About the project

A rich celebration of our cultural heritage, Discovering Literature is a free online learning resource that provides unprecedented access to the British Library’s unique literary and historical collections. 

Bringing together over 50 unique medieval manuscripts and early print editions from the 5th to 15th centuries, Discovering Literature: Medieval explores some of the earliest works and most influential figures in literary history. From the first complete translation of the Bible in the English language to the first English work authored by a woman, the website showcases a wealth of material from the British Library’s unrivalled collection.

Examining a range of genres and themes from medieval drama, epic poetry, dream visions and riddles through to gender, faith, monsters and heroism, our primary sources and in-depth interpretative articles provide a trove of inspiring ideas for A Level students, teachers, lifelong learners and undergraduates.

Highlights include:

  • The single surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the longest epic poem in Old English
  • The earliest autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe
  • The Wycliffite Bible, the first complete translation of the Bible in the English language
  • William Caxton’s pioneering illustrated print edition of The Canterbury Tales
  • The first work authored by a woman in English, Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love
  • The earliest work of theatre criticism in English, Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge
  • One of the greatest collections of Scottish medieval verse, the Bannatyne Manuscript (National Library of Scotland)
  • Articles by acclaimed writers including Simon Armitage, Hetta Howes and David Crystal

We would like to thank the following project partners:

Exeter Cathedral

Biblioteca Capitolare di Vercelli (Italy)

Discovering Literature has been supported since its inception by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE, Dangoor Education.

Dangoor Education

The project has also been generously supported by the following donors:

  • Evalyn Lee and Peter Bacon
  • Mark Pigott KBE, KStJ
  • Garfield Weston Foundation
  • The American Trust for the British Library
  • The John S Cohen Foundation
  • Andor Charitable Trust
  • The Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust
  • The British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons
  • The Friends of the British Library 

Access and Reuse Guidance Notes for Discovering Literature: Medieval

Although legally in copyright in the UK (and a number of other common law territories) as unpublished manuscripts until 2039, the British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website.

Copyright status of manuscript material: The 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended) states that unpublished literary and artistic works remain in copyright in the UK until at least 31 December 2039. Therefore important parts of the library’s collection remain in copyright, including manuscripts created more than 200 years ago. However, the Library believes that putting online selected unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, is unlikely to offend. As an institution whose role it is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK on this website for the use of school students, teachers and the wider public. For any further questions please contact copyright@bl.uk

The British Library asks that anyone reusing digital images from this collection applies the following principles:

  • Please respect the creators – ensure traditional cultural expressions and all ethical concerns in the use of the material are considered, and any information relating to the creator is clear and accurate. Please note, any adaptations made to an image should not be attributed to the original creator and should not be derogatory to the originating cultures or communities.
  • Please credit the source of the material – providing a link back to the image on the British Library’s website will encourage others to explore and use the collections.

This usage guide for images is based on goodwill. It is not a legal contract. We ask that you respect it.