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Manuscripts, signatures and shelfmarks (and macros)

April 14, 2011

Celebrating Vivian Nutton – by Barbara Zipser

My first contact with Vivian Nutton was through his book John Caius and the Manuscripts of Galen.

I was then a first-year PhD student in Heidelberg working on a late antique text on ophthalmology. For my environment, a very old-fashioned Classics department, this was an unusual topic. The reason for this was not the date of the text, which was certainly post-classical (my PhD supervisor specialised in the reception of classical thought); it was register and content. Even though our libraries held all the relevant literature, medical texts were rarely read. Hippocrates seemed to be the only exception. Lowbrow texts were not part of the curriculum.

Thus, it may not be too surprising that I first came across the text by coincidence, when I mistyped a shelfmark while ordering textbooks on the library online catalogue two weeks before my finals. A stash of books arrived, but one of these was not what I thought I had ordered. Annoyed, I returned the book, just to order it again after a few days. Subsequently, I sought and received permission to turn it into a thesis. A few weeks later I first got in touch with Vivian to inquire whether there was anybody else working on the topic at the moment. His book on the manuscripts of Caius was on top of my reading list for the new project, and after all I had heard he was the person who would know what was going on in the world of medical history. A colleague, who had corresponded with him about entries for an encyclopedia, proofread my rather formal email, and we also had it double-checked by a native speaker of English. After some minutes I received a very informal and enthusiastic reply telling me to go ahead and also providing me with some additional resources. I was now in touch with the community.

The Caius book is a fascinating read. It is an in-depth study of Galen manuscripts associated with a British physician and scholar of the 16th century. At this point, some medical texts from antiquity were already available in printed form, but most were just based on one or two manuscripts. Handwritten medical books were still important sources; they were compared with the existing printed editions and sometimes even passed around between scholars. The notes and drafts that resulted from these projects are of interest not only because they reflect the intellectual discourse at the time: they also cover material that is today lost.

After the completion of my PhD I moved to London for a three-year Wellcome Trust fellowship, working on a manuscript held by the Wellcome Library, which Vivian had pointed out to me because he “thought it was interesting”, without going into any more detail. After a few hours’ work with the original I came to the conclusion that it contained an unedited medical manual, one of the first texts written in the precursor of contemporary Greek. Other than most other medical texts, and in fact most texts in general, it was not written for the educated elite of the time. The vernacular was spoken, but not used in writing over the following centuries. It finally became the official language of Greece in the second half of the 20th century.

My fellowship project was complex, to say the least, and since I always was interested in computing, I decided to switch to a more versatile software solution. After a few weeks, having seen some first drafts of my text, Vivian asked me whether I could install the software on his machine as well, as he was working on a similar task: a book containing, among other things, a number of different translations of a Galenic treatise that is lost in the Greek original. So I did, and after a brief introduction to the system he used ledmac, a complex LaTeX package for critical editions. Being an avid DOS user he got to grips with it very rapidly and switched to the new system for his book.

Vivian is a member of a choir, run by a retired heart surgeon at St Bart’s Hospital. Most of the singers and the orchestra are in some way linked to London hospitals. After I had been in London a few weeks, Vivian invited me along. We have been walking to rehearsal every Friday since, for the past seven years, discussing strange manuscripts and computer software on our way. We have sung at a variety of venues, including a concert in a church at the Barbican for the Royal College of Surgeons to commemorate Nelson’s death. Our next concert is going to be the Mozart Requiem.

Dr Barbara Zipser is a Wellcome Trust University Award holder at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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