Containing the text of the psalms in parallel Greek, Latin, and Arabic versions, the Harley Trilingual Psalter bears eloquent witness to the multilingual society of 12th-century Sicily. It was almost certainly produced at the royal scriptorium of Roger II of Sicily (r. 1130–54).
Several scribes from each language group collaborated to produce this manuscript, which contains the psalms of the Septuagint (Greek), the Vulgate (Latin), and the 11th-century translation of al-Antaki (Arabic). The psalms are numbered in each column according to individual language conventions: Greek letters for the Septuagint, Roman numerals for the Vulgate, and an early version of the Arabic numerals familiar to us today in the Arabic column.
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.
The manuscript shows clear signs of use, and Arabic marginal notes suggest that it was used in services according to the Latin rite. Later inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Italian, indicate that its afterlife was just as diverse as the community that had produced it.
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'.
This manuscript was purchased for the Harleian Library in 1722. The Harley Collection forms one of the foundation collections of the British Library. It can be viewed online in full here.