The St Albans Psalter is a rich quarry for academic investigation. A brief survey of the bibliography indicates that after the milestone publications by Goldschmidt (1895) and Pächt (1960) interest in the book has gathered momentum, particularly because the Life of Christina of Markyate (, 1959) added an historical context and appealing human dimension. It is hoped that this full colour web site will provide a springboard for future research, particularly because the manuscript can now be studied slowly and as a complete artefact.
This section summarises interpretations by significant contributors. It will be noticed that few explore the entire book but many have opinions on certain aspects. Recurring issues concern how the book was put together, in what order and when. A new interpretation, derived from the evidence of this digital project, is presented in the final chapter, Conclusion.
Goldschmidt had access to the Gesta Abbatum but not the Life of Christina for his historical context. With that information he was the first to connect the psalter with Roger the Hermit, whom he thought wrote both the calendar and the psalter for Christina. The wording of Roger’s obit was evidence of his involvement. Goldschmidt (p33) also identified the illustration of the Litany as Christina and her nuns.
In his sequence of events, the book began as a calendar and psalms. The psalm section was completed by an artist who left the page for psalm 1 empty. It was to begin with a great Beatus page either painted or pasted on to p16 (the blank page at the end of the calendar, on which there are stitch holes for a silk curtain). At this point, the Alexis Master produced the 40 miniatures which were inserted between the calendar and psalms. This sequence ended with David the Musician on a verso (p56), and the psalms still lacked their Beatus page which had to be on a verso.
In order to create the Beatus page, a corpus alienum, the Alexis quire, was inserted. This quire still had four blank pages at the end, on which the Emmaus scenes and finally the Beatus page (p72) were added. Goldschmidt connected the Alexis quire with the dedication of a chapel to that saint in the abbey but did not see its connection with the rest of the book. He considered it was written and assembled some time between 1115-1119.
Talbot deciphered the charred remains of the Life of Christina of Markyate and this contemporary account cast new light on the psalter. He was able to produce a succinct outline of Christina’s career (p14-15) in which she came to Markyate c.1118-22; left the hermitage on Roger’s death c.1122-3; returned c.1123 and probably met Abbot Geoffrey c.1124. Around 1131, she took her vows, 1145 Markyate Priory was founded and c.1155-66 Christina died.
Following Goldschmidt, he saw connections with Roger the Hermit: (he misleadingly claimed) the prayers are written in the masculine, several monks are depicted, Pope Gregory’s letter is addressed to a hermit, and Roger’s obit is emphasised.
Although these features indicate a connection with Roger, other details suggest the link was not direct. Roger was a monk of St Albans but the calendar is not strictly from the abbey. St Margaret in the Litany was only added to the St Albans ritual after about 1155, too late for Roger. Talbot identified several of the obit additions to the calendar as relations of Christina; several of the added saints are women whose lives were a model for her; and three feasts are connected with Ramsey, the abbey near her home.
He associated the Litany picture with Holy Trinity Markyate, and the initial to psalm 105 with Christina, leading the monks she influenced to join St Albans, as narrated in the vita. Finally he linked the Life of St Alexis to Christina and her chaste marriage, as described in her vita. ‘The conclusion seems to be that the psalter, if not originally destined for Christina, eventually found its way into her hands and was altered perhaps and completed during the course of its preparation to conform to her interests’
Because the Litany illustration refers to the Holy Trinity, Talbot assumed the psalter was made after the foundation of the priory, 1145, and the invocation to St Margaret must be after c.1155.
The Life of Christina of Markyate appeared just before this monograph, so the full range of its historical implications were not absorbed by Pächt, Wormald and Dodwell when they prepared their own book.
The project began as a book for St Albans Abbey. Of this, only the diptych of St Alban and David on pp 416-417 survives and it was eventually relegated to the end of this psalter. All the rest of the book was made for Christina and this gave it an over arching unity of purpose and meaning. There was a ‘framework of a common plan though perhaps not a very orderly one’.
Pächt seriously ‘reckoned with the possibility’ that an entire (hypothetical) psalter, fully illustrated with initials, pages with all the correct spacing, was available at St Albans Abbey to serve as a model for the psalm section. It was possibly illuminated by the Alexis Master who, unwilling to copy his own work, delegated an assistant to repeat the performance in the Albani Psalter. This was Pächt’s explanation for the almost flawless appearance of the psalter section.
The book’s overall unity was established by the Alexis Master. Pächt reverses Goldschmidt’s chronology and includes the Alexis quire as a premeditated part of a unified programme.
Thus the miniatures by the Alexis Master came first, followed by the psalm initials, drawn by the master but painted by his followers. The Christological cycle deliberately leaves out the Emmaus scenes in order to add them as a gloss to the Alexis quire. In this section, the Life of Alexis is reproduced as a mirror to Christina’s chaste marriage, and the Emmaus scenes are a parallel for Alexis, also a pilgrim. The Alexis quire was possibly the last to be created, with the Alexis Master personally in charge. He wrote the Psychomachia himself but misjudged its length, hence the confused spacing around pp71-72. The B on p72 was intended to have a frame matching the opposite page, 73, but the artist changed his mind. His discourse was taking up too much room, so the frame was omitted and the superfluous letters EATUS VIR were ‘repeated as a stop gap to fill the marginal space to the right of the B’. The Alexis Master also added all the titles to the psalms after they were finished.
The obit for Roger the Hermit, added to the calendar not long after his death in c1123, places the whole book before that date. (However, see Dodwell’s caution about this date, below). Considerably later, ‘not before the thirties’ the initial to psalm 105 ‘which for some reason had remained unadorned’ was pasted in.
Dodwell established the crucial date for the death of Roger the Hermit through documentary research: between 1121 and 1122. Roger’s obit was added to the calendar, so the obit must therefore be after 1122. Dodwell remained cautious in relating this date to the St Albans Psalter: ‘If the entry of Roger’s obit in the calendar of the St Albans Psalter, in writing different from that of the main hand, does indicate that the manuscript itself was written before his death, then one can say that it was written before 1123.’. He argued that the initials are designed with a consistent monastic agenda but he interpreted the pasted initial, p285, as Christina.
This pasted initial ‘is probably later than the others and represents a style midway between the miniatures and the Shaftesbury Psalter (London, B.L. Lansdowne MS 383)’. ‘Why this was done, is difficult to understand since, if the page is held up against the light, there is no indication that there was an earlier painting beneath to cover up’.
Wormald’s views were based on the calendar and palaeography.
The calendar, Alexis quire and psalm section were each written by different scribes. The calendar was based on St Albans but was modified to account for feasts at Ramsey Abbey. There were several groups of additions to the calendar which help to date it, and there were also the significant obits of Christina, her family, Roger and Abbot Geoffrey. The St Albans scribe who wrote Christina’s obit also wrote the title to the pasted initial on p285. The Litany was a modification of St Albans, with the addition of a number of female saints who might be of significance to Christina.
The original text of the calendar was written by one scribe and probably begun after Geoffrey became abbot in 1119. The Alexis quire and the psalm titles were added by the same hand as Roger’s obit, but whether these were all penned at the same time is impossible to say. On Roger’s obit: ‘There seems to be no overwhelming evidence against suggesting a date about 1123-30’, ‘probably shortly after 1123’. The calendar additions of Markyate church dedication and St Margaret came after 1145. The main additions to the calendar and the remaining obits were well into the 1150s. ‘The creation of the book as it survives today may well have taken about thirty years, though the most formative of these must have been quite early.’
Swarzenski provides a new interpretation to the construction of the psalter, and greatly extends the range of iconographic and stylistic parallels.
The style of the initials is earlier than that of miniatures. It derives from existing products of the St Albans scriptorium, especially the Prudentius, London, B.L. MS Cotton Titus D.XVI. That is, the psalter is earlier than miniature cycle, and does not depend on the Alexis Master. He accepts that the Litany picture may be connected with the dedication of the priory in 1145 and the style of the pasted initial to psalm 105 fits a date at least between Christina’s ordination (c1131) and the priory dedication. P73, EATUS VIR is earlier in style that the B on p72, hence the psalter must have lost its original first page. He proposes an original book containing the calendar, miniatures and psalms (with a different B), made for Christina. The Alexis B (p72) was intended for another book which is why it does not match or balance p73. The final diptych of St Alban and David was originally intended as a frontispiece, and might have been planned as part of a longer sequence of St Alban’s life.
Regarding the St Albans
Psalter, Ayres concentrates on the pasted initial to Psalm 105, p285.
His interpretation is that a ‘monk is guiding Christina to Christ,
acting as her patron, commending her to the Saviour’. It is a posthumous
reference to Christina who, after her death, is crossing into the heavenly
side of the picture. ‘Already ascended into the state of the Blessed’,
she begs Christ for mercy towards his monks.
This assumes that the book returned to the St Albans scriptorium after it was complete. This can be corroborated by the additions to the calendar, particularly recording Christina’s death, by a St Albans scribe. Ayres follows Wormald in attributing the title of the Christina initial to the same scribe who made the additions to the calendar. Other manuscripts made in St Albans in the later part of the twelfth century also have pasted initials (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS. 48)
Christina’s death date is not known but she was still alive in 1155, so this initial is later still.
Holdsworth rejects the palaeographic link between Roger’s obit and the scribe of the Alexis quire and psalter titles. He considers the obit is too small a sample of writing to make a firm attribution. This frees the book from a connection with Roger’s death in 1123: ‘Roger’s name could have been added some years after the psalter was completed’.
If the book was made for Christina, ‘it is scarcely credible that such a gift should have been made at a time which precedes the beginning of Christina’s friendship with Abbot Geoffrey’ (which began c1124).
Holdsworth is the first person to interpret the Emmaus scenes in terms of Christina’s own visions of Christ the pilgrim. In her Life, these are mentioned after c. 1140-1. St Margaret in the Litany is not dependent on her introduction at St Albans under Abbot Robert de Gorham, c. 1155. She had a special meaning for Christina already: her beloved sister was called Margaret and St Margaret helped Christina with her only miracle cure. The inspiration for the psalter lay in the relationship between Christina and Abbot Geoffrey so ‘The evidence points in the direction of the psalter having been produced after 1140-1, and before the death of Abbot Geoffrey in 1146’.
Nilgen’s interpretation, with a complex sequence of events, highlights important details from Christina’s Life, especially the relevance of her vision of the Holy Trinity to the Litany illustration. She goes so far as to rename the book The Psalter of Christina of Markyate.
Around 1119, Christina comes to Markyate with her own personal psalter. After 1123, a calendar is made for it at St Albans. The Alexis quire is created for Christina, written, not by the Alexis Master but by Abbot Geoffrey himself (Thomson’s Scribe 3). According to Professor Malcolm Parkes, he writes with a north French school hand. The calendar and Alexis quire are bound in to Christina’s existing old psalter, replacing her first Beatus page.
The miniature cycle by the Alexis Master is designed for another psalter: the final image of David on p56 (a verso) presupposes a Beatus page on the next recto, but in the Alexis quire the Beatus is on a verso. It is subsequently decided to insert the miniatures into the book which already contains the calendar, Alexis and psalter.
Nilgen notices the different appearance of Gregory’s letter on p68. This was squeezed into the available space by Geoffrey in order to justify the addition of the luxurious miniatures.
In the early 1130s, after she took her vows, Christina experiences her vision of the Trinity which is ultimately recorded in the Litany (p403). As a result the entire psalter section was created, culminating in the Trinity initial. In other words, the psalm section was created after the calendar, miniatures and Alexis quire. Geoffrey adds the titles to the initials when the book is partly finished: after Psalm 110, the figures start to point to the titles. The present psalter begins with EATUS VIR on p73, to match the arrangement of Christina’s old book. The doubling of the letters EATUS VIR on p73 was ‘probably the result of inexact oral instructions’ because the Alexis quire was not necessarily in the scriptorium at the same time as p73 was being composed.
The production of the manuscript probably took place in stages between c1123 and 1135.
The theory of several
stages of binding, indicated above, is supported by
Haney makes a fresh examination of the entire manuscript. She emphasises the sharp distinctions of script, ruling and parchment between each section (the calendar, miniatures, Alexis quire and psalms). She releases the psalm initials from the control of the Alexis Master by amply demonstrating that the ‘Alexis Master style’ already existed in the St Albans scriptorium before the project began. Both the Priscian (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek MS B.P.L.114B) and Prudentius (BL MS Cotton Titus D.XVI) were made in about 1119 or earlier at St Albans, quite independent from the Alexis Master, and they provide the local pool of motifs which both the Alexis Master and psalm artists used.
The Beatus Vir (p72) was never intended to have a matching frame to that on p73: it could not fit in the available space. Its design and lay out relate this page to the Alexis quire and not the psalm section. The entire Alexis quire was made before it was joined to this psalter text. The quire was made as a frontispiece to another psalter which was to begin on p72. It was later joined to the present psalter, whose existing preliminaries were removed: the St Albans and David diptych were moved to the end of the book (pp416,417) and its opening initial discarded.
The link between the miniatures and Alexis quire is not so close either. They use different vellum and the frame sizes of the pictures are different.
The calendar, written by a different scribe, on different vellum with different ruling, suggests it was not part of the original psalter. Liturgically there are discrepancies between the saints in the calendar and the Litany at the end of the psalms. Whereas Dodwell identified the work of Artist 1 in both the psalms and calendar, Haney points out differences, concluding that the calendar artist showed greater maturity than Artist 1, and the calendar might well post date the psalter.
Since the St Albans Psalter is a composite book, Haney reviews the question of patronage and date separately for each part of the manuscript.
The Litany in the psalter places St Alban next to St Stephen, a position normally reserved for the patron saint of the church. Wormald comments on the addition of extra virgins to the litany, but he overlooks the fact that more men were also added. In fact a high proportion of female saints in a litany is not proof of the sex of the recipient. Although Pächt explained the Alexis Chanson in terms of Christina’s interests, the cult of Alexis was also prevalent at St Albans.
Wormald associated the calendar with Christina on the basis of three entries, St Felix, St Ivo and the Tumulatio of St Benedict, special to Ramsey, near Christina’s home. Haney indicates that these items were also significant at Ely and Croyland, so the recipient was not necessarily Christina.
Regarding the date, Haney doubts that Roger’s obit was written by the same scribe as the Alexis quire, thereby rendering the obit irrelevant to the rest of the book. Furthermore, obits were not necessarily added at the time a person died, since Christina, all her family and Geoffrey are added together. Haney concludes that , following the style of the Prudentius manuscript, the psalter, miniatures and Alexis quire could have been made at the same time, followed by the calendar. Any portion of the book made for Christina would have been done under Geoffrey’s patronage and therefore after 1124.
In terms of the current debate, this book deals primarily with the iconographical sources and meaning of the psalm initials. This leads to a discussion of the psalter section’s creator and provenance. Whereas Dodwell considered the psalm initials to be an original creation (AP,198-199), Haney identifies a pool of key sources for the choice of image.
The most extensive psalter illustrations in England were the ninth-century Reims manuscript, the Utrecht Psalter (Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliothek MS 32) and its early eleventh-century English copy (B.L. Harley MS. 603), both in the library of Christchurch Cathedral, Canterbury. These illustrate each psalm in a literal way but their pictures are broad, impressionistic landscapes, crammed with countless animated people. Where these two manuscripts do not suffice, Haney compares with the Stuttgart Psalter (Würtembergisches Landesbibliothek, MS Biblis folia 23) which was produced from a similar pool of images as the Utrecht Psalter. Haney shows in detail (p105-169) how these expansive images were quarried for poses, gestures, themes, grouping of figures. A process of very erudite selection took place, firstly to convert these landscapes into the concentrated composition dictated by an initial, and secondly to focus a new and precise relationship between the initial and the text. The broad spectrum of themes in the three earlier works was tuned to a more modern audience: the text was updated to the Gallican version; the earlier emphasis on kings was dropped, with more emphasis being given to the church; the ‘mighty populace’ at a distance from God was replaced by a more intimate and even tactile relationship between individuals and God. The shift from full page images to historiated initials was a particular development of the Canterbury scriptorium in the later eleventh century.
At Canterbury, Haney
(p312-334) sees Archbishop Anselm and the scribe Eadmer creating the intellectual
climate for a new illustrated interpretation of the psalms. Anselm stressed
the importance of private meditation on ‘the word’ while Eadmer
was particularly keen to promote Anglo-Saxon heritage in the aftermath
of the Norman conquest, hence his interest reinterpreting the two old
copies of the psalms.
Having established that the Hildesheim book contains four discrete parts which may have been made at different times for different purposes, Haney dissociates the design of the psalm section from anything to do with Christina of Markyate. Only one initial, for the Litany, might have a female connection, but the text of the Litany is gender neutral and its illustration showing the praying women refers generally to ‘the church’ or ‘the members of the church’(p336). ‘The Hildesheim manuscript was quite probably a copy of a book designed in Canterbury that was originally intended for the use of men. Whether the Hildesheim copy was made for Christina or simply adapted for her use is unclear; both are possibilities. However, in either case, the donor who was almost certainly Abbot Geoffrey, did not view the fact that the cycle was originally intended for men as an obstacle to presenting it to Christina’ (p345).
The date was ‘after 1125, and work on the book probably continued well into the 1130s’ (p7).
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