Bizarre beasts and naked acrobats! A look inside the Winchcombe Psalter

In recent months, I have been tweeting the occasional image from a manuscript shelved as Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, known as the Winchcombe Psalter.  Intrigued by its miniatures, its bilingual nature, and the rather bizarre initials which are used to open the psalms, I have found myself coming back to this manuscript again and again, and it has now started sneaking into this blog: firstly in a post on Psalm 50, and then into the follow-up post on the art of Psalm 51. Perhaps it’s time for the Winchcombe Psalter to have a little post of its own!

Written in Winchcombe or Canterbury in the second quarter of the eleventh century, this Latin copy of the book of Psalms is notable not just for its occasional full-page miniatures but also for the Old English glosses.  Many psalters from this place and time have an interlinear translation of each word into Old English, but usually the glosses are written in a much smaller hand, leaving the Anglo-Saxon text as a supporting act to the main show.  But Winchcombe is different.  Written in a bright red ink, the Old English text is more or less the same size as the Latin: Elizabeth Wright, author of Cambridge University Library’s online catalogue record for the manuscript, has concluded that it was

[e]vidently conceived as a bilingual Psalter … the alternation of the Latin and Old English forms a pleasing balance on the manuscript page, underscoring the extent to which the two languages were seen as an equally valid means of presenting the holy text.

Deus in ad CULFf1.23.118r
Black Latin, red English.  Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, fol. 118r.

As discussed in my post on Psalm 51, the three sections into which the book of Psalms is traditionally divided tend to be opened with a full-page miniature.  Winchcombe is no exception: Psalm 1 is prefaced by a picture of King David and his musicians; Psalm 51 by the Crucifixion; and Psalm 100 by Christ in glory, attended by angels.  As a sort of bonus, this psalter also gives us a miniature before Psalm 109, which illustrates its verse 13 – indeed, Christ is clutching a scroll with these very words, ‘Super aspidem & basiliscum ambulabis’: you will walk upon the asp and the basilisk.

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Nevertheless, it’s not always the most glamorous-looking manuscript.  A number of the psalm incipits are unevenly written; sometimes, the scribe misses out letters that were later added in superscript.  In a way, though, this adds to the psalter’s charm: it reminds us that any manuscript was written and drawn by human beings who occasionally made mistakes.

Beatus qui intellegit CULFf1.23.70r.JPG
Beatus qui intellegit.  Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, fol. 70r.
Moveant2 CULFf1.23.59v.JPG
Oops, I missed a bit.  Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. 1. 23, fol. 59v.
Dragon Cantate Dno CulFf1.23.249v
This little dragon is horrified by the mistake in this heading.  Cambridge, University Library Ff. 1. 23, fol. 249v.

Which brings me to the other really great thing about this manuscript: the quirky, often anthropomorphic and zoomorphic initials.  Forget illuminated capitals, Winchcombe has naked acrobats, lions, and much more …

Just as the little slips of the pen show the living scribe behind the lettering, so these little doodles and miniature artworks make this manuscript come alive.  The Winchcombe Psalter isn’t always the most beautiful or most elegant of early medieval psalters, but it’s quickly becoming one of my favourites.


2 thoughts on “Bizarre beasts and naked acrobats! A look inside the Winchcombe Psalter

  1. Very enjoyable read! Have you seen Alderik Blom’s comments on the Anglo-Saxon gloss in his new study ‘Glossing the Psalms. The Emergence of the Written Vernaculars in Western Europe from the Seventh to the Twelfth Centuries’?


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