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The Medieval Bookshelf: Home

Manuscripts of the Middle Ages in L. Tom Perry Special Collections


In an age when books had to be produced by hand, acquiring a library consumed many resources. Physical labor was required to prepare writing surfaces, which were made from stretched, scraped, and polished animal skins, as well as crafting inks and pens with which to write. Further time and labor went into ruling pages, copying out texts, and decorating the book (also called a codex; plural, codices) with colored ink, paints, and even gold leaf. What books would have been part of a typical medieval library?

In the early Middle Ages, monasteries were a major source for manuscripts because they typically possessed sufficient resources and manpower to produce books. Monks or nuns assigned as scribes worked in a scriptorium, copying out texts for the monastery’s use or perhaps for a wealthy patron. Medieval monastic libraries would have contained several copies of the Bible – the most important and most widely read book in medieval Europe. Monasteries and parish churches also possessed liturgical books, used in worship services. Cathedrals and monasteries celebrated the daily Liturgy of the Hours, which was composed of eight services of prayers, readings, hymns, and chants held at certain hours of the day or night. The Mass, or the celebration of the Eucharist, also incorporated song, readings, and prayers. Books containing the readings and music for these services include breviaries, missals, graduals, lectionaries, and antiphoners. Priests, monks, nuns, and other clerics might also own works related to church administration and worship, including books of canon law, sermons, and homilies. The core of the monastic library, however, would have been scriptural commentary and other writings of the Church Fathers (also called patristic writings). Fourth- through sixth-century scriptural commentary by such figures as Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Cassiodorus, and Gregory the Great generally shaped the thought of later medieval writers and were also used as university texts.

As universities began to flourish in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a new demand for schoolbooks for students arose. The Bible was the primary textbook for scholars and students. In the early 12th century, Anselm of Laon and his followers, teachers in French cathedral schools, compiled a scriptural commentary containing textual explanation and quotations from writings of the Church Fathers. The Glossa Ordinaria, as it was known, became a standard text for teaching and preaching the Bible and was inserted in manuscripts alongside the scriptural text. Later commentaries by Gilbert de la Porée and Peter Lombard replaced the Glossa Ordinaria in the school curriculum. Glossed bibles generally stopped being made during the mid-thirteenth century, but those copies were still used by students and clergy until the advent of printing.

Private libraries might have included a mix of religious and secular texts, including legal and historical texts and literature in Latin and the vernacular. However private libraries were more likely to include devotional books like Psalters or Books of Hours, which were geared toward private, rather than communal, worship practices.

About the medieval manuscripts in L. Tom Perry Special Collections

As part of our focus on collecting example of the history of the book, L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Brigham Young University has acquired a number of original medieval manuscripts, as well as a large number of fine art facsimiles of medieval manuscripts held by other institutions This guide provides a sampling of original and facsimile manuscripts held in Special Collections. Many items which were not included on this site can be found by searching the library catalog.

These historic materials are open to students, faculty, and other researchers for use in Special Collections' reading room. University faculty may also arrange with the curator for class presentations of these materials in Special Collections.


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Maggie Kopp
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