Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries

'Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries' is a two-year project to digitise, catalogue and conserve over 180 medieval manuscripts, and to transcribe the more than 8,000 unpublished medical recipes that they contain. The project is funded by a Research Resources Award in Humanities and Social Science from the Wellcome Trust.

The results of the project — high-resolution digital images and detailed descriptions of the manuscripts, and full-text transcriptions of the recipes — will be made freely available online on the Cambridge Digital Library, opening up these collections to researchers around the world.

The project is led by and based at Cambridge University Library, and draws on its own collection of medieval manuscripts and those at college and museum libraries across the University. It is the first coordinated effort by a group of libraries to make unpublished medical recipes available in this way.

Watch the video below to hear Project Lead, James Freeman, discuss the project.


The 186 medieval manuscripts that will be investigated during this project include both recipe compilations and medical texts, but also scientific and alchemical, legal and literary, liturgical and devotional books. This variety illustrates the many different routes by which medical knowledge of this kind was recorded, shared and transmitted during the medieval period.

The manuscripts were made between the 11th and the early 16th centuries. Most of them were made in England during the late Middle Ages, however the project encompasses manuscripts originating from across Europe — including Italy, France and the Low Countries — which testify to the international intellectual exchanges that enriched the knowledge of medieval medical practitioners. Many of the recipes are written in Latin, but a significant proportion are written in Middle English and illustrate the circulation of medical knowledge in the vernacular language of this country.

The manuscripts are found at Cambridge University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and twelve Cambridge college libraries: Clare, Corpus Christi, Emmanuel, Gonville & Caius, Jesus, King’s, Magdalene, Pembroke, Peterhouse, Sidney Sussex, St John’s and Trinity.

A complete list of the manuscripts covered by the project can be found in the Resources section.

Diagram of a body, illustrating the nervous system
'Zodiac Man' diagram of the body, illustrating which signs governed which parts of the body, for correct timing of bloodletting.


Conservation will guarantee continued physical access to the material for future generations of researchers. Each manuscript is examined by a team of expert conservators prior to digitisation. A condition report informs the team's decisions about what repairs may be necessary, or whether a manuscript requires more extensive treatment before it can be safely photographed.

Conservation of Cambridge, University Library, MS Gg.5.35, using tweezers, a spatula and Japanese tissue paper


The project team will prepare detailed descriptions of the manuscripts' textual contents, material characteristics, and origins and provenance. This information places the recipes in their material, intellectual and historical contexts, enabling researchers to study the recipe texts as part of a broader literate, medical culture in the medieval period.

Diagram of the human body, with different parts labelled and surrounded by notes


High-resolution, cover-to-cover digital photography of each manuscript will enable researchers to access their entire contents easily and to examine the tiniest details on the page. Digitisation will also reveal the recipes in their original setting — where they were written on the page, how they were presented and organised, and whether they were added by different hands at different times — which will provide invaluable insights into the dissemination and reception of these texts by medieval readers and medical practitioners.

Historiated initial of a man with his bare legs dangling in a pond, illustrating the use of leeches
Historiated initial illustrating a doctor examining a patient's ear
Item 1 of 3
Historiated initial of a man with his bare legs dangling in a pond, illustrating the use of leeches
Historiated initial illustrating a doctor examining a patient's ear


These manuscripts contain over 8,000 medical recipes: short, and usually anonymous, these simple instructional texts are highly variable and, in almost all cases, have never been published in print. The project will produce full-text transcriptions of these recipes, exploiting the capabilities of the AI-powered Transkribus platform to build Handwritten Text Recognition models and speed up the transcription process. By opening up the manuscripts' contents in this way, the project will enable health researchers and historians of medicine to conduct keyword searching, surveys of treatments for specific ailments, or quantitative analyses of particular ingredients or preparatory techniques.

Engage with Curious Cures

Social media

The team also post updates on Twitter and Instagram about the project and any curious findings.

Follow us at @theULSpecColl and @theUL and use #CuriousCures to find the latest news and share your thoughts on the project!

Other media

View our news story about the launch of the project, below.

Listen to James Freeman (Principal Investigator), speak about the project on the BBC History Extra podcast!

James Freeman (Principal Investigator), went on the Recipe Project podcast, Around the Table, to discuss all things Curious Cures. Listen here:

Historiated initial containing a medical practitioner pointing the reader to the adjacent text


Cambridge Digital Library

View the manuscripts digitised so far on Cambridge University Library's research output platform.

Manuscripts list

View and download the full list of manuscripts the Curious Cures project will be digitising below. This spreadsheet will be updated as the project progresses.

Project team

Dr James Freeman

Principal Investigator

Dr Clarck Drieshen

Project Cataloguer

Dr Sarah Gilbert

Project Cataloguer

Shaun Thompson

Senior Project Conservator

Marina Kruger Pelissari

Project Conservator

Rachel Sawicki

Project Conservator

Maciej Pawlikowski

Project Photographer

Raffaella Losito

Project Photographer

Huw Jones

Digital Humanities Coordinator

Mary Chester-Kadwell

Project Developer

Jennie Fletcher

Project Developer

Mike Hawkins

Project Developer

Stuart Roberts

Communications Lead

Dr Amelie Roper

Project Manager

Tuija Ainonen

Former Project Cataloguer

Photography by Raffaella Losito and Maciej Pawlikowski

Collection items featured:
Headline image of urine flasks: CUL MS Dd.6.29 (ff. 27v-28r)
Diagrams of the human body: Gonville & Caius MS 190/223 (f. 3v), CUL MS Dd.6.29 (f. 1r)
Conserving a manuscript: CUL MS Gg.5.35, (f. 211r)
Diagram of the human body: King's College MS 16
Historiated initials illustrating the use of leeches, ear examinations and eye examinations: CUL MS Ii.5.11 (ff. 21v, 41v, 40v)
Portrait of Rabanus Maurus as a scribe: CUL MS Add. 4078 (f. 2r).
Astrological paper wheel gif: Gonville & Caius MS 336/725 (gif made by Raffaella Losito)
Pointing figure: CUL MS Dd.3.52 (f. 11r)