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INTRODUCTION TO THE ST ALBANS PSALTER

This web site aims to display the St Albans psalter in such a way that readers may enjoy its beauty and contents. Commentaries on each page explain simply aspects of the iconography and codicology. These, together with the transcriptions and translations, provide a basic understanding of the book. The book is available as a facsimile published by Müller & Schindler (Simbach am Inn) in 2008 and is called The St Albans Psalter (Albani Psalter) by Jochen Bepler, Peter Kidd and Jane Geddes. The essays by Kidd and Geddes are available from this edition.

The essays explore selected aspects of the book and its historical context in greater detail. They are based primarily on information which can be gleaned from a close physical examination of the book, and from historical clues provided by the lives of Christina of Markyate and Abbot Geoffrey de Gorham. The essays do not therefore stray into wider issues such as the place of the psalter in the St Albans scriptorium, nor indeed its place in English Romanesque art.

The St Albans Psalter is a book made up of five distinct sections:

  • a liturgical calendar
  • 40 full page miniatures showing the Life of Christ
  • a quire containing The Chanson of Alexis and a letter of Pope Gregory, written in French, three pictures of Christ at Emmaus, a discourse on Good and Evil, and the letter B (Beatus vir) marking the start of the psalms
  • the psalms, prayers and canticles p73-414; of these, the outer bifolio of quire 6 (p73,74,91,92) was produced by a different scribe
  • a diptych showing the martyrdom of St Alban and David the Musician

Evidence from the text and illustrations suggests that the book was essentially created for Christina of Markyate, an anchoress (born c.1096- died after 1155), by Geoffrey de Gorham (or Gorron), Abbot of St Albans (1119-1146).

Briefly, Christina was an attractive Anglo-Saxon girl whose parents forced her to marry, much against her wishes. She had made a private vow to become a nun following a childhood visit to St Albans Abbey. She repudiated her husband on her wedding night, struggling to remain a virgin, and eventually managed to run away from home. She fled to a series of Anglo-Saxon hermits who protected her for a number of years, finally reaching Roger the Hermit, a monk from St Albans, at his cell at Markyate. When he died, she took over the cell and was subsequently protected by Abbot Geoffrey. She exerted considerable influence over the abbot’s spiritual development and administrative decisions, while he provided her cell with financial support. Their intimate relationship remained chaste, but caused malicious gossip and jealousy at the abbey. Geoffrey was originally a school master from Maine in France who started teaching at Dunstable near St Albans. While producing a liturgical play he accidentally burned some copes he had borrowed from the abbey, and decided to become a monk as recompense. His interest in drama and teaching is evident in the psalter.

The book is important because of its outstanding illuminations, particularly the miniatures painted by the so-called Alexis Master, which are among the finest examples of English Romanesque painting. The Chanson of Alexis is the earliest surviving example of Old French literature and is a key text for the development of the French language. Lastly, the connection with Christina and Geoffrey adds a further dimension of interest because Christina’s Life is recorded in a contemporary manuscript, partly dictated by Christina herself. (Talbot, 1998). This vivid document, containing the dramatic account of her struggles to become a nun, provides a profound understanding of her faith, love, visions and thoughts.

The psalter was made at St Albans Abbey and probably kept at Christina’s little priory of Markyate, not far from St Albans in Hertfordshire, until the Reformation. The manuscript was in England at this time because the word ‘pope’ in the calendar has been erased, according to a proscription from Henry VIII. During the Civil War, a fugitive English Catholic brought the manuscript to the English Benedictine monastery of Lamspringe (founded in 1643) in Lower Saxony. The Lamspringe provenance is inscribed on the first pages. The manuscript probably came to St Godehard’s church, Hildesheim when the monastery was suppressed in 1803.

Additions to the calendar provide the documentary evidence for Christina’s involvement. The dedication of her priory at Markyate (1145) is recorded by one scribe, while the deaths of Christina and her family are added by another. The calendar itself indicates that it was based on a model from Ramsey Abbey, near Huntingdon, Christina’s home town. However, the calendar was also connected with St Albans because his feast is included, and the addition of musical notes in December is found on a contemporary St Albans calendar. The calendar also features numerous female saints and virgins who were not venerated at St Albans or Huntingdon, but were suitable for a female owner.

The project seems to have begun with the psalms, each one beginning with an initial to illustrate the text. The book may have been intended originally for use at St Albans Abbey, prefaced by the illustrations of St Alban and David which are now placed at the end. But, at some stage, it was decided to present the book to Christina and the contents were modified to suit her needs. On page 285, the initial for psalm 105 is pasted into a blank space. It is painted by a different artist to the rest of the initials and it shows Christina, followed by the monks of St Albans, pleading for mercy before Christ. This initial has given rise to a great deal of scholarly debate, but it is argued here that it marks the point in production when Abbot Geoffrey decided to complete the psalter for Christina and change the entire nature of the book. The illustration of St Alban was relegated to the end, and instead the book was to begin with Christina’s calendar and a set of miniatures specially chosen for her contemplation. This sequence of scenes from the Fall, and the Life of Christ is given a particularly feminine bias, showing women in 18 examples. The scenes would enable Christina to practice ‘affective meditation’, recently developed by St Anselm, which encouraged the participant to involve their emotions in a strongly subjective way.

The historiated initials illustrate a key phrase from each psalm. A short caption, added in red ink, accompanies the initial and generally explains the illustration. However, a new message, chosen by the patron, is conveyed where the picture deviates from the text. This occurs particularly clearly in psalm 105 (the Christina initial), psalm 118 (p315), psalm 132and the Litany. All these initials seem to have a particular meaning for Christina and Geoffrey. In addition, the red writing of the caption becomes increasingly important after the Christina initial (psalm 105). The figures in the initials point more and more emphatically to both the red tag and caption, ignoring the black lettering of the psalm itself.

Quire 5, containing the Chanson of St Alexis, seems to be added slightly later and reflects discussions between Christina and Geoffrey. Alexis left his wife on their wedding night, an episode which has associations both with Christina leaving her husband, and to Geoffrey reluctantly setting out for Rome against Christina’s wishes in 1136 or 1139. The letter of Gregory the Great encourages the use of images to enhance devotion and to assist the illiterate. Its reproduction in both French and Latin suggests a reading lesson. The scenes from Emmaus relate to Christina’s own vision of Christ as an unrecognised stranger. However, the parallel with Emmaus provides a masculine gloss to Christina’s experience, presumably interpreted by Geoffrey. In Christina’s Life, using her own words, she connected the episode with Mary and Martha, a more naturally female choice. Lastly, the discourse about the spiritual battle is a very intimate and personal dialogue between the writer himself and the reader, described as a person who has previously listened to the discussion. The whole of the Alexis quire, the red captions in the psalms and the important obit to Roger the Hermit in the calendar are all written by Scribe 3, a writer working on other manuscripts at St Albans. It is suggested that this significant contributor to the book is Abbot Geoffrey himself.

The book could have been made at any time during the abbacy of Geoffrey (1119-46). However, he only became involved with Christina after Roger the Hermit died (1121-2) and the book suggests that they had developed a close relationship by the time the Christina initial was added. Perhaps the book began in connection with the new shrine of St Alban which Geoffrey was constructing between 1124 and 1129, but he then decided to present it to Christina. She, somewhat reluctantly, took her vows in c.1131, and that occasion might have been suitable for the gift of the psalms, calendar and miniatures.. But, the vision of the Trinity depicted in the Litany only occurred ‘after the fourth year of her profession’ around 1135. If the Alexis quire is connected with either of Geoffrey’s journeys to Rome, then it may have been added c.1136 or 1139.

These issues, are all explored in greater detail in the following essays.

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