Medieval Writing
Where to Find Manuscripts
It is a common belief that medieval manuscripts are rare. They are not. There are hundreds upon thousands of them out there, although many times more have been lost than have been preserved. Being small, portable, and actually quite robust under the right circumstances, they are undoubtedly the most widely dispersed and easily located category of artifact from the medieval era. Many have travelled far from their places of origin through the agency of private collectors.
The trouble is, they are also the most difficult of items to make accessible, and so people tend to not know that they are there. They can be damaged by excessive light, by changes to temperature and humidity, by the sweat from sticky fingers and by rough treatment of their bindings. In a “hands off” situation it is only possible to see one page at a time. To study manuscripts properly, it is necessary to be formally introduced to their keepers.
Monk in carrel The story of the survival of manuscripts is a social history in itself. For centuries the monasteries of Europe curated and enlarged their libraries, only to have them destroyed or dispersed in a sudden social upheaval; a reformation here, a revolution there. Aristocratic collectors or local institutions scrabbled together what they could to form the nuclei for the great accumulating bodies of the 19th and 20th centuries; the huge museum libraries. Places like the British Library in London, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris or the Vatican Library in Rome hold vast repositories of these dispersed and regathered collections.
Many manuscript books floated around the world in the baggage of private collectors, turning up in American libraries or universities, gracious homes on all continents or even public libraries. Art museums have also collected them. Universities have collections great or small. There is an interesting variation in attitude to manuscript books, some being regarded essentially as art works and housed accordingly, while others, less lavishly produced, are valued for their text. This may affect not only where they are to be found, but the attitude to access to the original by scholars. If you want to do a detailed textual analysis involving much handling of the original, it might be best to choose something scruffy.
Unfortunately the attitude to preservation of these artifacts has been through a few changes along the way. The cutting up of books to remove miniatures or historiated initials, or even to make up scrapbooks of decorated alphabets, was not uncommon. Some very famous manuscripts books have some significant holes in them. Today single leaves from ancient books circulate around the antiquities market, aided by the ease of trade in these things over the internet. Some of these are the relics of old books pillaged in the past for their art work, while in other cases books are still being dismantled. While there are probably enough literary scholars out there to watch out for books with unique texts, there seems to be less value placed on the integrity of works such as Bibles, breviaries or books of hours, which are perceived to have standardised texts of less interest to scholars, and which already exist in many copies. Every book dismantled represents a loss, but every fragment salvaged is an authentic little piece of the past, so we have a conundrum here.
leaf from Book of Hours

An isolated sheet from a late 15th century French book of hours, by permission of the University of Tasmania Library.

Parchment or vellum, from which many manuscript leaves were made, is an expensive but durable and useful material. Even in the middle ages it was re-used by scraping down and writing over, forming palimpsests. Old leaves have also been used in bookbindings as covers or pastedowns, this use extending into the era of printed books. Sheets of manuscripts have been used as wrappers for other documents. So fragmentary bits of old documents sometimes appear in the most unusual places. Some of the oldest manuscript fragments known are in this form.

A sheet of parchment with 12th century writing has been used as a pastedown in a 15th century volume of the works of Cicero, by permission of the University of Tasmania Library.

binding strip binding strip Some further fragments include a narrow strip from a psalter which has been used in a bookbinding, and a strip from a Dutch language book of hours sewn into the binding of a late 16th century printed book. By permission of the University of Tasmania Library.
German fragment German fragment
Both sides of a tiny fragment of a German notarial document of the 15th or 16th century found inside a book, from a private collection.
The above example represents not only a fragmentary find of a medieval manusript, but also something of the changing valuation of written material over the centuries. This little piece of a legal document certified by a notary, part of whose distinguishing mark can be seen on the upper left of the right hand picture, was found by a bookseller, along with a number of other fragments, in an incunabula copy of the Biblical commentaries of Nicholas de Lyra. Four strips were found to have come from a single document, and the fragments had evidently been cut into strips for use either as binding strengtheners or bookmarks, or for some other reason. Presumably when it was done, possibly hundreds of years ago, these documents were regarded as in no way valuable. Now we would regard them as historical evidence. Another theory, romantic but perhaps unlikely, is that the documents were cut up and placed in an obscure tome in order to hide them for some reason. So you just never know when a little piece of medievalia is going to pop out at you.
This all leads to the fact that not all medieval manuscripts are books. There are also vast collections of original documents of a legal nature out there, and these are also widely dispersed around public and private places.

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last updated 3/5/2007.