The British Library holds approximately 9,000 manuscripts in Latin, Greek, and European vernacular languages with decoration or illumination of some kind.
About the collection
Before the introduction of printing to Europe, all books were written by hand (the word ‘manuscript’ comes from the Latin for ‘written by hand’). The most luxurious manuscripts were illuminated: lit up by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf. Many include paintings or drawings illustrating or decorating the text. Some take the form of independent full-page images, while others feature ‘historiated’ or decorated initials, with scenes or patterns included within the form of initial letters.
Dating from the 5th century to 1600, these valuable historical documents provide our most direct connection to individuals and communities from the past. Each manuscript has the potential to deepen and expand our understanding of political, social and cultural life across Europe and the Mediterranean world. These include over 2,500 codices and rolls made in the British Isles. From cartularies to chronicles, legal treatises to lapidaries, statute books to scientific texts, these wide-ranging documents offer an invaluable resource for the study of Britain throughout the Middle Ages.
Some of the most outstanding examples of illumination are found in the Cotton, Harley, and Royal collections, which feature the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Queen Mary Psalter and the collected works of Christine de Pizan made for Isabel of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France. In addition, the Yates Thompson collection is formed entirely of illuminated manuscripts, highlights of which include the Taymouth Hours and the copy of Dante’s Divina Commedia owned by Alfonso V, King of Aragon, Naples and Sicily.
What is available online?
The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts provides descriptions and images from over 4,000 manuscripts. A selection of illuminated manuscripts can also be viewed on the Online Gallery. The Digitised Manuscripts website provides complete digital coverage of hundreds of illuminated manuscripts.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
Information on western manuscripts may be found in the Library’s main manuscripts catalogue Explore Our Manuscripts and Archives.
- Backhouse, Janet, The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting (London: British Library, 1997)
- Barker, Nicolas, ed., Treasures of the British Library (London: British Library, 1988)
- Leapman, Michael, The Book of the British Library (London: British Library, 2012).