Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts

A significant resource for the study of the literature, art, history, music, philosophy, and theology of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance
Historiated initial "A": Gregory the Great. View details.
Houghton Library, MS Typ 120, f. 1r

From cuttings of illuminated manuscript borders to massive choir books, from a late antique Bible fragment to early modern inventories: Houghton Library’s early (pre-1600) manuscript collections offer a window into medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Assembled through gifts and purchases over the past two centuries, Houghton’s wide-ranging collections of over 1500 codices, rolls, and fragments enable research into the literature, art, history, music, philosophy, and theology of Western Europe. The collection is particularly strong in holdings of Italian manuscripts from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance, as well as manuscripts produced in France and Germany. Over half of the manuscripts are in Latin. Among European vernacular languages, Italian, English, French, German, and Spanish are the most represented.

Although collection development has centered on Western Europe, Houghton’s holdings are broad enough that they can facilitate study beyond Christian Europe. Of note are about 165 Islamicate manuscripts in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, or Persian; dozens of Syriac manuscripts; the Riant collection that focuses on the Crusades and Near East; and manuscripts in Hebrew, Sanskrit, Church Slavic, Armenian, and Coptic.

Note that early manuscripts exist at other Harvard repositories, including Harvard Law School Library's Historical & Special Collections, Harvard Yenching Library's Special Collections (East Asian materials), and Countway Library (history of medicine), among others.

Collection history

Circular astrologoical diagram, Houghton MS Gr 3
Astrological diagram from one of the first medieval manuscripts acquired by Harvard. view details
Houghton Library, MS Gr 3, f. 283

Although Harvard Library’s collections date back hundreds of years, it was not until the late 18th century that the first medieval manuscripts entered the collection. Before 1819, Harvard's library included only a few early manuscripts. Harvard purchased its first manuscripts in 1819, when Edward Everett (later President of Harvard, 1846-49) presented to the library six Greek manuscripts acquired in Constantinople and one Latin manuscript from Florence.

The late 19th century saw three major acquisitions. In 1874, Charles Eliot Sumner bequeathed 26 early manuscripts. In 1896, Harvard Library purchased its first manuscripts via the trade from the auction of Sir Thomas Phillipps’ immense library; Harvard won six classical texts at this auction. Finally, the 1899 purchase of the Riant collection included over 50 early manuscripts.

When Houghton Library opened in 1942, such early and rare materials were transferred from Widener’s Treasure Room. In the 20th century, the bequests of two prominent manuscript collectors enriched Houghton’s early collections further: William King Richardson (Class of 1880) bequeathed about 50 early manuscripts, and Philip Hofer (Class of 1921) donated hundreds.

For more information about the history of manuscript collections development at Harvard, see Rodney G. Dennis, “Collecting early manuscripts at Harvard”, Harvard Library Bulletin XXXI (3), summer 1983: 285-298.

Recent aquisitions

The Early Books and Manuscripts department maintains an active collection development program, following Houghton’s collections strategy. For a few examples of recent acquisitions to the collections, consult the following search via HOLLIS, Harvard Library’s online catalog: this search query yields early (pre-1600) manuscripts whose records were added within the past three months.

Houghton staff also maintain a record of bibliographical citations of works that discuss Houghton's early manuscripts. We invite you to contact us if you have published any works—whether a monograph, journal article, or a blog post—that makes use of our early manuscript collections.

A note on shelfmarks

Houghton Library manuscript collections bear shelfmarks (call numbers) that designate language or provenance classifications. These classifications are not always straightforward. For example, MS Arab 12 is a legal & linguistic miscellany that includes texts in Arabic as well as Persian and Ottoman Turkish; MS Gr 23 is actually a Latin translation of collected tragedies of Euripides, originally in Greek; and MS Lat 260 is a copy of the Order of the Garter in English.

To search HOLLIS by call number, click on the Starts with / Browse tab at the top and change the 'Browse by' drop-down to Call number - Other. This feature allows you to locate specific items by call number and to browse the collection in call number order.

The following links lead to catalog searches for Houghton manuscripts dated between 500 and 1599. Note that these search parameters will exclude undated materials.

Houghton's early manuscript collections also include four subcollections whose shelfmarks denote their collector:

  • MSS Riant were collected by Paul Édouard Didier, comte de Riant (1836-1888).
  • MSS Richardson were donated by William King Richardson '80 (1859-1951).
  • MSS Typ are part of Houghton's Printing & Graphic Arts department. Many of these manuscripts were donated by founding curator, Philip Hofer '21 (1898-1984).
  • MSS Widener comprise two late medieval English codices that belonged to Harry Elkins Widener '07 (1885-1912).

Accessing These Materials

All material is accessible through Houghton Library’s reading room. Some materials are restricted because of fragility or other handling concerns; if this is the case, the HOLLIS catalog record will include a restriction note.

For more information on how to search HOLLIS for manuscripts, see our research guide.

Related Collections

Digital Collection

Digitized Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts

Delve into the literature, art, history, music, philosophy, and theology of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Western Europe found in Houghton Library's collection.

William King Richardson Collection

This Houghton Library collection contains illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, illustrated books, and fine bindings collected by prominent Boston lawyer and bibliophile William King Richardson.

Count Paul Riant collection

Documents European engagement in the Middle East through a range of sources from the 12th through 19th centuries

Early Science Collections

Houghton Library’s extensive holdings in the early history of science represent over 2,000 years of scientific thought.

Harry Elkins Widener Collection

Collected prior to his death on the Titanic in 1912, the Harry Elkins Widener Collection consists of approximately 3,300 volumes housed in the Memorial Rooms of Widener Library.

Picturing Prayer: Books of Hours in Houghton Library

Explore 16 of the books of hours in Houghton Library’s rich collection of such manuscripts and pore through their pages without traveling to the reading room.