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Medieval Manuscripts: Getting Started

The study of medieval manuscripts and early book culture is massive and specialized. The increasing sophistication, however, of digital technologies is making it easier to learn about manuscripts and examine them in detail.Below, I've gathered useful introductory resources to accompany the readings I assign in manuscript units.

The Basics: Terminology

One of the first hurdles to overcome in learning about into medieval manuscripts is the specialized language you need to talk about them. In addition to any handouts I provide in class, you can also access glossaries at the Medieval Manuscript Manual, another at the Free Library of Phildelphia's website (choose the "Manuscript Basics" tab), and another at the Auchinleck Manuscript website. The British Library offers an extensive illustrated glossary, which I recommend for learning basic and more obscure terms. 

Learning how to read a manuscript description -- the technical synopsis of what a manuscript includes, when/where it was made, how it is constructed, etc -- can also be a challenge. This blog post from Teaching the Codex breaks it down for you: Although there are field standards for manuscript descriptions, every archive interprets them slightly differently, so be patient with yourself when moving from one catalogue to the next.

The Basics: Codicology

Any introduction to medieval manuscripts needs to begin with an understanding of how manuscripts were made. The complex and multistaged production process bears on both how manuscripts were read and consumed, and how they are described and studied today (called "codicology"). Here are some websites and videos that will, er, illuminate this process:

  • The British Library's Medieval Manuscripts blog has a wonderful rough guide to making a manuscript.
  • This BBC2 video walks you through the modern production of parchment, which is effectively the same as the medieval production process.
  • The Getty Museum has provided three videos (cc) (first, on the structure of a manuscript; second, third on the process of making a manuscript) that cover the process from slightly different angles.
  • The British Library has also provided a series of seven videos on the material processes of making a manuscript, from making the quills through gilding.
  • This Stanford online exhibit walks you through the process of making a manuscript.
  • This series of YouTube videos, put together by a contemporary calligrapher who does manuscript reproduction, also walk you through the process of making a manuscript (starting with prepared parchment).

How to Look at a Manuscript

Advanced Studies in Codicology

Those of you fascinated by codicological minutae and the processes through which scholars work with manuscripts' materiality may find the following links and videos of interest:

  • A TEDx video on the kissing -- and resulting destruction -- of medieval religious books (and how to quantify that physical use)
  • Determining the kind of parchment used in a manuscript (video) at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Different kinds of green pigment used in medieval and Renaissance art (including manuscripts) (at the British Library's Collection Care blog)
  • Microscopic analysis of the artistic details and construction of the Lindisfarne Gospels (at the British Library's Collection Care blog)

Putting it Together: Looking at Manuscripts

  • The Getty Museum has an educational website entitled "Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts." Although much of the content is geared toward K-12 students, its two pages "About Illuminated Manuscripts" and "Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts" are also a good starting point for you.
  • This video from the Public Library of Bruges on their Books of Hours (late medieval prayerbooks) offers a good introduction to this genre of book, with useful socio-cultural background.
  • Many of the "pretty" manuscript pages you will see are calendar pages, often taken from prayerbooks. This wonderful Getty video (cc) breaks down the different parts of the calendar page, so you can better understand what you're looking at.
  • Students are sometimes curious about medieval textbooks. This lecture (presented as an essay) by the scholar Malcolm Parkes details the way that university students got their textbooks.
  • You can also play with different elements of page design at the University of Washington's Historical Book Arts Collection sub-page on medieval manuscript production.
  • Go look at some manuscripts! I've collected a bunch of online facsimiles and images on my Digital Facsimiles page; if you work through some of the online exhibitions (bottom of the page), you'll learn even more.

Thinking Digitally

Most of the time at UGA, we're using digital facsimiles of manuscripts for study. While that's beneficial to us (allowing us to view manuscripts from all over the world) and the manuscripts (helping preserve them from wear and tear), it's also important to interrogate the different affordances of digital image vs physical item. Here's a few web links to help you think through that:

Manuscript Study: Advanced Resources

  • Some years ago, Stephen Reimer of the University of Alberta sketched out a website for an online manuscript studies course. Although it has not been updated recently (and I do not expect all its links to still work), the data and bibliography he includes are still very useful. In particular, the "Course Notes" section provides useful (if laconic) definitions and distinctions among the different areas of manuscript studies.
  • The Central European University has created an online Medieval Manuscript Manual that aims to bridge the gap between specialist knowledge of medieval manuscripts and the "interested layperson." It lays out the different contexts of manuscript production, the production process itself, structure/organization of medieval books (which can differ substantially from modern print ones), and the illumination process -- with glossary and copious illustrations.
  • The best print resources are Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, Linda Olson, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. These two books will provide the kind of background, detail, and sophisticated analysis that no website or online tutorial can handle.

The Next Step: Editing

A related area is editing and studying textual variants. For some Middle English texts (like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), we only have one extant manuscript, making the editing process somewhat simpler. For others (like The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman), there are many, many manuscripts -- all bearing witness to different versions of the poem. One good place to get a taste for how to think about, study, and make meaning from these textual variants can be found on Harvard's Geoffrey Chaucer Website; they have a whole section dedicated to textual editing as well as codicology and paleography.

Just For Fun

  • The fact that codices are a technology is easily forgotten (we're so accustomed to bound books), although the advent of digital publication forms is drawing more attention to the codex's unique features. This YouTube video, "Medieval Helpdesk" (trans. in captions), is an amusing reminder of just how new the bound book would have seemed to late classical and very early medieval medieval readers used to scrolls.
  • Billy Collins' poem "Flock" is also worth recalling as you think about the economic cost of a vellum manuscript.
  • Writing with a quill and ink was demanding physical labor, and yes, medieval scribes did complain about their work.