Category Archives: Psalms

The Luttrell Psalter

51DzJrfmOEL._SS500_[1]Michelle P. Brown. (2006). The World of the Luttrell Psalter. The British Library.  96 pgs, 90 color photos. 

“D(omi)n/(u)s Galfridus louterell me fieri fecit”

“Sir Geoffrey Luttrell had me made”

This inscription makes the Luttrell Psalter nearly unique. Psalters are usually carry inscrptions recording that it was made under the patronage of a bishop, abbot or royalty, or is inscribed by its clerical author. This Psalter was made under the patronage (and perhaps direction) of a local Lord, a knight. It was made by at least five different artists working over a period of years and in close association with the Luttrell family. 

The contents include a calendar, a Gallican Psalter divided into three 50 psalm divisions (Irish style?), Canticles, a Litany, five collects, and the Office of the Dead (Sarem) in 309 folios. The calendar includes St Edmund, king & martyr, St Thomas Becket (2), St Augustine, St Wilfrid of York, St Hugh of Lincoln, Guthlac, Botuph, Frideswide, and Ordination of Pope Gregory. For book with so much East Anglian influence, the absence of St Æthelthryth (Etheldreda/Audrey) is puzzling. Brown mentions the obits of several later owners of the book, but she doesn’t mention records of the Luttrell family. This, along with the less skilled finishing off of the book, would support her belief that the manuscript was incomplete when Sir Geoffrey died on 23 May 1345, but if it was completed by his son, then why wasn’t his name recorded as an obit? Brown notes that this book would have been one of Geoffrey Luttrell’s many efforts to keep his memory alive and provide for his soul. While his chantry chapel in St Andrew’s church in Irnham, part of his primary Manoral estate, survives, the psalter is perhaps the best-preserved memorial to the Luttrell family. Most of his other embellishments in St Andrew’s church were destroyed during the Reformation.

To this day the graves of the Luttrell family remain in St Andrew’s church. Sir Geoffrey and his wife Agnes are buried in the chantry chapel, where the Easter sculpture of the open tomb was originally located, and the brass plaque denoting his son Sir Andrew Luttrell (in armor) in the main church floor. Brown shows us how much we can learn about the Luttrell family from the illustrations in the book. She notes that Sir Andrew may have had rather negative feelings about his father’s extravagant memorial plans. Sir Andrew died at age 77 after an active military life, having his first child in his old age by his second wife. In Sir Andrew’s will he ordered a subdued memorial service, nothing like his father’s elaborate provisions. Brown notes that Sir Andrew had lived through the Black Death and with his active military life may have made him view death with less piety than his father. He was deliberately not buried in the chapel with his parents but out in the nave with the congregation. The Great Famine, the Black Death and peasant’s revolt, and a long barren first marriage punctuated Sir Andrew’s life. Sir Andrew’s grave out among the people makes him one of them.

The Luttrell Psalter is famous for its depictions of everyday life. Sir Geoffrey was proud of his estates and there are a few innovations like a watermill that are known to be on Luttrell estates which are carefully depicted in the Psalter. The Luttrell family is depicted in full along with their servants in a banquet scene. Sir Geoffrey was also a Lancasterian supporter, and this is depicted in discrete ways. 



250px-LuttrellPsalterFol202vGeoffLutrellMounted[1]Psalm 109 (110) illustration scheme is particularly striking – ‘The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies as your footstool’. This psalm is prefaced by a large illustration of Sir Geoffrey (or his son Sir Andrew?) in his armor aboard his warhorse being handed his helmet by his wife and his shield by his daughter-in-law. Heraldry of the Luttrells and his wife and daughter-in-law are prominent, signifying the close relationship between the three families. Brown interprets the illuminated initial opening the psalm as King Edward enthroned next to Christ, and Sir Geoffrey (or his son) answering his king’s call – ‘your troops will be willing on the day of battle. Arrayed in holy majesty, from the womb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your youth.’

There are biblical and saintly illustrations scattered throughout the book. There are illustrations of the Virgin and Child, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion. Although it lacks an Hours of Mary, Brown notes that there are illustrations of her life scattered about. The martyrdoms of Thomas Becket, St Andrew the Apostle, and Thomas of Lancaster (who was being promoted for sainthood at the time) were all included.  Note the family’s endowed parish church was dedicated to St Andrew, also reflected in the use of the name Andrew in several Luttrell generations. The Luttrell Psalter is also known for its grotesques that are supposed to scare but look more fanciful to me. Some remind me of something out of Alice in Wonderland. 

Michelle P. Brown, former Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts of The British Library, does a good job of fleshing out the world of the Luttrell Psalter. She has done an excellent job of showing how the Luttrell family shaped their Psalter in ways that were innovative for the laity at the time. She reminds us how important is to know the context of a manuscript!

Here is the  Turning pages version of the Luttrell Psalter at The British Museum (broadband only).

Cologne MS 106: Book of Hildebald

I have written a few times about The Book of Hildebald, also known as Cologne MS 106 (here and here). As many of you know by now, the archive in Cologne Germany collapsed this week to a level equal to intentional destruction (see here for more information). Hopefully archivists around the world are taking a second look at their archive buildings and getting a little of these economic stimulus packages to ensure that this never happens again.

Given that the manuscript is labeled Cologne MS 106, I have to assume that it was in the archive unless it was on-loan elsewhere. Keep an eye out for its mention as they begin shifting through the rubble. I quick online search hasn’t turned up any information on where it was stored.

And then there were two…

So why is the Book of Hildebald important? The book, written during the tenure of Bishop Hildebald of Cologne (794-819), contains most of the works that Alcuin collected for Bishop Arno of Salzburg before 805, including several of Bede’s works. It includes one of only three early copies of Bede’s Abbreviated Psalter. If Cologne MS 106 has indeed been lost, it will severely hurt future studies of Bede’s psalter. It also included an early copy of Bede’s hymn on St Æthelthryth and 12 of his other metrical hymns. I have hypothesized before that this manuscript contained a portion of Bede’s lost Book of Hymns. If that it true, it may have been one of a kind.

The best source I know of on the manuscript is: Leslie Webber Jones. (1929) “Cologne MS.106: A Book of Hildebald” Speculum 4(1): 27-61.

Psalm 137: Dashing Little Ones

“Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom, who said, “Down with it! down with it!” even to the ground!”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137, BCP 792)

This last line is perhaps the most objectionable line in the psalter to modern Christians. Our lectionary leaves out these last three lines. I was reading a chapter by a Jewish poet last week and she discussed this psalm from the point of view of a Jewish non-violence activist. She used the King James version of the psalm and reading it over, I think the King James version makes the sentiment more clear and the tone is quite different.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou has served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth they little ones against stones. (Ps. 136, King James version)

First the King James version makes it clear that it  is the children of Edom, not the children of Babylon, who are cursed. It more clearly identifies the children of Edom as those upon whom the curse falls. Further, the first reference to the children of Edom clearly refers adults since only adults will be jeering a foreign army on to destroy Jerusalem. It endorses that their worst punishment is the destruction of their little ones. Edom is the daughter of Babylon, perhaps a minor ally of the Babylonians. Edomities were a tributary people of Israel, who the Jews said descended from Esau  son of Isaac, therefore also descendants of Abraham. Edom today is in southern Israel, Jordan and perhaps part of the Siani. Basically it looks like Negav area of southern Israel but their capital was at Petra, currently in Jordan.

They were first defeated by King Saul and held tributary by the House of David. They rebelled against Israel several times ultimately siding with Nebachadnezzar II of Babylon whose destruction of Jerusalem triggers this psalm.  Edom is allowed to extend its territory into Hebron where they remain for centuries.  The exiles are vowing revenge against Edom, a people they had frequently defeated in the past, rather than the great power of Babylon. As a tributary people and descendants of Abraham,  Israel must have expected them to stand with the Jews against Babylon/Perisans so there is a betrayal angle here as well. The first line of the psalm that places it in their Babylonian exile caused me to jump to the unwarrented conclusion that Babylon was being cursed. Recall that they will eventually see the Babylonian king Cyrus as a kind of Messiah for allowing them to return and supporting the rebuilding of the temple.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the King James version states more clearly that this is kind for kind destruction, an eye for an eye, a child for a child. Give them what they gave us! While Christians can never support such revenge, it does take an eye for an eye to its fullest extent. It also reminds us that the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem would not have occurred without much blood shed and many innocent little ones killed, as always happens in war. How many innocent little ones die in violence around the world today? How much of that violence is done in retaliation for violence done their innocent ones? How many conflicts in the world today see children as an acceptable target? The poet I was reading last week, Alicia Ostriker, quoted Osama bin Laden’s first message to the Islamic world after 9/11: “They champion falsehood, support the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child. May God mete them the punishment they deserve.”

In response to the last line of this psalm , “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth they little ones against stones.” Ostriker writes:

And there we have it, human history, the justification of every blood feud, every literal dashing of children’s heads against walls by conquering armies, guerrilla armies, occupying forces, terrorist suicide bombers, Arab and Jew, Serb and Bosnian, Hutu and Tutsi, Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics… The righteous, with God on their aide, joyously washing their feet in the blood of the wicked. The righteous confident that they, and they alone, know God’s wishes, and are the only ones pure enough to carry out God’s will. …

The psalms are the prototype in English of devotional poetry and possibly lyric poetry in general. Let nobody say that poetry makes nothing happen. Let nobody say that poetry cannot or should not be political. We have the model before us. (p. 28-29)


Alicia Ostriker, “Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal Interlude” in Poets on the Psalms, ed. Lynn Domina. Trinity University Press, 2008

Lectionary edits

I’ve been working on my Lenten reflection for my parish collection. The psalm I’m working on is one where they cut out a couple verses because they have objectionable curses. I can’t help wondering why they bother to edit out a couple verses from the daily office lectionary. Its not as though the daily office is reprinted in a service leaflet or booklet where the offending verses could actually be cut out. You say the daily office with the BCP and/or the bible.  If I get a direction to cut out eight verses out of 38 then I’m going to be curious at what is being cut out and look for those verses especially. Besides, like it or not, the curses are part the psalms. The curses are difficult for Christians to understand as being part of scripture but if they were left in the lectionary it would give priests sermon topics. It would be a teaching moment.  Its interesting how some priests completely ignore the pslams in their sermons, while others use them frequently.

Preparing for Lent

Here it is Epiphany and yet at my parish we are getting ready for Lent. For at least the last five years my parish has put together a booklet of Lenten reflections or meditations based on the daily office for every day of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, written by members of the parish. It takes a considerable effort to organize, recruit authors, have people across the parish write, collect the contributions, edit and produce the booklet in time to distribute it before Ash Wednesday. I think its well worth it. It is fascinating to see what 47 people across the parish will write. Many parishioners will follow the office for Lent, even if they usually don’t, to read the reflections of their church family. This year we decided to write on the psalms. Each person will have their choice of the two to four psalms assigned to the (morning or evening) office for their day.  The psalms will be a challenge but I am eager to read the results.

So here is an offer for you, if you would like a copy of our Lenten reflections on the psalms email me at hefenfelth(at) with your name and address and I will try to send you  a copy around Ash Wednesday (while supplies last).

If your parish has any unusual preparations for Lent, I’d like to hear from you in the comments section below!