An unassuming treasure
Karen Johnson uncovers the secrets of a fourteenth-century psalter
1 June 2015
This post was originally written for the regular feature Medieval Manuscripts in The National library of Australia Magazine
With its worn monastic binding of sheepskin over board, this rather humble looking fourteenth-century psalter (a collection of psalms for liturgical or devotional use) does not, at first glance, seem to be a volume that would have an exciting story to tell. Yet appearances can be deceptive, as we found out when the item was examined by visiting British medieval manuscript expert Professor Michelle Brown in 2013.
The script and decoration are indicative of a southern English origin. Leafing through the pages, the first clue that this item has an unusual history is an annotation added in the late fifteenth century, comprising a list of names. On closer examination it was found that the text was in Welsh. It is extremely rare to find an English volume with evidence of Welsh ownership. Initially Professor Brown thought the text might be a record of an important legal transaction; it was not uncommon for such transactions to be recorded in a significant volume such as this as a show of good faith on the part of the people concerned. However, additional text found at the back led to the conclusion that the script was added by a schoolboy named Thomas. Psalters were commonly used for learning to read; it seems this one may have been used as a school text.
As well as the psalms, psalters often included a calendar which set out when feast days, including celebrations of saints, were to be observed. The content of the calendar was, in many cases, customised to be of relevance to the monastery or private patron. These can be a clue as to where the text was used and by whom. The calendar in this volume proved to be of great interest. Professor Brown noted the inclusion of old-fashioned saints with a very specific Somerset–Devon association. This supports the theory that the volume was produced in East Anglia for a particular client. A fifteenth-century addition to the list of saints may have been of significance to the Welsh owner and could provide a clue as to its Welsh connections.
We were intrigued to discover the similarity between the names of saints in the calendar of this volume and those in another volume in our collection, which is of unrelated provenance. This suggests they were both customised for the same region.
There is clearly much still to be learned about this unassuming little gem.