Western illuminated manuscripts

Psalter of Henry VIII
The Psalter of Henry VIII (Royal 2 A. XVI)

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Dating from the 5th century to 1600, these valuable historical documents provide our most direct connection to individuals and communities from the past.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.

Further information

How to guides

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services

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How to reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

With Explore Archives and Manuscripts you can search for information about our rich and unique archive and manuscript collections.

Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to browse the collections and how to request items

How to handle prints, drawings and photographs

Watch our video to see how you should handle these vulnerable items.

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

How to handle folded items

Find out how you should hand items like large maps and book inserts.

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

Find Hebrew manuscripts

Guide to finding Hebrew manuscripts in our online catalogues

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

Initiate a new digitisation project with the British Library

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Find Persian manuscripts

Details of Persian manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

Find Arabic manuscripts

Details of Arabic manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

How to handle archives

Watch our guide and help us keep our archive material in good condition

Search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

How to search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass