Old School Information Technology

Course Name

Old School Information Technology: Medieval English Manuscripts as Networks for Practical Science




Course date

semester 1 (2014 - 2015)

Registration open until

- 15/08/2014



Prof. Rolf Bremmer (Universiteit Leiden) and dr. Laszlo Sandor Chardonnens (Radboud University, Nijmegen)

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Course objectives

This course builds on experience acquired as part of a BA curriculum in Middle English language, literature and culture. The students will extend their skills and insights into philology, including paleography, and learn to apply them to a variety of texts in the genre of practical sciences, both edited and in manuscript. At the end of the course, the students will be able to carry out empirical work by means of manuscript facsimiles, electronic corpora, they have developed skills to read and interpret relevant literature independently, and to present their research results in the form of an edition with commentary of a hitherto unpublished Middle English text on practical science. Following the completion of the course, students will be well equipped to write their MA thesis on a topic in Middle English philology.

Course content

With only about one percent of all texts on medieval English practical science available in edited form today, it would seem that the mechanical and magical arts existed in the margins of English written culture. Yet if we compare the output of medieval scholars, scientists, physicians and astrologers to that of the major poets of late medieval England, the major poets turn out to be minor writers. Such is the bias towards literature, however, that we have had access to printed editions of Chaucer’s works already since the fifteenth century, whereas The Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy, a highly influential work on astrology from fourteenth-century England, was only accessible through consultation of its 34 manuscript witnesses before the first edition appeared in 2013. This course focuses on the vernacular written sources that represent practical science in late medieval England. Using Manzalaoui’s paradigm of medieval sciences, these writings fall into the following categories: (1) “experimentally sound” and “technologically, or, at least, empirically, useful” practices, (2) “pseudo-sciences,” which are “self-consistent logical systems based upon a single false axiom,” and “not substantiated by experimental fact,” and (3) practices “in which the theoretical basis is occult, and the teaching deliberately kept esoteric.”

Through a series of momentous historical events from Early Modernity onwards, all but the empirical practices have been relegated to the realm of quackery. The Protestant Reformation, humanism, and social, technological and scientific developments have been instrumental in undermining the rationale of earlier systematic attempts to come to grips with daily reality by our ancestors, who were faced with concerns about life and death, health and illness, profit and loss, happiness and sadness, security and danger, fortune and misfortune. But if we, as modern human beings who seem to have preserved the empirical side of practical science exclusively, ask ourselves to what extent we are in control of the many aspects of our own lives, we have to admit that empirical science covers only minor parts of our existence. We put an almost religious faith in education, technology, chemistry and medicine, even though the questions that occupy our thoughts are the same that worried our ancestors; so why not investigate their coherent and sophisticated systems of practical science to see how they coped with life, the universe and everything?

Ranging from medicine, botany, arithmetic and navigation to astrology, magic, hemerology and divination, practical science is evidenced in many hundreds of late medieval English manuscripts. In this course, we go in search of this knowledge to see how medieval people came to terms with life’s challenges. The sources we will work with are hitherto unpublished vernacular texts from manuscripts of the late medieval period. If manuscripts are regarded as material repositories in which knowledge is situated for specific (groups of) users, then we can trace this knowledge from one context of use to the next by studying similar texts that survive in several manuscript copies. Course participants will familiarise themselves with medieval and modern models of practical science, with late medieval English manuscript studies, and with modern editorial techniques, so they can report on their findings in a scholarly edition that contributes to the growing body of scholarship on medieval English texts of practical science.


Weekly group participation and one class presentation (30%) and an edition of a Middle English text (70%, equivalent to a final paper of ca. 5,000 words)


Course meetings

Every Friday



Background Literature and Course Materials

Vincent McCarren and Douglas Moffat, Eds., A Guide to Editing Middle English (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1998; pb. Reprint May 2014.

For the language: R. D. Fulk, An Introduction to Middle English: Grammar and Texts (Peterborough, ONT: 2012)

Recommended, but not obligatory: A. Derolez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: CUP, 2003) pb.




€ 120 (max)



Further information

Total course load for the course: 280 hours.

  • Lectures and seminars: 39 hours
  • Excursion: 4 hours
  • Weekly reading of external sources: 70 hours
  • Weekly preparation of primary text: 90 hours
  • Preparation for class presentation: 9 hours
  • Final paper: 68 hours