Medieval Manuscripts

Here at Durham Cathedral we have the largest collection of medieval manuscripts that are still in their place of origin. Some have been here for over 900 years.

An illustration of a monk at work, from a manuscript in Durham Cathedral Library. Shelf-mark: A.II.3, folio 2 (right-hand).

About the manuscripts

A medieval manuscript is a handwritten, handmade book. Each is unique, with its own story and history. Some have survived more than 1,200 years. They are how thoughts and ideas came down to us today, before the invention of the printing press and modern books as we know them today. Many manuscripts are also richly decorated works of art, and these are known as illuminated manuscripts.

Manuscript books were vital to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Benedictine monks here in Durham. The collection of more than 300 medieval manuscripts are one of the most complete library of medieval manuscripts to have stayed in the same place since the foundation of the cathedral in the 11th century. The oldest are from the 600s, brought by monks from Lindisfarne Priory along with St Cuthbert.

Some of the gems of the collection are:

  • A fragment from the Book of Maccabees, dating from the 500s
  • The St Calais and Le Puiset Bibles – two beautifully illustrated Bibles from 11th century France
  • 13th century works by some of the most important Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Jerome to Thomas Aquinas
  • Commentaries on books of the Bible, often used in the medieval monastery
  • The Rites of Durham, an enormous roll from the 1590s that tells the history of the cathedral in medieval times.

Seeing the Manuscripts

Manuscripts are very old and fragile. We aren't able to have them on permanent display, as heat, light, and handling all damage manuscripts over time. However, we work hard to make sure they can still be seen. They often appear in temporary exhibitions at Durham Cathedral Museum.

Our medieval manuscripts are kept just a stone's throw from the cathedral at Palace Green Library, as part of Durham University's Archives and Special Collections. Researchers wishing to access these manuscripts should first contact the Cathedral Library. If access is granted, researchers will then need to make an appointment at Palace Green Library, Durham University Archive and Special Collections.