Guest Edited by Dr David Rundle (MEMS, University of Kent) and Dr Alison Ray (Assistant Archivist, Canterbury Cathedral), with contributions from Dr Andrew Dunning (Bodleian Library’s R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts)
In these sections, you will find suggestions for reading and assistance relating to the wonderful world of handwritten books and documents, both medieval and early modern. There are other relevant resources elsewhere on MEMSLib - in particular, see our pages on the History of the Book, Medieval Manuscript Collections, and Medieval History of Art. If you have ideas of other online materials which would be worth mentioning here, do suggest a resource.
Guest Edited by Dr David Rundle (MEMS, University of Kent) and Dr Alison Ray (Assistant Archivist, Canterbury Cathedral)
By codicology, we signify the study of the whole codex, in all its physical and historical characteristics. The term, however, is a twentieth-century invention and so by convention excludes the pre-existing traditions of scholarship, palaeography and the study of illumination, which are discussed under Palaeography.
There is a technical language to the study of manuscripts with which you may want some help. Here are the best starting points:
Vocabulaire codicologique - the main resource, this is not confined to French terms but also provides their equivalents in Italian, Spanish and occasionally in English. For that language, it can be supplemented by:
British Library’s Glossary of Illuminated Manuscripts - this is based on Michelle Brown’s Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts (London, 1994). Note that the hard-copy version has received a second edition, revised by Elizabeth Teviotdale and Nancy Turner (New Haven CT, 2018) but that does not have an online presence.
Glossary on Littera visigothica site - with a particular focus on palaeographical features, Ainoa Castro has compiled a very useful introductory list of terms, based on (but diverging from) the work of the leading English palaeographer, M. B. Parkes.
See also Binding below for Ligatus.
Materials and Tools
The codicologist realises that the material nature of the book can provide significant evidence for its creation and use. A good start to help you think about this materiality is Teaching Manuscripts: book historian Sara Charles researches manuscripts through recreating production techniques such as making iron gall ink and making parchment, and records her progress and findings through guides, images and videos.
In terms of the surfaces on which text appears, there has been a wide variety from stone (the subject of epigraphy) to wood to tattoos on skin. For medieval manuscripts, the most frequent materials used were:
Parchment — the main support for writing through the Middle Ages was prepared animal skin. How this was — and still is — done is described in this video. The classic written description of the process, by Ronald Reed, The Nature and Making of Parchment (Leeds, 1975) is hard to come by now, but it is summarised online, with a useful bibliography (up to 2003).
Palimpsest — literally 'rubbed smooth again', this is a surface that has been cleaned of its original text and reused; the surface best suited to this practice is parchment, because of its durability. Some famous works have survived solely as the undertext of a palimpsest, like Cicero's De re publica, in the Vatican's MS. Vat. lat. 5757, now fully digitised. For examples of palimpsests and the techniques now used to recover the lost text, see the 2021 exhibition held by Cambridge University Library, Ghost Words.
Papyrus — parchment’s predecessor as the main writing support was plant-based. Its use did continue for some centuries after the introduction of the parchment codex, but it is heyday was among the ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean. The project to study papyri from one Egyptian city, Oxyrhynchus, has a helpful listing of links. See also the introductory article by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Wax tablets — in the ancient world, wax tablets were another popular writing surface. Because they had the advantage that the text could be erased, they continued into the Middle Ages but only a few examples survive, including a set with the earliest surviving Latin script from Ireland, the Springmount Bog Tablets.
Paper — a late import into Western culture from China via Islamic culture, it also provides important information for its study through the early introduction of watermarks. Their individuation to paper mills potentially allows scholars to narrow down the localisation and date of a manuscript. Several catalogues of watermarks are available online and are now best accessed through the Austrian Wasserzeichen des Mittelalters site. For paper in medieval England (where,excepting one decade, it was all imported), we now have the monograph by Orietta da Rold: that is not available for free, so see the report of the conference she and Jason Scott-Warren organised.
Le Fil de L'Arar - The Blog du laboratoire Archéologie et Archéométrie have created a glossary of some tools used by scribes and illuminators. (In French)
Under the Covers - The Fitzwilliam Museum conservation team produced this detailed case study of the conservation and rebinding of Fitzwilliam MS 251, demonstrating the step-by-step process of binding a medieval manuscript with close-up images.
Medieval Bindings, British Library -This article on the British Library's Medieval England and France, 700-1200 website by Charlotte Denoël (BnF) outlines the range of manuscript bindings and their materials, from leather monastic bindings to luxury treasure bindings.
British Library Database of Bookbindings - Medieval manuscripts rarely retain their original bindings, having been commonly rebound by later owners. This British Library database is a useful starting point to study later bindings from the 16th century onwards.
British Armorial Bindings - For those interested in provenance research, this database produced by The Bibliographical Society of London and the University of Toronto Library is a catalogue of the coats of arms, crests, and other heraldic devices that have been stamped by British owners on the outer covers of their books, together with the bibliographical sources of the stamps. The bindings are early modern, but the books they cover are sometimes medieval.
ABC for Book Collectors - Regularly updated as a current guide for book trade practitioners and researchers, John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors alphabetically defines technical terminology, book formatting, and book trade practices. Primarily covering the rare and printed book trade, this ABC is helpful also for manuscript studies.
RBMS Binding Terms - Similar to Ligatus, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association have developed a useful thesaurus for cataloguers to describe binding features. This is a helpful resource for both printed books and manuscripts.
Though, for Britain, the Cambridge History of Libraries is the first recourse, there are some classic discussions which remain important and are freely available online:
J. W. Clark, The Care of Books (Cambridge, 1901) - an impressively broad overview of the physical development of western libraries.
B. H. Streeter, The Chained Library (London, 1931) - as its name suggests, more limited in its scope but highly relevant, given MEMSLib's slogan.
W. Blades, Enemies of Books (London, 1880) – not confined to discussions of libraries, but a useful introduction to thinking about the ways books are destroyed. The 1896 edition is enlivened with illustrations.
In addition, scholarly resources are available online:
Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (known as MLGB3) - this is the digital version of the hard-copy work of the same name (which was edited by Neil Ker and supplemented by A. G. Watson). It catalogues surviving manuscripts from medieval institutional libraries but also has a section of the medieval catalogues, based on the ongoing Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues project.
There has recently been heightened interest in the 'unwhole codex', that is their partial survival as fragments, a sub-discipline sometimes inelegantly called 'fragmentology'. Here are a few examples:
Fragmentarium - the leading international site cataloguing fragments, based in Switzerland.
Lost Manuscripts - a more modest project, working with fragments in the British Isles. This is run by MEMS.
Virtual Manuscripts - a project concentrating on the interesting history of fragments in Norway.
For updates on some fragment projects, see Lisa Fagin Davis's blog, as listed below.
Letterlocking - Unlocking History is a collaborative project hosted through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The project explores the materials, tools, and techniques of writing, and offers videos, images, and a dictionary of letterlocking on their website. The project also owns a Youtube channel featuring videos showing a diversity of letterlocking techniques.
Scriptorium - the leading periodical for codicology and palaeography, published twice yearly. It sits behind a paywall, but back issues, excluding the last five years, are available on the Persée site.
Manuscript Studies - a new entrant, recently established by the Schoenberg Institute at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
The Library - the publication of the Bibliographical Society of London, its remit is much wider than just manuscripts. It is viewable by subscription, with back issues are on JSTOR.
Gazette du livre médiéval - a French-language journal, freely available online.
Fragmentology - the recently founded Open Access journal of Fragmentarium (see above).
Littera visigothica - more specifically palaeographical, this site, the work of Ainoa Castro, focusses on the script of the Iberian peninsula which preceded and lived alongside caroline minuscule.
Manuscript Road Trip - the personal site of Lisa Fagin Davis, who specialises in fragments and in manuscripts now in the States.
Medieval Manuscripts Blog — brought to you by the British Library.
Medieval Manuscripts Blog - this blog is run by the fantastic curatorial team of the British Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern section and showcases items in their collections, including medieval and early modern records, manuscript art, examples of scribal practices and literary texts. Keep an eye out for newly digitised records!
Guest edited by Dr Alison Ray (Assistant Archivist, Canterbury Cathedral) and Dr David Rundle (MEMS, University of Kent), with contributions from Dr Andrew Dunning (Bodleian Library’s R.W. Hunt Curator of Medieval Manuscripts)
The term 'Latin palaeography' conventionally covers all scripts that employ the Roman alphabet, so it covers western European vernaculars as well as western Christendom's lingua franca.
Classics of Palaeography
Organised by ascending date of publication
Jean Mabillon, De re diplomatica (Paris, 1681): though the subject of this volume is diplomatic (the study of official documentary forms, e.g., diplomas) in general, and though the term 'palaeography' had not been invented when this was written, it is considered the foundational text of the discipline.
Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Latin and Greek Palaeography (Oxford, 1912): it remains unsurpassed in the English language in its range. His earlier and shorter Handbook (London, 1893) is also available online.
Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, English Court Hand A.D. 1066 to 1500 (Oxford, 1915): as its name warns you, confined in its scope and, online, only volume I (the text) is available, without the all-important volume II (the plates). MEMS community: David Rundle has a copy of the second volume in his office.
B. L. Ullman, Ancient Writing and its Influence (New York, 1932): provides a grand sweep, up to the Renaissance (Ullman later published The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script, Rome, 1960) and beyond.
For other palaeography books available online, see the UPenn listing but note that for many there is only limited search availability.
Script and Dating Manuscripts
'Introduction to Dating Documents', University of Nottingham - this fantastic website created by Nottingham's Manuscripts and Special Collections team provides listings of regnal years, religious feasts, calendars, legal terms, and other materials used to date records. The site also features a guide to Latin numbers, words and phrases commonly found in medieval documents.
Latin Palaeography, The National Archives - in this tutorial The National Archives provides examples with images of scripts from documents written in Latin from their collections dating from 1086 to 1500, useful for anyone looking at records produced in England. They also produce one for 'reading old handwriting' for the period 1500 to 1800.
The following online sources provide clear guidance on dating and localising manuscripts and records, as well as offering tools for deciphering texts:
Abbreviationes - an online database currently comprises over 70,000 entries of abbreviated medieval Latin words. (not open-access but can be accessed through many Unviersity libraries)
Ad fontes - An Introduction to Working with Sources in the Archive created by the University of Zurich. There are many tutorials and resource pages, as well as exercises to test your transcription skills.
Adriano Cappelli, Lexicon Abbreviaturarum (1912) - The Lexicon abbreviaturarum or Dictionary of Latin is a specialised dictionary of palaeographic abbreviations, and abbreviations and acronyms used in medieval texts. A full scan of the work can be found on Archive.org.
Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario di Abbreviature Latine (1921) - a guide to Latin abbreviations with an introduction in Italian. A full scan can be found on Archive.org.
Album interactif de paléographie médiévale - with pages also available to use in English, this interactive album of medieval palaeography features a wide range of scripts from the 9th to the 15th century in Latin, French, Italian, Arabic and Occitan scripts with transcription exercises.
BHLms - Université catholique de Louvain’s Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Manuscripta comprises of a searchable database where you can find hagiographic texts of saints.
Clavis Clavium - Clavis clavium is an integrated reference database and collaborative update platform to open up Patristic, Medieval and Byzantine texts. The aim of the project is to unite the leading claves into one database. This is an ongoing effort to update and extend the knowledge of texts, authors and saints.
DigiPal - a useful resource developed at King's College London for those interested in early medieval English records, this database holds handwriting samples from manuscripts and charters dating between 1000-1100. The site includes identifications of scribal hands and individual letter forms.
Early Modern Hands - a database intended to help identify hands, making them searchable by criteria like the writer's name, gender, age, social status, profession, and location.
Enigma: Unpuzzling difficult Latin readings in medieval manuscripts - Enigma helps scholars to decipher Latin words which are difficult to read in medieval manuscripts. The Bodleian Library’s Dr Andrew Dunning has created an introduction video to Enigma (see here).
English Handwriting Online 1500-1700 - for early modernists concentrating on England, this Cambridge online tutorial is an excellent starting point.
HMML Paleography School - produced by Hill Museum and Manuscripts Library, this provides helpful tutorials for scripts from Roman capitals to humanist cursive.
Irish Script on Screen - this project of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is a valuable database of digitised images of medieval and early modern Irish language manuscripts held in institutions in Ireland, the UK, Australia, and Belgium. The site provides useful provenance information on the manuscript collections and provides detailed catalogue records for researchers.
Late Medieval English Scribes - this AHRC-funded project based at York, Oxford and Sheffield Universities features images of the scribal hands of manuscript works by William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Trevisa and Thomas Hoccleve, prominent late 14th and early 15th century authors in England. The site also provides a helpful guide to letter forms from the period.
Manuscripts and the Medieval World in the Museum Today - we should never lose sight of the ways in which non-white identities and global connexions are expressed in medieval western manuscripts. An on-going set of exhibitions at the Getty Museum helps us do that.
Mirabile - A digital resource for Medieval Culture, which comprises of many parts including information about 117.014 manuscripts: ca. 97,000 related to research projects; Medioevo latino: a general bibliography of European culture from Boethius to Erasmus; Bibliotheca Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Recentiorisque Aevi: featuring bio-bibliographical and onomastic cards of authors writing in Latin (or translated into Latin) until 1536; and more!
Models of Authority - a collaborative project between the Universities of Glasgow, Cambridge and King's College London, Models of Authority is a great resource for the study of Scottish charters, their contents and script from the period 1100-1250.
Penna Volans - A website and project dedicated to calligraphy, which groups together over 300 European copybooks and writing manuals from the sixteenth century onwards.
PHI Latin - This website contains essentially all Latin literary texts written before A.D. 200, as well as some texts selected from later antiquity.
Repertorium Biblicum Medii Aevi - The Repertorium Biblicum Medii Aevi, which was published in eleven volumes from 1950 to 1980 by Friedrich Stegmüller and Klaus Reinhardt, lists all biblical commentaries as well as writings that indirectly comment on the Bible up to the year 1500. This website has produced an electronic edition of the Repertorium Biblicum.
Script Primer - this very handy guide produced by Marc Smith and Laura Light for Les Enluminures discusses the development and forms of script in local areas throughout the Middle Ages using manuscript examples and images. It also contains a bibliography of printed sources and websites to learn more. The guide is in PDF format so worth printing out or saving to an eReader!
Manuscript Art and Production
The following resources highlight methods of manuscript production and the relationship between decoration and text:
Medieval England and France, 700-1200 - this curated website explores manuscript production, art, and historical context as part of a collaborative digitisation project, The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. The website features articles, manuscript images as well as a series of videos including the stages of making a medieval manuscript by calligrapher Patricia Lovett and scribes in England after the Norman Conquest by Prof. Julia Crick (King's College London).
Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library - this online gallery of digital manuscript images allows users to search by keyword, including image description, place of origin, text author and script. The site also contains a useful glossary of terms and virtual exhibitions with introductions to illuminated manuscripts, Bible and liturgical manuscripts, and secular texts including Arthurian and historical works.
Discovering Sacred Texts - the British Library's Sacred Texts website explores the religious works of some of the world's faiths, from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and the Baha’i Faith, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. With growing research into the Global Middle Ages, this site provides a fascinating insight into manuscript production, use and reader practices from across the world through articles, digitised materials, videos, and teaching resources for schools. Sacred Texts is complemented by the British Library's digitised collection of Hebrew manuscripts.
Manuscripts, The J. Paul Getty Museum - the website of the Getty's Department of Manuscripts is a useful resource featuring virtual exhibitions hosted by Google Arts and Culture of the illuminated manuscripts held in the collections, and videos on the production of manuscripts and topics including the science of colour and the medieval calendar.
The Book of Hours, Metropolitan Museum of Art - the website of The Met includes a number of art historical essays on the collections, highlighting the relationship between manuscript decoration and other medieval and Renaissance art forms. This article on the Book of Hours discusses the production, readership, and decoration of a medieval bestseller with images of the collections and further reading.
Illuminated - Manuscripts in the Making - the Fitzwilliam Museum presents an online exhibition of medieval manuscripts in their collections, accompanied by details of their historical context, texts and decoration and provides a helpful overview of artists' materials and techniques.
One particular form of manuscript production in some university settings, particularly those of Bologna and Paris, was the 'pecia' system: this was a process of hiring out exemplars by the part (thus 'pecia' for 'piece') for copying. It was a system which developed in the thirteenth century. Jean-Luc Deuffic provides a useful short article and up-to-date bibliography on the Bibliologie Médiévale website. The most recent work on the pecia system during its heyday in Paris is the PhD dissertation by Alison Ray.
This section does not aim to list all the available online catalogues of libraries' manuscript collections. It is worth remembering that they are often incomplete and that they need to be supplemented by hard-copy catalogues for those collections not listed online. There are some adds for that:
Paul Oskar Kristeller’s Latin Manuscript Books before 1600, as revised by Sigrid Krämer - this is a catalogue of catalogues, listing printed catalogues for all libraries, but it only covers those manuscripts in the Latin language.
Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts - it began life listing manuscripts which had appeared at auction but is now developing to include as many catalogue records as possible.
The traditions of what shelfmarks libraries give to manuscripts is a topic in itself. Over its life, a manuscript is likely to have been known by several designations and (if it has become famous among certain groups of scholars) it may have a sobriquet like the Vatican Vergil or the Ellesmere Chaucer. The second decade of our millennium has seen a proposal to add another layer to this history by introducing an international system of unique identifiers. The case for this is discussed by Toby Burrows.
Resource page updated by Fay West - last updated 14/12/2022