The Late Anglo-Saxon Psalter: Ancestor of the Book of Hours?
By M.J. Toswell
Florilegium, Vol. 14 (1995-6)
In the introduction to her book, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, Beryl Smalley remarks that the Bible was “the most studied book of the middle ages,” and that “the language and the content of Scripture permeate medieval thought” (xi). This concern with the basic text of the Christian faith was felt in early medieval England as much as anywhere else in Christendom. Bede, for instance, highly prized his own commentaries on the books of the Bible, and at the end of his life was translating the gospel of St John into the vernacular. The Codex Amiatinus, the Lindisfarne and Rushworth gospels are all de luxe manuscripts, are all produced in insular scriptoria, and are all beautifully laid out and gloriously illustrated copies of these biblical texts. Perhaps more important, the latter two of these codices were copiously glossed in the vernacular, a process which, to the modern eye at least, disturbs the visual splendour of the manuscript, but which proves that study and understanding of the text was of great importance to the Northumbrian monks who used the manuscripts. Similarly, many of the psalters of Anglo-Saxon England were glossed, illustrated, or otherwise laid out in such a way as to suggest careful study of the text.
Then, as now, the psalms were the principal teaching text for all Christians, explaining and exemplifying the praise and penitence that form the cornerstones of medieval piety and faith. The psalter was the book of the Bible most likely to be copied and bound as a separate codex, both for purposes of private devotion, and for use in the liturgy – especially in the reading of the Offices, for which the psalter was the primary text. In the insular church before the Norman Conquest the psalter appears to have been widely available, being copied, glossed, illuminated according to several programs of illustration, and even translated into the vernacular. So far, according to Gneuss’s “Preliminary List,” which includes almost a thousand manuscripts produced or owned in England up to 1100, there are thirty-six extant psalter manuscripts. Of these, fourteen are wholly or partly glossed in Old English and one is a complete translation.
In addition, any consideration of insular psalters should include those of Ireland – particularly that most famous of Hibernian manuscripts, the Cathach of St Columba – and those produced in the monastic establishments of Northern France and Germany, which are generally considered to have reflected insular approaches in their copying of manuscripts or to have had insular additions. The addition of this Irish and Continental material raises the total of insular psalter manuscripts to forty-eight codices. Although some were not Anglo-Saxon creations, all of these psalter manuscripts show signs of having been modified and used for devotional purposes. Furthermore, there are psalter commentaries, psalms in service books for the Offices, and psalm verses in prayers and other liturgical or devotional texts – to the extent that nearly one in ten Anglo-Saxon manuscripts has a direct connection to the psalter.