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Middle Pages

An extremely helpful guide to finding medieval manuscripts in the digital commons

But first, a short essay on parchment

I was asked to point you to some wonderful online resources for medieval resources. And I will. But first I would like to make a few gentle points about the scanning of very old manuscripts. Here is a bird (specifically a crane) on some parchment, scanned by the British Library.

A crane, and a ruler. Via the British Library

Parchment is astonishingly durable. It’s made of animal skin, scraped and stretched:

How parchment is made – Domesday – BBC Two

SUBSCRIBE for more BBC highlights: WATCH full programmes on BBC iPlayer More about this programme: Wim Visscher shows Dr Stephen Baxter how to make parchment from animal skins.

It’s so animal-ish, in fact, that some of the manuscripts I’ve looked at (deep in library basements, up winding cathedral staircases) have holes in them where the animal had some kind of wound, or where the manufacturer pressed too hard with his knife, or both.

This happened so often that the holes sometimes turned into features, as in this lovely example from Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Nat. 1 (9th century):

Image via Erik Kwakkel’s excellent manuscript blog

Aside from built-in flaws like these, these old manuscripts are pretty hard to kill. The Beowulf manuscript is singed around the edges from the fire that destroyed a lot of Robert Cotton’s famous library in 1731. That fire keeps coming up: Pearl, which I wrote about recently for the New Yorker website, also survived it.

Not all of them made it. Many manuscripts were lost in that catastrophe, and others reduced to fragments, as in this book which became a box of scattered bits:

Image via the British Library

But that so many books were merely singed rather than totally smoked is testament to the superior durability of skin over paper. It is ironic, then, that so many medieval manuscripts have been painstakingly digitized for online consultation, while countless paper artefacts each year flake into nothingness because of their high acidity. They call this process “slow fire.” Parchment manuscripts don’t really need preservation: paper does.

On the other hand, manuscripts are unique objects. No two are exactly alike: by definition they are made by hand (manuscript = “manu scriptus,” = Latin for “written by hand”). Before digitization, only a very small number of people had access to them. Medieval manuscripts lived in scholarly or private or monastic collections, and you can’t just waltz into those.

Except that you could waltz, at least if you had a good excuse. I went to Italy once to see the Vercelli book, one of the three surviving codices to contain Old English poetry. You can see a digitized version of the Vercelli book online, now, but back then you couldn’t. I held it in my arms. Somebody took a picture of me, but I’ve lost it. When it was done I gave it back. Someone else was going to need it.

The Vercelli Book

As a freshman in 2007, my manuscript reading group pored over enormous black and white printouts. Now I suppose we’d share iPads. The project of digitization has picked up radically in the past decade, and with it the project of access.

It is in the libraries’ interest to make digital copies of manuscripts available, not least because it means that the library can then reasonably deny you access to the book itself. Their reasoning goes: Why do you need to touch the manuscript, if you can zoom in on it online? This is definitely the case at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF for short) in Paris. Those guys are really hesitant to let you in. Here’s one of their gorgeous digitized manuscripts that are almost impossible to see in person:

Bibliothèque Nationale MS Fr. 2810, Page de Garde.

For the most part, digitization has been a wonderful thing. These scans are much better than old printouts. They exist for lots of reasons—funds could be secured, for example. But they’re not delicate treasures. They’re actually pretty sturdy. The reasons they’re scanned in has less to do with preserving a vanishing past and more to do with preserving cultural priorities. Not that we should look a gift horse, etc.

That said—here are some resources that anybody can see, with touch and smell left to the imagination.

1. The British Library

The British Library has released all its Illuminated Manuscript images for reuse under Public Domain. It’s the most wonderful thing. Search its catalog yourself — I recommend putting near-random words into the search bar — but here are a few of my favorites. I’m not going to give any information about them, just images — try to find them yourself! Treasure hunt.

2. The Bodleian Library

The Bodleian is the library at the University of Oxford, so it’s old. I am especially fond of the map librarian there, Nick Millea. I emailed him a few years ago to ask if he could somehow send me a list of all the medieval maps that they have, and he did, even though it required flicking through a lot of index cards. My favorite manuscript of all is from the Bodleian, it’s called Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 264 and it contains a French and English version of the romance of Alexander the Great:

Alexander planting the pillar marking the farthest extent of his adventures.

Alexander in conversation with Dindimus, “King of the Brahmans.”

3. The Gough Map

The Gough Map is one of the earliest to show Britain in recognizable form. In this incredible project, map historians have put together “an interactive, searchable edition of the Gough Map, together with contextual material, a blog, and information about the project.”

The Gough Map © The Bodleian Library, MS. Gough Gen. Top. 16 (original 115 x 56 cm)

I wrote a little about the Gough Map in context of the Brexit. If you’d like to read.

4. The Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Project

This is a directory, not an archive. From their site:

The DMMapp (Digitized Medieval Manuscripts App) links to more than 500 libraries in the world. Each one of these contains medieval manuscripts that can be browsed for free. The DMMapp is developed by the Sexy Codicology Team; it is part of the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps (DMMmaps) project.

F. 77v of Zwettl, Zisterzienserstift, Cod. 53., found via the DMMap.


5. London, British Library, MS Egerton 3088.

This last item is just a single manuscript. I found it via the British Library’s online catalog, so maybe this technically should come under item (1.) But this particular book is special to me, because I had an illustration of it tattooed on my body.

A lot of medievalists have tattoos, I think, and I can’t really explain why this is the one I chose. The drawing is a kind of map, but not one that people really understand properly. It shows climate zones of earth, but it also seems to represent some kind of unusual dimensionality. An uninterpretable diagram seemed exactly right to keep forever, or at least as long as my skin survives.

“Diagram of the five zones of the earth, with the uninhabitably cold Arctic and Antarctic zones bounding three temperate, habitable, zones.” London, British Library, MS Egerton 3088, f. 23v. (c. 1244). Via British Library

Happy exploring!


Josephine Livingstone is a writer and academic specializing in medieval European culture who lives in New York City. She is very bad at self-promotion but the editor of this publication is forcing her to point out that she has a Ph.D. from NYU and in addition to corporate newslettering has written for places like The New Yorker, The New Republic, and many others, and has a website that points you to more of her work. She is co-coordinating an ongoing online project where people write about each of the 216 web-safe colors. She likes to write for money, and is hireable. Follow her on Twitter.

Story published on Jun 29, 2016.