September marks the beginning of the wine-making season in the northern hemisphere, and this is as true today as it was on the pages of our medieval calendar. In the opening folio, the process is beginning in earnest, as three women are busy picking grapes in a vineyard, loading them into the basket of a waiting man. Behind them are several grand buildings, while the oenophilic theme of the month is mirrored by the acanthus vines circling round the page. The labour continues on the facing folio. Below the saints’ days for September and a woman holding a balance (for the zodiac sign Libra), a man is bringing a full basket of grapes into a barn. He is greeted by a fellow worker, who stands in a tub full of grapes, crushing them beneath his feet.
Calendar page for September, with a roundel miniature of people harvesting grapes, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 9v
Calendar page for September, with a roundel miniature of a men making wine, with the zodiac sign Libra, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 10r
Throughout the year there are two feast days commemorating John the Baptist. On June 24th, his nativity is celebrated; he and the Virgin Mary are the only saints whose birthdays are commemorated. The second feast day, August 29th, concerns his martyrdom by being beheaded.
Cutting of an initial 'L' of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist with the executioner holding up the saint’s head, from a choir book, Italy, N. (Bologna), c. 1375-c. 1400, Add MS 71119D
But let us hold off on such visually disturbing images for a moment and focus on St John’s life. Most information about his life and work comes from the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the Acts of the Apostles, and the Jewish historian Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitates iudaicae). Based on these sources a pretty detailed biography of St John the Baptist can be established. He was born in the 1st century BC to Zechariah and Elizabeth, probably a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. As a prophet, he preached about the need for repentance and a righteous life before the arrival of someone mightier than him (there is still a debate whether he meant God himself or a messiah).
Detail of a scene of John the Baptist baptising Christ, watched by angels, from Scenes from the Life of John the Baptist, France/Germany (Alsace, Hohenbourg), c. 1175-c. 1200, Add MS 42497, f. 1r
For St John and his disciples, baptism was considered a symbol of that repentance, although it was not necessary to undergo this rite in order to become accepted into their circle. As we all know, among the people who were baptized by Saint John was Jesus.
Detail of a two-part scene showing John the Baptist being pushed into prison and later sitting behind bars, Add MS 42497, f. 1v
Unfortunately for St John, his opinion on how one should live was not to the liking of Herod, the ruler of Judea under the Roman Empire, or his wife. He was imprisoned, because apparently he looked disapprovingly upon Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who was Herod’s half-brother’s ex-wife.
Bas-de-page scene of Salome dancing on her hands before the feasting Herod and Herodias, with a caption reading, ‘Cy la fille du roy demau[n]da a sun pere la teste seint iohan’, from the Book of Hours, England, S. E.? (London?), c. 1325-c. 1350, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 106v
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of Herod and his queen sitting at a table and Salome to the right performing a tumble, from 'The Queen Mary Psalter’, England (London/Westminster or East Anglia?), 1310-1320, Royal 2 B VII, f. 264v
It all sounds like an overcomplicated soap-opera material, but in fact the outcome was very serious and dramatic. During Herod’s birthday party, Salome (who was the daughter of Herodias from the first marriage) danced so nicely, that he promised her anything she wanted.
Detail of a miniature of the beheading of John the Baptist, from the Bible historiale, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1479, Royal MS 15 D I, f. 297r
After getting sober, he probably regretted his open-endedness, because Salome, at Herodias’ instigation, asked for St John the Baptist’s head. Herod reluctantly agreed and had the saint decapitated.
Bas-de-page scene of Salome presenting the head of John the Baptist in a golden bowl to Herodias, with a caption reading, ‘Cy porte la fille du roy la teste s[eint] ioh[a]n e[n] un esqu[e]le devaunt sa mere’ (‘Here the king’s daughter carries St John’s head on a platter to her mother’), Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 107v. On a side note, do you recognize this image above? You should, because it is the source of one of the images used for our little spoof from 2012.
And so Salome presented her mother with St John the Baptist’s head on a platter (the origin of the famous saying ‘to want somebody’s head on a platter/plate’).
Cutting of a historiated initial 'N' with John the Baptist, from a choir book, Italy, N. (Lombardy), c. 1500-c. 1510, Add MS 39636, f. 52r
St John’s beheading scene is a very popular theme in Christian art. Sometimes he is also depicted holding a platter (oh, the irony) or a book, with a lamb on it, alongside the description Ecce Agnus Dei.
Miniature of Christ in Majesty with John the Baptist and Mary, from the 'Melisende Psalter', Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143, Egerton MS 1139, f. 12v (more on this manuscript can be found in our post Twelfth-Century Girl Power)
He is also an important figure in Byzantine and later in Eastern Orthodox art, because he is a part of the Deësis, which is a traditional iconic representation of enthroned Christ, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist.
To sum up everything we learnt today about St John the Baptist’s beheading, here is an all-in-one image:
Detail of a miniature of the bringing of the head of St John the Baptist, from a Psalter, England, Central (Oxford), c. 1200-c. 1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 7r
As I am preparing to head off for a year’s maternity leave, I thought I would take the opportunity to thank you all for the wonderful opportunity it has been to work on this blog. It has been a great pleasure to be able to share so many of the glories of the British Library over the past 3 or so years, and very gratifying to have such fabulous responses to our work.
Detail of Nature at a furnace, forging a baby, from the Roman de la Rose, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 140r
Detail of a marginal painting of a monkey with a swaddled infant, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 189v
Of course my leave-taking isn’t a permanent one; I’ll be returning to the British Library – and to the Medieval Manuscripts blog – in September of 2015. There will still be a number of posts coming up that I’ve written, and I’m leaving you in the very capable hands of Julian Harrison, Cillian O’Hogan, James Freeman, and the rest of the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts team. Until we meet again!
Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects. Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books. But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts. Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion.
Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v
Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures. As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects: ‘Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works. For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r
We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts. The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.
Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r
The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary. Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’). It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group.
Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r
A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East. In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold. Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them.
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r
Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r
The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period. Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals. They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king. Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders. Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.
Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v
That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons. A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.
Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r
It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later. The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).
Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r
Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:
Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r
Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r
Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era. The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages. Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text. An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval. Happy bug hunting!
Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r
Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r
Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional MS 35254, f. N
Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v
Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r
The latest in our running series of saint-day blog posts concerns St Bartholomew (see here for our posts on St Lawrence, St Benedict, St Margaret, St Patrick, St Apollonia – and the almanac that set the ball rolling in February). The means of St Bartholomew’s martyrdom, you’ll be pleased to know, is up to our usual visceral and horrific standard – but first let’s take a quick look at the life of this apostle and saint.
Detail of an historiated initial depicting St Bartholomew holding a knife, with grotesques in the initial body and margin, from the Bohun Psalter, ?London, 2nd half of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3277, f. 162v
Bartholomew is mentioned as of Jesus’s twelve apostles in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (but not John). Little is known about his early life. According to Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia ecclesiastica, written in the early 4th century, Bartholomew undertook missionary work in ‘India’ (a term that in the medieval period referred to a large and variously defined territory in the east), where he reputedly left behind a copy of St Matthew’s Gospel.
Detail of a column miniature of St Bartholomew holding a book, from the Hours of René d’Anjou, Paris, c. 1410, Egerton MS 1070, f. 99v
Other traditions have him travelling to various countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Ethiopia, Mesopotamia and Parthia. He is of particular importance in the Armenian Church, which holds him and St Jude Thaddeus as patron saints for having brought Christianity to the region in the 1st century. Depictions of him holding a book most probably refer to his work in spreading the Gospel.
Detail of an historiated initial of St Bartholomew holding a knife and a book, from the Hours of Dionora of Urbino, Italy (Ferrara or Rome), 1509x1538, Yates Thompson MS 7, f. 68r
Most images of St Bartholomew, however, concentrate on how he died rather than how he lived. He was martyred in the city of Albanopolis, which archaeologists have located at Zgërdhesh in modern-day Albania. By most accounts, St Bartholomew was flayed alive – his skin torn from his body – and so he is commonly depicted with one or other of the instruments of his torture, most commonly a long, curved knife, but sometimes a whip (he is also supposed to have been crucified upside-down, a method more usually associated with St Peter).
Detail of an historiated initial of St Bartholomew being flayed alive, from Wauchier de Denain, ‘Lives of the Saints’, Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 42r
Other manuscripts illustrate the gruesome act taking place, with St Bartholomew usually shown being restrained on a bench while his torturers slice away at his skin.
Cutting of a miniature of St Bartholomew being flayed alive, from a collectar, Rome, 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Add MS 46365B
Medieval illuminators did not shy away from the blood and gore. This miniature was taken from a 15th-century Italian collectar, a book containing prayers for the canonical hours of the divine office, the cycle of services conducted by monks and priests throughout the day. The way it dwells upon the visceral and drawn-out process by which St Bartholomew was put to death is most discomfiting.
St Bartholomew handing St Guthlac a whip, from the Guthlac Roll, England (probably Crowland), 1175-1215, Harley Roll Y 6, roundel 8
Bartholomew played a bit-part role in the life of one of our home-grown saints, Guthlac of Crowland. Tormented by demons on his isolated island in the fens, Guthlac is depicted on the Guthlac Roll (Harley Roll Y 6) as being carried through the air towards an open hell-mouth. Just in time, St Bartholomew comes to his rescue, handing him his whip, which Guthlac can use to beat back the unholy hordes. The Guthlac Roll thus attaches an interesting twist to the story of St Bartholomew, where the instrument that was used by his persecutors is turned around and used against the forces of evil. (For more on the Guthlac Roll, see out blog post ‘On a roll’).
Full-page miniature of St Bartholomew holding a knife and his flayed skin, from the Oscott Psalter, England (?Oxford), c. 1265-c.1270, Add MS 50000, f. 9r
In some instances, St Bartholomew is also shown holding his own flayed skin. The means of his martyrdom has led him to being adopted as a patron saint by various trades involved with the skinning of animals: butchers, tanners, trappers, leather workers and – most significantly for us – bookbinders.
Plain red moulded goatskin binding, from the St Cuthbert Gospel, England (Lindisfarne), c. 698, Add MS 89000, front cover
While it is an unfortunate fact that the medieval bindings of many, if not most, medieval books have been irretrievably lost, the British Library nonetheless possesses an enviable collection of bindings from across the medieval period. We have the earliest intact medieval binding in existence, that attached to St Cuthbert Gospel, as well as many other examples right up to the 15th century.
Detail of a column miniature of St Bartholomew holding a knife and a book in a girdle binding, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), Add MS 18851, f. 442v
It seems appropriate, then, to draw attention to a fantastic new resource for studying these rare and important survivals: the British Library’s Database of Bookbindings. This contains descriptions and images of bindings both medieval and modern, identifications of the binders responsible, and bibliographies. It is possible to search by various criteria, including binders’ names, marks of ownership, country of origin, decorative style and colour and technique. Further entries and descriptions are planned in the future.
The British Library has an incredible collection of close to 400 Books of Hours of various styles, dates, origins and sizes, including some of the most celebrated and beautifully illustrated ones ever made. Over the next few weeks we will be featuring the new Books of Hours added to our collection in recent years.
The most beautiful of these recent acquisitions is the Wardington Hours, purchased in 2007 with the help of the Art Fund, the Friends of the British Library and other generous donors. It would otherwise have been taken out of the UK by an overseas purchaser. It has recently been digitised and is available on our website at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/
The Betrayal of Christ at the beginning of the office of Matins, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Add MS 82945, f. 1r
The Wardington Hours is part of a Book of Hours containing only the Hours of the Passion, a less common cycle of devotions than the Hours of the Virgin. There are eight exquisitely painted miniatures illustrating the Passion of Christ with intricate detail and rich, colourful imagery. Illuminated borders with sparkling gold ivy leaves feature on every page, and include painted dragons with different animal heads in one part of the volume.
The Way to the Cross at the beginning of the office of Terce, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Add MS 82945, f. 18v
The miniatures are attributed to the group of illuminators associated with the Bedford Master, one of the most prominent artists working in Paris in the early fifteenth century, and whose name derives from the Bedford Psalter. This most celebrated work was made for John of Lancaster (b. 1389, d. 1435), Duke of Bedford, who was the brother of King Henry V and Regent of France for Henry VI and is now in the British Library (Add MS 18850). Both manuscripts contain an unusual miniature of the Crucifixion including the seven last words of Christ. Here is the one from the Wardington Hours:
The Crucifixion at the beginning of the office of None, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Add MS 82945, f. 26v
The Bedford Hours is a complete volume, and the Hours of the Passion is only one of the devotional texts it contains. But again the image of the Crucifixion accompanies the office of Nones and the miniatures have the same colourful palette and lively style as the Wardington manuscript. The last words of Christ are contained in seven banners in a similar arrangement, with an eighth banner held by a centurion, which reads ‘Vete filius dey erat iste’ (Behold this was the son of God).
The Crucifixion at the beginning of the office of None, from the Bedford Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1430, Add MS 18850, f. 240r
The Dunois Hours, also in the library’s collections, was made in the same prominent Paris workshop by the Dunois master for an enemy of the Duke of Bedford and companion of Joan of Arc, John Dunois, Bastard of Orleans. The latter is portrayed in the margin of the miniature of the Last Judgment, led by Saint John the Evangelist, a patron saint he shared with his English opponent.
Though there are similarities in style, the borders of the Wardington manuscript are finer and more exquisite than the ones in the Bedford and Dunois Hours. The text is framed in gold, surrounded by delicate networks of gold ivy leaves and swirling stems.
A text page with border including dragons, from the Wardington Hours, Paris, c.1410-c.1440, Additional MS 82945, f. 9r
The medieval owner of the Wardington Hours is not known, but it comes from a larger volume, another part of which has been identified by Catherine Reynolds as Huntington Library, MS HM 1100 (see Catherine Reynolds, ‘The Workshop of the Master of the Duke of Bedford: Definitions and Identities’, in Patrons, Authors and Workshops: Books and Book Production in Paris around 1400, ed. by G. Croenen and P. Ainsworth (Leuven, 2006), pp. 437-72 (p. 451)).
The Wardington Hours was owned by the Courgy family of Paris in the 18th century and recently by the leading English bibliophile, Lord Wardington (b.1924, d.2005). In 2004 it was dramatically rescued from a fire in his manor in Oxfordshire when his daughter Helen and a human chain of local people managed to save all his valuable books by passing them out onto the lawn, while the fire brigade held off from spraying water into the part of the house holding the library.
One of the most exciting aspects of working with manuscripts is finding signs of former owners, and learning about how they used their manuscripts. Today’s manuscript, a copy of the Gospels in Greek, can only be linked to one certain owner, but there is quite a bit to say about its earlier history nonetheless.
Additional MS 24376, a fine copy of the Four Gospels in Greek (only lacking the last few words of John), can be dated to the fourteenth century on palaeographical grounds. As is often the case, however, the scribe simply wrote the text, and left gaps for illuminated headpieces and initials at the beginning of each Gospel, and for full-page miniatures of each of the Evangelists. For whatever reason, however, this was not done immediately, and even today the manuscript does not have any illuminated headpieces.
Beginning of Gospel of Matthew, from Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 696; Scrivener evan. 600; von Soden ε 328), 14th century, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), Add MS 24376, f. 6r
On f 6r, the gap for the headpiece is clear, and a later illuminator would have been expected to add the “B” of βἰβλος, the first word of the Gospel of Matthew.
A number of inscriptions which would doubtless help us to say more about the manuscript’s history on f 1r have sadly been erased. However, one inscription on f 1v remains, which states that the manuscript was purchased in Constantinople in 1528:
It is clear that shortly after this the manuscript moved north, as full-page miniatures were added some time in the late sixteenth century. These were created by a South Slavonic artist, and the figures in the miniatures are named in Slavonic. However, the text of the Gospels being written by the Evangelists remains Greek, as here in this illumination of Mark:
It’s worth noting that this full-page illumination lacks the traditional border that is more common in Byzantine Gospel manuscripts, and extending the decoration across the entire page is quite unusual. The manuscript likely stayed in the region of Northern Greece and the Southern Balkans after its illumination, as it was acquired by the British Museum along with a number of other manuscripts at the sale of Henry Stanhope Freeman, who had been Vice-Consul at Janina – now in Greece, then in Albania.
Yet there’s one more twist to the tale of this manuscript. At the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, there is a miniature not of Matthew, but of the Annunciation:
At some point, an owner must have noticed this and inserted a picture of Matthew to make up the loss, as f 292r consists of a woodcut on paper, inserted at a late stage. Where, when, and why this happened, however, remains unknown.
During our work here at the British Library, we have been struck recently by the different arrangement of the text in Psalter manuscripts – especially where the Psalms are written in more than one language.
Detail of a historiated initial depicting David as a shepherd, with an illuminated word panel, and the text of Psalm 14 in Latin (‘Dixit insipiens’) with an interlinear Old English gloss, from the Vespasian Psalter, England (?Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 8th century, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r
Interlinear glosses were a common way of providing a commentary upon a text. In the Vespasian Psalter, the Psalms were written out in Insular uncial script during the second quarter of the 8th century. A century later, a scribe translated many of the words into Old English, writing them between the lines in Insular cursive minuscule. The wide spacing of the Latin text meant that an almost continuous gloss could be accommodated with ease. This ‘gloss’ is the oldest surviving translation into English of any Biblical text. It reconfigured the manuscript into one that could be used to aid comprehension of the Latin text through a vernacular translation.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 51 (‘Miserere mei’) in Greek, Latin and Arabic, from a trilingual Psalter, S. Italy (Palermo), 1130x1153, Harley MS 5786, f. 73r
Other Psalters were specifically designed to accommodate a translation. Harley MS 5786 is a trilingual Psalter, with three parallel vertical columns containing the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic. The manuscript was made at Palermo, within the court circle of King Roger II, between 1130 and 1153. The Psalter reflects the multilingual culture of twelfth-century Sicily, which was inhabited by both Arabs and Greeks. It may have been intended as a homage to Roger’s dominion over southern Italy and parts of northern Africa and Byzantium.
The opening of Psalm 69 (‘Salvum me fac’) in Greek and Latin, with a foliate scroll initial C and a historiated initial S of Christ Pantocrator and David in waters, from a bilingual Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1220-c. 1230, Add MS 47674, f. 58v
Trilingual psalters are very unusual; it is more common to find bilingual versions. This example was made around 1220-1230 in Paris – the most important centre for the production of Bible manuscripts in the thirteenth century. The appeal of a bilingual Psalter in Paris is obvious: a major preoccupation of university study was the understanding of the original meaning of the words of the Bible. The Latin Vulgate in the right-hand column is accompanied in the left-hand column by the Greek Septuagint (itself a translation from the Hebrew Old Testament). A reader could thus trace the translation of the Bible text back to an earlier version, and understand how Greek words had been rendered in Latin. Some university scholars, such as Hugh of St Victor, advocated the study of Hebrew in order to obtain the original and literal meaning of the Bible.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 81 (‘Exultate Deo’), in Latin and Middle French, with puzzle initials, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 77v
The translation of the Psalms into vernacular languages reflects the desire for a different kind of comprehension on the part of the reader: not of its ancient, ‘original’ meaning, but of its meaning in his or her own language. Harley MS 1770 belonged to the Augustinian Priory at Kirkham in Yorkshire. It is a sort of trilingual Psalter. The first part of the manuscript contains the Psalms in Latin and French, again in parallel columns.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), in Middle English with a Latin title and marginal rubric, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 158r
In the second part of the manuscript, the Psalms have been translated into Middle English rhyming couplets. The author used an earlier Middle English interlinear gloss on the Vulgate, which was itself a modernised version of an Old English glossed Psalter. The opening line of each Psalm is given in Latin: the Psalms were not numbered in medieval Bibles, but were cited using their opening words, so these were essential for navigating the text. Extracts from the Latin Psalms were written in the margins, showing the reader which verse was being translated into Middle English at that point. A reader could also compare the two vernacular versions through the Latin text that accompanied both.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 118 (‘Conftemini Domino’) in a Middle English Psalter, with a historiated initial C and marginal Latin rubric, N. England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Arundel MS 104, f. 364v
The need for such Latin prompts is illustrated by Arundel MS 104, a copy of the Wycliffite version of the Psalms. Its owner cut selected historiated initials from two other manuscripts (one a Psalter commentary of c. 1220, the other a Psalter of c. 1370) and pasted them into the margins. The subject of an initial rarely corresponds to the content of the Psalm it accompanies. The letter itself, however, always matches the opening letter of the Psalms in Latin – and the Middle English text is glossed in the margin with the opening words of the Psalm in Latin.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 27 (‘Dominus illuminatio mea’), in Latin and Middle English, with a foliate initial D and border, from a bilingual Psalter, Harley MS 1896, England, mid-15th century, Harley MS 1896, f. 16r
An altogether different layout is adopted in this Wycliffite version of the Psalms. The text is arranged in a single column and alternates between the Latin and the Middle English translation – with elements of presentation rather than layout used to differentiate the two. The Latin verses are written in red ink, each prefaced by a small blue initial; the vernacular verses in brown ink, each prefaced by a small pink initial. Incorporating the two versions within a single column meant that the Psalms could be read as a single continuous text. The Latin and Middle English versions may have functioned as a kind of ‘call and response’, aiding the reader’s comprehension of the Latin through the vernacular, like in the Vespasian Psalter. Alternatively, the different coloured inks and initials could also have enabled the reader to focus his or her eyes on one version in particular: to skip over the translated passages and concentrate on the Latin – or, more controversially, to do the reverse, and read the Psalms solely in Middle English.