It's remarkable that such old manuscripts have been preserved in the first place. But now, they're accessible online, for free, to anyone with an internet connection, scholars and curious people alike.
The pages were digitized and cataloged through a three-year collaborative project of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL). The project was led by Lehigh University and involved a partnership of 15 Philadelphia-area libraries. It's called Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis; readers can download and analyze manuscripts side by side, finding similarities and identifying patterns and other interesting features.
Since these manuscripts are very delicate and working with them is a very difficult process, researchers often work with copies -- or even worse, they just don't have access to the manuscripts at all.
It's quite common for old and rare manuscripts to be requested by scholars for research -- but transporting them internationally is both costly and difficult. This greatly facilitates international study, and it also opens up a portal for those who are simply curious about these ancient writings.
"Response to the project has been enthusiastic, both among the special collections community and the medieval studies community," said Lois Fischer Black, curator of special collections at Lehigh and principal investigator of the project. "Scholars are discovering connections and relationships among manuscripts that were not immediately obvious, opening new avenues for the study of provenance, scribal practice and related issues."
Readers can view and download material by century, page, collection, or manuscript. You can search by keyword (for instance if you want to see the manuscripts with birds or castles) or by geography.
The project mostly includes Western European texts, with topics ranging from religion and philosophy to science, math, alchemy, astronomy and family lineages. Prayer books and biblical commentaries represent a significant part of the project's manuscripts -- as you'd expect from a medieval archive -- but there are also plenty of other topics included in Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis.
It's also not just the writing -- the drawings, doodles, and scribbles have also been digitized, to facilitate browsing and understanding of the texts. The data is freely available in full resolution and in machine-readable formats.
You can access the entire thing here.