Illuminating the Middle Ages

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

A treasure trove of medieval Latin manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

In the 1950s, Marvin 'Mark' Colker of the University of Virginia embarked on the Herculean task of creating the first comprehensive catalogue of the Library's medieval Latin manuscript collection.

Over the course of 30 years, Colker made regular visits to Dublin, spending long hours working tirelessly in the manuscripts reading room at TCD. His dedication resulted in what is fondly referred to as the 'Colker Catalogue'. Colker’s ground-breaking work is the cornerstone for any project or research based on the manuscripts.

By way of tribute, the exhibition will attempt to showcase the diversity of material made accessible to researchers through Colker’s commitment and expertise. Colker's work is also honoured in a special edition of Hermathena: a Trinity College Dublin Review, number 194, (Summer, 2013).

Gospel books
Gospel books enjoyed an immense period of popularity from the 8th century right up to the end of the 12th century. As well as the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the books commonly feature introductory matter, chapter lists and decorative canon tables indicating common passages between the four Gospels. 
Book of Armagh
The Book of Armagh is one of the earliest known Insular manuscripts to contain a near complete copy of the Latin New Testament. Significantly, the core biblical text is prefaced with early passages relating to the life and work of St Patrick as well as some of the oldest surviving specimens of Old Irish. The text is in an Insular minuscule hand and was at least partly written by Ferdomhnach for Torbach, the abbot of Armagh (807-808).

Unlike the vibrancy of the Book of Kells, colour ornament in the Book of Armagh is limited to the decorated capitals at the opening of the Pauline Epistles (pictured is the initial P at the beginning of the word Paulus) and the Book of Revelation.

The remainder of the volume is decorated with delicate penwork. The full-page miniature (independent illustration) that precedes the four Gospels of the New Testament is perhaps the most eye-catching example of this elegant artwork. The Evangelist page features the four symbols of the Evangelists, creators of the Gospels.

Matthew is symbolised by a man (homo) while Mark, on the right, is represented by a lion (leo).

The calf or ox (uitulus) is the symbol of Luke and, finally, the eagle (aquila) of John.

An important part in the decoration of the Gospel book was the large initial pages which marked the beginning of each of the four Gospel texts. This German manuscript contains exquisite colouring which has survived from the 11th-12th centuries.

The incipit page of the Gospel of Mark features an elaborate foliate initial, with the opening text decorated in sumptuous purple and gold.

The presence of the heraldic shield on folio 67v, added in the 16th century, indicates that the volume was in the possession of the Fitz-Nigel family.

Medieval Bibles
The Latin Vulgate of St Jerome is the standard medieval version of the books of the Latin Bible. Derived from the Hebrew and Greek versions, the Vulgate was universally adopted during the Middle Ages. It was extremely common for books of the Bible to exist as independent volumes (examples include Gospel books and the medieval Apocalypse) but large complete volumes of the Old and New Testament were also in circulation.

The West Dereham Bible is the second volume of a two-part bible thought to be produced at the Abbey of St Alban's, Hertfordshire. The book was produced for presentation to the canonry of West Dereham and came to the Trinity College Dublin in 1661 as part of James Ussher's Library. The folios pictured are from the Pauline Epistles.

The Pauline Epistles feature several historiated initials depicting the image of Paul the Apostle, biblical author of the letters.

The fine illustration within the West Dereham Bible merits close inspection as the historiated initials can feature accessories and details that may not be noticed at first glance.

Produced at a time when smaller bibles were very much in vogue, this large volume contains copies of the Old and the New Testaments. The text is decorated with seventy-seven vibrantly illustrated initials and delicate borders of vines, foliage and floral patterns.

The historiated initials depict scenes related to the text and usually appear at the beginning of each book. Here, Moses can be seen holding the Law of Moses while using his staff to strike a rock to release drinking water for his congregation. The initial appears at the beginning of the Book of Exodus in which Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Marginal beasts also occasionally appear in the borders of the text. The most unusual of these takes the form of a plate-spinning dog.

Books for Monasteries
In twelfth-century Europe, manuscripts were largely produced by and for monks and monasteries. This copy of the sermons of St Augustine came to the Library of Trinity College Dublin in 1626 but was once in the possession of the Tironensian abbey of Kelso, Scotland. 

The manuscript is decorated with arabesque ornament and initials which feature numerous recurrent motifs including bearded human heads, animals (such as dogs, fish and birds), as well as conflict between men, beasts and fantastical creatures.

The large initial A pictured here provides an example of the latter, composed of a man entangled with two monstrous figures.

The vast majority of the text's decoration appears in colour with the exception of the initials featured on folios 4r to 6v. It is difficult to tell if this was a stylistic choice made by the scribe or if they were simply left unfinished.

Manual for Confessors 
Michael of Belluno's Speculum Conscientie or Mirror of Conscience was written as a guide for confessors. Michael was a priest associated with Belluno in Italy and this unique manuscript provides a list of his social, moral and intellectual strictures. The extensive catalogue of grievances sheds light on the values of contemporary society. 

Michael expresses particular concern for the character of peasants. He divulges what he regards as their failings which include, but are not limited to, boasting, dancing, fighting, superfluous drinking, cursing and superstitions.

The author expresses a distaste for gluttons who eat too quickly, men in curled wigs, women who indulge in cosmetics and listening to music that arouses lust.

Michael does display a humanitarian side, disparaging people for blocking their noses when they encounter paupers and discouraging physicians from selling medicine at a high cost.

The historiated Q shows a monk, presumably a portrait of the author of this text, standing at a lectern, writing a manuscript.

Apocalypses contain the Book of Revelation from the New Testament in which the Lamb of God is called upon to open the seven seals heralding the end of days and the second coming of Christ. The Dublin Apocalypse depicts the Final Judgement in miniatures of gold and vivid colour that can be simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. The first four seals are embodied by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 

And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. (Revelation, 6:2)

The First Rider mounts a white horse and is commonly understood to represent Conquest or Victory. The Horseman carries a bow, and a crown, symbolic of conquering or righteousness.

And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword. (Revelation, 6:4)

The Second Horseman appears mounted on a fiery-red horse, carrying a great sword symbolic of war. He is perhaps the most easily identifiable of the four.

A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine. (Revelation, 6:6)

The Rider on the black horse is most closely associated with ushering in famine and lack of food signified by the set of scales he carries in his hand.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. (Revelation, 6:8)

Riding a pale horse, the fourth seal is the Horseman of Death. The pallid coat of Death's horse is thought to symbolise the deathly colour of disease and pestilence.

The figure is followed by Satan and the opening of the Hellmouth. The jaws of Hell would open to consume Death's victims.

The Psalter, containing the Book of Psalms, was used in the liturgy but was also the central text for medieval private devotion until it was surpassed in popularity by the Book of Hours in the 13th century. The ubiquity of the Psalter among the faithful, particularly among the wealthy classes, means that some lavishly illuminated copies have survived.

This 14th century volume was probably an English family possession and is laden with intricate interlaced borders, colourful historiated initials and fantastical drolleries, including monkeys, serpentine monsters and other grotesque beasts.

Here the historiated initial from the Hours section of the manuscript depicts the Virgin Mary in conversation (in French) with a layperson.

This opening contains some marvelous examples of the manuscript’s vibrant decoration. The historiated initial on folio 23r, featured at the beginning of Psalm 20, depicts a king kneeling in prayer while the more comical figure of a man wearing a pair of bellows on his head can be seen on the opposing folio.

The historiated initial at the beginning of Psalm 29 plays on the juxtaposition of the chained monkey with the words libera me (liberate me).

The existence of Psalters as personal possessions, rather than volumes for church and canon use, allowed for the creation of manuscripts that were varied in their design and character. This French Psalter was prepared for private devotions and contains a late-fourteenth century calendar (in French), the psalms, canticles, litany and prayers. The simplicity and neatness of the Gothic script may suggest that the book was intended for someone with limited literacy.

The historiated initial B, for Beatus (Blessed), on folio 14v features the crowned figure of King David, biblical composer of the psalms, writing in a manuscript. David is a common feature within psalm texts although he is perhaps more commonly depicted with an instrument, usually a harp or psaltery (a stringed instrument or harp).

The decorated borders are home to several additional figures including a man playing pipes to reflect the musicality of the psalms, a haloed figure, lions and grotesques.

An example of an Italian Psalter, this manuscript features King David in the first letter of the word Beatus (Blessed) depicted as an elderly bearded man, playing on a psaltery. The small size of this vibrantly coloured volume indicates that it was likely created for personal use.

Two putti (nude infants, usually with wings) carrying a coat of arms appear at the bottom of the page within the elegantly decorated border.

Book of Hours
Books of Hours were made for the private devotions of the laity and were extremely popular during the later Middle Ages. The volumes became a statement of wealth and social status among the nobility and have survived in great numbers as a result. There are core textual elements but, as the Hours were intended for private use, there can be drastic variations in content and aesthetic. Geography often had a powerful influence on style as well as the saints chosen to appear within the manuscript. These regional variations facilitate the localisation of individual volumes to their country of origin and, occasionally, to the specific region or town where they were to be used.

Dutch Books of Hours were particularly common from the later 15th century and are distinguishable by their use of the vernacular. The miniature pictured here shows St Julian rowing a boat reminiscent of a herring buss, a type of Dutch fishing vessel used in the Middle Ages.

Dutch Books of Hours are also recognisable by the homely features of their miniatures. This miniature of St Ursula, pictured holding arrows and a book in a room with tiled floors, is illustrative of this domestic style.

The Lives of Saints
Hagiography or Saints' Lives was an important medieval genre and the biographical texts were popular among the laity from the early Middle Ages. Giovanni d’Andrea (Johannes Andreae) was a prominent figure in European canon law and a university lecturer in Padua and Bologna in the later Middle Ages. A follower and active agent in the promotion of the cult of St Jerome, d’Andrea published 'Hieronymianus', a hagiographical account of the influential saint.

This copy of Hieronymianus was written by multiple scribes in anglicana and secretary hands and is decorated with historiated initials and borders gilded and sumptuously coloured.

Folio 1r shows Jerome removing a thorn from the paw of a lion. This image reflects a well-known story from the life of St Jerome in which a lion entered Jerome's monastery. While the other monks fled in fear, Jerome greeted the animal and, noticing its injury, removed the thorn from its paw.

Music in Manuscripts
Music was a vital component of the western Christian liturgy and played an important role in medieval devotion. The medieval Church relied on two primary service-books, the Breviary and the Missal, and there was a corresponding volume of music for each text. Form and style of musical notation developed throughout the period but singers were commonly guided by the black neumes, written on four or five-line staves, which indicate the melodies and repetition of the music. 

Antiphonals are the musical components of Breviaries, containing the sung portions of the Divine Office. Regularly used in religious services, antiphonals were usually large in format so the entire choir could sing from a single volume. This manuscript was created for the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, also known as the Bridgettines, a monastic order of Augustinian nuns.

The Missal was one of the most important texts for a medieval priest, containing the essential texts for the performance of the Mass (including chants). This rubricated Missal was created for use in York and features the feasts of John of Beverley and William of York as well as passages for Yorkshire saints.

The first page in the Canon of the Mass was usually the most elaborately illuminated. Here, the Canon page on folio 96r begins Te igitur clementissime pater… (Thee, therefore, most merciful father…).

The Gradual contained the music for the celebration of Mass but Missals also provided musical notation to guide the reader. Folio 93v features the notation for the musical portions of the Ordinary (the texts that remain constant and unchanged for every Mass).

The remainder of the folio is filled with an unfinished miniature of the Crucifixion in colour and gold.

Beyond Devotion
Medieval Latin manuscripts are not solely confined to the realm of the Church and private worship. The mid-thirteenth century saw the rise of universities and and increased demand for secular manuscripts. This period saw the production of manuscripts on a wide-variety of subjects including astronomy, classics and grammar, to name but a few.

Genealogies were created as a means to legitimise a monarch's claim to the throne, sometimes tracing their lineage from biblical figures, like Noah in this instance.

The genealogical text tracing the lineage of English kings is accompanied by diagrams in which the names of those in the main line of descent run in circles down the central red line; other notable family members branch out along lines of blue, yellow and other colours.

Marvin L. Colker’s Trinity College Dublin Library: Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance Latin Manuscripts (Dublin, 1991) contains the first full description of this manuscript. Colker discovered that, rather than simply an account of poets and mythological figures, the text actually presented a kind of classical handbook for medieval readers. Through articles, diagrams and maps, the book accounts for multiple aspects of classical study including mythology, geography and history.

These small circular diagrams represent the rivers of the classical world.

The larger infographic on folio 107v relates to the length of time it takes individual planets to orbit the earth (the word terra is marked in the centre).

The seven zones of the earth (including the arctic and temperate) are illustrated on folio 108r, identifying which zones are habitable and which are not. There is also a brief note on 108r beneath the diagram referring to the nine Muses of Greek mythology.

A Stoic philosopher, born in Spain and raised in Rome, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c4BCE-65CE), wrote his Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucius) towards the end of his life. The letters muse on a variety of topics such as death and old age, the relativity of fame and the relationship between a master and slave.

The text is decorated with several calligraphic capitals and features a large number of nota bene drawings (literally translated as ‘note well’, these were used to draw the reader’s attention), especially manicules or pointing hands.

A drawing of a sphinx with a human head, wings, and the body of a lion can also be observed on folio 174v.

Finally, this wonderful miniature of St Christopher holding the child Jesus appears in a 14th-century pocket book of British statutes. The illustration is the sole miniature within the 774-page volume and has been identified and described in detail by Colker. The catalogue entry is a perfect example of his meticulous work and how invaluable the 'Colker catalogue' is in making the treasures of the Latin manuscripts collection accessible and visible.

Leanne Harrington
Credits: Story

This exhibition was curated by Leanne Harrington (M&ARL), with technical support provided by Greg Sheaf.

Photography by Gill Whelan, Digital Resources and Imaging Services.

With special thanks to the M&ARL team, Estelle Gittins, Aisling Lockhart, Jane Maxwell, Ellen O'Flaherty, Felicity O'Mahony, Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, Dáire Rooney, Martine Gleeson and Linda Montgomery, for their assistance and support.


Boynton, Susan, and Diane J. Reilly (eds.), 'The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages: Production, Reception, and Performance in Western Christianity', (New York, 2011).

Brown, Michelle P. 'Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms', (London, 1994).

Cleaver, Laura, and Helen Conrad O’Brien, 'Latin Psalter Manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin and the Chester Beatty Library', (Dublin, 2015).

Colker, Marvin L. 'A classical handbook from medieval England' in International Review of Manuscript Studies, Volume XLIII, (1989), 2;

- 'Trinity College Dublin Library: Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance Latin Manuscripts', (Dublin, 1991);

- 'Trinity College Dublin: Supplement One: Descriptive Catalogue of the Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Manuscripts', (Dublin, 2001);

- 'Michael of Belluno on the production of books and documents' in International Review of Manuscript Studies, volume LVI, 2002, 2;

- 'Michael of Belluno and His Speculum Conscientie: The Unique Manuscript Recently Discovered' in Medievalia et Humanistica, Ser. NS, volume 29 (2003), pp. 103-119.

de Hamel, Christopher. 'A History of Illuminated Manuscripts', (London, 1986).

Fox, Peter (ed.). 'Treasures of the Library: Trinity College Dublin', (Dublin, 1986).

Lampe, G.W.H. (ed.). 'The Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 2: The West from the Fathers to the Reformation', (Cambridge, 1969).

Maxwell, Jane. 'The “Colker Catalogue”' in Hermathena: a Trinity College Dublin Review, number 194, (Summer, 2013), pp. 11-21.

Sandler, L.F. 'Gothic Manuscripts 1285-1385, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles' 5, (London, 1986).

Sharpe, John, and Kimberly van Kampen (eds.), 'The Bible as Book: The Manuscripts Tradition', (London, 1998).

Credits: All media
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