Plague remedies, poetry, bad jokes and royal dedications form part of a 500-year-old archive of ”filofaxes” released online for the first time.
The fragile collection contains of thousands of pages taken from 20 handwritten ”miscellanies” – books used to record snippets of information and events much like a modern-day filofax.
The oldest books date from as far back as the Wars of the Roses from 1455 to 1487, a time when paper was a scarce and expensive commodity.
Famous names associated with the collection include Edward VI, who wrote down various Bible passages in his notebook, and William Rawley, chaplain to Francis Bacon.
Rawley kept a miscellany in which he recorded Bacon’s sayings and a number of his jokes, both good and bad.
More significantly for historians, the archive also contains copious amounts of material reflecting the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Recipes, accounts, sonnets, quotations, prayers, sermons, legal tips and medical instructions were all added to the handy filofaxes over the decades.
As they passed down through generations different owners recorded Shakespeare and Milton poetry, laundry lists and in one case the contents of their fish pond.
The rich and sometimes bizarre variety of information means the books provide an insight into relatively undocumented sections of the population, such as women.
Now Cambridge University academics have opened the archive up to the public by putting 20 pages of the unique documents online.
In many cases the originals, which come from libraries, universities and country homes in different parts of England, are too fragile to be read by hand.
The digitisation aims to make their contents freely accessible to people anywhere in the world, while also preserving them for future generations.
Dr Richard Beadle, a reader in English and leader of the Scriptorium Project, said he was delighted the historical documents had been preserved.
He said: ”Miscellanies of this sort have not always received the treatment or attention that they deserve.
”But as Scriptorium shows, they in fact give us a fascinating view of early modern life and open up a whole new side of the period’s literature and culture for people to explore.
”The cost of paper at the time meant that it was quite normal for books to be re-used, but the people who wrote in these miscellanies were also in some sense speaking to posterity.
”By contributing to these collections, they may have felt that they were somehow giving themselves a life that stretched beyond their own.
Dr Beadle said many of the miscellanies were so frail the project team had to develop painstaking techniques to avoid damaging them during photography.
The website also includes an online course in deciphering medieval and early modern handwriting as well as further resources for manuscript studies.
Dr Beadle added: ”The idea is to enable other researchers to decipher their own manuscripts even if they have not encountered early modern handwriting before.
”Hopefully this project will help to open up the literature, history, theology and philosophy of this period to a new generation of students and scholars all over the world.”
The manuscript date from between the 15th and the 18th century and the longest is a 400-page-long, 17th-century alchemical manuscript from King’s College, Cambridge.
The shortest contains just 26 leaves and belonged to Edward VI.
It opens with a dedication from the young King to his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, who was Protector of England during the first part of Edward’s short reign.
The book also contains a series of Biblical passages against idolatry which Edward copied out in his own hand, probably as part of his schooling.
One of the most varied items in the collection is a late 15th-century household record which was probably the property of a family in Southwell, Notts.
Its contributors recorded supposed cures for the plague, legal formulae and, at one stage, a dietary regimen for the week.
Monday’s entry recommends ”gruel, boiled meat for my lord or lady, puddings, or a calf head”.
Dr Andrew Zurcher, a English fellow and lecturer at Queen’s College, described the miscellanies as ”unique”.
He said: ”One of the driving aims of the project was to make this documents publicly accessible. Many are currently in private collections and have never been seen before.
”You could say they’re like latter day filofaxes, although it depends on the individual concerned and their particular purpose in compiling that miscellany book.
”Sometimes there is a clear sense of what should go in from the beginning, for example in the poetry collections.
”But others are compiled in a much more haphazard fashion as things occur in the lives of people who own them.
”Sometimes the pages are just turned around or the notes are written in margins, making it a long process to document what’s in there.
”But even the most trivial entries can reveal something quite fascinating about somebody’s reading habits.”