by Eleonora Pedron & Marina Orhei

ENGLAND & FRANCE. A two-year project that drew together and digitized 800 manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France has been completed and is available for perusing online. The manuscripts, all dated between 700 and 1200, are being made available to the general public for the first time. Historically, manuscripts from this time were reserved for the upper classes, who could read and write. The manuscripts were illuminated using vivid color pigments and gold leaf, which gave the hand-crafted books an artistic flair.

An argument can be made that the popularity of manuscript illuminations paved the way for the great oil paintings of the Renaissance. The project, generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, has created two innovative websites. Using the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), the Bibliothèque nationale de France hosts a new website in French, “France et Angleterre: manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200”, that allows side-by-side comparison of 400 manuscripts from each collection, selected for their beauty and interest. This new website allows users to search the manuscripts in English, French and Italian, and to annotate and download images. The British Library has created a curated bilingual site, “Medieval England and France, 700–1200”, for a general audience that features highlights from some of the most important of these manuscripts, articles and videos. Both websites launched on 21 November 2018. Similar efforts are making it possible for the general public to examine these documents, which never would have been available to them 1,000 years ago. Even 10 years ago, only scholars and art historians could view ancient and delicate texts. For the project, the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France each chose 400 pieces from their collections to be digitized.

The teams worked closely together to create a gallery which is viewable from each of their websites. The 800 manuscripts are available online and are organized by themes, authors, places and centuries. The articles provided by the British library are invaluable to lay people who have little to no knowledge of medieval manuscripts. At the website one can learn of legal, medical, and musical texts, gain a greater understanding of the works of the Church fathers, and even learn how manuscripts were distributed in the Middle Ages. Of the project, Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, said: “By providing online access to the digitized versions of 800 of some of the finest of these manuscripts we hope to transform awareness of this period of close political and cultural entwinement between our two countries, when scribes moved between England, France and Normandy, working in Latin, French and English on manuscripts of unparalleled beauty and sophistication.” 


Decorated initial ‘I’(nitium) from western France, perhaps Brittany or Tours, 9th century
Illuminated initial ‘B'(eatus) and full border at the beginning of Psalm 1, Canterbury, early 11th century


This project adds to the growing numbers of manuscripts now available in full online. These are manuscripts are also accessible on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, or on the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s website Gallica.

British Library Digitised Manuscrupts’ background

The online digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts began as the British Library’s Department of Manuscripts prepared to move from the British Museum site in Bloomsbury to St Pancras in 1998.

Ahead of this, at Bloomsbury, a team of curators initiated the Catalogue and created an inventory of manuscripts for inclusion, surveying the entire manuscripts collection.


In 1997, the Getty Grant Program generously provided funding for the appointment of a project officer to assist in the shelf survey and construction of the pilot project leading to the public release of this site in July 2003. In March 2004 the first phase of the main project commenced in partnership with the Centre for Manuscript and Print Study, Institute of English Studies, University of London. This phase was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and was completed successfully in March 2007. During the AHRC-funded phase of the project over 2,000 new records were created, and around 12,000 images added to the Catalogue. In 2006, the Getty Foundation generously funded the inclusion of the Harley collection in the project. This phase was completed in August 2009. In July 2008 the British Library, in collaboration with The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, was awarded a research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to support an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts in the Royal collection in 2011. As part of this grant, catalogue records for over 600 illuminated manuscripts in the Royal collection are included in the Catalogue. In 2010 the cataloguing of the Library’s Italian cuttings was funded as part of a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Collaborative Doctoral programme.


In 2010-2011 the cataloguing of over 100 illuminated manuscripts in Hebrew was funded by the American Trust for the British Library in memory of William T. Golden, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, Roger and Julie Baskes, Chicago, USA, and an anonymous donor.In February 2012 the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a follow-on grant to the Library to digitise fully 40-50 manuscript featured in the Royal exhibition. Over 70 manuscripts from the exhibition are now on available on Digitised Manuscripts. As part of this grant additional images from these manuscripts have been added to the Catalogue.


Gallica’s background

Gallica is the digital library of the National Library of France and its partners. Online since 1997, it is getting rich every week from thousands of new products and now offers access to several millions of documents.In the original “library of a new genre” project called for by François Mitterrand in 1988, multimedia technologies are in the spotlight. A virtual library project, accessible from the reading rooms of the library, is envisaged: the objective is to offer readers, on computer-aided reading stations, a set of documents free of rights and rights Constituting the “virtual Library of The Honest Man” (a volume of 100 000 titles and 300 000 images was planned for the opening to the public of the site François-Mitterrand). The parallel emergence of the web and its rapid democratisation in the middle of the years 1990 modify the initial project: the Digital Library of the BnF (Bibliothèque National Française/French National Library), online on the web, will be accessible to everyone and everywhere. The possibility of putting digital collections online requires rethinking the corpus of documents concerned in the legal constraints: only works free of rights will be available in the digital library (more than one third of Proposed documentary selections are thus withdrawn from the project, because under rights). At the end of the year 1997, Gallica opens its doors to the virtual public of the Web. It then offers access to a few thousand texts accessible only in image mode. In the following years, the digitization of documents continues to bring on-line documents representing the national heritage as well as documents that are part of one-time documentary projects; the taking into account of media other than the book is done gradually. In 2000, a new version of Gallica was born: there are now also accessible images and documents in text mode. There aggregate progressively several thematic dossiers offering structured courses within the digital collections. In 2004, the first documentary charter clarified this evolution of the collections: the approximately 100 000 printed documents, 80 000 images and 30 hours of its then available in Gallica are part of a disciplinary dominance in history, literature, science and technology. Mainly Francophones, these royalty-free resources offer a wide variety of media (books, journals, newspapers, scores, prints, maps, photographs, sound recordings) and range from antiquity to the first half of the twentieth century, with a strong presence of documents published in the nineteenth century. At the same time, the evolution of optical character recognition software makes it possible to offer more and more documents in image and text mode. In January 2005 in the French newspaper Le Monde, Jean-Noël Jeanneney launches the project of a European digital library to respond to Google books, which inaugurates an acceleration in the development of Gallica and a change of scale and rhythm of digitization. Starting from 2006, several separate digitisation markets are launched. In 2007, the Europeana prototype was launched, and served as a base for the new version of Gallica, which was put online at the end of the same year. A scanning market dedicated to precious and specialized documents (manuscripts, maps and plans, prints, photographs, posters, scores, sound documents, rare book reserve documents) is launched in 2010. Between 2010 and 2014, Gallica changes from 1 to 3 million of documents. Several hundred pages structured by document types, thematics or geographical area are now available from the “Collections” button. In September 2015, the full redesign of Gallica was completed, and a new version of the site was launched. The presence of partner collections in Gallica takes several forms, depending on the origin of the scanned files, whether they are produced in the digitalisation markets of the BnF or by the partners themselves. Within the framework of the digital cooperation programmes (legal sciences, art history, War of 1914-1918, publications of the learned societies and academies, etc.), the market for digitisation of printed matter of the BnF welcomes an increasing number of documents kept in external collections: At present, of the 70 000 printed digitised annually by the BnF, one third comes from some fifty partner libraries. Several hundred thousand documents from more than 90 partner libraries are referenced in Gallica.  If the partner does not have a digital library, digital files resulting from the digitization of its heritage collections can be integrated into Gallica, like Rousseau’s manuscripts scanned by the library of The National Assembly and Consultable in Gallica.

Mobile Services

The National Library of France offers an application Gallica IOS and Android. This application, which is available for download on the app Store and on Google Play, provides access to searchable documents in Gallica. It makes it possible to carry out searches within all the scanned funds. Each document can be downloaded in full or in part: The user can easily build and enrich his own library.  

For more details and announcements about the project of 800 manuscripts from the collections of the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, you can see the Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog.




Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library and Marc Polonsky of The Polonsky Foundation signing the agreement for the project

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