A few years back I discovered the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts, and I have been in love with Medieval illumination since then. So easy to explore– and with hundreds (maybe thousands) of manuscripts to choose from, you will never get bored. For instance– take a peek into the Luttrell Psalter (a psalter is a book of Psalms, with other devotional material included). This is one of my favourite manuscripts, and the thrill of poring over a book created in 1325, even if it is online, is hard to beat. If you zoom in close enough, you can even see the pores in the parchment. Every time I peer into this one I can imagine the dusty, candlelit room it was created in.
Here’s another beauty from the British Library collection, a Bestiary in Middle Dutch, from 1300-1325. This one has some real oddities in it! You’ll get lost looking for dragons and other strange creatures. Some tips I’ve discovered while exploring: Click on the image of the bindings on the landing page for each manuscript. In the upper right corner, you’ll find a drop-down menu that takes you to the folios. In the manuscript’s description, you will often find folios (or in modern parlance, pages) that have some of the more interesting illuminations.
While I find the British Library the easiest to explore, it is by no means the only library that has digitised manuscripts for you to investigate. For instance, you can visit the Walters Art Museum digitized collection, the e-Codices which is the virtual manuscript library of Switzerland, and, if you read German, or just want to randomly poke around, try the Cologne Cathedral manuscripts.
There’s one more I have to mention, because it has been the subject of several mystery books and movies, and that is the Voynich manuscript at the Beinecke Library at Yale. This is an undeciphered manuscript from the 15th or 16th century. That’s right, no-one knows what language it is written in, or what the meaning or intention of the book is. A true mystery!
These are just a few of the online collections of Medieval manuscripts. Most large universities have begun to digitize their collections, so from the comfort of your own home, you can become a connoisseur of really old books. Start exploring today! —Angela J. Reynolds