Finding and downloading medieval manuscripts online that you can print

In my last post, I realise that I did something that I always find infuriating – I assumed stuff.  I started up the ladder, but omitted the first step.  Here’s a quick post on stuff you have to do first, then.

Once you decide to edit a text which has never received a critical edition, then you need to find some manuscripts that you can start work with.  You may have a list of manuscripts, but probably you don’t.

I’m working on the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  This is a Latin hagiographical text, so it has an entry in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (=BHL), which you can download from  This will give you the BHL number for your text, and its opening and closing words (= incipit and explicit).

In my case, there are three sections to the text, with numbers BHL 6104, 6105 and 6106.  There is also a mess of other Nicholas stuff, which might be mixed up with what I want.  So I have used Adobe Acrobat Pro and extracted the relevant pages from the BHL, and I will print this as a “guide to Latin Nicholas texts”, to keep by my elbow while looking at the manuscripts.

The next stop is the Bollandists site.  This has the “Bibliographica Hagiographica Latina Online” database.  Hit “recherche”, tell them your name and email – nothing bad will happen – and you get the main search page.  I hit the “Trouver un texte hagiographique d’après son numéro BHL” link, which asks me for the BHL number.  When you put it in, you can get a list of manuscripts, ordered by century, or “fond” – i.e. library.  It looks like this:

BHLO search for BHL 6104

Then begins the deeply nasty task of discovering which of these are online, if any.  I won’t cover that here.  You have to find library sites and go and look.  But the list does tell you the folio numbers, which is a great help, since often library catalogues do not bother.

In order to print out a manuscript, you need to have it on your disk.  Some libraries allow you to download a PDF of the whole manuscript.  Many more are afraid, and restrict you to looking at images through their useless online viewer.  But some of these do allow download of an individual page.  So you can do something, although very slowly and painfully.

The best source of manuscripts to download is the Bibliothèque Nationale Français, the French National Library in Paris.  These guys are streets ahead.  On the other hand, you have to search their site and find them manuscripts.  The Vatican give you a single page with all the manuscripts available for the “Barberini” collection, and you click on the link.  But you can’t download any, so they’re useless for our purpose.

There are downloadable manuscripts at the BNF, but also there are a good number of downloadable mss at the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the BSB.

The BNF make you search.  A trick someone told me – if the number is reasonably long – 18303, for instance – just type it in the search box at, and hit search.  Down the left, you can restrict the hits to “Manucripts”, language = Latin, and before 1500, and you find two hits.

Above we have manuscript 989. Using this technique does find BNF lat. 989.  You have to sift through 16 Latin results, although for some reason they don’t show the shelfmark (!).  You spy “Vitae sanctorum”, and le voila!  The shelfmark is hidden in some of the catalogue information.  And then you can download it to disk.

Then back to the Bollandist list, and go and find f.54r, which is online PDF page 121.  Again I found Adobe Acrobat Pro useful, so I could bookmark the start and end of the text.  Once I had done this, I used Acrobat Pro to export the pages I wanted, and so I ended up with a much smaller PDF containing only the text that I intended to print.

So far I have 10 manuscripts on disk.  I’ve extracted the text from a couple.  The third manuscript was entirely St Nicholas, so I didn’t need to.

Downloaded MSS in Windows Explorer

I’m doing the printing by trial and error.  One manuscript had text in huge letters on small pages.  So I printed the images 4 to a page.  One manuscript from the BSB was a scan of a microfilm.  Interestingly that printed really well – better than the colour manuscripts.

The other factor?  Make sure you have enough ink in your printer.  Part way through I ran out.  Luckily I was able to get more from a shop around the corner!


2 thoughts on “Finding and downloading medieval manuscripts online that you can print

  1. I’ve found it possible to print out Vatican mss page-by-page. I think know about Corpus Corporum (, which among other things has the whole PL reset as .xml and .txt files rather than non-searchable page images, and an ever-increasing list of other texts (presently 170 million words). They invite the submission of other texts, which might interest you. I find the best engine for bibliographical research by far is the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog ( Ticking the Digitale Medien box gives you excellent access to digitised texts scattered around various sites, especially in Germany.

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