Special collections: Classical and medieval manuscripts

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.

British and Irish manuscripts

Most of the medieval manuscripts acquired in the library’s early years were English in origin, for one reason: the dissolution of the monasteries (and thus of their libraries) under Henry VIII. Bodley’s library, founded only a few decades later, was identified by religious and antiquarian book-collectors as a means of preserving the medieval written heritage. In this sense, the description of Bodley by his friend Francis Bacon as one who had ‘built an ark to save learning from deluge’ is particularly apt.

Books of monastic provenance which entered the library in its first century include treasures such as the monumental Romanesque Bible from Winchester (MSS. Auct. E. inf. 1-2), and the only one of the four major sources of Old English poetry to be illustrated – the so-called ‘Caedmon manuscript' (MS. Junius 11), given by the pioneering 17th-century Dutch philologist Francis Junius. The library also acquired administrative documents, including charters (some with seals) from a number of religious houses. These include four official 13th-century exemplars of Magna Carta.

Amongst the many additions over the years to the Bodleian’s holdings of English medieval manuscripts, perhaps the most famous are the illuminated manuscripts bequeathed by Francis Douce (1757–1834), which include masterpieces such as the early Gothic Douce Apocalypse (MS. Douce 180). For Irish manuscripts, the richness of the Bodleian’s collection derives above all from the bequest of Richard Rawlinson (1690–1755). Rawlinson’s manuscripts include some of the principal sources for the early and medieval history of Ireland, such as the Annals of Inisfallen (MS. Rawl. B. 503).

European manuscripts

Second in number only to the manuscripts from the British Isles are those from Italy. This is largely the result of the biggest single purchase of manuscripts (numbering over 2,000) ever made by the Bodleian. In 1817 the library bought the greater part of the collection of the Venetian one-time Jesuit Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727–c.1806). Canonici’s manuscripts include such treasures as the copy of the Notitia Dignitatum made in 1436 for Pietro Donato, Bishop of Padua (MS. Canon. Misc. 378). This document is of outstanding importance both for the history of the administrative organization of the late Roman Empire and for the Renaissance rediscovery of classical antiquity.

The Bodleian is also strong in its collections of medieval manuscripts from continental Europe north of the Alps. The bequest of Francis Douce is the richest single source of illuminated manuscripts, particularly French and Flemish manuscripts of the 14th and 15th centuries. But the library’s collection is just as important for its texts. It holds one of the foremost monuments of French literary culture in the shape of the earliest surviving manuscript of La Chanson de Roland, a small and scruffy manuscript which might have been carried in the pocket of a travelling jongleur (MS. Digby 23, part 2, given by Sir Kenelm Digby in 1634).

Medieval Germany is also well represented, above all by the manuscripts rescued after the depredations of German ecclesiastical libraries during the Thirty Years’ War and donated to the Bodleian by William Laud (1573–1645), Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of Oxford University. It was from Würzburg that Laud also acquired his famous manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles in Latin and Greek (MS. Laud Gr. 35), which had been written in Italy around 600 AD and perhaps subsequently used by Bede in 8th-century Northumbria; it may have reached Germany in the baggage of an Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Continent.

Greek manuscripts

The Bodleian’s Greek manuscripts are of two kinds. The classical papyri cover the full date range from the Ptolemaic to the Byzantine periods. Most are documents relating to the public or personal business of Graeco-Roman Egypt. The parchment codices from the Byzantine Empire constitute the largest collection in the British Isles. They include highlights of illumination such as the 12th-century Codex Ebnerianus of the New Testament (MS. Auct. T. inf. 1. 10), as well as key textual witnesses such as the Clarke Plato (MS. E. D. Clarke 39). Written in Constantinople in 895 AD, this is the oldest surviving manuscript for about half of Plato’s dialogues.

In the 20th century Greek manuscripts continued to be acquired, above all with the purchase of almost all the Greek volumes from the library of the Earls of Leicester at Holkham Hall.

Mesoamerican manuscripts

Beyond its large European and Byzantine collections, the Bodleian also contains a small but significant group of five Mesoamerican illuminated manuscripts. All of these reached the library in the 17th century, three of them in the collection of the lawyer and oriental scholar John Selden (1584–1654). In pride of place is the Codex Mendoza (MS. Arch. Selden. A. 1), prepared on the authority of Don Antonio de Mendoza, first Viceroy of New Spain, for despatch to the Emperor Charles V, which has been described as the ‘Rosetta stone’ of Aztec culture. 


In the past, medieval manuscripts were considered mainly as carriers of texts and illuminations. However, more recent years have seen a growing appreciation of these books as crafted objects in their own right, and in particular of their bindings. The Bodleian has a great wealth of medieval bindings, because it never embarked on the wholesale scheme of rebinding in more modern times that occurred in many other libraries. Alongside the plainer examples of wooden boards covered with leather, or of limp parchment, are a small number of treasure bindings of ivory, enamel, or metal, outstanding amongst which is a Carolingian ivory cover of Christ in Majesty (MS. Douce 176).