Skip to Main Content

Medieval Manuscript Research

Locating and using manuscripts and the digital middle ages


Codex: Book constructed of a number of sheets of paper, or similar materials, typically reserved for manuscripts. 

Book of Hours: Devotional text often enriched with images and intended for private use. 

Facsimile: An exact copy of written or printed material.

Folio: General term for a page, sheet, or leaf of paper, especially in manuscripts.

Historiated Initials: An initial or enlarged letter at the beginning of a paragraph or section of text that contains a picture.

Illuminated Manuscript: Manuscript enriched with images, including pictures, embossed initial letters, or full-page images.

Incipit: Opening words of a text, manuscript, early printed book, or chanted liturgical text.

Index/Manicule: Symbol, often of a hand, directing the reader's attention to a section of text.

Paleography: The study of ancient and historical handwriting, including deciphering, reading, and dating historical texts. 

Recto: Right-hand or front page of a hand-written or printed loose-leaf paper bound in a codex, pamphlet, broadsheet, or book.

Rubrication: Medieval manuscript technique designed to create emphasis in text with the addition of read headings.

Scroll: A roll of paper, parchment, or papyrus containing writing.

Shelf Mark: Notation such as numbers and letters on a book showing its place in a library.

Verso: Left-hand or back page of a hand-written or printed loose-leaf paper bound in a codex, pamphlet, broadsheet, or book.

Vellum: Prepared animal skin or membrane used as a material for writing.

Locating Manuscripts in Collections On-Site and Online


On this page, users can find guide to locating manuscripts through Catalog Keyword Searches, Finding Manucripts by Shelfmark Number, and select Terminology relevant to manuscript studies. Many reference guides for shelfmark searches are grouped together in the 4th Floor Classics Reading Room, especially sources in Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Additional sources in these languages can be found on the 3rd Floor reference shelves (mainly English sources and dictionaries) and in additional copies in the Bookstacks throughout the library, but especially in the B Level. The sources on this page are a select list of recently published catalogs and frequently cited catalogs. 

Catalog Keyword Searches

There are a few options for searching for manuscripts in online catalogs in libraries such as the University of Chicago Library, or databases like WorldCat.

Begin by finding the advanced search window. If you already know the title of the manuscript you are searching for, limit the search results by using the keywords "archives/manuscripts" (UChicago catalog) or "archival materials" (Worldcat) and changing the search field to subject. To find facsimiles of manuscripts you can follow the same steps by entering "facsimiles" as the subject instead (although this may not be an option in all library catalogs). 

Example from the University of Chicago


Results are a preliminary list of Italian manuscripts in the library's Special Collections holdings. Once on the results page, you can also adjust the finding settings to sort by Relevance, Date Descending, Date Ascending, Call NumberAuthor, or Title in order to control the results order.

Without a manuscript title you can still browse a library's holdings of manuscripts, by using the advanced search window to narrow the search results. Follow the steps above to locate only manuscripts or facsimiles, but try adding additional limits such as languages and location (most manuscripts are held in Special Collections holdings, whereas facsimiles can often be found in the bookstacks). You can also narrow a search by selecting an approximate window for the year of publication. Any of these steps used individually or in combination with one another will limit search results to manuscripts in the library's holdings that reflect the entered keyterms. 


Finding Manuscripts by Shelfmark Number

Medieval manuscripts can be found in several ways:

1. Check for the manuscript shelfmark, or series of numbers or letters (or a combination of both) that determine its place in the library. This sequence is useful for locating manuscripts on-site in libraries and museums, and can also be used in search engines to search for specific manuscripts in digitized collections. 

  • Manuscript shelfmarks are typically listed in the following order: name or letters indicating repository location, object type, and manuscript number.
  • For example, the University of Chicago's manuscript of the Roman de la Rose has the following shelfmark: University of Chicago, Ms. 1308. (Digitized version: here)
  • Some shelfmark numbers also include language abbreviations such as "Fr." for French or "Lat." for Latin. For example, a shelfmark for a different manuscript of the Roman de la Rose: Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 178  (Digitized version: here)

2. Most major repositories have published manuscript catalogs, which list their holdings and give brief descriptions of their contents. Some of these catalogs have been digitized but many remain in print form and can be found in reference areas of libraries. Each catalog typically contains an introduction that explains how the manuscripts in its holdings are organized, whether by name, origin, language, or provenance. This information may help you determine how to narrow down your search if you do not already have a shelfmark.

3. If you have a manuscript shelfmark, use it to look up the specific manuscript in a repository catalog. Looking up the manuscript may provide you with further bibliographical information as well as specific information of the contents of the manuscript, such as number of pages, illuminated images, and materials. 

4. You can also look up manuscripts with individual shelfmarks in digitized collections. Use the asteriks to narrow your search to specific terms. For example, using *ill in your search will narrow your search to manuscripts containing illuminated images. 

Regenstein 4th Floor Classics Reading Room

Select reference guides to manuscript collections located in the 4th floor reading room. These items must be consulted at the library, however many are also available in the stacks.  




Italian Collections



Newberry Library

Pierpont Morgan Library

Regenstein Reference - Third Floor (M-Z)

Regenstein Bookstacks - B Level

Finding Illuminated Manuscripts

Unknown. Decorated Initial D. MS Ludwig V 1, fol. 9. First quarter of 11th century, French. Tempera colors, gold, silver, and ink on parchment. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 
For information about working with illuminated images, see this guide's page on image use including resources for archiving images pre- and post research, a list of data bases with digitized image collections, and tips for using images in research, publication, and teaching.

Subject Specialist

Profile Photo
André G. Wenzel