The Romanz Psalter in England and Northern France in the Twelfth Century: Production, Mise-En-Page, and Circulation

By Rector, Geoff | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Romanz Psalter in England and Northern France in the Twelfth Century: Production, Mise-En-Page, and Circulation


Rector, Geoff, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


Prior to the emergence of romance as a genre in the 1160s and 1170s, the translation of the Psalms into romanz was the single most comprehensive vernacular literary impulse in the Anglo-Norman world. (1) As many as five separate, complete romanz translations of the Psalms, in both its Gallican and Hebrew forms, were made in England and northern France in the twelfth century. (2) Around these massive projects of translation, we find a constellation of associated texts: prayers on the Psalms, Penitential Psalms, Canticles, as well as a series of related and yet more massive vernacular Psalter Commentaries. The prominence of the Psalms in the broader emergence of the new vernacular literary culture is also witnessed in the material record. As Tony Hunt has recently observed, "about half of the surviving twelfth-century manuscripts containing French come from English Benedictine houses and almost half of these are Psalters." (3) Among these texts are two of the very oldest extant works of Anglo-Norman literature: the 'Cambridge Psalter' (ca. 1125-1140), an interlinear translation of the Hebrew version now extant in the luxurious Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.17.1), and the 'Oxford Psalter' (ca. 1100-1115), a complete prose translation of the Gallican Psalms extant in the Montebourg Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 320). In size and in breadth of circulation, these projects dwarf all other romanz works produced in the first half of the twelfth century. (4) These works must then be placed at the very center of the emerging Anglo-Norman literary culture. Here they would stay for the next three centuries, in which time the Oxford Psalter became among the most widely read and widely distributed of all Anglo-Norman literary works.

Since the publication in 1860 of Francisque Michel's edition of the Oxford Psalter, philologists have assigned these Psalter translations a prominent place in the history of the language, but the Psalters have not taken a comparable place in literary histories, possibly as a result of the lingering habit of separating the devotional and the pedagogical from the domain of the literary. (5) But, as we see below, the Psalms were every bit as poetic as they were devotional in the period, and the bustling energies that gave us these translations were inseparable from the new, courtly vernacular literary culture. These romanz Psalters emerged from the same social contexts as other literary works of this early period, sharing similar reading practices, as well as material and even rhetorical forms. As I will argue, just as the "'Englishing,' of the biblical Psalms" would do in "sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England," so the 'romancing' of the Psalms "substantially shaped the [literary] culture" of twelfth-century England and northern France. (6)

Most narrowly, this paper examines the production, mise-en-page and circulation of romanz Psalters in twelfth-century England and northern France. Its primary goal is to describe this vibrant and insufficiently historicized movement in early romanz literature in its basic material, practical and social contexts. It will move chronologically and formally: from the Psalter translations of the early century and their widespread circulation and adaptation, to the vernacular Psalter Commentaries of the last third of the century. As we trace the circulation of these texts and the history of their material forms, we can see how the romanz Psalter operated within broader vernacular literary developments. The chronological movement through the century will reveal three processes shaping both the romanz Psalter and that larger literary culture: first, an early engagement, both imitative and competitive, with the literary traditions of Anglo-Saxon England; second, the adoption of monastic reading practices and the texts appropriate to them by vernacular reading audiences; and, third an intense engagement--in material form, in genre and in style--between the devotional and the courtly. …

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