Friday, December 13, 2013

The Luttrell Psalter

The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was made in the diocese of Lincoln for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276 - 1345) of Irnham, probably sometime between 1325 and 1335. 

The manuscript is named by modern scholars after its original patron, whose picture appears in the book. Geoffrey Luttrell was lord of the manor at Irnham, between Grantham and Spalding in Lincolnshire, but he owned estates across England, thanks to his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey. His ancestor's loyal support and service to King John had been rewarded with grants of various properties, which were greatly added to by marriage to an heiress. The style of the illumination shows that Sir Geoffrey commissioned the Psalter some time between 1320 and 1340.
The text was written throughout by one scribe and illuminated by at least five different artists. The style of the Psalter represents the last stage of the highly accomplished East Anglian School of manuscript illumination. One master artist completed a large section including the lavish dedication miniature showing the Psalter's patron, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, fully armed and mounted on a splendid war-horse.

Sir Geoffrey's will survives, and gives further insights into his life and times. The Psalter is not mentioned in the will. By the end of the century the Psalter was in the hands of the Fitzalan family, Earls of Arundel. The volume was acquired by the Library in 1929.

The Luttrell Psalter was once contained in this binding made in Cambridge around 1625 - 1640. It is made of brown calf leather, decorated with red paint, and stamped and tooled with gold and silver. Inscriptions and bookplates can provide valuable clues to a book's provenance, or 'life history'. Inside this binding is an armorial bookplate of Thomas Weld (1750-1810) of Lulworth Castle, whose grandfather Humphrey Weld came into the possession of Stonyhurst in 1754, and in the hands of whose descendants the book subsequently remained. Before this the book had been owned by Lord William Howard (1563-1640) of Naworth and by 1703 had passed to Sir Nicholas Sherburne, Bart., of Stonyhurst. The volume was offered for sale in 1929 and purchased for the nation with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund. 

A large historiated, or story-telling, initial introduces the first psalm, marking the first of three major divisions in the text. Traditionally, the psalms were divided into three major sections, beginning at Psalms 1, 51, and 101. They are cited according to the numbering in the Latin Vulgate Bible. The Luttrell Psalter, like most English Psalters, also marks the first psalm to be read on each day of the week, according to the Roman tradition. These are distinguished by a four-line initial, while all the other psalms open with a two-line initial.  

It is usual for the most luxurious illuminated medieval psalters to be illustrated with images of King David (the supposed author of the Psalms), and sometimes also pictures of biblical stories or images of saints. The Luttrell Psalter was not the first to include scenes of contemporary rustic life, but it is exceptional in their number and fascinating detail. Its lively and often humorous images provide a virtual 'documentary' of work and play during a year on an estate such as Sir Geoffrey's.

As we turn the pages of the book, we see corn being cut, a woman feeding chickens, food being cooked and eaten. There are wrestlers, hawkers, bear baiters, dancers, musicians, throwing games, a mock bishop with a dog that jumps through a hoop - and a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod.

Such images played a large part in fostering the 19th-century romantic vision of a 'merrie Englande' peopled by bountiful lords and ladies and happy peasants playing as hard as they worked. Copies of the manuscript were published, and its pictures widely reproduced as illustrations in history books. Today scholars are more inclined to see the Psalter's scenes as idealised versions of reality - they were, after all, designed to please Sir Geoffrey, not his workers.

The British Museum tried to buy it in 1929, but they didn't have the then-record asking price of 30,000 guineas (£31,500). An anonymous benefactor loaned the money interest free; ironically, it was US millionaire John Pierpont Morgan, who could have bought it at auction for himself had he wished.

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