psalters

Takamiya MS 47: Psalter

Takamiya MS 47. Psalter. England, late fifteenth century.

The Book of Psalms stood at the heart of monastic and religious life in the Middle Ages. Upon entering a religious order, boys would learn the psalms as an exercise in Latin, and monks were expected to have memorized all one hundred and fifty and to recite them regularly.

The psalms were not only a monastic staple, however. It was common in the medieval period for individual books of the Bible to enjoy independent circulation, and no biblical book circulated more among the laity than the psalms. In the Anglo-Saxon period, King Alfred considered the psalter—as a book containing just the psalms was called — one of the books “most needful for men to know.”

A primary object of private reading and devotion throughout the Middle Ages, psalters often also contained calendars marked with saints’ days, separate prayers and canticles, and sometimes even illustrations of the Psalms, which, like the texts themselves, could be interpreted literally or allegorically.

In Takamiya MS 47, a psalter from the late fifteenth century, the elegant Gothic script is punctuated by alternating red and blue initials that mark verse divisions within each psalm. The high quality of the script as well as the quantity of unused parchment framing the text indicate that this book was produced at considerable expense.