British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France announce joint project to digitise medieval manuscript treasures

Illuminated initial 'B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century (British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r).

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France are working together to digitise 800 illuminated manuscripts from the period 700-1200, making them available online for the first time. 

The project will focus on manuscripts produced on either side of the English Channel, in the centuries before and after the Norman Conquest – a period of close cultural and political entwinement, when scribes moved between England, France and Normandy, working in Latin and French on manuscripts of unparalleled beauty and sophistication.

The project, generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, will result in the creation of two innovative websites which will make the 800 manuscripts freely available to scholars and the general public around the world.

The Bibliothèque nationale de France will create a new bilingual website that will allow side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. The British Library will develop a bilingual site aimed at a general audience that will feature highlights from the most important of these manuscripts, along with articles commissioned from leading experts. Both websites will be launched by November 2018.

Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, said: “We are delighted to be working with our colleagues at the Bibliothèque nationale de France on this hugely exciting collaboration. It will bring together manuscript treasures from a time when the cultural, political and religious interchange between Britain and France was unfolding at many levels. The illuminated manuscripts that our respective institutions hold are remarkable survivals from that period and bring it to life in a way that few other artefacts can. Making them freely available online will allow scholars to make new connections and will allow a much wider audience to explore the medieval world preserved in these pages.” 

Laurence Engel, President of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, said: “Through this ambitious digitization project funded by The Polonsky Foundation, we are committing all the BnF’s scientific and technological expertise to make accessible to everyone these invaluable treasures from our medieval collections alongside those of the British Library.”

Dr Leonard Polonsky, Chairman of The Polonsky Foundation, said: “Our Foundation is privileged to be supporting these two leading institutions in preserving the riches of the world's cultural heritage and making them available in innovative and creative ways, both to scholars and to a wider public.”

The new project will add to the growing numbers of manuscripts being made available in full online. More than 8,000 items are currently available via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website; while many thousands of items are similarly available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s website Gallica.

For more details see the Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog


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Notes to Editors

The Bibliothèque nationale de France is the custodian of the collections which preserve more than 40 million documents, including 14 million books and manuscripts, gathered across five centuries through legal deposit and a keen acquisition policy. Guardian of the transmission of this heritage to future generations, the BnF ensures as well the preservation and restoration of items in its custody. Source of knowledge, the BnF is responsible of this unique heritage encompassing all kinds of documents : manuscripts, printed documents, engravings, periodicals, photographs, maps, coins, audiovisual documents, video games, internet websites…

Gallica the digital library of the BnF and its partners permits online access to 4 million. documents. Prime location for world-class research, the BnF offers too numerous exhibitions, visits, workshops and conferences thus opening its collections to satisfy everyone’s interests.

The Polonsky Foundation is a UK-registered charity which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitisation of significant collections at leading libraries (the British Library; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the New York Public Library; the Library of Congress; the Vatican Apostolic Library); support for Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York; and post-doctoral fellowships at The Polonsky Academy for the Advanced Study of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Its founder and chairman, Dr Leonard S. Polonsky, was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for charitable services in 2013.


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