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Western Medieval Manuscripts

Identifier: MS

Scope and Contents

This collection contains 275 medieval manuscript books and c. 45 fragments which have been donated to, and purchased by the University in the course of its history. These are all books and fragments written by hand, from the early 11th to the 16th centuries. Many are finely illuminated and decorated. The collection is mainly composed of bibles and liturgical texts, books of hours, treatises of theology and philosophy, legal and medical works, examples of pre-Reformation Scottish music, historical chronicles, and a few literary manuscripts. They are written mostly in Latin – but also in French, Greek, Italian, English, Scots, Dutch, Swedish and German –, and originate from all over Europe, notably from England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Some of the most precious and beautiful books in Scotland are preserved in this collection, such as the small, brightly-coloured copy of the Psalms known as the Celtic Psalter (MS 56), which dates from the early 11th century and is possibly the oldest surviving Scottish book still in Scotland.

Catherine Borland’s catalogue describes the 230 manuscripts and fragments present in the library in 1916. She organised them as follows:

  1. MS 1-23: Biblical manuscripts. Bibles, parts of the Bible, Bible Histories; the versified Bible of Petrus de Riga; Lives of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints
  2. MS 24-66: Liturgical manuscripts. Antiphoner; breviaries; directories; grails; horae; martyrology; missals; pontifical; psalters; combined services; private prayer books
  3. MS 67-114: Theology. Apocryphal; commentaries; general; moral; mystical; sermons; patristic; miscellaneous
  4. MS 115-139: Philosophy. General, astronomy, including alchemy and astrology, logic, rhetoric, grammar.
  5. MS 140-166: Law. Canon Law; constitutions of religious orders; civil law; common law; constitutions of Knightly Orders and Secular Institutions.
  6. MS 116-181: Medicine.
  7. MS 182-198: History.
  8. MS 199-208: Literature. Classical; Medieval [MS.205-208 added later].
  9. MS 209-210: books partly in manuscript.
  10. MS 211-218: fragments (45 separate items).
  11. MS 219-230: Greek manuscripts.

MS 231 to MS 236 are Russian and Greek manuscripts (uncatalogued), and MS 237 is a medieval indenture from New College. The references MS 238 to MS 299 are unallocated. The collection continues at MS 300, up to MS 339. MS 300 to MS 331, and MS 337 are described in Neil Ker’s catalogue. They mostly consist of books of hours, the rest being a mix of liturgy, law, and philosophy. MS 332 to MS 339 are uncatalogued manuscripts in Latin, Italian, French, and English.

NB: the creation of catalogue descriptions on ArchivesSpace is still ongoing. The manuscripts are described up to MS 230.


  • Creation: early 11th-16th centuries

Language of Materials

The manuscripts in this collection are in the following languages (entirely or only some sections): Latin (c. 280 manuscripts or fragments), French (28), Greek (20), English (11), Italian (10), German (8), Scots (7), Dutch (3), Swedish (1), and a Slavic language – possibly Russian (2).

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to all. The manuscripts can be consulted in the Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Main Library.


17.5 linear metres

Other Finding Aids

BORLAND, Catherine, A descriptive catalogue of the Western Mediæval Manuscripts in Edinburgh University Library (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1916) [describes MS 1 to MS 230] Printed catalogue available online (external link)

KER, Neil, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, vol. II Abbotsford-Keele (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1977), pp. 588-624 [describes MS 300 to MS 331 (except for MS 316, MS 317, MS 319, MS 323, MS 325, and MS 330) and MS 337]

MS 231 to MS 237, and MS 331 to MS 339 are not catalogued yet (except for MS 337).

Some of the manuscripts listed in this collection are also described in Laing collection’s online catalogue, section III (La.III). However, the descriptions in this other resource are very brief and sometimes inaccurate.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was formed by bringing together pre-Reformation manuscripts from across the library. Just under half of the manuscripts – 121 in total – come from the Laing collection, which meant they were gathered by the Scottish antiquarian and librarian David Laing (1793-1878), and donated to the Library after his death in 1878. Many manuscripts display evidence about their different owners through the centuries, from monks to rich private collectors. A small number of manuscripts in the collection have been purchased, and some others have been donated throughout the 20th century, such as the 14 manuscripts, mainly books of hours, received through the Cathcart White bequest in 1943. The custodial history of each manuscript is detailed in their individual catalogue descriptions.

Digital material

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Separated Materials

MS 157, a book of hours described in Borland’s catalogue, was lost during the Second World War.

Archivist's note

The titles used in Catherine Borland’s catalogue have not been retained as main titles when they did not reflect the contents of the manuscript accurately. In these cases, it was decided instead to use the most common title for the text(s) contained in the volume. Borland’s titles have been kept in the ‘custodial history’ notes, and the reference codes (MS) have been added before titles to make research easier, as it is often the most common way to identify and refer to medieval manuscripts.

Processing Information

This online resource is the result of a project running from January 2018 to August 2019, which used and updated the information contained in Catherine Borland’s printed catalogue (1916) to produce an improved and modernised finding aid.

These descriptions were produced by Alison John, Emma Trivett, Giulia Sagliardi, Manuel de Zubirìa Rueda, and Danielle Howarth, supervised by Aline Brodin (Cataloguing Archivist). Authorities added by Ruby Wilkins (Senior Library Assistant). MS 182 and MS 183 catalogued by Louise Gardiner, and MS 65 catalogued by Laura Cooijmans-Keizer.

Top-level description created by Aline Brodin in November 2018.

Western Medieval Manuscripts in Edinburgh University Library
Description rules
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379