Sunday, October 2, 2016

Has St. Thomas Becket's Personal Copy of the Psalms Been Found?

Thomas Caldwell, St. Thomas Becket
Window assembled using rescued medieval
and modern stained glass
English, c. 1900
Canterbury, Cathedral
In checking one of the blog's I follow, Stephanie Mann's blog on the English Reformation, I found the following new post.

Supremacy and Survival: The English Reformation: St. Thomas a Becket's Psalter: According to this story in The Guardian , St. Thomas a Becket's Psalter (the Book of Psalms, which are used in the Divine Office) ma...

Checking further, I found the articles to which she refers and also was able to go to the Parker Library site to see what the book actually looks like.  What I found was a plain and somewhat battered book, shorn of the decorative cover that once embellished it.  This is not surprising as very few of these jeweled covers of precious metal still survive, having been all too easy prey for appropriation of the jewels and melting down of the metal.



Jeweled Front Cover of the Lindau Gospels
Swiss (St. Gall), c. 880
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1









The few that do survive suggest the splendor that this book may once have had.  One survivor from the ninth century is the bejeweled cover of the Lindau Gospels, now at the Morgan Library in New York.












This particular psalter is not one of the highly decorated, richly illuminated books that feature predominantly in my usual posts.  This is a working psalter.
The Beatus Vir
Opening page of Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 1v
Facing Page with Opening of the Psalm "Beatus Vir"
from Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 2r


It boasts only three, fairly simple pictures.  The decorative initials are simply larger capital letters in colors, not the highly decorated examples one frequently sees. The psalms are copied in an easily readable script and, on a few pages, there are explanations, called "glosses" written in a different hand between lines.

Psalm 52, Opening Words
from Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 40r
Psalm 102, Opening Words
from Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 81v



























Typical Page
from Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 107v
Glossed Page
from Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 3r


Probably the most interesting page is the one towards the back, which says, in a 16th century hand:

Page with list of male (left) and female (right) saints
and the note regarding the history of the book
from Psalter
Franco-British, 10th Century
Cambridge, Parker Library
MS 411, fol. 140v
"Hoc psalterium laminis argenteis deauratis et gemmis ornatum, quondam fuit .N. Cantuar. Archiepiscopi, tandem venit in manus Thomae Becket quondam Cant. archiepiscopi quod testatum est in veteri scripto."

("An old writing says that this psalter had been decorated with plates of gilded silver, and jewels.  It was at Canterbury. And at last came into the hands of Thomas Becket of Canterbury. the archbishop." (my translation)


It is this inscription, backed up by a 14th century inventory of the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, that suggests that this is the book from which St. Thomas may have been praying Vespers when he was attacked and murdered in the Cathedral.

It is highly possible that this may be the case, for, if this rather ordinary copy of the Psalter, is indeed the bejeweled book that was displayed at the shrine as a relic of St. Thomas' martyrdom its very plainness suggests that it is the book that belonged to the archbishop.  For, it is highly likely that a "manufactured" relic of St. Thomas' Psalter would have been a deluxe edition, with many gilded images, chosen to honor his status as saint, instead of just a few simple ones.  This looks more like the everyday personal copy of an individual.  What is fascinating, but cannot be proved without some forensic checking, is whether this book was in his hand as he died and whether some of the wiped out stains or the cut off corner and edges toward the back show any traces of his blood.

© M. Duffy, 2016  

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