The Andrew W.Mellon Foundation | The Neil Ker Memorial Fund

Medieval Libraries of Great Britain

This is the beta-version of a new digital resource, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. The website is still under construction and it is important that users are aware of the current extent of the data.

Medieval libraries are attested first by their surviving books and second by surviving medieval catalogues of the collections. The intention of this resource is to unite these complementary fragments in a way that allows the evidence to be approached in an integrative manner. It brings together two standard research tools for medieval libraries: Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain and the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues. The Royal Historical Society handbook Medieval Libraries of Great Britain by Neil Ker lists, by its modern shelf-mark, every manuscript that bears evidence of its institutional home in the middle ages. The first edition was published in 1941; it was revised and augmented in 1964, and a Supplement was published by Andrew Watson in 1987. Preparing this handlist involved examining thousands of medieval manuscripts for physical or textual evidence of their original medieval provenance. The information was recorded on cards, still retained in the Bodleian Library. The evidence harvested in this way allowed lists to be drawn up of extant medieval books arranged according to the libraries they had belonged to. The user has always needed to instruct himself in Ker’s method in order to make best use of the handbook. It is a model of lucidity, but the detailed evidence, including that on which the provenances themselves were established, could not be given space. Each extant book is indicated by its modern shelf-mark and followed by a brief indication of its contents in a few words: ‘Augustinus etc.’; ‘Medica’; ‘Sermones’. The evidence by which the provenance was established is signalled by an italic letter-code. For example, should the book contain an ex libris inscription, an italic letter e supplies that clue to the reader. It has been a limitation of the handbook that the user, should he want to understand and interrogate that evidence for himself, cannot do other than go either to the modern manuscript catalogue, or to the medieval books themselves, or to the file cards on which Ker and his contributors recorded their judgements. This digital version will allow the user to access more information about the evidence of provenance, about the contents of the medieval book, and about how it was catalogued, shelf-marked, and shelved in its medieval library setting, than was permitted by the concision of the printed editions.

There is the further prospect of joining to this evidence from surviving books the evidence provided by the medieval catalogues. Medieval booklists are printed in the volumes of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (1990– ), a British Academy project published by the British Academy under the General Editorship of Richard Sharpe, and now within sight of completion. The cumulative index of identified authors and works, known as the List of Identifications, contains more than 30,000 entries for provenanced copies of about 7,500 texts, and it is still growing. In its current extent, it is available from the ‘Medieval Catalogues’ tab on the Homepage.

Searchability by author or title will be possible across the whole dataset, opening to scholars the means of discovering at a glance all known copies of a particular author or work that can be provenanced to a particular medieval library. It is envisaged that a user with the electronic list-index open should be able to click on index entries marked to show that the book survives and be connected immediately to the MLGB entry for the actual book, so linking documentary record and physical survival. The hope is that the database will therefore grow in value and be useful not only to historians wanting to know about the library of a particular house, but also to scholars who are interested in the reception history of particular authors or texts.

The current status of the website

The first phase of work has been to transcribe the data from the 8,000 file-cards on which Ker and his collaborators recorded the evidence for provenance from the extant medieval books. This is now accessible from the database. Where that evidence derives from inscriptions, Ker and his collaborators sometimes did not transcribe precisely. It needs to be made clear that the transcriptions here represent the record of the file-cards; they have only been verified against the originals in the cases where an accompanying image has been uploaded. It is the hope that every transcription will be checked against its original in course of time. While the great number of file-cards are now uploaded, some few await treatment. For the time being, users are advised to cross-refer to the printed editions to ensure that they have all the information.

There are other areas of coverage where this resource is not yet comprehensive, as follows.

Image coverage is partial. The ambition is to have as many images as possible, where permissions are granted, of the respective pieces of evidence for provenance. So far, images have been uploaded from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and from the British Library (as available under the creative commons licence). Further images from the British Library, as well as the Bodleian Library, Lambeth Palace Library, and Cambridge University, are being collected. Owners and custodians of books who would like to contribute images are kindly invited to contact Dr James Willoughby by email at

Augmented contents descriptions are available so far for the cathedrals of Lincoln, Hereford, Worcester, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Ker did not include in his handlist those books belonging to the medieval colleges of Oxford and Cambridge that have been in situ since the middle ages, although he did report collegiate books that had migrated to other libraries. This was a logical inconsistency, albeit an understandable economy, given how much those books would have swollen the pages of a printed edition. It is the intention that the digital third edition will include these books, manuscript as well as print. In the first instance, the manuscripts are being added; the printed books will be added in separate campaigns in the future.

Ker’s lists of rejected manuscripts is not included here, because it has proved difficult to keep those books distinctive and separate in any data-sort. The intention is that they will be accessible in the future in a separate flat file. Parish church libraries have also not yet been included.

It will be necessary also to take proper account of the books in Scottish medieval libraries, which Ker omitted where cross-reference was possible to J. Durkan & A. Ross, Early Scottish Libraries (Glasgow, 1961).

Books that have come to light or been provenanced since 1987 are not yet added.

On the medieval libraries side, the database represents the current extent of publication of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues. Still to be published, and therefore absent here, are the booklists from the university and college libraries of Oxford, the secular cathedrals, the libraries of the friars, and the cathedral priories of Durham and Canterbury.

Operating therefore within the scope of these current limitations, the database is made publicly available.

The project is directed by Professor Richard Sharpe and Dr James Willoughby, with the assistance of Dr Daniela Mairhofer and Peter Kidd. The digital resource was built by Xiaofeng Yang and Sushila Burgess of Bodleian Digital Library Systems and Services. It has been made possible by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Neil Ker Memorial Fund.

Scholars and librarians are particularly encouraged to send corrections and addenda to