ploughing 1340 in the Luttrell Psalter British Library

Luttrell Psalter

Luttrell Psalter is now fully digitized inviting historians of medieval daily life to dig into the treasures

Dns. Galfridus Louterell me fieri fecit – Sir Geoffrey Luttrell had me made, it says in the introduction to one of the most luscious and endearing English Manuscripts. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell lived in Irnham from 1276 – 1345 and probably had the Luttrell Psalter commissioned during 1320 -40. Filled with a wild profusion of imaginary beasts and lovely scenes from the gently rolling countryside of Lincolnshire it is one of the real treasures of the British Library; the nearest thing to an iconic fetish representing “Merry olde England”. Already in 1896 it had been deposited at the library. However, in 1929 it was put up for sale at Sotheby’s in order to finance some crippling death duties imposed upon the landed gentry; those taxes, which helped to secure a substantive slice of the Medieval English Heritage for grabby Americans like J. P. Morgan, William Randolph Hearst and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

The  luttrell psalter, the miller receives the grain, Psalm 87, f. 157v
The miller receives the grain
The Luttrell Psalter, psalm 87, f. 157v

Not so this time! Through complicated machinations the Luttrell Psalter was in the end acquired by The British Museum at a totally incredible sum of £31.500 – more than three times the sum of money paid for the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre a decade earlier; and presumably the standing record up until the Luttrell Psalter went on the block. Or at least it seemed like this. In fact the said J. P. Morgan had –requiring anonymity – lent the money for the purchase to the British Library for one year. This generous act later succeeded in sweetening some of the publicly voiced unease, which was felt against what the news liked to call the American “Robber Barons”. Also it helped to make the Luttrell psalter a national icon representing the disappearing rural England of Yesteryear. The sum was simply found by donations from more than a 1000 people, who donated everything in between a £1000 and 1 shilling. This was topped up by the Labour government. It is this campaign more than anything else plus the truly amazing pictures of rural and chivalric life from the beginning of the 14th century, which helped place the Luttrell psalter smack in the centre of the English imagination in the 20th century.

Now the Luttrell Psalter has been made available for the wider public through digitisation, probably once more igniting people to place the beloved scenes on everything from their twitter accounts to pinterest, while we wait for the ultimate medieval cookbook devised and written by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and illustrated by accurate reenactments.

Read the full story of the acquisition of the Luttrell Psalter in: Mirror in Parchement. The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England. By Michael Camille. Reaktion Books 1998. ISBN 1 86189 023 0 See the full display of the Luttrell Psalter at the website of British Library Read more about the Luttrell Psalter

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