Early Manuscripts at Oxford University (originally the Celtic Manuscripts Project) was among the first experiments in digitizing medieval manuscripts at the Bodleian. It was a collaboration between the Bodleian Library, Balliol College, Corpus Christi College, Jesus College, Magdalen College, Merton College, and St John’s College. Beginning in 1995, the project photographed almost ninety manuscripts written between the ninth and nineteenth centuries. It focused on major treasures from Oxford libraries to create wider availability for originals which are often too fragile to handle. Originally available on a separate website, the photographs are now part of Digital Bodleian.
This collection includes many of the oldest manuscripts in Oxford libraries, such as the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict, written around 700 (MS. Hatton 48); St Dunstan’s Classbook, designed for teaching in the tenth century (MS. Auct. F. 4. 32); and the oldest copy of The Song of Roland, from the early twelfth century (MS. Digby 23b). It also includes some later manuscripts, such as a five-volume set of Fons memorabilium uniuersi, a humanist encyclopedia from the fifteenth century (Balliol College MSS. 238A, 238B, 238C, 238D, 238E).
The earliest efforts at digitizing manuscripts focused primarily on illustration, often produced through scanning slides or microfilm. The Early Manuscripts at Oxford project was a pioneer in photographing manuscripts directly and in their entirety to produce results of the highest quality possible at the end of the twentieth century. Although the Bodleian’s studio can now produce even more detailed and accurate photographs, the images are serviceable for most scholarly purposes and remain a valuable historical record.