The Worcester Psalter

29 May 2015

This beautiful illuminated Psalter was made between about 1220 and 1230, most likely in Worcester, for the Benedictine Priory there. It might well have been commissioned for the use of the Priors themselves—marginal obits for his parents may link the book to one of them, Richard, who was Prior from 1242 to 1252 (below).

The volume is composed of a calendar associated with the use of the Worcester Priory, later Worcester Cathedral; the Psalms; a set of eleven canticles; a litany with prayers; and the Office of the Dead. It is bound between oaken boards that are covered with red-stained leather. The fore-edges have been decorated with a design in the same colour, described by Mirjam Foot as ‘a simple linear pattern of crossed and parallel lines with triangles’. The binding once had metal clasps to keep the book firmly shut when it was not in use.

Upper board, with stations for missing clasps
Fore-edge, with linear pattern in red

The work of two unknown scribes has been identified: Scribe A stopped on the left-hand page here, and Scribe B picked up the work from the next folio.

Likewise the artist responsible for the historiated initials is unidentified, but has been connected stylistically with the artist of the Glazier Psalter (now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York), which was made in London around the same time. The initials were painted on separate pieces of vellum, which have been pasted in to mark the liturgical divisions of the psalter. Only four of the original initials survive; unfortunately all the others have been removed at some point. The survivors include an unusual illustration of Psalm 26, depicting David standing between a curly-haired bear and a lion (see first illustration above, with remains of a silk protective cloth); Psalm 38 shows David again, in front of some seated men; Psalm 97 has a Benedictine choir; and Psalm 109 is illustrated with the Trinity.

What’s left

A number of western saints were added to the calendar in the fifteenth century, including Thomas Becket, whose translation was celebrated 7 July. References in this volume to him and to the popes were defaced during the Reformation when Thomas Becket’s reputation was rewritten in light of Henry’s VIII’s growing determination to be divorced from Catherine and from the Catholic Church (see below). Henry’s supporters came to believe that Becket had been a traitor, whose difficult relationship with Henry II too closely prefigured that between Thomas Moore and Henry VIII.

In the 1530s Becket was desanctified, his cult denounced, and his lavish shrine in Canterbury dismantled. Cromwell and Henry VIII issued a proclamation in 1538 that not only should Becket’s ‘images and pictures through the whole realm … be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places’, but also that ‘the days used to be festival in his name shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but erased and put out of all the books’. The College’s luxurious Wolsey Lectionary (MS. Lat. 223) received similar treatment, where the name of Thomas Becket has been erased in two places.

In the twentieth century this volume suffered more vandalism, when the Fellow Librarian Godfrey Driver removed its many endleaves (flyleaves and pastedowns), exposing the oak boards and leaving the binding in a perilous state. Perhaps vandalism is the wrong word, for the endleaves—used by the binder to reinforce the book’s binding—contained rare fragments of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century polyphonic music that had originally formed a single manuscript ‘Conductus Book’ in Worcester.

Exposed boards after removal of endleaves. Note faint offset from music.

The original book of music was broken up in the mid-fifteenth century and its vellum sheets were re-used as binding material, possibly by the binder Richard Bromesgrove, who was active in Worcester at the time. Driver returned our 6 leaves (12 pages) of music to Worcester, where they were joined by other related fragments removed from other book bindings and now form part of Worcester Cathedral Library MS. Add. 68. It was not possible to reconstruct the complete original music book from the extant fragments, but enough survived to support performances of a number of pieces, now known as the ‘Worcester Fragments’. The fact that readable music could be reassembled from these gathered leaves goes a little way to make up for the current fragile state of the Worcester Psalter’s binding.

In light of this, the initial for Psalm 97 seems even more illuminating, for it shows an angel with a choir book directing Benedictine monks, probably the very Benedictine monks who ran the Worcester Priory in the twelfth century.

We do not know how this manuscript came to be in Magdalen College Library, but an intriguing note on one of the endleaves seems to provide a clue. It is headed ‘1533’ in a hand that appears to be different from that of the lines beneath:

Thes versys ar wrytten yn beu’rey on a chestlyd with led yn
the seruauntis chaunbyr aboue ouer the drawgth next ye heynnys
chaunbyr were the kechyng stuff ys wount to lye
Anno Milleno ter’ C. quinto nonageno }
Minutis cistam [Io] Dan Iohn’ stanley dedit istam } blo<>ley

[These verses are written in Bevere on a chestlid in lead in
The servants’ chamber above over the drawght next the hen’s
Chamber where the kitchen stuff is wont to lie
In the year one thousand three hundred ninety-five }
Dom John Stanley gave that chest to ?? } Blockley]

Thanks to Professor J.G. Clark, we know that John Stanley was a fairly well-to-do monk in the Worcester Priory from about 1361 until his death in 1399. Professor Clark also points out that Bevere was a manor held by the Prior and Convent of Worcester, about a mile north of the Priory on the east bank of the River Severn. Blockley, about 25 miles away, was another manor held by the Priory. It is possible that Stanley gave a chest, possibly including this book inside it, to the Priory in 1395. But how it ended up in Magdalen College Library remains a mystery.

Further Reading
Ralph Hanna, Catalogue of Manuscripts in Magdalen College Library (forthcoming).
N.J. Morgan, Early Gothic Manuscripts (1): 1190–1250 (London, 1982).
‘Prohibiting Unlicensed Printing of Scripture, Exiling Anabaptists, Depriving Married Clergy, Removing St. Thomas a Becket from Calendar,’ in Tudor Royal Proclamations, I, 270-276, esp. 272, 270, 275 – 6.
Rodney Thomson, A descriptive catalogue of the medieval manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library (Cambridge, 2001).