British and Irish Literature Medieval Manuscripts
Mark Faulkner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0165


Scholars studying medieval manuscripts work in a variety of disciplines, from literary atudies to history to linguistics to art history to classics. Publications in all these areas use manuscripts and offer important findings about medieval manuscripts. In addition to its practice within different fields, much of the study of medieval manuscripts is strongly interdisciplinary, using techniques native to the study of the medieval book like codicology and paleography, alongside text critical-methods originally developed in classics and refined there, in literary studies and in history, visual analysis pioneered in art history, and philological methods now found in literary studies and linguistics. Insofar as the study of medieval manuscripts has a unified goal, it is to describe and explain the production and use of manuscripts and the textual culture associated with them, generating primary data that assists in the writing of literary, cultural, and linguistic history. Given the breadth of the field, this Oxford Bibliographies entry must necessarily be selective. It focuses primarily on manuscripts of British and Irish literature in English (manuscripts of texts in Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic languages being specialist fields of study in their own right). As a consequence, the vast majority of the material listed is in English, though scholarship on medieval manuscripts is also published in French, Italian, and German, as well as other languages. After sections devoted to General Overviews, Reference Works, Textbooks, Anthologies, Bibliographies and Journals, the bibliography presents lists of Catalogues of Manuscripts and Facsimiles, which are two of the most important tools for medieval book historians. It finishes with lists of works relevant to the major subdisciplines of medieval book history, Codicology (the study of the physical structure of manuscripts); paleography, the study of Scripts used in those manuscripts; as well as studies of Scribal Practice and Manuscript Culture; and works concerned with Ownership and Provenance.

General Overviews

The interdisciplinarity of medieval manuscript studies means that general overviews of the entire field that cover the whole medieval period are scarcer than one might imagine. The best single-volume introduction probably remains Bischoff 1990, which, despite its title, covers much more than paleography (though, for an alternative candidate, see Clemens and Graham 2007 under Textbooks); less substantial, but still useful, is Shailor 1991. More recent and more detailed (and offering extensive reference to previous work) are the three volumes of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain that cover the period between c. 400 and 1557. Beyond this, the catalogues of major exhibitions offer perhaps the best introduction to medieval manuscripts. So many are available that this list is necessarily selective, prioritizing those organized chronologically and featuring representative selections of manuscripts loaned from many different repositories. English Romanesque Art and the Age of Chivalry derive a series of exhibitions held in the 1980s and 1990s that spanned the whole of the Middle Ages and the production of not just books but all kinds of cultural artifacts. The catalogues of the two Anglo-Saxon exhibitions (The Making of England and The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art) have been superseded by that from the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (Breay and Story 2018), while the coverage of manuscripts in the catalogue deriving from the Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003 is too limited to warrant inclusion here, unfortunately leaving the 15th century as a lacuna.

  • Age of Chivalry. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1987.

    Another catalogue from a major exhibition, this one held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1987 and focusing on 13th- and 14th-century art. The catalogue is organized by theme rather than medium, but manuscripts feature prominently throughout and several of the introductory essays are particularly relevant to manuscript studies.

  • Bischoff, Bernhard. Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Translated by Dáibhí Ó Crónin and David Ganz. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511809927

    A translation of Bischoff’s 1979 Paläographie des römischen Altertums, this volume provides an excellent introduction to all aspects of medieval book production, including writing materials and writing tools, the construction of medieval manuscripts, the process of writing, an overview of medieval styles of script, and a long chapter on the manuscript in cultural history, together with twenty-three plates and a very useful bibliography organized by subject.

  • Breay, Claire, and Joanna Story, eds. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. London: British Library, 2018.

    This catalogue of a British Library exhibition in 2018–2019 supersedes two earlier exhibition catalogues The Making of England (1991) and The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art (1984), as an introduction to pre-Conquest manuscript culture. A set of six brief introductory essays precede the catalogue entries. Coins, metalwork, and other artifacts feature, but the focus is on the manuscripts, for discussion of which the short, half-page, descriptions are a significant resource.

  • The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. 6 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999–.

    Relevant are Vol. 1 (edited by Richard Gameson, c. 400–1100), Vol. 2 (edited by Nigel J. Morgan and Rodney M. Thomson, 1100–1400), and Vol. 3 (edited by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp, 1400–1557). Together they offer expert essays on all facets of the medieval book, from their physical form to their script and detailed studies of particular types of book and specific book collections and the circulation of manuscripts.

  • English Romanesque Art: 1066–1200. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984.

    The catalogue of a major exhibition held at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1984, this includes a substantial, well-illustrated chapter on illuminated manuscripts from the long 12th century by Jonathan Alexander and Michael Kauffmann, as well as a general introduction and much discussion of manuscripts in relation to other artworks from the period.

  • Shailor, Barbara. The Medieval Book: Illustrated from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 28. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

    Originally published as the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Beinecke Library at Yale University in 1988, this provides a succinct, accessible introduction to the medieval book, illustrated from the Beinecke’s collections. Topics covered include the physical structure of manuscripts, scribes, scripts, and books’ use in the Middle Ages.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.