use by curators.  They have also, on an informal basis, been made available for consultation by readers.  In some instances – in particular, M.R. James’s descriptions – such use over several decades has led to a marked deterioration in their condition.  In order better to ensure their preservation, to make more widely known their extent and coverage, and to bring them within established procedures for the consultation of such material, the unpublished descriptions have now been formally accessioned into the University Archives, as part of the ULIB collection:

  • UA ULIB 7/3/72: Descriptions by C.E. Sayle, B.F.C. Atkinson and A.E.B. Owen, with notes by other hands
  • UA ULIB 7/3/73: ‘Catalogue of (ULC) Western MSS’ in three volumes.
  • UA ULIB 7/3/74: Descriptions by M.R. James, including typescripts of selected descriptions produced by the University Press.
  • UA ULIB 7/3/75: Descriptions by H.L. Pink and R.A.B. Mynors.

Further detail on each is available on the online catalogue, via the embedded links above.

Descriptions of some of the Library’s Greek manuscripts – now being superseded by the results of the Polonsky Greek Manuscripts Project (2019-21) – will also be accessioned in the near future:

  • UA ULIB 7/3/76: Descriptions by R.V. Kerr

For an overview of which manuscripts have been the subject of further unpublished description, and by whom, the following table may be downloaded:

Many of James’s handwritten descriptions have since been transcribed and are now available for download in that form.  For further details, see the supplementary subject guide on M.R. James's descriptions.

Value and significance

In many instances, the descriptions of Two-Letter manuscripts represent a significant advance upon those produced in the mid-nineteenth century.  They provide greater levels of detail in almost all respects, and typically include information that was not presented in the 1856-67 catalogue: in particular, a manuscript’s collation or evidence of its origin and provenance.  As such, they present information that may still be of some use to scholars – but as unfinished, unpublished, unreviewed pieces of work, they must be treated cautiously and only as the starting-point for further examination of the manuscripts themselves.  (The unpublished descriptions of Additional manuscripts up to MS Add. 7000 have now been superseded by entries in Jayne Ringrose’s catalogue and so are likely of less use in this regard, except where certain details – notably collation – were omitted).

The unpublished descriptions also provide a perspective on the administration of the Library’s collection of western medieval manuscripts during a period of major organisational change: the introduction of new administrative procedures under the aegis of Alwyn Faber Scholfield (1884-1969, University Librarian 1923-1949); the establishment of a Department of Manuscripts; and the move to the new building in 1936, with a dedicated space in the Anderson Room for readers using special collections material.  They also reveal how the Library sought to co-opt – with questionable success – scholars such as M.R. James and R.A.B. Mynors in pursuit of its aims, and the way their involvement influenced the form and shape of subsequent work by Library staff: in particular that of H.L. Pink, who was tasked from 1948 with updating James’s descriptions to guidelines devised by Mynors.  The treatment of James’s descriptions – in particular, their annotation by Pink and others, and the storage alongside them of a miscellaneous reference collection comprising notes by readers and curators, off-prints and other matter – also vividly illustrates that for many decades they possessed a merely functional status in the Department: a source of information to be mined in the preparation of more detailed, up-to-date descriptions.

However, for none of James’s other published catalogues is such a cache of draft work known to survive.  A valuable archive in their own right, James’s unpublished descriptions at the University Library offer precious insights into the methodology of one of the foremost manuscripts scholars of the modern era, and much remains to be explored concerning the interplay between James’s cataloguing work and his broader medieval and art-historical research.  James was also instrumental in codifying and formalising the description of medieval manuscripts in print, establishing a loose template for the arrangement of information that continued to be adapted and adopted through the rest of the twentieth century.  In this respect, his descriptions are closely connected with the University Library’s own history, owing to the formative influence of Henry Bradshaw (1831-1886, University Librarian 1867-1886) at an early stage in his scholarly career: especially James’s reliance upon many of Bradshaw’s ideas and insights regarding the practice of manuscript description, as well as more specific matters of interpretation. 

Taken as a whole, the unpublished descriptions also trace the development of the discipline of descriptive cataloguing during a period of great change.   The decades up to 1970 saw not only an expansion in the volume and variety of research being conducted into medieval manuscripts and the Library’s own collection, but also major advances in allied disciplines such as palaeography, codicology and textual editing whose outputs had a bearing on the description and interpretation of medieval manuscripts.  The difficulty of keeping pace with these developments – especially since the task of cataloguing was repeatedly entrusted to a single person, who sometimes did not possess formal training or academic expertise – was the principal reason that many of these descriptions remained unpublished: by the time that a sufficient body of material had been compiled, standards of what was acceptable for publication had evolved, and further work was deemed necessary.  It is an obvious irony that the judged inadequacy of the descriptions ensured their preservation as a source for future work.


James Freeman

Medieval Manuscripts Specialist