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Western Medieval Manuscripts : Bilingual Psalter in Old English and Latin

Western Medieval Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Produced around the first half of the 11th century or perhaps as early as the last quarter of the 10th century, and evidently conceived from the outset as a bilingual Psalter, this manuscript is notable for the parity that it accords the Old English and Latin versions of the text. Far from merely providing a continuous interlinear gloss, the Old English text, which is related to that found in the Vespasian Psalter (<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A.i</a>), has been properly ruled and written in a script the same size as the Latin. (Part of the Canticles - the Te Deum, Nunc dimittis, Gloria, Pater noster and Credo - have been spaced like the rest, but the gloss has not been entered: see ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(535);return false;'>267r-270r</a>).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Written in black and red ink 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. The copying of the Old English text in red ink - typically reserved for rubrics in manuscripts - and its positioning on the line above the Latin text rather than below might furthermore imply something about the relative status of the vernacular version compared to the Latin. Indeed, errors in the transmission of the Latin Psalter in this manuscript confirm that either the scribe was copying from a faulty exemplar, was not sufficiently familiar with the text to correct them, or sufficiently attentive a copyist to avoid making them in the first place (or some combination of all three). The scribe also distinguished between the two versions - at least in the early stages - by the use of different scripts: Caroline minuscule for the Latin text, and Insular minuscule (a regional variant of Caroline minuscule) for the Old English. However, it appears that Caroline minuscule did not come to him naturally and part-way through f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(14);return false;'>6v</a> he all but abandons this, copying the rest of the text in Anglo-Saxon minuscule (this shift is especially noticeable in his execution of the letters d, g, r and s).</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 (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(10);return false;'>4v</a>), the Crucifixion (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(177);return false;'>88r</a>), Christ in majesty (f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(343);return false;'>171r</a>) and Christ trampling the beasts (f. <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 Ramsay Psalter (<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>London, British Library, Harley MS 2904</a>), the Aelfwine Prayerbook (<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>London, British Library, Cotton MS Titus D XXVII</a>) and the Judith of Flanders Gospels (<a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 709</a>), 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;'>The decoration of initials, 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 f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(340);return false;'>169v</a>, or the 'C' on f. <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 f. <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 f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(449);return false;'>224r</a>.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>In addition to the Psalms, the manuscript contains two sets of prayers (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(9);return false;'>4r</a>, <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(553);return false;'>276r-281v</a>), Canticles (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(503);return false;'>251r-274r</a>), and a Litany (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(549);return false;'>274r-276r</a>). A table of incipits was added during the 16th century to binding endleaves at the beginning of the manuscript which themselves date to this period (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(6);return false;'>2v-3r</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 (2015)<br />Revised and expanded by James Freeman, Cambridge University Library (2022)</p>

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