Manuscripts

The History of and Information About

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encircling gloom (by courtesy of Sir Sidney Cockerell) is William de Brailes, a little tonsured cleric who appears, tucked away in three miniatures, holding a scroll with: 'IV. de Brailes me fecit'. In one of these, now in Cambridge, the angel of the Last Judgement is seen herding the naked souls with a large and menacing sword. William de Brailes, looking none too sure of his chances, presents his scroll with the air of a man whose passport has expired but who is hoping for the best. Another leaf, also at Cambridge, depicts the Fall of Man .
William de Brailes appears to have worked in Oxford. The villages of Upper and Lower Brailes lie ten miles west of Banbury, and his name is to be found among the illuminators who lived in Cat Street, Oxford, in about 1260. Connoisseurs of esoteric information may care to follow this up in Graham Pollard's Notes for a Directory of Cat Street, Oxford, before 1500 (unpublished manuscript in the Bodleian).
 

    The first manuscripts to have survived in any quantity, and to be still available in private hands on a considerable scale, are the Bibles written - especially in France - during the hundred years following 1175. Europe had settled down, to some extent, after the Dark Ages, and the strong hand of Philip Augustus (1180-1223) had effected a considerable degree of security in France, enabling the arts of peace to flourish and allowing Paris to assume that position as the intellectual capital of Europe which she has so often held since. With the reign of Saint-Louis (122670) the Middle Ages reached the apogee of artistic achievement and spiritual fervour. Intellectual leadership was now moving from the monasteries to the universities where the friars, and especially the Dominicans, played a great part. In due course the monks, feeling rather left out, moved into the universities too.
    It was the enthusiasm of Louis himself that firmly established Paris as the spiritual power-house of Christendom. Geoffroi de Beaulieu tells us that, while abroad on the crusades, the King learned of a great Saracen ruler who had formed what virtually amounted to a national library. Shamed by this spectacle of spiritual and intellectual superiority on the part of an infidel, Louis determined to set matters right and on his return to Paris scoured all the abbeys in his realm for important texts, and established schools of scribes to multiply them. His private library was thrown open to all savants and religieux, and he gathered an important theological library in the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle, remarking that a church without books was like an army without weapons. All this created a far greater demand for books than had ever existed before, but whereas most previous manuscripts had been written in monasteries, production now passed mainly to commercial workshops, which were to be found near the universities in Paris and elsewhere. However a few really superb manuscripts were still produced in monasteries.
    Robertus de Bello was Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, from 1224 to 1253 and his Bible  was probably written there. The Book of Genesis opens with a long initial I, which extends the full length of the page and contains a series of roundels depicting the Days of Creation. The opening words, IN PRINCIPIO CREAVIT DEUS, are embodied in the illumination, while there are six more roundels, with scenes from Genesis, at the foot of the page.
    In addition to the splendid books treasured by wealthy institutions and private patrons, an immense quantity of quite humble Bibles poured from the workshops. These were modest in size, more sparsely illuminated and generally written in a script which, though tiny, was very neat and regular. These were compact books, fitting easily into the wallets of itinerant preachers to provide the texts for those sermons that were to have so significant an influence on European civilization.
Probably the favourite book, before the appearance of the Breviary and the Book of Hours, was the Psalter - and some of the richest were produced by the so-called East Anglian School. I use this phrase because no better definition has received general acceptance. It has been employed in the past because many of the most important examples are connected with Norfolk, the Gorleston, Ramsey, St Omer and Ormesby Psalters, among others. Yet even its firmest advocates are forced to extend East Anglia by the inclusion of Peterborough, and it seems probable, now, that some of the major Psalters were produced in other parts of the country. East Anglia was then a rich and flourishing centre of agriculture and the wool trade; Norwich was the second largest city in England, while populous towns existed and great churches were built in places where there are now only a few cottages.
   These Psalters were planned on a large scale and the spacious margins gave full opportunity to the riotous imagination of the illuminators. In addition to religious pictures there were fabulous beasts and vigorous scenes from daily life: bear-baiting, juggling, ploughing, sowing, harrowing, harvesting, cooking and feasting they "were a sort of fourteenth-century illustrated magazine, to be idly leafed through when wet weather confined ladies to castle or manor.
One of the most famous is the Luttrell Psalter, whose pictures have become especially well known over the last eighty or so years with the spread of interest in the history of everyday life. In Figures 11 and 12 the artist has depicted a coach for four queens - a sort of ancestor of the 'royal train'. A small chest (which may well be a tool-box) hangs underneath, and the horses have spiked shoes, like athletes. There is some doubt as to whether Sir Geoffrey Luttrell actually received the manuscript, for the decoration was not entirely completed and certain portions are by a much inferior hand.
    Queen Mary's Psalter derives its name from the action of a watchful customs officer who prevented its export and, seizing it, presented it to Queen Mary I in 1553. This manuscript, executed during the first quarter of the fourteenth century, has been described by Eric Miller as the 'central manuscript of the East Anglian group'. It is one of the most fully illustrated of manuscripts, with hundreds of miniatures. Old Testament scenes are generally two to a page, but with the New Testament there is generally a large miniature at the top of the page, then a few lines of text followed by grotesques in the lower margin. In all there are tinted drawings of religious and secular subjects in the lower margins of 464 pages. All of this appears to be the work of one artist of supreme ability.
Throughout the ages linear draughtsmanship has been the foremost feature of English art, and here the exquisite outline drawing has been touched in, but only touched, by delicate, translucent colour washes that leave the drawing clear.
    To compare the Winchester Bible with Queen Mary's Psalter (the two consummate examples of English Romanesque and English Gothic art) is not merely to compare two different styles of drawing; it is to apprehend two very different approaches to life. The great and severe strength of the Winchester Bible is that of a man who has looked with clear, unflinching eyes into the depths of the human tragedy, yet kept his faith. The exquisite grace of Queen Mary's Psalter represents the beauty of the world as it might be, were it governed by Christian love.
   

A book which, in its time, must have been among the most beautiful of English manuscripts was the Missal written during the late fourteenth century for the Carmelites of Whitefriars, London. Certain portions of this already imperfect book came into the possession of Philip Augustus Hanrott, an early nineteenth-century collector. His children, believe it or not, cut up the Missal to make scrapbooks, sticking in favourite pictures and spelling out their own names with a series of illuminated initials. A title-page was spelled out with further fragments: INITIAL LETTERS. The younger children made further scrapbooks from the 'leftovers', and the text and humbler fragments of decoration were thrown away.
At the Hanrott sale in 1833 the major scrapbooks were acquired by Sir William Tite, and soon after his death in 1873 they passed to the British Museum. Here the scrapbooks remained intact, greatly admired and often exhibited until, in 1933, an American scholar, Margaret Rickert, conceived the idea of reconstructing the Missal from the surviving fragments. The solution of this colossal jigsaw puzzle took about five years, most of the clues coming from such fragments of text as could be read on the backs of the scraps.
    The Reconstructed Carmelite Missal now consists of three very large volumes measuring 28.5 by 22.5 inches. The great size of the original book, so inconvenient in a modern private library, may have contributed to its dismemberment.
    One of the many illustrations of the Carmelite Missal is reproduced here. The initial T  comes from the opening of the service of dedication for a new church: Terribtlis est locus iste ('This is a fearsome place: it is the house of God, the Gate of Heaven'). Before entering the church the bishop preceded by a religious procession and followed by the wealthy lay patrons who have paid for the building walks round it three times. He stops at the main door on each circuit, knocking with his crozier and saying, 'Aperite portas principes vestras.' In the miniature the bishop is sprinkling the church with holy water, an act that drives out the devil, who is seen leaving, in haste, by the roof.
    In the fourteenth century many scribes were kept busy producing Psalters, but during the remaining years of the Middle Ages their patrons demanded illuminated copies of the horae, or Hours of the Virgin. This was not a church service book but a manual of private devotions, a shortened version of the Breviary. A large proportion of Horae, it must be stressed, were produced for laymen and, perhaps more often, laywomen. They contained a calendar of saints' and feast days, gospel lessons, certain hours or services, the penitential psalms, prayers for the dead and so on. Almost all these books must have been produced in commercial 'workshops, the quality and scale of the illumination varying according to the purse of the patron. At the top of the scale these were royal and princely persons such as John, Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry v and Regent of France - while more humble examples were written for small merchants or craftsmen.
    The more sumptuous books were regarded as precious works of art rather than as books to be read and have generally survived in fine condition. The lesser ones sometimes show great signs of use, like any other prayer-book, and the majority must have been read out of existence. The general run became rather stereotyped with six, twelve or twenty-four full-page miniatures, mostly of the same subjects, which, in the more mediocre books, were hackneyed copies of copies of copies. The best had miniatures by some of the finest artists of the period, Van Eyck, Jean Fouquet, Perugino and certain masters who (although they can be identified by their style) are unknown by name.

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