Luttrell Psalter

Luttrell Psalter

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In about 1325, Geoffrey Luttrell, a large landowner in Lincolnshire, commissioned the production of his own psalter. At the beginning of the book is a picture of the Luttrell family. As well as the usual collection of saints and figures from the Bible, the book also includes a superb collection of pictures that illustrate everyday life on the Luttrell estate.

These were not the first rural scenes to be included in psalters. What makes the illustrations in the Luttrell Psalter so important is that they are the most detailed and realistic pictures of everyday life that have survived from the Middle Ages. The artist (we do not know his or her name) produced a range of pictures that has given historians vital information of what life must have been like for ordinary people in the 14th century.

The Luttrell Psalter - Introduction

The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was made in the diocese of Lincoln for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276 - 1345) of Irnham, probably sometime between 1325 and 1335.

The text was written throughout by one scribe and illuminated by at least five different artists. The style of the Psalter represents the last stage of the highly accomplished East Anglian School of manuscript illumination. One master artist completed a large section including the lavish dedication miniature showing the Psalter's patron, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, fully armed and mounted on a splendid war-horse.

Sir Geoffrey's will survives, and gives further insights into his life and times. The Psalter is not mentioned in the will. By the end of the century the Psalter was in the hands of the Fitzalan family, Earls of Arundel. The volume was acquired by the Library in 1929.

The Luttrell Psalter was once contained in this binding made in Cambridge around 1625 - 1640. It is made of brown calf leather, decorated with red paint, and stamped and tooled with gold and silver.

British Library Add. MS 42130

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Spring 2006 As soon as we thought about making a Luttrell Psalter film, we immediately considered its educational value. The images of everyday medieval life from the Luttrell Psalter have for years been used to illustrate history books and more &hellip Continue reading &rarr

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The Luttrell Psalter, Preserving the Memory of Ordinary Folk Alongside the Mighty and the Wealthy

Luttrel Psalter f. 23v. British Library Add MS 42130.

Between 1320 and 1340 Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, Lord of the Manor of Irnham, Lincolnshire, England, commissioned the Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add. MS 42130). This psalter, written by a single anonymous scribe and illustrated by at least five different anonymous artists, contains one of the most extensive collections of images of everyday rural life of both nobles and ordinary people in medieval England. While the Luttrell Psalter was not the first to include scenes of contemporary rustic life, the number of its images and their fascinating details, and their lively and often humorous aspects provide a virtual "documentary" of work and play during a year on an estate like Sir Geoffrey's. Because of the number of collaborators involved in its production it is thought that the psalter could not have been created in the small village of Irnham, but was perhaps created in the larger town of Lincoln.

"The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most intensely personalized of medieval books and betokens a heightened level of intimacy between patron, planner and maker. It is interesting that such audacious experiments in achieving a fully synthesized relationship between the conventional major decorated components of a liturgical or devotional manuscript and innovative didactic/entertaining images in its marginal space, should have been undertaken in a commission by a 'new man' with social aspirations, at the junction between the rural knightly classes and the great barons of the realm. Perhaps only such previously unploughed ground could successfully nurture the seeds of such innovation, free of the strangling conventions surrounding the production of books for royalty and the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

"In such cases, the relationships between the work's planners, patrons and makers in producing a combined 'text' bears comparison with the modern film industry. As in the collaboration between director, producer, production team and actors, each can contribute their own aspects of 'reading' or interpretation, without necessarily departing from an established 'script' or storyboard. Film is not usually 'history' or temporally disembodied 'art' (though it can be both) - neither is the Luttrell Psalter. It represents one of the most imaginative attempts in art to provide not only metaphorical and literal illustrations of the text, with word-images playing upon individual phrases, words or syllables (as on f. 152v where two naked men are foot wrestling, taking their cue from the Latin word passer on the line above, which in courtly French indicates pas, 'step/foot', and also the past, passé, with which such exotic peoples were often associated in the medieval imagination and f. 87v, where the star announcing the birth of Christ to the Magi and the shepherds hangs from the phrase nati sunt, 'are born'), but to relate them to the trials and tribulations, boons and blessings of everyday life. The temporal continuum links past, present and future: its images seek not only to depict fourteenth century realities but also to explore eternal meanings" (Michelle P. Brown, The World of the Luttrell Psalter [2006] 56-57).

The Luttrell Psalter was acquired by the British Museum in 1929 with the assistance of financier and collector J. P. Morgan who loaned the museum the very high purchase of price of 30,000 guineas (£31,500) interest free. Because of the wide social appeal of its imagery, and its other unique features, the manuscript was the subject of extensive scholarship since it passed into public ownership. There were also two printed facsimile editions, the second of which (in full color) was issued by The Folio Society in 2006 with a commentary by Michelle P. Brown. In August 2014 a digital facsimile of the manuscript was available from the British Library at this link. With the digital facsimile the British Library posted a very detailed table of contents of the manuscript plus a bibliography of the most significant scholarly works about it. Also in August 2014 a portion of the manuscript was available from the British Library through its "Turning the Pages" program at this link. A collection of captioned still images from the psalter was available from Wikimedia at this link. In 2010 Lincolnshire Heritage Filmakers produced a 20 minute dramatization of events depicted in the manuscript entitled The Luttrell Psalter Film.

The contents of the manuscript, as listed by the British Library are as follows:

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The Luttrell Psalter Film

We were aware that the illustrator was working with a painter’s palette, not a dyer’s one, and would have had a different range of colours available to him – he was also creating a decorative work. With this as a consideration, we strove hard to find textiles in colours that looked believable and achievable for the period, but matched the images. We also had a very small budget. We resorted to dyeing the fabrics ourselves or dipping them in a weak solution of potassium permanganate to dull the modern dye colours down. However, we did not break down the clothing to make them look worn and grubby as this would be reinterpreting the images.

Historic Background

The period over which the Psalter was created – 1325-1340 (approx.) – was a period during which the cut of clothing began to change. Since textiles were first created, clothing was made by first tying, then pinning, then sewing rectangles of fabric together. Textiles are a product of farming – from the fibres (linen/flax – wool/sheep) to the plants needed for dyeing them. A complete farming year goes into the production of the raw material, this then need to be harvested, cleaned/prepared, spun into yarn and woven into cloth. So you can appreciate that the value of textiles was such that, when they were cut to form a garment, they were cut without waste. This was achieved by using simple geometric shapes – rectangles, triangles and squares ingeniously pieced to create fit and fullness. However, a radical change in the cut of dress in this period is happening around this time. It begins with the armhole instead of creating sleeves t-shirt wise, they begin to fit the sleeve closer to the arm and into a shaped armhole. This frees the arm movement and allows the arm to be raised without the garment pulling up. As a result, garments could then be tailored to fit the figure without restricting movement.

Above: One of the women from the film, her gown is loose fitting, but their sleeves fit quite close to the arm.

As we studied the Psalter images we could see that many of the garments had tight sleeves, but were otherwise loose fitting – however no seams were shown. So we looked at archaeological evidence, tomb monuments (which do often show seams) and trial tested garments comparing them with the Psalter images for the correct fit and drape. As a result we decided that Psalter clothing shows a variety of cuts from simple rectangles to fully fitted, but that most of the villagers were gowns showing shows a transitional cut – with fitted sleeves into a simply shaped armhole, but with the remainder of the garment formed from the rectangles and gores with some limited shaping.

Higher Status Clothing
No means of fastening is shown on any of the women’s gowns, and indeed most clearly simply slip over the head. However, the dress worn by the lady spinning (below) with the great wheel is an exception. Her gown is fitted so closely to her figure that it must include sophisticated tailoring and must be laced closed to achieve such a tight fit.

The spinner is also the highest status figure that we included in the film. Apart from her dress being finely tailored (which is very wasteful of fabric), she has an excess of fabric about the hem of her dress which pools on the floor about her feet. Her fine white linen apron also has the most detailed stitching of all the aprons shown in the Psalter (there are five in all with four different designs). An immaculately fitted garment such as this, would probably have been made for the individual (rather than by her) and fitted to her figure.

Luttrell Psalter Facsimile Edition

Named for its patron, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (d. 1345), the Luttrell Psalter is one of the masterpieces of English Gothic art. Made between 1325 and 1340, the manuscript is the work of a provincial scriptorium in Lincolnshire. The completed pages contain a stunning menagerie of hybrid creatures in their margins as well as detailed bas-de-page vignettes.

A full range of colors from bright blue to pale pink creates a soft aesthetic. Gold enhances decorated capitals and illustrative details. It is among the most visually complex and delightful psalters known with each page having its own unique charm.

The Latin text includes a calendar, psalter, and additional devotional texts. Penned by a single scribe but with the hand of at least four artists, the Luttrell Psalter contain images from all aspects of life from the toil of agriculture to fantastic expressions of the medieval imagination making it the most remarkable of manuscripts.

Detailed Depictions of Everyday Life

The Luttrell Psalter is illuminated throughout, although the final eighty folios are sparsely decorated especially in comparison to the rest. The major text divisions are demarcated with ten historiated initials and another thirty-nine smaller versions make further subdivisions. Over 230 additional marginalia occupy the first 180 folios. A range of subjects from biblical to fantastical are represented. The most valuable for the understanding of medieval life are the dozens of scenes of farming, hunting, entertainment and music-making. The illuminations may have been left unfinished due to Geoffrey’s death in 1345.

A Book of Personal Devotion and Eternal Prayer

Psalters were books for personal devotion containing a calendar, the Psalms, and additional prayers, collects, and the Office of the Dead, though the contents could vary depending on what the patron wished to be included. This psalter is the Gallican version written in black ink in a single column over fourteen lines in a skillful Gothic precissa script. Multicolored pen flourishes and line fillers enhance the text throughout. The calendar has additional red and blue inks. It may have been intended as an offering to St. Andrew’s Church, Irnham, the family mausoleum, to ensure the eternal salvation of the Luttrells in the afterlife.

“Galfridus Louterell me Fieri Fecit”

Rare for a medieval manuscript, the Luttrell Psalter includes the name of its patron, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, in a proclamation above a gilded portrait of him dressed in armor on his war horse and attended by his wife and daughter-in-law (fol. 202v). The book was then owned by a succession of English noble families and finally sold to the British Museum in 1930 with the aid of a loan from J. Pierpont Morgan, which was repaid by public subscription.

We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Luttrell Psalter": Luttrell Psalter facsimile edition, published by The Folio Society, 2006


The Luttrell Psalter measures 370 x 270 mm (14 1/2 inches by 10 1/2 inches). It is written in Latin and comprises 309 high-quality vellum leaves with flyleaves of paper. [8] Most of the pages are decorated in red paint with details in gold, silver and blind. [9] The illustrations are stamped and tooled into the paper. The manuscript has eight cords which attach the pages together securely. It is sewn together and has a modern binding (post 1929) [10] of dark brown Morocco leather. [8] The scribes used ruling as a method of scribing, [11] an expensive method. The scripts are fairly large. Each frame of the manuscript has about fourteen full lines of text. [11] The strokes of the letters are flat and parallel to the writing line. This technique required a pen on which the nib is cut at an especially oblique angle, a "strange pen". [11] Unlike earlier illuminated manuscripts, the first letter of the first word on the line, for every two lines then other lines, are capitalized. Its style has many highlights and shadowing on the human figures, and its modelling of the human figure was more pronounced, muscular, and full of flesh.

The Luttrell Psalter: Knighthood, Hospitality and Piety / The Office of the Dead

Themes of power and nobility present throughout the Luttrell Psalter are combined with the theme of piety and an ideal of a good Christian life. Sir Geoffrey Luttrell commissioned the Psalter to celebrate his life achievements and chivalric virtues, while simultaneously providing the means of praying for him and his family after their deaths.

These prayers offered for the deceased petition God for their souls’ salvation and constituted what was called the Office of the Dead. The typical Office included selected texts of Psalms along with other Old Testament readings that describe God’s mercy for a sinner. In the Luttrell Psalter the Office of the Dead that starts on folio 296r, follows the Litany of the Saints, who were evoked for the protection of both the living and the dead. The entire book celebrates not only the Luttrell family’s sense of pride and religious devotion but also expresses their concern with the afterlife and the fear of Purgatory.

A soul released from Purgatory by an angel (detail), Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The doctrine of Purgatory attested that after physical death souls may undergo purification to satisfy God’s justice until their sins were fully atoned for. Sins could be absolved through confession saving the soul from eternal damnation, but the temporal effect of sin had to be compensated by the acts of penitence, devotion and charity.

The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296r (detail) © British Library Board

A contorted figure beneath the initial ‘P’ may represent a tormented soul awaiting relief from Purgatory and echoing the nearby text Heu me quia incolatus meus prolongatus est / ‘Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged!’ (Psalm 119:5). A person could never be certain of having performed enough penance during their lifetime. Thus, family and friends could help shorten their time in Purgatory, through prayers, Mass and the Office of the Dead.

The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296r (detail) © British Library Board

The image of the stag on the same folio may in turn represent the soul nourished by the fountain of the living God as described in Psalm 41, that is copied on folio 81r of the Luttrell Psalter.

The Office of the Dead at the end of the Luttrell Psalter emphasises the importance placed on praying for the departed in medieval society. When Geoffrey Luttrell commissioned the book, he was advancing in years and making preparations for his death, as seen in his surviving will. The Psalter was not simply a magnificent piece of artistry but ultimately an invaluable investment for its benefactor’s soul after death.

Monks singing the Office of the Dead. Image: Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

What is the Office of the Dead?

Medieval burials were a community affair. The priest was the representative of the community. He received the body of the deceased into the church, as he had received the child in baptism years before. The priest provided the funeral Mass, but the laity were encouraged to remember the dead in their own prayers and devotions, for example through the Office of the Dead.

In the Middle Ages, the daily liturgy of the Divine Office was supplemented by a series of other prayers, which were recited alongside the eight canonical hours. One of these supplementary offices was the Office of the Dead. But unlike the Divine Office, it only included three hours, namely Vespers, Matins and Lauds.

Opening of the Office of the Dead with a ‘P’ initial (Placebo), The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296r © British Library Board

The Office has a unique order of Psalms and it opens with the antiphon for Vespers, Placebo Domino in regione vivorum / ‘I will please the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 114:9) which in the Luttrell Psalter received a beautiful initial ‘P’. The letter is filled with two interlaced beasts whose tails are decorated with foliage. The entire Psalm 114 opens with the words Dilexi quoniam / ‘I have loved because’ (Psalm 114:1) as it evokes deep emotional turmoil and hope in God’s mercy, and praises God’s protection throughout a person’s life, from youth until death.

Musical notations. The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296r (detail) © British Library Board

The next antiphon of the Office of the Dead seen on folio 296r is Heu me quia incolatus meus prolongatus est / ‘Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged!’ (Psalm 119:5). The entire Psalm opens with the words Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi / ‘In my trouble I cried to the Lord’ ’ (Psalm 119:1). Like the previous Psalm, this one features the same themes of tribulation and deliverance.

Red initials ‘a’ and ‘p’ indicate antiphons and psalms. The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296r (detail) © British Library Board

The third antiphon on the folio reads Dominus custodit te ab omni malo custodiat animam tuam Dominus / ‘The Lord keepeth thee from all evil may the Lord keep thy soul’ (Psalm 120:7). This Psalm opens with the words Levavi oculos / ‘I have lifted up my eyes’ (Psalm 120:1) and emphasises God’s protection of his chosen ones.

The C clef at the beginning of each antiphon and psalm signifies the pitch of a chant. The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296v (detail) © British Library Board

The Office of the Dead continues on folio 296v with two more antiphons. The antiphon Si iniquitates observaveris Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit? / ‘If thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities Lord, who shall stand it’ (Psalm 129:3) comes from the Psalm that opens with the cry of De profundis / ‘Out of the depths’ (Psalm 129:1).

The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296v (detail) © British Library Board

The last antiphon Opera manum tuarum, Domine, ne despicias / ‘O despise not the works of thy hands’ (Psalm 137:8) comes from Psalm 137 that opens with the word Confitebor / ‘I will praise’ (Psalm 137:1).

The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. Ms. 42130, folio 296v (detail) © British Library Board

The five antiphons and Psalms of Vespers for the Dead conclude with a versicle A porta inferi / ‘From the gate of hell’ and the response Erue Domine animam ejus / ‘Deliver his soul, O Lord’.

The Luttrell Psalter, British Library, Add. MS 42130, folio 296v © British Library Board

The next antiphon reads Audivi vocem de cælo, dicentem mihi: Beati mortui, qui in Domino moriuntur / ‘I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me: Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’. These words come the Book of Revelation (Rev 14:13).

The Magnificat canticle that follows on folio 297r is based on Mary’s words of praise and jubilation as expressed in the Gospel of Luke 1:46-55. The Magnificat is in turn followed by Kyrie Eléison and Pater Noster, and a series of versicles and responses.

Remembering the Dead

Death and remembrance were important to medieval Christians. The fate of the souls in Purgatory was dependent on the loving goodwill of others. Mass and the Office of the Dead were said during the week after one’s death and followed by the month’s anniversary subsequently annual remembrance would take place in perpetuity. According to medieval wills and registers, people wished that their names should be kept in constant memory and in the prayers of the living after their death.


Dowdall, Joseph, ‘The Liturgy and Death’, The Furrow, 8, 1957, pp. 617-630.

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Le Goff, Jacques, The Birth of Purgatory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

MacGregor, James B., ‘Negotiating Knightly Piety: The Cult of the Warrior-Saints in the West, ca. 1070-ca. 1200’, American Society for Church History, 73/2, 2004, pp. 317-318.

Watch the video: Luttrell Psalter dance trailer


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