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  • Alchemy, Medicine, and Commercial Book Production: A Codicological and Linguistic Study of the Voigts-Sloane Manuscript Group by Alpo Honkapohja
  • Winston Black

Manuscript studies, England, Alchemy, Medicine, Codicology, Linguistics, astrology, book production, book trade, Medieval Latin, Middle English, London, code-switching, multilingualism, scriptoria

Alpo Honkapohja. Alchemy, Medicine, and Commercial Book Production: A Codicological and Linguistic Study of the Voigts-Sloane Manuscript Group. Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. Xv + 250 pp., 57 black and white illustrations + 3 color illustrations, 20 black and white tables. €80. ISBN: 978-2-503-56647-4

In a series of articles from 1989 to 2003, Linda Ehrsam Voigts identified a group of eleven manuscripts produced in England during the later fifteenth century that are relatively uniform in layout, contents, or both. These professionally made, but utilitarian, paper manuscripts contain similar medical, alchemical, astrological, and magical texts written mostly in self-contained booklets. Because six of the eleven manuscripts are found in the Sloane manuscript collection of the British Library (the other five are in different libraries), Voigts called them the "Sloane Group." She tentatively argued that the Sloane Group was an example of speculative publishing, aimed at a growing market for technical literature, before the advent of printing in England. Her theories about the Sloane Group have had a great influence on the study of book production at the dawn of print, but they have also been accepted uncritically at times.

Alpo Honkapohja's Alchemy, Medicine, and Commercial Book Production is the first book-length study of the Sloane Group, in which he modifies or challenges the ideas of Voigts and other scholars about the production of [End Page 176] these manuscripts and their supposedly sophisticated multilingualism. This is an important book and should provoke historians and linguists to rethink some received ideas about later medieval book production, especially in technical fields like alchemy and medicine. Honkapohja rechristens the Sloane Group as the "Voigts-Sloane Group" (hereafter VSG) both in recognition of Voigts's scholarly contributions and to avoid confusion with the entire Sloane collection of the British Library. He remains respectful of Voigts and her work while frequently calling into question details of her arguments about the VSG.

Honkapohja's approach to the study of the VSG is framed as a response to a call made by Claire Jones in a 2004 essay for more detailed analyses of the codicology and languages of this and similar manuscript groups to test Jones's arguments about the "discourse communities" reflected in medical manuscripts. Honkapohja carefully applies both types of analysis (codico-logical and linguistic) to the VSG "to see whether they contain signs of a publisher, co-ordination, speculative sale, or even 'veritable mass production'" (21) and to determine whether some or all of the texts were written in London or Westminster, as Voigts originally proposed. This is a highly technical study, intended for scholars already versed in codicology and Middle English linguistics. After a detailed introduction on the definition and historiography of the VSG and a disconcertingly short Chapter 1 on "The Book Trade in London Before Printing," Honkapohja dedicates three chapters to the codicology of the VSG and two to a linguistic analysis of the Middle English texts. The arguments in both sections of the book (that is, Chapters 2–4 and 5–6) are supported by a profuse number of collation diagrams, tables, dialect maps, and grayscale and color images of the manuscript texts. An appendix is dedicated to the full collation of British Library, MS Sloane 1118, which Honkapohja uses as representative of the entire VSG.

Voigts divided the VSG into a Core Group of manuscripts sharing a typical mise-en-page of compressed Secretary script and dramatically large margins, and a Sibling Group unified not by appearance but by a common anthology of twelve short medical and astrological treatises, which Honkapohja calls the Sibling Set Texts. Each group contains six manuscripts, with [End Page 177] Sloane 2320 shared between the two subgroups, for a total of eleven. Honkapohja further divides the Sibling Group into three subgroups: Sloane 2320, a group of three "half-sisters, or at least cousins," and two manuscripts of the Second Generation, dating from the 1480s...


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