England and France beyond the Conquest: 800 medieval manuscripts now online reveal a world of beauty and learning

Annunciation to the Shepherds, twelfth century psalter – BL, MS Cotton Caligula A. vii/l, f.6v. Image: British Library.
  • Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library today launch two websites giving access to 800 spectacular manuscripts from the centuries either side of the Norman Conquest
  • Ground-breaking collaboration uncovers the richness and sophistication of English and French  manuscripts, including Anglo-Saxon and Norman manuscripts
  • Curated website offers a window onto half a millennium of cultural exchange between England and France

A two-year project, drawing upon the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, has made 800 manuscripts from the period 700-1200 available online in full for the first time. The project includes a bilingual curated website, enabling learners and researchers around the world to explore the rich written and artistic legacy of medieval England and France as never before.

The fully digitised manuscripts can be viewed on a website based on the BnF’s Gallica White Label platform, which uses the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) standard and Mirador viewer to enable users to browse, magnify, annotate and compare manuscripts side by side in a virtual study environment: France-England: medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200

The British Library has also developed an extensive curated website, aimed at a wide public audience, that showcases a selection of the manuscript highlights, and includes thematic articles and video clips on topics ranging from early medieval medical knowledge to the techniques of creating an illuminated manuscript. Medieval England and France, 700–1200

The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 has seen teams from the two libraries working together to digitise, catalogue fully and make available online 400 spectacular manuscripts from each of their collections.

The 800 manuscripts have been selected for their historical importance and artistic merit. Their pages bear witness to the richness and sophistication of the cultural exchanges between England and France from the beginning of the 8th century to the close of the 12th century.

Highlights now available online include:

  • The lavishly illuminated Winchester Benedictional, created around  the year 1000;
  • A 12th-century collection of St Thomas Becket’s letters, including the earliest depiction of Becket’s martyrdom;
  • Exquisite Anglo-Saxon manuscripts including Psalters, saints’ lives and Gospel-books;
  • Spectacular manuscripts in the Romanesque style, including the giant two-volume Chartres Bible (12th century);
  • The magnificent Canterbury Psalter, with a tri-lingual translation of the Psalms in Latin, French and English, made in Canterbury.

The project has been generously supported by The Polonsky Foundation, and draws upon the expertise of curators, cataloguers, conservators and imaging specialists from both institutions, who have learned from one another through a programme of knowledge exchange and reciprocal visits.

Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “When people imagine England and France at the turn of the first millennium, they may think of the imagery of the Bayeux Tapestry and of the events following the Norman Conquest like the creation of the Domesday Book. This exciting project reveals the extent and richness of medieval painting, which now survives almost exclusively in books held in libraries and museums.

“By providing online access to the digitised versions of 800 of some of the finest of these manuscripts we hope to transform awareness of this period of close political and cultural entwinement between our two countries, when scribes moved between England, France and Normandy, working in Latin, French and English on manuscripts of unparalleled beauty and sophistication.”

Charlotte Denoël, Head of Medieval Manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, said: “For the first time, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library have been able to develop a comprehensive programme to make these manuscripts fully available to a variety of audiences, ranging from their full catalogue description to their dissemination online.

“Beyond the unique opportunity to bring together 800 breathtaking manuscripts from two of the largest medieval manuscripts collections in the world, this project is also innovative in its use of the IIIF technology, a research tool that enables access to high definition image resources. One can compare up to four manuscripts at the same time, write annotations and then export them. IIIF brings medieval manuscripts a step further into the digital age and offers a new range of possibilities with regard to research.”

Dr Leonard S. Polonsky CBE, Founding Chairman, The Polonsky Foundation said: “Our Foundation is proud to support this important collaboration between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This project brings together riches of these great institutions and makes them available to researchers and the wider public in innovative and attractive ways, benefiting from the extraordinary technological advances of digitisation. It continues the centuries-long cultural exchange of these two nations and demonstrates their profound mutual influence.”

Among the manuscripts digitised in full by this project are no fewer than 15 of the items currently on display in the British Library’s blockbuster exhibition: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, which runs to 19 February 2019.

Along with the online offering, the project has also resulted in the publication of a fully-illustrated book, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France, by Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël (176 pages, 80 images, £10), available in French as Enluminures médiévales: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library manuscrits médiévaux anglais et français entre 700 et 1200 (Paris, 2018).    

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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 nearly 5 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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