The mirror of manuscripts: on searching facsimile editions

Readers of my blog have undoubtedly noted my predilection for original sources. Whenever possible I intend to supply the exact title and location of sources or to give indications about critical editions. Instead of pointing to reliable translations I prefer giving information about a text in its original version. Thus my post in 2011 about modern translations of the Corpus Iuris Civilis was in a way exceptional. Digital libraries can give you online access to both original sources and text editions. However, there is another form in which you may encounter a particular text. For a substantial number of remarkable manuscripts, books and archival records facsimile editions have been published. When you visit a department of manuscripts and old books at a national or university library you have often a marvellous collection of printed facsimile editions at hand. Many years ago I spent an afternoon with a facsimile edition in black and white (!) of the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, University Library, ms. 32). 1 By the way, this library prepares a new online version of this famous manuscript which will be launched this autumn.

Students, scholars and teachers all have reasons to use facsimile editions, be it for research or for educational purposes. What resources can one use to find facsimile editions quickly? What is the quality of some online inventories? What help do they offer when you look for a text or resource in connection with legal history? In this post I try to provide some answers to these questions. Due to the very scope of a blog post the result can only be a guide in a nutshell, but nevertheless it might help anyone looking for a very particular and valuable resource. The title of this post reflects not only the history of book titles such as the Speculum iudiciale by Guillelmus Duranti (around 1230-1296), but also for example the Digital Mirror of the National Library of Wales, the entrance to its digital collections.

In a postscript I briefly look at other search strategies and online resources. The combination of printed guides and bibliographies, online catalogues and meta-catalogues with the special databases discussed here gives the best chances to find both facsimiles and reliable information about them.

Hunting for precious manuscripts

The exceptional value of a manuscript or book is determined by several factors. The age of the manuscript or book. the state of its preservation, its unique role as a text carrier, especially when it is a rare or even the only textual witness, and often also the illumination or illustrations play a role in selecting as the object of a facsimile edition. Some manuscripts are considered very special indeed. Simple mortals are not allowed to see them, and even scholars must have very good reasons to convince a holding institution of the urgent need to consult the original. The Codex Florentinus of the Digest held at Florence is a good example of this class of manuscripts. Sometimes legal historians have in front of them a list of earlier visitors who consulted a manuscript, and it takes considerable courage to add your name after Theodor Mommsen and other giants.

Logo UB Graz

Last year I wrote about legal history in the Austrian city Graz. One of the websites maintained at the university library of Graz is an online bibliography of manuscripts in facsimile editions. In 1976 Hans Zotter published the first edition of the Bibliographie faksimilierter Handschriften (Graz 1976) with 637 titles, and in 1995 Hans and Heidi Zotter came with a second edition for titles published until 1992, this time on disc. To the search interface of the current website are added a list of relevant literature, an overview of series by major publishers and a list of abbreviations. You can search this online database either using the location of holding institutions and with any search term (Volltextsuche). As an example I use a famous German legal text, the Sachsenspiegel, “The Mirror of Saxony” by Eike von Repgow. At four German libraries so-called codices picturati are held, wonderfully illustrated manuscripts which long have been revered as the primary example of sources for legal iconography. The database in Graz provides you systematically with basic information about a manuscript and bibliographical information about the facsimile edition. For the Codex Florentinus a search for “Firenze” yields not only the two facsimile editions (1900 and 1988), which happen to come into view at the top, but also all other facsimile editions of manuscripts kept in Florence. With Ungenannter Ort, “location not indicated”, you get those editions of manuscripts where the location of the – often private – library is not indicated. The free text search brings you also to the register of editors.

It would be a miracle if the database at Graz was flawless, but it took me some time to find an example of a missing edition. The University of Arizona in Tucson has a created an online exhibit of Mixtec, Mayan and Aztec codices, with an extended list of relevant facsimile editions. With a few exceptions I found every edition mentioned in this exhibit in the Austrian database. These manuscripts give me a chance to mention the beautiful online exhibit at the Tarlton Law Library of the University of Texas at Austin on Aztec and Maya Law: An Online Exhibit and Bibliography, based on an exhibition created by Mike Widener and his colleagues at this library in 1992. The web version has been revised and updated in 2010.

A more general approach?

At this point it is only sensible to ask for a royal road to facsimile editions. Can you tune one of the major online meta-catalogues to search specifically for these kind of editions? I tried the advanced search interface of WorldCat, but even though the dropdown list of materials to be specified is most impressive facsimile editions are conspicuously absent. At the Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog (KVK) one can use the search term “facsimile” in the free search field and add additional search terms in any field, which however works only for a restricted number of catalogues connected to the KVK. As a matter of fact you will find bibliographies which mention facsimile editions or even contain a specific facsimile, but apart from Zotter’s book and disc I did not yet find a modern bibliography of facsimile editions of manuscripts. For some subjects specialized bibliographies of facsimiles exist, for example botany and cartography.

It did cross my mind to search at Archivalia, the blog maintained by Klaus Graf which functions as a treasure trove for all matters concerning libraries and archives, but apart from one of the sites discussed here below I mainly found links to specific projects and websites. Let two examples mentioned at Archivalia suffice: sometimes I wonder why libraries use the term facsimile for digital versions, as for example for this nifty preset search action for digitized manuscripts at Leiden University Library, The second example is rather special, a list at Manuscripta Mediaevalia of digitized versions (!) of facsimile editions on microfiche of medieval manuscripts with mainly German texts in the series Codices Illuminati Medii Aevi (CIMA).

One site to find them all…

Logo Facsimile Finder

For testing the two remaining websites to be discussed here I will use as search examples apart from the Sachsenspiegel and the CIMA series also the Codice Florentino manuscript of Bernardino de Sahagún (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, ms. Palat. 218-220), a veritable encyclopedia of the Aztec civilization.2 In fact the first site for finding facsimiles which prompted me into writing this post is called Facsimile Finder. Its subtitle “The complete database of illuminated manuscripts” at once invites you to check its quality. At the same time a restriction to illuminated manuscripts is clearly stated at the outset.

The Facsimile Finder, a website run by two Italian scholars who also are the owners of the publishing house Codices illustres, easily presents the four illuminated manuscripts of the Sachsenspiegel, and shows them with an image of the manuscript and the facsimile edition. The site gives for each manuscript the main elements of a codicological description, and also information about the background of the text and illuminations. On the page for the Oldenburger manuscript (Oldenburg, Landesbibliothek, Hs. CIM I 410) it reads rather curiously that the manuscript is held at the Niedersächsische Staatsbibliothek in Hannover. When I looked for the exact title at Facsimile Finder of the facsimile edition by the Austrian publisher Adeva the title turned out be left out at both websites. Adeva states as the holding institution the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung in Hannover. However, this institution certainly bought the manuscript in 1991, but placed it immediately as an extended loan at the Landesbibliothek in Oldenburg. A classic bibliographical search for the exact title yielded as a result that Ruth Schmidt-Wiegand edited the commentary to the edition “im Auftrag der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung Hannover”, by order of the Lower Saxon Savings Bank Foundation.3 Obviously it is possible not only to miss the clear indication of the location of a manuscript, but also to mix up a foundation and a library. Do you need any comments about the presentation both at this search site and by the very publisher of the facsimile? For the three other codices picturati of the Sachsenspiegel the indication of the holding library and the manuscript’s signature is correct, but here, too, as for all entries at Facsimile Finder, no title is given among further details such as the publisher, the editor, year of publication and current price of a facsimile edition. To put the record straight, on its own website Adeva equally leaves out the exact titles of their editions.

It is only fair to applaud the colourful presentation at Facsimile Finder, and in particular the search facilities which help you to focus on a particular period, language, style, type, theme or country. The theme option couples “Law” with “History” and “Chronicles”. When you realize this website contains just a meagre five hundred items, the practical restrictions for users becomes rather clear. The multiple section “Chronicles/History/Laws” brings you to 76 manuscripts. Whatever the rationale might be behind this selection, a number of them does concern legal history and is certainly very interesting, as the following examples show:

– privileges of emperor Charles V (Sevilla, Archivo Municipal, I-5-99)
– the 972 charter for the marriage of the Byzantine princess Theophanu (Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August-Bibliothek, 6 Urk. 11)
– the Goldene Bulle (1400) of king Wenceslas IV of Bohemia (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek [ÖNB], Cod. 2292)
– the Schwazer Bergbuch (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 10852), a text on mining and mining law written between 1556 and 1561
– the Ostarrichi charter (996) (Munich, Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Kaiserselekt 859)
– a tenth-century manuscript of the Leges Salicae (Modena, Archivio Capitulare, ms. O.I.2)
– the Tordesillas Treaties (1494) from the copies at Lisboa, Arquivo Nacional da Torro do Tombo and Sevilla, Archivo General de Indias
– the Leyes de Burgos (1512) from the Archivo General de Simancas, Registro General del Sello XII-1512.

I was genuinely surprised by the facsimiles of the charter with the oath of the Spanish king Philipp II on his investiture for Sicily in 1555 (Città del Vaticano, Archivio Segreto Vaticano, A.A., Arm. I-XVIII, 522), the credential given by George Washington to William Short as ambassador in Spain (1794) (Madrid, Archivo Naciónal de España, 1794, junio 5 Filadelfia Estado Leg. 3890-14) – with unaccountably attached an image of the 1555 oath by king Philipp II – and the Furs (Valencia, Arxiu Municipal), royal legislation from 1461. The Arxiu Municipal of Valencia is also mentioned for its manuscript from 1407 of the Libro del Consolato del Mar. A quick search for this legal text learns me that apart from the facsimile published in 1977 facsimiles appeared in 1947, 1979, 2004 and 2006, none of them mentioned here. To conclude for the sake of completeness, the CIMA series is not mentioned at all, nor the manuscript of Bernardino de Sahagún.

Now you might quarrel with me that I cannot hide my irony about the website just discussed, but it is ironical that the second website I want to discuss is also called Facsimile Finder. At a German website called Faksimile Finder the subtitle is “Facsimile Finder – Bibliotheca Alexandriae”. This website in English lets you choose search fields from a dropdown list, the preferred language, and you can narrow your search by indicating the period between particular years. The database contains more than 2600 entries. Browsing lists of locations and subject groups is another possibility; “Jura”, German for “laws” , is one of the subject groups. You can choose several ways, too, to sort the results. This website brings you to online versions of manuscripts, not to facsimile editions in printed form. At the bottom of the search interface you can follow the links to a number of websites concerning medieval manuscripts, early printed books and sources for Classical Antiquity, Japanese and Chinese Buddhist studies.

Let’s quickly go through the results of my queries: for the Sachsenspiegel only the online versions at Heidelberg and Wolfenbüttel appear, the Codice Florentino on Aztec history is not included nor manuscripts from the CIMA series. For those curious about the exact signatures of the illuminated Sachsenspiegel manuscripts I have put them in a footnote together with links to the digitized versions.4 The subject group “Jura” contains just one item, the Wolfenbüttler manuscript of the Sachsenspiegel. The omission of the other Sachsenspiegel manuscript is strange. To all appearances it seems the creator of this database certainly put a lot of work in creating a subject index, but the actual results are for this particular subject distinctly meagre.

A mirror of illusions

Should we end lamenting the sad state of affairs of these three databases concerning facsimilised or digitized manuscripts? What did we see in the mirror? The database at Graz is wonderful, its bibliographical accuracy is high, but an update is most welcome. The Italian Facsimile Finder looks splendid, but its range is restricted to illuminated manuscripts and the actual number of editions, too, could be larger. The omission of titles and some factual mistakes do not work in favour of this website. When I asked information about this website Giovanni Scorcioni kindly informed me he is working on a new enhanced version with more facsimiles. A sneak preview is indeed promising. The problem with the exact titles is mainly caused by relying on the data and images given by publishers, and the information about the Oldenburger Sachsenspiegel will be corrected. The German Faksimile Finder covers a wide range of subjects, contains a substantial number of manuscripts and books, but focuses effectively on online versions of manuscripts and rare books. Its subtitle points to the ideal of the classic library at Alexandria which aimed at being a bibliotheca bibliothecarum. Its modern successor,, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina hosts a mirror site of the Internet Archive. Other major universal digital initiatives have mirror sites, too, especially the Universal Digital Library of the Carnegie-Mellon-University Pittsburgh, with in this case even three mirror sites, two in China and one in India.

When we look in the mirror after this long virtual excursion we should realize that we can profit at least from received wisdom by using the information about facsimile editions of manuscripts in reliable guides. The database at Graz should be wider known. It is duly noted for example on the fine page of the German Virtual Library-History guiding you to codicology, but alas this page is no longer updated, and though Zotter is mentioned no working link is given for the database at Graz. The great online RBMS bibliographical guide for rare materials mentions only Zotter’s catalogue of incunabula at Graz. The MGH does mention it on a webpage for manuscripts, but with the old web address, as does the online version of Leonard Boyle’s bibliography of palaeography.5

Yet another possible gateway to medieval manuscripts in facsimile came into view for this contribution. I did notice references to Charles D. Wright (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and his online bibliography Medieval Manuscripts in Facsimile and Microform, for example in the very useful guide to medieval manuscript catalogues, microforms and microfilms of UPenn Libraries, but alas the link does not function. The guide to medieval manuscripts at UIUC gives a different URL for Wright’s bibliography, but this, too, is currently not working. Only after a long search I found a reference at Umiltà to a third version from 2008 and last published in 2010 which does not exist any more, too, but luckily was archived at the Internet Archive. It turns out to be a list with examples of facsimiles of illustrated medieval manuscripts organized by subject in alphabetical order, with for “law books” just two entries. This list simply does not fit in a comparison of databases. The page for facsimiles at Umiltà is just a list of some publishing houses and their websites with a few images attached.

Logo Rare Books and Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries, Unicversity of Notre Dame, Ind.

At least one library has its own special database for finding microfilms and facsimiles of medieval manuscripts. The Medieval Institute Library at the Hesburgh Libraries of the University of Notre Dame, Ind., shows in its database information about some 9,000 microfilms and 600 facsimile editions in its holdings. Apart from a nice array of search filters you will find also information about online versions of particular manuscripts. I could not help sighing for sheer relief when seeing and testing this great resource, and even more when you can easily track at least fourteen legal texts. In my view it is a model to follow for a project which would cover editions for other periods and subjects. In my opinion it is not by chance that you can find at the Hesburgh Libraries also an excellent online exhibition on the medieval inquisition, and an online catalogue of some 200 facsimiles of medieval seals. Combining the database of the Hesburgh Libraries with for example its smaller counterpart at Fordham University is one of the search options that scholars can follow. It is easy nowadays to find the major online projects concerning medieval manuscripts for particular regions, languages and subjects, and anyway this post has at this point already grown too long to include any of them. If you insist you might have a look at my own page on medieval manuscripts.

If we had been looking for facsimiles of medieval charters, things would be very different. At the French portal for medieval studies Ménestrel you could go for example to the very detailed list of editions created at the École Nationale des Chartes in Paris. It scarcely needs a reminder that for digitized medieval manuscripts, too, we do not have – and most probably will not have for some time – a portal that really covers the growing number of manuscripts accessible online. Using websites as the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts at UCLA, other sites as listed for example at Ménestrel, the great links page for legal manuscripts made by Gero Dolezalek, to which I can only add the digital manuscript index DMS at Stanford, still in its infancy but promising, the portal Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000 to 1500, and Europeana Regia, a project which I discussed here in 2011 and 2012. The website at UCLA was created by two courageous scholars, but in 2013 they decided to stop the project which did present three thousand manuscripts. For Old English manuscripts John Herrington created already in 1998 a website with a downloadable Excelsheet which perfectly serves as a guide to facsimiles. I am sure some of the more specialized databases for medieval manuscripts do contain information about the presence of facsimile editions. Adding when possible information about such editions to the Manuscripta Juridica database at Frankfurt am Main, the online version of the 1972 repertory of manuscripts with Roman law texts created by Gero Dolezalek and Hans van de Wouw, is certainly desirable.

Creating and maintaining a database for finding facsimile editions that would fulfill the most exacting scholarly demands would be quite a feat. The major demand here is the creation of a full bibliographical record for a facsimile, which has to contain both data on the edition in itself and on the object published in facsimile. Meanwhile hopefully the combination of resources I discussed here can help you to find what you need, or at least inform what you can expect from these resources. In my view it is only by cooperation, team work and a clear long-term view that such large and ambitious projects can succeed. As for how and when this will happen, these biblical words seem most apt, “for now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13,12).


1. Ernest T. DeWald (ed.), The illustrations of the Utrecht Psalter (Princeton, NJ-London-Leipzig, 1932).
2. The facsimile edition is [Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España] : manuscrito 218 – 20 de la Colección Palatina de la Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana ; codice florentino para mayor conocimiento de la historia del pueblo de Mexico (3 vol., Florence-México 1979).
3. Der Oldenburger Sachsenspiegel: vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe im Originalformat des Codex picturatus Oldenburgensis CIM I 410 der Landesbibliothek Oldenburg / Textband [und Kommentarband] herausgegeben von Ruth Schmidt-Wiegand im Auftrag der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung Hannover (2 vol., Graz 1995-1996). The format of the edition Graz-Darmstadt 2006) is slightly reduced and it does not constitute a normal facsimile.
4. Dresden, Sächsische Landes- und Universitätbibliothek, ms. 32, digital version; Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal. Germ. 164, digital version; Oldenburg, Landesbibliothek, CIM I 410, digital version; Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 3.1 fol., digital version.
5. Leonard Boyle, Medieval Latin Palaeography: a bibliographical introduction (third edition, Toronto 1995). The updated Italian version: Paleografia latina medievale (Rome 1999).

A postscript

My discussion focused on a number of specialized databases. In passing I referred to using the bibliographical information in library catalogues and meta-catalogues. I was kindly alerted to look again at the possibilities of WorldCat to retrieve facsimile editions. On closer inspection I do admit that I dismissed WorldCat too quickly, but you do face the fact of depending very much on the quality of the bibliographical records harvested by WorldCat, or at any other meta-catalogue. In particular a search at WorldCat for medieval law texts in facsimile with among the results a facsimile edition of the Westphalian Peace (1648) fueled my mistrust.

Years ago I created my own list of major libraries and their online catalogues. It is perfectly sensible to use them, too, for finding facsimile editions. Combining the information in printed bibliographies, some specialized databases and a number of (meta-)catalogues at major libraries is the way to find facsimile editions. Some printed bibliographies are accessible online. I want to single out the vast work edited for the Library of Congress by Guadalupe Jiménez Codinach, The Hispanic world, 1492-1898 : a guide to photoreproduced manuscripts from Spain in the collections of the United States, Guam, and Puerto Rico / El mundo hispánico, 1492-1898 : guía de copias fotográficas de manuscritos españoles existentes en los Estados Unidos de América, Guam y Puerto Rico (Washington, D.C., 1994), which serves not only as a directory to American collections, but informs you also about a multitude of works which have appeared in facsimile editions. The guide can be consulted online at Purdue University. I tracked this guide using the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Only a very small number of books presenting facsimiles of legal works can be consulted in full view through the services of this major enterprise.

Mentioning the Library of Congress should ring a bell for the LC Subject Headings. Using them for your searches in relevant catalogues does indeed help to narrow your results. However, the problem remains of bibliographical records with either lacking subject information or at the other end almost too much details, in particular chains of LC Subject Headings which can be in my opinion far too specific. As for finding books related to law, some universities and institutions have the luxury of both general and specific law library catalogues, for example Yale University with both the general Orbis catalogue and the Morris catalogue for Yale Law School.

For the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, UB, ms. 32) there is a new digital presence with accompanying information, you can also go straight for the digitized manuscript itself in the Special Collections of Utrecht University Library.


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