The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Shaftesbury Abbey’s Ancient Psalter

Susan Peters on the likely recipient of the oldest illustrated document for a woman in the British Library’s collection

The Shaftesbury Abbey and Museum gardens Picture: Shaftesbury Abbey Museum & Garden

Visit Shaftesbury in north Dorset and you’ll find a beautiful walled garden enclosing the archeological remains of Shaftesbury Abbey, once the largest, wealthiest, most prestigious nunnery in all of England. The first Abbess, Æthelgifu, was a Saxon princess, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, and from the Abbey’s founding (880 AD), the nunnery was richly endowed with land grants and donations, becoming the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon royalty and later the daughters of the new Norman gentry.

The archaeological site on the picturesque promontory of land, excavated remnants of the building, royal charters and administrative surveys, provide the direct evidence we have to construct the Abbey’s 650 years of power and prayer.  In 1807, one additional artefact surfaced to help tell the story of the nunnery, a medieval parchment book, acquired by the British Museum as part of a grand country house library, containing exquisite full-page illuminations, psalms, prayers, and a calendar, it became known as the ‘Shaftesbury Psalter’.

A detail of a female figure praying below Christ in Majesty (Shaftesbury Psalter / F.14v). Picture: The British Library Board

It is a curious and most rare 12th-century prayer book; faces peer at you with cartoon expressions, elongated hands turn up in devotion, statue-like bodies freeze in pose. It was painted in a new style we call Romanesque, the result of an ingress of eastern influences following the first crusade. The artwork is attributed to an unknown illuminator working at St Albans or Winchester, perhaps a free-lancer, given the nick-name by scholars ‘The Entangled Figures Master’.

Ultramarine blue, made with expensive lapis lazuli imported from Persia, and ground gold, were used to illuminate or ‘light-up’ the vellum pages, painted in common plant and animal derived pigments; vermillion red, buckthorn berry green, and lampblack. The book was a luxury item when it was made, and now, 900 years later, it is impossible to value, because this Psalter is the oldest manuscript in the British Library’s collection that was made for a woman.

Virgin and Child with a female figure, hands up-turned in prayer (Shaftesbury Psalter / F.165v). Picture: The British Library Board

The ‘Shaftesbury Psalter’, exhibited at the British Library earlier this year, like most manuscripts of the period, contains no signature of original ownership, but experts have determined it was created for a woman because of the female forms of Latin used in the text.

The intrigue over ownership is piqued by a figure who appears in the page margin on two illuminations, remarkable and rare, these portraits are thought to represent the book’s patron. Self-portraits of illuminators painting the page are charming finds in medieval books and sometimes these pictures are female, but the portraits in the ‘Shaftesbury Psalter’ do not show a woman as a scribe or a painter, they show a woman in prayer.

Rather like a fairy tale, the praying female figure is wearing golden slippers, and the book contains other fanciful images that would have appealed to the medieval mind; a baby dragon makes a letter A in a historiated initial, a dove descends on Mary, a zodiac centaur archer draws his bow. Less mystical but nevertheless fascinating are the Labours of the Months: illustrations for each calendar month showing ordinary folk engaged in agriculture activities such as hawking, cutting hay, and slaughtering hogs.

Originally attributed to an Abbess of Shaftesbury, there are other points of view about its provenance. The Psalter more specifically dates to 1130-40 and this realistically narrows the candidates to two women of great means; was the woman supplicant below Christ in Majesty, Emma the Abbess of Shaftesbury or Queen Adeliza, the wife of King
Henry I?

A detailed view of the Psalter calendar page for May, showing the Labour for the Month: hawking (Shaftesbury Psalter / F.5). Picture: The British Library Board

The prominence of feast days, prayers and images of the Virgin Mary, to whom the convent was originally dedicated, venerations of local saints like Aldhelm, the first bishop of Sherborne, and the prayers to King Edward the Martyr, the Abbey’s patron saint, whose relics were of vital importance to the prestige and economy of the Abbey, are the main arguments for the Psalter being created for Shaftesbury. There is also a feast day for Saint George. Between the first and second crusades, St George’s cross would have been seen on the surcoats of Knights Templar while they rode the countryside fund-raising. Interestingly, the first dedication of an English church to St George was made in nearby Fordington in Dorset, where there is a carving depicting a battle scene with St George holding a pennon bearing his cross.

Abbess Emma would have been in a position to commission a luxury book like the ‘Shaftesbury Psalter’. Other less wealthy nunneries ordered books from the scriptorium at St Albans. Fitting that the Psalter’s prayers include an invocation ‘Ut abbatissam nostram in bonis actibus corroborare’ (Abbess strengthen our good works).

Or perhaps the mysterious female figure in the Psalter represents Queen Adeliza, because of the clothing she wears, royal insignia present in the illuminations, and a prayer to Saint Lambert. The embroidered gold-trimmed cloak and slippers is arguably inappropriate dress for an Abbess, however, the ‘Entangled Figures Master’ gave golden hats and sleeves to labouring peasants in the calendar, and there is a blue pig in November’s illustration, so the painting was done with some degree of whimsy. Were religious women in this era restricted to wear black or brown? There is a story that Saint Edith (who has a red letter day in the Shaftesbury Calendar) was scolded by the Bishop of Winchester for her fine clothes, to which she replied, ‘I think that the mind can be as pure beneath these garments adorned with gold as beneath your dirty skins’, so perhaps not.

Psalm 51, historiated initial Q in ‘Quid gloriaris’; the lower image shows David carrying Goliath's head to Saul's palace. The tail of the Q is a fire-breathing dragon. (Shaftesbury Psalter / F.57). Picture: The British Library Board

The presence of royal insignia, crowns, orbs, and sceptres, borne by the holy figures in the illuminations, could be evidence for the patron being Adeliza, but the female figure herself is not crowned, instead wearing a simple cloth headdress, and the regalia could just as easily refer to the royal foundation of Shaftesbury Abbey. The Psalter contains a rather long prayer to Saint Lambert, the namesake to Queen Adeliza’s great grandfather, while a rare veneration, Saint Lambert is included in manuscripts from nearby Exeter, Sherborne and Glastonbury.

All things considered, the golden slippers worn by the praying woman must surely fit Emma the Abbess of Shaftesbury.

Emma would have used the Psalter for both private devotion and to assist with the liturgical offices for worship with her hundred Benedictine sisters.  The agricultural images in the calendar mirrored the seasonal work around the Abbey on its vast estates; in 1066 the convent held 359 hides of land, most of the Sixpenny hundred comprising Fontmell Magna, Compton Abbas, Melbury Abbas, Iwerne Minister, other manors scattered throughout the Vale of Blackmore, and large outlier estates such as Kingston and Bradford-on-Avon. Emma showed indomitable spirit when she took on the King’s court in 1127, and in a tour de force secured judgement against a land grab by a number of defendants, thus restoring over 28 hides of land to the nunnery. Perhaps her remarkable court victory coupled with the completion of the Abbey’s church was the impetus to commission a magnificent illuminated Psalter.

In the 11th-12th century, the Abbey’s church was rebuilt using local greensand faced with fine Chilmark limestone, taking forty years to complete, or one stone-mason’s lifetime. It had round arches, thick columns dividing the nave from the aisles, dedicated chapels, and a large central tower providing a commanding perspective over the Vale of Blackmore.  The precinct of the Abbey extends into Shaftesbury itself, the dramatic evidence being the 35-foot-high buttressed wall framing Gold Hill.  The Abbey dominated the skyline of Dorset until it was pulled down in 1539 by order of Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries.

One may think of nunneries as ‘closed to the world’, but Shaftesbury Abbey was integrated into the social and economic community, providing assorted employment; Maurice of Holt was a judicial officer of the hundred court, William the Cook received delicacies from the kitchen (sheep necks, fish tails, legs of beef), Hubbard ran errands for the Abbess – ‘but only one day’s distance and only if provided with a meal’. Worshipping relics was a medieval preoccupation and the nuns at Shaftesbury encouraged pilgrims to their shrine for Saint Edward, bringing in money, fame, and holiday travellers looking for a miracle or two, not unlike the adventurers described in the Canterbury Tales.

The Museum at Shaftesbury Abbey. Picture: Shaftesbury Abbey Museum & Garden

Today, the Shaftesbury Abbey Museum & Garden offers a place for year-round community activities and volunteering. Annabel Turner provided a few examples: ‘a Family Activity Day, ‘Archaeology in Action’, an open-air performance of Richard III, and hosting the Shaftesbury Music Festival.’

The Museum tells the story of Shaftesbury Abbey with Saxon and Norman artefacts uncovered during past archaeological excavations, and while the Psalter is preserved by the British Library, you can see copies of the illuminations on display. The garden’s medieval herbs, flowers, and heritage apples, like the ornamental foliage used to accent the pages in the Psalter, create a naturalistic setting for the boundary lines marking the church’s outline, the stone imprint of the once great nunnery of Shaftesbury, Dorset.

Dorset Directory