You can read the manuscripts that chart the development of the languages and literary traditions of the British isles.
About the collection
Literature from medieval and early modern Britain draws on both oral and written traditions, and is multilingual at its core. The first works written in the vernaculars of England, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland appeared in this period. Many writers were also fluent in Latin and French. You can examine manuscripts charting the development of all these literatures, both in person and online.
The British Library collections cover all varieties of prose, verse, and drama, and every possible type of literary document. These include important authorial drafts and fair copies of early modern literary works.
The only medieval manuscript of what is arguably the earliest surviving poem in a major European language was copied around the year 1000 and damaged by fire in 1731.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the greatest medieval romances. The unique manuscript dates from shortly before 1400 and is one of the earliest, illustrated, English literary works.
Latin–Old Cornish Glossary
An early Cornish-Latin glossary is the oldest complete text in the Cornish language.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (died 1400) is perhaps the most influential literary text in Middle English. Over 80 medieval copies have survived, some of the earliest of which are held at the British Library.
The Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe (died after 1438) dictated to a priest the earliest surviving autobiography in the English language in 1436. It describes her spiritual conversion, her pilgrimages and her charitable works.
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s notebook
Thomas Wyatt (1503–42) was the first English lyricist of note, and the poet who introduced the Italian sonnet-form into English literature. This notebook is the primary source for his poetry and is also the earliest notebook of any major poet that has survived.
The Book of Thomas More
The unique copy of ‘The Book of Sir Thomas More’ is one of a small number of Elizabethan plays to survive in manuscript form. Written at the end of the 16th century, three pages of the manuscript have been attributed to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), making it the only literary manuscript to survive from the pen of England’s greatest playwright.
What is available online?
The Explore Manuscripts and Archives catalogue contains catalogue entries for many literary manuscripts. Some British literary manuscripts have been digitised in full on Digitised Manuscripts. Selective coverage of items containing illuminations can be found on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
The vast majority of British literary manuscripts are available to order and view in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Some items may require a letter of introduction.
Highlights from our collections are displayed on rotation for anyone to see in the free Treasures Gallery.
What is available in other organisations?
Many key manuscripts from this period are held by the Bodleian Libraries and the Cambridge University Library; others can be found at cathedrals, colleges, and public record offices throughout the United Kingdom, and in universities and private collections around the world.
The medieval British literature written in Latin dwarfs the vernacular languages, and its works and writers have yet to be fully explored. Richard Sharpe, A Handlist of the Latin Writers of Great Britain and Ireland before 1540 (Turnhout, 1997) is a directory of known writers in the language. The standard dictionary of the language is the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Oxford, 1975–2013), available online through Logeion.
The Anglo-Norman Text Society publishes works written in the British form of medieval French. Ruth J. Dean, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (London, 1999) is a handbook of the key works in the language and the manuscripts containing them. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary is available online.
British Library manuscripts concerning Wales are discussed in Edward Owen, A Catalogue of the Manuscripts Relating to Wales in the British Museum (available online via the University of Toronto: parts 1–2, parts 3–4). Manuscripts from Ireland are discussed in the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1926–53); the third volume contains a history of the collection and its formation.
Many of the most important Celtic manuscripts are catalogued online through CODECS.
Old English (450–1100)
N. R. Ker’s Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957) lists manuscripts in Old English. Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto, 2014) is an attempt to list all known English manuscripts written in any language before the 12th century. The Dictionary of Old English (Toronto, 1994–) is underway.
Middle English (1100–1500)
Middle English texts can be found through the Digital Index of Medieval English Verse; Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, A New Index of Middle English Verse (London, 2005); and the Index of Middle English Prose (Cambridge, 1984–). Many of these texts are published by the Early English Text Society. The Middle English Dictionary is online.
Modern English (1500–present)
The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts, 1450–1700 lists literary manuscripts by many British authors of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary includes historical forms of the language.