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Western Medieval Manuscripts : Winchcombe Psalter

Western Medieval Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.23, known as the <i>Winchcombe Psalter</i>, principally comprises a copy of the Psalms in Latin and Old English, dated between 1025 and 1050. In addition, the manuscript contains two sets of prayers on folios <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>4r</a> and <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(553);return false;'>276r-281v</a>); Canticles, on folios <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(503);return false;'>251r-274r</a>, and a Litany (folios <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(549);return false;'>274r-276r</a>). A sixteenth-century table of incipits has been added on folios <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(6);return false;'>2v-3r</a>.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Evidently conceived as a bilingual Psalter, a striking feature of the manuscript is the parity that is accorded the Old English and Latin texts. Far from merely providing an interlinear gloss, the alternating Old English text has been properly ruled and written in a script almost as big as the Latin. Written in black and red respectively, the alternation of the Latin and Old English forms a pleasing balance on the manuscript page, underscoring the extent to which the two languages were seen as an equally valid means of presenting the holy text.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The manuscript’s illumination, characterised by successive scholars as "crude" (Kendrick, 1949) and "mediocre" (Gameson, 1995) comprises full page miniatures and decorative initials that are yet engaging and inventive. Four miniatures preceding Psalms 1, 51, 101 and 109 show, respectively, David playing the harp (folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(10);return false;'>4v</a>), Christ’s Crucifixion (folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(177);return false;'>88r</a>), Christ in majesty (folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(343);return false;'>171r</a>) and Christ trampling the beasts (folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(392);return false;'>195v</a>). The Crucifixion miniature, which may be compared to other near-contemporary examples such as those in the <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Ramsay Psalter</a> (London, British Library, MS Harley 2904); the Aelfwine Prayerbook (London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus D XXVII) and the Judith of Flanders Gospels (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 709), shows John as an eyewitness to Christ’s death, recording his account of the Crucifixion ("Et ego vidi et testimonium") on a writing tablet.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Initial decoration, which is abundant throughout the manuscript, is, on occasion, very innovative, showing a fluidity of form and execution that offers a counterpoint to the heaviness of the foliate frames used in the full-page miniatures. Initials made into the shape of acrobatic figures, as in the letter ‘M’ on folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(340);return false;'>169v</a>, or the ‘C’ on folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(28);return false;'>13v</a>, showcase an artistic ability to adapt the shape of the letters to a particular theme: the grace of the floating and tumbling bodies picked up in the arched backs of the angels above Christ’s mandorla in the full-page miniature on folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(343);return false;'>171r</a>. Elsewhere in the manuscript, and unusually, there are realistic attempts to depict human faces, as in that of a monk on folio <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(449);return false;'>224r</a>.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Though not the highest grade of work, either in script or artistic execution, the manuscript can still be counted amongst the most important illuminated Psalters of the late Anglo-Saxon period. Its relationship to other manuscripts produced during or after the Benedictine Reform, both artistically and in terms of liturgical content, remains a topic for further investigation, and promises to reveal much more about the production and reception contexts for late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Elizabeth Wright, University of York</p>

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