Judith Arnopp
Historical Fiction Author

                             The Luttrell Psalter

Judith Arnopp

 The Luttrell Psalter was written and illuminated in the second quarter of the fourteenth century; it contains the psalms and canticles, a calendar of church festivals and saint’s days and a litany with collects and the office of the dead.  A single scribe was responsible for the Latin text which covers three hundred and nine leaves of vellum but a variety of hands assisted with the marginal decoration; the text is of a distinctive square script possibly designed to be read at a distance.  The whole is illuminated and decorated in a manner largely undetected in other contemporary work and the resulting lavish manuscript is testament to the grandeur of the man who commissioned its production.  The manuscript is as strikingly symbolic of his status today as it was during his lifetime.  The portrait of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell together with its inscription ‘Dns Galfridus louterell me fieri fecit / The Lord Geoffrey Luttrell caused me to be made’ ensures that his name and the splendid Psalter will be forever connected, each gracing the other.  The extravagant expense of such a book informed his contemporaries of the extent of Luttrell wealth and prosperity just as surely as it informs the modern historian of the extent of his social powers in medieval England.  The purpose of the book is not just to glorify the life of Christ but also that of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell and his family.  It is not, however, the liturgical content that have made the manuscript so uniquely famous but the scenes of domesticity and rural idyll that decorate the borders. 

Scenes from the psalter have been utilised in countless editions of history books ranging from primary social histories to treatises on medieval farming and it is generally accepted that the work provides an honest account of fourteenth century life.  It was not until I had examined the illustrations of the psalter that I turned to Janet Backhouse’s commentary ‘the general atmosphere of satisfaction and rejoicing which permeates the pages of the Luttrell Psalter…[1]  Having formed the opposite opinion I found this interpretation of the illustrations both surprising and intriguing.  Initially it was the expressions painted upon the faces of the labourers that caught my attention and urged further questioning of the Psalter as a whole; the labourers impressed me with a marked lack of satisfaction and joy as they toiled at allotted tasks. For all the colourful clothing and depictions of leisure they still appear repressed and resentful, in fact there is not the slightest suggestion of a smile in the entire manuscript!  The labourers who inhabit the margins seem to be acting out an idyll perhaps more for the sake of the intended reader of the Psalter than for any attempt to represent reality.  Their clothes are inappropriate both to their station and lifestyle which would have been one of toil, their role being to provide luxury for the Knight and his family.  It seems that the artist has illustrated scenes of idyll (possibly at the behest of his employer) but has been unable or unwilling to disguise some underlying discomfort or dissent.

William Langland in his poem Piers Plowman depicts a similar scene in his prelude to The Vision of Piers Plowman, he sees the idyll of the scene before him but is aware of the discord beneath.  The poem, however, is of a vision or a dream, which alerts the reader to discern the idealism of the scene more plainly than does Geoffrey Luttrell’s vision of his country estate.

of alle manere men, the mene and the pore,

worschyng and wandryng as this world ascuth.

Somme otte hem to the plogh, playde ful selde,

In settynge and in sowynge swonken ful harde

And wone pat pis wastors with glotony destrueth.

And summe putte hem to pruyde and parayled hem per-aftir

In continence of clothing in many kyne gyse.

In preiers and penaunces potten hem mony,

Al for love of oure Lord lyuenden swythe harde

In hope to haue a good ende and heuenriche blisse.’

The poem represents both the seeming idyll and the underlying discomfort of the labourers’ reality in the same way that the Psalter paints a pretty picture yet maintains the suggestion of another hidden dimension within that picture.  In this essay I shall be examining the Luttrell Psalter as Geoffrey Luttrell’s self-aggrandising device and discussing the parallel subversive message that can be detected in the manuscript.

The production of the Luttrell Psalter came at the end of one of the most tumultuous periods in history; rebellion, civil conflict, failed harvests and famine resulted in a social chaos that threatened the stability of every social strata, not least that of the landed classes.  The resulting atmosphere of insecurity meant that social stability or the maintenance of social position was paramount; one wished to be perceived as secure and prosperous in an uncertain world.  The Lord of the manor had many privileges and his needs took precedence over those of his tenants; the freeholder tenants paid a monetary rent to the lord but the servile tenants were required to pay their dues with labour.   The Lord owned a mill and required every villager to use it and pay the customary fee which usually took the form of a portion of the milled flour.  This monopoly caused rancour within the villagers and gave birth to the stereotypical untrustworthy miller of contemporary literature.  Other capitalist enterprises controlled by the landowner were fishing, bird snaring, sheep and arable farming; all of these activities can be seen in the Luttrell Psalter but the idealistic way in which they are depicted prompts the questioning of other aspects of the work.  Images of farming dominate the margins of the Psalter; ploughing, sowing, weeding and harvesting, but how far should we trust the images as being representational of rural reality?  The illustrations may provide evidence of types of tools that were currently in use but it remains unlikely that the workers were provided with such cosy and comfortable attire.  The warm hoods and protective gloves are more probably a part of Sir Geoffrey’s idlyll; in medieval England dress was an indication of social status.  Sumptuary laws prohibited anyone below the rank of knight from wearing satin and some limitation was placed upon the fur and colours he was allowed to wear.  As Michael Camille confirms ‘the peasants are being dressed up to Sir Geoffrey’s level of taste and cosmeticized, much as they are in Bruegel’s later paintings.[2]’   Other aspects of the programme of illustration also suggest that it is naïve to take the images at face value, for example the reaping scene. This illustration depicts two women cutting the standing corn while a third eases her aching back and a man binds the cut corn into sheaths.  Studies of almost one hundred medieval images of reaping reveal only one other illustration of women performing farming work[3]which strongly suggests that it was a task largely carried out by men.  These images are not true representations but rather a projection of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s ideal world wherein he is the centre of an ordered, prosperous society.  However, the Psalter which is intended to illustrate how well the Luttrell family provides and cares for its people actually reveals how the opposite is true.  The reality of Sir Geoffrey is glorified in order to convince those around him of his unassailable power and virtue.

The subordinate nature of the peasantry emphasises Geoffrey’s status as Lord and the idyllic representation of his estate management confirms his belief in the moral justice of the situation.  Sir Geoffrey becomes a Christ figure and nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of the Luttrell family at table and the representation of the Last Supper.  The design and symmetry of the two illustrations are almost exact; Sir Geoffrey sits at the centre of his family just as Christ sits at the centre of his disciples. 

He is the focus of attention and a servant stands to one side waiting to serve him, just as Judas kneels before Christ.  One notable difference is that at the table of the Last Supper Jesus is giving Judas ‘the sop[4]’ whereas Sir Geoffrey is preparing to drink himself from the cup which he holds in his right hand.  Michael Camille notes that the cup Sir Geoffrey is holding illustrates the verse from the accompanying psalm ‘Calicem salutaris accipiam et nomen domini invocabo’ (I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. Psalm 115.13).   Emmerson and Goldberg state in their paper Lordship and Labour in the Luttrell Psalter; ‘In our view the visual allusion to the chalice of salvation and the possible invocation of the Lord’s name further underscore the eucharistic allusions and the entire scene’s association with the Last Supper.  Such deliberate, and to our minds, perhaps slightly shocking, juxtaposition of the secular lord with the Lord is also found elsewhere in the psalter.[5]As they go on to point out, the most lavish illustration in the manuscript is the portrait of Geoffrey being armed by his wife and daughter in law.  The prominent use of heraldry, which can be observed on his surcoat, shoulders, helmet, pennon and horse trappings, together with the inscription ‘Dominus Galfridus Louterell me fieri fecit’ all serve to promote his importance.  God created the world, David wrote the psalms and Sir Geoffrey commissioned the Luttrell Psalter.  This image puts him on a par with Christ and David as depicted in the historiated initial which introduces psalm 109.  ‘These attributes of the heavenly and earthly king parallel the attributes of lordship with which Sir Geoffrey is armed by his female attendants.  For example, the nimbus and crown of Christ and David parallel the helmet handed to Sir Geoffrey by Lady Agnes; David’s sceptre parallels the lance held by Agnes; and Christ’s globe parallels the shield held by Beatrice Scrope.[6]’   The importance of Sir Geoffrey’s lordship is crucial to the understanding of the Psalter itself.  It is intended as a glorification of his status as the Lord of his estates, he is depicted as a great knight (although he would have been long past fighting age when the work was commissioned) and worthy of homage.  The peasants who inhabit his estate spend their lives working for his continued prosperity and eminence in much the same way that Christians are expected to live their lives for the greater glory of God.  This self-canonisation does not necessarily denote confidence or stability but rather suggests the opposite; the impulse to self-aggrandise often springing from insecurity or anxiety.

Many of the illustrations seem to involve representations of theft or the fear of loss; for instance the crows that attempt to steal the grain or the hawks preying upon the poultry.  The image of the small boy stealing cherries from the tree described by Janet Backhouse as ‘a lively scene’ is undoubtedly finely drawn and informative but while Backhouse notes the detail of the tree bark and clothing she understates the threat of punishment that the older man’s ‘club’ represents.  The child is stealing cherries that are intended for the Luttrell table and his punishment may well be severe, another dark undertone to the colourful peasant lifestyle presented by the artist.  Even the miller, whose stereotypical untrustworthy nature has been recorded by Chaucer, ‘a theef he was for sothe of corn mele / and that a sly, and usuant for to stele[8]’(3939) seems afraid of becoming the victim of theft and has armed himself with a fierce dog to protect his Lord’s property.  These images do not necessarily infer that crime was rife but the images of plunder do nevertheless suggest insecurity and fear of loss.  Fresh in the medieval mind were the deprivations caused by the great famine of 1315-16 and the civil war of 1321-22 which may explain the proliferation of these images.

The scenes of farming and food preparation culminate in the feast at the Luttrell table, the grain provides the flour for the bread, the poultry provides the meat, the sheep provide the milk and the hens provide the eggs.  The labourers in the margins strive to put food, not into the mouths of their families but into the mouths of the Luttrell family. The entire ritual of tilling the soil, sowing the grain, harvesting the crop, milling the flour and cooking the meal is for the benefit of the Lord while those who labour receive little or no benefit at all.   The back breaking labour of the lower classes is consumed by the upper; just as the seeds of their labour are consumed by the crows so are the end results of their toil consumed by the Luttrells.  There are many images of the consuming mouth throughout the manuscript which, together with the representations of theft, reinforce the underlying atmosphere of insecurity which permeates the pages of the Psalter.


The mouths of the labourers in the margins are largely painted as down-turned grimaces which lend discontent to their expressions.  The rowers of the boat are among those illustrations that depict the open mouth, whether this is meant to depict horror, surprise or singing is unclear but what is clear is that they are not representative of joy or contentment.  The men in the boat retain their impassive expressions and subjugated body language, which paired with their peculiarly open mouths, lends a mask-like appearance to their faces.  The open mouth is extended to include biting and consuming activities elsewhere in the margins and there is scarcely a page that fails to depict a human or beast biting another life form or even in some cases biting itself.  Fol. 59v shows an image of swine feeding on acorns thrown down to them by the swineherd, Camille interprets this in conjunction with St Bernard’s Sermon which describes the oak as barren ‘And if they bear fruit it is not fit for human consumption but for pigs. Such are the children of this world, living in carousing and drunkeness, in overdrinking and overeating, in beds and shameless acts.[9]’  St Apollonia who stands nearby wears her teeth on a rosary to illustrate how they were extracted as part of her torture and martyrdom and her mouth is a crimson gash across her face.  The porcine illustration of gluttony and sexual excess contrasts sharply with the toothless saint; teeth, often associated with hell and vice, are used by the pigs to indulge in that from which the chaste mouth of St Apollonia abstains.  The gaping mouth of hell represented on fol. 157v serves as a vivid reminder of the consequence which waits to consume the ungodly sinner.  The unfortunate man who walks in naked trepidation to his fate looks suitably repentant and illustrates the futility of earthy sin.  Interestingly at the foot of this page is a mysterious illustration that has baffled historians for some time, Backhouse sees it as ‘an unidentified game of skill[10]while the less idealistic Camille views it as ‘water torture.[11]’  In my opinion the illustration could represent something between the two and constitute an early drinking game wherein the victim is required to measure the quantity of ale he can consume.  This would fit nicely alongside other representations of vice and gluttony and also compliment the accompanying representations of death and descent into hell.  The combined images urge the reader to repent of the sin of gluttony before it is too late.

Another image described by Camille as an‘image of oral aggression[12]is that of a human figure fleeing from a grotesque.  The human figure is of a curious blue hue, his torso is squat but his limbs are elongated, he is turning behind as though to repel his pursuer.  The creature that chases him is what Camille views as one of the few marginal monsters that can be described as ‘an obscenae[13].  It is illustrated as a creature ‘who seems to run forward on bent knees, appears to have been constructed by placing a bald, big eared and bearded man’s face on horse-like hindquarters.  It thus seems to run both backwards and forwards on two wide open, snapping, bestial mouths.  On its other ass/face is a tiny porcine tail.  Combining oral and anal openings, this gryllu would, in our language, seem to be Mr Mouth running ‘ass backwards.[14]’  Early historians merely dismissed the representation as a ‘grotesque’ and left it at that but Camille makes an attempt to interpret it. He reads it in conjunction with the accompanying psalm 32vv19-20 ‘To deliver their souls from death: and feed them in famine.  Our soul waiteth for the Lord for he is our helper and protector.’  Camille suggests the word ‘protector’ in the text which could mean ‘to cover in front’ has influenced the depiction of the bearded head where the genitals should be and the gaping mouth to the word ‘famine’.  There are more questions raised by this grotesque image than can be answered and it is impossible to determine which is the pursuer and which the pursued.  What is quite clear is that it is not representative of the social idyll that Geoffrey Luttrell desired.  Images of hybrids and grotesques are found elsewhere throughout medieval art and architecture, usually in the margins of a civilised space like church or monastic portals; it is apparent that they represent some long lost meaning which will quite likely never be wholly clarified.  Their presence however does emphasise that there is more occurring in this manuscript than we can understand and that care must be taken not to assume anything about any part of it.  If we accept that the grotesques have cryptic connotations then it seems naïve to accept that any part of the manuscript is truly representative of the fourteenth century. 

There are many images in the manuscript margins that are distinctly separate from the Luttrell family yet necessary to their continued prosperity.  Labourers, foreigners, grotesques and women are depicted in terms of excess and sin, the clothes of the lower class women that fly about them denote their sinful state and can be directly contrasted to the discreet dress of Agnes and Beatrice Luttrell.  Images of greed, lust and sin dominate the margins juxtaposed with the devotional doctrine of the Psalms.  Monsters and sinners mingle with saints and martyrs.  There are many aspects of the Psalter that cast a positive note upon the Luttrell estates and adhere to Sir Geoffrey’s (apparent) desire for an idealised representation of life therein.  However, contradictions abound and the manuscript provides endless areas for scholarly debate.  The cosseted labourers with surly faces, the women carrying out inappropriate tasks, monks wielding weapons of war, the ever present consuming mouth, the scenes of theft all culminate into an atmosphere of insecurity and fear.  In the words of Michael Camille ‘Rather than being a reflection of fourteenth century reality the Luttrell Psalter, like most important works of art, restructures reality and shores up the conflicts and discontinuities of late medieval England.  It presents its noble owner as an active knight at a time when not only were his chivalric values outdated but he could no longer ride a horse.  It presents him as the paterfamilias in his hall and a supporter of his church during the very period when he was faced with charges of incest and when the nobility was withdrawing into an ever-more private world at home and in private oratories.  It displays his peasants as idealised labourers during the decades of agricultural crisis……The artists who made this monument for their patron in the third decade of the fourteenth century were creating an account of the contradictions of their age.[15]

The Psalter was commissioned at a time of change; famine and civil war resulted in social instability and the benefit of hindsight allows us to realise that a few years later the Black Death would bring about the liberation of the members of the labouring classes who managed to survive.  The deflated population enabled peasants to demand higher wages and to travel the countryside in search of better conditions; for the first time the nobility needed the peasantry more than the peasantry depended upon them.  The discontent discernible in the Luttrell Psalter may constitute a cameo of a period in history when rural England was on the brink of major agricultural reform; the discontent was present but the means of reform not yet available resulting in insecurity and hunger jostling for dominance over subjugation.  Although Geoffrey Luttrell desired his great estate to be commemorated and aggrandised in this manuscript it is apparent that the scribe had other ideas.  The status of a scribe would have been no higher than that of a ploughman so the artist was of the peasant class that he was requested to depict.  It seems probable that he was unwilling or unable to resist representing the less idealistic aspects of the Luttrell estate as experienced by the labouring classes.

Somme otte hem to the plogh, playde ful selde,

In settynge and in sowynge swonken ful harde

And wone pat pis wastors with glotony destrueth. [16]’ (21)


Backhouse, Janet The Luttrell Psalter (Warwick: The Roundwood Press, 1989)

Camille, Michael. Mirror in Parchment (Guildford: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1998)

Backhouse, Janet. Medieval Life in the Luttrell Psalter (Hong Kong: South Sea International Press, 2000)

The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Bath:  Oxford University Press, 1988)

The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth Century England, ed., by J. Bothwell, P.J.P. Goldberg, W.M. Ormrod  (Bury St Edmunds: York Medieval Press, 2000)

 Illustrations discussed.

[1] Janet Backhouse, The Luttrell Psalter (Warwick: The Roundwood Press, 1989) p. 58

[2] Michael Camille, Mirror in Parchment (Guildford: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1998) p. 184

[3] ibid. p. 196

[4] The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth Century England, ed., by J. Bothwell, P.J.P. Goldberg, W.M. Ormrod  (Bury St Edmunds: York Medieval Press, 2000) p. 53

[5] ibid. p. 53

[6] ibid. p. 54

[7] Janet Backhouse, Medieval Life in the Luttrell Psalter (Hong Kong: South Sea International Press, 2000) p. 56

[8] The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Bath: Oxford University Press, 1988) p. 79

[9] Camille, Mirror in Parchment . p.336

[10] Backhouse, The Luttrell Psalter p. 61                                                                

[11] Camille, Mirror in Parchment  p. 175

[12] ibid p. 336

[13] ibid. p. 336

[14] ibid. p. 337

[15] Camille, Mirror in Parchment  p. 348

[16] William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman



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