Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter
Miniature of Jacob's Ladder, before Psalm 80, with a bas-de-page scene of cannibal hybrids, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 83v
'Such a book! my eyes! and I am beating my brains to see if I can find any thread of an intrigue to begin upon, so as to creep and crawl towards possession of it.'
- William Morris
Thus spoke William Morris, we are told, when he first laid eyes on the Rutland Psalter in 1896. Morris was said to be so enamoured of the Psalter that when he was suffering his final illness a friend brought it to his bed-side in order to lift his spirits. We are very pleased that it is no longer necessary to go to such extremes to see this spectacular manuscript; a fully digitized version can be found online here.
The Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925) is a relatively recent addition to our collections; the manuscript was purchased by the British Library in 1983 from the estate of the ninth Duke of Rutland, whose family had owned the manuscript since at least 1825. The Psalter was produced c. 1260 in England, possibly in London, although it is unclear who the original patron was. In the centuries after it was produced, the manuscript passed through quite a few hands before ending up with the Dukes of Rutland. Many of these people seem to have shared Morris's desire to possess the Psalter, even if only virtually; a vast gallery of signatures and inscriptions can be found on the manuscript's calendar pages and flyleaves (see, for example, f. i, ii and v).
Full-page historiated initial 'B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, of King David harping, and the Judgement of Solomon, amidst men in combat astride lions and dragons, with roundels containing scenes from Creation and men in combat, with a curtain above, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 8v
It is not hard to see why the Rutland Psalter was an object of such fascination. It contains a number of spectacular full- and partial-page miniatures (see above), as well as other historiated and illuminated initials. But the Psalter's true claim to fame is its marginalia. A staggering variety of creatures populate the margins and borders of virtually every folio; amongst the men and women, animals, hybrids, dragons, and vignettes of daily life are scenes influenced by the traditions of the bestiary and the Marvels of the East, and some from sources that still have yet to be traced. A few of our favourites are below; be sure to check out the entire manuscript here.