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Trilingual Psalter

This fascinating psalter from medieval Sicily shows what a cultural crossroads it was under the enlightened rule of King Roger II: the document carries three parallel version of the psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic, the latter probably for the benefit of converts from Islam.

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Trilingual Psalter

Harley Trilingual Psalter Palermo, Italy, between 1130 and 1154. Psalm 81 (80)
BL Harley MS 5786, f. 106v
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 Psalter in three languages?

During the period this manuscript was produced, the court of the Norman king of Sicily, Roger II (r. 1130-54), formed a crossroads at which Greek, Latin and Arabic cultures met. The Psalter, with its parallel texts, was probably used at the royal chapel in Christian services that included converts from Islam.

Many of the major Latin Psalm divisions have marginal comments in Arabic, as here, which marks this Psalm as that to be said on Fridays, corresponding to the Latin divisions of the Psalms to be read for that day.

The Greek text is taken from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible adopted by Christians), and the Latin is the Gallican translation of St Jerome.

The Arabic translation of the Psalms was made from the Greek by a deacon of the Melkite Church of Antioch (a Byzantine Eastern Orthodox church), Abu'l-Fath 'Abdall-h ibn al-Fadl ibn 'Abdall-h al-Mutr-n al-Antaki, in the 11th century.

Who was King Roger?

Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154) managed to unite all the Italian lands taken by the Normans into one strong, centralised kingdom. This Psalter comes from the high point of his reign, between 1130 and his death, during which time Sicily was the leading maritime power in the Mediterranean. Roger's court welcomed scholars and learned men of all races and faiths: an Arab geographer might discuss vital matters of the day with a Greek historian and an English official.

He was the inspiration for Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's 1926 opera King Roger, which reflects three cultures: Act I is 'Byzantine', Act II 'Oriental' and Act III 'Greco-Roman'.

Christ Pantocrator in the dome of church of Cefalu, Sicily: an image would have been familiar to Roger II

What is on this page?

This page shows Psalm 81 (according to modern numbering; it is 80 in the Vulgate version) A community laments in the time of military defeat, and asks God to lead them to victory: "Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us..."