Early Books and Manuscripts

Early Books and Manuscripts

Roman bronze diploma with capital letters Latin text fragment

Fragment of a Roman Diploma on bronze, granting a veteran rights to marry and hold property, written in monumental capitals. P.CtYBR inv. 5069 (recto).

Early Books and Manuscripts contains the library’s holdings from the dawn of writing to 1500 CE.  While historically there has been an emphasis on objects from Western Europe, in fact the collection has always included works from Asia, Northern Africa and the Middle East. This page is designed to provide a rough introduction to the materials from around the world that can be found in the Beinecke Library, mostly from before 1500 CE. The bibliography at the end can help you locate specific collections.  If you have any questions about pre-1500 materials, please email Ray Clemens, the curator of Early Books and Manuscripts.

Papyrus fragment of Homer's Iliad

A fragment of Homer’s Iliad on papyrus, P.CtYBR inv. 489 qua.


Many of the earliest objects in the Bienecke Library’s collection were gathered during archeological exploration of Dura-Europos in the 1920s and 30s, a Roman town in present day Syria.  The Library holds the papryus gathered from the dig while the Yale University Art Gallery holds the objects, including frescos from one of the oldest surviving Jewish synagogues.

Single folio with large arch at top and several columns descending from the arch. This is a canon table.

Fragment of a Eusubian Canon Table from a fifteenth-century Ethiopic manuscript. Ethiopic MSS 31 recto.

Ethiopic Materials

The region around present-day Ethiopia is one of the oldest continuous Christian communities and has a signficant history in the history of the book for some of the earliest bindings of the codex.  Recently, around thirty-three of the Beinecke’s Ethiopic materials have been cataloged with the assistance of Steve Delamarter of George Fox University and the Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (EMIP).  Most of these materials are late nineteenth or early twentieth century, but a few are earlier and all demonstrate the sophisticated state of Ethiopic book and scroll production.

Beauvais Missal opened to display text and obituaries in margins.

The recently acquired Beauvais Missal, eleventh century. Beinecke Library MS 117X.

European Manuscripts

The Beinecke Library has one of the richest collections of European manuscripts in North America.  The collection is especially rich in textual manuscripts, which has been the focus of the collection from its inception to facilitate the teaching of classics and theology. 

Four books, one open to a picture of Geoffrey Chaucer

Four manuscripts containing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s-1400) from the Takamiya Collection.  Three are copies of The Canterbury Tales and one a copy of A Treatise on the Astrolabe.

The collection is very strong in English manuscripts, thanks in large part to the Osborn Collection and also to the recent acquisition of the manuscripts of Toshiyuki Takamiya in 2017. 

In 2016 the Beinecke Library acquired the remains of the broken manuscripts of book breaker Otto F. Ege, as well as seventy codices he purchased but had not broken.  In 2020 we acquired the collection of Stephen Keynes, which was rich in early codices and fragments.

The Beinecke collection is supplemented by the medical and scientific manuscripts in the Medical Historical Library and by legal manuscripts in the Law School Library (not found in Orbis, but in Morris), as well as several manuscripts in the Yale Center for British Art and fragments in the Yale University Art Gallery.

Armenian Materials

Despite a history of being dominated by stronger hostile neighbors, Armenia has maintained a distinct linguistic and cultural tradition.  The Beinecke’s Armenian holdings were significantly increased with the acquisition of the materials from the Hartford Seminary Library in 198?, which included several medieval and early modern codices.

Asian Rolls and Codices

Near Eastern Manuscripts

Early Printing



Kerr, D. A., Bijlefeld, W. A., Palm, C., & Blackburn, S. P. (1994). The illuminated manuscripts of Hartford Seminary : the art of Christian-Muslim relations. Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Seminary.

Nersessian, S. D. (1955). An Illustrated Armenian Gospel of the XIV Century and Check List of Armenian Manuscripts in the Case Memorial Library. The Hartford Seminary Foundation Bulletin, 19, 1-7.

Papyrus/Ancient World


Haile, T., Rundell, & Delmarter, S. (2011). Catalogue of the Ethiopic Ms Imaging Project : Volume 1: Codices 1-105 Magic Scrolls 1-134.