‘A Boke of Practyk:’ Stains of Medicine and Alchemy

Chemical Heritage Foundation, Othmer MS 2, fol. 41r

Many of the most interesting manuscript stains are found in the bindings and folios of soiled, heavily-used medical and alchemical texts. The Middle English quote in the title of this post comes from the introduction of a stained fifteenth-century medical text, Lylye of Medicynes (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1505, fol. 4r). This self-described ‘boke of practyk’ reflects the scientific content of these texts and their subsequent use for practical purposes by medical practitioners or alchemists. Signs of this practical use may be obvious, such as burn marks from furnaces, but innocuous-looking stains (e.g. appearing to be water damage) may contain hidden information about medicinal or chemical solutions, or even heavy metal contamination, which is not evident by sight alone. This is the kind of data we will be looking for through multi-spectral imaging of these stains.

Recipes to kill parasitic worms added to the treatise 'De coloribus urinae,' UPenn MS. Codex 133, 16th c.
Recipes to kill parasitic worms, ‘De coloribus urinae,’ University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 133


The majority of manuscripts identified as potential candidates for stain analysis in this project have never been accessible in either print or digitized formats. This is especially true of medical and alchemical texts, which are often less well-known than medieval literary works and less ‘beautiful’ than the illuminated and decorated texts commonly regarded as world treasures. The analysis of these manuscripts will provide truly novel data particular to the specific object, but also foundational to the examination of similar manuscripts in the future.

Soiled alchemical text, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Othmer MS 2, fol. 63r

We will be examining a range of scientific manuscripts across our partner institutions. Specifically, we are fortunate to be partnering with The Othmer Library of Chemical History at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which houses over 140,000 objects relevant to chemical history, including an invaluable collection of medieval alchemy manuscripts. Until recently (through the work of the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis project, 2016 – 2019), these manuscripts were undigitized and many have never had a printed edition.

Alchemy texts in particular are often known as ‘books of secrets’ both in medieval and modern language. The novel data contained in the stains of these alchemical texts will not only reveal interesting information about the history of the book and its practical use, but it will help researchers who will be touching and interacting with the physical object. We envision that scholarly audiences will use our data and methodology to advance knowledge into the provenance of manuscripts, their uses within a historical context, their working environment, their transmission, and their circulation. For conservators and librarians new information will help determine proper storage conditions, as well as health and safety issues, in particular the identification of heavy metal or chemical contamination in alchemical manuscripts.


Dirty Old Books

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Free Library Lewis 003, f. 18v.

At some point in your career as a reader of books, you may have accidentally spilled coffee or left a stain on a book you were reading, just like someone did with the book in the image at left. Stains in and on books are usually seen as inconveniences at best and tragedies at worst. The Library of Stains project proposes to focus on these oft-disparaged “dirty” old books and the stains found in them, using them as a tool for gathering scientific data that will provide clues to how previous generations used and stored their reading material.  This project examines a variety of stains found on parchment, paper, and bindings from medieval manuscripts.  The data will provide a new approach for learning about the history of the book, book conservation, the materiality of books, and will offer both scholars and the public an opportunity to engage in the intimate connection between readers and what they read.

The Library of Stains project is conceived broadly as a first foray into providing a fixed dataset for characterized stains that are commonly found on manuscripts, a sound methodology for the replication of gathering and analyzing the data, and a clear explanation for how to implement and use the database as a means to further the study of medieval manuscripts and their conservation. In so doing, the Library of Stains hopes to equip scholars with additional tools for analyzing their manuscripts vis à vis provenance, use, transmission, preservation and materiality.  The project also aims to engage both scholarly and public audiences with the intrigue of studying manuscripts traditionally pushed aside and dismissed due to their “dirty” or “stained” appearances. Contextual information will be provided concerning each manuscript studied in order to elicit public participation in the making and identifying of stains.  If not coffee stains, as humans we are probably all guilty of leaving some sort of stain, perhaps a tear on an old letter, or blood from an accidental cut on a recipe book.  This project will bring together a human audience in order to explore and study the human experience, be that a medieval person’s relationship to a manuscript or how that information relates to our interactions with books today.