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About the Macclesfield Psalter

The Macclesfield Psalter is a work of art of exceptional beauty. Its 250 leaves are painted with exquisite finesse, page after page of precious pigments and gold. It is an outstanding example of medieval art from East Anglia, which boasted the most characteristically English school of painting and illumination during the fourteenth century. East Anglian manuscripts combine devotional imagery and closely observed nature with charming depictions of every-day life and grotesque creations of the wildest imagination. The Macclesfield Psalter displays numerous examples of each and offers invaluable insights into the relationship between some of the most important contemporary manuscripts. Produced around 1330, it is the missing link between the finest East Anglian manuscripts of the period 1300-1330, the Gorleston Psalter (London, British Library, Add. MS 49622) and the Douai Psalter, which was almost destroyed during the Great War (Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 171). While the Gorleston Psalter offered textual and visual models, the Douai Psalter preserved the art of the Macclesfield Psalter illuminator himself. Cambridge is fortunate to have another example of this artist’s work, a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History at the Wren Library, Trinity College.

Trinity College MS.R.7.3 (folio 1 recto)
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Trinity College MS.R.7.3 (folio 34 recto)
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The Gorleston and Douai Psalters were associated with the parish church of St Andrew at Gorleston, near Yarmouth. Their Calendars have the dedication of the church on 8 March written in gold, exceptional treatment reserved only for the most important feasts in the liturgical year, such as Christ’s Nativity or the Resurrection. It has been suggested that the Macclesfield Psalter may have been associated with Gorleston too. One of its full-page miniatures shows St Andrew, but the dedication of St Andrew’s church was not included in its Calendar. St Andrew was one of the most popular saints of the Western Church. The two leaves lost between his image and the Calendar may have contained portraits of other saints to whom the original owner was particularly devoted.
Although the link with Gorleston is uncertain, the manuscript’s origin and intended use in East Anglia are confirmed by its liturgical texts and by the image of St Edmund of Bury, the patron of East Anglia. In addition to the Gorleston and Douai Psalters, there are other manuscripts related to the Macclesfield Psalter, some of which preserve the work of the same artist. They were intended for a wide range of patrons in the diocese of Norwich, from aristocratic families to their chaplains and from the vicars of parish churches to members of monastic houses. Professional scribes and artists could travel far to work on a prestigious commission, but would normally gravitate towards the focal points of commercial, ecclesiastical and intellectual activities that offered continuous employment on a variety of projects. The surviving East Anglian manuscripts share iconography, ornamental vocabulary, scribal, stylistic, and liturgical features which suggest a network of closely collaborating individuals, and a continuity of calligraphic and artistic traditions at a major center that could cater for a most diverse clientele. With its expanding economy, vibrant religious life, and well-documented artistic community, Norwich would have attracted both the talented and the wealthy. The international climate and intellectual vigour of Cambridge would have had a lot to offer to artists and patrons who appreciated the novelty and sophistication found in the Macclesfield Psalter. Further research may uncover more specific evidence to confirm or reject these working hypotheses.

The core element of the Macclesfield Psalter is the biblical book of the 150 Psalms, the central liturgical and devotional text of the Middle Ages. The Psalms received sumptuous decoration in manuscripts that displayed the wealth, status and piety of their owners. In addition to the large miniatures, the Macclesfield Psalter contains the established form of Gothic Psalm illustration – the letters opening major text divisions, framing elaborate scenes, and known as historiated initials. The images within these initials combine various understandings of the text, historical, liturgical and symbolic.

The Tree of Jesse sums up the genealogy of Christ and the story of human salvation at the beginning of Psalm 1, which encapsulates the meaning of the entire Psalter, the relationship between David and Christ, between the Old and New Testaments. The initial to Psalm 26 reflects the historical context in which it was composed - the Anointing of David. Biblical narrative marks the next two major text divisions, Psalms 38 and 51, but the events depicted within the initials also serve as examples of the arrogant speech and brutal force denounced in the Psalm text. At Psalm 38 King Saul despatches Doec the Edomite to kill the priests of Nob. Doec carries out the king’s order at Psalm 51. The angel announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds at the beginning of Psalm 97, whose opening verses were interpreted as a prophecy of the Incarnation and sung at the feast of the Nativity. The Father and the Son share an elaborate throne at the beginning of Psalm 109, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: you shall sit at my right hand’. The pages with Psalms 68, 80, and 101 are now missing from the Macclesfield Psalter, but large initials introduce the other two major text divisions. The prophet Isaiah prays to the Lord at the beginning of the Canticles. Particularly arresting are the images opening the Office of the Dead, the text read before a funeral, as a regular prayer for the dead, and as a constant reminder of mortal human nature. A young man is admonished of his ultimate fate – the final stroke of Death, his wife’s grief, and his only hope, a salvation from God above. However, the activities performed in the margins below are less solemn.

The marginal humour and uninhibited fantasy are the most charming and provocative aspects of the Macclesfield Psalter. Hybrid creatures merge human and animal shapes into nightmarish visions. A fox grabs a credulous cockerell or runs away with the farmer’s wife’s duck. An ape-doctor tricks a bear-patient with a mock diagnosis. An enormous skate fish frightens a man out of his wits. Wielding a sword against a giant snail seems pointless. Rabbits joust, play organs or ride the hounds that are supposed to hunt them. A lady rejects the advances of a suitor with an eloquently projecting sword, or is poised in a choice between the courtly love of a gallant horseman and the beastly lust of a wildman.

The sources of these pictorial parodies, absurdities and obscenities were both verbal and visual. They range from the exempla, or anecdotes used by preachers to spice up their sermons, to religious plays, secular romances, and fabliaux that entertained courtly audiences and townsfolk alike. What was the role of, and the justification for, such images in a book for private prayer? No doubt, they beautified the manuscript and amused its reader. But their function was hardly limited to the effect of slapstick humour. Nor was it ‘marginal’, despite their position on the page. Laughter was not forbidden in the Middle Ages. It was part of every-day life, even at the heart of religious experience, as the exempla, misericords, and plays reveal. This holistic and healthy attitude to life, accommodating the saints and the sinners, and embracing the world in all its shapes and colours, springs from the pages of the Macclesfield Psalter without prejudice or false modesty. The rigid distinction between sacred and profane, high and low, serious and funny, was more foreign to medieval than to post-medieval mentality. The marginal obscenities, perfectly acceptable to the medieval patron of the Macclesfield Psalter, clearly offended the puritanical sentiments of its post-medieval owners. They defaced both horned devils and bare bottoms, equating evil with laughter. In the Middle Ages, laughter could wage war on evil. It could warn against sin through negative example, as its disturbingly realistic depiction implicated the viewer. It could reinforce moral values and social order by exposing and lampooning their violation. It could defeat boredom, distraction and sloth by keeping one alert through the long hours of public prayer or private reading. Indeed, many seemingly random grotesques in the margins of the Macclesfield Psalter draw the reader’s attention to the text of the Psalms by providing a subtle visual pun or pointing emphatically at a phrase or even a syllable. Such ‘word-images’ encouraged a close examination of the text, teased the reader-viewer, stimulated associative thinking, provided visual anchors for the memory, opened short-cuts in finding one’s way around the book, and offered incentives for repeated and continuous reading. The marginalia were – and still are - central to the experience of the Macclesfield Psalter.

The strongest evidence about the importance of the marginal imagery in the Macclsfield Psalter is their artistic execution. They share the precious pigments, advanced techniques, and exquisite refinement of the large images. The illusion of volume, texture, and depth is enhanced by the delicate modelling of fabrics, the figures entwined in dense foliage, and the activities that continue across the page or extend beyond the physical confines of the book and into the viewer’s reality. The rendering of the human body in a classical fashion and with the utmost anatomical precision place the Macclesfield Psalter among the early examples of the ‘Italianate’ trend in fourteenth-century English painting. Its most striking aspect is the unprecedented interest in the inner life of the individual. The attempt to capture fleeting human emotions and the virtuoso depiction of their extremes are the salient features of the Macclesfield Master. His sorrowful, anguished portraits are deeply moving, strikingly modern and sophisticated, truly unforgettable. Yet, the gracefully swaying figures with dainty features and the three-headed monsters with hairy noses are equally characteristic of this versatile artist.

Who was the patron that could afford such a lavishly illuminated book and appreciate both its sophistication and bold humour? A tempting suggestion has been made, but it requires further research. The candidate is John, the eighth Earl of Warenne (1286-1347). He is the likeliest patron of the Gorleston Psalter, which displays his arms prominently and has over 120 of its pages populated by rabbits in their warrens, a visual pun on the owner’s name. The Macclesfield Psalter shows rabbits on no more than five pages and has no galleries of shields to display as a roll-call of the most powerful English aristocratic families. It does, however, contain a portrait of its original owner. A young layman is shown praying at an altar in the border of the Confession prayer. Curiously, a Dominican friar is depicted in a similar fashion beneath Psalm 107. He was probably the owner’s confessor and may have been involved in the production of the manuscript. He would have been quick to admonish against the temptations and sins mentioned in the Confession prayer and visualised in the margins of the Macclesfield Psalter.