Marvellous Monsters from the Luttrell Psalter

With its luscious decorations, the Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous and treasured manuscripts in the collection of the British Library. The Psalter was made during the first half of the fourteenth century for the wealthy medieval landowner Sir Geoffrey Luttrell by an impressive number of artists (scholars have distinguished at least five different hands in the illuminations!). What makes this book of psalms so special are the fantastic creatures or ‘grotesques‘ floating around the margins of its pages. We’ve recently teamed up with the British Library, and the archive now holds some beautiful and highly detailed photos of this precious book. We’ve picked out some of its weird and wonderful pages for you to explore.

Man or Myth?

bl_luttrell_2
Psalm 105; grotesques / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Psalm 106 (detail); grotesques / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Psalm 106 (detail); grotesques / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Fighting with pitchers / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Fighting with pitchers / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved

The page margins of devotional books were often reserved for creatures that existed on the margins of medieval society, or the borders of the Christian world: the effects of sins and abandoning your moral values, as well as different lands and cultures for example were considered seriously scary. This is also why many of the monsters show human features, and are very often slightly disturbing hybrids of man and beast.

Tricks or Treats?

Psalm 36; grotesques / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Psalm 36; grotesques / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Psalm 39; a goat / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Psalm 39 (detail); a goat / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved

So, what are these creatures doing in the Luttrell Psalter, why are they there? There isn’t actually a solid answer to this question, and the monsters remain mysterious to those who study them. It has been suggested that they reminded the reader of the wickedness that existed outside of their faith when their eye wandered off from the devotional texts. Other theories include that the artist sought to demonstrate his skill with these elaborate drawings, or that the creatures were simply there to entertain Sir Geoffrey and his family. Looking closely at the images you’ll find many witty surprises, such as baboons, or this goat nibbling on the decorative foliage of the page border.

 

Human Horror

Add 42130 fol.61 Blood-letting, from the Luttrell Psalter, c.1325-35 (vellum), English School, (14th century) / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Add 42130 fol.61 Blood-letting, from the Luttrell Psalter, c.1325-35 (vellum), English School, (14th century) / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Martyrdom of St Bartholomew / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved
Martyrdom of St Bartholomew (detail) / British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved

Alongside its more conventional devotional pictures and glittering heraldic imagery of Luttrell and his family, this book is adorned with images of ordinary medieval folk. Showing peasants working the land, entertainment and even food preparations, the Luttrell Psalter gives a glimpse into day-to-day life in medieval Britain. However, medieval culture has a seriously bloody side, and the book features scenes of murder, martyrdom and contemporary medical practices such as bloodletting. Nice!

Curious about the British Library’s collection? Discover more manuscripts and rare books in our archive, and please contact uksales@bridgemanimages.com for information about commissioning or licensing.

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