160,000+ Medieval Manuscripts Online: Where to Find Them

“Man­u­scripts are the most impor­tant medi­um writ­ing has ever had,” declares the Cen­tre for the Study of Man­u­script Cul­tures at the Uni­ver­sität Ham­burg. Under the influ­ence of a cer­tain pre­sen­tist bias, this can be hard to believe. We are con­di­tioned by what Mar­shall McLuhan described as The Guten­berg Galaxy: each of us is in some way what he called (in gen­dered lan­guage) a “Guten­berg Man.” From this point of view, “man­u­script tech­nol­o­gy,” as he wrote in 1962, does “not have the inten­si­ty or pow­er of exten­sion to cre­ate publics on a nation­al scale.” It seems quaint, archa­ic, too rar­i­fied to have much influ­ence.

It may be the case, as McLuhan writes, that the print­ing press and the mod­ern nation state arose togeth­er, but this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an unqual­i­fied mea­sure of progress. Print has had a few hun­dred years—however, “for thou­sands of years,” Uni­ver­sität Ham­burg reminds us, “man­u­scripts have had a deter­min­ing influ­ence on all cul­tures that were shaped by them.” McLuhan him­self was a dis­tin­guished schol­ar and a devot­ed Catholic who no doubt under­stood this very well. One sus­pects less­er writ­ers might avoid the man­u­script, in its incred­i­ble com­plex­i­ty, because it’s not only a dif­fer­ent kind, it is a dif­fer­ent species of media alto­geth­er.

Man­u­script cul­ture is its own field of study for good rea­son. We are gen­er­al­ly talk­ing about texts writ­ten on parch­ment or vel­lum, which are, after all, treat­ed ani­mal skins. Paper is eas­i­er to repro­duce, but has a much short­er shelf life. No two man­u­scripts are the same, some dif­fer from each oth­er wild­ly: vari­ants, inter­po­la­tions, redac­tions, era­sures, palimpses­ts, etc. are stan­dard, requir­ing spe­cial train­ing in edi­to­r­i­al meth­ods. Then there’s the lan­guages and the hand­writ­ing…. It can be for­bid­ding, but there are oth­er, more sur­mount­able rea­sons this field has been so her­met­ic until the recent past.

The pri­ma­ry sources have been inac­ces­si­ble, hid­den away in spe­cial col­lec­tions, and the schol­ar­ship and ped­a­gogy have been clois­tered behind uni­ver­si­ty walls. Open access dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing and free online cours­es and mate­ri­als have changed the sit­u­a­tion rad­i­cal­ly. And it is rapid­ly becom­ing the case that most man­u­script libraries have major, and expand­ing, online col­lec­tions, often scanned in high res­o­lu­tion, some­times with tran­scrip­tions, and usu­al­ly with addi­tion­al resources explain­ing prove­nance and oth­er such impor­tant details.

Indeed, there are thou­sands of man­u­script pages online from well over a thou­sand years, and you’ll find them dig­i­tized at the links to sev­er­al ven­er­a­ble insti­tu­tions of preser­va­tion and high­er learn­ing below. There is, of course, no rea­son we can­not appre­ci­ate this long his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion for pure­ly aes­thet­ic rea­sons. So many Medieval man­u­scripts are works of art in their own right. But if we want to get into the grit­ty details, we can start by learn­ing how such illu­mi­nat­ed medieval man­u­scripts were made: a lost art, but not, thanks to the dura­bil­i­ty of parch­ment, a lost tra­di­tion.

Learn even more at the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

How to Make a Medieval Man­u­script: An Intro­duc­tion in 7 Videos

How the Bril­liant Col­ors of Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made with Alche­my

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

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





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