Medieval manuscripts blog

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03 May 2013

Marginali-yeah! The Fantastical Creatures of the Rutland Psalter

Add_ms_62925_f083vMiniature of Jacob's Ladder, before Psalm 80, with a bas-de-page scene of cannibal hybrids, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 83v


'Such a book! my eyes! and I am beating my brains to see if I can find any thread of an intrigue to begin upon, so as to creep and crawl towards possession of it.'

           -  William Morris

Thus spoke William Morris, we are told, when he first laid eyes on the Rutland Psalter in 1896.  Morris was said to be so enamoured of the Psalter that when he was suffering his final illness a friend brought it to his bed-side in order to lift his spirits. We are very pleased that it is no longer necessary to go to such extremes to see this spectacular manuscript; a fully digitized version can be found online here.

The Rutland Psalter (Add MS 62925) is a relatively recent addition to our collections; the manuscript was purchased by the British Library in 1983 from the estate of the ninth Duke of Rutland, whose family had owned the manuscript since at least 1825.  The Psalter was produced c. 1260 in England, possibly in London, although it is unclear who the original patron was.  In the centuries after it was produced, the manuscript passed through quite a few hands before ending up with the Dukes of Rutland.  Many of these people seem to have shared Morris's desire to possess the Psalter, even if only virtually; a vast gallery of signatures and inscriptions can be found on the manuscript's calendar pages and flyleaves (see, for example, f. i, ii and v).


Add_ms_62925_f008vFull-page historiated initial 'B'(eatus) at the beginning of Psalm 1, of King David harping, and the Judgement of Solomon, amidst men in combat astride lions and dragons, with roundels containing scenes from Creation and men in combat, with a curtain above, from the Rutland Psalter, England (London?), c. 1260, Add MS 62925, f. 8v


It is not hard to see why the Rutland Psalter was an object of such fascination.  It contains a number of spectacular full- and partial-page miniatures (see above), as well as other historiated and illuminated initials.  But the Psalter's true claim to fame is its marginalia. A staggering variety of creatures populate the margins and borders of virtually every folio; amongst the men and women, animals, hybrids, dragons, and vignettes of daily life are scenes influenced by the traditions of the bestiary and the Marvels of the East, and some from sources that still have yet to be traced.  A few of our favourites are below; be sure to check out the entire manuscript here.


Add_ms_62925_f049v_detailBas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid and a goat musician, f. 49v

Add_ms_62925_f051r_detailBas-de-page scene of a man hitting a bear (?) that is eating a human head, f. 51r

Add_ms_62925_f054r_detailBas-de-page scene of a rabbit musician, f. 54r

Add_ms_62925_f056v_detailBas-de-page scene of a hybrid musician and a semi-nude man dancing, f. 56v

Add_ms_62925_f057r_detailBas-de-page scene of a blemmya with a crossbow, f. 57r

Add_ms_62925_f058v_detailBas-de-page scene of a female centaur suckling her child, f. 58v

Add_ms_62925_f061r_detailBas-de-page scene of mice hanging a cat, f. 61r

Add_ms_62925_f070v_detailBas-de-page scene of a men 'pick-a-back' wrestling, f. 70v

Add_ms_62925_f072r_detailBas-de-page scene of a conjoined man fighting a dragon, f. 72r

Add_ms_62925_f072v_detailBas-de-page scene of a man butting his foot against a ram, f. 72v

Add_ms_62925_f083r_detailBas-de-page scene of a nude man with a stick riding on a many-legged dragon, f. 83r

Add_ms_62925_f086r_detailBas-de-page scene of a man with an axe and a scold on a ducking stool, f. 86r

Add_ms_62925_f088v_detailBas-de-page scene of a grotesque hybrid with a panotii (a monstrous race of men with enormous ears), f. 88v

- Sarah J Biggs


Bas-de-page scene of a blemmya with a pickaxe, f. 57r ... Pickaxe? Perhaps rather a crossbow...

I thought a crossbow too, and is that a quiver of arrows at his waist?

I think the blemmya on f. 57r is actually holding a crossbow. Cheers!

Thanks to all of you who wrote in about the blemmya and his crossbow (rather than a pickaxe, as our older catalogue entry stated). I have had a look at it and you are quite right; I've made the relevant change to the blog post. Much appreciated! SJB

With regard to "Bas-de-page scene of a rabbit musician, f. 54r", you seem to be ignoring the erased creature the rabbit seems to be attacking with a ghost or an odor from the not-a-musical-instrument he's holding! I could just as easily say, "A rabbit opens a jar of garlic to defend himself from a naked vampire" would be the description. This assumes you don't know the musical instrument the rabbit is supposedly holding. Maybe he's attacking/defending himself from the naked creature with music?

Bas-de-page scene of a man with an axe and a scold on a ducking stool.

The man appears to have amallet with which to knock a lever to send the ladder with the scold into a pond.

Bas-de-page scene of a rabbit musician.

The rabbit looks as though it has opened a container an released a geni. Is the rabbit a magician?

Somebody tell the author that marginalia is a plural noun:
"But the Psalter's true claim to fame is its marginalia." etc.

And what's all this "nude" in the descriptions?. They are naked, but in any case, is it the significant point to home in on in all these cases?

All amazingly superficial. Is this culture? Do people get paid for it?

Of course it's culture, Anthony Ward, and thousands of people visiting the BL every year would say so. There's room for all levels, from people (maybe children) new to manuscripts, to world-class scholars. They all started somewhere, and why not with charming pictures? The very comments on this page are evidence of people engaging historically with the images, discussing and arguing the interpretations. That's culture in the making. Happy New Year!

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