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BL Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

The British Library holds a large collection of Illuminated Manuscripts, many of which are digitised and catalogued on their site. The images from these manuscripts are available under a Public Domain dedication.

There are two ways to access the BL manuscript collection:

They have advanced search tools.

particularly useful for iconographical searches, since each image is described individually. You can search for various terms either in these specific image descriptions or within the wider manuscript records.

Collection highlights

The Mediaeval manuscripts department maintain a blog with a lot of interesting examples.

There is a glossary of fields in the database, and a more comprehensive illustrated glossary of technical MSS terms is available.


The entry has 48 associated images. Example:

Miniature of a man cutting down a tree on which he sits (an illustration of the proverb: 'chopping down the branch that supports you'), from Pierre Sala’s Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), 1st quarter of the 16th century, [Stowe MS 955, f. 15r](

Author  Pierre Sala
Title   Petit Livre d'Amour
Origin  France, Central (Paris) and S. E. (Lyon)
Date    1st quarter of the 16th century
Language    French and Italian (f. 7v)
Script  Pierre Sala's handwriting in gold on purple (f. 16v in mirror-script)
Scribe  Pierre Sala
Artists Miniatures attributed to the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse (see Avril and Reynaud 1993); the portrait of Pierre Sala (f. 17) attributed to Jean Perréal. The Master of the Chronique scandaleuse left the face of Pierre Sala unfinished in his miniature on f. 6 for Jean Perréal, who did not complete it.
Decoration  12 emblematical miniatures (ff. 6, 7, 8, 9, 9*, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17); on the page facing each miniature a quatrain inscribed on a placard, surmounted (except for the first) with designs containing the letters 'M' and 'P' and a device that appears to be crossed compasses or staves.
Dimensions in mm    130 x 95 (85 x 70)
Official foliation  ff. i + 34 (+ 1 original parchment flyleaf before f. 1 and 1 after f. 17)
Form    Parchment codex
Binding Pre-1600. Purple velvet; original wooden carrying case covered with leather, coloured green and gold and carved with devices, among which are the letters P and M formed out of crossed compasses or staves; on the edges of the case are rings, intended for a chain to suspend the volume from the girdle.

Provenance  Marguerite Builloud: at the beginning (ff. 1-4v) is an address in prose from the lover to his mistress, and at the end (f. 17) a portrait of the lover; on the back of this is written, 'Set de vray le portret de Pierre Sala mestre dotel de ches le roy avec des enimes quil avoit fet a sa mestresse qui estoit grand honcle a madame de Ressis laquelle est sortie de la mayson de Guillien en Quercy.' (f. 17v); the poems begin with 'Mon cueur veult estre en ceste Margueryte.' (f. 5v); throughout the letters M and P. 
    Marshal Junot, Duke of Abrantes: attached to the cover at the end is an extract from a sale-catalogue, which states that the manuscript was formerly in his possession (f. 35). 
    Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (b. 1776, d. 1839), 1st duke of Buckingham and Chandos, of Stowe House, near Buckingham: inscribed with the press-mark 'Appendix vol. I. Catal Mss. Stowe no. 26' (f. 18), corresponding to his catalogue (O'Conor 1818-1819); '26' also inscribed inside the carrying-case.
    Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (b. 1797, d. 1861), 2nd duke of Buckingham and Chandos; sold in 1849 to Lord Ashburnham.
    Bertram Ashburnham (b. 1797, d. 1878), 4th earl of Ashburnham, of Ashburnham Place, Sussex.
    Bertram Ashburnham (b. 1840, d. 1913), 5th earl of Ashburnham: purchased by the British Museum from him together with 1084 other Stowe manuscripts in 1883.

Notes   A transcription of the content has been added later on paper (ff. 18-34), probably by Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (b. 1776, d. 1839).

Select bibliography Charles O'Conor, Bibliotheca Ms. Stowensis: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Stowe Library, 2 vols (Buckingham: Seeley, 1818-1819), I, 57.

    Catalogue of the Stowe Manuscripts in the British Museum, 2 vols (London: British Museum, 1895-1896), I, no. 955.

    Grete Ring, A Century of French Painting 1400-1500 (London: Phaidon, 1949), no. 331, fig. 48.

    Janet Backhouse, 'French Manuscript Illumination', in Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts: Treasures from the British Library, ed. by Thomas Kren (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 1983), 145-192 (no. 22 pp. 169-74).

    François Avril and Nicole Reynaud, Les manuscrits à peinture en France 1440-1520 (Paris: Flammarion, 1993), no. 208 [exhibition catalogue].

    Janet Backhouse and Yves Giraud, Pierre Sala: Petit Livre d'Amour, Stowe MS 955, British Library, London, Kommentar, Commentaire, Commentary (Luzern: Faksimile Verlag, 1994).

    Janet Backhouse, The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting in the British Library (London: British Library, 1997), no. 194.

    Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire (London: Laurence King, 1998), p. 110, pl. 96.

    Christopher de Hamel, The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques (London: British Library, 2001), pl. 36.

    Pamela Porter, Courtly Love in Medieval Manuscript (London: British Library, 2003), pp. 10-11.

    Treasures of the British Library, ed. by Nicolas Barker and others (London: British Library, 2005), p. 141.

Technical Details

The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is based on a Microsoft Access database. It doesn't appear to have an external API available (other than the HTML search interface!). The database doesn't look like it's accessible through the BL's Data platform

Play nicely! Credit the Library if you're using images: they ask you to follow some very sensible goodwill-based usage guidelines about respecting the works and contributing to the public domain.

Dataset Size

4,200 manuscripts (with separate parts for another 1,000) and 36,000 images.


Images released to Public Domain - although see the Reuse page for some interesting notes about copyright law in the UK! Catalogue is CC0

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