THE BRITISH LIBRARY 

Medieval manuscripts blog

12 October 2012

More Gorleston Psalter 'Virility': Profane Images in a Sacred Space

This is the second of a two-part series about the marginalia of the Gorleston Psalter; for more information, please see the post "Virile, if Somewhat Irresponsible" Design

The existence of marginalia – particularly of the blasphemous, sexual, or scatological varieties – was for a long time a source of unease and uncertainty for manuscript scholars.  One explanation for its presence was the suggestion that medieval illuminators suffered from a horror vacui (or fear of empty space), which presumably required them to fill empty pages at random.  Other scholars characterized marginalia as essentially meaningless, purely decorative sources of distraction.  Another approach was for scholars to simply ignore it entirely; the original description of the Gorleston Psalter in the British Library Catalogue, for example, scarcely mentions the manuscript’s marginalia at all.

 

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f. 98v:  detail of a marginal scene of a hybrid nun with a cowled grotesque, now mostly erased

 

Marginalia can sometimes be shocking for modern viewers who have never encountered it before.  Whilst giving tours of the recent Royal exhibition, I was frequently asked whether these kinds of images were created by later 'vandals' to undermine the sacred nature of the original texts.  In reality, the reverse is often true; it is not uncommon to find that subsequent owners of a manuscript have either erased or defaced paintings that they presumably found particularly troubling.  There are several occurrences of this kind of later revision in the Gorleston Psalter.  In light of what was allowed to remain, these must have been considered horrifyingly offensive – I leave the original subject of one instance (f. 98v, above) to your imaginations.

Not all the miniatures in the Gorleston Psalter are so potentially explosive, however.  The manuscript features a number of images of everyday life in 14th century England, similar to those found in the Rutland Psalter and the Luttrell Psalter (Add MSS 62925 and 42130, both of which will be included in Digitised Manuscripts). See below for two scenes that must have been very common sights for the original readers of this manuscript - disregarding the outsized butterfly, of course.

 

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f. 153v: detail of a marginal scene of a man plowing with oxen, with a butterfly above

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f. 193r:  detail of a marginal scene of man working on a forge

 

But these sorts of 'normal' images are in the distinct minority.  Along with animals behaving strangely and people behaving badly, most of the Gorleston Psalter's pages also feature grotesques and hybrids, creatures that are part-animal, part-man, and even sometimes part-foliate border (see below).

 

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f. 94v:  detail of a marginal scene of a man watching a mass in an historiated initial

 

A few of the fabulous creatures populating Gorleston's folios can be seen engaging in a direct interaction with the 'proper' text itself.  On f. 94v, for example, the figure emerging from the border looks to be extremely interested in the Mass depicted in the initial above him.  On a number of occasions in the Psalter, the reader him or herself is the subject of (perhaps) mocking attention.

 

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f. 123r:  detail of a marginal creature pulling a face

 

Another subset of Gorleston's marginalia (and marginalia in general) is that which depicts the monde renversé – or upside-down world – where the usual rules are turned on their heads and the lines between humans and animals are blurred.  A few particularly charming examples:

 


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f. 164r:  detail of a marginal scene of rabbits conducting a funeral procession


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f. 106v:  detail of a marginal scene of a rabbit and another animal playing music

 

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f. 102v:  detail of a miniature of a man on horseback encountering a monkey displaying its hindquarters

 

The last image above may be startling to today's readers, but it is far from anomalous.  The Gorleston Psalter, like many manuscripts from this period, exhibits an apparently endless fascination with the examination of bottoms.  A lot of ink has been spilt explaining the presence of these profane images in what is essentially a sacred space - the Psalter is, of course, a book of prayer, intended for personal religious observance and devotion. How can we then explain the presence of the following?

 

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f. 104r:  detail of a marginal scene of a grotesque hybrid examining another’s hindquarters

 

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f. 61r:  detail of a marginal scene of a man displaying his hindquarters

 

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f. 82r:  detail of a marginal scene of a nude bishop chastising a defecating cleric

 

Criticism of these kinds of images is nearly as old as the images themselves.  The most famous (and freqently cited) is that of Bernard of Clairvaux, who asked: 'What excuse can there be for these ridiculous monstrosities...? One could spend the whole day gazing fascinated at these things, one by one, instead of meditating on the law of God. Good Lord, even if the foolishness of it all occasion no shame, at least one might balk at the expense.' (Bernard of Clairvaux, Excerpts from the Apologia to Abbot William of St-Thierry, VII.30; see here for more). 

But the fact that so many patrons did not balk at the expense implies that many people considered these ridiculous monstrosities to be desirable, even valuable.  In the last 30 years or so, significant efforts have been made to understand marginalia in its proper context; there are many theories about its function and purpose (see for example Lillian Randall's Images in the Margins of Gothic Manuscripts or Michael Camille's Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art).  The margins may have been a safe place for subversion against cultural norms, a sort of carnival on the page.  They might serve as demonstrations of artistic skill, or as creative parody, intended to evoke the laughter that they still succeed in drawing from us today.  Many kinds of marginalia also functioned as additional commentary on the text that they surround, or as anti-examples, moral guides about what not to do.  One suspects that is the case with the kind of image below, which shows a man in a monk's cloak emptying a purse of coins before a woman - presumably in exchange for her sexual services.

 

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f. 142r:  detail of a marginal scene of a monk offering money to a woman

 

A complete and comprehensive explanation for all of these fantastic images still eludes us, but perhaps that is the point.  To me, the very impossibility of capturing the meaning of marginalia is the source of its power, and a sign that the lines between sacred and profane in the medieval era were much more complicated and fluid than we have heretofore imagined.  I will leave you with a few more examples of mysterious marginalia, those that are (thus far) unclassifiable.  Any suggestions on interpretation are, as always, very welcome.

 

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f. 48v:  detail of a marginal scene of a man vomiting, presumably in a begging bowl held out by a grotesque (there are several similar scenes in the manuscript; if you wish to pursue the subject further, please see f. 62r or f. 124v)



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f. 146r:  detail of a marginal scene of a hybrid monkey in a monk’s cloak, sawing a pile of books (?)

 

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f. 209r:  detail of a marginal scene of a man whipping a noosed rabbit

 

There is an embarrassment of riches with the Gorleston Psalter's marginalia.  Please have a look at the manuscript on our Digitised Manuscripts site, or follow us on Twitter at @blmedieval; over the coming weeks we will be tweeting more images from this extraordinary manuscript. 

- Sarah J Biggs

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