Sing a new song to the world

Latin Psalter Manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin and the Chester Beatty Library


The Psalms, then attributed to King David himself, played a central role in the devotional life of the Middle Ages throughout Christendom.

Because the little books, called Psalters, which contained them were often used for private devotions, they provide scholars and others with insights into the often hidden interior world of spirituality before the Reformation, as Eamonn Duffy demonstrated in his book on Tudor prayer manuals.  

This book is intended by its authors to encourage the often neglected exploration of some of these volumes in two important Irish collections, the library at Trinity College and the great Chester Beatty Collection now housed in Dublin Castle.

Laura Cleaver is the Ussher lecturer in medieval art in Trinity College; her research focuses on art produced in England and France in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Helen Conrad O’Briain is based in the School of English, Trinity College, where she specialises in early Insular Latin, Old English and Old Norse.

Far from being an obscure area of studies, however, many readers will find these Psalters strangely moving.


This book is illustrated with magnificent images from these marvels of small scale illumination, which are often breath-taking. They are a wonderful example of just how digital imaging, which enables ancient manuscripts to be examined in detail by researchers far from the collections where they are housed, is affecting scholarship.

The image illustrating this article, for example, is taken from a Gallican Psalter (that is the translation made from Greek texts of the psalms by St Jerome), created in the German city of Augsburg between 1240-1260, preserved in the Chester Beatty (MS W. 40).

It is of St Francis, exhibiting the stigmata which he received in the course of a vision. It is placed at the start of Psalm 38: “I said: I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue.” 

St Francis had died in 1226, but the Franciscans had already arrived in Augsburg in 1221. In the margin is a note: which says “say this when you take the body of Christ, and also for your angel”. This is an allusion to the saint’s devotion to the Eucharist. But it illustrates also just how the volume was used by its owner, as a prompt towards worship.

In all some 13 manuscripts are catalogued here. In two long essays the authors respectively discuss the nature of the medieval books of psalms (Helen Conrad O’Briain) and the varied ways in which they were illustrated (Laura Cleaver). There is also a discussion (by Laura Cleaver) of the ways in which noble patronage brought these wonderful books into existence.

For the ordinary reader this book is a reminder of the wonderful treasures which our national libraries hold. However, all too often these books, when displayed, have to be exhibited in very low light to preserve them.

The advantage of a book like this, which can be easily handled, is that the true brilliance of the images, the delicacy of the craft, the beauty of the layout and the hand writing can all be appreciated in all their finest detail.

Truly here is a new world to explore, and anyone at all interested in the religious life of the Middle Ages will await further reports of  the discoveries to be made in future years as a result of the spur to an important line of research which Dr O’Briain and Laura Cleaver have given here.