Medieval English Literary Manuscripts

For further information, visit the Rossell Hope Robbins Library at the University of Rochester, in Rush Rhees Library Room 416.

Manuscript Terminology

Determining What Manuscripts Exist for a Medieval Text

Finding Facsimiles or Microfilms

Some useful books



Manuscript Terminology


A manuscript is a document written by hand.

MS is the abbreviation for one manuscript, the plural is MSS.

Parchment is a writing material produced from the hides of cows, goats, or sheep. Parchment has a hair side (usually distinguishable by the presence of follicles) and a flesh side. The term "parchment" derives from Pergamum, an ancient city in Asia Minor (now Bergama in Turkey) where parchment is said to have been first produced. Vellum is fine parchment made from calfskin, lambskin or kidskin (though high-quality parchment from adult animals is sometimes referred to as "vellum"). Paper was introduced into the Iberian peninsula by the Muslims in the tenth century. It was not until the late fourteenth century that it was in widespread use in Europe.

A folio (plural is ff) is a large sheet of paper or parchment that has been folded once, forming two leaves or four pages.

The recto (from the ablative of the Latin rectus) is right-hand page and the verso (short for verso folio, on the turned leaf) is the left-hand page. The abbreviations r and v are usually used (sometimes a and b are used) to refer to the recto and verso when locating a particular work in a manuscript. Thus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is on ff. 91r-124v (or 91a-124b) of Ms. Cotton Nero A.x.

Illumination refers to the illustration of mss. with paintings or ornamentation. Paintings in mss. are often called "miniatures." "Miniature" derives from the verb miniare, "to color with red lead."

A rubric is a heading of a section, chapter, or other part of a ms. or book done or underlined in a color (usually red--the term comes from Latin ruber, "red") different from the rest of the ms.

A holograph is a manuscript handwritten by the author.

Paleography is the study of ancient handwriting; one example is the writing used in medieval manuscripts.

A colophon is an inscription written by a scribe, usually at the end of a manuscript.

An incunabulum is a book printed before 1501. Printing was introduced into Europe in the fifteenth century. The first printing press in Europe was operated by Johannes Gutenberg, beginning in about 1450. The first printing press in England was that of William Caxton, set up in Westminster in 1476. Type font and design of early printed books were influenced by manuscripts.


Determining what manuscripts exist for a medieval text

Old English texts:

Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon by N. R. Ker. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). (Robbins and Rhees Z106.K39c)

A Manual of Old English Prose by Karen J. Quinn and Kenneth P. Quinn. (New York: Garland, 1990). (Robbins PR221.Q5 1990)

Middle English Texts:

A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500. (Robbins and Rhees Ref PR 255 .S59m 1967)


Vol. 1: Romances
Vol. 2: The Pearl Poet. Wyclif and His Followers.
Vol. 3: Dialogues, Debates, and Catechisms. Thomas Hoccleve. Malory and Caxton.
Vol. 4: Middle Scots Writers. The Chaucerian Apocrypha.
Vol. 5: Dramatic Pieces. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions.
Vol. 6: Carols. Ballads. John Lydgate.
Vol. 7: John Gower. Piers Plowman. Travel & Geographical Writings. Works of Religious and Philosophical Instruction.
Vol. 8: Chronicles and Other Historical Writings.
Vol. 9: Proverbs, Precepts, and Monitory Pieces. English Mystical Writings. Tales.
Vol. 10: Works of Science and Information
Vol. 11: Sermons and Homilies

Middle English Lyrics:

The Index of Middle English Verse by Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins. New York: Printed for The Index Society by Columbia University Press, 1943. (Robbins and Reference PR1203.B87in)

Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse by Rossell Hope Robbins and John L. Cutler. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965. (Robbins and Reference PR1203.B87in suppl.)


Finding Microfilms or Facsmiles of Medieval MSS owned by UR


In the Voyager Catalog, records for manuscripts may be found by doing an Author search, the "author" being the name of the repository that has the manuscript. Use the name of the repository followed by the word "manuscript" and the name and/or number of the manuscript.


MS Bodley 343

Author search: bodleian library manuscript bodley 343
This will give you the records for the specific manuscript.
Author search: bodleian library manuscript
This will give you a list of all the records in Voyager for manuscripts in the Bodleian Library.

Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86

Author search: bodleian library manuscript digby 86
This retrieves both a facsimile reprint and a microfilm of the manuscript.

British Library additional manuscript 60577

Author search: british library manuscript additional 60577
or author search: british library manuscript additional

British Library Cotton Nero A. x

Author search: british library manuscript cotton nero a. x

British Museum MS Harley 2253

Author search: british library manuscript harley 2253
NOTE: Manuscripts that were in the British MUSEUM have been transferred to the British LIBRARY.

MS Gg.4.27, Cambridge University Library

Author search: cambridge university library manuscript gg.4.27

Corpus Christi College, Oxford, ms. 197

Author search: corpus christi college university of oxford manuscript 197

NOTE: The Robbins Library owns many microforms of manuscripts in collections that are not analyzed; that is, individual ms. names will not appear in the Voyager Catalog. Guides to these collections are available in the Robbins Library:


Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile. (Robbins Film DA 150 .A65 1994)

Arthurian Legends and the Influence of French Prose Romance:  The Grail, Lancelot, Tristan and Related Manuscripts from the British Library.  (Robbins Film .B8528 .A14 2005)

British Literary Manuscripts from the British Library, London. Series Three: The Medieval Age, c. 1150-1500
. (Robbins Ref Z 106 .B7472b)

The Early and Central Middle Ages, c. 650-c.1200 AD: The Manuscript Record. Parts One and Two: Manuscripts from Cambridge University Library. (Robbins Ref Z 106 .E27 1986)

British Literary Manuscripts from Cambridge University Library. Series One: The Medieval Age, c. 1150-1500. (Robbins Ref Z 106 .B7472c)

British Literary Manuscripts from the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. Part One: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts c. 1300-c.1700. (Robbins Ref Z 106 .B7472n)

Medieval Literary and Historical Manuscripts in the Cotton Collection, British Library, London
. (Robbins Ref Z 106.5 .G72 L663 1986)

Some useful books


On punctuation in manuscripts:

Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M. B. Parkes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. (Robbins and Rhees P 301.5 .P86 P37 1993)


On abbreviations in manuscripts:

The Elements of Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Paleography (translation of Lexicon abbreviatuarum) by Adriano Cappelli. Lawrence: University of Kansas Libraries, 1982. (Robbins and Rhees Z 111.C261 1982)


On common names of manuscripts:

Ocelli Nominum: Names and Shelf Marks of Famous/Familiar Manuscripts by Wilma Fitzgerald. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1992. (Robbins Reference and Rhees Z 106.F565)


On paleography:
English Cursive Book Hands 1250-1500 by M. B. Parkes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. (Robbins Z 115.E5 P37)


English Vernacular Hands: From the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Centuries by C. E. Wright. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960. (Robbins and Rhees Z 115E .W94e)


Explicatio Formarum Litterarum = The Unfolding of Letterforms: from the First Century to the Fifteenth by Rutherford Aris (Robbins Oversize Z 114 .A73 1990)

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