Medieval Manuscripts in America

By Julie Somers

Last week, a post by provided a map of the United States with all of the available programs offered in medieval studies. There are quite a number of institutions that have either a Certificate, M.A. or PhD option. However, once you have chosen your program in the States, now the question is how to access the primary sources needed for your research. Do you get your passport ready and brush up on your foreign languages? Do you start frantically looking for travel funding? No need to panic. In fact, there are a lot of medieval codices and fragments available to the American researcher. Many collections in America have works that range from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries. The collections include Bibles, psalters, graduales, commentaries, books of hours, charters, and many other medieval texts. Various museum libraries, university libraries and public libraries can provide access to the real thing. Plus, many have an added bonus of  images available online.

An important resource to identifying what is held in American collections is the work by Seymor de Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. Beyond that, an internet search of various library catalogs can reveal the options state by state or by region. The United States can roughly be categorized into four regions: the west, midwest, south, and the northeast. Medieval codices, single pages, and fragments are available to researchers in all of these regions.

Regions of the United States

Regions of the United States

For example, in the west, the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division has 63 medieval manuscripts, including a single leaf from a French missal ca. 1285. Images are available through their digital collection under Historical Book Arts. In Oregon, a researcher could access the manuscripts available at The Burgess Manuscript Collection at the University of Oregon library which has 34 western European manuscripts, including three works from the twelfth century. California has both university and museum library collections available to a researcher. The Huntington Library in San Marino is one of the top collections of medieval manuscripts in the west. Other resources include The J. Paul Getty Museum, UC Los Angeles, and UC Berkeley. UC Santa Barbara also holds various medieval manuscripts including the ‘Santa Barbara Bible’ dated ca. 1250. Searchable databases of manuscript collections in the United States and world wide, The Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts and the Digital Scriptorium, are both maintained by universities in the California system, UCLA and UC Berkeley.

Santa Barbara Bible ca. 1250

Santa Barbara Bible ca. 1250

The south has many primary resources available to the medieval researcher. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas holds approximately 215 manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods, many of which are also online. Perhaps less well known is the collection at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas which has a Flemish book of hours dated from ca. 1420-1430. Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has a small collection of manuscripts in their Fine Arts Gallery while, in Florida, the University of South Florida Libraries hold a manuscript collection they call ‘Sacred Leaves’. The University of Virginia Rosenthal Collection, and the University of Mississippi have large fragment collections ranging from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. Also in the south, or more mid-Atlantic region, Maryland has many collections that are valuable to medieval manuscript studies such as The Walters Art Museum, which holds over 900 medieval manuscripts, with a digital collection that is easy to search and view. Also, Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries and The U.S. National Library of Medicine in Bethesda have useful collections including medieval medical texts. Of course, there is also the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. with quite a large collection as well.

Stark Museum of Art - Book of Hours

Stark Museum of Art, 11.900.6 – Book of Hours

In the midwest region, large manuscript collections exist in Illinois at the Newberry Research Library in Chicago with approximately 250 medieval texts and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Other valuable resources in the midwest are The Westermann Medieval Studies Collection at University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Minnesota. In addition, Ohio State University has a medieval manuscript collection of approximately 800 leaves and 24 codices.

Newberry Library MS 132 ca. 1450-1498 Vellum roll

Newberry Library MS 132 ca. 1450-1498 Vellum roll

In the Northeast region, there are numerous collections in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. The New York Public Library has a large number of medieval manuscripts, including Bibles, Psalters, graduales, scientific works and much more. Plus free and open access to more than 2,000 digital images are available on-line through the NYPL Digital Gallery. Also in New York is The Morgan Library and Museum. Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections in New Jersey, Harvard College in Massachusetts and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Connecticut all hold valuable resources for the medieval scholar. In 2001, The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) conducted a survey project on the holdings of libraries and special collections in Philadelphia. The Free Library of Philadelphia has the area’s largest collection of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts in their Rare Book Department.

Bible Italy, Padua or Venice c. 1260-80 FLP Lewis, E36, f. 126

Bible Italy, Padua or Venice c. 1260-80
FLP Lewis, E36, f. 126

In addition to the degree programs and the special collections available to medieval researchers in America, regional associations exist such as the Mid-America Medieval Association, the Medieval Association of the Pacific and the Southeastern Medieval Association. Also, there is, of course, the Medieval Academy of America and the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo that hold large annual conferences for all medieval scholars to attend.

These are just a few examples of the medieval manuscripts available in American collections, there are many more. It is important to note, while many of these libraries and special collections strive to provide access to the public, most are available by appointment only. Always check their consultation policies and request the books well in advance. There are many valuable medieval resources in America. I hope you can visit one near you!


*Monday addition! Another great resource provided by Lisa Fagin Davis and the Medieval Academy of America.

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