History and scope
The Bodleian Library holds a highly important collection of manuscripts from medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire. It is the largest to be found in any university library in the world, and within the United Kingdom second only to the British Library. The manuscripts are mostly on parchment or paper and in codex form, and are written both in Latin and Greek and in the European vernaculars.
The collecting of manuscripts by the University of Oxford (as distinct from individual colleges) goes back to the construction of the room above the Divinity School to house the manuscript books donated by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester in the 15th century. Only a handful of Duke Humfrey’s books survive today.
The University’s library, ever since its re-foundation by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602, has continued to acquire medieval manuscripts, mostly through gift and bequest. Although the illuminated books attract the greatest public attention, it is the library’s accumulation through the centuries of more modest text manuscripts – the pastoral manual, the copy of a classical play, the vernacular poem, the charter, the legal textbook, the medical treatise – which makes it such a rich resource for the study of medieval culture.