The Library's special collections are housed in the Old Library and can be consulted in the Rare Books Reading Room. For further information on the collections and arrangements for viewing them please contact the Special Collections on 01223 339393.
M. R. James's Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of St John's College, Cambridge was published by the University Press in 1913. It was one of the last volumes in James's great series of catalogues covering the principal manuscript collections in College Libraries within the University. While many of the College's medieval manuscripts have been closely scrutinised by scholars since James's day, his immensely scholarly, informed, systematic and at times decidedly opinionated survey remains an indispensable source of information on the principal early manuscripts held in the Library. James's descriptions of these medieval manuscripts, 1-272 in his catalogue, are presented here in their entirety. Each description is supplemented by a summary of subsequent research as this has been recorded over time in an annotated copy of the Catalogue held in the Library's Rare Books Reading Room. The Special Collections Librarian welcomes further information on research into these manuscripts. Subject to restrictions imposed by their current physical condition, the College manuscripts may be consulted by appointment during the Library's opening hours.
In completing his catalogue, James built on and acknowledged the work of many predecessors, notably the Revd B. Morgan Cowie, Fellow of the College and subsequently Dean of Exeter, whose own descriptions of the College's manuscripts were published by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society in 1843. James's debt to Cowie, and others, is particularly obvious in his Appendix where he very briefly describes manuscripts of the sixteenth century and later. While conscientiously working through these altogether less congenial volumes James dismissed them as 'for the most part of very slight importance'. That is certainly unfair. Amongst the inconsequential there are many items of great significance, for example the early manuscript of Sir Philip Sidney's Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (MS I.7), and the autograph of Thomas Sackville's Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham (MS L.7). These later manuscripts have now been recatalogued separately, and full descriptions also appear on this website.
The College is greatly indebted to Mr N. J. R. James and Cambridge University Press for their permission to publish James's work in this new form.
The Library's collections include fifty oriental manuscripts in Arabic, Ethiopic, Hebrew, Panjabi, Persian, Syriac, Tamil, Turkish and Urdu, as well as over 100 fragments of Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic and Greek papyri. The following descriptions of our oriental manuscripts are for the most part based upon those in the Library's annotated copies of Edward G. Browne's A supplementary hand-list of the Muhammadan manuscripts including all those written in the Arabic character preserved in the libraries of the University and Colleges of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1922), pp. 315-19, and Morgan Cowie's A descriptive catalogue of the manuscripts and scarce books in the library of St John's College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1842), pp. 99-101, 106, 137. For descriptions of our papyrus fragments the Library is indebted to Dr Sarah Clackson, Dr Stephen Quirke, and Holger Kockelmann.