Medieval manuscripts in the vernacular

Michael Widener

My colleague at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Raymond Clemens, recently asked me for a list of the Law Library’s medieval manuscripts in vernacular languages. The list is in three parts: (1) complete manuscripts, (2) facsimiles, and (3) binding fragments. You can view images from each of the items in a gallery on our Flickr site, “Medieval manuscripts in vernacular.”


All of our complete medieval manuscripts are in Law French, the dialect used in English legal literature and common law pleading until the early 18th century. The image at right is from one of these manuscripts, a collection of case reports from the reign of Edward III known as the Liber Assisarum. Our collection has a number of manuscripts of Italian city statutes in the vernacular, but none of them are from the medieval era.


The outstanding examples here are the four facsimiles of the medieval Saxon law code known as the Sachsenspiegel. These manuscripts are known collectively as the codices picturati (illustrated codices) because they are heavily illustrated with images designed to help the reader understand and navigate the code.


These fragments were recycled as binding materials. Several of them were featured in our Spring 2010 exhibit, “Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings.” We have two Flickr galleries devoted to manuscript binding fragments: “Medieval binding fragments,” with 189 images, and a subset of these, “Medieval binding fragments - legal texts,” with 33 images.

– MIKE WIDENER, Rare Book Librarian

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