Table of Contents


Liturgical Facsimiles

Musical Notation

The Exultet Rolls of Southern Italy

The Apocalypse

Lay Piety

Learning Latin

Daily Life

Vernacular Literature

Index of Scripts

Chronological Index

Geographical Index

Access to the Middle Ages:

Medieval Manuscripts in Facsimile

Based on an exhibit prepared by Dr. Marina Smyth, Librarian of the Medieval Institute
with the assistance of
Catherine Kavanagh and Kathleen Tonry, graduate students in the Medieval Institute

In the Exhibit Room of the Department of Special Collections,
on the ground floor of the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame

Summer & Fall 1997


Medieval Manuscripts
Up until the end of the Middle Ages, when the art of printing first allowed a measure of mass production, books were made by hand one at a time. Every manuscript is therefore unique: even when the scribes and artists copied a model text or image, the result is marked by their own taste and training, not to mention the wishes of their patron. The medieval manuscripts that survive are also precious because of the mere fact of being old; they are witnesses to a culture which prevailed a long time ago (from about AD 500 to AD 1500) and strongly influenced the world in which we now live. In addition to transmitting the texts which interested people at that time, many of these manuscripts still provide much aesthetic pleasure, due to their fine layout and script, and of course, the illuminations.

Not all manuscripts were as beautiful as those represented in this exhibit. Most of them were simply functional, and quite plain; they are sometimes so full of abbreviations as to be unintelligible except to those familiar with the handwriting and the conventions of the particular scribe. With the exception of reproductions intended strictly for specialized scholarly use -- which are also represented here -- facsimile copies of medieval materials have concentrated on the illuminated manuscripts, so that the visual impressions created by this exhibit will, of necessity, largely reflect the wealthy classes during the Middle Ages.

Manuscripts in Facsimile
Art history, as well as interest in the Middle Ages, blossomed during the nineteenth century. There was a demand for reproductions of medieval art, and also for samples of the various scripts. While the standards and expectations for manuscript reproductions -- or facsimiles -- have certainly risen since the nineteenth century, the central goal has remained the same: to facilitate access to manuscripts that are unique in their visual and historical characteristics and are dispersed in libraries throughout the world.

By focusing on facsimiles instead of the manuscripts themselves, this exhibit hopes to highlight the historical development of facsimile technology, as well as the central place of facsimiles in the study of the Middle Ages. Manuscripts need to be carefully preserved, and libraries must be quite restrictive in allowing scholars to consult the originals. Much of the work that needs to be done -- studying the layout, comparing scripts, etc. -- can be done with an accurate facsimile without the risk of damage to the original. Moreover, the publication of a facsimile usually involves the simultaneous publication of a companion volume bringing together and updating the scholarship on various aspects of the original. And, of course, facsimiles also appeal to those who love beautiful books for their own sake.

Facsimile Technology
Lithography (first developed around 1800) soon became the preferred process in the production of facsimiles. A drawing is first made of the desired image, which is then traced in reverse onto a smooth stone slab ("lithos" means stone in Greek); in order to accomodate cylindrical rotary presses, the stone was eventually replaced by plates of more flexible metal alloys. The chemicals used in this process ensure that the areas to be printed are completely ink-repellent. After the plate is inked, the image is printed on paper. Chromolithography, the adaptation of this process to the production of color facsimiles, was first used in the 1830s, and yielded some lovely images when it was perfected. It still depended, however, on the care and accuracy of the artist reproducing the original image, so that it did not always satisfy the rising expectations for realistic reproduction fanned by the birth of photography in the late nineteenth century. It took a long time to develop the techniques and chemical processes which allowed the transfer of the photographed image onto the printer's plate. Collotype and heliogravure were among the earlier processes, expensive, but with very pleasing results. In some form or other, photolithography is now the most commonly used method for high-quality reproduction, and even though computers are often called upon to assist in the task, the human element remains of paramount importance for obtaining good results, not least the care of the photographer who first records the image.

The Golden Book of the Pfäfers

The Life of Mathilda of Canossa

The Sea Map of Andrea Benincasa

Chronik des Constanzer Concils

Palaeographia sacra pictoria

The Book of Kells (1951 facsimile)

Descriptive Remarks on Illuminations in Certain Ancient Irish Manuscripts

The Book of Kells (1990 facsimile)


For questions or comments about this site e-mail: The Medieval Institute Library

The Library of the Medieval Institute