This celebrated manuscript, commissioned by a wealthy landowner in the first half of the 14th century, is one of the most striking to survive from the Middle Ages. Painted in rich colours embellished with gold and silver, with vitality and sometimes bizarre inventiveness of decoration, this manuscript is unlike virtually any other.
The Luttrell Psalter: Psalm 103. Lincolnshire, c.1320-40
British Library Add. MS 42130, f.171
Copyright © The British Library Board
What is a Psalter?
The Psalms are 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the Old Testament books of the Bible. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms. The Psalms were often written out separately from the rest of the Bible, preceded by a calendar of the Church’s feast-days, and followed by various types of prayers. Such a volume is known as a Psalter.
Why is this called the 'Luttrell Psalter'?
The manuscript is named by modern scholars after its original patron, whose picture appears in the book. Geoffrey Luttrell was lord of the manor at Irnham, between Grantham and Spalding in Lincolnshire, but he owned estates across England, thanks to his great-great-grandfather, also called Geoffrey. His ancestor's loyal support and service to King John had been rewarded with grants of various properties, which were greatly added to by marriage to an heiress. The style of the illumination shows that Sir Geoffrey commissioned the Psalter some time between 1320 and 1340.
What is special about the Luttrell Psalter?
It is usual for the most luxurious illuminated medieval psalters to be illustrated with images of King David (the supposed author of the Psalms), and sometimes also pictures of biblical stories or images of saints. The Luttrell Psalter was not the first to include scenes of contemporary rustic life, but it is exceptional in their number and fascinating detail. Its lively and often humorous images provide a virtual 'documentary' of work and play during a year on an estate such as Sir Geoffrey's.
As we turn the pages of the book, we see corn being cut, a woman feeding chickens, food being cooked and eaten. There are wrestlers, hawkers, bear baiters, dancers, musicians, throwing games, a mock bishop with a dog that jumps through a hoop - and a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod.
Such images played a large part in fostering the 19th-century romantic vision of a 'merrie Englande' peopled by bountiful lords and ladies and happy peasants playing as hard as they worked. Copies of the manuscript were published, and its pictures widely reproduced as illustrations in history books. Today scholars are more inclined to see the Psalter's scenes as idealised versions of reality - they were, after all, designed to please Sir Geoffrey, not his workers.
Who made the manuscript?
Most medieval manuscripts were produced by more than one person: one or more scribes wrote the text and one or more artists added decoration and pictures. The Luttrell Psalter was the work of one scribe and at least five artists, none of whose names are known. For so many people to collaborate, the book must have been made somewhere of substantial size (unlike the village of Irnham), and Lincoln is a possibility.
What are those strange animals doing there?
The finest decoration is in the central section of the manuscript, painted by the most gifted of the artists. His pictures display acute observation and attention to detail - he even tidied up some of the other painters' work. His clear talent for inventiveness and gentle humour is expressed in the so-called 'grotesques': hybrid monstrosities that may combine a human head, an animal/fish/bird body, and a plant tail.
The animals have attracted the interest of scholars and public alike. Many of these must have been products of the artist's imagination, and seem unrelated to the text they accompany. Like those in the Hebrew manuscript of the Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch, they also terminate in leafy foliage. On this page they form a striking contrast to the more clearly religious imagery of a praying man that appears in the initial.
To compare how Jewish and Christian manuscripts approached marginal decorations, see this page of the Duke of the Sussex's German Pentateuch.
How did the manuscript come to the British Library?
The British Museum tried to buy it in 1929, but they didn't have the then-record asking price of 30,000 guineas (£31,500). An anonymous benefactor loaned the money interest free; ironically, it was US millionaire John Pierpont Morgan, who could have bought it at auction for himself had he wished.
How can I see more of this book?
We have created a digital version using our award-winning Turning the Pages™.