800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Kazuo Ishiguro’s nov­el The Buried Giant begins with an immer­sive depic­tion of what it might have been like to live in a Euro­pean vil­lage dur­ing the mid­dle ages. Or what it might feel like for us mod­erns, at least. The cou­ple at the cen­ter of the sto­ry spends sev­er­al pages fret­ting over the loss of a can­dle, their only one. With­out it, their nights are pitch black. In the day, they wan­der in a fog, unable to remem­ber any­thing. Though the cause of this turns out to be dark mag­ic, one can’t help think­ing that a smart­phone would imme­di­ate­ly solve all their prob­lems.

This was a time not only before mobile video, but when images of any kind were scarce, when every book was painstak­ing­ly copied by hand in care­ful, ele­gant script. Many of those rare, scrib­al copies were not illus­trat­ed, they were “illu­mi­nat­ed.” Their pages shone out into the dark­ness and fog. Most of the pop­u­la­tion could not read them, but they could, in rare instances when they might catch a glimpse, be deeply moved by the col­or­ful, styl­ized images and let­ter­ing.

For the intel­lec­tu­al class­es, illu­mi­na­tion con­sti­tut­ed a lan­guage of its own, fram­ing and inter­pret­ing med­ical, clas­si­cal, and legal texts, gospels and works by the church fathers. Not all books received this treat­ment but the “most lux­u­ri­ous,” notes the British Library, were “lit­er­al­ly ‘lit up’ by dec­o­ra­tions and pic­tures in bright­ly coloured pig­ments and bur­nished gold leaf.” For cen­turies, despite the explo­sion of image-mak­ing tech­nolo­gies of every kind, most of us, unless we were schol­ars or aris­to­crats, were in the same posi­tion vis-à-vis these stun­ning arti­facts as the aver­age medieval peas­ant. Medieval man­u­scripts were locked away in rare book rooms and seen by very few.

The sit­u­a­tion has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly as libraries dig­i­tize their hold­ings. Last Novem­ber, hun­dreds more rare, valu­able medieval man­u­scripts became avail­able to every­one when the British Library and the Bib­lio­thèque nationale de France launched a joint project, mak­ing “800 man­u­scripts dec­o­rat­ed before the year 1200 avail­able freely” online, as the BL blog announced in 2016. Both insti­tu­tions pro­vid­ed 400 man­u­scripts each for dig­i­ti­za­tion. Some of these are cur­rent­ly on dis­play at the wild­ly pop­u­lar, sold-out British Library exhi­bi­tion Anglo-Sax­on King­doms: Art, Word, War. Now they are also vir­tu­al pub­lic prop­er­ty, as it were, thanks to a grant from the Polon­sky Foun­da­tion.

That these frag­ile arti­facts have been so inac­ces­si­ble, kept under glass and well away from insects, thieves, and van­dals, now means they are in a con­di­tion to be dig­i­tal­ly copied and uploaded in high res­o­lu­tion for close view­ing, com­par­i­son, and care­ful study. Medievalists.net describes the com­ple­men­tary web­sites the two libraries have launched:

The first, France-Eng­land: medieval man­u­scripts between 700 and 1200, has been cre­at­ed by the Bib­lio­thèque nationale de France based on the Gal­li­ca mar­que blanche infra­struc­ture, using the IIIF stan­dard and Mirador view­er to make the images held by the dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions inter­op­er­a­ble and enable them to be com­pared side-by-side with­in the same dig­i­tal library or anno­tat­ed. The sec­ond web­site, Medieval Eng­land and France, 700‑1200, is aimed at a wider pub­lic audi­ence, and has been devel­oped by the British Library to show­case a selec­tion of man­u­scripts as well as arti­cles, essays and video clips.

The French site has ports of entry accord­ing to theme, author, place, and cen­tu­ry, and many links to resources for schol­ars. The British Library site fea­tures curat­ed selec­tions, intro­duced by acces­si­ble arti­cles. Laypeo­ple with lit­tle expe­ri­ence study­ing medieval man­u­scripts can learn about legal, med­ical, and musi­cal texts, see how the writ­ings of the church fathers received spe­cial atten­tion in monas­tic cul­ture, and learn how man­u­scripts cir­cu­lat­ed before 1200. Those who know what they are look­ing for can con­duct advanced search­es at the Medieval Man­u­scripts site, and down­load a full list of all 800 man­u­scripts here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Behold the Beau­ti­ful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketch­book: A Win­dow Into How Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made (1494)

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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