When heading to London for two weeks of research, I wanted to make sure that I was using my time efficiently. Wading through hundreds of manuscripts without a plan sounds delightful, but with only two weeks of work time, I needed to be strategic about my reading list.
I planned to compile a starter list, but leave open enough time and space in the plan for some archival meandering. If I want to spend longer on a manuscript or need to replace a few unproductive ones with something I find out about while working, I don’t want to be so committed to a checklist that I miss what the archive itself wants to present. But facing such a large archive, where do you begin? Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful (or have learned from more experienced researchers).
- Look at others’ bibliographies. Working in a small but growing field means that I was able to see what manuscripts other scholars had cited. Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought was particularly helpful (it’s a comprehensive look at manuscript recipes in British and American libraries), as were Sara Pennell’s articles and Deborah Harkness’s The Jewel House. And they provided call numbers!
- Email the curators directly. I provided curators at both the Wellcome and British libraries with a brief outline of my project and asked for their advice. The Wellcome curator pointed me to some featured recipe manuscripts, and a curator at the British Library turned up some really interesting stuff that may be useful to other parts of my project (that he didn’t know about–are curators clairvoyant?). For example: a 1652 letter describing an autopsy, a plague cure from the Marshalsea Court records, and a medical handbook by Thomas Lodge (which may turn out to be the same guy who wrote Rosalynde, which Shakespeare used as a source for As You Like It. Further investigation required.)
- See what the libraries are featuring. The curator at the Wellcome pointed me to their online portal to manuscript recipe books, and browsing the collection highlights led me to a few anonymous manuscripts I hadn’t known about–one including a number of drawings on the flyleaf.
- Search call numbers around a known MS number. Both the libraries I’m headed to have huge chunks of manuscript recipe acquisitions, catalogued all together. The call numbers I’ve taken from Wall, Pennell, and Harkness’s bibliographies sometimes include strings of numbers: for example, British Library MSS 45196, 45197, and 45199 are on my list, and most of them are from the same family. It will be pretty easy to request 45198, 45200, and the rest of the 45190 series–perhaps they’re related, or perhaps not. Either way, it’s a way to stumble into new manuscripts.
- Search by year. This is by far the cleverest suggestion from my advisor, and one that I hope will allow me to read a lot of items not on my list. Instead of targeting individual manuscripts, asking for everything from, say, 1654 will probably pull up manuscripts I didn’t know exist. I’m debating whether to pick years tied to big literary events–for example, do recipe collections after Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies look any different?
- Name searches, chronologies. Robert Boyle (chemist and experimental scientist) and his sister, Lady Ranelagh, wrote quite a bit on household matters. Those manuscripts appear in both the British and the Wellcome Library, and doing a name search allowed me to pair them up. Many of the collections are individual pieces, and tracking women’s names is difficult because they changed so often, but it’s worth a shot (and will usually work better for elite writers). Searching by name also works against the misconception that these women didn’t write much–it might just be that we haven’t looked in the right places!
- Ask curators for search terms. Nobody knows the quirks of the collections better than the curators, and they’ll know the weird paths to access manuscripts. I’m planning to do a bit of legwork myself before going to the curators, as I want to demonstrate that I know how to search, but want to cover all my bases.
- Ask for recommendations. My advisor’s interested in the notebooks of Sir Hugh Plat (of science and Delightes for Ladies fame), and suggested I might find interesting tidbits in them as well.
- Be open to serendipity. Although I know Margaret Cavendish’s household recipe book would be the centerpiece of my dissertation, it doesn’t exist (I live in hope). I’ve constructed my project so that it doesn’t depend on a single text or fixed set of texts, but rather a wide variety of manuscripts and recipe books. This way, I can read with a plan but still be open to the random text or two that the curators suggest or I find through searching. On the other hand, I’m not so committed to my list of manuscripts that I can’t follow my nose if something seems interesting.