The Macclesfield Psalter

I’m going to cheat by starting with an excerpt from a press release sent out by a British cultural charity, the National Art Collections Fund.

The National Art Collections Fund is spearheading the campaign to save the remarkable 14th-century Macclesfield Psalter for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Macclesfield Psalter is a jewel-like treasury consisting of 252 richly-illustrated pages providing a fascinating record of medieval English humour, and teeming with highly surreal and imaginative marginal illustrations. This exquisite manuscript was sold to the Getty Museum, California, at auction in June for £1,717,335. However, the Government’s export system, which recognised the outstanding importance of the Psalter to this country, gave the UK the chance to match this sum.

As of today, only £96,511 more needs to be raised in order to keep the Macclesfield Psalter on view in the UK for all to see. We have until 10 February 2005 to raise the remaining funds.

Ordinarily, I’m in favor of the Getty buying manuscripts; they’re in my back yard, so to speak. But this is a special case. We know a fair bit about the manuscript; it was almost certainly a local product in every sense of the phrase, created in East Anglia (likely in Goreleston) for a local landowner. There are incredible miniatures, and fascinating marginal figures. The miniatures, which are of such high quality that it’s clear they’re the work of a master, include images of the patron saints of Suffolk and the Gorleston church, localizing the manuscript. The marginal “border” illustrations are particularly interesting because they feature the kind of “world upside down images” that are subversive comments on the main images, or, more likely in this case, (following Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff’s argument) attempts to distract or avert the devil or other evil influences.

The scribe of the Macclesfield Psalter is likely the scribe of the no longer extant Douai Psalter and the Gorelston Psalter. Some illumination by the same artist was part of the Douai Psalter (destroyed inadvertantly because of poor storage during World War I when the Douai Psalter was buried in a zinc box to hide it from enemy troops).

You can read more about the Macclesfield Psalter here, and see some images here, and donate online here. They’ve come very close to matching the Getty price; they’ve enough for 245 of the 252 leaves.

Digital Medieval Manuscript Editions

One of my very first interests in terms of computers and scholarship was the potential of digital editions; I wrote about it a bit in my “What’s a Digital Medievalist” page. On my static web site, I have a page on digitizing manuscripts, one on Celtic medieval manuscripts, and one on manuscripts in general. I’ve been bookmarking sites for a while, thinking I’d update those pages, but digital manuscript editions are fortunately increasingly common, and I’m pretty preoccupied right now. My current obsession, and the necessity of paying tuition fees, mean that I’m not going to be updating those pages until next year.

Thanks to Del.icio.us, I’ve started accumulating links to complete digital manuscripts, and making them publicly available. I’m not trying to be complete about this, and I’m not trying to bookmark the individual manuscripts of frame-based sites like the excellent Irish Script on Screen site for Irish mss. I’m also not really tracking digital manuscripts that are Latin only; I’m a vernacular person. Mostly. I’ll add links if people send them to me. I’m not including the flash-based sites, like the otherwise excellent British Library Turning the Pages manuscripts. The Digital Manuscripts links page is here, and there’s an .RSS feed you can subscribe to, so you’ll be notified of updates.

Late Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts on the Web

I’m still working on the, you know thing, but I stumbled across the Late Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts – Books of Hours 1400-1530 guide from The Institute for the Study of Illuminated Manuscripts in Denmark, and wanted to point it out. And while I’m posting, I ought to mention this article which discusses the British Library’s recent purchases of three of the missing leaves from the Sforza Hours. While you’re at the British Library’s site, you should definitely visit their Illuminating the Renaissance site about Flemish manuscript painting.

It’s May!

I’m going to be lazy, and link to a post from two years ago about May day. This calendar image from a book of hours is an image of a Maying boat expedition.

An image from a medieval book of hours showing a boating scene on one page and the calendar of holy days and feasts for May on the other page

The British Library’s Golf Book f. 22v–23

The image is from British Library manuscript Additional 24098 folio 22v. It’s a sixteenth century book of hours from the Netherlands workshop of Simon Bening; the work the page is from is The Golf Book. The image shows a characteristic aristocratic Maying scene, in its depiction of a spring landscape (Bening is known for his landscapes), with green leaves, and branches of greenery in the boat. You’ll note there’s a lutenist, and a pipe player in the boat, presumably performing a Maying song or May carol. There appears to be an additional Maying party on the bridge above.

The style of the images is very similar to that of panel paintings, more “painterly” than earlier illuminated manuscripts, and typical of Bening’s workshop. The Golf Book is a partial ms. that consists of calendar images, similar to those in other Books of Hours, with an emphasis on leisure rather than seasonal labor. It is particularly well known for the miniature border images showing people playing games (like golf—this work has a calendar page showing people playing a game like golf, hence the title). You can see other images from The Golf Book here and here, in a calendar scene for June, showing jousting. Some medievalists may be particularly interested in the toy windmills, or in the spectacles visible in this self-Portrait of Bening.

Margins and Meta Data

In his latest Info World column “Filling in the Margins,” Jon Udell writes:

Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) alumnus Austin Henderson says that “one of the most brilliant inventions of the paper bureaucracy was the idea of the margin.” There was always space for unofficial data, which traveled with the official data, and everybody knew about the relationship between the two.

As Udell makes clear, he’s paraphrasing the forthcoming research of Austin Henderson, and it’s an interesting comment. It’s not, however, quite accurate.

Yes, marginal glosses are used in medieval (and earlier—think Egyptian papyri) manuscripts just that way. But the “everybody knew about the relationship,” well, no, they didn’t, and no, we don’t. Those marginal comments, or glosses, were used by readers to make reflective annotations, to add reference material by other authorities, to make corrections, or even to doodle. Scribes also used margins to make corrections, or sometimes, just comments. And of course marginal comments weren’t restricted to the right and left margins, or even the top and bottom—readers made interlinear comments too, like these in the Book of Lindisfarne which provide Old English translations of the Latin Gospel. And then for certain texts, and classes of texts, the glosses were soon seen as a sort of textual appendix, one that was right on the page with the main text (what, you didn’t know hypertext was a manuscript tradition? Think of the Talmud.) Remember that manuscripts were copied by hand, often by professional scribes, in or out of the monastary, and often by private individuals. Professional or not, scribes get tired, and hungry, and have trouble with the light, and often, are copying texts in languages they can’t read. And sometimes, a scribe didn’t realize a marginal gloss was a gloss, and so the gloss was incorporated into the main text. OK, a lot of times— it happens so regularly that it’s a field of paleographic specialization. Once a gloss is incorporated into the body of a text, it’s frequently transmitted, so the error perpetuates, and even propagates.

My point, which I realize is somewhat divorced from John Udell’s context, is that as we work out semantic data and metadata and document standards, we need a way to do “digital marginalia” so that meta data identifying marginalia travels with it, because it’s a real pain comparing versions of an ancient text in an effort to determine whether text that appears corrupt is in fact part of the text, or a scribal error of addition. I don’t even want to think about doing that with a digital record.

Cornish Medieval Drama Bewnans Ke

Two years ago I posted about a newly discovered medieval Cornish Saint’s Play. Dr. O. J. Padel of Cambridge University has kindly made available a .pdf file of his transcript of National Library of Wales MS.
23,849D here.

Dr. Padel points out that initial assumptions that the manuscript contained fragments of two plays, one about Saint Ke, and one on an Arthurian subject, was inaccurate; it is a single play about St. Ke which contains a section referring to Arthur, present now only as a fragment. Scholars have adopted the name Bewnans Ke for the play, much as the only other extant medieval Cornish saint’s play, Bewnans Meriasek, the Life of Saint Meriasek, which exists in a single copy in MS. Peniarth 105, also in the National Library of Wales. Dr. Padel’s transcription is provided as a way of tiding us over until the edition by Graham Thomas and Nicholas Williams is available.

Lighting the Spark: The Medieval Itty-Bitty Book Light

Metropolitan Museum of Art Hans Memling Annunciation detail
At the request of Janice Safran and Heather Blatt I’m posting this small detail from the Annunciation of 1465-75 produced by the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, Belgium — possibly by Hans Memling— and in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sifran and Blatt are interested in hearing from anyone who’s seen a similar object in other images or heard one described in writing. They are presenting a paper on “Lighting the Spark: The Medieval Itty-Bitty Book Light” and are in hopes of locating similar images. They have already explored The Annunciation from the left wing of the Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99) by Melchior Broederlam in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, France; the Annunciation of 1482 by Hans Memling in Brugge, Belgium, also in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.