Translating a Sixteenth-Century French Manuscript

The letter B in MS 640

The capital letter “B” in a 16th century French manuscript, MS 640.

An antidote against the fumes when working with molten metals: “eat a piece of thin toast with butter, neither antimony nor any other vapors will harm you. Or put half a pig’s bladder in front of your face.” (079v)

Instructions for training a dog: “you need to keep your dog attached; when it does what you command, to win its love, give it a piece of cheese which was held under the armpit.” (085v)

Business advice for apothecaries: “The mortars, therefore, used for grinding are stronger and there is less danger of breaking them if they are of fine copper. And for a private home, they do not ring so much and do not make as much noise as those of metal. It is true that those that are of metal ring louder for apothecaries.” (131r)

In these excerpts from an anonymous c.1580 manuscript, one learns how to protect against heavy metal poisoning, how to make a dog treat personal and particularly fragrant, and that sixteenth- century apothecaries worked noisily to drum up customers!

In June 2014, I was part of a group of fifteen graduate students and scholars of early modern France who worked on translating this manuscript from middle French into modern English. We convened at Columbia University under the direction of historian Dr. Pamela Smith (U.S.) and paleographer Dr. Marc Smith (France). Roughly half of us were native French speakers, and the other half were native English speakers. We hailed from England, the U.S., France, and Canada, and came from a number of disciplinary perspectives, from art history and the history of science to musicology and geography.

IMG_2024 me at paleography wkshop

Discussing the interpretation of a passage.

Our task was to transcribe and translate manuscript, MS 640, from the archives at the national library of France (Bibliothéque Nationale de France, BNF), working from a high resolution digital copy. Our translations will eventually be posted in an open access digital edition online as part of the Making and Knowing project at Columbia University: The manuscript is a collection of recipes, along the lines of medieval books of secrets, in which the author, apparently from Toulouse, has set down instructions for everything from drawing to metal casting to animal husbandry. The author/compiler not only carefully titled each entry, giving detailed directions, but also wrote copious notes in the margins as he tried the different recipes.

After a lecture on the history of writing in France and an introduction to sixteenth-century letter forms, we set out first to decipher the words and sentences, then to transcribe, normalize, and translate each entry into English. For three weeks, we wrestled with barely legible letters, archane spellings, and obscure references. We first transcribed each page into the old French as it was written. We then “normalized” some of the more difficult to read anachronisms such as words that were run together (delaquelle became de laquelle and lespine became l’espine). Most importantly, we made comments throughout the process of the translation into English to make the process of rendering the sixteenth century French into understandable English as transparent as possible.

Our translation, however, was not the end of the project. One of the exciting aspects of this project is that our translations will then be taken into the labs and workshops at Columbia University where students and professors will work with lab technicians/artisan/craftsmen to recreate the processes described. In 2014, translations focused on the metal-working recipes. Next summer, pigment-making will be the focus of translation. Students and scholars interested in participating in the translation process can apply here: Applications are due February 2, 2015 for the June 1-19 workshop.

Pamela Smith and students in the lab

Students with faculty and experts in period production techniques ready to experiment with a recipe for making imitation coral from MS 640.