[CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY.] Coded text and verse by Cambridge students.

Manuscript on paper, [England, c.1526-35].


4to, 250 x 185mm. 2 thick paper bifolia, ff. [4], text on all but two sides. Black-brown ink, at least two different secretary hands, couple of doodles or smudges. Tear with loss to blank centre of first fol., first and last fore-edge a trifle dusty and frayed, faint minor marginal waterstaining to outer bifolium.

A most interesting, serendipitous survival – a collections of verse, quotes, doodles and a coded text, produced most probably by university students in Cambridge c.1526-35. On fol.2v is the date 1526, in an early hand. The numerous ms invocations such as ‘In nomine dei’ etc., suggest these notes were written pre-1535, the year when Cambridge University subscribed to the new Reformed regulations.

An early owner, Jhamys Pyckeryge, noted (fol.1r) the price he paid for a book (2s 8d), when these were endleaves. The transaction was witnessed (‘teste’) by Nicholas Pylgrame (Pilgrim), perhaps the same Dutchman (d.1545), with an Anglicized name, who was stationer and bookseller for Garrett Godfrey in 1534, and later inherited his business. We have not traced any James Pickering matriculated at Cambridge pre-1535, though early records are not always complete and names were often recorded only when students took their degree. The book once joined to these endleaves changed hands a few times, other early owners including one from 1526 (and, from the handwriting no later than 1540), a ‘Doctor Neveson’ (perhaps Christopher Nevinson, later Royal Commissioner, B. Civ. L. 1533), who also acquired the book for 2s 8d, and a ‘Master Wally’ [or Wallis].

A 1530s owner jotted down verse on his fellow students: Wallis ‘Master of Arts’, Cay ‘senior fellow of Fys[wick]s [or Fy[swic]ks] hall’, Mason ‘batc [i.e., bachelor] of law’, Waker ‘good fellow’, Ralinson ‘p(?) of [misplaced] Fys[wick]s [or Fy[swic]ks] hostel’, Nicholas (?) Martchall, and James Tottell (related to the printer/publisher?). Founded in 1393, Physwick Hostel – the most plausible name for that abbreviation – was one of several medieval halls in Cambridge, for the external accommodation of students. Physwick was first attached to Gonville Hall and, in 1546, was one of several hostels and halls merged to form Trinity College. ‘Some of the Hostels were especially noted for riots and quarrellings’ (Stokes, p.40). In 1533-7, the Principal (and a fellow) of Physwick was John Caius, MD in 1533 and Fellow at Gonville Hall – probably the ‘Cay’ in the poem.

 Among the notes jotted down by the students are one, dated 1526, on wars between Italy and France and another on the difference between ‘fures’ (thieves) and ‘latrones’ (bandits, robbers). None have been traced to specific works, though the subject is legal or theological. The most interesting (fol.1r) is a curious text (in Pickering’s hand?) in what appears to be an unusual coded technique, halfway between cryptography and shorthand. It is apparently composed of the first syllable of Latin words (e.g., ‘ne spo[n]’ for ‘ne spondes’?), forming meaningful sentences, with occasional repetitions of the same syllable (e.g., ‘ne con co[n] ma cog cog’), which make the text sound meaningless at times. We have not traced the original text. However, some of the abbreviations – e.g., ‘bap’ (baptismus?), ‘ad iud’ (ad iudicium? Ad Iudaeos?), ‘fid’ (fidei?), ‘de’ (deus?), and ‘pac’ (pacem?) – suggest a canon law or religious text. The late 1520s to mid-1530s were a period of turmoil in England, which culminated in the new Reformed regulations approved in 1535.

G.J. Gray, The earliest Cambridge stationers & bookbinders (1904); Alumni Cantabrigienses (1922-54); H.P. Stokes, The Medieval Hostels of the University of Cambridge (1924).
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