Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2007
Jane Geddes The St. Albans Psalter: A Book for Christina of Markyate London: British Library, 2005. 136 pp.; 95 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Cloth £25.00 (0712306773)
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It is a sign of the times, I suppose, to begin a book review, itself published online, with a reference to a website. For in many ways, Jane Geddes’s The St. Albans Psalter is a book that was spawned by a website. In 2003, the University of Aberdeen undertook, under the direction of Geddes, to publish the St. Albans Psalter on the internet as a virtual facsimile (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/stalbanspsalter/english/index.shtml). As academic websites go, this is a truly impressive accomplishment, for it provides high-quality color images of every page of this twelfth-century psalter (including the blank pages). For the first time, anyone with internet access could view the entire manuscript, which is famous for a) its series of forty full-page miniatures prefacing the Psalms, b) the earliest known version of the French chanson “La Vie de Saint Alexis,” c) the book’s connection to Christina of Markyate, and d) the two hundred or so historiated initials, all reproduced in close-up. Yet what makes the Aberdeen project so remarkable is not simply its technological breadth, but also the website’s extensive commentary. This includes lengthy scholarly essays, transcriptions and translations of every textual page, and detailed notes on such aspects of production as the sewing holes, pricking, and palaeography. By combining scholarship with the advantages offered by digital technology, the Aberdeen site has proven itself to be a logical and worthy successor to the monumental volume on the St. Albans Psalter published in 1960 by the Warburg Institute, written by Otto Pächt, C. R. Dodwell, and Francis Wormald. The set of essays by three eminent scholars, the attempt to reproduce most of the manuscript (albeit in black-and-white photographs), and the wealth of comparative material made the Warburg volume something of a precursor to modern facsimile treatments of medieval manuscripts; and the sheer erudition and heft of the work has continued to loom over scholarship on the St. Albans Psalter. Much, though not all, of this secondary literature is conveniently summarized on the website.

If the Aberdeen website is excellent (as I hope old and new visitors to the site will agree), then what is the value of publishing the current book? In fact, there is not much content that Geddes has not already packed into the website, and in some cases the graphic displays and a generous bandwidth allow for more information to be communicated there than in the book. The most compelling reason to use the book is, simply, that its format and layout more tangibly evoke the experience of handling and turning the pages of the original St. Albans Psalter, especially with all of the illuminated pages reproduced as they appear in the manuscript itself. Although one can scroll through pages on the website, and in the case of the picture cycle even view a full opening of two pages at once, there is something obviously modern and remote about experiencing a medieval manuscript in this way. One need only recall Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the pitfalls of modern reproductions, or Michael Camille’s accurate, if somewhat overwrought, characterization of the multivalent physical interactions with manuscripts as opposed to experiencing them on a screen (“Sensations of the Page: Imaging Technologies and Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts,” in, George Bornstein and Theresa Tinkle, eds., The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998, 33–53). Furthermore, the book has the advantage of being catalogued and accessible in ways familiar to most researchers, and offers a certain permanence that the website cannot currently promise. A true facsimile, of course, would be best, and in fact one is in the works; but most scholars, and certainly a broader public, would not have the opportunity to experience even the facsimile. That Geddes’s book, attractively produced and reasonably priced, has also been translated into German by Jochen Bepler, director of the Hildesheim Dombibliothek, further increases the chances that this remarkable manuscript will become better known than it already is. (Public-service announcement: despite being the property of the church of St. Godehard, the St. Albans Psalter is under the supervision of the Dombibliothek, to which all inquiries about the manuscript should be referred.)

In 1895, Adolph Goldschmidt first linked the St. Albans Psalter to Christina of Markyate, whose story is known through an incomplete vita written at St. Albans in the 1140s. In the subsequent hundred and twelve years, scholars have hotly debated the relationship of the Psalter to this reclusive visionary, whose close spiritual relationship with Abbot Geoffrey of St. Albans was already the subject of rumors during their lifetime. Although her account at times seems a bit breathless, Geddes is a reliable guide through the life stories of Christina and Geoffrey and the degree to which the Psalter was intertwined with both figures. While there is an emerging consensus about some aspects of the St. Albans Psalter, there are, naturally, disagreements about others. One of the great strengths of the current book is Geddes’s refreshing honesty about what is certain, what is likely, and what is only speculative in both her own theories and that of other scholars, all of whom must wrestle with squaring aspects of the Psalter’s manufacture with whatever facts about Christina and Geoffrey can be reconstructed. It is clear that the Psalter was made in stages, and there is general agreement about the distribution of hands in both the script and pictorial decoration. The bulk of the Psalter itself seems not to have been manufactured for Christina, though her appearance in an initial, exceptionally pasted into the book at Psalm 105, suggests it was at this point that the book was directed toward her. Geddes has also noted a distinct alteration in the way that figures from this initial on more urgently point to the psalms’ rubrics, which were written by Geoffrey himself; and though the interpretation of this astute observation might be subject to disagreement, it is certainly one that must be taken into consideration in any attempt to understand the book as a whole.

The Alexis quire remains more problematic. Generally acknowledged to have been written by Geoffrey himself, it contains the Old French chanson of St. Alexis, images of Christ as the Emmaus pilgrim, and Latin and French versions of St. Gregory the Great’s letter justifying the use of images. Was this section of the book created before or after the glorious and extended picture cycle that now precedes it? Is the inclusion of Gregory’s letter meant to refer to the picture cycle or just the images in the Alexis quire itself? At what point was the quire bound with the other sections of the book (i.e., calendar, picture cycle, psalter)? And to what degree were the contents of this quire directed specifically at Christina? Geddes argues, in short, that the picture cycle was created for Christina’s meditation and that the Alexis quire was only conceived and added later, as much for Geoffrey himself as for Christina. In two recent articles that appeared too late to be included in Geddes’s bibliography (“Making the Psalter of Christina of Markyate [The St. Albans Psalter],” Viator 32 (2005): 293–335; and “The Visual, the Visionary and Her Viewer: Media and Presence in the Psalter of Christina of Markyate [St. Albans Psalter],” Word + Image 22 (2006)): 340–62), Morgan Powell builds upon Ursula Nilgen’s ideas to argue instead that the Alexis material came first and in fact served as a kind of intellectual drawing board of Geoffrey’s ideas in text and images for Christina’s spiritual development. Or is Kristine Haney’s intermediate position correct (“The St. Albans Psalter: A Reconsideration,” JWCI 58 (1995): 1–28)? While she also thinks the Alexis quire was made first for a different psalter and only then brought together with the other parts of this manuscript, she does not see much that connects the book as a whole to Christina. Although I cannot do justice here to the intricacies of these arguments, it is important to note that these scholars are careful to substantiate their arguments with technical observations of the book itself, and this is surely the most responsible way forward. Nonetheless, I do not think that any scholar has yet found a wholly convincing way to synchronize the physical aspects of the book’s production with paleographical and stylistic analyses and with what we know of Geoffrey’s and Christina’s lives. (I am currently working on this problem myself.)

That questions remain is evident from the title of Geddes’s book, which tries, in a way, to satisfy two opposing views of the Psalter: one that sees it foremost as a product of Geoffrey and the abbey of St. Albans, the other that links it intimately to Christina of Markyate. Although she has not answered all the questions surrounding the Psalter, Geddes deserves credit for both the book and the Aberdeen website that clarify and distill so well the manifold issues involved. Like all great works, the St. Albans Psalter will continue to reward future scholarly attention.

Adam S. Cohen
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto

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