Extremely rare medieval manuscripts now online

Stunning illuminations, medieval doodles, zodiac medical material, and advice to 12th century Knights Templar on the ‘superfluity’ of beards and moustaches can now be viewed in an extremely rare collection of medieval and early modern manuscripts online.

The National Library of Scotland digitised a collection of more than 240 precious manuscripts, which are available to view on nls.uk. The work was made possible by a generous donation from Alexander Graham. With the Scottish manuscripts in particular among the rarest, the collection contains items ranging from the 9th to the 16th century, but a few later transcriptions of important texts are also included. The resource includes manuscripts on a range of subjects such as medical manuscripts, the rule of Knights Templar, and rare survivors of the Reformation.

Rule of the Knights Templar.

Manuscripts Curator Dr Ulrike Hogg said: “This fascinating digitised collection is international in origin, though a large part of the volumes were written in Scotland. The survival rate of medieval Scottish manuscript volumes is generally low. For example, only one per cent of religious manuscripts of Roman Catholic use – many of which were systematically destroyed during and after the Scottish Reformation – are believed to still be in existence. It is difficult to estimate how many cultural treasures were lost during these times. The collection presented here includes a number of those fortunate survivors that have endured subsequent centuries. We’re delighted to make these extremely rare pieces of history publicly accessible online.”

Medieval Scottish book production

The collection includes:

•A 15th century folded medical/zodiac almanac, which probably belonged to a doctor based in northern England. Folded up, it could be worn on the belt.

•A selection of historical doodles showing rich period detail.

•A 12th century manuscript of the Rule of the Knights Templar order, including advice on the ‘superfluity’ of beards and moustaches.

•A 15th century psalter written and illuminated at Culross Abbey, Fife

•A tiny 15th century Book of Hours from Italy with lavish gold illumination

•An early 16th century manuscript written and illuminated in Dunkeld.

Book of Hours.

Dr Ulrike Hogg adds: “The digital images provide a new opportunity to gain some insight into medieval Scottish book production. The interests, tastes and knowledge of medieval scribes can be seen in these images, as well as the development of the medieval Scottish book hand and styles of illumination. The collection reveals much information on later owners of the manuscripts, who annotated them or added irreverent doodles as the volumes passed through their hands.”

The collection also includes volumes produced in England, France, Italy and northwest Europe, as well as Greece and Iceland. Many of these are finely decorated or of major textual significance.

The collection can be viewed at Early manuscripts – National Library of Scotland: www.nls.uk

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