Devotion and Digitisation: Medieval Prayer Manuscripts and their Online Images

On the 8th of March, I gave a keynote paper at a two-day workshop at Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Düsseldorf, titled ‘Devotion and Digitisation: Medieval Prayer Manuscripts and their Online Images’.  I’ve written elsewhere that, whenever I publish a formal academic work, I back it up with a ‘non-identical twin’, an accompanying blogpost which handles the same subject in a more informal way, and with the aid of images; why not do the same for this paper?

What I set out to do was set out some similarities between the medieval monk or nun, sitting in front of their prayerbook with the mind intent upon God, and the modern-day student of manuscripts, sitting in front of their computer with the mind intent upon the Middle Ages – and I found a lot of parallels!

Most of the manuscripts which I study in my work are collections of short texts: prayers, books of psalms and psalm excerpts, and medical remedies.  Manuscripts containing longer works, such as histories and theology, were divided up into shorter sections, just as modern books are divided up into chapter today.  But one of the special things about handwritten manuscripts is that, although they were considerably more labour-intensive to copy than a typewritten book, the scribes and artists used their skills to the fullest in order to help the reader to navigate the page and find their place in the book easily.  Medieval manuscripts are rightly praised for the beauty of their script and decoration, but these had a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one.

How, for example, do you show where one text, or section of a larger work, begins and another ends?  Large opening initials, often coloured or inhabited, allow the eye to perceive immediately where to find the start of each one. The scribe can differentiate between the main text and any paratext which accompanies it (such as a title, a short description of the text, or some instructions for how to say it) by writing it in a different colour, usually red.  Alternatively, coloured inks can be used simply to mark the opening lines of a text.

Medieval prayer with introduction in alternating red and green lines
London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 177v

All of this must have been pretty handy for the medieval reader, flipping through their book looking for that prayer, that remedy, that psalm.  But it is also handy for us modern readers, because they can suggest to us where the scribe conceived of one text beginning and another ending.  They can also imply which texts were considered to be more important than others.  For example, in my recent post on the Book of Cerne, I noted that the Lorica of Laidcenn in that manuscript is given a decorated headpiece, unlike any other prayer in that part of the manuscript.

Coloured headpiece from the top of a manuscript page, with the start of a prayer, and zoomorphic designs woven into the opening letter S
Cambridge, University Library MS Ll. 1. 10, f. 43r

This headpiece marks out the text, perhaps because it was regarded as particularly important, or because the user needed to be able to find it easily.

After the opening line on the headpiece, the next line is written in the late Roman script known as half-uncial, after which the remainder of the text is in an insular minuscule script.  This process, known as a hierarchy of scripts, is a commonplace way of beginning a new text, particularly an important one.  This is especially obvious in psalters: as discussed in an earlier post, these are divided into three (at the first, fifty-first, and 101st psalms).  These begin with a large, decorated initial, followed by large text in a high-grade script, and perhaps then slightly less large text in another high-grade script, before reverting to the manuscript’s usual style of writing.

London, British Library Harley MS 2904, f. 125r

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, different kinds of script were also used to differentiate between Latin and English: Caroline minuscule (a continental script) for the former, and an insular minuscule script for the latter.

Opening of prayer in 11th-century manuscript, with Anglo-Saxon gloss in small writing between the lines
London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 175v

However, as I wrote a couple of years ago, the Winchcombe Psalter does something rather different: it uses a mostly similar script for the Latin version of the psalm and its English gloss, and even the same script size, but with the main text in black and the gloss in red.

Text of the psalms in Latin in black ink, with an Old English translation in red ink between the lines
Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, f. 59v

And, of course, many manuscript users, both in the Middle Ages and in later times, wrote notes in the margin or between the lines, whether to comment on the text, to help find their place, or simply because they wanted to doodle.

All of these things help the reader to find their way around the text and the manuscript more easily, identifying where texts begin, and marking out those which were most important.  Modern-day digitisations of manuscripts are likewise designed to work in the same way.  A good example of this is the Polonsky Foundation pre-1200 England and France digitisation programme, a joint project between the British Library and Bibliothèque nationale de France, on which I worked between February and November 2018; many other similar websites are being created today with similar functions.

Thumbnail images, across the bottom of the page or on a side panel, allow us to skim through a manuscript and find the parts which we want: there, large initials and miniatures stand out as we skim through, just as they stood out for the original medieval users.

The website of the Polonsky Foundation England and France project, showing the thumbnail images of manuscript pages
Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200

The Polonsky Foundation site allows users to select and annotate the images which they are looking at, just as medieval readers added marginalia and glosses to their books.

Polonsky Foundation England and France website, showing the annotation feature
Polonsky Foundation England and France 700-1200

Many manuscript viewing windows now come with side panels including information about a work or listing its contents, with links taking you straight to the relevant part of the manuscript.

The manuscript viewer of Cambridge University Library, with contents page showing
Cambridge University Digital Library

But one of the greatest things about the newest generation of digitisation viewers is that they can be divided into separate windows, allowing more than one manuscript to be viewed side by side.  This way, we can compare two different manuscripts with ease.




Thanks to the IIIF conventions for presenting file metadata, any digital item from one IIIF-compatible site can be viewed alongside an item from another IIIF-compatible site.  The British Library and the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, recently wrote two parallel blogposts explaining how a single Anglo-Saxon manuscript, split in half in the early modern period and now divided between the two institutions, can be reunited digitally on your own computer, just as they were temporarily physically reunited during the British Library’s exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons this winter.



Have a go yourself with London, British Library Cotton MS Otho C V and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 197B!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you for sharing these beautiful texts with us!


  2. Dawn Burgoyne says:

    Not only very interesting but informative too – it’s not often I’ve seen green script . Thoroughly enjoyed it thank you.


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