Beati illuminatores: meeting a manuscript

Recently, I have been doing research on the prayers added to late Anglo-Saxon psalters, for which I paid a short visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford a couple of months ago.  While I was there, I thought I might as well take the chance to look at a manuscript which I have mentioned in my work a few times.  Oxford, Bodleian Library D’Orville MS 45 is an eleventh-century psalter, contemporary with the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that I work on, and originating from Moissac in France.  I knew of it because the German scholar Stephan Waldhoff has a theory that its prayer collection is one of two surviving witnesses to a prayerbook that Alcuin of York created for the emperor Charlemagne.  Even though it is not one of the most important manuscripts for my own work, I thought that I would check out what it looked like in real life, and how its prayer collection related to the psalter itself.  And it was as I was recording my initial thoughts about the psalter, that I started reflecting on what I do when I look at a manuscript for the first time; on the knowledge (and ignorance) that informs my first impressions; and on the methods that medieval scribes and illustrators used to divide up text and image on a page, and help the reader to navigate the manuscript.

First impressions of a manuscript

My very first thought on picking up D’Orville 45 was about how plump it was – from a quick eyeball, I would have said a full seven centimetres thick.  [I later measured it properly, and I was wrong: it is actually more like eight.]  Was it, I thought, originally all one manuscript, or were extra leaves added to it later on?  I checked the entries for it in the catalogues of western manuscripts and of illuminated manuscripts in the Bodleian (scans of the former can be found under no. 45 here), and noted that, in the Bodleian’s own heavily-annotated copy of the latter, the estimated date of the manuscript, ‘c. 1025’, has been crossed through and replaced with ‘c. 1067-8’.  Constantly updating our knowledge is just an ordinary part of all scholarship.

As psalters generally do, this one begins with a calendar, and also has a series of prayers attached to it.  The prayers are usually the bit that I am most interested in, and the selection found in D’Orville 45 is pretty similar to those which I have seen in other psalters from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Then, after the prayers, begins the book of psalms itself.  This normally starts with a lavish display page for Psalm 1, ‘Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum …’ (‘Blessed is he who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly’), but not in D’Orville 45 as it now stands.  Between what are now folios 50 and 51, I could see that a leaf had been cut out, with the psalm beginning at ‘qui non abiit’.  It’s not unusual for display pages and initials to have been cut out at some point in the history of a manuscript.  Judging from the illuminated initials found elsewhere in the psalter, I wouldn’t be surprised if the missing folio was something really special.

Like this.  London, British Library Arundel MS 155, fol. 12r.

After the psalms and canticles, there is a hymnal in Latin, with glosses over some of the words.  In Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, I’m used to seeing complete interlinear glosses, giving, if not a translation exactly, then a word-by-word explication of the Latin.  In this French one, however, the Latin words were not translated into French but into … more Latin.  Perhaps some of the more difficult words were explained for the benefit of those who did not have such good Latin skills: for example, ‘tropheum’ (trophy, victory) is glossed with ‘signum uictorię’ (sign of victory), ‘prothoplasti’ (of the first-created) is glossed with ‘primohominis’ (of the first human).

The hymn ‘Pange lingua’, in this case without any such helpful hints.  London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D. xii, fol. 122v.

But what about the psalter itself?  As I was looking through this, I came to Psalm 118, ‘Beati immaculati’ (‘Blessed are the undefiled’).  As I wrote in a recently-published article, this extremely long psalm had important uses in liturgy, prayer and medicine.  And, in a fine manuscript like this one, I would expect the scribe and decorator to do something special with it.

Oxford, Bodleian Library D’Orville MS 45, fols. 123v-124r.  Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, 2011.

First of all, the illuminated initial ‘B’ is pretty overwhelming, taking up about a quarter of the page – and it’s worth pointing out that not all of the psalms begin with such a large initial.  It may be that the scribe considered this psalm to be important enough that it required something to mark its place in the manuscript.  But even within the psalm itself, a lot of signposting needs to be done, using initials, colours and scripts.  As I said, Psalm 118 is very long: it has an eight-verse section for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet: in the image above, the first section is not identified as Aleph, but you can see the word Beth on the fifth line up from the bottom of the left-hand page, fol. 123v, Gimel about halfway up fol. 124r, and Daleth right at the bottom of 124r: the Hebrew letters themselves are written beside the latter two.  What interested me particularly, however, is that each section of the psalm is followed by a prayer: this was something new to me.  Each one is identified by the word ‘ORATIO’ in red letters, sometimes abbrevated to ‘ORAT’ or ‘OR’.  Apparently these prayers were assigned to particular people: we can see ‘vox confessorum’ and ‘vox secularium’ in this example.  This is something else I found myself to be ignorant about: I will need to research more into the liturgical uses of this psalm.

‘Or[atio]’: rubrics signposting where each prayer begins
So we have a pattern here: eight verses of the psalm, followed by a prayer.  In order to make it clear where these begin, the rubricator and illuminator of the manuscript have begun each part with a large initial, two or three lines deep: red and gold for a section of the psalm itself, and just red for its corresponding prayer.

Each verse of the psalm begins with a red initial, and, as is typical of psalters in this period, at the beginning of a line.  In order to make best use of space, the scribe clearly wanted each one to fit onto a single line, but of course this wasn’t always possible, as some lines were simply too long.  So the ends have to appear at the end of the line below or above – or even two lines above – and a set of markings is used to match up these stray bits of text with the lines that they belong to.  For example:

Psalm 118:5-8

5 Vtinam dirigantur vię meae ad custodiendas iustificationes tuas

6 Tunc non confundar cum perspexero in omnibus mandatis tuis

7 Confitebor tibi in directione cordis in eo quod didici iudicia iusticiae tuae

8 Iustificationes tuas custodiam non me derelinquas usque quaque

5 O! that my ways may be directed to keep thy justifications.

6 Then shall I not be confounded, when I shall look into all thy commandments.

7 I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned the judgments of thy justice.

8 I will keep thy justifications: O! do not thou utterly forsake me.

Psalm 118.  Translation from

‘Iustificationes tuas custodiam non me derelinquas usque quaque’ doesn’t quite squeeze into one line: the scribe has put ‘quaque’ onto the line below, with an L-shaped red stroke indicating that the word belongs with the line above.  The reverse happens a few line above: the final ‘tuis’ of ‘Tunc non confundar cum perspexero in omnibus mandatis tuis’ has been shoved onto the line above with an inverted L-shaped stroke.  But there’s something else on that line too, indicated by a fancier sort of flourish.  It’s the words ‘iusticiae tuae’, which have been brought up from two lines beneath.  You can see the same thing on line 4 of the facing page, with ‘-nes tuos’ belonging to ‘sermo-‘ two lines below.

What could otherwise be a confusing mass of text is instead carefully and cleverly divided up and signposted, allowing the reader to turn to this psalm easily and navigate around it, but also allowing plenty of space for the illuminators to do their fabulous work.  In future posts, I plan to write a bit more about the decoration of psalters and other manuscripts – watch this space …

Works referred to:

Stephan Waldhoff, Alcuins Gebetbuch für Karl den Großen: Seine Rekonstruktion und seine Stellung in der frühmittelalterlichen Geschichte der libelli precum, Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen 89 (Münster: Aschendorff, 2003).


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