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Cambridge’s Magdalene College digitises manuscripts collected by Samuel Pepys





A collection of handwritten manuscript fragments collected by Samuel Pepys and donated to Magdalene College in Cambridge has been digitised.

Pepys, the famous diarist, was fascinated by the development of handwriting and acquired writing samples that dated from the eighth century up to the 15th century.

He bequeathed them in 1703, along with his large collection of books, to the college where he had previously studied and these manuscript fragments can now be seen at the Fragmentarium Digital Laboratory.

Catherine Sutherland at Magdalene College’s Pepys LibraryPicture: Keith Heppell
Catherine Sutherland at Magdalene College’s Pepys LibraryPicture: Keith Heppell

Magdalene College librarian Catherine Sutherland said: ” Pepys is most famous for his diary. But he was really interested in the world around him too, so we have books he collected on all sorts of different things: science, geography, history, literature,

“He also had books that were in languages he couldn’t read himself. We have a book in Persian. We’ve got manuscripts in Cyrillic. So although he couldn’t read these languages, I think he was interested in the handwriting. And I think part of that might be because he wrote his diary in a shorthand. He used different types of handwriting himself, so that was probably why he was interested in other types as well.”

In 1700, Pepys collected the manuscript fragments and arranged them into his ‘Calligraphical’ albums, with added written commentary by his friend Humfrey Wanley, who was an expert on the development of handwriting.

The albums look like scrapbooks and are arranged in chronological order to show how handwriting changed over time.

Catherine adds: “They fragments are mostly religious texts and there’s also more literature and legal documents.

Catherine Sutherland Special collections librarian at Magdalene College Pepys Library with the collection of calligraphy which has been digitised. Picture: Keith Heppell
Catherine Sutherland Special collections librarian at Magdalene College Pepys Library with the collection of calligraphy which has been digitised. Picture: Keith Heppell

“There are also early printed examples in the collection. And we were able to identify some of the printed samples with the books that they had come from, for the first time. So when we were going through and describing each of the fragments on the database that there are now we were able to say which books that they had come from originally.”

She explains that “there was an appetite for collecting and studying fragments amongst 17th century connoisseurs” and that it is believed the manuscript fragments had been bought through Pepys’s bookseller, John Bagford.

Catherine Sutherland Special collections librarian at Magdalene College Pepys Library with the collection of calligraphy which has been digitised. Picture: Keith Heppell
Catherine Sutherland Special collections librarian at Magdalene College Pepys Library with the collection of calligraphy which has been digitised. Picture: Keith Heppell

Samuel Pepys, who was a naval administrator, is most famous for the detailed private diary he kept from 1660 to 1669, which was first published in the 19th century, and covers the English Restoration period including personal accounts of events such as the Great plague of London and the great Fire of London, as well as the Second Dutch War.

He served as a member of parliament and rose to be the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under King Charles II and King James II.

The digitised manuscript fragments will now be available to scholars all over the world.



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