University of York

Urban Manuscripts Project

Privately-owned manuscripts, 1300-1476: A Database

About the project

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About the project

 This project is funded by a three-year grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board. The aim of the project is to create a database of manuscripts owned or used in urban contexts.

The project aims to address the following questions: 

The answers to these questions will be presented in the form of a database which will provide for the first time a resource for the systematic study of the literate culture of English townspeople, lay and clerical, in the late Middle Ages. The results will be published in the form of a searchable web-based database. Analysis will be possible under a variety of headings, including owners' names, genders and occupations, codicological information and the provenance and contents of the manuscripts. 

Private ownership

The most serious limitation of testamentary studies of book ownership is that wills usually identify the contents of books, if at all, by the first item only. Moreover, books owned during a lifetime may not appear in wills. Further limitations relate to the general problems of using wills as evidence which are familiar to historians. Working from extant manuscripts has its own problems: only a small proportion of medieval books survives, and those kept in the home are probably less likely to have been preserved than those in institutional collections. Moreover, provenance and ownership are often not easy to identify. Nevertheless, the obvious advantage of surviving manuscripts is that researchers can identify and read their entire contents. Distinguishing between official and home use provides a useful principle of selection. It enables us to separate the myriad rentals, custumals, court records, accounts and so on, which were all part of the business of urban record-keeping, from material overlapping with the public record which occurs in manuscripts held in private hands and which are the concern of this project. Such material includes, for example, urban chronicles, calendars, lists of mayors and information about gilds and parishes which individual citizens kept for their personal or household use. At the same time, the distinction between home and official use also separates the manuscripts that formed the contents of institutional or parochial libraries (which have been intensively studied) from the private collections of urban clerics, as well as from the books of hours and psalters that were used in the domestic devotions of laypeople. Other books which were also kept in the home contained more miscellaneous kinds of reading matter, including narratives, courtesy texts, medical recipes, lyrics and various memorabilia. 

The late-medieval period

The period covered by the project is from around 1300, by which time urban books can be identified in reasonable numbers, until the introduction of printing into England in 1476. This cut-off date has been imposed because urban literate culture in the era of print is too large a subject to be incorporated within the three-year time span of the project. 

Books and manuscripts

Manuscripts will be treated as urban if they were owned by someone living in a town, and/or produced in a town, and/or contain material which is unambiguously urban in character, such as town chronicles, or lists of streets or individuals from a town. We use the term manuscript in a modern sense, to refer to objects as they are found in collections today; one manuscript may well contain 'books' owned by people in both urban and non-urban, private and institutional settings, and we will attempt to make these distinctions as clear as possible in the published database. 

Towns and cities

The cities and towns to be included in the project are taken from Alan Dyer, Decline and Growth in English Towns 1400-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 56-7, 62-3. The classification of a location as a city or a town here was based on economic and demographic evidence.


Centre for Medieval Studies,
University of York, King's Manor, York YO1 7EP