A Brief Background in Old English Manuscripts FACSIMILES OF OLD ENGLISH MANUSCRIPTS

Why would someone want to read a manuscript facsimile of an Old English text rather than a printed edition? A couple answers come to mind. First of all, Old English manuscripts are, by and large, beautiful. Second, you never know exactly what you're getting when you read a printed edition (maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but still only a slight one). Some printed texts are "normalized," reducing the natural variation in spelling, conjugation, declension, etc., common in Old English works (most medieval writers were not nearly as concerned with consistency of spelling as modern writers). While this normalization process may make it easier for modern readers to understand a text, one must always remember that printed editions are not the text, and, as Old English scholar Bruce Mitchell points out, learning to read non-normalized texts will only enance one's ability to read Old English (hence, his book, An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England, contains no normalization). Furthermore, some printed texts collate or "average" between multiple manuscripts of the same work, offering a composite text which, while perhaps more representative of that work, loses the qualities which make a manuscript unique. Naturally, this process can thwart anyone trying to make deductions about the dialectical, calligraphic or interlinear aspects of a particular manuscript (sometimes the most interesting aspects).

Having said that, the alternative is challenging. Those who want to track down facsimiles of Old English manuscripts are in for quite a hunt. In general, they are held solely by large university libraries. It is even more difficult to purchase facsimiles; most are out of print and extremely expensive. The main purpose of creating a database of Old English manuscripts was to make it easier for people to track down these resources. The database lists any available facsimile editions for all manuscripts containing a substantial amount of Old English (see the project notes for more specific information).

To the best of my knowledge, there have been three large-scale, systematic attempts to duplicate Old English manuscripts. The first is the British Manuscripts Project, initiated in the 1940's to preserve historical documents endangered by warfare. This project is truly magnificent; it entails over 3,000 microfilms. While they are black-and-white, and of somewhat medocre quality, they are exhaustive. The bad news: the Library of Congress and the University of Michigan Graduate Library are the only libraries in the country that contain complete sets. Others may contain portions, however (if anyone comes across any libraries that own portions of the project, I would love to hear about it.).

The next major resource is the Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile series. Started in the 1950's, this project is ongoing; as of this writing, they are on volume 26. These large, black-and-white books (generally with full-size images) contain excellent introductions/information about each manuscript. They are beautiful, but quite expensive; while I have never come across one in any bookstore (printings are quite limited), I cannot imagine them going for less than $100 a piece.

Finally, there is the the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile project, started in 1994 by Philip Pulisano, A.N. Doane and Ronald E. Buckalew. This project represents by far the most ambitious Old English facsimile project to date; they intend to duplicate onto black-and-white microfiches every known manuscript containing the language. Each volume contains 10 maunscripts; the project is on its fifth volume as of this writing. They are sold for $90 per volume ($60 if you subscribe to the project, but subscription entails buying every volume) by the University of North Carolina at Asheville's Pegasus Press. $90 may sound expensive, but each volume contains roughly 1,000 manuscript pages; it is by far the most economical choice.

These projects represent the most comprehensive sources for Old English manuscript facsimiles. Over the years, some presses have occasinally issued facsimiles editions of certain works. One fine example is Beowulf: Reproduced in Facsimile from the Unique Manuscript British Museum MS. Cotton Vitellius A. XV by Julius Zupitza - an edition of Oxford University's Early English Text Society series. If books like this cannot be found in your local bookstore, the best bet is to find books with portions of manuscripts reproduced (such as The Anglo-Saxons, by James Campbell, which, in addition to great writing, has many splendid color photographs).

This material has been obtained over the course of extensive searches for Old English facsimiles. Any further information or sources on the topic would be much appreciated. The following are resources concerning Old English Manuscripts:
  1. An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England, by Bruce Mitchell. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
  2. The Anglo-Saxons, edited by James Campbell. London: the Penguin Group, 1982.
  3. A Critical History of Old English Literature, by Stanley Greenfield. New York: the New York University Press, 1965.
  4. A Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, by N.R. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

Return to Old English Manuscripts homepage

© John Herrington 1998