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Digital age casts light on medieval illuminated treasures

Beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages - including a rare 'history roll' outlining the history of the world from a medieval perspective - will be available to view online.

The manuscripts will be online later this year following the completion of an ambitious digitisation programme by Leeds University Library.

The progress of the digitisation project and examples of the captured images will be discussed at the International Medieval Congress - the largest academic humanities conference in Europe - which starts next week (10-13 July). Around 1400 medievalists will be arriving at the University to hear 1,000 papers on all aspects of Medieval life and culture presented by academics from 40 countries.

The University's Brotherton Library holds around 50 bound volumes - or codices - from the period 1200 to 1500, many with intricate illuminated miniatures, initials and decorative borders.

"Cataloguing the manuscripts is a detailed, specialist process ", says Special Collections deputy head Dr Oliver Pickering, "and digitisation was a natural next step, which will enable the fragile manuscripts to be seen by a far wider range of people. The images have been taken at a high resolution, which will allow people close-up views of the often amazingly detailed artwork. "

The spectacular history roll, a huge 17.5m document made up of 39 large parchment sheets detailing the history of the world from creation through to the 1460s, has been digitised in full. It is one of only six known examples held in UK libraries.

"The genre appears to have been popular in 15th century France," says Pickering. "Such manuscripts were made from sheets of animal skin pasted together into a continuous roll and were prestigious items purchased by the wealthy. We're fortunate to own this splendid example, which features parallel streams of history, covering biblical, classical and Western European events, with pictures in the form of painted roundels and lengthy 'genealogical' trees linking together lines of kings, popes and other rulers."

The Library's special collections also hold 15 striking 'books of hours' - simplified versions of service books for lay people. "These were also a 15th century phenomenon, says Dr Pickering. "It became quite the thing to own a book of hours to demonstrate you were both devout and wealthy." The books are often profusely illustrated, and begin with lists of feast days with particularly important days usually marked in red - the very first 'red letter days'.

The bulk of the manuscripts derive from Lord Brotherton's own library and from Ripon Cathedral library, which are held at the Brotherton for safe-keeping.

The 700 images will be made available through the University Library's new digital repository, which will also host other digitised collections from the Library's rich holdings.

For further information: 

Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email

Attached pictures from the history roll show:
1. Godfrey De Bouillon: French leader of the First Crusade (1096-1099), proclaimed "Protector of the Holy Sepulchre" after the capture of Jerusalem.

2. The destruction of Troy

Notes to editors:

Established in 1994, the IMC provides an unrivalled forum for intellectual debate in the field of medieval studies.

Hosted by the University of Leeds' Institute for Medieval Studies, the IMC attracts some 1,400 medievalists from around 40 countries.

Around a third of delegates are from the UK and a quarter are from North America (US and Canada).

It is the largest annual academic conference in the UK (based on numbers of papers delivered) and the largest annual conference in the humanities in Europe.

In 2007, as Leeds celebrates its 800th anniversary, the IMC programme will have as its focus medieval cities in Europe and neighbouring territories.

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