Urinarium (Colores urinarum) – database by Jessica Louise Reeves

About the edition

My project is on a single uroscopy tract, attributed to a William Bokynham, and dated in the late fifteenth-century due to the typical Anglicana script the scribe used. This is a common kind of text: the popularity of uroscopy texts highlight the fact that urine in the premodern period was in fact a useful substance, and not as taboo as it is today. Most importantly here, it was often the first port of call for physicians as a diagnostic tool. Essentially, then, urine’s transverse nature—that is, the way that it passes from the hidden inside of the body into the outside world, acting as material proof that one can learn to ‘read’, as such—is its advantage in this period, as opposed to what is later abjected in later centuries.

Generally, these were short tracts, set out in a user-friendly, quasi-bullet-pointed list, indicated here by the alternating rubrics that begin each new descriptive entry. Each entry is centred on the most immediate, visible symptom of the urine sample: the colour. They follow the repetitive syntactical pattern of ‘Urine as [colour] [optional comparative] [resulting diagnosis]’. To me, these factors suggest that certainly this was a working text, intended as notes (hence the frequent abbreviations) to be referred to when needed. The reference to medical equipment and the mix of Latin medical terms implies a high education, but the vernacular, non-specialist references reach almost the semantics of everyday conversation; the two are not necessarily in opposition, though, so my speculation is that this dialect belonged to a training or learning student-physician.

Aim of the Digital Edition

With respect to this, my aims for the digital edition were to extend this original purpose—that is, to make the text as functionally accessible as possible. If one follows the development of uroscopy tracts through to the seventeenth-century, the rise of print allows this list layout to be developed further: now texts adopt an explicit bullet-point style, or an entry-per-page format. The emergence of print allowed this list layout to be developed, so I wanted to see how this could be taken even further digitally. My inspiration came from the colour wheel diagrams present in other uroscopy manuscripts, which conveyed more basic information visually. I therefore combined the detail of Bokynham’s tract with the immediate recognition of the colour symptom to make navigation as efficient as possible. My intended audience would be students as I see this project as an experiment with being creative with the formatting of information, rather than having particularly informative content.

One of the concerns or anxieties about producing a digital edition is interfering too much with the reshaping, reordering, and some might say butchering of the text—which is exactly what I have done. However, my justification for this is due to the nature of uroscopy texts (and other medical texts, too, for that matter): it was unusual for them to contain unique or independent information, each new author commonly borrowing from another without citation; essentially, this cut and paste method was how these manuscripts were originally formed. To take the project further, I would continue to encode the rest of the text, and also extend my list of ‘categories’ that mark up the diagnosis. For example, later in the tract, a divide between male and female diagnosis is present: this is something I could indicate perhaps with a male/female symbol next on the colour scale.

The Edition

Urinarium (Colores urinarum) – database by Jessica Louise Reeves

XAR file (eXist app for developers)