Annotating Hippocrates: who was reading the Coan prenotions?

As a librarian, I’m often asked what I think about people writing in their books. Surely I must be opposed to it? If it’s a library book, I’m very clear that pens and pencils should be kept well away from the pages. However, if it’s a book you own yourself, then please scribble away! Marginal notes from the past are a major source of information about how people used their books and how they thought about the world.

Marginal annotations can be very brief, or remarkably extensive. A book conservator working in the library this month has just drawn a spectacular example to my attention: possibly the most heavily annotated book I’ve yet seen in the RCP library.

Photographs of two openings in a printed book, heavily annotated by hand in the margins.
Typical annotated pages in Hippocratis magni Coacae praenotiones. Published Paris, 1621.


Title page of Hippocratis magni Coacae praenotiones. Published Paris, 1621.

The book in question is the Coacae praenotiones, or Coan prenotions, meaning ‘presentiments or precognitions from Cos’. It’s a collection of statements about prognosis in disease, attributed at the time this copy was printed to Hippocrates, but now believed to have pre-dated the main works attributed to this ancient Greek physician. Each statement is given in Greek and Latin, with lengthy commentary added by the book’s editor, the French physician Louis Duret (1527–1586).

Notes like these are a rich resource, but they aren’t always easy to interpret. Not only is there the issue of changes in handwriting styles, and the quality and clarity of any person’s individual script, it’s no simple task to decipher and untangle what the words say or what the comments really mean.

These annotations in this particular copy are written quite enthusiastically, and not particularly neatly, but the hand is pretty legible. There are notes in English, Latin and Greek, often combining more than one language in a single spot.

Dipping in on almost any page reveals how closely our reader was working through the text: letters and symbols are used to link points in the text with longer comments where space allows. The reader links recommendations in the text to their own personal medical experience, mentioning names and places.

Handwritten annotation at the top of a printed page.


Ω superioris is an excellent place for all those children w[hi]ch I have seene dye; both Harrie Smithes at Chester & Sr Coopers

‘Ω superioris’ denotes the first of two sections on the previous page marked with the Greek letter omega, concerning the details of symptoms affecting the voice and their progress in cases of fever. Our annotator has recognised similar symptoms in two children whose illness and death they witnessed.

Annotations next to printed text.


On the last surviving flyleaf are a number of sums, and three statements of lengths of time: ’45 dayes finisheth’, ‘9 weekes at 4 dayly’, ’68 daies’. Is this our reader calculating how long they think it will, or that it did eventually, take them to work through the whole book?

Numbers and textual notes written haphazardly on a page.


The identity of out annotator is uncertain. On the book’s title page is a small monogram. The letters might be H, A, S and possibly others. It’s not one I recognise, so I haven’t been able to identify the owner. If anyone does recognise it, please do write in. The ink and the handwriting look different to the rest of the annotations, though, so I suspect this is an earlier or later owner and not the main annotator.

Handwritten monogram.


On a flyleaf at the start of the book is a handwritten list of subjects, with the note ‘Mr Kidder of Emanuel’.

An annotated page, with a close-up of the text 'Mr Kidder of Emanuel'.


It’s not obviously an ownership mark, and doesn’t look like a signature: it might be a note of someone else’s name for future reference. However, Mr Kidder of Emmanuel might be traceable.

According to John Venn’s Alumni Cantabrigienses, a Richard Kidder studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge from 1649 to 1653, going on to become a fellow of the College. He later had a distinguished career in the Church of England, ending his career as Bishop of Bath and Wells. He died in bed at the Bishop’s Palace in Wells during a storm on the night of 26 November 1703.

Is Hippocrates likely reading material for a future bishop? It might seem somewhat unlikely, but the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography does note that Kidder initially trained as an apothecary before going up to study at Cambridge, so perhaps he carried on an interest in medicine.

Less surprising is that a bishop would have owned a collection of books: David Pearson’s list of 17th century English book owners notes that Kidder was described as ‘a man of many books’, and that a catalogue of 500 of them survives. I’m yet to check that catalogue, at Wells Cathedral Library, for any Hippocrates.

Letters written by Kidder in 1680 and later survive in a collection of letters in British Library. It’s hard to be certain when comparing possibly youthful book annotations and serious mature episcopal correspondence, but the evidence doesn’t rule out the writing coming from the same man.

All in all, there’s a lot of potential in this book. I’d be delighted if anyone’s looking for a research project and wants to come and investigate it in more detail.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

Rare books from the RCP library are available for research by appointment. The collection is catalogued online. Please contact the library to make to make an appointment or if you have any enquiries.

Katie Birkwood ,
Rare books and special collections librarian

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