The luttrell psalter

What is the Importance of the Luttrell Psalter

The Luttrell Psalter or Loutterell Psalter[i] is an illuminated manuscript believed to be written some-when between 1325 and 1335. The Psalter was supposedly commissioned by the affluent landowner Sir Geoffrey Psalter of Irnham, Lincolnshire. Within its pages, the Psalter contains a calendar, the psalms, hymns canticles and many visual depictions of medieval life including examples doctoring, cooking, farming, domestic and rural life. The illustrations within the Psalter are mostly random, not relating to the text which they accompany in any way, however, there are rare exceptions to this rule. The Psalter is also an exceptional example due it's composure before invention of modern paper, it was instead composed upon a parchment consisting only of sheepskin which was usual for the period. The Luttrell Psalter is a contemporary of the East Anglian great series of Psalters, which include Ormesby Psalter of Oxford, the Arundel and Gorleston Psalters. The Psalter stands alone as one the most important and frequently references sources on medieval English culture and though it may be viewed in some circles as artistically inferior to other great Psalters such as those previously mentioned, the exceptional marginal drawings which adorn 2/3 of its pages are a vestige of contemporary culture.

This source analysis will use the interrogative 6 w's system to determine the importance the Luttrell Psalter.

Many claim that the source provides invaluable examples of how medieval citizens lived and worked, what clothes they wore, and even what tools they used. However, the historian Michael Camille claims that the Psalter instead portrays an imagined, glorified depiction of medieval life, defining reality rather than illustrating it. For example, Michael Prestwich writes of Camille in the English Historical Review: "A pair of shoes, discarded by a boy climbing a cherry tree, provokes Camille in to a debate about 'the problem of our miniaturized shoes in relation to 'thingyness' of the 4-inch-long child's shoe now preserved in the Museum of London. The shoes are, as it turns out, a symbol of the economic system controlled by Geoffrey Luttrell...."[ii]. However, this displays how useless Camille is as a source.

As previously stated, the Psalter was commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Salter and was compiled by a variety of artists and authors, who remain as of today, still unknown.

As the the language used within the Psalter is medieval Latin, a language that at the time was only the vernacular for noblemen and very few others, it is fair to deduce that the Psalter wasn't intended for the readership of the 'hoi polloi'. Furthermore, as there were no reproductions or replicas of the Psalter commissioned, at least at the time, it can be assumed yet again that the Psalter was intended only for the readership of those in the same circles and of the same education as the manuscript's commissioner.

As Sir Geoffrey Luttrell commissioned the Psalter, it is fair to assume that he was the patron of the composing artists, the images within the manuscript of Luttrell himself would seem to support the theory that he funded the document.

Within the Psalter, the subjects, in the marginal illustrations"include a long agricultural series; a kitchen and dinner scene, a lady at her toilet, a travelling coach for royal ladies accompanied by their pet dogs and squirrels; a series of sports and games of all times, including a striking picture of archery practice on the medieval counterpart of a rifle range (perhaps placed there to enforce some indication of the chivalric prowess and perhaps military might of Luttrell's estate) and a great variety of single subject which include a windmill a watermill with some eel traps in the river; a goose and gooselings attacked by a hawk; a grindstone; a boat towed by a couple of men, a boy in a tree stealing cherries with the owner below, the castle of love attacked by knights and defended by ladies, who pelt the besiegers with roses (chivalric notion); an attractive picture of Constantinople as a medieval walled town...and many similar subjects".

The Psalter is written in contemporary medieval Latin, which was the norm at the time for literature intended for use by those educated and nobleman.

The Luttrell Psalter was composed between 1325 and 1335, under the reign of the famously chivalric Edward III. The source has never been at least knowingly doctored and remains perfectly today in its original form.

Such a document as the Luttrell Psalter, most probably would have been considered a symbol of prestige and affluence, requiring a tremendous investment of monetary funds. We don't know exactly how a document such as the Psalter would have been used in the period, but the sheer scale of the manuscript could suggest that the the piece may have been intended for use by others than the possessor. Aside from its religious function, the Psalter may have been used for such tasks as teaching and tutelage in reading.[iii]

If the purpose of the Luttrell's Psalter was to administer a long-lasting work to commemorate his family's wealth and affluence then as J. Backhouse states: "he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams". Furthermore, according to Backhouse, the manuscript has survived Luttrell's own family by at least 500 years and within that time has become supremely popular.[iv]

The Psalter is particularly useful in depicting medieval life of the period, the illustrations offering a wide display of medieval life. The depiction of agriculture is particularly prominent and this may be due to Luttrell's land ownership; by the time of his death, Browne claims "Sir Geoffrey owned estates in Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, and the emphasis of the manuscript on rural scenes reflects this great land-holding"[v].

As to the interpretation of the manuscript, much analysis is fairly literal and progressive, for instance - Janet Backhouse describes one of the the most famous illustrations of Luttrell himself within her book 'The Luttrell Psalter", as: "...astride an impossible large horse, both decked out in Medieval attire. In fact the horse is actually more interesting than Sir Geoffrey is. He's anatomically too long, his legs are skeletal, and, perhaps most amusing, the horse is smiling. Here, and elsewhere, it's obvious the artist had a delightful sense of humour. Astride this noble steed, Sir Geoffrey accepts his lance from his wife, and a shield from his daughter in law".[vi]

Though, as previous examples have shown, Camille in particular has made his own rather unfounded inferences.

The Psalter is very useful as a source for many reasons. For example, the Psalter is extremely useful at demonstrating the religious piety of period, especially that within Luttrell's community. Furthermore, it is fair to assume that this piety may have extended to the rest of the contemporary nobility.

Moreover, the Psalter not only shows religious acts in practice, the wording provides an insight in to religious education of the period, that is, if it is to be assumed that the Psalter was used as such.

The Psalter also provides an exceptional examples of medieval artistry with its elaborate marginal depictions.

The marginal depictions exhibit great illustrations medieval agriculture, and have been of great importance for cultural historians in recent years.

Finally, as to the source's usefulness, it is, as of one of the only surviving and well known Psalters of the period - invaluable to historical research, and can be expected to remain so.

However, just because the Psalter is one our most prominent sources, it does not mean that it's undoubted. The historian Michael Camille claims that the source shouldn't be interpreted for its face values, and that instead, many of the drawings have hidden meanings inferred by Camille, and one particularly ridiculous example is listed above.

In conclusion, the Psalter is a very useful source as, if for only one reason, it is one of the only Psalters left in existence. Furthermore, the Psalter has a tremendously rich collection of marginal drawings that have been great help to medievalist cultural historians, and will no doubt continue to be.

As to the source's doubts, Camille's theories are fairly random and unfounded, and little weight should be attached to them.

The Luttrell Psalter is an exceedingly important document and may still have more to tell about the period which it embodies.

  1. 'The Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Book of Hours', The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Dec., 1929), pp. 63-66
  2. The English Historical Review, Vol. 114, No. 458 (Sep., 1999), pp. 955-956
  3. 'The Luttrell Psalter' - Janet Backhouse, Warwick, 1989
  4. 'The Luttrell Psalter' - Janet Backhouse, Warwick, 1989
  5. The Luttrell Psalter, a Facsimile. Commentary by Michelle P. Browne. The British Library. (2006)
  6. 'The Luttrell Psalter' - Janet Backhouse, Warwick, 1989

Bibliography

'The Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Book of Hours', The British Museum Quarterly, Volume 4, No.3 (December 1929)

'The English Historical Review', Volume 114, No.458 (September 1999)

'The Luttrell Psalter', Janet Backhouse, Warwick (1989)

'The Luttrell Psalter, a Facsimile', Michelle P. Browne, The British Library (2006)

'Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England ', Michael Camille, University of Chicago (1998)

'The Luttrell Psalter' - http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/ttpbooks.html (Accessed 22/02/10)

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