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Introduction to the cataloguing of medieval manuscripts

How – indeed, why – do we describe medieval manuscripts? How have these conventions evolved? And what functions might a catalogue entry fulfil?


This course will help you to establish good practice in identifying, gathering, interpreting and sorting physical and other evidence contained in manuscripts, enabling you to undertake medieval manuscripts research in a systematic and methodical manner. It will provide an overview of the development of manuscript description as a discipline, explaining how its rules and conventions have evolved. You will study the various ways in which information about manuscripts has been presented, and learn how to read and comprehend published catalogues and the work of other manuscripts researchers. The course will take you through the process of compiling a description step by step, using both digital facsimiles and manuscripts from Senate House Library.


Through hands-on workshops, this course provides the opportunity to begin the process of independent manuscript study, analysis and description in a supported environment. You will put into practice the theoretical skills that you have learned, in the process of compiling a detailed description of medieval manuscripts.

Knowledge of codicology and the processes of book production will be essential and prospective participants are strongly encouraged to attend the course, Introduction to the codicology of medieval manuscripts.


Some familiarity with and ability to read medieval handwriting would be helpful, but is not essential.


Essential Reading

The Cambridge Companion to Medieval British Manuscripts, ed. by Orietta da Rold and Elaine Treharne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020):

  • Richard Beadle and Ralph Hanna, ‘Describing and cataloguing medieval English manuscripts: a checklist’, pp. 13-38.

  • Donald Scragg, ‘Reading a manuscript description’, pp. 39-48.

Orietta da Rold, ‘Tradition and innovation in cataloguing medieval manuscripts’, Anglia: Journal of English Philology, 139 (2021), 32-58.


Ralph Hanna, ‘Manuscript catalogues and book history’, The Library, 7th ser., vol. 18 (2017), 45-61.

N.R. Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969-2002), vol. 1: London (1969), pp. vii-xiii.

Recommended further reading

Earlier developments in manuscript description:


E.A. Lowe, Codices Latini antiquiores: a palaeographical guide to Latin manuscripts prior to the ninth century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-), Part II: Great Britain and Ireland (1935), pp. v-viii.


A.I. Doyle (and †N.R. Ker), ‘Introduction to Neil Ker’s elements of medieval English codicology (1944)’, English Manuscript Studies, 14 (2008), 244-250.


Richard Gameson, ‘The study of early British books’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, 7 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999-2019), vol. 1: c. 400-1100, ed. by Richard Gameson (2011), pp. 709-722.

James Freeman, ‘Unpublished descriptions of western medieval manuscripts at Cambridge University Library’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 17 (2020), 131-157.