The Peterborough Psalter, now in Brussels at the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique (or Koninklijke Bibliotheek) under the shelf mark ms. 9961-62 (was 1533), is a lavish English manuscript written and illuminated, circa 1300-1318, either in London or Norwich.
The manuscript comprises 141 sheets of fine parchment, measuring 30 x 19.5 cm (approx. 11.8 x 7.7”). The text is written in littera gothica textualis and generally organized in two columns. Each page has one column entirely written with blue ink, while the other is made of gold leaf. Some pages are entirely written either in gold or blue.
The Peterborough Psalter in Brussels is a richly illuminated manuscript: more than a hundred scenes are depicted in 26 fully illuminated pages, in addition to other miniatures, decorations and many historiated initials of striking beauty.
The manuscript is considered the most beautiful of a group known as the Fenland manuscripts.
The Peterborough Psalter and the group of Fenland manuscripts
Lucy Freeman Sandler first described and clearly isolated the group of so-called Fenland manuscript in her book “The Peterborough Psalter in Brussels & other Fenland manuscripts” (London: Harvey Miller - New York Graphic Society, 1974).
The group comprises five psalters, two apocalypses and fragments from a sixth psalter:
- the Peterborough Psalter (Brussels, Royal Library, ms. 9961-62)
- the Ramsey Psalter (New York, Morgan Library & Museum, M.302)
- the Ramsey Psalter (Lavanttal, Benediktinerstift St. Paul, Cod. 58/1)
- the Gough Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Gough liturg. 8)
- the Barlow Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Barlow 22)
- the fragments (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce b. 4 f. 4a, d; d.19 f. 3, a, b, c)
- the Canonici Apocalypse (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 62)
- the Crowland Apocalypse (Cambridge, Magdalene College, Ms. F.4.5)
The Fenland manuscripts are grouped together on the basis of stylistic and iconographic features, and are separated from the East Anglian manuscripts because of a number of reasons: among the others, while the East Anglian group was mostly commissioned and owned by laymen, the Peterborough Psalter in Brussels and the other Fenland manuscripts were associated with Benedictine establishments.
A, B, C: three masters for the Peterborough Psalter
The work of three separated artists is clearly identifiable in the Petersborough Psalter. Sandler calls them Master A (working with an assistant), Master B, and Master C:
- Master A is considered responsible for the general layout of the manuscript and the first series of scenes;
- Master B painted the largest part of the manuscript;
- Master C is responsible for the last two sections before the Canticles.
The same masters’ style is recognizable in other manuscripts of the Fenland group: for example, Master B probably carried out the Ramsey Psalter while Master C painted the Gough Psalter, together with another artist stylistically similar to the Master B.
The lavish iconography of the Peterborough Psalter
The Psalter now in Brussels features an impressive amount of illuminated parts:
- 12 calendar pages (1 recto - 6 verso)
- 26 full-page miniatures, each containing 4 scenes
- 5 smaller scenes surrounded by text
- 116 scenes from the Old and New Testaments
- 35 historiated initials
- many decorations and some drolleries along the text
Such richness gives the status of most beautiful manuscript among the Fenland group to the Peterborough Psalter. The layout and order of the scenes, though, is somehow unordered: a hypothesis for this is that the iconography is based on a model book whose pages became disordered.
From Abbot Geoffrey of Crowland to the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique
Geoffrey of Crowland abbot of Peterborough (1299-1321) is almost certainly the patron who commisioned the Peterborough Psalter. After him, the manuscript was in the possession of many individuals and libraries, eventually becoming part of the collection of the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.
Among other people, the manuscript was owned by Pope John XXII (1244-1334); Clemence of Hungary, queen of France (1293-1328); Philip VI of Valois (1293-1350); the Library of the Louvre; Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy (1396-1467); the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris; the Burgundian Library in Brussels, and finally the Bibliothèque royale de Belgique.
Red leather with gold and dry debossing.