Rachel Koopmans

title.none: Geddes, St. Alban's Psalter (Rachel Koopmans )

identifier.other: baj9928.0703.006 07.03.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Rachel Koopmans , York University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Geddes, Jane. The St. Alban's Psalter: A Book for Christina of Marykate. London: British Library, distributed by the University of Toronto, 2005. Pp. 136, 95 color and 6 b/w illus.. $40.00 0-7123-0677-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.03.06

Geddes, Jane. The St. Alban's Psalter: A Book for Christina of Marykate. London: British Library, distributed by the University of Toronto, 2005. Pp. 136, 95 color and 6 b/w illus.. $40.00 0-7123-0677-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Rachel Koopmans
York University

Sometimes medievalists get lucky. The scholars who examined the marvelously illuminated St. Albans Psalter in the early twentieth century noted that it must have had some connection with an obscure religious woman named Christina, the first prioress of Markyate, an equally obscure religious establishment located a few miles away from St. Albans. The St. Albans Psalter's calendar contains obits for Christina, for Christina's predecessor at Markyate, the hermit Roger, and, especially strikingly, for Christina's mother, father, and brother. Scholars knew little about Christina besides her name, however, and interest in the Psalter focused on its unique Old French text of the life of St. Alexis and on its superb artistry, especially as displayed in a cycle of forty full-page miniatures that precede the text of the Psalms.

Then, in the late 1950s, C. H. Talbot miraculously discovered and recovered a vita concerning Christina of Markyate at the end of a badly damaged manuscript. Though the vita's anonymous author left the text unfinished, his description of Christina's life is lengthy and vivid, including stories of Christina's flight from a marriage arranged by her father and mother, her residence with Roger at Markyate, her close friendship with Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans (1119-46), and even the story of devilish toads squatting on a psalter Christina held open in her lap. We now have more information about Christina of Markyate's career than that of any other contemporary English religious woman--and we have a Psalter that appears to have been illuminated with her in mind.

Scholars who have taken up the new possibilities of exploring Christina's connection with the St. Albans Psalter include Ursula Nilgen, Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco, Madeline Caviness, Morgan Powell, and now Jane Geddes, whose monograph, The St. Albans Psalter: A Book for Christina of Markyate, is the first book- length treatment of the subject. Geddes has two goals for this short and lavishly illustrated book: first, to reproduce the most important illuminations and initials of the Psalter in order to convey its "astonishing visual impact," and second, "to integrate [the Psalter's] contents fully into the historical context of its probable patron, Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans, and its recipient, the anchoress Christina of Markyate" (8). Geddes' work is distinguished by her study of the Psalter's initials and her emphasis on the role of abbot Geoffrey in the making of the Psalter.

Before I address the specifics of Geddes' arguments, it should be noted that this book is, in essence, a companion to a website created by Geddes on the St. Albans Psalter, up since 2003. The English version is found at This website reproduces the St. Albans Psalter in full. All 418 pages of the Psalter are displayed there, for free, in wonderfully crisp and large images. Geddes' website also includes detailed descriptions of every illumination, transcriptions and translations of every text in the Psalter, and a set of interpretive essays. Readers of both website and book will find many areas of overlap: some of the book is pulled word for word from the website essays. One might ask, then, whether it is worthwhile to purchase the book. It is. On the whole, the book presents a revised and compressed version of the arguments expounded on the website. And while the book can reproduce only a fraction of the Psalter's illuminations, they have been chosen and presented with remarkable care. For instance, the Psalter's miniature cycle is presented in Geddes' book exactly as it is in the Psalter, as a piece, with one image following the next with no intervening text (21-60). In fact, the miniatures even fall on the recto and verso sides of the pages exactly as they do in the manuscript, making it possible to page through the cycle just as medieval readers might once have done. Other important images, such as the chief pages from the quire containing the life of St. Alexis, are also presented together. Though Geddes was able to reproduce only a selection of the historiated initials of the Psalter, many of them are pictured here in their actual dimensions, again providing a visual experience that the website cannot. Geddes, in sum, accomplishes the first goal of her book admirably.

Geddes lays the groundwork for her analysis of the historical context of the Psalter's construction in Part I of the book. Part I is meant to introduce the "personalities" of Christina and Geoffrey and the contents of the Psalter. This section is largely derivative of other scholars' work and not as clearly presented as one might hope. Most noteworthy and original in this section--and indeed, in the entire book--is Geddes' discussion of the initials of the Psalter. Geddes moves into the substance of her arguments in Part II, which is split into two chapters. In the first chapter, "A book for Christina," Geddes outlines the links between the Psalter and the life and interests of Christina of Markyate. The best part of this chapter is Geddes' discussion of the initial for Psalm 105. This puzzling initial was painted on a separate piece of parchment, pasted into the manuscript over a blank space, and appears to represent Christina herself interceding with Christ for a group of monks. Geddes argues that this initial was executed at the same time as the manuscript itself, not before or after its completion, and that it can be read as the point when "Geoffrey decided to give [the Psalter] to Christina and alter its design to reflect their mutual requirements" (95). Geddes then briefly recounts how she sees the design of the initials changing after Psalm 105. There are more depictions of women, more positive depictions of women, and more initials that seem particularly connected with Christina, especially those for Psalm 118 and the Litany. Some of this discussion is clearer on the website than it is in the book. But this does not vitiate Geddes' point: the initials do appear to change in emphasis after Psalm 105, and that new emphasis does seem to suggest that now the intended audience was Christina and her nuns at Markyate. Perhaps this was indeed the point when a Psalter, originally intended for St. Albans itself, was changed to suit a female readership. Geddes' observations help make sense of the Psalter's chronology of construction and an otherwise baffling initial.

In the second chapter of part II, entitled "A book from Geoffrey," Geddes makes her case for seeing Abbot Geoffrey as the driving force behind much of the content of the St. Albans Psalter. Fundamental to this argument is the identification of "Scribe 3" of the Psalter as Abbot Geoffrey himself. While this is possible, it is unfortunately far from provable, as Geddes admits. Geddes suggests that the quire containing the life of St. Alexis, a quire written by Scribe 3, may have served as a conversational piece between Geoffrey and Christina. This is an idea I find thought-provoking, and one that would not require Geoffrey to have been the quire's scribe. Less successful, in my view, are Geddes' attempts to connect the images of the viol, the St. Martin miniature, the images of David and the dove, and the Alexis story to Geoffrey's interests. Geddes' most convincing observations are, again, found in her work with the initials. The pointing figures after Psalm 105 seem to draw increasing and insistent attention, as Geddes argues, to Scribe 3's rubrics, and the initial for Psalm 132 indeed appears, as she suggests, to refer to the factional strife Geoffrey had to manage during his tenure as abbot.

Geddes concludes her book by suggesting that the St. Albans Psalter was actually more about Geoffrey than about Christina:

The book appears to be infused with Geoffrey's passionate commitment to participate in Christina's spiritual and mental welfare, with his priorities and those of St. Albans Abbey often overshadowing her own... This was not necessarily the book Christina needed to receive, but it was undoubtedly the book Abbot Geoffrey needed to create, for the salvation of his soul and his abbey. (127)

Even for readers who are not certain that Geoffrey had as large a role as the patron of the Psalter as Geddes suggests, this is a valuable corrective to interpretations that read the Psalter primarily or solely through Christina's eyes. Also valuable is Geddes' suggested chronology of the Psalter's construction found on p. 125 of the concluding chapter. I am less convinced by Geddes' attempts to date the Psalter. While the dating she proposes, between c. 1129 and 1135, seems generally right, her rationale, that Geoffrey was inspired to direct the Psalter to Christina because of Christina's vision of the Holy Trinity dated to about this period, stretches the evidence too far. The makers and patrons of the St. Albans Psalter could have decided to target Christina and her female followers at Markyate as the audience of the manuscript because of any number of incidents, including, of course, ones that are not recorded in her vita at all.

Despite my misgivings with some of Geddes' arguments, I advise those with interests in medieval book illumination, patronage, female readership, and medieval religious culture to purchase this book. It is a shame that it is priced beyond the reach of most undergraduates. Students would surely enjoy exploring the connections between the St. Albans Psalter and the life of Christina of Markyate as much as scholars have. Read alongside Talbot's translation of Christina's vita, Geddes' book would make a terrific teaching text. Unless a paperback version is published, however, teachers and students will have to be content with Geddes' website. For those who can afford it, Geddes' book provides an excellent set of illustrations of one of the great monuments of Romanesque art and a contribution to our understanding of the links between Christina of Markyate, St. Albans, and the Psalter.