, , , , , ,

“The Macclesfield Psalter is a work of art of exceptional beauty. Its 250 leaves are painted with exquisite finesse, page after page of precious pigments and gold. It is an outstanding example of medieval art from East Anglia, which boasted the most characteristically English school of painting and illumination during the fourteenth century. East Anglian manuscripts combine devotional imagery and closely observed nature with charming depictions of every-day life and grotesque creations of the wildest imagination. The Macclesfield Psalter displays numerous examples of each and offers invaluable insights into the relationship between some of the most important contemporary manuscripts. Produced around 1330, it is the missing link between the finest East Anglian manuscripts of the period 1300-1330, the Gorleston Psalter (London, British Library, Add. MS 49622) and the Douai Psalter, which was almost destroyed during the Great War (Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 171). While the Gorleston Psalter offered textual and visual models, the Douai Psalter preserved the art of the Macclesfield Psalter illuminator himself. (…)

The marginal humour and uninhibited fantasy are the most charming and provocative aspects of the Macclesfield Psalter. Hybrid creatures merge human and animal shapes into nightmarish visions. A fox grabs a credulous cockerell or runs away with the farmer’s wife’s duck. An ape-doctor tricks a bear-patient with a mock diagnosis. An enormous skate fish frightens a man out of his wits. Wielding a sword against a giant snail seems pointless. Rabbits joust, play organs or ride the hounds that are supposed to hunt them. A lady rejects the advances of a suitor with an eloquently projecting sword, or is poised in a choice between the courtly love of a gallant horseman and the beastly lust of a wildman.
The sources of these pictorial parodies, absurdities and obscenities were both verbal and visual. They range from the exempla, or anecdotes used by preachers to spice up their sermons, to religious plays, secular romances, and fabliaux that entertained courtly audiences and townsfolk alike. What was the role of, and the justification for, such images in a book for private prayer? No doubt, they beautified the manuscript and amused its reader. But their function was hardly limited to the effect of slapstick humour. Nor was it ‘marginal’, despite their position on the page. Laughter was not forbidden in the Middle Ages. It was part of every-day life, even at the heart of religious experience, as the exempla, misericords, and plays reveal. This holistic and healthy attitude to life, accommodating the saints and the sinners, and embracing the world in all its shapes and colours, springs from the pages of the Macclesfield Psalter without prejudice or false modesty. The rigid distinction between sacred and profane, high and low, serious and funny, was more foreign to medieval than to post-medieval mentality. The marginal obscenities, perfectly acceptable to the medieval patron of the Macclesfield Psalter, clearly offended the puritanical sentiments of its post-medieval owners. They defaced both horned devils and bare bottoms, equating evil with laughter. In the Middle Ages, laughter could wage war on evil. It could warn against sin through negative example, as its disturbingly realistic depiction implicated the viewer. It could reinforce moral values and social order by exposing and lampooning their violation. It could defeat boredom, distraction and sloth by keeping one alert through the long hours of public prayer or private reading. Indeed, many seemingly random grotesques in the margins of the Macclesfield Psalter draw the reader’s attention to the text of the Psalms by providing a subtle visual pun or pointing emphatically at a phrase or even a syllable. Such ‘word-images’ encouraged a close examination of the text, teased the reader-viewer, stimulated associative thinking, provided visual anchors for the memory, opened short-cuts in finding one’s way around the book, and offered incentives for repeated and continuous reading. The marginalia were – and still are – central to the experience of the Macclesfield Psalter.” [1].

This is a long introduction to folio 76r (“Doec and the Priets of Nob, the snail combat”). In the bottom marginalia we find the ‘knight v. snail’ theme again, with the knight pointing his sword to the relatively big snail; the subtheme ‘frightening snail’ may thus also be involved.

MS 1-2005(f076r)

The snail itself is rather naturalistically drawn, with a dextral shell showing colour marks (suggesting a Cornu species could have modelled for it?). The animal is shown with two long, and two short tentacles.


[1] http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/macclesfield/about/