Quid gloriaris? Psalm 51 in early medieval manuscripts

Quid gloriaris in malitia, qui potens es in iniquitate?  Why do you glory in malice, you who are mighty in iniquity?  Whatever the answer to the question posed in Psalm 51, it was important enough that medieval illuminators opened it with a glorious display page of its very own.  This is because the 150 psalms were traditionally grouped into three sets of fifty, with Psalm 51 marking the beginning of the second group, and each one was prefaced by one of these display pages.  A couple of months ago, I wrote about Psalm 50 and its importance in the Anglo-Saxon church; and, as I was researching examples for that blogpost, I naturally stumbled across some excellent manuscript art associated with the psalm immediately following, so I thought that early medieval interpretations of ‘Quid gloriaris’ might be worth a blogpost of their own to show them off appropriately.

A fully-illustrated psalm

Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae 32, fol. 30r

Psalm 51 contrasts the wicked man, who loves deceit, with the speaker, who trusts in God’s mercy: the former will be cast down by God, and the latter will prosper.  It was understood to refer to the passage in 1 Samuel 22, in which Doeg the Edomite betrays David’s whereabouts to King Saul and kills Ahimelech’s priests.  The Utrecht Psalter, created in or around Reims in the ninth century, portrays the story visually: Doeg stands on the right, before King Saul and his court; God sits in judgement over the scene; even the ‘fruitful olive tree’ of verse 9 is depicted.  You can see more details on the wonderful website which has been created for this psalter.

Animate Qs

Lion-Q!  London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xviii, fol. 80r

This ninth-century psalter was written in Francia and is said, with some plausibility, to have been used by King Athelstan of Wessex and England.  ‘Quid gloriaris’ is not introduced with a full-page miniature, as it is in some manuscripts, but the first two verses are written in uncial letters and all in gold, in contrast to the rest of the psalms; and most of the page is filled with an enormous initial Q, enclosing a plant whose stems grow in the shape of an interlace pattern.  Best of all, the lower stroke of the Q is an enormous lion.

Other psalters with amazing Q-strokes are the Eadwine Psalter (a fish), Arundel MS 60 (a flying dog-serpent thing) and Walters Museum MS W.26 (a woman – called Claricia, apparently).

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An English psalm: interlinear glossing

Dragon-Q!  London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C. vi, fol. 72r

But the mid-eleventh-century Tiberius Psalter goes one better: it has a Q made out of three winged dragons tied together, with the stroke-dragon tapering away across the page (if they’re not ferocious enough for your liking, the Q on fol. 63r of MS XVI.I.7 in York Minster Library features a dragon swallowing a person head-first).  The opening page of ‘Quid gloriaris’ is honoured with a beautiful foliate border of the sort known as acanthus leaf, and the opening lines are written in higher-grade scripts in alternating colours before settling down into Caroline minuscule, the standard script for Latin text at the time.  Unlike the examples seen so far, the Tiberius Psalter has an interlinear gloss: a word-by-word translation into Old English as an aid to understanding the psalms.

Interlace-Q!  Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, fol. 88v

The Winchcombe Psalter, dated to the second quarter of the eleventh century, introduces each third of the psalter with a full-page miniature – in this case, of the crucifixion of Christ, attended by John and Mary, and the sun and moon, weeping and hiding their faces (fol. 88r).  The psalm itself, beginning overleaf, opens with an enormous decorated initial and a full-page border. What is more typical of this manuscript is the consistent interlinear gloss, the English written in red above the black Latin.  This differs from what we see in the Tiberius Psalter – and most other glossed manuscripts – in that the English script is not smaller, but is of a size comparable with the Latin, to the extent that Elizabeth Wright, in the catalogue entry for the manuscript, has referred to it as ‘a bilingual Psalter’ in which ‘the two languages were seen as an equally valid means of presenting the holy text’.

No idea, sorry

No Q.  London, British Library Harley MS 2904, fol. 63r

Of course, the more gorgeously-decorated a manuscript page, the more desirable it will become as an item in its own right.  Fol. 62v of the late tenth-century Ramsey Psalter ends with ‘Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus‘, which is one of the final verses of Psalm 50, but then fol. 63r begins with ‘Tota die iniustitiam …’, the second verse of the actual text of ‘Quid gloriaris’.  At some point in the manuscript’s history, a leaf has been cut out and removed.  However, if the opening pages of Psalm 1 and Psalm 101 are anything to judge by, it probably opened with a very large foliate initial Q, with the first verse in gold Roman capitals:

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Deeply, deeply disturbing

Finally, this historiated initial, from the Luttrell Psalter, does not even remotely qualify as early medieval (the manuscript dates from 1325-40), but it does illustrate the malice that the iniquitous are glorying in rather well.

Painful Q!  London, British Library Additional MS 42130, fol. 97v

Crazy Qs, gold-leaf script, cartoon-strip illustrations of the psalm text, and the occasional scene of sheer perversity.  Quid gloriaris?  Whyever not?


5 thoughts on “Quid gloriaris? Psalm 51 in early medieval manuscripts

    1. 🙂 It’s something I think about – of course there are so many great advantages to print over manuscript, but some things were lost when books stopped being hand-written and illustrated. Maybe the internet is now giving us the advantages of both …

      Liked by 1 person

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