Friday, 31 May 2013

A fourteenth-century manuscript with an Anglo Saxon suprise

Conservative. Inexpensive. Modestly decorated. These are three terms that pop-up frequently in discussions of the late Saxon and Anglo-Norman manuscripts produced at Worcester.  This week your blogger considers how we read and understand a medieval manuscript that is sparsely illuminated or even undecorated.

If you enjoy the glitz and the glamour of a beautiful illuminated manuscript then it’s true, Worcester was producing some plain looking manuscripts from the late tenth-century to the middle of the twelfth-century. Let's take as an example the Expositio libri comitis: a manuscript which contains writings by Smaragdus (a Benedictine monk from the Diocese of Verdun).

Photograph, Exposito libri comitis. Photograph by Mr Christopher Guy, Worcester Cathedral Archaeologist. Reproduced by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

The scribe’s name has been identified from another Worcester book , now held at the British Library, as Sistan. Sistan exemplifies a typical scribe employed by Worcester at the end of the tenth-century. The script he uses is called Caroline miniscule. This script developed from the earlier Saxon Insular miniscule, and retained some if its features (such as wedge shaped ascenders). Sistan’s script is quite easy to read, this is because it is quite bold or heavy handed. Yet the quality of Sistan’s work is far from perfect, and there is a great deal of variation in the quality of his hand between manuscripts and even within the same manuscript.

In the Exposito libri comitis, for example, Sistan appears to have ruled lines but occasionally gone a bit wonky when copying; there are even instances within this manuscript where he seems to have written across the lines rather than on them. In the close-up below, you can see that he’s gone over the line ruled in the right-hand margin.
Photograph, Exposito Libri Comitis. Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Sistan aside, the Exposito libri comitis fails to leave onlookers gobsmacked primarily because it is undecorated. Academics and medieval enthusiasts alike emphasize decoration as an important aspect to medieval book production. Rightly so, manuscripts should always be considered the product of a collaborative project between patrons, scribes, decorators and binders. The sheer cost of manuscript decoration alone in the middle ages seems evidence enough that patrons considered visual appearance (letters, colours, pictures) as important as the text itself.

In the case of an undecorated text, like the Exposito libri comitis, should we therefore assume that the text was considered unimportant or was cheaply produced?

That the Exposito libri comitis is undecorated actually tells us some important information about the contact Worcester had with other centres of manuscript production (English and continental) during this period. Richard Gameson, who writes an excellent chapter on Worcester’s book production in St. Oswald of Worcester: Life and Influence (London: Leicester University Press, 1996), stresses that during the episcopate of St. Oswald (961-92) Fleury was probably Worcester’s main source for exemplars (“standard” versions of the texts that the scribe copied from). Gameson describes Fleury as “a centre of reform and scholarship” and “an important potential source of text and script models”. Fleury was not, however, renowned for its illumination and this might explain the blandness or sparseness of decoration in late Saxon and early Norman manuscripts produced at Worcester, such as the Exposito libri comitis.
The Exposito libri comitis being devoid of any artistic stamp is, however, an extreme example of the late Saxon manuscripts produced at Worcester. Many other Worcester manuscripts were illuminated, particularly as we move towards the Anglo-Norman period. Illumination in Worcester manuscripts was nevertheless sparse in comparison to texts decorated in the scriptoriums of Canterbury and Winchester.
To end, I'd like to talk briefly on some of the decoration of Anglo-Norman manuscripts at Worcester. A psalter with commentary, which dates from around 1200, is a good example of Anglo-Norman decoration at Worcester. The psalter was decorated in two stages. Stage one was undertaken at the time of the psalter’s writing, and it involved the adding of initials in red, green and blue (see below).
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
It was not until thirty years later, however, that stage two of decoration began. In the second stage of decorationthe ‘Beatus’ initial, which marks the beginning of the text, was added as well two other initials (‘X’ and ‘H’) gilded in gold. The second stage would have been far more costly than the first given the large size of these initials and the price of the precious metal. Both stages are beautiful in their own right but all-in-all the psalter presents the reader with a hodge-podge of decorated initials. The two very distinct decorative styles do not visually gel well together.
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
One interesting decorative feature of the psalter and other manuscripts produced at Worcester in this period, are these decorated initials (like the 'M' pictured below) with curious little foliate tails. Some are very plain whilst others include intricate lattice work.
Photograph, Psalter (1200). Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Next Friday, I’ll talk a little more about these and ask whether one or more Worcester artist was employed them, and explore whether they present a unique Worcester style of decoration.

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