Reviewed August 2017
Heather Rayl, Director of Technology and Special Collections
Vigo County Public Library

The Wolsey Manuscripts project came about as part of an ongoing digitization effort at Christ Church and was envisioned to allow modern scholars to view the Wolsey Gospel and Epistle manuscripts side-by-side, as originally intended, to encourage academic study and new research. The Wolsey manuscripts are the only known matched pair of English lectionaries to survive the Edwardian Reformation, and remain excellent examples of Flemish illumination and miniatures of the time. Thomas Wolsey (c.1472–1530)--cardinal, diplomat, statesman, and close advisor to King Henry VIII--was also a prolific patron of the arts and education in Tudor England. His “cult of magnificence” funded extravagant clothing and jewelry, architectural works, and other artistic commissions. In the 1520s, he hired the scribe Peiter Meghen to write two lectionary manuscripts, which were later illuminated by “The Wolsey Master,” presumably for use in the chapel at the then newly constructed Cardinal’s College. However, after the accusation of treason against the crown in 1529 and his death soon after, the manuscripts were probably obtained by Henry VIII, who confiscated all of Wolsey’s possessions. Their provenance thence is mysterious, but eventually the separated volumes came to rest at Christ Church and Magdalen College, and to be known as the Christ Church Epistolary (MS 191) and the Magdalen College Gospel Lectionary (MS Lat 223).

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The Wolsey Manuscripts site delivers what it advertises: the ability for the viewer to see the the manuscripts side by side. The Mirador image viewer plugin, an HTML5 and Javascript application that is fully compatible with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), is the core of the site.  The software allows the user to easily browse through the manuscripts in several different modes like thumbnail, book view, and image view. It also enables the user to zoom in, pan, and view in fullscreen mode. Users can also add more than the two default panes to the display, although one is limited to images from the two manuscripts. The controls are intuitive and easy to use. The plugin operated with no errors in Firefox and Chrome; it would not load in Internet Explorer 11, but operated well in Edge (not tested on mobile or tablet devices). The quality of the scans is clear and without artifacts.

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The site would be most useful for the researcher who is well-acquainted with illuminated manuscripts. The aforementioned research resources assume that the reader already has a detailed knowledge of Tudor history, Wolsey himself, and the terminology associated with studying manuscripts. While the viewer is simple to use, the lack of context may confuse the novice user trying to understand the accompanying research. The site would be well-served by overview essays that discuss the life and contributions of Cardinal Wolsey and a summary of the current research specifically on the manuscripts. These additions would make the site more accessible to the beginning history student, or an individual simply interested in looking at the illuminations. A “Further Reading” section would also benefit  people who are interested in learning more about the symbolism in the manuscripts, or the history of the time period.

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The ability of this site to facilitate further in-depth research on the manuscripts is significant. The capability to view pages side by side as intended should lead to new discoveries about the initial use of the manuscripts, their whereabouts during the Reformation, and the Wolsey Master. The site could also lead to further research into the use of manuscripts in the time period after the invention of the printing press. Scholars who study Flemish art may also find the availability and quality of the scans a boon to their research. Overall, this is an excellent tool for seasoned scholars in the field, but one that is less appropriate as a resource for the casual user or beginning student.


Sources consulted

Gunn, S.J and P.G. Lindley, ed., Cardinal Wolsey: Church, State and Art. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

"Wolsey, Thomas." In The Oxford Companion to British History.  Oxford University Press, 2015.