Vespasian Psalter
The Vespasian Psalter is an Anglo-Saxon
Anglo-Saxon art
Anglo-Saxon art covers art produced within the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, beginning with the Migration period style that the Anglo-Saxons brought with them from the continent in the 5th century, and ending in 1066 with the Norman Conquest of a large Anglo-Saxon nation-state whose...

Illuminated manuscript
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations...

A psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms, often with other devotional material bound in as well, such as a liturgical calendar and litany of the Saints. Until the later medieval emergence of the book of hours, psalters were the books most widely owned by wealthy lay persons and were...

 produced in the second or third quarter of the 8th century. It contains an interlinear gloss in Old English
Old English language
Old English or Anglo-Saxon is an early form of the English language that was spoken and written by the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants in parts of what are now England and southeastern Scotland between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century...

 which is the oldest extant English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 translation of any portion of the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

. It was produced in southern England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

, perhaps in St. Augustine's Abbey or Christ Church
Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England and forms part of a World Heritage Site....

, Canterbury
Canterbury is a historic English cathedral city, which lies at the heart of the City of Canterbury, a district of Kent in South East England. It lies on the River Stour....

 or Minster-in-Thanet
Minster-in-Thanet, also known as Minster, is a village and civil parish in the Thanet District of Kent, England. The village is situated to the west of Ramsgate and to the north east of Canterbury; it lies just south west of Kent International Airport and just north of the River Stour...



The psalter contains the Book of Psalms together with letters of St. Jerome, hymns and canticles. It was written in Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 on vellum
Vellum is mammal skin prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. It is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation, the quality of the skin and the type of animal used...

, using a southern English Uncial
Uncial is a majuscule script commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. Uncial letters are written in either Greek, Latin, or Gothic.-Development:...

 script with Rustic Capital
Rustic capitals
Rustic capitals is an ancient Roman calligraphic script. As the term is negatively connotated supposing an opposition to the more 'civilized' form of the Roman square capitals Bernhard Bischoff prefers to call the script canonized capitals.Rustic capitals are similar to Roman square capitals, but...

A rubric is a word or section of text which is traditionally written or printed in red ink to highlight it. The word derives from the , meaning red ochre or red chalk, and originates in Medieval illuminated manuscripts from the 13th century or earlier...

s. There were additions made by a scribe
A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand as a profession and helps the city keep track of its records. The profession, previously found in all literate cultures in some form, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of printing...

 named Eadui Basan
Eadui Basan
Eadwig Basan was an eleventh century monk and scribe of Christ Church Canterbury, who worked on several manuscripts, including the Eadwog Gospels and Eadwig Psalter, both of which were named after him, and the Grimbald Gospels...

 in an English Carolingian minuscule
Carolingian minuscule
Carolingian or Caroline minuscule is a script developed as a writing standard in Europe so that the Roman alphabet could be easily recognized by the literate class from one region to another. It was used in Charlemagne's empire between approximately 800 and 1200...

. The English gloss was written in a Southumbrian pointed minuscule.

The codex
A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...

 is 235 by 180 mm. The text is written in an area of about 175 by 135 mm. There are 160 folios.

There are several major initials which are historiated, zoomorphic, or decorated. Major initials are found at the beginning of Psalms 1, 51 and 101. (This tripartite division of the Psalter is typical of Insular
Insular art
Insular art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, is the style of art produced in the post-Roman history of Ireland and Great Britain. The term derives from insula, the Latin term for "island"; in this period Britain and Ireland shared a largely common style different from that of the rest of Europe...

 Psalters). In addition, the psalms beginning each of the liturgical divisions of the Psalter are given major initials. The beginning letters of the other Psalms have smaller "minor" initials which are decorated or zoomorphic and are done in what is called the "antenna" style. There is a miniature of King David with his court musicians on folio 30 verso. It is probable that this miniature was originally the opening miniature of the psalter. Sir Robert Cotton
Robert Bruce Cotton
Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet was an English antiquarian and Member of Parliament, founder of the important Cotton library....

 pasted a cutting from the Breviary
A breviary is a liturgical book of the Latin liturgical rites of the Catholic Church containing the public or canonical prayers, hymns, the Psalms, readings, and notations for everyday use, especially by bishops, priests, and deacons in the Divine Office...

 of Margaret of York
Margaret of York
Margaret of York – also by marriage known as Margaret of Burgundy – was Duchess of Burgundy as the third wife of Charles the Bold and acted as a protector of the Duchy after his death. She was a daughter of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, and the sister of...

 on folio 160 verso. He also inserted a miniature from a 13th century liturgical psalter as folio 1.


The Psalter belongs to a group of manuscripts from Southern England known as the Tiberius group, also including the Stockholm Codex Aureus
Stockholm Codex Aureus
The Stockholm Codex Aureus is an Insular Gospel book written in the mid-eighth century in Southumbria, probably in Canterbury...

, Barberini Gospels
Barberini Gospels
The Barberini Gospels is an illuminated Hiberno-Saxon manuscript Gospel Book , assumed to be of a late eighth century origin...

, the Book of Cerne
Book of Cerne
The Book of Cerne is a ninth century Anglo-Saxon prayer book. It was apparently made between 820 and 840 for Bishop Æthelwold of Lichfield . It is the only surviving illuminated manuscript that can be firmly attributed to the kingdom of Mercia...

, the Tiberius Bede
Bede, Ecclesiastical History (British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C. II)
British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius C. II, or the Tiberius Bede, is an 8th century illuminated manuscript of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. It is one of only four surviving 8th century manuscripts of Bede. As such it is on the closest texts to Bede's autograph. The manuscript has...

, and the Book of Nunnaminster
Book of Nunnaminster
The Book of Nunnaminster is a 9th century Anglo-Saxon prayerbook. It was written in the kingdom of Mercia, using an "insular" hand , related to Carolingian minuscule. It was probably later owned by Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great. It is related to, but of an earlier date than, the Book of Cerne...

. The manuscript was produced during the second or third quarter of the 8th century, probably the earliest of the group. A date as early as 720 has been proposed by David Wright, but most scholars prefer a later date. The script of the Old English gloss is typical of the script produced in Canterbury scriptoria from about 820 to 850. Eadui Basan, who made additions to the manuscript, was a monk at Christ Church, Canterbury during the early 11th century. Thomas of Elmham recorded a Psalter at Canterbury which may have been the Vespasian Psalter.

The manuscript was at Canterbury in 1553. It was subsequently owned by Sir William Cecil
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley , KG was an English statesman, the chief advisor of Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign, twice Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer from 1572...

 and Matthew Parker
Matthew Parker
Matthew Parker was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 until his death in 1575. He was also an influential theologian and arguably the co-founder of Anglican theological thought....

, Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop of Canterbury
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and principal leader of the Church of England, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. In his role as head of the Anglican Communion, the archbishop leads the third largest group...

. By 1599 it was the possession of Sir Robert Cotton
Robert Bruce Cotton
Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet was an English antiquarian and Member of Parliament, founder of the important Cotton library....

, who signed it on folio 12 recto. It became national property, along with the rest of the Cotton library
Cotton library
The Cotton or Cottonian library was collected privately by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton M.P. , an antiquarian and bibliophile, and was the basis of the British Library...

 in 1702 and was incorporated into the British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

 when it was founded in 1753. The volume was the first in the Vespasian
Vespasian , was Roman Emperor from 69 AD to 79 AD. Vespasian was the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which ruled the Empire for a quarter century. Vespasian was descended from a family of equestrians, who rose into the senatorial rank under the Emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty...

 shelf section in the part of the library indexed by the names from a set of busts of the Roman Emperors on top of the shelves.

Its current binding, with metal clasps, was provided by Cotton.

Further reading

  • Alexander, J.J.G. Insular Manuscripts, 6th to the 9th century (Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles), (Harvey Miller, London, 1978), no.29.
  • Brown, M.P., The Book of Cerne (London and Toronto, 1996), pp.20-23, 69-73, 120-129 and passim.
  • Brown, M.P. "Female Book-Ownership and Production in Anglo-Saxon England: the Evidence of the Ninth-Century Prayerbooks." Lexis and Texts in Early English: Studies Presented to Jane Roberts, ed. C.J. Kay and L.M. Sylvester, (Amsterdam/Atlanta, 2001), pp.45-67.
  • Brown, M.P. A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London, 1990), pl.17.
  • Bruce-Mitford, R.L.S. “The Reception by the Anglo-Saxons of Mediterranean Art following their conversion from Ireland and Rome.” Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo Spoleto 14 (1967) pp.822-825.
  • Gneuss, H. Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Tempe, Arizona, 2001), no.381.
  • Gneuss, H. "A preliminary list of manuscripts written or owned in England up to 1100." Anglo-Saxon England 9, ed. P. Clemoes (Cambridge, 1981), no.381.
  • James, M.R. The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover (Cambridge, 1903), pp.lxv-lxvi, 501.
  • Kendrick, T.D. Anglo-Saxon Art to A.D. 900 (London, 1938), pp.159 ff., 181.
  • Ker, N.R. Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957), no.203.
  • Ker, N. Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, 2nd edition, (London, 1964), Canterbury, St Augustine's
  • Kuhn, S.M. "From Canterbury to Lichfield," Speculum 23 (1948), pp.591-629.
  • Kuhn, S.M. The Vespasian Psalter (Ann Arbor, MI, 1965).
  • Kuhn, S.M. "The Vespasian Psalter and the Old English Charter Hands" in: Speculum; 18 (1943), pp.458-483.
  • Lowe, E.A. Codices latini antiquiores (1934-1971), vol. 2, no. 193.
  • Morgan, N.J. Early Gothic Manuscripts (I) 1190-1250 (Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles), (Harvey Miller, London, 1982), no.46 (for f.1).
  • Nordenfalk, C. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon painting. Book Illumination in the British Isles 600-800 (New York, 1976), p. 95.
  • Sisam, K. "Cynewulf and his Poetry" in: Proceedings of the British Academy; 18 (1932)
  • Sweet, H., ed. The Oldest English Texts. Glossaries, the Vespasian Psalter, and other works written before A.D. 900. Early English Text Society
    Early English Text Society
    The Early English Text Society is an organization to reprint early English texts, especially those only available in manuscript. Most of its volumes are in Middle English and Old English...

    (London, 1885).
  • Temple, E. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts 900-1066 (Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles), (Harvey Miller: London, 1976), no.55.
  • Turner, D. Illuminated Manuscripts Exhibited in the Grenville Library (London, 1967), no.13 (for f.1).
  • Webster, L. and Backhouse, J.M. eds., The Making of England, BM/BL exhibition catalogue (London, 1991), no.153 and no.171.
  • Wright, D. H. The Vespasian Psalter (Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, XIV), 1967.
  • Zimmermann, E. H. Vorkarolingische Miniaturen (Berlin, 1916), esp. pp. 120, 131, 133-134, 289-291.

External links

British Library catalogue entry
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