Exhibition Reviews and News

As many members are aware we have followed with interest the story of the Macclesfield Psalter from its discovery amongst the archives of the Earl of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, to its purchase by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, at a Sotheby’s auction in June 2004 through to its subsequent purchase, thanks to the export bar placed on it, by means of a public appeal launched by the National Art Collections Fund on behalf of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Prof. Michael Kauffmann, a Trustee of the National Art Collections fund, described the Macclesfield Psalter as the most important rediscovery of an English manuscript in living memory. It is full of a peculiarly English wit, of incomparable beauty and a rich resource of local detail. It speaks of a world in which the sacred and secular world could be comfortably juxtaposed. It is destined to play a central role in re-shaping our picture of medieval English art.

Another expert, Prof. Lucy Sandler from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, sees its importance as threefold. Firstly, it is of superb quality, the work of an illuminator of brilliant artistic imagination and invention. The giant skate detail from Macclesfield Psalter

«The giant skate detail from Macclesfield Psalter»

Secondly, it is closely related to the most important East Anglian manuscripts (for instance the Gorleston Psalter and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History). Thirdly, by virtue of the abundant imagery—religious, secular, natural, playful, parodic, fantastic and grotesque - that wreathes the sacred text, the Macclesfield Psalter opens wider than ever before a window into the real and imaginary world of late medieval England.

It was recently on display at a spectacular exhibition of mediaeval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts mounted by the Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge University Library. A member of the Tyndale Society enthusiastically sent the following report to the Journal about the Psalter which featured amongst some 200 world class illuminated manuscripts—many on view for the first time – dating from the 6th to the 16th centuries.

The Cambridge Illuminations: Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West

Macclesfield Psalter on view at an exhibition July-December 2005

Report by Derrick Holmes October 2005

The Macclesfield Psalter is small in size, 170 by 108mm, richly illustrated and a feast for the eyes. The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, into whose ownership it has fortunately been placed, mounted an exhibition on Medieval Manuscripts with two galleries devoted to the display of leaves of the Psalter. The pages glow with gold, blues and red and other subtle shades. Some pages have been cut at the top at some time in the dim and distant past causing damage to some illustrations. There are also some leaves missing. There is a particularly fine ploughing scene on the bottom of fol.77r which also appears in the Gorleston Psalter.

      «The plough scene from Macclesfield Psalter»
The plough scene from the Macclesfield Psalter

The illustrations cover a wide range of subjects, “refined beauty to ribald humour” as described in publicity material. There are depicted everything from Biblical scenes, everyday life, animals, birds and flowers to the grotesque and vulgar. Some leaves illustrate in the upper area the spiritual, such as one showing God and the Son on their thrones and below at the foot of the page a king on his throne with a subject (fol. 139V). One capital letter encloses an illustration of the Annunciation, an angel telling the good news to the shepherds with sheep on a jewel green field (fol. 161V). Great care has been taken with anatomical poses and facial expressions. There is even evidence that in a more earthy society some illustrations met with medieval censorship as there are some obliterations.

One suggestion for the identity of the original owner is the 8th Earl of Warenne (1286-1347) who was closely involved in the affairs of King Edward II. It is considered he was probably the patron of the Gorleston Psalter in the British Museum and the Douai Psalter (a masterpiece which was unfortunately reduced to fragments during World War I). The Gorleston manuscript work contains his coat of arms and is plentifully illustrated with rabbits in their warren, a pun on his name. No arms of Warenne can be found in the Macclesfield Psalter but there are a few rabbits and a warren in the illustrations. Some evidence may have been on missing leaves. There are also other features common to both Psalters.

«Organ playing hare from Macclesfield Psalter»

Organ playing hare from the Macclesfield Psalter

A showcase display showing the tools of a medieval illuminator with samples of the pigments and colours used in illustration add to the interest. Congratulations are due to those who worked on mounting this exhibition and producing publicity material.

There is obviously scope for research in the coming years. The wonder of the situation is that the Psalter has remained undiscovered for so long. Maybe there are gems yet to be found.


Thomas More by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Donald J. Millus, Coastal Carolina University.

A Man For All Seasons this is not, even more reason why the production of Thomas More - no “Sir” - by the Royal Shakespeare Company, scheduled for London 4 to 14 January 2006 as part of their “Gunpowder Season”, is worth the viewing of both critics and admirers of More. I had the good fortune to take in the play at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon the night before the opening of the Fourth Tyndale Conference at Oxford in September. Simply put, it was stunning. Thomas More is the work of many hands: Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, and Thomas Dekker are likely collaborators in this story of the rise and fall of More from sheriff to chancellor to the executioner’s block. The main claim to fame of the play is the 172 lines of the More MS. in the British Library, attributed with no great certainty to William Shakespeare. But let that speech on the divinity of kings be and we are still left with a fascinatingly ambiguous view of a rising political star. Like the “King James Bible”, the product of many hands, Thomas More is of a piece despite its episodic structure: More stopping Londoners rioting over the presence and power of foreign merchants, intervening to save the life of a common cutpurse on trial, foreseeing the dangers of his rapid promotions, intervening with the King - always offstage as he would be when More was executed - to spare the lives of most, but not all of the rioters sentenced to death, greeting Erasmus, acting in an interlude, and then refusing the entreaties of his wife and family to compromise over the “King’s Great Matter”. Nigel Cooke as More projects an ambivalence about his motives in stopping the rioters who are threatening the peace of the City and the safety of foreign merchants. The self-assured More, the jester of popular legend, gives way to a man about to die for resistance to authority and defence of his religious tradition. Like St Peter he seems to crucify himself, even giving a speech standing on his head. He knows he’s hurting those he loves but can see no other way out. Particularly impressive with none or few words is Lady More (Teresa Banham) and the eloquent rioter Doll Williamson (Michelle Butterly).

I have not space here to commend all the actors and personnel of the Royal Shakespeare for this production. (I offered to stand Cooke and other members of the cast a round in the bar of the Thistle directly across from the Swan after the performance, so that will have to demonstrate my appreciation of them all.) Music, set, design, direction, and production were superb: lest I leave any kudos unbestowed, I refer the potential playgoer to the exhaustive review by Chris Hopkins at the Early Modern Literary Studies website, http://www.shu.ac.uk/emls/11-2/revmore.htm