contributor.author: Roger S. Wieck

title.none: Backhouse, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter (Roger S. Wieck)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.006 02.09.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Roger S. Wieck, Pierpont Morgan Library, rwieck@morganlibrary.org

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Backhouse, Janet. Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and The British Library, 2000. Pp. 64. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8020-8399-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.06

Backhouse, Janet. Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and The British Library, 2000. Pp. 64. $19.95. ISBN: 0-8020-8399-4.

Reviewed by:

Roger S. Wieck
Pierpont Morgan Library
rwieck@morganlibrary.org

I have never seen the Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library, Additional MS 42130) except as a tourist, peering at a single opening for a minute or two when the book was displayed with other manuscript treasures in the British Museum. I mention this because everything I have learned about this remarkable book comes from secondary sources; reading the latest book whetted my appetite, so I decided to check them all out.

Commissioned towards the end of his life by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (+ 1345), the manuscript is a large (14 x 9 5/8 inches [360 x 245 mm]) and impressive Psalter with ten historiated initials marking the traditional textual divisions. It is the nontraditional decoration, however, that makes the book so striking: a large miniature of Sir Geoffrey as a mounted knight, tended by his wife and daughter-in-law, and a slew of memorable marginalia. The ^îfamily portrait^ï miniature (reproduced as early as 1794 in John Carter^ñs Ancient Sculpture and Painting) shows Sir Geoffrey being handed his helmet, spear, and shield by his wife and his son^ñs wife. The miniature is almost Disneyesque in its apparent ability to conjure up so many notions that are popularly thought of as characteristically ^îmedieval^ï: the noble knight, long wars, impractical armor, fanciful heraldry, fancy dresses, and spousal fidelity under duress. The multitudinous marginalia are famous for monsters (anthropomorphic animals, grotesques made up of different animal parts, beasts with human heads, etc.) and vignettes depicting rural life (plowing, sowing, harrowing, harvesting, cooking, etc.). The mixture within the marginalia of the real and the unreal, the sacred and secular, is, like a roller-coaster ride, both exciting and unsettling.

The first major publication on the volume was The Luttrell Psalter in 1932 by Eric Millar, who was then assistant keeper in the British Museum^ñs department of manuscripts. Millar^ñs monograph appeared just three years after the acquisition of the Psalter by the museum. His chapter 2, on the history of the manuscript, tells the exciting story of how the Psalter, long on deposit at the museum, was, without much warning, withdrawn for sale in 1929. Headed for the auction block, the Psalter was yanked the morning of the sale, saved for England by the loan of necessary funds (for a year and without interest) by John Pierpont Morgan, son of the famous father. (A label thanking Morgan for his generosity was placed inside the cover of the manuscript, and Millar^ñs book is dedicated to the same patron.) Millar^ñs study, long out of print, is indispensable still, and a search on the Web reveals a handful of copies ranging from $386 to $885, not an unreasonable price for what remains the best book on Psalter, illustrated with hundreds of beautiful monochrome collotype plates. (A useful summary of Millar was provided by Lucy Freeman Sandler in her Gothic Manuscripts, 1285-1385 [A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, V] (London, 1986): 2: 118-21, no. 107.)

In 1989 Janet Backhouse, then a British Library curator of manuscripts, published a slender study, also entitled The Luttrell Psalter, illustrated with seventy-five mostly color plates. Her treatment in this monograph is less about the book than it is about the Luttrells, a reflection of this author^ñs frequent infatuation with provenance. What is unfortunate is that no matter how many bits of data about the Luttrells she can find, she does not really piece together a meaningful relationship between Sir Geoffrey, his family, and his book. But, to be fair, Backhouse^ñs Luttrell Psalter is really a booklet, with more pictures than words, aimed at the mass market.

Piecing together a personal as well as a larger cultural context in which Sir Geoffrey commissioned his Psalter is what Michael Camille, medievalist at the University of Chicago who died this year at age 44, did in his riveting 1998 study, Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England. It is a brilliant book. Seven chapters discuss how Sir Geoffrey^ñs relationship to important medieval institutions such as knighthood, manorial household, the Church, etc., can be ciphered out of the Psalter^ñs illustrations. Chapter 4, "The Lord^ñs Lands: Men, Women and Machines," which examines Sir Geoffrey's relationship to his estates and the people who worked them, is most germane to this review. Camille's analysis of the most famous of the farming illustrations, two men plowing with a team of oxen, summarizes his argument (p. 192): "The scene in the psalter is not a product reflecting its time but is, like many works of so-called 'realist art' (Millet's peasants come to mind as a nineteenth-century parallel), a nostalgic vision of an earlier 'golden age of feudal order at a time of actual crisis and change in the agricultural and social system." While based on reality, the scenes of rural life are not to be trusted any more than the monsters and grotesques that are also illustrated in the margins. "Often what appears most 'real', most 'naturalistic', is what is most visually coded and ideologically distorted," Camille convincingly observes (211).

Backhouse returned to the manuscript in a second booklet published in 2000, Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter. The author dismisses Camille^ñs work as a "less usual approach" (62); indeed, one wonders if she even read it. To take one example, another of the more familiar images from the manuscript is a walled city out of which a group of dancers, led by two musicians, emerges. "The townscape is thus of special interest," Backhouse informs us (50), "not so much for its dancers and musicians as for the substantial variety of the buildings crammed within its walls." Readers of a book on rural life (even one so slender as this one) might wonder why the dancers are all male and why their observers (ignored by Backhouse) leering from the ramparts are all female. Camille relates the dancing to urban spring festivals that tie in with courtship and betrothal (citing an article by Jonathan J.G. Alexander, "Dancing in the Streets," Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 54 [1996]: 147-62); he further postulates the dance^ñs potential connection with Rogation Day processions and celebrations. This discussion is far more enlightening on this fascinating vignette of rural life than is Backhouse^ñs talk of roof tiles and pierced chimneys. Since Medieval Rural Life is, like Bachouse^ñs previous work, aimed at a general public, is it fair to criticize a text that reads like a sequence of postcard captions? Although now retired, Backhouse was the Luttrell Psalter^ñs keeper for many years during a long career; one expected more.