- Alchemy, Medicine, and Commercial Book Production: A Codicological and Linguistic Study of the Voigts-Sloane Manuscript Group by Alpo Honkapohja
The Voigts-Sloane manuscripts are a group of Middle English texts about medicine and alchemy with a remarkable degree of uniformity. The manuscripts, first described by Linda Voigts in 1990, have attracted much scholarly interest and curiosity for two reasons. First, 'the manuscripts are thought to be evidence of co-ordination in the production of medical manuscripts before printing' (p. 2), and second, the texts are all written in English and Latin in a side-by-side fashion during a period when a substantial amount of medical books were made available in vernacular translation. Because of this, the manuscripts have been referred to as 'instances of commercially co-ordinated book production' (p. 3), although neither the context of their production nor their language has been thoroughly analysed.
Honkapohja sets out to cover both these shortcomings in his book, as he aims 'to examine the Group using detailed codicological analysis as well as a linguistic analysis of its dialect and multilingualism' (p. 3). Split into six chapters, the book starts by introducing the reader to the Group and how it will be studied and investigated. Linda Voigts has divided the manuscripts in subgroups based on their physical similarity and overlap in text and illustrations. In his work, Honkapohja uses the same grouping of manuscripts with a few well-substantiated modifications and additions.
Following an extensive description of the sources and some evidence of a possible origin in London, the author gives an account of the commercial book market in England before the age of printing. Doing so, he describes three ways of producing manuscripts and the codicological features of these types of works. In the subsequent chapters, Honkapohja explores whether any of the manuscripts in the Voigts-Sloane Group contains the signs that would expose a foundation in either of these.
Chapters 2 to 4 contain the bulk of Honkapohja's codicological analysis. Starting with the Sibling Group, he dives into manuscript descriptions and attempts to find evidence of co-ordinated book production. The author provides a range of figures, images and tables to illustrate his analysis. The manuscripts in this subgroup are described in tremendous detail and, regardless of its high information density, the impressive study can be [End Page 212] understood without much trouble. The third chapter is dedicated to the Core Group: the description of the manuscripts, the construction of the booklets, and their origin. The chapter contains a similar level of detail to the previous one, presenting the information in an orderly way, substantiated by diagrams of quires and tables. Following this extensive description is an account of the topics covered in the manuscripts and their context. Alchemy in particular requires some explanation, considering its unlawfulness in fifteenth-century England. The fourth chapter discusses the subgroup 'Family Resemblance': manuscripts that display some resemblance but cannot be said to belong to either other subgroup. This subgroup was created by Voigts, just as the others, and Honkapohja discusses them thoroughly. However, while he recognizes that the manuscripts had a shared origin, the author considers all but one source in the subgroup to be irrelevant to the Core Group. He bases this on a lack of textual resemblance and overlap in codicological characteristics.
The last two chapters of the book deal with the language and multilingualism of the Group. Honkapohja determines a clear-cut rift between the English and Latin languages, where the Latin text covers the technical material while the English appears to serve as an aid for those who did not adequately understand Latin. The two languages lack equal sophistication; it would appear the Group's reputation of multilingualism is tenuous at best. Honkapohja ends his book with an impressive dialectological analysis of the language used in the manuscripts, and an appendix containing the full collation of...