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Among the collection of unpublished descriptions of the University Library’s manuscripts now held in the University Archives is a substantial cache of handwritten drafts by the manuscripts scholar Montague Rhodes James.  These have been accessioned into the University Archives as UA ULIB 7/3/74 (for further details, see the subject guide Unpublished descriptions of the western medieval manuscripts at Cambridge University Library).

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.

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.

The transcriptions are now available for download as pdf files from Apollo:

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UA ULIB 7/3/74: M.R. James, unpublished description of Cambridge, University Library, MS [classmark], transcribed by [name], [date]

While the original drafts remain available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room (see the Unpublished descriptions subject guide for further information), owing to their fragility we ask that as much use as possible is made of the transcriptions beforehand.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:

Reading the transcriptions of M.R. James’s unpublished descriptions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


Dr James Freeman

Medieval Manuscripts Specialist