On the curious manuscript annotations of Christopher Cooke
– 4 October 2008

One of the oddest discoveries I have come across during my time spent looking into past astrological literature lies in the literary legacy of a 19th century English lawyer named Christopher Cooke.

For those who do not know the first thing about Cooke, he was instrumental in representing a legal case fought by prominent 19th century astrologer Richard Morrison, better known by his pen-name Zadkiel, on behalf of astrology and its legitimate practice in England. I forget the precise details of the legal case itself, but I think it would probably be fair to comment that Cooke broke rank with the conventional views of the highly conservative legal profession at large in representing Morrison’s case for years. Cooke himself wrote and published his own defence of astrology, ‘A Plea for Urania’. Later, however, he apparently came to somewhat regret the effects on his career of all his involvement with Morrison, and expressed mixed feelings in his book ‘Curiosities of Occult Literature’, which was substantially a narrative autobiographical / biographical account of his experiences dealing with Morrison.

What is most puzzling is that some years after ‘Curiosities of Occult Literature’ was first published, a substantial number of copies was rebound, or perhaps bound for the first time, interwoven with numerous leaves of paper on which Cooke had added additional manuscript notes and diagrams in his own pen. But they are not mere replicas of each other, or photocopies, every one seemingly different somewhat in its inclusions from the next, though I suspect there are many common elements.

Several examples in this form survive in British libraries alone, as documented on COPAC, the database of the holdings of major British and Irish research libraries (www.copac.ac.uk). I bought another myself a couple of years ago on ebay. A couple of weeks ago, another again sold to another buyer on ebay. And just last night, two further copies up for auction on ebay from the old collection of a noted early 20th century astrologer named Ella Woods, and I purchased these too.

I think it could be an intriguing project to attempt to trawl the world’s libraries that have copies of this book with hand-written manuscript notes by Cooke himself, and attempt to collate and combine together, critical-edition style, his complete reconstituted text from all the annotations. It would be impossible for any such project to be entirely complete, since there must be many copies in private hands, and some that will have perished through loss, accidental disposal, fire, and so on. In the meantime, I’m rather looking forward to comparing and contrasting the three copies that should soon be reunited in my own collection.

What I find most puzzling is that Cooke would have gone to such great labour and time to write out by hand dozens and dozens of pages of manuscript notes for every copy of his own already-printed work he treated thus. He must have had a lot on his conscience, a desire to correct his own records for posterity. I feel sure there was an urgency about his task, but that it was also therapeutic for him in some curious way. Otherwise, what was to stop him producing simply one set of notes and then having it printed exactly the same for inclusion in every copy to which he wanted to add?

The two copies I just bought on ebay contain 75 and 70 pages of his notes respectively. Supposing that the average number of pages in his various copies was 50, and he treated 100 copies in this way, then he must have written out 5000 pages of manuscript notes by hand. That is no small undertaking.

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  1. Hello, Anthony! Thanks for your comment.
    I don’t have the books to hand while the library is in storage, but I recall unique sketches, insertions and anecdotes in each of the three volumes, in addition to some recollections common to each, but not written in exactly the same words. To be more precise I will need to see them again – which will not be before the middle of next year when they are likely to be available for inspection again.

  2. Hello! I’m so pleased you wrote this piece. The special collections that I direct here in Portland, Oregon (John Wilson Special Collections, Multnomah County Library), also has a copy of this, with the annotations (and several drawings). Our copy ends with an index of the 58 or 59 additions. It is fascinating!

  3. Hello, Jim! Thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment here a couple of days ago. I’m glad you find Cooke’s manuscript insertions as interesting as I do. Since posting this article originally nine years ago, I’ve seen two other copies coming up for sale on the used book networks at fixed prices (both far beyond my reach), but no others on eBay. It would appear that the three listings on eBay in a relatively short space of time back in 2006-2008 were a product of chance. However, my estimation based on the combination of recorded library holdings and reasonably frequent second-hand listings remains that a good hundred or so of these annotated copies must have been produced by Cooke in the first place, though it could possibly be as few as 30-50, but in that case, it would appear that a good number of the copies not yet in permanent institutional settings changes hands quite frequently on the used book market.

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