Special Collections Twenty at 20: Illuminated manuscript fragments

Special Collections is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a programme of exhibitions, stories, talks and events. Our first feature is Twenty at 20, a series highlighting 20 intriguing items chosen by our curators.

Number one: Oldest items in Manuscripts and Archives

This collection of illuminated manuscript fragments was gifted to the University by Emeritus Professor Frank R. Horlbeck, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin – Madison.1 Dating from the early 15th century, the fragments include pages from religious texts, such as psalters (books containing the Psalms) and missals (liturgical books combining all of the texts of the Mass).2 The group also contains a richly decorated ‘illuminated’ initial ‘N’ and several fragments from Books of Hours. Dr Nicholas Thompson, from the Department of Theological and Religious Studies, has identified and provided some history and context for each of these beautifully crafted pages.


Leaf from Book of Hours, second half of 15th century. MSS & Archives 2021/11, item 4.

This leaf is from a 15th century French Book of Hours, a personal prayer and devotional book. Popular among laypeople across Christian Europe between the 13th-15th centuries, Books of Hours are works of art and cultural documents of their time and contain a unique combination of sacred and secular imagery. Often made of the finest materials by skilled craftsmen, they were intended for an audience that could appreciate and afford them.3

The text on this leaf is from Psalm 51, usually read as a penitential prayer and for Offices for the Dead. The 18th century annotations record the deaths of several individuals – possibly relatives of the book’s former owners. They also ask God to have mercy on those who have passed.

  • See these exquisite fragments on display until 8 April 2022 at Special Collections, General Library Level G.
  • View an expanded online version of the display.

Nigel Bond, Special Collections


1 Frank Horlbeck collection of illuminated manuscript fragments. MSS & Archives 2021/11.

2 A Practical Framework for Analytical Bibliography of Medieval Manuscripts. https://manual.mmfc.be/p/The_MMFC_Method.

3 De Hamel, C. (1994). A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. 2nd Ed. London: Phaidon.