Western Medieval Manuscripts

Images from over 2,500 manuscripts from medieval Europe from the Bodleian and Oxford colleges, with 500 fully digitized items. Including liturgical manuscripts, Welsh, Irish and English poetry, mathematical and scientific texts and illuminated manuscripts.

The Bodleian’s collection of medieval manuscripts originates with the first books that the University of Oxford acquired. Duke Humfrey’s Library once housed many of these, named for Humphrey, duke of Gloucester (1390–1447), who gave 281 books to the university at his death. This library lost funding in the late 15th century, and reformers destroyed most of its collection in the 16th century.

Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) re-established the university library in 1598, which opened in 1602. He was personally involved in this effort as well as funding it. His programme encouraged and credited benefaction to the library, bringing in more manuscripts from around the world than the medieval university itself possessed.

Bodley’s re-foundation took place less than a century after the dissolution of the monasteries in Great Britain, and the library acquired many manuscripts from their libraries. The monastic books that entered the library in its first century include treasures such as the only major illustrated source for Old English poetry: the ‘Cædmon manuscript’ (MS. Junius 11), given by the Dutch philologist Franciscus Junius (1591–1677).

Most of the Bodleian’s medieval manuscripts have shelfmarks named after their donors, most prominently William Laud (1573–1645), archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of the University of Oxford; Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–65), a natural philosopher and courtier; Thomas Barlow (1608/9–91), bishop of Lincoln; Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), the antiquary who founded the Ashmolean Museum, whose manuscripts were later transferred to the Bodleian; Anthony Wood (1632–95), an Oxford antiquary; Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755); and Francis Douce (1757–1834), a London antiquary. The 19th and early twentieth centuries brought unusual opportunities for acquisitions, most notably of the books belonging to Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727–1806), a Venetian Jesuit. The Canonici collection’s size makes Italian manuscripts second in number only to English books in the Bodleian’s collection. The priorities and interests of such collectors have determined the manuscripts surviving in the Bodleian as much as their medieval creators.

Digital Bodleian includes both photography of complete manuscripts and selected images from 35mm film. For this reason, some books appear more than once, with photographs taken at different times. For example, the Laudian Acts, a sixth-century copy of the Acts of the Apostles in both Latin and Greek, appears both in full (MS. Laud. Gr. 35) and in four film photographs. Full manuscripts have been photographed digitally, beginning with the ‘Early Manuscripts at Oxford University’ project. The photographs from 35 mm film are scanned versions of slides and filmstrips that the Bodleian published between the late 1970s and early 2000s. These images focus on illuminated or otherwise decorated manuscripts, produced either for a particular manuscript or around a theme.

Oxford colleges hold their own substantial collections of medieval manuscripts, and many of these have also been made available in Digital Bodleian by the colleges.

Digitized highlights include MS. Ashmole 1511, “the Ashmole bestiary”; MS. Junius 1, “the Orrmulum”, a 12th century book of verse written in phonetic Middle English, and Exeter College’s MS 47, a psalter owned by both Elizabeth of York and Katherine of Aragon.

Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries catalogues Western medieval books in the Bodleian and Oxford colleges, encompassing earlier printed catalogues.