When people first see a medieval manuscript, often the first things they notice are how difficult (or impossible) they are to read, how different the figures and illustrations are from modern art, and how distant they seem from our world of iPods, magazines, and airplanes. They are, after all, written in ancient languages, illustrated with a heavy emphasis on symbolism that seems obscure to us, and even written with different materials than we use today.
Reading small, sometimes cryptic descriptions on display cards at museums and libraries is a difficult way to be introduced to manuscripts. To those without a ready interest in history or literature it can seem useless and impossible to even try to understand the past by peering through glass panes at illegible scribbling.
Whatever it seemed like before, the world of museums and manuscripts is changing: the internet has created thousands of new opportunities for students and professionals alike to study the past through art, literature, and science. Now, you can take advantage of these opportunities simply by surfing around the internet and being interested in what you see. Today, you do not have to pay a lot of money to learn how to understand ancient cultures: you simply have to know where to find the information you want to know.
To help you start reading medieval manuscripts, I’ve put together two sets of links: one on picking up some basic Latin and the other on the study of ancient handwriting (palaeography). For a general overview, here are some links to other tutorials or digital projects introducing you to the study of medieval manuscripts. Not all manuscripts are written in Latin, but many of them are: feel free to skip that if you don’t need it. I wouldn’t try memorizing everything about palaeography either; just get a taste of it and come back when you have questions!