Psalter Leaf


Psalter Leaf
Flemish, ca. 1300

Language: Latin

Height: 16 cm

State University Library Special Collections
Mss 25, Rose-Wright Manuscript Collection no. 17


Marie Schnoor, Medieval Portland Capstone Student, Winter 2005
This manuscript is noteworthy in several ways. First, it contains an entire line that has been scratched out and completely rewritten. Each sentence is headed by either red and blue or blue and gold letters. Both lines, incorrect and correct, have a header, which, apparently, was more important from a visual standpoint than the scratched-out lines. The gothic hand is in a dark brown, almost black ink, and is quite readable. The text is from Psalm 149, which reads (in part):

Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all ye deeps (laudate Dominum de terra dracones et omnes abyssi)

- and -

Beasts and all cattle: serpents and feathered fowls (bestiae et omnia iumenta reptilia et aves volantes)

It is interesting to examine the simple yet crisp illuminations and artwork along the side of this particular manuscript. While it is usual to find illustrations that pertain to the subject matter in personal Books of Hours, it is uncommon to find small images (in this case, those of birds and little serpents or beasts in the letter on one side) that relate to the verse at hand in Psalters. The scratched-out lines and somewhat personal drawings suggest that this piece was used as a personal devotional book, though it was perhaps not an expensive book. If it had been commissioned by a wealthy patron, this whole page, perhaps, would have been done over, or, at least, a more attractive attempt at covering up mistakes would have been made.

The Development of Medieval Calligraphy
The idea to use the written word as ornamentation appeared, no doubt, shortly after the written word itself. From the first time man made markings of ink upon paper, there has been a constant, two-fold need for advancements in calligraphy. The primary need, which held fast up until the invention and widespread usage of the printing press (which, in 1450 officially marked the death of calligraphy, purely for efficiency's sake.) was the pure transmission of information, and the second need has been that of ornamentation. The most important type of calligraphy, in terms of medieval history, is the Roman capitalis monumentalis, which corresponds to many of our current capital letters. They were styled so that they could easily be carved into marble monuments, but the efficiency of strokes easily translated into writing.

This style, combined with other influences, particularly Greek, remained popular throughout the Roman Empire. Most early Christian documents were written in this Uncial hand. The term Uncial, from the Latin uncials, or inch-high, refers to not only the size, or rather the ratio of the letters, but also to the shape of the letters, characterized by their rounded shape. As the influence of Rome in many outlying lands became lessened, different areas developed their own variations on writing styles. This was not, as some may suspect, a de-evolution, but, as evidenced especially in the future calligraphic masterpieces, the Book of Kells and the English Lindisfarne Gospels, both created around the 8th century, and using a beautiful variant of the traditional Uncial script, the British Isles-based Insular script.

By the 9th and 10th centuries, writing styles had developed into a very readable, clear hand, developed thanks to Charlemagne's improvements in the scribal department, and the training of new scribes to be more efficient, yet also retain the beauty of writing. The nib, or pen tip, for this new script, was unlike the oblique nib-cut required for Uncial, and instead was cut at a right angle. Where the pen for Uncial was held at a low, twenty-degree angle to the baseline, Carolingian Miniscule was held a little higher, near thirty degrees, which resulted from a different placement of thin and thick lines, as well as a slightly more forward slope, rather than the rigid lines of Uncial.

Shortly after the development of Carolingian Miniscule, there appears the hand which, depending on location and which scholar happened to be researching it, is either referred to as late Carolingian or Early Gothic. This script, characterized by the forty-degree angle, and the subsequent weight of the lower bowls of the letters, is not only beautiful but also very functional, and has the origin of our modern lower-case "t" in it, as it is the first time that the top of the "t" breaks the crossbar. Compared to the Uncial and Carolingian Miniscule scripts, Gothic is decidedly narrower, thicker, and more rigid. The effect of these letters standing close to each other, filling a page, can be quite dizzying.

These four scripts, Uncial, Carolingian, Insular and Gothic, are the most commonly found scripts in Medieval calligraphy. The second motive for developments in calligraphy was a purely ornamental one, even though it originated from a practical need. Early Medieval manuscripts were written continuously, with no line breaks, sentence breaks, or, in the case of Biblical work, no chapter or verse markings. Initially, small dots or markings were used to divide them, but as the period progressed, and people began experimenting with what they could do, this was stretched out to include fantastically illuminated and illustrated letters, called "Versals," chapter markings, numbers, and many different kinds of illustrations that decorate the pages. While many of our manuscripts are quite plain and efficient in their ornamentation, some of the illumination examples can be amazingly precise and beautiful. Sadly, with the advent of the printing press, the need and the love for such kinds of writing and decoration fell very quickly to the wayside.


Bartlett, John R. Commentary on the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. Cambridge: University Press, 1973

Catholic Online Encyclopedia. The Maccabees. []

Goldstein, Jonathan A. Commentary on the Anchor Bible, Second Maccabees. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1983

Hamlin, Hannibal. Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: University Press, 2004

Harris, David. The Calligrapher's Bible. New York: Barron's, 2003

Latin Vulgate Bible Online. Maccabees and Psalms []

Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge: University Press, 1991

Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. New York: George Braziller, Inc, 1988