What are Medieval Manuscripts? And Where are they Found?


Strictly speaking, any hand-written document is a manuscript–the Latin manuscriptus literally means “written” (scriptus) “by hand” (manu). So charters and scrolls, fragments and books are all manuscripts, but it is the last that are most commonly referred to as manuscripts proper. A medieval book (or codex, the Latin word for “tree trunk,” used because early books were made of wooden boards coated with wax) is essentially like a modern book, but instead of producing multiple copies with each exactly the same as the others like publishers today do, a medieval scribe made a unique, hand-written copy of the texts he or his master or his patron wanted copied. He or she (for there were women scribes in the Middle Ages as well) might gather a number of texts not found together anywhere else; combine and even edit them in original ways; and choose a layout and decoration that worked for the materials and the client. He or she would also and inevitably introduce errors, both accidental and deliberate, to the texts copied, which would then require adjustment or correction. So each medieval manuscript is as full of surprises as challenges, and well worth a careful look.

Manuscript Collections

Medieval manuscripts are generally found in major research libraries, though some still reside in their original homes at cathedrals, colleges and even private estates. There are large collections in both England and Europe–the British Library in London, the various Oxford Libraries and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France preserve particularly significant numbers–and some North American libraries have substantial collections as well, like the Henry E. Huntington Library in California and the Newberry Library in Illinois. Although you might be lucky enough to see a few especially important medieval books (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, or the Book of Kells) on display under glass at museums and libraries, for the most part only specialists with the proper training and references, as well as the need to read these precious manuscripts for research or publications are allowed to consult them in person. There are, however, more accessible options for those who don’t share these credentials, beginning with the excellent manuscript resources now available online.

Medieval Manuscripts Online

The internet has, in fact, revolutionized the study of manuscripts (often abbreviated MSS or singular MS). Before the web existed, those unable to visit medieval manuscripts in person had only print facsimiles to fall back on. Many of these are extraordinarily good–Pearsall and Scott’s facsimile of the illustrated Douce 104 manuscript of Piers Plowman, Woodward and Stevens’ facsimile of the lavishly decorated Ellesmere Chaucer, and Bevington’s facsimile of the Macro Plays are excellent examples. Yet they are almost always produced with little or no colour to avoid prohibitive printing expenses, and still these books tend to be very costly and found only in university libraries. See, for instance, the fine collection (listed online) of Facsimiles of Medieval Manuscripts held by the University of North Carolina. When manuscripts are digitized and images made available online, however, colour is the norm, which means that short of turning the pages and smelling the vellum (or calfskin), the viewer can actually experience the book much as someone sitting right in front of it would.

The British Library’s Online Resources

A google search for medieval manuscripts will turn up many possibilities, some more informative and reliable than others, so it’s best as you’re first learning to focus on library and university sites to be sure what you find is accurate. The British Library offers an especially fine range of carefully documented resources for its medieval collection, including a wide selection of separate Images Online, an illustrated Glossary of Manuscript Terms that is immensely helpful for beginners, an ever-growing Manuscripts Catalogue listing details and scholarship for each book, and an additional catalogue of illustrated or Illuminated Manuscripts which includes images to give you a feel for these decorated books. Both catalogues are easily searched via authors’ names, literary works, subjects, keywords and manuscript reference numbers or shelf marks.

A manuscript’s shelf mark is simply its name in the collection, often stemming from its previous history and ownership: the anonymous Gawain poet’s work, for instance, was once in the famous library of Robert Cotton on a bookshelf under the bust of the emperor Nero, so its reference number is MS Cotton Nero A X. Manuscripts with Harley shelf marks, on the other hand, stem from the collection begun by Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, in the early eighteenth century. When the family sold the collection to the nation fifty years later, the British Museum was established. Unfortunately the Harley catalogue is not yet available online, but some of the illustrated Harley manuscripts can be found in the illuminated catalogue, where, for instance, you can look at a few images from MS Harley 7333, the largest surviving medieval anthology of Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing, and many more from MS Harley 2278, the saints’ lives so sumptuously decorated at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds for King Henry VI when he was only twelve years old.

Digital Manuscripts at Oxford University

If you’d like to see what a whole manuscript looks like, a good place to begin is with the Bodleian Library’s digital collection of Early Manuscripts at Oxford University. Here you’ll find high quality images of entire manuscripts preserved in both the Bodleian and the college libraries of Oxford. Choose an English book like Corpus Christi College’s late-fourteenth-century copy of Piers Plowman (MS 201), which opens with a tiny portrait that seems to blend Langland’s plowman with the author himself. Use the “View All” or “Next” buttons at the bottom left to scan the book quickly, click on the image itself to leaf through larger images of the folios, and tap anywhere on a larger image to zoom in for a closer look at that spot.

Folio, by the way, is the term used by manuscript scholars to refer to a single leaf of a book–the page, that is, both front and back, that you can hold between your fingers. The front that you read to the right of the book is called recto (from Latin rectus for “right”) and the back that you read to the left is referred to as verso (from versus meaning “turned”). So folio 1 recto (which you’ll also see as fol.1r and f.1r) is what a modern book would number p.1, and folio 1 verso (also fol.1v or f.1v) would be p.2.

Taking your time to look through a manuscript from board to board (the covers of medieval books were often made of wood) will give you a feel for the book, the layout of its texts, its use of colour and decoration, its makers and owners, and its script or scripts, for many medieval manuscripts were written by more than one scribe, and even one scribe often altered his or her script for different purposes, like main text versus titles or headings. Indeed, with the zoom capabilities and the high resolution images (generally 600 dpi) provided on the Early Manuscripts at Oxford web site, it’s sometimes possible to see detail that would be invisible or virtually indecipherable to the naked eye reading the real thing.

The Auchinleck Manuscript

For a more complete introduction to studying a medieval manuscript, the National Library of Scotland’s web site dedicated to the Auchinleck Manuscript (MS Advocates 19.2.1) is a perfect tool. Likely made with young medieval readers in mind, the Auchinleck Manuscript contains one of the earliest (1327-1340 A.D.) and largest collections of Middle English romances and other literature, and a number of fascinating illustrations as well. The site features not only images of the entire manuscript, but also an exact transcription of its works, folio by folio, so that you can compare the medieval writing of its six scribes to the modern text versions of their work. It includes search tools, a glossary of terms for studying the manuscript, a contents list for scanning the book or finding a particular text, and articles on the importance of the manuscript, its physical makeup, and its history and possible owners. The editors have also provided details on how they approached the project, a bibliography listed by both topics and individual texts, and links to a variety of web sites dedicated to medieval manuscripts and literature.

For those of us trained in manuscript studies long before such internet tools were available, a site like the Auchinleck’s is something of a miracle, placing the manuscript itself and much of what is needed to begin reading and understanding medieval books into the hands of anyone with a computer and internet access. It is a perfect example of modern technology bringing history vividly to life, for each manuscript surviving from the Middle Ages has a tale to tell. With many of these stories now available through the thoughtful use of online resources, medieval books are at last open to the public. Enjoy!