– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

special collections study session

Copy of DSCN9107

setting up at the medieval books end


setting up at the early printed end

 Today saw another group of Balliol undergraduates – second-year English students this time – visiting St Cross for an introduction to medieval and early printed books. A selection of manuscript and printed books was on display, and library staff and tutors collaborated on teaching two 45-min sessions, with the students swapping ‘stations’ halfway through. I was talking the whole time, so didn’t get any photos of students engaging with manuscripts – and I would have liked to hear the EPBs presentation! The students were able to see early editions of texts they are studying this term, and although Balliol’s medieval books don’t run much to literary works, they will be following up this more general introduction to handling, navigating and using medieval books with a visit to the Bodleian next week, where they will be able to see manuscripts of texts they know.

Copy of ms-348

MS 348 – pocket-size Bible, demonstrating VERY tiny writing and painted initials

Outline of introduction to medieval book production

Preparing to write

  • Making parchment
  • Assembling pages: bifolium, quire/gathering, collation, hair/flesh sides

Copy of mss-264

MS 264 – particularly good catchword, more or less engulfed in a dragon doodle

Tools & Materials

  • Parchment/vellum
  • Quill pen
  • Paper
  • Inks
  • Paints
  • Gold leaf
  • ink horns, knife, book stand, pounce (pumice), awl, ruler, dry point


MS 228 – showing pricking, ruling, inkwork capitals, alternating red & blue initials


  • Page sequence
  • Scribal error
  • Types of correction
  • Palaeography
  • Abbreviations
  • Rubrics, leaving space for initials/diagrams
  • Scribe vs limner
  • Book curses, provenance notes, scribal colophons, University Chest pawn notes

Copy of DSCN9110

MS 93 – marginal drawing


  • navigation: pagination/foliation, contents list, index
  • gloss/commentary/interlinear notes/annotations/marginalia
  • index, headings, rubrics, mnemonic annotations/symbols/figures, manicula, catchwords

Copy of mss-235MS 235 – diagrams within & related to text, incorporating drollery/grotesque figures


  • Penwork: initials, doodles, calligraphic figures & faces
  • unfinished decoration
  • illuminated initial
  • historiated initial
  • miniature
  • diagrams
  • marginal images & relationship to text

Copy of DSCN9108

MS 81 – unfinished border decoration showing planning stages, space left blank for initial; bas-de-page dragon added later


  • structure
  • pastedowns & flyleaves
  • security – clasps, chains

Copy of DSCN9111

MS 301, showing vandalism, painted border, later index, main text with surrounding gloss

Now that we’ve had a successful first go with enthusiastic participation and lots of questions from students, plans are already in train for some good props for looking at early binding structures and techniques, as well as an online overview of medieval book production basics with lots of illustrations from Balliol’s collections. There are already several good online guides to the topic, but drawing illustrations together from widely dispersed digital collections is not always easy, so we’ll play to our strengths. Link will be posted here when it’s ready.

Some sources & further reading:

General introductions to medieval books’ production, construction, use

Specialist blogs & sites

Introductions to archival research:

More about Balliol’s special collections:

Copy of DSCN9117

a few printed resources for manuscript studies

Medieval books on display:

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