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Both aspiring and experienced scribes can learn a lot from looking at actual period manuscripts. Every day more and more medieval books are digitized and made available online, and many websites offer the ability to zoom in and see fine detail close up. Here are some wonderful sites for seeing a wide array of medieval and renaissance manuscripts that can provide scribal inspiration for years to come.

The British Library site offers not only complete manuscripts, but also detailed information on the time, place, artistic style, and provenance of each manuscript, along with a very robust search function that lets you narrow your results with great precision. Want to find Arabic medical manuscripts from 1000-1100, or Italian Books of Hours dating to the early 15th century? This is your site.

British Library Manuscript collection

British Library Manuscript collection

DMMapp is the granddaddy of manuscript sites. It offers a map of the world with links to specific libraries’ or museums’ collections. Click a link to browse the selected location’s offerings. Bonus: it’s also the home of the “Sexy Codicology” Blog, with a link to their Facebook page. Its weakness is that each site is distinct and separate, so there’s no way to search all of them by keyword from DMMapp. The quality and ease of navigation of the sites is also highly variable.

Digitized Medieval Manuscripts site

Digitized Medieval Manuscripts site

The Getty Museum recently made many of its books available as free PDF downloads, including several about its collection of medieval manuscripts. Examples include Elizabeth C. Teviotdale’s “The Stammheim Missal” and “Flemish Manuscript Painting in Context: Recent Research,” edited by Elizabeth Morrison and Thomas Kren.

Medieval Writing has a huge amount of information about medieval paleography (the study of writing) including snippets of calligraphy from many different manuscripts. Use its Index of Scripts to take a guided tour of styles ranging from 4th century Roman to 16th century Humanistic. One of its best features is the ability to mouse over samples from period manuscripts and see the words printed in modern text as shown below, which is tremendously helpful in figuring out unusual or hard-to-read letter forms.


The Medieval Writing site shows you the words when you mouse over the calligraphed text

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, like the Getty, offers some of its books on medieval art as free downloads. Use the search categories on the left to narrow the list of options. Examples include “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” by Timothy Bates Husband, and “The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500–1200” by the Museum.

The National Library of Wales has a small collection, but it’s one of the few places to find Welsh manuscripts like the Book of Llandaff, the Laws of Hywel Dda, and the Black Book of Carmarthen, which is one of the earliest manuscripts written in Welsh.

Trinity College of Dublin has a number of period manuscripts, but none more famous than the magnificent Book of Kells; a portion of folio 2r is shown below zoomed in close. Use the “By Dates” search feature to find manuscripts at Trinity College dating to SCA period.

Book of Kells

Closeup of a page from the Book of Kells, housed at the Trinity College of Dublin

The Vatican Library recently announced that they will be vastly expanding their collection of digital manuscripts over the next few years, so this is a space to watch! Use its Advanced Search feature to search by elements like Beginning and Ending dates, though navigation is a little clunky and sometimes frustrating. When you find a manuscript, click the book icon next to its name to see the actual pages. Clicking the manuscript’s name displays a very brief description of the manuscript including its date, size, and name.

Is there a site for scribal inspiration that you love which isn’t on our list? Post a link in the comments!

– Submitted by Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope