Lines of beauty: British Library’s medieval manuscripts go digital

Nothing brings a book of 900-year-old parchment to life as much as realising that you can still see the hair follicles of the unfortunate beasts who gave up their hides for it. The illuminated “Silos Apocalypse” manuscript may date from 1091, grapple with the end of the world and contain page after page of miniatures depicting devils, foxes, snakes and the angel of the abyss. But it is the marks on that long-dead animal skin that make its history really hit home.

The book is part of the British Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts. One of the greatest in the world, it features 25,000 books dating from before 1600, as well as numerous medieval charters and papyri. Some are the sole copy in existence, others are worth millions of pounds (how do you value something that is literally written in gold?). The only way for scholars or the rest of us to view them is via a pilgrimage up the Euston Road in London and into the reading room or gallery.

Book of Hours,'Use of Rome (The Golf Book), Crucifixion', c1540, in Latin

Until now, that is. British Library curators have long followed the mantra that nothing within the library should be inaccessible to the public (though in many cases, one has to apply). Their plan to digitise all the manuscripts – and place the high-quality, full-colour, completely-zoomable-down-to-the-last-animal-pore pages online for free – will make this much easier. “It’s a transformational thing … These are national, international, treasures,” says Claire Breay, head of medieval and earlier manuscripts. “Anybody can enjoy them whether they are the leading academic on some aspect of that manuscript … or a schoolchild doing a project.”

Two hundred of the highest-profile and most valuable manuscripts in the collection are currently undergoing digitisation. The six photographed exclusively for the FT can be viewed online from today, the first time readers all over the world will be able to see them in full. Among them is the Spanish “Silos Apocalypse”, as vivid and well-preserved as if the monk had just stopped for lunch. “You couldn’t go down to WH Smith and get that kind of yellow felt tip pen,” says Julian Harrison, curator of pre-1600 manuscripts. You’d have a similarly hard time finding the ink for the ninth-century “Harley Golden Gospels”, written in gold.

But the books offer us more than aesthetics. “The thing about medieval manuscripts is they’re about the whole range of human knowledge from the middle ages – history, literature, philosophy, religion, art … They are the primary sources for knowing about that period of history,” says Breay. The ultimate example of this is the Leonardo da Vinci notebook – complete with mirror handwriting, astronomical drawings and doodles that are actually an early study for the “Virgin of the Rocks”.

Petit Livre d’Amour, by Pierre Sala, c1500-18th century, in French and Italian

For sport-lovers, a Book of Hours from 1540 contains the first rendering of golf, in which tiny players show off their swings. Or for romantics, there is the Petit Livre d’Amour, with the initials of the lover and his mistress appearing alongside miniatures of the lovestruck suitor. “No wonder she married him,” says Kathleen Doyle, curator of illuminated manuscripts. Just don’t ask the curators to pick their favourite. “To me, that’s part of the point. You can’t pick because there’s so much and that can be so surprising to people,” Doyle says.

Many of these books have been treasured for centuries, on a shelf or inside a desk drawer. As such, they are often much less well known than paintings from the same periods, and much better preserved. “The illuminated manuscripts contain a fantastic number of works of art from the medieval period – far more than you’d find in the National Gallery,” says Breay. Doyle agrees. “Because they are in this form, they survived.” It was a close call for some though. In 1731, the Ashburnham House fire destroyed several manuscripts and singed the only copy of Beowulf known to exist. But it lives on, a headless man adorning one of its tattered pages. “Most people who’ve studied the poem will never have looked at the manuscript … They don’t realise it’s got all these other illustrations,” says Harrison. “Every time you look at a medieval manuscript, you see something you’ve never seen before.”

As more libraries put their collections online, the question remains of what happens to the institutions left behind. So far, digitisation of manuscripts has increased demand to see the originals. And for every reader turning pages in a hushed reading room, many more are clicking through them in the comfort of their homes or classrooms, with 100,000 visiting the British Library site to date. Some might even notice those follicles. As Harrison puts it, “They’re not museum objects, not something to be put in a case. They’re still a book. There’s still so much you can learn from it.”

Beatus of Liebana, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 'Silos Apocalypse', 1091-1109, in Latin
The Gospel of Luke, ‘Harley Golden Gospels’, first quarter of the ninth century, in Latin

Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine. To view the British Library’s collection of manuscripts, go to To read their blog, go to

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