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The Macclesfield Psalter (MS 1-2005) is a small but remarkable book, filled with rich and beautiful illustrations as well as strange and fascinating grotesques in the margins. Originally produced for a high-status patron in East Anglia, probably Norwich, between 1330 and 1340, the book was discovered on the shelves in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield of Shirburn Castle in the early 2000s. The impressive visual programme is undoubtedly the work of several accomplished artists and assistants. The psalter is representative of a distinct East-Anglian manuscript tradition, that combines religious scenes illustrating the psalms themselves with depictions of animals and contemporary life as well as fanciful creatures, imaginary hybrids and bawdy or obscene motifs. Many of these marginal depictions may seem strange to modern viewers, but to medieval audiences they functioned as aide-memoires, helping the reader navigate the text, as well as illustrations of the psalms or ideas within them. The visual schema also borrowed motifs from other oral, textual, and visual sources, such as religious plays, secular romances, and fables that entertained courtly audiences and townsfolk alike.

The book contains many signs of its previous owners. Coats of arms have been removed and others inserted, names have been written and erased, and on the opening currently on display, we see an early owners engagement with the depiction of a terrifying subject. In the marginal illustration of St Dunstan using a pair of tongs to pull a devil’s nose, the devil’s face has been scratched away! This is very probably a sign of an intense emotional reaction to the frightening motif. 

The book is exhibited alongside a manuscript cutting that contains signs of devotional wear and tear, and a rare instance of a medieval artist signing their work. In an Italian Nativity scene (MS McClean 201.95) the face of the Virgin Mary has been kissed so frequently that her features have been entirely worn away and had to be drawn again. Similarly, the Final Judgment (MS 330.iii) scene contains a note from the illuminator bearing his own name. A soul being saved for heaven says ‘W[illiam] de Braile[s] made me’. This stunning page also has areas of deliberate damage to the gold leaf backgrounds, l and the gold may have be removed to be used in medical treatments.

These treasures from the medieval manuscript collection will be on display a table case in Gallery 6 from 16 December 2020 to May 2021. Book your general admission ticket here.

Image: Historiated initial Q: Doeg killing the priests of Nob (Psalm 51), Knight fighting a snail, Macclesfield Psalter, MS 1-2005, fol. 76r” © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

 

 

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