Baudouin Van den Abeele

title.none: Backhouse, Medieval Birds (Baudouin Van den Abeele )

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.034 02.09.34

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Baudouin Van den Abeele , Universiti catholique de Louvain,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Backhouse, Janet. Medieval Birds in the Sherborne Missal. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Pp. 64. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8020-8434-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.34

Backhouse, Janet. Medieval Birds in the Sherborne Missal. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Pp. 64. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8020-8434-6.

Reviewed by:

Baudouin Van den Abeele
Universiti catholique de Louvain

In 1998, the British Library succeeded in making a major acquisition: the famous Sherborne Missal, property of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, and deposited on loan at the BL since 1983, was purchased, thanks to the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. It is now Additional ms. 74236. Produced for the Benedictine abbey of Sherborne in Dorset, between 1399 and 1407, this very large codex (535 by 380 mm) is the most spectacular liturgical MS copied in England during the late Middle Ages. The illumination is stupendous: throughout the pages, the codex boasts with rich and refined borders occupied by plants, animals, hybrids, etc. Historiated initials and framed pictures show protagonists, architectural ornaments, heraldic arms, etc. One meets repeatedly with portraits of the abbot responsible for its creation, Robert Brunyng, and of the contemporary bishop of Salisbury, Richard Mitford (who died in 1407). Both the scribe and the principal illuminator are also named and portrayed at several places: the Benedictine monk John Was copied the book and the Dominican illuminator John Siferwas was the guiding artist.

Since its acquisition in 1998, the Missal has been the subject of a few publications: a richly illustrated study by Janet Backhouse (The Sherborne Missal [London, 1999]) and a CD-Rom in the series Turning the Pages, with Michelle P. Brown's essay "Creating a National Treasure" (The Sherborne Missal CD Rom [London, 2002]).

The book reviewed here is concerned with a very particular feature of the MS, its series of marginal bird portraits. Birds are, of course, not an unusual subject in MS illumination, and some studies have been devoted to this repertoire, such as the Brunsdon Yapp's nicely- illustrated Birds in Medieval Manuscripts (London, 1981). However, the case of the Sherborne Missal is singular, for three reasons. First of all, one can speak of a thorough cycle of bird portraits: from page 363 to 393, a series of 48 birds are painted individually, with no repetition of motives. Secondly, most of them are accompanied by a contemporary caption written in middle English, identifying the bird with great detail: e.g., the male house sparrow on page 377 is labelled a sparwe cok. Finally, these birds are not the usual tiny miniatures one meets in marginalia, but large-format portraits, measuring 7 to 12 cm, which has allowed a very careful rendering of the shape and the colours of the different birds. These 48 portraits form a unique gallery, and each one is reproduced in colour in this very handsome booklet. Backhouse rapidly presents the manuscript and its history, comments on the contents of the Missal and the placing of the birds, analyses the English birdnames written beside 41 birds and treats in some detail the portrayal of the birds. In 1982, Yapp had devoted an article to these birds in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. The subject is adequately treated here by Backhouse, and the text is most accessible for non-specialists.

From the analysis of the species portrayed in the Missal, a few interesting observations can be drawn. Most of the birds are either small songbirds or species associated with rivers, wetlands and the seashore. The majority of them would have been present in Dorset, and they are evidently real birds, not creatures of imagination. One notices the absence of the typical birds of the Bestiaries, such as the pelican in its piety, the eagle flying towards the sun, the caladrius and its apotropaic presence. Also noticeable is the absence of the birds of prey, which is quite surprising in consideration of their frequent appearance in all kinds of medieval manuscripts. As to the species retained, there are a few very original choices, such as the gannet (p. 369), the snipe (p. 373) or the splendidly-painted shrike (p. 367), which is labelled a Waryghanger, explained by reference to local names in various parts of England. Quite noticeable also is the fact that some species are represented in both male and female forms, each one being recognizeable. As to the question of the possible sources, Backhouse briefly alludes to some cases of interest, most noticeably the Pepysian Sketchbook preserved in Cambridge, Magdalen College, nearly contemporary. But on the whole, the artist must have achieved a first-hand work in this series of bird portraits, and one cannot but be grateful to Backhouse for offering a full reproduction and a very accurate commentary of this peculiar iconographic cycle. The Sherborne Missal plainly deserves to be better known by a large public, and this study will no doubt contribute to its popularity.