Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1185)

One of the oldest manuscripts in the KB is a beautifully illustrated prayer book from the twelfth century. Recent research indicates that it was made for Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most powerful woman in twelfth-century Europe.

This page provides a general introduction to the psalter. If you wish to go directly to the digitized manuscript, click on the link in the image below:

The psalter

A psalter is a prayer book containing the 150 psalms from the Old Testament, attributed to David. During the Middle Ages, a psalter was the most widespread prayer book among laymen. Children of high birth, girls as well as boys, learned to read from a psalter, in Latin.

Portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine in KW 76 F 13
Donor portrait, Eleanor of Aquitaine

KW 76 F 13, fol. 28v

Psalm 1, initial with David and Goliath, KW 76 F 13, fol. 29r
Psalm 1, opening initial with David (above) and David and Goliath (below)

Psalm 1, 'Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio inpiorum et in via peccatorum non stetit et in cathedra pestilentie non sedit’, 76 F 13, folio 29r

Psalm 51, 76 F 13, fol. 74v 'Quit gloriaris in malitia, qui potens es in iniquitate’
Doeg kills Achimelech and the priests of Nob

Psalm 51, 76 F 13, fol. 74v 'Quit gloriaris in malitia, qui potens es in iniquitate’

KW 76 F 13, fol. 040r

KW 76 F 13, fol. 040r

The calendar

A calendar complements the texts of the psalms. In the Middle Ages, any calendar would typically include many anniversaries of saints.

76 F 13, fool. 010r
Calendar for August

76 F 13, fol. 010r

KW 75 F 13, fol. 004r
Calendar for April

KW 75 F 13, fol. 004r

Facing the calendar pages are the 'works of the month' - images of typical activities for that time of year.

March: men pruning, tying up and planting vines
March: men pruning, tying up and planting vines

76 F 13, fol. 003v

July: a man weeding
July: a man weeding

KW 76 F 13, fol. 007v

August: people reaping corn, gleaning, harvesting
August: people reaping corn, gleaning, harvesting

KW 76 F 13, fol. 008v

September: men picking and treading grapes
September: men picking and treading grapes

KW 76 F 13, fol. 009v

The 'works of the month' and their order were standard features in 12th-century psalters, but their execution differed widely. In this manuscript, the works of the month are presented as full-page miniatures, which was rare in the twelfth century.

Most images relate to agricultural activities. The people depicted are farm workers - to be recognized not only by their simple clothing, but also by their rough facial features. Such features are often attributed to 'common' people, as opposed to noblemen or saints.

KW 76 F 13, february
A common man, detail, February

76 F 13, folio 002v, detail

KW 76 F 13, detail, december
A common man, detail, December

KW 76 F 13, folio 012v, detail.

The works of the month for April and May typically depicted noblemen in leasure activities. Their clothing reflects their riches and their facial features are markedly more regular than those of common men.

April: noble man with flower
April: nobleman with flower

KW 76 F 13 fol. 004v

Nobleman on horse with falcon
Nobleman on horse with falcon

KW 76 F 13, fol. 005v.

KW 76 F 13, april
Detail highlighting noble facial features

KW 76 F 13, April, fol. 004v, detail

KW 76 F 13, fol. 005v, May

KW 76 F 13, fol. 005v

Small miniatures within the calendar

Each calendar page features three smaller images, two of bloodletting and one of the respective sign of the zodiac. In the Middle Ages bloodletting was a remedy against all sorts of maladies. The 24 images of bloodletting in this manuscript are unique, they are not present in any other manuscript. Perhaps the psalter's patron particularly favoured bloodletting as a means of staying healthy.

July: bloodletting
July: bloodletting

KW 76 F 13, fol. 008r, detail

July: Leo, KW 76 F 13, fol. 008r
July: Leo

KW 76 F 13, fol. 008r, detail

July, bloodletting (2)
July, bloodletting (2)

KW 76 F 13, fol. 008r, detail

Bloodletting, May
Perhaps the last week of May is not a good time for bloodletting?

KW 76 F 13, fol. 006r, detail

Images from the life of Christ

Following the calendar are a number of images from the life of Christ, a so-called 'christology'. These are stand-alone images not accompanied by text. Perhaps they were used for oral instruction. It seems that some of the typical Christological images are missing from this manuscript. We must assume someone took them out somewhere along the line.

The Nativity: the Christ-child in the manger, Mary lies in bed, St. Joseph at her feet
The Nativity: the Christ-child in the manger, Mary lies in bed, St. Joseph at her feet

KW 76 F 13, fol. 016v

The baptism of Christ by St. John the Baptist, an angel holds Christ's robe
The baptism of Christ by St. John the Baptist, an angel holds Christ's robe

KW 76 F 13, fol. 019r

The arrest of Christ: the kiss of Judas
The arrest of Christ: the kiss of Judas

KW 76 F 13, fol. 021v. Note the difference in facial features between the apostles and the soldiers.

The three Maries at the empty tomb
The three Maries at the empty tomb

KW 76 F 13, fol. 023r

The psalms

In this psalter the 150 psalms have been subdivided in 10 sections of varying length. Every section starts with a so-called 'historiated initial', an initial depicting passages from the psalms.

Psalm 1, David with harp; David and Goliath
Psalm 1, David with harp; David and Goliath

Psalm 1 ('Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly'), KW 76 F 13, f. 029r.

Psalm 26, Samuel anoints David
Psalm 26, Samuel anoints David

Psalm 26, 'Dominus, illuminatio mea, et salus', KW 76 F 13, fol. 49v

Psalm 38, Man (David?) on roof with banner
Psalm 38, Man (David?) on roof with banner

KW 76 F 13, fol. 062v, 'Dixi custodiam vias meas'

Origins of the psalter

Scholars' theories about the origins of the psalter have varied over the years. According to David van der Kellen (1827-1895), Director of the Dutch Museum for History and Art in Amsterdam, the clothing depicted in the images dates from the second half of the thirteenth century. KB Director Willem G.C. Byvanck (1848-1925) was of the opinion that the psalter was written and illuminated around 1200. Most modern researchers agree with this latter view and date the psalter towards the end of the twelfth century. In any case, the psalter was written after 1173, because the calendar mentions the anniversary of Thomas Becket's murder in 1170. Becket was canonised in 1173.

In red ink on 29 December the anniversary of Saint Thomas, bisshop and martyr. KW 76 F 13, fol. 13r

In red ink on 29 December 'Saint Thomas, bishop and martyr'

KB Director Byvanck was the first scholar to point to Fécamp on the Normandy coast as the probable place of origin. He based his assertion on the calendar listing of Saint Waning on 9 January and his octave a week later. The presence of an octave indicates that festivities surrounding the saint might last for a week, which is a sure sign of special veneration by the scriptorium (the scribes' workplace) and/or the patron. Saint Waning is known as the founder of the Fécamp Abbey in the seventh century.

Detail January calendar: at the top the listing of Saint Waning, at the bottom his octave. KW 76 F 13, fol. 002r.

January calendar, detail: at the top the listing of Saint Waning, at the bottom his octave. KW 76 F 13, fol. 002r.

In 1996 the art historian Walter Cahn reported that St. Waning's relics had been transported to Ham in Picardy, over 200 kilometers to the east, in the ninth century. Following his reasoning, the psalter might have been produced in Ham. Few researchers, however, support this location.

In 2012 stylistic research indicated that the manuscript might have been produced in Paris around 1200-1210.

However that may be, all experts seem to agree that the psalter's patron must have held saints from Normandy, especially Rouen and Fécamps, in very high regard.

Is Eleanor of Aquitaine indeed the psalter's patron?

Scholars agree on one thing: the psalter must have been produced for a very rich noble lady. She is portrayed on fol. 28v, kneeling opposite the opening initial of Psalm 1, 'Beatus vir', depicting David and David & Goliath.

The opening with the patron (left) and the Beatus vir opening (right).

The opening with the patron (left) and the Beatus vir opening (right). KW 76 F 13, fol. 28v, 29r.

Her identity was not much discussed by researchers until recently. In 2016 research by Rodriguez Viejo pointed in the direction of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Several arguments are submitted to support this claim.

Mural in Chinon
Mural in Chinon displaying blue-white cloak lining

Mural in St. Radegundis chapel in Chinon, believed to portray King Henry II and his family. Until recently the middle figure looking back was thought to be Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, analysis of the figure's clothing, especially the clasp worn asymmetrically on the shoulder, suggests that this is, in fact, a man. It would seem more likely then, that the figure is Henry the young king, who was crowned during Henry II's lifetime, but died before his father did. The other three figures are his brothers.

The blue-white coat lining visible in the clothing of the psalter's patron is identical to the lining in a mural probably depicting Henry II & Eleanor's family in Chinon, a village near Fontevraud. The patron saint of the chapel in question, Radegundis, is mentioned only in this particular psalter.

The same blue-white lining can be discerned in the clothing of the nobleman opposite the April calendar in the psalter fol. 4v. Both he and the nobleman facing May wear capes with hermine linings fol. 5v, suggesting royal blood.

Only one other psalter is known with a female patron's portrait opposite Psalm 1: the Psalter of Helmarshausen (now in Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery, ms. W.10). This psalter was made shortly after 1185 for Mathilde, duchess of Saxony († 1189). Mathilde was Eleonora and Henry II's eldest daughter, and she and her husband spent some time in Normandy in 1182-1184, while they were exiled from Saxony. It is safe to assume that Mathilde met up with her mother during this time. Eleanor was under house arrest in England after her revolt against Henry II in 1173-1174, but she is known to have made a few trips to Normandy during her house arrest. Perhaps Mathilde was inspired by the psalter which Eleonora had recently acquired and ordered a similar prayer book?

Who was Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Eleanor (born 1122/24) was the heiress to the powerful duke William of Aquitaine. She was well-known for her richess, her intelligence and her beauty, making her a most eligible bride. She was first married to the crown prince of France (later known as Louis VII), and became queen of France at the age of 13 or 15. She divorced her husband in 1151 (a rare and bold move for a woman in her days). Her second marriage, to Henry II of Normandy, brought her to the English throne. She bore Henry eight children, two of whom would become King of England themselves: Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland.

Eleanor was actively involved in the administrations of both her husband and her sons, and arranged marriages for her daughters into important royal and ducal houses. In 1173/1174 she revolted against her husband in support of her sons and was subsequently placed under house arrest for 15 years. But when her son Richard ascended the English throne in 1189, she re-emerged as a political influencer.

She died after a long and turbulent life on 1 April 1204. She is buried in the Abbey of Fontevraud. Her effigy pictures Eleanor reclining on her back with a book in her hands. It is the earliest known example of a non-clerical woman in a reading position. Perhaps in the effigy Eleanor is holding our psalter, as a symbol of her passing from the transitory to the eternal.

Whereabouts of the psalter in later centuries

Around the middle of the thirteenth century, the psalter turns up in the frontier region between Hainaut and Flanders. Additions to the calendar attest to this. They include the anniversaries of Johanna of Constantinople, countess of Flanders and Hainaut († 1244), of William of Dampierre († 1231), his daughter Joanna, countess of Bar († 1246), his son William, count of Flanders († 1251), his son John, lord of Dampierre († 1258) and his daughter-in-law Machteld of Béthune († 1263). Also included are the anniversaries of a bishop of Tournai, an abbot of Anchin, a provost of Mons and a scholaster of Cambrai. The anniversaries were written down by different scribes, not long after the events themselves.

Jonah and the great fish, KW 76 F 13, fol. 88r
Jonah and the great fish, Psalm 68

KW 76 F 13, fol. 88r

Christ and God, KW 76 F 13, fol. 132v
Christ and God, Psalm 109

KW 76 F 13, fol. 132v

The manuscript reemerges in the late eighteenth century, when it is held by Georges-Joseph Gérard (1734-1814), a civil servant at the Brussels court with a passion for books. He acquired the manuscript before he was appointed secretary of the Société Littéraire, the predecessor of the Academy of Sciences and Letters, in 1769. He put his name in the book, dated 1767 (fol. 1r). His collection of books included about one hundred medieval manuscripts. The psalter was given the signature 'A 1', indicating the importance of the psalter for the owner. Four years after Gérard's death, most of his collection was transferred to the National Archives. In 1832 the manuscripts within the collection where handed over to the KB.

'Disclaimer'

Are we really certain that the psalter was produced for Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine? Perhaps we should refrase that question: if not for Eleanor, then for whom was this exquisite psalter produced?

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