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Medieval manuscripts in Durham


Durham is home to two separate collections of manuscripts. One is Durham Cathedral Library, which is important as the UK’s most complete in situ medieval monastic library. The other belongs to the University of Durham. Also known as Bishop Cosin’s collection, it is held at the University’s Palace Green Library. It contains a number of items of great interest to scholars of Middle English literature, including a medieval copy of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Hoccleve’s autograph manuscript of the Series.

 In 2020 (before the Congress was postponed), it was planned that, in conjunction with the NCS's Durham 2020 Congress, the university would hold an exhibition of its manuscripts, under the title 'Literature and Devotion in Late Medieval England'. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to put on such an exhibition in 2022. During lockdown, some exhibition-space was repurposed (e.g. for digitisation-projects) and some of it is due to undergo repair this summer.

We hope that the three announcements below will go some way to assuaging any disappointment about the absence of an exhibition.

Literature and Devotion

The catalogue that was due to accompany the 2020 exhibition (compiled by Professor Richard Gameson, Durham’s Professor of the History of the Book) has now appeared as a book, which is available to NCS members at a significant discount. (See NCS communications on this.)

Publisher's description: "​Embracing poetic works by Chaucer, Lydgate and Hoccleve, prose writings on philosophy, contemplation and bibliophily, key service books for the clergy, and devotional texts for the laity, this beautifully produced book explores the interrelated themes of literature and devotion in England from the Black Death to the Reformation as seen through the lens of twenty-six precious manuscripts in Durham University Library. These unique volumes, several with fine illumination, are described and illustrated, their provenance is tracked, and their literary and devotional importance is explained. As, in addition, the inks, pigments and dyes that were used in each of them have been identified by optimal scientific techniques, this publication also offers an invaluable overview of the colorants used by the scribes and illuminators of a wide cross-section of late medieval manuscripts of English origin or provenance."

Digitisation Projects in Durham

Both the Cathedral Library and Durham University Library are currently engaged in digitising many of their manuscripts. For example, the Durham Hoccleve manuscript (Cosin MS V.iii.9) is in the process of being digitised right now; and the Durham Troilus manuscript (Cosin MS V.ii.13) is, we are told, “next on the list”. We will share direct links to the digitial images of these MSS as soon as we have them.

For further information, see:

Manuscript Showings

Professor Gameson and the Palace Green Library staff have kindly agreed to run a series of "manuscripts showings" specifically for NCS delegates on Friday 15th July. A small selection of manuscripts will put on display, and Professor Gameson will be available to answer questions about them.

There will be four sessions (each of which will be limited to 15 participants (who will need to be both paid-up members of the NCS and registered delegates of the Congress). It will not be possible to attend both an excursion and one of these manuscript showings. Given that places are limited both for each of the excursions and for the manuscript showings, we are hoping that take-up might be spread among them (so as to avoid any particular pressure on any of them).

In order to attend one of the manuscript showings, you will need to sign up via the link below.

Access to Durham's Special Collections

NCS delegates seeking direct access to manuscripts should be aware that there are some concerns here in Durham about the pressures on Palace Green Library (or on the Cathedral Library) that would be created were they to receive a large number of requests for individual access all at once – e.g. during the Congress or shortly before/after it. If you are planning to work with any of the material in either library’s special collections this summer, it is particularly important that you contact the library concerned well in advance (via the addresses below); and we would ask if for your understanding if it turns out that the library is not able to accommodate you on any particular day.

Palace Green Library: pg.library@durham.ac.uk
Cathedral Library: library@durhamcathedral.co.uk