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The relic in the library

14 August 2020

Christopher de Hamel traces a psalter back to Thomas Becket

The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The Psalter, double-page opening with frontispiece, MS 411, fols. 1v-2r

The Psalter, double-page opening with frontispiece, MS 411, fols. 1v-2r

WHILE medieval pilgrims were mobbing the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in their tens of thousands, hoping for a dab of miraculous water which, after several centuries of dilution and sale by the monks, had no conceivable contact with the blood of the saint, the Archbishop’s books, which he had actually commissioned and read and touched, were neglected on the open shelves in the slype off the cloister.

Even before the end of the Middle Ages, many had been lost or discarded. . . This was not ignorance: the monks knew they had been Becket’s, but they did not care. . .

Wikimedia Creative CommonsA 12th-century mosaic in Monreale, Sicily, showing Becket with a book in a jewelled binding

Some years ago, I invited the biblical historian Eyal Poleg to lunch at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, and conversationally over coffee afterwards I outlined something along these lines: that it has always seemed to me curious that, unlike clothes, saints’ books in medieval England were not regarded as relics.

Dr Poleg said that he knew of a medieval reference to what had clearly once been an exception. He tapped at his laptop, and he brought up an entry datable to 1321 from the Sacrist’s Roll of Canterbury Cathedral, describing a precious but never-traced manuscript among the treasures in the cathedral.

It was probably used in the liturgy around the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, as he explained. (The sacrist was the official in charge of relics.) The description begins, in Latin, “Item, Textus cum psalterio Sancti Thome, argento deaurato coopertus gemmis ornatus. . .”, “Item, a binding with the Psalter of Saint Thomas, bound in silver- gilt decorated with jewels. . .”

And I had one of those sudden heart-stopping shivers of recognition that make our lives as historians worth while, for I remembered seeing those words before. They occur almost exactly transcribed into a late-tenth- or early-11th-century Psalter in the Parker Library, a few hundred yards from where we were then sitting in the college’s Old Combination Room.

We abandoned our coffee and rushed across the courtyard to the library, and I brought out MS 411 from the vault. We sat in the reading room looking at it together, trembling with excitement.

The manuscript is well-known. It is one of the notable Anglo-Saxon books that were brought to Corpus Christi College in the bequest of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1559-75.

The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, CambridgeThe 16th-century inscription in Becket’s Psalter, attesting to his ownership

In a lower margin at the very end of the text is a 16th-century Latin note, probably from Parker’s lifetime. It says, in translation: “This Psalter, in boards of silver-gilt and decorated with jewels, was once that of ‘N’ Archbishop of Canterbury [and] eventually came into the hand of Thomas Becket, late Archbishop of Canterbury, as is recorded in the old inscription.”

This claim has always been dismissed as a piece of credulous antiquarian fantasy, as in the recent catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge colleges (2013), stating it to be “almost certainly a complete fiction”.

In fact, Becket was so out of fashion in Elizabethan England that it would have been an unromantic and unlikely fiction to have invented at that time.


This is an edited extract from The Book in the Cathedral (Allen Lane, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).

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