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Picture Research in the Department of Manuscripts

This page describes the resources available for picture researchers looking for images from medieval (and later) manuscripts. Staff will be happy to assist, but as only a limited amount of time can be made available for each enquiry, we regret that they cannot engage in lengthy picture research on behalf of enquirers. Before asking for help, please read the following notes carefully.


Images in this Department consist mainly of drawings and paintings in medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscripts, but there are also images of later manuscripts, and of charters, seals, papyri, ostraka, and other materials. Manuscript maps and topographical drawings can also be found in the collections. (Other illustrated material can be found in the Map Library, Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections, in printed books, and in the British Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings).


Much picture research can now be done online, without visiting the Library; see Locating images online below. A very large number of images can be found in publications such as those listed below, many of which will be easily available from the British Library's bookshop, other bookshops, in other libraries, or through the inter-library loan system.

For the very large numbers of images not yet published, and not yet available online, however, a visit to the British Library Manuscripts Reading Room may be necessary. Other Library web-pages describe the general process of gaining access to the Library's readings rooms, including the conditions of access. There are additional regulations for the use of the Manuscripts Reading Room. A short-term pass can usually be supplied to researchers wishing to use the indexes and photographic archive described below, on production of suitable identification. Requests to consult original manuscripts must be accompanied by a written recommendation, though many original manuscripts are not available for picture research.

Locating images online

There are three main Library websites that should be used for picture research, each of which offer simple and advanced searches, and each of which have full instructions for use. These will usually be the best places to start, especially if you know that you will want a colour digital image (rather than, for example, a black & white print), but they represent only a very small percentage of the images in the Library's manuscripts collections:

  • Images Online: a large miscellaneous selection of the Library's photographs, including medieval manuscripts.
  • Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts: an ongoing project to systematically describe the Library's illuminated manuscripts, collection-by-collection, with a selection of images from each.
  • Collect Britain: provides images relating to the British Isles, from medieval manuscripts and other Library collections.

Locating images in publications

If you cannot find what you want online, the next step should be to try to identify suitable images by looking through published books with reproductions of items in our collections. Most of the ones listed below are published by the British Library, and many are in print (for a list of those that are available to buy, see the Online Bookshop).

  • General:
    • Janet Backhouse, The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting in the British Library, 1997.
    • Janet Backhouse, Illumination from Books of Hours, 2005.
    • Janet Backhouse, Books of Hours, 1985.
    • Janet Backhouse, The Illuminated Manuscript, 1979.
    • Scot McKendrick, Flemish Illuminated Manuscripts 1400-1500, 2003.
    • Thomas Kren (ed.), Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts: Treasures from the British Library, 1983.
    • British Museum, Reproductions from Illuminated Manuscripts, Series I-V, 1923-1965.
  • Individual famous manuscripts:
    • Janet Backhouse, The Bedford Hours, 1990.
    • Janet Backhouse, The Isabella Breviary, 1993.
    • Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, 1981.
    • Janet Backhouse, The Luttrell Psalter, 1989.
    • Claire Donovan, The de Brailes Hours: Shaping the Book of Hours in 13th-century Oxford, 1990.
    • A. S. G. Edwards, The Life of St. Edmund, King and Martyr - A Facsimile, 2004.
    • Mark Evans, The Sforza Hours, 1992.
    • Dominic Marner, St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham, 2000.
    • E. G. Millar, The Lindisfarne Gospels, 1923.
    • E. G. Millar, The Luttrell Psalter, 1932.
    • Andrew Prescott, The Benedictional of Saint Aethelwold: A Masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon Art - A Facsimile, 2002.
    • G. F. Warner, Queen Mary's Psalter, 1912.
  • Themes:
    • Anglo-Saxon
      • Michelle Brown, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, 1991
    • Astrology:
      • Sophie Page, Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts, 2002.
      • T. S. Pattie, Astrology, 1980.
    • Animals
      • Ann Payne, Medieval Beasts, 1990.
    • Birds
      • Janet Backhouse, Medieval Birds in the Sherborne Missal, 2001.
    • Documents
      • Andrew Prescott, English Historical Documents, 1988.
    • Flowers
      • Celia Fisher, Flowers in Medieval Manuscripts, 2004.
    • Literature
      • Hilton Kelliher, English Literary Manuscripts, 1986.
    • Magic
      • Sophie Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts, 2004
    • Maps, Topography
      • P. D. A. Harvey, Medieval Maps, 1991.
      • Ann Payne, Views of the Past, 1987.
    • Medicine
      • Peter Murray Jones, Medieval Medical Miniatures, 1984.
      • Peter Murray Jones, Medieval Medicine in Medieval Manuscripts, 1998.
    • Medieval Life
      • Janet Backhouse, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter, 2000.
      • P. Basing, Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts, 1997.
      • Pamela Porter, Courtly Love in Medieval Manuscripts, 2003.
      • Pamela Porter, Medieval Warfare in Manuscripts, 1997.
    • Monsters
      • Alixe Bovey, Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts, 2002.
    • Music
      • Nicolas Bell, Music in Medieval Manuscripts, 2001.
      • Arthur Searle, Music Manuscripts, 1987.
    • Religion
      • Justin Clegg, The Medieval Church in Manuscripts, 2003.

Locating images by visiting the Library

If you cannot find what you want online or in published books, try to find the appropriate subject heading in W. de G. Birch and H. Jenner, Early Drawings and Illuminations in the British Museum, London, 1879, copies of which are available in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room (and in other libraries). References to manuscripts acquired since the book was published have been added by hand to the Reading Room copy. If a specific subject heading is not given, try referring to a more general heading e.g. if there is no entry under 'Tables' try 'Furniture'; for marriages, look under 'Ecclesiastical Ceremonies'. Note that the names of people, especially sovereigns, are included. There is a useful index to subject headings at the back of the volume on pp. 305-310.

The black and white photographs which have been made of the illuminations indexed in Birch and Jenner's book are mounted in albums which are placed on the open shelves of the Manuscripts Reading Room. In order to find the book number and page number in which the photograph can be found, it is first necessary to find the white card in the photographic card index for the manuscript listed in Birch and Jenner. The cards are arranged first by collection name, then by manuscript number, then by folio number. Note that in some cases an entire folio has been photographed and in other cases a detail only. This is indicated on the cards.

Users will find that the collection name is frequently omitted or abbreviated in Birch and Jenner, as follows: 'Slo.' = the Sloane collection (which comes first in the card index, but after this the collections are arranged alphabetically); four or five digit numbers with no prefix indicates the Additional collection (which follows Sloane in the card index); 'Ar.' = the Arundel collection; 'Burn.' = the Burney collection; the abbreviated name of a Roman emperor indicates the Cotton collection ('Aug' = Augustus, 'Cal' = Caligula, 'Claud' = Claudius, 'Cleop' = Cleopatra, 'Faust' = Faustina, 'Gal' = Galba, 'Jul' = Julius, 'Ner' = Nero, 'Oth' = Otho, 'Tib' = Tiberius, 'Tit' = Titus, 'Vesp' = Vespasian, 'Vit' = Vitellius); 'Eg.' = the Egerton collection; 'Harl.' = the Harley collection; 'Lans.' = the Lansdowne collection; a combination of numbers and letters in this format: '14 A xiii', '1 E ix' = the Royal collection. The Stowe and Yates Thompson collections are not included in Birch and Jenner, but references to these collections have often been added by hand, and cards are in the card index.

The cards in the photographic index are filed by collection name and manuscript number, in the order described above, and are then filed by folio (i.e. leaf) number. Note that in Birch and Jenner, the back of the folio is indicated by a 'b', whereas in the card index this is indicated by a 'v' for verso . Some folio numbers may have changed slightly since Birch and Jenner was compiled. If no folio number is given in Birch and Jenner, it can be assumed that there are many scenes depicting that subject in the manuscript. In these cases all the cards for that manuscript should be checked. The short description on each card will help to locate relevant illustrations.

The book number of the album in which a print can be found, and the page numbers, are indicated at the bottom of each white card. (If the card reads 'NO PRINT', there may be a colour slide available, for which see below.) The large albums, or 'Print Books', are shelved to the right of the photographic index.

For descriptions of the manuscripts which have been photographed, ask at the Reference Enquiries desk to be directed to catalogues which describe each collection. In Birch and Jenner on pp. 1-26 the manuscripts included are listed by date and by country of origin, and on pp. 27-30 they are listed numerically according to date.

Although most of the important illustrations have been photographed, there are some entries in Birch and Jenner for which there are no white cards in the index. There may, however, be a pink card for a colour slide which can be consulted.

Colour slides may be consulted by finding in the card index a pink card by the method outlined above. In the centre of each pink card is a number preceded by the letter 'K' (for Kodachrome). Ask the staff at the Reference Enquiries desk for instructions on filling in request slips on which these numbers can be entered. Reference desk staff can provide a light-box or a small slide projector for viewing slides, and may sometimes be able to arrange the supply of a longer run of slides if sufficient notice is given. All slides must be returned to the Issue and Return desk before leaving.

Each coloured card which appears, in this order, in the photographic index indicates a specific type of photographic medium as follows:

  • Blue cards: These indicate that the manuscript has been microfilmed in its entirety. These microfilm negatives are not available to be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room, but there is another index of those which can.
  • Green cards: Large colour transparencies from which duplicate 5" x 4" colour transparencies, 35mm colour slides or colour prints can be produced.
  • Pink cards: 35mm slides. Most slides are available to be consulted as described above.
  • White cards: Black and white negatives. Prints from most of the black and white negatives are available to be consulted in the print books as described above.

Ordering copies of images for publication

Full details are given on the Library's Imaging Services webpages.