I hope you like charades, blessed readers, for I’ve decided, as a regular feature of this blog, to indulge my own fancy for this most monastic of pastimes while at the same time introducing you to the many wonders of the Harley Psalter. I will explain my reference to charades in a moment, but first let me tell you a thing or two about this most delightful of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.
The Harley Psalter is an illustrated book of the Psalms, produced in the early eleventh century at one of the great centres of Anglo-Saxon manuscript production, Christ Church Cathedral Priory in Canterbury. Oh, the monks there were so cool, to use your twenty-first century idiom.
The Harley Psalter is often referred to as a copy of the Utrecht Psalter, which was produced around the year 830 by my Carolingian brothers in the monastery of Hautvilliers, near Rheims (Reims), before eventually ending up in Utrecht in 1716. It's more accurate, however, to call the Harley Psalter an adaptation of the Utrecht Psalter, as there are significant differences in text, script, composition and style. Nevertheless, the Utrecht Psalter did arrive at Canterbury in the late tenth century, and it inspired a number of English 'imitations' or adaptations, and our Harley one was the first of these.
Who was it for? Well, it may have been commissioned for Æthelnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1020 to 1038, or perhaps for his immediate predecessor Lyfing (also known as Ælfstan), who graced the primal see of Canterbury between 1013 and 1020.
It was produced in several phases by a close-working team which included a single main scribe, six artists, and a rubricator (the monk responsible for the red highlighted text). They took a fair bit of time to get it all done, probably the best part of two decades (monks have a lot on their plate, you know). But, alas, disaster struck; somehow the manuscript was damaged, and so one of the sections had to be replaced.
As for the nature of the damage, well we can’t be quite sure, blessed readers, though I suspect Christ Church priory was, like all monasteries, home to a few hungry mice, though it may not have been murine inhabitants causing the manuscript mayhem but, rather, a feline fiend at work! Since as monks we need to employ the services of a cat or two to keep the vermin at bay, it wouldn't surprise me to hear that a very insolent Christ Church cat decided to pee all over the Harley Psalter – and the monks could hardly present that to the archbishop now, could they? (If you doubt my cat pee theory, please note this item by Thijs Porck, a friend of Dr Monk.)
Whatever the case, the replacement of the spoiled section was undertaken by the scribe known as Eadui Basan and a new artist, who wasn’t quite so accomplished as the others, though we’ll let him off as it seems everyone was in a bit of a rush to get the Psalter finished. The archbishop had been waiting long enough!
So, why charades? Well, I’m indebted here to William Noel, renowned art historian. He explains in one of his studies how the type of illustration that was used in the original Utrecht Psalter is rather special: it’s not, as some have been tempted to describe it, narrative illustration as it doesn’t actually illustrate any stories as such. It is, rather, a form of ‘medieval charades’ in the sense that it ‘invites playful manipulation of textual messages by focusing on individual words and phrases’ in the accompanying text.
In other words, when you look closely at the drawings, what you see is a visual game in which a word or a phrase is, in a sense, acted out for the viewer. Furthermore, just as the acting out of individual words or phrases by themselves in Charades has very little bearing on the meaning of the answer as a whole, likewise in the Psalter the illustrating of the words ‘is done in a way that runs counter to their textual meaning’, as Noel puts it.
Now these same observations about charades in the Utrecht Psalter apply equally to the Harley Psalter which used the Utrecht as its exemplar and imitated its literal, phrase-by-phrase illustration. And so now I invite each blessed reader to join me in a game of medieval charades, as we try to work out just what words and phrases are being ‘acted out’ on the page.
Now I must forewarn you, beloved, that I may, in a spirit of monkish mischievousness, just occasionally succumb to a bit of playful manipulation myself. I'm sure you expect nothing less. Well, a monk has to let down his figurative hair now and again.
Well, let us start at the very beginning, Psalm 1. The images below are details from the image given at the beginning of the post, which you may use as an overall reference, if you wish.
First, let us meet, on the left, Blessed Man, and, on the right, Ungodly Man. Now I know you're thinking, aren't the baddies always on the left, and the goodies the right? But you'll just have to imagine that this is a stage and the Lord is hovering invisibly somewhere behind them; that way we've got God's stage left for Ungodly Man, and God's stage right for Blessed Man. Good, I'm glad to get that sorted, blessed ones.
Anyway, I'm not sure there's much to choose between the two fellows at this point: both have the same fancy classical garb (not Anglo-Saxon) and same hairstyle (rather outré, if you ask me). Is Ungodly Man carrying a compact mirror (vanity)? Maybe not, though he does have one of those self-consciously handsome smirks (looks a bit like my bishop, actually).
Ah, got it! The giant weed! Symbol of sin! Every ungodly fellow keeps bad company, and our Ungodly Man seems to have settled for the vegetable variety, and one that's been growing since Adam got thrown out of Eden, it would seem.
Now, this scene is the one to which the Blessed Man is pointing. Any guesses? Angel with jazz hands... man looking thoroughly depressed reading a very big book. Angels are messengers from the Lord, right? So there must be something godly going on. But what could be causing so much grief for our reader? Think, think. Bank statement? Blog review? No! Of course! The law of God! He's looking so depressed because he finds it impossible to keep to the law of God. What a godly, conscientious, guilt-ridden and blessed man he is. Obvious, really.
It's Ungodly Man's turn now; what's he pointing to? Now, I must say, fellow charadees, I think the clues are screaming at us here. Big weed is in the picture again. Very bad. Man sitting on a throne has a red beard and untidy hair... very wayward, blessed ones, very wayward. And never mind his big sword, look at that enormous cushion upon which he's perched... has to be self-indulgence that, surely! But the dead giveaway is the fellow to his left (sinister side), the one with the ridiculous hemline and the Medusa coiffure, handing out snakes as if they were children's balloons! Nasty man. So, you've got it, haven't you? Why, it's the chair of pestilence! You didn't get that? Come on, try harder.
Right, back to stage right and our Blessed Man. What have we here then? First, I would suggest we ignore the head sprouting wings for the time being, and the group of men on the right, as these belong to stage left. So that leaves us with a rather elegant twisted tree with pretty blue leaves and, importantly, fruit – sort of hard little plums, I would say.
Now, our Blessed Man has gained a forked beard in the process of lying down and knocking over is water urn; and what a huge amount of water it held before its demise. Now, the beard's actually a red herring, however, as is (I hate to admit it) the big weed behind him (bang goes my weed theory).
What I will say is that the only reason we see an upturned urn is to make us think, quite logically, water and, subsequently, river. Yes! You've got it this time, haven't you? Blessed Man is just like that fruiting tree by the flowing river. A wonderful metaphor for spiritual prosperity. How could it be anything else? Now to that winged head and the final few clues...
Well, what to think of a winged head struggling to take off from the rocky ground whilst looking up at a group of men in skimpy tunics? I can tell you right now, blessed ones, that really is far too much thigh on display there, so those fellows are obviously a bit dodgy. Wicked even, I'd say.
But, rather perplexing, that head has pursed lips, if you look carefully, and I'm really not sure we should pursue that mental image... unless, of course, the head represents the wind. Yes, obvious now I think about it: the head, from a position of the barren ground, blows those nasty thigh-exposing degenerates as if they were nothing more than the dust of the desert. Should have worked that out quicker, shouldn't we?
Now, let's quickly move on to the rest of the scene, and to much safer ground. We have a couple of devils (with terrible hair) dragging some of those wicked men into a pit where a really big devil (with even worse hair) munches on a bit of arm while clawing away at a couple of naked bodies. Hell, for sure. Got to be. Certainly a nice bit of pitching work going on. And so a marvellous conclusion to our charades.
So can you put it all together now? Here's the text from Psalm 1 (which of course, as a conscientious monk, I already knew by heart. Slight advantage there. Apologies). I've highlighted the individual answers to our clues:
1 Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.
2 But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season. And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper.
4 Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind driveth from the face of the earth.
5 Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just.
6 For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.
See you all soon for Psalm 2.
Janet Backhouse, 'The Making of the Harley Psalter', Electronic British Library Journal (1984), 97-113. You can locate a PDF of this article here.
William Noel, The Harley Psalter (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
William Noel, 'Medieval Charades and the Visual Syntax of the Utrecht Psalter', in Studies in the Illustrations of the Psalter, ed. Brendan Cassidy and Rosemary Muir Wright (Shaun Tyas, 2000), pp. 34-41.
N.B. 08.02.2018: A few revisions have been made to the original post; these relate to my understanding of the Harley Psalter as an adaptation rather than a copy of Utrecht Psalter.