From the Archive: Medieval Psalter

The Middle Ages is often considered by modern audiences to be a dark, dull time, all too often referenced as "The Dark Ages"  throughout popular culture. However, this is untrue - amidst other cultural advances, this time period produced a great deal of incredible artwork and literature, including countless illuminated manuscripts. A page from one such manuscript, believed to be a page from a personal psalter or Book of Psalms from the late Middle Ages, has a home within the archives of Drury University's Olin Library. A Medieval & Renaissance Studies student had the chance to discuss this piece with William Garvin, Director of Olin Library and University Archivist, to learn more about this piece.

What is this document, and what was the document's purpose?

It is a leaf from a psalter or Book of Psalms in Latin, almost certainly a personal copy. The leaf contains lines from Psalsm 31 and 32, starting on the recto of the leaf with verse 16: "Make thy face to shine upon thy servant; save me in thy mercy." On the verso, Psalm 32 begins with the gold-leaf capital B, "Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven." 

When and where was it written? 

This particular leaf was probably produced in Northern France in the second half of the 15th century. 

Is there anything else you can tell me about the leaf? 

The "support" (the material used as a leaf) is vellum, and it is rubricated (decorated with red and blue inks) and has some illumination in the form of gold leaf. It's interesting to note that the bottom outside corner of the leaf is slightly discolored: a sign that the page was at one time well-thumbed by a human hand. 

How did this leaf make its way to Drury? 

It was donated to us by a former member of the Department of Languages, Dr. Paul Nelson. 

What do you feel the significance or importance of having medieval documents like this to examine? 

Images of early texts are great, but you learn so much more by actually handling leaf like this; there is a lot to be learned through touching and closely examining the actual object. You get a sense of the texture of the vellum and its strength; you can see the hair follicles on one side; you can actually see how the lettering is essentially painted onto the page. An object like this gives us a tangible connection to that time. 

Why are Medieval Studies important? 

I think studying any  historical period is valuable, since it allows us to better understand our contemporary world. You do get a sense that history is indeed cyclical, and that humans are constantly having to re-learn hard lessons that we grappled with in the past. I remember reading Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year back in the 1990's during the HIV/AIDS crisis. The parallels I saw between what Defoe described and what I was observing in our culture were amazing. In both instances, people often reacted to the illness with fear and superstition. Defoe's chronicle of the events in 1665 gave me a better understanding of what I was seeing in 1995.