Medieval recipes and medical manuscripts to be digitised in Cambridge University Library project

Digital images of the manuscripts, together with detailed descriptions and full-text transcriptions, will be made freely available online.

The Cambridge University Library has announced the launch of an ambitious new project – Curious Cures – aiming to conserve, catalogue, and digitise over 180 medieval manuscripts comprising medical recipes, alchemical texts, and devotional books.

A collection of medical recipes in their original 15th-century leather wrapping. IMAGE: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the two-year project will bring together unique and irreplaceable handwritten texts from the world-class collections of the Cambridge University Library, a dozen Cambridge colleges, and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Most of the manuscripts are from the 14th and 15th centuries, with the earliest dating back a thousand years.

They include academic treatises with elaborate anatomical diagrams, stunningly illuminated liturgical writings, and simple pocketbooks that once belonged to medical practitioners themselves.

Around 8,000 unedited medical recipes feature within the collection. Typically composed as a short and simple list of instructions, their style is similar to modern-day cookery books.

The recipes include ingredients commonly found in gardens today, such as rosemary, mint, and thyme – but also some more unusual and disconcerting components.

A 16th-century manuscript containing a diagram of the human body. It shows which veins are to be opened for blood-letting. IMAGE: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge

One treatment for gout recommends stuffing a puppy with sage, roasting it over a fire, and using the rendered fat to make a salve.

For curing cataracts, another recipe details mixing the gall bladder of a hare with honey, and then applying the substance to the affected eye with a feather over the course of three nights.

Other medical manuscripts allude to the violence and precarity of life in the Middle Ages; one text describes how to identify a skull fracture induced by the blow of a weapon.

‘Behind each recipe, however distantly, there lies a human story: experiences of illness and of pain, but also the desire to live and to be healthy,’ explained project supervisor Dr James Freeman.

‘Some of the most moving are those remedies that speak of the hopes or tragic disappointments of medieval people: a recipe “for to make a man and woman to get children”, to know whether a pregnant woman carries a boy or a girl, and “to deliver a woman of a dead child”.’

A 15th-century medical manuscript. Drawings of urine flasks illustrate the different colours of a patient’s urine, with details of their ailments written alongside. IMAGE: Cambridge University Library

Urgent conservation work will first be carried out to restore the centuries-old bindings, and so ensure continued physical access to the material for future researchers.

The team will then detail the manuscripts’ contents, material characteristics, origins, and provenance, before conducting cover-to-cover digitisation.

All of the digital images of the collection, together with detailed descriptions and full-text transcriptions, will be made freely available on the Cambridge Digital Library.