Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

26 September 2015

How to Make the Most of Digitised Manuscripts

What is Digitised Manuscripts?

One of the British Library’s most valuable electronic resources is our ever-growing Digitised Manuscripts website. It features complete digital copies and descriptions of thousands of manuscripts in the British Library’s collection, including almost 2,000 items curated by the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Section.


Portrait of Mark at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, from the Arnstein Bible (Job to Revelation), North-West Germany (Arnstein), c. 1172, Harley MS 2799, f. 166r

Some of the highlights from our collection are the Codex Alexandrinus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Articles of the Barons, the Book of Margery Kempe,  the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook.

Digitised Manuscripts allows you to access for free every single folio, flyleaf, and fragment of these magnificent manuscripts, any time day or night, anywhere in the world.

How do I find a manuscript?

If you know the manuscript you are looking for, enter the shelfmark in the ‘Manuscripts’ field of the search engine. You need to include ‘MS’ after the collection name. For example, enter ‘Cotton MS Nero C IV’ for the Winchester Psalter, or ‘Royal MS 19 C IV’ for Le Songe du vergier, attributed to Évrart de Trémaugon.

N.B. ‘Additional’ shelfmarks are abbreviated (without a full stop) to ‘Add MS [number]’.

If you do not know the shelfmark, enter the commonly used title of the manuscript or its main text in the ‘Keyword(s)’ field. If you search for ‘Beowulf’ you will find Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, the single witness of this famous piece of Anglo-Saxon literature. To find the Bedford Hours write ‘bedford+hours’, or for the 3 volumes of the Parc Abbey Bible, write ‘parc+abbey’ (if you do not add ‘+’, it will bring up every entry with either word). 

What other search options are available?

As well as providing complete coverage of some of the most important manuscripts in our collection, it is also possible to discover new items through the search engine. In addition to searching by shelfmark or keyword, you can also explore the collection by specifying content in the following fields:

Date range – restrict or expand the scope of your search by using the two slider controls. Limit your searches to a particular century or time period. For example, search for entries dated earlier than 600 AD, and discover amazing items such as this papyrus fragment with a drawing of a bear in the arena!

Title – enter any keywords to be matched against the item or text title. Entering ‘Apocalypse’ in this field will identify all of the items which include the Book of Revelations, such as the illuminated Abingdon Apocalypse.

Author/Scribe – enter any keywords to match against the names of the authors and scribes. A search of ‘Homer’ filters all of the items by this epic Ancient Greek author, including the 2nd century papyrus with the Bankes Homer.

Provenance/Acquisition – enter any keywords to match against the ownership field. You can search for the name of an individual or institution, or a specific geographical location. For example, the manuscripts made in ‘Bruges’ include this exceptional copy of the Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins.

Bibliography – enter any keywords to match against the bibliography field.

Papyrus_114_no frame

The Bankes Homer, 2nd century, Papyrus 114

Search Results

There are four options for viewing your search results: by manuscript, author, title, or date. The default option organises your results according to manuscript shelfmark. The author or title tabs display your findings alphabetically according to these two different fields. The date tab presents the items in chronological order, beginning with the earliest.

Once you have found your chosen manuscript(s), select the image or title on the search results page.

What information is included on the manuscript page?

Each entry begins with the date, title, and a description of both the text and the decoration. Below this you will find details of the language(s) in the manuscript, and its physical properties, such as the materials, dimensions, and type of binding. The next section traces the history of ownership, beginning with the geographical origin before moving on to the manuscript’s owners over the centuries and concluding with the date it entered the British Library’s holdings. At the end of every entry is a select bibliography.

How do I open the viewer?

To access the digital images you need to select the image of the manuscript which appears after the description of content. The Digitised Manuscripts viewer then opens in a new tab. You can also select ‘bindings’ to go directly to the front and back boards, and spine.   

The numbers used in the viewer reflect the modern foliation of the manuscript. Blank leaves are numbered according to the previous foliated leaf plus an asterisk (*), or if there are multiple blank leaves, the number of the previous foliated leaf is followed by a letter, beginning with ‘a’. Flyleaves are numbered with roman numerals. The binding is identified as ‘front’, ‘back’, ‘spine’, and ‘front-i’[nner] and ‘back-i’[nner].

What are the viewing options?

There are three different options for viewing each item. The default option is ‘Single’ page, which presents the individual images of the recto or verso pages of the manuscript. In the ‘View’ drop-down menu, you can also select ‘Open book’, which presents the opening of two adjacent pages. The third option is ‘Folio’, which allows you to view both the recto and verso sides of a given leaf.

The pages can be browsed using the arrows in the round circles at the top or by selecting a specific folio from the drop-down menu on the right.

The Digitised Manuscripts viewer offers a zoom facility. You can zoom in/out of a page using the scroll of your mouse or by using the magnifying glass with the ‘+’ or ‘-’ symbols.

  Eg 2019_f. 97 r and v

The ‘Folio’ viewing option allows you to compare the mirror-image borders on the recto and verso of a leaf from this petite Book of Hours, France (Paris), 1440-1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 97r and f. 97v 

Can I download images?

The Digitised Manuscripts viewer does not facilitate the download of images. Each image is formed of multiple tiles, which, whilst ensuring the excellent zoom facility, cannot be saved as a single file. The content in the Digitised Manuscripts viewer is intended for research and study purposes only. More information on the reuse of images can be found here:

If you are interested in purchasing a particular image, please direct your order to Imaging Services, or try Images Online, which has a large supply of images of individual pages readily available. 

How are manuscripts selected for digitisation?

The British Library prioritises the digitisation of our manuscripts, with the goal of providing users with access to the manuscripts in greatest demand as well as ensuring their preservation. This is a continuous process, which involves the selection of a number of key items each year.  

The majority of the manuscripts on Digitised Manuscripts have been digitised as part of large-scale projects, funded by external donors, such as the Greek Digitisation Project, the Harley Science Project and Royal Illuminated Manuscripts. An overview of these projects can be found here.

  Royal MS 15 E VI_f. 2v

Detail of a miniature of John Talbot, identified by his Talbot dog, presenting the book to queen Margaret, seated in a palace beside king Henry VI, and surrounded by the court, from the Talbot Shrewsbury book, France (Rouen), 1444-1445, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 2v

What other online resources are available?

Explore Archives and Manuscripts is the British Library’s online manuscript catalogue. In addition to detailed descriptions of the items in our collection, the ‘Copies’ field highlights if the manuscript has been digitised. 

The British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts contains images of over 2500 illuminated manuscripts, which are all in the public domain and available to download. Information on the reuse of images from the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is available here.


Thank you British Library! The digitised mss are gifts...I hope this post reaches a far wider audience than those who follow this blog.

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