The Magic of Manuscripts

As part of a weekend-long series of events celebrating the mediaeval arts and culture, the University of St Andrews Special Collections Unit today put on a wonderful exhibit of their prize manuscripts. Members of the public, as well as students, were welcomed to not only see, but also to touch some of the most important items in the University’s collection.

Younger Hall, where the exhibit took place.

Most of the manuscripts had a musical theme, like the largest volume, a Gradual from the 15th century. Made on a large scale, with letters almost an inch high and music clearly accompanying, graduals were made so that a whole choir could read from one copy. What brought this manuscript to life was the attempt, by one of the St Andrews choristers, to perform the music on the page:

The Gradual from the St Andrews collection, used in choir performances.

Other manuscripts were far smaller, made either for personal use or designed as lavish presentation copies. One, a Book of Hours, had many flowery borders and colourful letters. It was a type of book very popular with the laity, because it was designed to bring together a personal collection of devotional material. They were often given at weddings, and were particularly cherished by noble women. Another manuscript, called a Book of the Dead, contained the prayers and services to be read during services, both to commemorate a loved one and to commend their soul to Heaven.

The Book of Hours (left) and Book of the Dead (right), both dating from the mid-15th century. The latter was acquired only last year.

Despite the musical theme, though, some items had no choir-connections, like an illustrated scroll of English kings. It’s a charming object, with little cameos and poetic verses, and I couldn’t resist leaning in to see more of the details.

A scroll of English kings, accompanied by verse.

A detail from the scroll of kings.

A detail from the scroll of kings.

By far the most wonderful manuscript of all, however, was the star of Special Collections–the St Andrews Psalter. Used to bring together psalms, the Psalter features several pages of lavish decoration as well as an exceptionally elegant script and delicate scroll-work. Having seen images of the psalter in many library publications, it was a thrill to feel the vellum for myself, and to turn the pages. Those with the most popular psalms have gone soft from handling, and you can still tell which side of the leather (hairy, or not) each page has been written on:

A wonderful decorated page of the St Andrews Psalter (15th century) with dragons and other creatures.

The vibrance of the colour on this manuscript is exceptional, and the gold leaf gleams even after centuries.  Although the ultimate provenance of the Psalter is unknown, it has made its home in the University since the 17th century. I hope it will still be accessible, and admired, for another five centuries.

Learn More: 

The Special Collections Unit has their own blog–Echoes from the Vault–with more about manuscripts and rare books froom across their collections!

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