Manuscript Archives

Manuscript Archives (1): Trinity College Dublin

There is little I enjoy more than getting my hands on a centuries-old piece of vellum and researching the written records of the medieval world. For me this almost always takes the form of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Anglo-Latin manuscripts, which takes me into the wonderful, varied and frequently frustrating world of manuscript archives. Even the most seasoned researcher, upon wandering into a new archive, can be surprised by the foibles and odd rules specific to that institution, and such information is not always readily accessible before showing up. Thus I will be providing a short series on archives within our blog, and detailing my personal experiences. In part I will be providing some practical information about the archives I have visited, with details of the accessibility of materials, cost and logistics of access, and ease of digitisation; in part I will be enthusing somewhat over the MSS I deal with. The terminology may get technical.

When I first started manuscript research, my supervisor offered this sage piece of advice.

“You will encounter two types of archivists: 1) those who facilitate research and are eager to make available to you the riches of the repository and 2) those who view themselves as guards who see their duty to keep your grubby hands off of his/her precious MSS and get rid of you ASAP.”

As a researcher you of course wish to encounter the former, but as an archivist I suspect I would be the latter.  It will be immediately evident which type of archivist you are dealing with and, fortunately, the good people of the Trinity College Dublin Manuscripts and Archives Research Library have been extremely helpful from the outset.

I am currently drafting my PhD proposal, much of which focuses on the Anglo-Saxon royal martyrs, Æthelberht of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, and Edward the Martyr. Trinity College holds two MSS that, according to the Abbott Catalogue of 1900 contain material on Edward, TCD MS 171 & 172 (I think Abbott was mistaken on 172, but more on that later). According to their website, the team at Trinity only access their MS archives once a day, so it is imperative to order in advance (see summary below), and I emailed to ensure I would be able to book them in. A positive reply was forthcoming, with a hitherto unseen caveat that, ‘due to difficulties in obtaining the optimum humidity levels for consultation of vellum material, it may only be possible to consult each manuscript for a limited time.’

It all makes sense when you walk into the echoing hall of the Old Library. The place looks and feels right for the consultation of seven-century-old MSS however, even though the MSS reading rooms are a smaller space within the complex, from a conservation perspective the building is entirely impractical. This contrasts with somewhere like the British Library with atmosphere controlled reading rooms, or a smaller archive like Lambeth Palace that has easily controllable and intimate areas for MS consultation. The staff speak hopefully, if dubiously, of a new MSS building in the future.

While I will not do the job of the descriptive catalogue (TCD MS 171 – Colker, vol. 1, pp. 304 – 310; TCD MS 172 – Colker, vol. 1, pp. 310 – 320), I will make some basic observations on each of the MSS I consulted today. I will provide photos in future archive blogs, but not today. Trinity does not allow self-service digitisation.

TCD MS 171 is a 13th C. Anglo-Latin codex containing the saint’s lives for the months March – May, presumably once one of a set of volumes that spanned the year. The codex was clearly conceived as a single work with narratives spanning quires – each quire is identified both by number and catchwords. The vellum is in good condition, the imperfections noted at pp. 81 and 83 were present within the vellum production process as some effort had been made to repair the holes. The MS is largely free of marginalia, the markings are very heavy, and though the scribe has a nice hand, he has struggled to stay within the markings. The scribe has also had to make repairs on the run, scraping and rewriting. The illuminated lettering at the start of each new section is very delicate, largely in blue and red, with some green, and small examples of gilding throughout. I focused very much on pp. 82 – 93 (the codex has been paginated), which contains both the Passio S. Eadwardi Regis et Martyris, and Miracula S. Eadwardi.

TCD MS 172 is a 14th C. Anglo-Latin codex and a miscellany that could be characterised as a compendium of early-medieval Anglo-Latin literature’s greatest hits. But there is nothing on Edward the Martyr, Abbott frankly got it wrong and confused him with Edward the Confessor. Far be it from me to get put off by the fact that the codex had no relevance to my study though, I enjoyed it for what it did contain. Which included extracts from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, an impressive collection of prophecies taken from both Gildas and Geoffrey of Monmouth, along with a selection of hagiographies. There are some cracking marginalia, with the sketched faces on pp. 362 – 367 a highlight. There is some illuminated lettering throughout, though where gilt appears (eg. p. 394), the artwork is quite exemplary in contrast to other examples in the MS. This codex is comprised of three separate codices that have been combined at some point after the 15th C., and I suspect there is at least half a quire missing from the middle one. The last section is a single quire and the vellum is in pretty bad nick, and probably has been for the past five-hundred years; interestingly, it contains material in French.  Considered as three independent works, there is little surprise each contains a different hand, yet there are multiple scripts even within the sections – granted the varied texts copied within, it is of little surprise that there are multiple scribes at work here. Nice to see the different styles of script, but ultimately for the modern researcher, the volume lacks the clear purpose that MS 171 has. I could speculate, but I won’t (but I want to).

Needless to say it was a joy and privilege to handle these artefacts of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries, representing months of labour by dedicated scribes now long dead. I would hope that they would be delighted to see their works still be handled and studied and brought to life, whether in research, or in an overly long and slightly dull blog entry. Though I do hope my enthusiasm and the extraordinary nature of these artworks is coming through!

Ultimately a beautiful library with some remarkable examples of Anglo-Latin MSS culture and, as a bonus, you gain access to the long gallery and the Book of Kells for free. The staff are welcoming and friendly. However, as seen in my below summary, some of the archival practices from a researcher’s perspective are outdated and put significant restrictions on accessibility of MSS, either for digitisation or transcription.

-Matt Firth

Summary, Trinity College Dublin – Manuscripts and Archives Research Library:


Reading tickets are quickly granted with ID at the Berkeley Library. This is required to access the Old Library, where the ticket is countersigned upon provision of a supervisor’s letter of introduction.

The physical accessibility of the reading rooms is labyrinthine. Into the Book of Kells shop, past the security guards, up the stairs, through the famous long gallery (pictured), past the velvet ropes, through a door, down the stairs, through another door, back up in a lift, turn left to find an unmanned desk.

MS Access:

Their website indicates they will only retrieve MSS once per day, but granted the humidity issue noted above, they will collect vellum MSS on demand. As the reading room sits within the Old Library structure, the infrastructure does not support an environmentally controlled space, so length of access will vary dependent on conditions.

Cotton gloves will be provided (a rarely required archival practice).


No cost for access.


Not available as self-service. There is a digital service provided by Trinity College, however the costs are prohibitive: €25 for the first page, €2 for each page thereafter.


General Catalogue: T. K. Abbot, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, 1900.

Descriptive Catalogue: M. L. Colker, Trinity College Dublin: Descriptive Catalogue of the Mediaeval and Renaissance Manuscripts, Dublin, 1991.

Further information:

Trinity College Dublin Manuscripts and Archives Research Library:

Matt’s travel to Ireland was funded by the generosity of the University of New England, through the Mary Dolan Memorial Traveling Scholarship.

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