Scientific and Medical Writings in Old and Middle English: An Electronic Reference [Book Review]

Isis 93:364-364 (2002)
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Abstract

It is better to exist than not to exist. That stage in the ontological argument can apply also to reference works: even if they display no more than a basic competence, their mere existence is extremely welcome. Of few scholarly fields can this be more true than of vernacular scientific writing in medieval England. Like their Latin counterparts, scientific and medical writings in Middle English are often anonymous or bear spurious attributions. They can be securely identified only by incipits. Their sheer mutability defeats traditional editorial techniques. Hence the fundamental need for an approach to the corpus that focuses on individual manuscripts rather than on texts.Scholars of medieval Latin material have long enjoyed the benefits of “TK,” the Catalogue of Incipits of Mediaeval Scientific Writings in Latin , edited by Lynn Thorndike and Pearl Kibre . And they will soon enjoy the yet greater “searchability” of “eTK,” the revision in electronic form promised by its editor, Peter Murray Jones . No medieval vernacular has been comparably served. True, the relatively few scientific writings in Old English have each been studied intensively; and the Anglo‐Norman material has been rescued from oblivion almost single‐handedly by Tony Hunt. But apart from a few major translations from the Latin, the Middle English corpus—far more substantial than the Old English or the Anglo‐Norman—has remained, by comparison, poorly understood, largely because many of the manuscript witnesses have yet to be found and listed, let alone scrutinized.All this is about to change. If the editors of the work under review had merely scratched the surface in their cataloguing they would have earned our warmest thanks. But they have done much more than that. Since 1985, Linda Voigts and Patricia Kurtz have spent some ten years recording information on texts surviving in more than 1,200 manuscripts held in libraries and private collections in fifteen countries. Prologues and “embedded texts” are treated individually. The scope of the project is admirably broad and free of anachronism. To quote the editorial introduction: “We define medieval texts on medicine, science, and technology as those writings found in scientific and medical manuscripts. This is not a circular definition, for these books contain not only texts that are still judged to be medicine and science, but also many other writings considered science and medicine in the Middle Ages but not today [for example, computus and chiromancy].” The result is indexed by incipit, author, title, translator, TK equivalence, manuscript, and subject. Keyword searching of all these indexes, and of the bibliography, is of course easy. Invaluably, an “Index of Raw Data” allows the user to view incipits in the order in which they appear in the manuscripts. Even for a computer semiliterate such as myself, the database proved straightforward to install and navigate. Since it has been so many years in the compiling, its technology and design now seem a little primitive. But both are more than adequate to their task. Overall, this is a magnificent achievement; and, as the corrections and supplements pour in to the editorial office, “eVK” will become even more detailed and comprehensive. Its existence places the entire subject on a new footing

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