The scribe, the editors, and the well-dressed Elizabethan: a day with an 11th-century psalter

Benedict Arundel155.133r
St Benedict, father of western Christian monasticism, perhaps with the scribe Eadwig Basan. London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 133r.

As I mentioned in my post on an Old English confessional prayer, I recently visited the British Library to visit the manuscript known as Cotton Tiberius A. iii, which was a sort of ‘supporting actor’ in my thesis.  A similar role was played by an eleventh-century psalter, known as the Eadui Psalter and with the shelfmark Arundel 155, which I spent some time with on the same trip.  Although I’d seen a few scanned images, and photocopied microfiches, I’d never seen the psalter itself before, and seeing a manuscript in the flesh for the first time always has the potential for surprise.

Given that my research focuses on private prayerbooks, this psalter is a bit larger than some of the other manuscripts that I look at.  The leaves are still bound together, rather than being separated and mounted in individual frames (as is the case with Tiberius A. iii), so, although Arundel 155 is, like  the vast majority of medieval manuscripts, no longer bound in its original covers, it nevertheless feels a lot more like handling the book itself as it originally was.  This also means that, instead of modern paper frames, I was handling the actual leaves themselves.  The texture of the parchment also made an impression on me: some leaves are so super-soft, for a moment it felt like I was touching paper, while others were coarser and harder to turn.

The manuscript begins with some flyleaves with a few doodles on them, accompanied by the date 1592, the name ‘William Howard’ – and, wonderfully, a sketch of a man in rather snazzy-looking Elizabethan clothing.  It’s little touches like this that make you more aware of just how many pairs of hands a manuscript has passed through over the years, and the quite different uses that they had for it!

Snazzy man.  London, British Library Arundel MS 155, fol. vi verso.

For the main text of the psalter was, of course, a valued holy text, and a beautiful one, with the main text written in a smooth, gorgeous eleventh-century hand of the kind known as Caroline minuscule, and initial letters and rubrics in coloured inks:

London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 67r

Unlike a lot of scribes of this era, this one’s name is still known to us: the original psalter was copied by a monk called Eadwig Basan, at the monastery of Christ Church in Canterbury; as it happens, Eadwig also copied some prayers in an addition to the Vespasian Psalter, a manuscript which I have written about before, including here and there in this blog.

Vespasian Oratio Eugenii
London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. i, f. 156r

It’s not unusual for the manuscripts that I work on to have line drawings and large, coloured initial letters at the start of paragraphs, but Arundel 155 is particularly exciting in this respect, as it contains a number of borders and initials which have been illuminated in gold.

‘Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked …’ London, British Library Arundel MS 155, f. 12r

So what was I doing with Arundel 155?  It is commonplace for medieval psalters to have prayers added to them, either at the time of the creation of the manuscript, or sometime later (for example, the prayers written by Eadwig Basan in the Vespasian Psalter are some three centuries older than the psalter itself), and these were what I was looking at.  As I have complained before, nineteenth- and twentieth-century editors produced exhaustive editions of Anglo-Saxon psalters, including both the main Latin text and the Old English glosses which often run through the manuscripts, but they generally left out the relatively short sections of the manuscripts which contained prayers and liturgical material.  Later on, other scholars would edit these prayers in journal articles, but the end result is that it is easy to forget that the manuscript is one book: though it may have been altered over the centuries, its medieval users would have encountered one psalter with prayers in a single volume.

That is how Arundel 155 has been treated.  After the main text (and some other leaves that were inserted later on), there is a sequence of over forty prayers on folios 171r-193v.  The 1941 edition of these by Ferdinand Holthausen breaks off abruptly in the middle of the sequence: his work was completed by Jackson J. Campbell in 1963, who suggests that Holthausen may have made incomplete notes and then been prevented by World War II from completing his work.  While both these articles have been very useful to me, even after Campbell’s completion of Holthausen’s work, there are some texts which neither of them edited, presumably because they are only in Latin, without an English gloss.  For it is that that Holthausen and Campbell were interested in: notably, in their editions, the main (Latin) text is in italics, with the Old English above it in ordinary script.  This is a reminder of how our personal preoccupations as scholars can lead us to ignore things that don’t fit the story that we are trying to tell, and divide up a manuscript, whose user would have encountered it as a single object, into its different parts.

So I looked especially closely at the prayers that I had not seen before, including one very short one on fol. 171r, in which someone has written plural grammatical forms above the lines, making it suitable for use by two or more people.  It is headed with the word “Alia” – “another [prayer]”, implying that the leaf originally followed a part of the manuscript which included another prayer (or prayers) which has been lost.  (It is now preceded by a few gatherings from the twelfth century, which were bound into the psalter manuscript after its original creation.)  It is a prayer of liturgical origins rather than from the private prayerbook tradition, but, like many other liturgical prayers, may have been good for re-use in a more personal setting, as a good way of beginning one’s prayers:

Omnipotens mitissime deus . respice propitius ad precem [vel –ces] meam [vel nostras]. & libera cor meum [vel nostrum] de malarum temptatione cogitationum. ut sancti spiritus dignum fieri habitaculum merear [vel –mur] . Per dominum.

Almighty and most merciful God, look favourably upon my (or our) prayer (or prayers), and free my (or our) heart from the temptation of wicked thoughts, that I may merit (or we may merit) to become worthy of the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit.  Through the Lord …

17/10/16: Post updated to take account of the digitisation of the full manuscript.


Works used:

Adam S. Cohen, ‘Chaste, Obedient and Humble: Hidden Inscriptions in Arundel 155’

Logeman, ed., ‘Anglo-Saxonica Minora’, Anglia 11 (1889): 115-9.

Ferdinand Holthausen, ed., ‘Altenglische Interlinearversionen Lateinischer Gebete und Beichten’, Anglia 65 (1941): 231-54.

N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), no. 135.

Jackson J. Campbell, ed.  ‘Prayers from MS. Arundel 155’, Anglia 81 (1963): 82-117.


3 thoughts on “The scribe, the editors, and the well-dressed Elizabethan: a day with an 11th-century psalter

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