Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts

Two characters surrounded by large blue, red, and gold swirls; green stems and leaves; and gold and blue flowers.
Detail of a page in an ornately decorated copy of the Book of Hours created in France, circa 1470. The volume is known as the "Vosper Hours" - named in honor of Robert Vosper (1913-1994), a former director of KU Libraries. Call Number: MS Pryce C1.

Special Collections collects manuscripts primarily for their texts: data-sources offering researchers both answers and problems. Secondly, we have tried to supply students of the history of the book with an assortment of the physical characteristics of normal medieval manuscripts, including a variety of hands. We have not deliberately collected "high spots." Few of our medieval manuscripts are highly ornamented; few have original bindings; many are in workaday fifteenth-century cursive. Most of them are the normal books that provided both pleasure and information to the ordinary reader. Holdings of manuscripts written before 1000 CE are very small: a dozen cuneiform tablets, dating from about 2000 BCE; an extraordinary Egyptian Amduat papyrus scroll, the Ballard Papyrus, dating from about 1000 BCE; four tiny fragments of papyrus, dating from the third and fourth centuries CE; and perhaps half-a-dozen undated leaves which may be as early as the ninth century. For practical research purposes our manuscript holdings begin in the early eleventh century with three Anglo-Saxon leaves and increase in every century.


Between 1000 and 1500 CE we have, divided by form:

  • 123 book-manuscripts, containing about 350 texts
  • Subjects or forms: service-books, the Church, religion, philosophy, classical texts, glossaries, grammars, rhetoric, textbooks, Aristotle, history, cosmography, arithmetic, astronomy, astrology, legends, Latin and Italian verse, proverbs, exempla, ethics, etiquette, nobility, biographies, politics, medicine, veterinary medicine, natural history, Mandeville, statutes of benevolent societies, cartularies, legal formularies, records of court cases, records of notarial transactions, legal treatises
  • Languages: Latin, Italian, French, German, Dutch
  • 83 separate leaves, primarily liturgical, including 41 in an uncataloged "palaeographical practice set"
  • Several hundred or more pre-1500 documents as parts of several large English and Italian estate papers collections

Special Collections also has manuscript material by later scholars covering the medieval period, later copies of medieval texts and documents, and a nineteenth-century scrapbook of initials cut from fourteenth- to sixteenth-century manuscripts.

For additional information, please also see the Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts LibGuide, which includes links to reference resources for medieval and early modern manuscripts and a growing handlist of manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library that are dated to 1600 or earlier. This LibGuide is a work in progress and will be added to and enlarged in the coming months.

Digital Scriptorium

The Digital Scriptorium is a growing database of medieval and renaissance manuscripts that unites scattered resources from many institutions into an international tool for teaching and scholarly research. It bridges the gap between a diverse user community and the limited resources of libraries through pooled records and links to (sample) images. The University of Kansas Libraries are a contributing partner in this project.

You can access Spencer Research Library's holdings within Digital Scriptorium by either selecting "Search the DS catalog" or navigating to the Catalog Portal and selecting "Search." From there, you can filter to only Spencer manuscripts by selecting "more" under the filter for "Holding Institution" on the left-hand side of the screen, and then selecting "University of Kansas." This will display all our pre-1600 manuscript holdings catalog entries currently imported to DS; selecting an entry will show the full metadata and any associated digitized images.

Also available is the Handlist of pre-1600 manuscripts (not comprehensive), part of the LibGuide related to Spencer's Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts. The Handlist connects to our internal catalog entries, as well as any archival finding aids where available.

Ancillary Material

Special Collections contains basic and advanced works on paleography, dating manuscripts, reading abbreviations, the ornament found in manuscripts, medieval deeds, etc. It also contains facsimiles of medieval manuscripts - entire works and single pages - and catalogs of the holdings of other libraries. Added to this are a few handbooks to help with medieval history, places, etc., and a few dictionaries.

Basic reference books, histories of books and libraries, and reference books concerning both printed and manuscript material are available in the reference collection in the Reading Room.

Special Collections Contact

Elspeth Healey

Special Collections Curator for post-1700 materials (except the areas listed below)


Eve Wolynes

Special Collections Curator for pre-1700 materials, Asian collections, history of science, maps/cartography


Social Spotlight

Explore medieval manuscripts from Spencer's holdings via social media posts by former Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher N. Kivilcim Yavuz. Follow Manuscripts Etc. on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).