Thursday 20 March 2014

A lecture on the Southampton Psalter, St John's College Library

The absorbing, colourful, and sometimes mysterious history of the oldest manuscript in St John’s – the Southampton Psalter – was the subject of a talk by Professor Patrick O’Neill last week.

The talk  can  be streamed or downloaded by accessing the College’s audio collection on Soundcloud.

The Two Lives of an Irish Psalter at St John’s College Library offers a brisk tour through centuries of history, as it tracks the origins, likely uses and journey of the book from its beginnings in early medieval Ireland, through to its arrival at the College in the 17th century.

The Psalter is an illuminated Irish psalm book, dating back to around the turn of the First Millennium, and is among a group of books that were donated to the College in 1635 by the Earl of Southampton (hence the name).

Its script, organisation and decorations clearly attest to Irish origins, but it is equally clear from later signatures and catalogues that it had been in England for some time before it arrived in Cambridge. Based on a meticulous analysis of the text and the accompanying annotations, Professor O’Neill’s talk pieces together its story across the centuries, suggesting – among other things - how it was understood in an Irish ecclesiastical context, and how it might have reached England thereafter.

In total, only 15 psalters or fragments from early medieval Ireland survive, and typically they were used for one of two purposes, study or display. The Southampton Psalter is unique because it combines those functions, featuring beautiful decorations and also scholarly “glosses” (explanatory and interpretative annotations).

David and Goliath in the Southampton Psalter

As O’Neill’s talk reveals, however, some additions to the main text are rather mysterious. First, there is an enigmatic entry on the top of the page for Psalm 51, where a scribe wrote in Old Irish: “It is May Day today, a Wednesday”, before adding, ominously given the festive occasion: “Have mercy on us, Lord have mercy”.

Meanwhile the glosses themselves seem out of keeping with Irish scriptural interpretation of the time. Typically, Irish scholars interpreted the Psalms either as Biblical history, or as a combination of history and moral instruction.  The main scribe responsible for writing the glosses found in the Southampton Psalter, however, seems to have preferred a (sometimes tenuous) allegorical interpretation of the text. In fact, he took this so far that a second “glossator” felt compelled, afterwards, to add his own historical understanding for the reader’s benefit.

Having left Ireland, the Psalter passed through various hands before reaching St John’s. In 1389, it was recorded in the catalogue of books made by John Whytefield at the Priory of St Martin in Dover, but how it reached England from Ireland is unclear.

Through careful study of the handwriting of tiny additions and edits to the text itself, coupled with a knowledge of the history of the period, O’Neill proposes that the answer may lie with the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, which appropriated St Martin’s in the 12th century. This may well have brought a wave of Irish ecclesiastics to Kent, and possibly the Psalter as well. Subtle points within the text itself suggest that it might have been amended to bring it into line with English texts of that time, indicating that it may have had a life at Canterbury, before moving to Dover during the appropriation.

The survey then follows Whytefield’s tenacious efforts to keep the library at St Martin’s secure – a sub-plot which reached a sad conclusion during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the break-up of the Dover library in the 16th century.

Of about 450 volumes, the Psalter was one of just 24 books which survived, and may well have passed into the hands of a local mayor, before it reached the bibliophile William Crashaw, a Fellow of St John’s. He gave it to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, who promised to bequeath his books to the College. Wriothesley himself is the subject of the dedications of Shakespeare’s two narrative poems – Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece – and it is widely argued that he is also the “Fair Youth” to whom the Bard’s Sonnets are addressed.

In a final twist, however, the Psalter might never have made it. The opening page features the initials of Henry’s son, Thomas, who seems to have been under the impression (in the absence of a will) that the book was his. An unsung heroine of the tale may in fact be Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, who ensured that the manuscript did indeed reach the St John’s library, where it has been available for teaching and research ever since.

Professor Patrick O’Neill is based at the University of North Carolina, and is a specialist in Medieval Irish and Old English Literature and Intellectual History. He has recently produced a new edition of the Southampton Psalter in the Brepols “Corpus Christianorum” series.

Further information about the Southampton Psalter can be found on the St John’s College website here.

We are grateful to Tom Kirk, Director of Communications at St John's College, for this report.

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